24 October 2014

On Making the Transition from Lone Person to Hermit and then Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister, I have the impression that you did not choose the circumstances that eventually led you to become a hermit. I also get the impression that you stress that those circumstances weren't enough to make you a hermit or to discern a call to eremitical life. What was it that made the difference for you personally? Did your circumstances change? How did you make the transition from being a lone person to being a hermit "in some essential sense," as you put it, and then, a diocesan (Catholic) hermit who embraced not only an individual vocation but a place in fostering the eremitical vocation in the Church? Is this typical of diocesan hermits?]]

Wow, I am impressed! You have managed to summarize so much important stuff in a few sentences, some of it stuff I have not really written about directly here. Your impressions are spot on too. Add to that your questions are good ones and I have to give you kudos across the board! Thanks! But that being said, the question about making the transition from being a lone person to becoming a hermit in some essential sense is not an easy one to answer. That is true because it is not about any one thing that was helpful, but about a number of things which all came together to confirm a call to eremitical solitude. Anyway, great questions. Let me give them a shot!

No, I did not choose the circumstances which eventually led me to become a hermit. As an adult (and while still a Franciscan) I developed or manifested an adult form of  mixed seizure disorder (Epilepsy) which later proved to be both medically and surgically intractable. Coupled with that, probably because of injuries that occurred during seizures, I developed chronic pain, eventually diagnosed as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy or (the preferred term these days) Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Both conditions isolated me from others (including from Mass attendance, or contributions to parish and diocesan life), prevented me from pursuing the career I had been educated and trained for (mainly teaching systematic theology but some clinical pastoral work as well), and caused me some serious and extended questioning about the meaning and value of my life more generally. Today the seizure disorder is better controlled for several separate but mutually contributory reasons (including physical solitude and silence!) while the chronic pain remains a daily reality which requires medications and adjunct therapy "to keep the fire down." While this was enough to isolate me from others, including from the local faith community and most friends, you are correct that it was no where near enough to conclude, 1) I was actually called to become a hermit, nor (much less!) 2) that I was actually a hermit in some essential sense! A transition was required!

Making the Transition from Lone Person to Eremite:

The first real shift occurred in my prayer. Over time I began to develop a more contemplative prayer life and I began to trust that more and more. By the early 80's besides my own doctors who continued to try to control both the seizures and the pain, I was working regularly with a spiritual director and was developing the tools I needed to work through the various bits of healing required by having my life sidetracked by illness and injury. At the same time she helped me begin to trust the various ways God was working in my life and I began to imagine this thing called eremitical life as a result of reading canon 603, which had been published in October of 1983, and then Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action and LeClerq's Alone With the Alone. Merton's work especially fired my imagination here. More and more my work with my director had to do with essential wholeness in the face of disability and my work with doctors became less about control of seizures and more about dealing with disability. While I continued medications, etc, for the medical stuff, the work I was doing with my director became far more important in freeing me to embrace life and become open to seeing the good God would bring out of the situation.

I had begun to experiment with living as a hermit in a conscious way and it began to be the focus of reading, discernment, research, and so forth. Early on in this process I began to write for publication (mainly Review for Religious) so it became clear that as a context for my life eremitism of some sort was truly fruitful in these terms and would lead me to contribute to the life of others and to that of the Church more generally.

Within this context then several things happened. Among them, I embraced a contemplative prayer life marked out by monastic regularity and liturgy, I undertook the lifelong work of regular spiritual direction in a focused way which led to my own increasing and essential wellness in spite of disability, I began to understand the importance of a vocation to be ill within the Church as potentially a way of proclaiming the Gospel of God (whose power is made perfect in weakness!) with a special vividness. This meant that I had begun to see my life and prayer as an important opportunity to make God manifest to others where in the past I would not have seen disability as anything other than an obstacle to a life of such significance.  In time I began to consider and write about Chronic illness as vocation and, for some relative few, as a potential call to eremitical life. Additionally then, I began to understand the main focus of my prayer as being there for God's own sake; solitude took on a distinctly communal hue, the silence of solitude assumed a more Eastern and Desert Elders cast of quies or hesychasm, while ministry to others seemed the natural expression of the compassion empowered by the silence of solitude. Thus, over time I also came to understand the terms of canon 603 radically differently than I had in 1983. All of this growth and integration was spurred by reflection on the eremitical life outlined in Canon 603 and expanded on in other texts.

Throughout these years (@1983-1995+) then, my life shifted from being mainly about myself and my own disability along with the lost opportunities or potential associated with disability and grew in this new perspective. The focus on the illness, and all it brought in its wake had been necessary for a time but now it needed to become more of a subtext in my life -- even as it continued to bring a degree of pathos and gravitas to my life. That is the shift that occurred during this period.) It became very clear that whether I eventually lived my life as a lay hermit or continued pursuing perpetual profession as a diocesan hermit,  eremitism was truly the vocational path which made my own life fruitful and other-centered. Thus, I continued to reflect on and research canon 603; I did so within a Camaldolese context now because I understood the threefold good of the Camaldolese (community, solitude, outreach or evangelization) to be a dynamic expression of the very best that eremitical life could be, not only for hermits but for the whole Church and world-at-large as well.

