30 August 2014

Physical Solitude as Destructive

[[Sister Laurel, how do what you have called the central or non-negotiable elements of canon 603 rule out people from living an eremitical life? Everyone is supposed to pray assiduously, live more or less penitential lives and I think everyone needs silence and solitude as a regular part of their spiritual lives. Wouldn't you agree? So what is it about canon 603 that helps a diocese determine someone is NOT called to be a hermit? Am I making sense? Also sometimes people say that solitude is dangerous for people. Have you ever seen a case where a person is harmed by living in physical solitude? What happened?]]

Yes, I think this is a sensible and very good question. While all the elements of the canon would suffer in one who was not really called to the life the one that comes to mind first and foremost for me is "the silence of solitude." I have treated it here as the environment, the goal, and the charism or gift of the eremitical life to the Church and world.  I have also noted that it is the unique element of canon 603 which is not the same as silence AND solitude and also distinguishes this life from that of most Christians and most other religious as well.  Just as I believe the silence of solitude is the environment, goal, and gift of eremitical life, I believe it is a key piece of discerning whether or not one is called to eremitical solitude. Perhaps you have watched the downward spiral of someone who is living a form of relative reclusion and who has become isolated from his/her family, friends, and from his/her local parish. Often such persons become depressed, angry, bitter, self-centered and anguish over the meaning of their lives; they may try to compensate in ways which are clearly self-destructive and/or which lash out at others. Some turn to constant (or very significant) distraction (TV, shopping, etc) while others use religion to justify their isolation and wrap their efforts at self-justification as well as the self-destruction, bitterness, and pain in pious language. One expression of this is to consider themselves (or actually attempt to become!) hermits.

Whatever else is true about their situation it seems undeniable that such a person is NOT called to be a hermit, does not thrive in physical solitude and gives no evidence of living what canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude." In its own way it is terrifying and very sad to watch what isolation does to an individual who is not really called to eremitical solitude or actual reclusion. There is plenty of documentation on this including from prisons where such isolation is enforced and leads to serious mental and emotional consequences. At the very least we see it is ordinarily destructive of personhood and can be deeply damaging psychologically.

Regarding your questions about whether I have ever seen such a situation and what this looked like, the initial answer is yes. Over the past several years (about 7), but especially over the past 3 years, I have watched such a downward spiral occur in someone who wished and attempted to live as a hermit. Besides the signs and symptoms mentioned above, this person's image of God is appalling and has become more so in response to the difficulties of her now-even-stricter isolation; in trying to make sense of her experiences she has come to believe that God directly tests her with tragedies and persecution, causes her to suffer chronic, even unremitting pain, supposedly demands she cut herself off from friends, family, clergy, et al (which, at least as she reports it, always seems to happen in a way which is traumatic for all involved) and seems to encourage her to cultivate a judgmental attitude toward others whose souls she contends she can read. Tendencies to an unhealthy spirituality and self-centeredness in which this person considers herself to be directly inspired by God while everyone else is moved by the devil, where she is right and everyone else is wrong, where she is unhappy and feels persecuted when concern is expressed, etc, have hardened as she holds onto these "certainties" as the only things remaining to her to make any kind of sense of her life.

It is, for me at least, both saddening and incredibly frustrating. I want somehow to shake this person and say, "Wake up! When everyone else disagrees with you, when every parish finds certain regular occurrences disruptive and divisive while you contend these are of God, consider you may have gotten it wrong!! You would not be the first nor will you be the last! When the fruits of these occurrences are negative for everyone else and seem to lead to increased isolation and unhappiness for you, please at least consider they are are NOT of God!! When physical solitude is a source of misery and desperation rather than joy and profound hope, when it leads to a "me vs the world" perspective (and I am not referring to 'world' in the sense canon 603 or monastic life uses it in the phrase 'fuga Mundi'!!) rather than to finding oneself belonging profoundly (e.g., in Christ or in one's shared humanity which is grounded in God)--- even when apart from others, consider that what you are living is not right for you. God wants you to be complete and fulfilled in him; more, he wills it! He sent his Son so that you might have abundant life, that you might know his profound love and experience true peace and communion -- even and perhaps especially in your daily struggles! Eremitical solitude can be destructive; it is not the way for you! The personal "noisiness" (physical, emotional, and spiritual) of your isolation is NOT what canon 603 is talking about when it refers to the silence of solitude. Please, at least consider these points!

One of the things this ongoing situation has under-scored for me is the wisdom of canon 603's choice of "the silence of solitude" rather than "silence and solitude" as a defining element of the life. It also underscores for me the fact that eremitical solitude is a relational or dialogical reality which has nothing to do with personal isolation or self-centeredness. (Obviously there is a significant degree of physical solitude but this is other-centered, first God and then other people and the whole of creation.) Especially too it says that "the silence of solitude" is about an inner wholeness and peace (shalom) that comes from resting in God so that one may be and give oneself in concrete ways for the love of others. One lives in this way because it is edifying both to oneself as authentically human, and to others who catch the scent of God that is linked to this gift of the Holy Spirit.

A hermit, as I have said many times here, is NOT simply a lone person living an isolated life; neither is eremitical solitude one long vacation nor an escape from personal problems or the demands of life in relationship. In Christianity a hermit lives alone with God in the heart of the Church for the sake of others and she tailors her physical solitude so that her needs (and obligations) for community and all that implies are met. Moreover, not everyone CAN or SHOULD become a hermit any more than anyone can or should become a Mother or a psychiatrist or parish priest or spiritual director. Most people do not come to human wholeness or holiness in extended solitude; further, since extended solitude always breaks down but builds up only in rare cases, embracing it as a vocation can be harmful for one not truly called to it. As I have also written before, the Church recognizes the truth of this by professing very few hermits under canon 603 and by canonically establishing only a handful of communities which allow for either eremitical life or actual reclusion. (Only the Camaldolese and the Carthusians may allow reclusion.) In all of these cases the hermits or recluses are closely supervised and made accountable to legitimate superiors. Medical and psychological evaluations are generally required for candidates and are certainly sought in the presence of unusual or questionable and concerning characteristics.

Please note that the situation I described is unusual in some ways and generally extreme. In every case however, whether extreme or not, a diocese will use the characteristics of canon 603, but particularly "the silence of solitude" understood as Carthusians and other hermits do to measure or discern the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them. They will not use the canon to baptize mere eccentricity or illness and they will look for deep peace, joy, and convincing senses of meaning and belonging which have grown in eremitical solitude over at least several years. Similarly they will look for personal maturity, spiritual authenticity and the ability to commit oneself, persevere in that commitment, and love deeply and concretely. Perhaps I can say something in another post about the other central characteristics of canon 603 and the way they are used to discern when someone does NOT have a vocation to diocesan eremitical life. Assiduous prayer and penance and a life lived for the salvation of others, for instance, can certainly assist the diocese in this way.