17 September 2013

Why isn't your Vocation Selfishness Personified?

[[Dear Sr Laurel, I have long thought the hermit vocation is a selfish one. I have read blogs by so-called hermits and they seem to be completely self-centered --- I am not speaking of yours here, but if you google "hermit blogs" or "Catholic hermit" blogs you will find blogs by "hermits" whose entire focus is on how much they suffer and their own growth in holiness. It's all "me, me, me." You claim that the vocation is essentially one of love, but how do hermits really love others if they are living in solitude? You also claim that your vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but isn't this just a way of excusing selfishness? Anyone can say they are doing something because of "love" but the proof of that is in the pudding, as the saying goes. How does the church figure out whether someone is saying they are called to this as a way of loving others instead of just being selfish? It seems like a really easy lie to tell yourself and your diocese.]] (Redacted to shorten email)

You know, these are terrific questions. They are really excellent because they go to the heart of the matter of discerning, choosing, and living this life well; they also reprise a position that even a few great Church Fathers have held. Sometimes it is monastics more generally that are accused of selfishness. It is all that "fuga mundi" (flee the world) stuff (which is entirely valid and laudable when understood properly) coupled with a theology of consecrated life that strongly disparaged lay and secular vocations. We, as the People of God, are still outgrowing a lot of that but have begun making serious inroads thanks to Vatican II's emphasis on the universal call to holiness. Progress here is also due to the fact that we are becoming more sensitized to the place of active ministry in our world as well as to the importance of secularity and mission. Even so, we also are coming to a greater awareness that being has priority over doing, that mission depends upon the impulse and assistance of the missionary God empowering us, and that loving others is not possible unless we have been loved ourselves. This means there will always be a place for contemplative and even eremitical vocations which witness to this foundational relationship and need.

I have seen at least some of the blogs you seem to be speaking of and there is no doubt that if one is looking for self-centeredness one can find it by googling the terms you have cited. I have written about such supposedly "eremitical" lives in the past along with posts on hermit stereotypes and misunderstandings, inadequate reasons for seeking to live an eremitical life, the counter cultural nature of the vocation --- especially in a world which is strongly individualistic and even narcissistic, as well as on the charism of the vocation which presents genuine solitude as a form of communion which represents the redemption of individualism, isolation, and alienation. Recently I read an article called " The Urban Hermit Abnormal Personality" which takes some of what you have noted and a lot of what I have written against and identified it with the "urban hermit personality" in today's society. (To be honest, it is not clear the author is actually referring to urban diocesan hermits at all in this piece. While he might well think of these as selfishness personified AND institutionalized, he may merely have been giving a colorful name to misanthropes, and walking wounded who choose to live as isolated loners.)

The problem is that some "hermits" provide grist for this author's mill and, because they are truly seeking to validate as well as excuse their own self-centeredness, they do the vocation no favors when they write about being or becoming a hermit. (N.B., validation goes beyond excusing self-centeredness and is therefore more problematical.) So how is my vocation (both my own vocation and the vocation more generally) one which is founded on love then? How can a vocation which is more about being than doing really be loving in the way we usually associate with the lives of Religious? These are the ways I would restate your question, "How do hermits really love others?" and the approaches I would like to use to begin to respond to it.

Rooted in a Necessary Selfishness:

First of all, my vocation is grounded in the love of God. God has called me to it, that call has been validated and in fact mediated to me by the Church and I trust it. This means that I trust it is not merely selfishness masquerading as something worthy, much less something Divine or sacred. For me this is a piece of things I had not really appreciated sufficiently until after perpetual eremitical profession when several concerns and sources of anxiety dropped away. It is part of the freedom I experienced and have spoken about when I described not having to worry any longer about whether I was really called to something else, or whether I should be conforming my life to the expectations and norms of the world around me --- including the world of apostolic or ministerial Religious and the church more generally. Further, God continues to call me in this way on a daily basis and my own engagement with God in prayer and everyday living attests to growth in this love.

It is this growth which points to a necessary and entirely graced "selfishness" in answering any call. I have responded to God and done so out of love for God and his People but there is no doubt that I have also found this the means to personal healing and growth in human wholeness and holiness. I continue responding to God day by day. You see, my own life was once dominated by chronic illness. I have done a lot in spite of it (education, work, ministry) but even so most of the time achievements were hard-won things and often the illness itself "won out." As a result I was once simply unable to serve in the way I felt called to serve, whether that was directly because of the illness or because of the human brokenness, limitations, and incapacity which accompanied it. More fundamentally, my illness prevented me from being the human being I felt called to be, from relating to others or loving in the ways I thought (knew) I should love; it was a dominating, sometimes all-consuming reality and it crippled me on every level. Not least it prevented me from truly loving myself, and therefore, from effectively loving anyone else in the radical way Christ calls us each to do. It is at this point that eremitical life enters the picture and becomes important.

