12 October 2014

Diocesan Hermits and Community, part 2

In On Community and the Hermit I began an answer to a questioner asking about friendships and the shape of community in the hermit's life.  In one way and another I have been dealing with that question for the past several weeks --- even prior to receiving the question. It may have been that fact that prompted the reader's question in the first place! In any case, the first part of my explicit answer I focused on those friendships and relationships which were essential to the well-being of my vocation because they fulfilled my own needs. In this second part I want to say something about the shape of community in my life because of the diocesan hermit's responsibility that her solitude be a fruitful reality and a gift to the Church and world.

Diocese and Parish as Ordinary Community of the Solitary Hermit

For any diocesan (c 603) hermit the diocese and parish within which they finds themselves, and from which they have actually been called to live the silence of solitude is ordinarily their primary faith community. It is usually here they celebrate or receive the Sacraments, here they are nourished on the proclaimed Word of God, here they meet the people they are praying for and with, and here they come to understand the complex challenges which are currently facing those living life outside the rarefied environment of the hermitage. I meet truly holy persons here whenever I come for liturgy. It is also here though, that the hermit witnesses to the contemplative and eremitical life and the gift (charism) of the silence of solitude lived in their midst! Personally I find it a significant, if complex, relationship and presence in my life. I am sure that my presence and involvement in the parish is both somewhat other than straightforward and yet fruitful as well!

You see, I cannot take on the responsibilities or ministry that a ministerial Sister can and does ordinarily take on. While I am actually part of the parish staff (pastoral assistant) I do not generally attend Staff meetings nor retreats, nor do they look to me to fill staff roles at parish events. They know I cannot do that and that my real ministry is contemplative life and prayer in solitude. I do minister otherwise in a limited way when I attend Mass (I rotate in as Sacristan, cantor, lector, EEM, etc), and I lead Communion services when we have no priest. Occasionally too I will write a reflection on the day's readings, do a presentation for Lent or Advent or for the school kids (on prayer and being a hermit).

So, I am present and active and certainly personally integral to the parish. People actually miss and pray for me when I am spending more time in solitude and cannot be at daily or Sunday Mass, but at the same time this means there are very real limitations which my parish generally understands (or tries to understand!) and respects! (One small but telling way they show me they understand and regard my vocation, for instance, occurs when they quietly slip a small note with a particular prayer request into my hand because somehow they know it will go into a handmade bowl near the Tabernacle in my hermitage where it will be held in prayer. That the story of the "prayer bowl" has gotten around the parish and to members I don't really know yet suggests, I think, that my presence is discussed and valued.) When I speak of a diocesan hermit belonging to a parish it is this integral yet "eremitically" limited relationship I am speaking of.

On Being a Bit of a Mystery

I suppose for many in my parish I am a bit of a mystery and of course, that is okay! If my presence sparks questions or real curiosity then that is well and good! If people admit they don't understand what a hermit is or how there can be such a thing as a hermit in the 21C. much less right here in this relatively well-to-do suburban parish, then also well and good. (If they ask me about these things directly and we have an opportunity to get to know one another a little and (among other things) dispel a few stereotypes or misperceptions, then even better!) If our school kids hear me cantor or lector and wonder about me singing and reading Scripture even at home, if they have questions about my habit or cowl, if they ask their teachers what the heck it means to be a contemplative or pray all day, if they ask me to come to talk to them about all that occasionally or sometimes also slip me notes with their most urgent prayers on them, and if they can see that I am a pretty joyful person who likes to laugh even while I am also pretty serious (humor can be serious business!), then I think my presence is an effective one and over time will bear real fruit in addition to that which already comes from prayer itself.

Am I "like" these folks? Well, no, in many, many ways I am not; but in some much more fundamental ways I am VERY like them; my sense of that fundamental sameness is a grace that I thank God for almost every day! The bottom line here though is that I belong to this community because we are a Christian faith Community. (cf Belonging vs Fitting In) Different as most of our lives are, I truly love them and they love me as well. We make it work because that's what Catholics living in and for Christ do; love transcends differences and builds community! It is significant, I think, that our parish motto is "All are welcome." So long as I allow it to be so, that is true even (and, I think, especially) for a hermit! 

A Slight Detour and Return

I remember when I was in Graduate School in Theology. The Catholic students and faculty (which meant a LOT of religious, priests, theologians, liturgists, and ministers from all over the Diocese were converging on "Holy Hill" on Sunday mornings and celebrating some of the most fantastic liturgies I have ever attended. The St Louis Jesuits were "in residence" at that time (they were also students, but attending JSTB) and every Catholic theological school had some group that sang during the week for their school's Mass and came together as part of this more general Mass on Sundays. The assembly naturally participated fully, were knowledgeable and were inspired by this Sunday liturgy. But there was also something wrong with this picture! It was elitist in a certain way but more to the point, it deprived all the parishes in the Diocese of Oakland of the liturgists, theologians, homilists, musicians, religious, and priests those parishes could have used as resources so their own liturgies and the music, homilies, and other aspects there were equally participative and  perhaps more genuinely inspiring. So, Bishop John Cummins decided to let us all know that he wanted us in those parishes so that the liturgical and faith life everywhere might be enhanced and he closed the Sunday morning GTU Mass down!

Originally I was disappointed by this action but over time it is the wisdom of what John Cummins did that has stayed with me. Vatican II renewed the importance of the local community, first diocese and then parish! Every Catholic is related to the local Church in some way and that means that every hermit is as well. As has been said many times in the history of eremitical life, Catholic hermits live our lives of solitude in the heart of the Church; each hermit is an "ecclesiola" --- but not in some form of independent solitary splendor. In other words, we live eremitical solitude in real, concrete circumstances within the heart of real, concrete faith communities. We may be seen but rarely; our lives may not be understood, nor may we even "fit in" (or seem to "fit in") all that well in some things, but I, for instance, know without question that the profound questions that drive my life and quest for union with God are the very same questions the rest of the people in my diocese/parish pose with their lives and this means to the extent we hermits are in touch with these and the God who grounds us all, we are more the same than we are different!  That too is an important witness the hermit can give to those who focus more on differences than on what unites us or what we hold in common.

In conscience, but also theologically and spiritually I believe it is both right and necessary for the hermit whose vocation is ecclesial to find ways to be a gift to her parish --- even and especially if a large part of that gift is the silence of solitude so many seem to fear and resist (but which we all need to learn to embrace as we age and come up against other liminal experiences in our lives)! The paradox is that to do so we have to belong! (cf Belonging vs Fitting In) In any case, in my own eremitical life, I have to belong in this way, limited though it is, or I cut myself off not only from one of the main ways my life of solitude bears fruit, but from one of the main sources of Divine presence and spurs to personal growth in holiness and authentic solitude in my life. All the diocesan hermits I know or know of live in eremitical solitude and "stricter separation" but that means they do so in relation to (and relationship with!) a parish or monastery or other religious community. Eremitical solitude, once again, is not isolation. As I noted in earlier posts from last week, even actual reclusion requires we be profoundly and mutually related to a faith community of some sort. Thus it is with ecclesial vocations!