07 October 2013

Hermits and Recluses

Dear Sister Laurel, what is the difference between a hermit and a recluse? I read the following regarding two recent professions and it seems to conflict with what you have written. Is the Bishop wrong? [[In his homily, Bishop Taylor said it is important to understand that a hermit is not the same thing as a “recluse." “You can’t just be married ‘in general;’ in marriage you are always bound to a particular person. Well, in the religious life, that’s the difference between being a hermit and being a recluse. Both separate themselves from the world to a degree, but only the hermit is bound by vows to the person of Jesus.” (See Bishop Taylor’s complete homily on page 15. ]]

Bishop Taylor's usage can be mistaken and misleading but I suspect we are in profound agreement nonetheless. I think what he is trying to speak of is the difference between a person who lives alone and may be reclusive for selfish or otherwise inadequate reasons --- inadequate that is, for a hermit, especially for a diocesan hermit --- and one who lives solitude because of love of God and others.  (I am guessing here because I have not seen the whole homily and actually could not access it.) Hermits, as I have said many times here, are not simply people who live alone, nor are they folks who are failures at living with others, are misanthropic, narcissistic, individualistic, etc. They are separated from others to the extent the silence of solitude demands they be because they love God and all that is precious to God; this is their primary relationship and witness. They allow it to be the foundation of their lives as well as the gift they live for others. Their relationship with the whole of creation is conditioned by their solitary relationship with God. It allows them to exercise a prophetic presence in the world which desperately needs lives of silence, solitude (a form of communion and relatedness) and loving commitment which are not simply rooted in roles or productivity but instead in BEING. (Together these represent what canon 603 refers to as "the silence of solitude")

David Menkhoff and Judith Weaver
Where the Bishop seems to have gotten the language wrong (and I say "seems" because, 1) newspapers don't always get things right in what they report, and 2) context makes meaning clear!), is to neglect the fact that recluses are also a legitimate form of eremitical life. As I have said here, every hermit must be open to the possibility that God is summoning or will summon them to greater and greater degrees of reclusion at some point in their eremitical lives. In the history of eremitical life two congregations have been given permission to allow recluses, the Camaldolese and the Carthusian. Even so, every diocesan hermit might find they are called to reclusion --- though providing for daily needs might be more difficult than for those living in community. It would take some organization and the cooperation of the hermit's diocese and parish to really allow for full time reclusion.

In my own writing I tend to reserve the word recluse for this form of eremitical life while I use misanthrope (or narcissists, etc) for the person who is reclusive for those less worthy reasons than a hermit's life both requires and nurtures. (I do tend to use the term "reclusive" in an almost universally negative sense however; for hermits I would speak of their tendency to solitude --- not entirely satisfactory I guess --- or to anachoresis (withdrawal for valid reasons.)) There is an overlap here in the meaning of the term recluse which makes it easy to misunderstand without sufficient context. I am sure Bishop Taylor's context makes his usage clearer than this one snippet does.

I would also disagree with the statement about vows in some ways though again we may be in essential or deeper agreement than those disagreements indicate. What I believe Bishop Taylor was getting at in this statement is that canonical eremitical life in the Church is a publicly committed form of consecrated life, and one of love centered on the person of Jesus Christ. It should also be clear that he sees it in terms of espousal or marriage. If I am correct that this was what he was saying, then I think he is profoundly correct. A publicly vowed life centered on Christ, and in fact publicly espoused to Christ, is vastly different from a reclusive life undertaken in woundedness, selfishness, and/or the absence of any real commitment. The first is the life of the silence OF solitude, the other is the life of the inner "noise" and unease of isolation.

Meanwhile, my sincerest congratulations to the two new diocesan hermits who were recently perpetually professed: Brother David Menkhoff and Sister Judith Weaver. Both were professed at the same liturgy in the hands of Bishop Anthony B Taylor on Sept 10th, 2013 in the Morris Hall Chapel, Little Rock, Arkansas. Both have lived as hermits for a significant period of time before making this commitment. Menkhoff has done so under private vows for at least 10 years, and Weaver first as a Benedictine nun (4 years or more) and later as diocesan (about 8 years). They have "begun" a great adventure --- "begun" because perpetual profession does indeed change everything even while a great deal remains exteriorly the same! I am excited for them and for their diocese and parish.