The first time I read canon 603 I realized that if this really pointed to a vital form of Christian life it could well provide the context for a life in which illness was deprived of its power to disrupt, dominate, and even define me. In other words it could provide a context in which every aspect of my life could make sense and thus become fruitful in some yet-to-be-defined sense. There is a selfishness involved here, a fundamental concern with the sense of one's own life, yes; it is a necessary form of selfishness which requires we love ourselves (and I mean truly love ourselves!!) in order that we may love our neighbors AS ourselves. In other words, I had to find a way to live a responsive and covenantal life with God in which God's grace could actually triumph over powers of darkness and death as they manifested themselves in my own life and heart. I had to find a way to deprive illness of its power to dominate and define, its ability to foster self-hatred in me. Solitary eremitical life provides the God-given context and means for that for me. In answering any divine call this particular form of "selfishness" will be present, and I would argue it must if we are to love others as we are truly called to do. This "truly loving oneself" is the necessary and graced form of selfishness on which the Great Commandment is based.

The Primacy of Being over Doing:

I think this points to a certain primacy of being over doing. We really must be persons who love ourselves in the power of God's love if we are to love others as God calls us to do. Of course we cannot omit the whole "going out and doing" dimension, but what I have found is that if  we touch others FROM a place of essential solitude (which means from a place of  personal communion with God) our very lives will be ministerial --- whether or not we are otherwise engaged in apostolic or ministerial activity. In other words what we do must and can only truly be a reflection of who we are; activity must and can only flow from contemplation; being must have priority so that it may define and guide whatever it is we do. More, it must be our primary ministry. This may sound counter cultural or contrary to the emphasis of so much  which is prevalent in our church and world today --- and it is! But it is also valid and an important lesson or witness our world and our Church needs.

Both our Church and our world often seem to preference doing over being, so much so that folks are out doing (teaching, ministering, etc) in all kinds of ways long before they have achieved the degree of human wholeness and wisdom necessary for that. (The stereotype of the psychologically wounded or crippled psychiatrist is a good symbol of this. So, unfortunately, is the image of the predatory priest turned loose to minister again because of a dearth of priests. So, for instance, is the glut of self-help books on the market offering instant wisdom and expertise for the price of a paperback, the "advanced degrees" which can be purchased for a couple of hundred dollars, or the prevalence of cheating and plagiarism in today's world!) While to some extent we all learn by doing, and while we all need to be interns and novices at various stages in our lives, my point is we tend to preference doing over being in ways which can be destructive.

But if the priority of being over doing is a profound truth which is in danger of being lost sight of today it is the very thing hermits and other contemplatives remind our church and world of --- and doing so is a profound act of love which, potentially at least, may leave no one untouched. For solitary hermits in particular, I think we witness to the profound sense life makes in communion with God, even when that life cannot issue in active ministry to others. For this reason I have written a lot in this blog about the witness we give to the chronically ill, the isolated elderly, the bereaved, and even to prisoners. I have spoken of it as the unique charism or gift quality of the hermit's life. As I have also noted here, all of these persons are marginalized, not least by the fact that they cannot measure the value and fruitfulness of their lives in the terms so prevalent today. They cannot compete in terms of productivity or various kinds of achievement (academic, political, etc). They cannot be terrific consumers or measure their lives in economic terms; often they require the assistance of others and government subsidies and aid even to live. But the hermit, and indeed all contemplatives say that such lives are infinitely valuable nonetheless.

And yet it is the Gospel message that we are justified (made right and truly human as part of a covenant relationship with God) through the gratuitous grace of God, not through any works of our own. By extension that message is also the message that our lives are of infinite worth simply because we are who we are, not because of what we do. Hermits proclaim that message with their lives in a unity of being and doing. I don't mean to suggest that others do not  act out of such a unity; I know they do. However, for hermits, our only role in the church is to be ourselves in God alone --- no one else. (It is this reason failing as a hermit is so easy, and trying to live as one is so risky. It is this reason mediocrity is so easy. Hermits do not tend to have active ministries they can use to distract from who they are first of all. They cannot use the roles they fill to soften the fact that they are not really WHO God has called them to be.) Who they ARE in God IS their ministry, and the fact that this happens by the grace of God in the silence of solitude IS their message. They can fall back on nothing else. (This too is one reason hermits are not called to active ministry and must be careful in even the limited amount in which they might engage. Their vocation really is to BE themselves in God alone. Their primary (or only) ministry really is in being and in calling folks to the primacy of being, not in doing.)

