17 September 2014

Letting go of Childish Things

Today's reading from Paul is one of the most beautiful passages about love in all of the Old and New Testa-ments. But the point of the reading is especially important for hermits who seek to live in solitude or others who find themselves otherwise isolated and alienated from the faith community of their local Church. The very first line of 1 Cor 12:31-13:13 sets the lesson: [[Brothers and Sisters: Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way!]] Paul then goes on to list a number of recognizable spiritual gifts including speaking in tongues, knowledge (including mystical knowledge), and faith (including the faith to move mountains!) but reminds the Corinthians that without love these gifts and indeed, the person herself, are nothing at all. (Despite medieval attempts to aggrandize being "nothing." Paul is clearly disapproving of being nothing here.) Paul's argument through the rest of the passage is clear, if one truly loves then one has every other thing as well; in truly loving, all the spiritual gifts, which are partial and finite, find their completion and eternity. Moreover without love these gifts are empty, void, possibly illusory (or worse), and disedifying.

One of the most salient criticisms of eremitical life is the observation that the hermit has no one around to love or be loved by in the truly demanding and concrete ways human beings require to grow in Gospel love and authentic humanity. This observation has caused some Church Fathers to deny the validity of the eremitical life. It is true that I, for instance, can write moving blog posts, articles, and chapters about eremitical life as essentially loving and about eremitical solitude as essentially dialogical or covenantal, but, as Paul clearly says, [[If I speak in human tongues or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.]] I might get some attention with and even praise for what I write, but unless it is clearly informed by genuine love, it will be empty and ultimately meaningless. Moreover, the validity or at least the quality of my vocation itself, including the mystical dimensions of my prayer, would need to be seriously questioned in such an instance. As Paul says, [[if there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing, if tongues, they will cease, and if knowledge [referring to mystical knowledge], it too will be brought to nothing for each and all of these will pass away.]]

We hermits may err in our vocations in many ways but it seems to me that given today's reading and the criticism of some Church Fathers (and the affirmations of all genuine hermits!), our focus, even in maintaining appropriate degrees of physical solitude and silence, must be on our growth in our capacity to love others in Christ both effectively and concretely --- even should we sometimes err against solitude in doing so. This tension between physical solitude and the commandment to truly love one another is always present in the hermit's life. It is certainly not acceptable to speak about loving humanity while one fails to love the individual persons sitting in the pews next to or around us --- much less claiming such a love while eschewing their company. "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand," may be darkly humorous in a Peanuts cartoon strip, but in the life of a hermit it is a blasphemy.

The emphasis on loving others in concrete ways and circumstances is one reason every hermit maintains the importance of hospitality --- whether that means opening one's hermitage to others in specific ways or participating in the local parish community in limited ways; it is also the reason hermits form lauras or are associated with parishes and communities; these are not optional but, even when necessarily limited, are essential to the eremitical life itself and certainly to the lives of those who are privileged via their professions and explicit commission by the Church to call themselves Catholic Hermits. In other words, community and the commitment to concrete forms of loving are critical dimensions of ANY authentic eremitical vocation, even those to complete reclusion; loving effectively and fully is, according to Paul, the truest sign of human wholeness and holiness, the truest sign of genuinely spiritual gifts. (The would-be recluse who is incapable of loving others effectively will be unlikely to be allowed to embrace reclusion.This is one of the reasons the Church requires serious vetting and supervision of eremitical recluses).

Part of the reason for this emphasis on concrete human loving is the especial ease with which a hermit (or other solitary person) can fool themselves about their own degree of spiritual growth or the nature of the spiritual gifts they have been given.  In today's first reading Paul has chosen not to take the Corinthians to task over the authenticity or inauthenticity of their spiritual gifts despite their tendency to self-delusion. Instead of calling them frauds he reminds them they are children. To motivate them to change and grow he speaks to and captures their attention by focusing on the thing which seems to  capture their imagination, namely, their drive and desire for more and more excellent spiritual gifts. He wants them to understand that love is the greatest divine gift, but also that it is the criterion by which all other gifts are truly measured and then brought to completion. Prophecy without love is not of God. The ability to speak in tongues without love is empty and essentially godless; mystical experiences or knowledge without the ability to love others in concrete ways is not authentic. One may have all kinds of moving and extraordinary experiences in solitary prayer, but  in terms of the spiritual life these are, at best, often "childish things" if they remain fruitless. At other times they are simply delusional:  they may simply be ordinary dreams (which can be be insightful, no doubt) treated simplistically as visions, empty visions which, tragically, lead to nothing more than self-satisfaction and navel-gazing, and the psychological projection of one's own problems, conflicts, and struggles. Spiritual maturity implies the ability to love those persons who are precious to God and to do so as they truly need! Divine gifts, whatever the type, are meant to allow us to do this.

These mystical and other prayer experiences and psycho-logical manifes-tations, like everything else in our spiritual lives, must be tested or proved --- words which mean several things including measuring, fostering maturation, and helping to make stronger and truer. They must be integrated into one's everyday life and growth; they must be transformed into personal maturity and wisdom. They must lead to or be associated with the ability to love in concrete situations and relationships. Therefore they must, to the degree they are authentic, lead to patience and kindness. They must not lead to or be associated with arrogance or rudeness nor to a sense that one's spiritual life is somehow "superior" to that of "ordinary" parishes and people! They must be associated with other-centeredness and to genuine humility and they must not allow one to brood over injuries done to one nor to rejoice when evil befalls others. Any authentic hermit, indeed any person who finds that their prayer lives (and especially what they call mystical experiences) do not lead to these manifestations of genuine love must surrender them for (or at the very least complement them with) the demands of community which do lead more surely to these manifestations. One must let go of the manifestations of spiritual childhood for the spiritual wisdom of adulthood. (cf, On Discernment With Regard to Prayer.)

Paul's letter to the (perhaps) spiritually precocious community in Corinth reminds us especially then that spirituality, even and perhaps especially eremitical spirituality, is not a "me and God" only enterprise. That is NOT what God alone is enough means! Canon 603 is very clear that hermits in the Catholic Church, particularly those that live the life in the name of the Church embrace eremitical solitude for the salvation of others. The love a hermit cultivates in the hermitage and in her relatively limited encounters with those in her parish, diocese, monastery, etc is not a facile abstraction, an exercise in empty piety, much less a matter of meaningless if superficially impressive verbal expressions, (e.g., "Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven!" or,"in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do"). It is not enough to proclaim one's love for God or humanity while judging and despising people. What makes her vocation divine is the authentic love which motivates and empowers it. The moment a hermit forgets this or chooses isolation over eremitical solitude, she has embraced something which is not truly of God no matter how frequent or vivid the supposed mystical experiences that accompany it. Real union with God involves communion with others. It is the very nature of being a member of the Body of Christ and stands at the heart of Paul's concerns with adult faith and the community in Corinth.