05 October 2014

On Community and the Hermit, part 1

[[Hi Sister, I have a question that may seem odd, perhaps even funny, but I ask it in all seriousness.
Should hermits have friends? I know there are lots of admonishments in monastic literature against having "particular friendships" etc. that could take away from community life, but a hermit has no community in that same sense. Scripture teachings that its not good for humans to be alone, so community of some sort is necessary for our emotional and spiritual well-being. What does community look like for a hermit? ]]

No, I understand this is a serious question; it's also a critically important one, especially when, as you note, some literature and praxis on the spiritual life was tainted by blanket prohibitions against "particular friendships", etc. I have written about hermits and the importance of friendships before in  several posts, so please check out the labels below. Also you might want to look at the following article. Hermits and Friendships. I am not sure I can add lots to it in answering your questions but we will see.

First, the focus on "particular friendships" is something I experienced first hand when I initially entered religious life and it was something which was quite often destructive rather than helpful in the spiritual life. Today we recognize clearly that vows of celibate love (consecrated celibacy or 'chastity') require affective maturity and the richness of loving generously and chastely; all that will necessarily mean friendships! It goes without saying that these friendships must also be mature, neither exclusive nor grounded in either (or both!) persons' neediness (which is not the same thing as a need for mature friendship!), and they must be focused in a way which allows each person to grow in their capacity as a human being and thus too, in their vocations. Enmeshment is not true friendship, nor is it really loving. It also goes without saying then that friendships cannot (and when genuine, will not) detract from one's vocation. This, especially for the hermit, comes with its own set of tensions, uncommon limitations, and difficulties --- particularly when one person in the relationship is a hermit and the other is not. However, negotiating these in a loving and mature way is part and parcel of the healthy eremitical vocation; eschewing them or simply ruling out friendships and other relationships entirely is not.

While I cannot say what community looks like generally for a solitary hermit, I can point to some of the dimensions of it in my own life. In this way perhaps I can eventually describe what is essential, what is exceptional, and what must be sacrificed for what eremitical life calls "the silence of solitude" and "stricter separation from the world" (being careful to understand that other people or relationships per se are NOT "the world"!!). In my own life there are a circle of close friends with whom I can discuss or share whatever I need to and who can share with me as they need. We may go to an occasional concert or movie or dinner out for birthdays or major holidays (Christmas, Easter), etc, and in one instance, we two meet for Mass and coffee most Sundays during the school year.  In this post I will focus on them only.

I count among this group my delegate and director (Sister of the Holy Family), a Dominican Sister, my pastor (Oblate of St Francis de Sales), a Franciscan Sister (whom I have seen in person a mere handful of times in the past two decades), and two friends from the parish. Additionally there is one diocesan hermit from another country; we don't speak or write often but when we do there is a lot of laughter and we pick up as though there was no gap in time. At present I don't have a regular confessor but even so, each of these persons understands my vocation and helps me to live it with integrity. Each adds to it in a number of ways, challenging me, filling me in on things I might otherwise be unaware of, instructing me, calling me to love and be loved. Generally they are folks I can talk with about the Church, prayer, theology, religious life and the vows, Scripture, spirituality more generally, as well as literature, music, etc. In the time between meetings they hold me in prayer and I do likewise with them. They are the sort of "inner circle" within the community I count on.

What is true and critical about this circle of friends is that they understand and value me and my vocation in a way others cannot. (Others I will also mention later value me and my vocation but in a different way.) Most (all but two) are religious and all but one of these do spiritual direction or pastoral counseling. Thus, most are vowed, all have significant prayer lives and appreciate the dynamics of physical solitude/concrete loving and contemplation/action as fundamental in their own lives.  For each of these persons Christ stands at the center of their lives. We (mainly) speak the same language spiritually, theologically, professionally, and humanly. In my own life I would have to say that these friendships are critically necessary. I do not know if my eremitical life would be a healthy one without them --- though I personally suspect it would not. While in most cases we don't see each other often, we do tend to pick up where we left off even as we try to hear about where the other person has been in the intervening space of time. What I can say about this group of people is that they are a daily source of joy and richness for me as well as of challenge and inspiration. That is so even when it will be days, weeks, months, or even years before I see them again. (We do email and/or write regularly. We also phone or skype occasionally.)

I suppose it is clear that this group of people are a fairly select group. One of the reasons they are so important to me is because each of them understands and has made  and routinely makes sacrifices for the sake of their commitment to Christ; they are neither dismayed nor surprised by my own. Instead they expect these and would be surprised if they did NOT exist. All both are and have good friends but all have significant limitations on how often they see these friends and each one makes sacrifices so their time together is quality time. We share the same vows and values which tends to mean we appreciate the same things, read the same books (or at least the same authors), are interested in the same Church-related topics and concerns, spend money (or try not to spend money!) in mainly the same ways, and so forth. More, we tend to laugh a lot when we are together and cry together when necessary. Prayer is a way of life for each of us and their presence in my life (and I hope mine in theirs) is humanizing and holy-making. Most of these people have community obligations and commitments --- people they love and serve as Sisters and Brothers --- as well as active ministry and prayer lives to keep up. Most are in or have been in leadership and formation in their own communities so you can imagine how full their lives are. My own commitment to the silence of solitude (and all that makes that what it is) as well as my own SD ministry and limited parish service takes the place of these in my own life so when we are able to get together it is a priority --- and a gift of God.

This is the first part of my answer to your questions. While this group is not all the community that exists in my life it is the most profound and intimate, the most challenging, and the most enriching in terms of my life as a religious and hermit. In the main these persons' dedication to Christ and his People (meaning the way they give their lives for love of these through a variety of spiritual traditions and ministries) inspire (and empower) me to live the same way --- though as a hermit who also stands in the Camaldolese tradition. And that, it seems to me, is the essence of community (or the most intimate friendship!) for anyone who seeks to follow Christ.

You may have more specific questions than I have answered here. If so be sure and clarify things for me and I will answer those in the second part. (It occurs to me that what I wrote about this year's retreat also gives a glimpse into the importance of friends and the nature of community for a hermit so take a look at that as well.)