How does the Church Discern authentic vocations?

There is one main way the Church discerns the difference between inauthentic and authentic vocations. She demands that authentic vocations are vocations of love which contribute to the salvation of the world and praise and glorify God (make God manifest). One way of doing this is to look at the place of God in the hermit's life and discourse. While some self-proclaimed hermits do write about "Me, me, me" so that even their writing about spirituality becomes only secondarily about God, the genuine article makes it clear that they are who they are and do what they do only because of God.

So, for instance, if chronic illness is a piece of the hermit's life it is no longer the dominant or overarching theme; instead, what God has done (or does day by day!) in their lives both in spite of and with the illness will be the dominant theme. As a person matures even the illness may be seen as a genuine grace --- not articulated in some pious pretense of medieval mystical misery, but in the sense that this has brought the person to God and allowed God both a unique entry into her life and the achievement of a unique voice which will be mediated to others through both strength and weakness. That life then becomes "a silent preaching of the Lord" --- just as the CCC refers to in par 921. In other words, what God's grace makes possible in terms of human wholeness and holiness is their main focus and the key in which all else is set. The person becomes something very much greater and more articulate than a cry of anguish; she becomes instead an expression of the Gospel and an embodied reflection of God's own Logos. None of this means that the person cannot occasionally talk about themselves or their illness, sinfulness, brokennesses, etc, but it does mean that doing so occurs mainly in order to illustrate the grace of God's love and in contrast to the wholeness that grace has achieved in the person's life.

Thus, I would suggest that it is really not all that easy to lie about this matter. It is true that one can cover misery and brokenness with all kinds of pious platitudes, but the real person always shines through. More, the real God shines through in a compelling way when the hermit is authentic. The blogs you refer to affirm this in a kind of via negativa. Even for hermits in the early stages of grappling with this vocation and their own growth in it what comes through is their hope, their hunger to respond generously and wholeheartedly, their desire to give God free reign to work in their lives as God will. There will be some sense that this is primarily and sincerely done for God and those precious to God. Dioceses that take time to really listen to the candidate and get to know them will see clearly who has priority in their lives, even when the healing is partial or the grip of illness is still quite strong. On the other hand, I would agree with you that it is much easier to lie to oneself and I would note that this is one (but only one) of the reasons dioceses turn away FAR more applicants than they accept or eventually admit to temporary much less perpetual profession.

In my own experience dioceses usually look carefully at who the person is in light of their life of the silence of solitude. If they see increased growth in human maturity, wholeness, and holiness, if they see a greater capacity to love themselves and others, then they have reason to believe that the person is truly called by God to this. If they do not see this, or if the person seems to become more miserable or eccentric while living in this way, more isolated and alienated, or if they become more and more strident and bitter about not being admitted to vows, more critical of the vocation itself, etc, then the diocese is probably justified in their decision not to profess or even to admit them to serious discernment --- at least for the time being.

The Bottom Line in Discerning Eremitical Vocations:

At bottom there will always be questions of love: Is the person motivated by love? Does she love God and seek to respond wholeheartedly to God's love? Does she show signs of truly loving herself because of what she has experienced of God's love (especially) in solitude? Does she understand that simply living her life alone with God with the graced (in-Spired) integrity she is called to is an act of profound love the world desperately needs? And, finally, does she undertake (or desire to undertake) and embrace the WHOLE of this life, its discipline, monotony or tedium, sacrifices and rewards, occasional desolations and enormous consolations,  because she recognizes the gift (charism) it is not only to herself, but to the church, and to the world? Does she do so, in other words, on their behalf as well as on her own, and maybe better said, does she do so for them because that truly fulfills her as well? Again then, contrary to your own opinion I would argue that it is pretty difficult to fake convincing answers to these questions, especially as a vocation matures. A diocese whose vocational personnel are careful and discerning will recognize a life in which God (love-in-act) is glorified (made manifest), just as they will recognize its opposite.

By the way, this is a piece of why such vocations must be mutually discerned and why the Church reserves the term Catholic hermit for someone living the life in her name.  Hermits and other contemplatives tend to speak of themselves as living at the heart of the Church. This saying has a number of levels or dimensions but above all it means that the hermit represents a vocation to love which both precedes and grounds all apostolic activity. The journeying in the wilderness and the battling with demons a hermit does is mainly the sojourn she undertakes deep into her own heart and the heart of God so that love may truly predominate in all things. When I speak of taking on the rights and obligations of the eremitical life as a diocesan hermit I am speaking in large part of assuming the burdens and joy of these "bottom line" questions and this pilgrim role in a conscious and public way in the name of the Church and her Gospel.