In other words, eremitical life began to be not only the context of a life of essential wholeness and communion with God which embraced disability and transformed it into an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel with my life, but it was the vocational pathway which made essential wholeness as well as real generosity and concern for others possible. It drove my reading and my theology to some extent (though my theology, which centered on the cross in Paul and Mark, supported this vocational pathway at every point), and it challenged me physically and spiritually to become both more truly solitary (in an eremitical sense) and contemplative as well as more open to community. In short, it engaged me on every level in a constructive way; it made me more compassionate and capable of love, more genuinely dependent on the grace of God for the meaning and shape of my life, and, while it did not bring physical healing, it deprived illness of the power to define, fragment, and dominate my life and over time would even make a gift of disability and limitations. It is what allowed me to eventually write here:

[[In the power of the Spirit and from the perspective of the Kingdom --- it is all of a piece:  Mountaintop experiences and years in the desert; a power made perfect in weakness; a  bit of human brokenness and poverty made a gift to others by the whole-making grace of God; mute isolation  transfigured into the rich communion and communicative silence of solitude; a life redeemed and enriched by love. It is all of a piece ---  epilepsy and ecstasy. I am grateful to have learned that. In fact, I am grateful to have needed and been called to learn that!]] Ecstasy and Epilepsy: It is all of a Piece

When I look back at the main stages this journey required it involved (in a pretty simplified form) movement from 1) being a lone or isolated person who merely imagined what being a hermit might mean to 2) being a hermit as the Church herself understands the term, and finally to 3) being a hermit who lives the life in the name of the Church. Each stage was either preceded or accompanied by significant and entirely necessary theological preparation and spiritual formation. This process has taken 31 years so far and exploring the last stage, both in terms of communion with God and the ecclesial implications of the vocation as I continue to grow personally, will no doubt occupy the rest of my life. I am grateful to God for what (he) has done; God is indeed a master story teller who, from the perspective of absolute futurity, weaves amazingly coherent tapestries with the most inadequate and broken threads!

Transition to Diocesan Eremitical Life:

The last question you ask has to do with the last piece of transition, namely embracing canon 603 life in a way which allowed me to be concerned not only with my own vocation, but with the eremitical tradition itself and diocesan eremitical life as a piece of that living reality. I pursued canon 603 profession beginning in 1985 or so and continued doing so right through perpetual profession in 2007; this is a complicated story and there is no reason to detail it here or now. What is important is that until a few years prior to admission to perpetual profession in 2007 and the years immediately after that, I did not have a particularly strong sense that I was part of a living eremitical tradition, much less that I would have some (small but very real) place in handing on or nurturing that tradition.

Oblature with the Camaldolese certainly was important here but I found that with perpetual canonical profession one comes to know that one has been gifted with rights and obligations beyond baptism; this sense developed especially as people asked questions about the difference between private and public vows or between personal dedication to God and public consecration by God. The difference between validating one's isolation and allowing God to redeem it so that it is transfigured into eremitical solitude was another huge piece of my developing sense of the gift and obligation held in my own eremitical life. It also developed for me as I became more sure I not only understood canon 603 but embodied it in my own way.

Something similar happened with regard to the Camaldolese charism as I moved from understanding it intellectually to having the sense I was a living expression of it and the dynamic within the threefold good which is so characteristic of it. (My life in my parish during the past 8 years contributed greatly to this bit of internalization and integration; in fact it would be hard to overstate its importance here.) A final piece of all this, and one which is not yet solidified within me has to do with my own Franciscanism and where that actually fits. You see, St Francis lived as a hermit for a time and wrote a Rule for hermits which is pretty different from the monastic approaches to eremitical life. I have the sense that my own Franciscanism is stronger than I realized and I am freer to explore that now that I have not only understood but internalized the Camaldolese charism in a foundational way.

I don't know how this Franciscan piece of things will actually shake out but it is part of my own history and life which I am currently examining more closely; in one way or another it will be another piece of becoming responsible for the living tradition we call eremitical life in the Church. It seems to me this concern with the vitality of the tradition itself is really a normal culmination of the movement in my adult life. I moved from an active and largely other-centered life of ministry and preparation for ministry, to a life isolated by chronic illness and concerned with making sense of itself; from there my life shifted again to a solitary and contemplative one which, through the context of eremitical life, was empowered to be lived for God and others in the silence of solitude. Next my life shifted to one which consciously embraced and reflected the place of the Camaldolese charism in achieving this movement, and finally, it involved canonically and publicly embracing eremitical life more generally as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the entire Church and world. Many things mediated the grace of God and brought me to embrace eremitical life; it is this vital if rare and fragile tradition which has made a gift of my life. I am responsible for it both morally and legitimately (in law) --- a responsibility I accept with real joy and not a little awe.

Is this Typical of Diocesan Hermits?

To be honest I don't know if there is a "typical story" for diocesan hermits. I do know that a number of us contend with disability and chronic illness of various types and severity. I also know that none of those with whom I am acquainted believe it is enough to be chronically ill or disabled and isolated in the way this can bring about to conclude one has a vocation to eremitical life! Still, over time each of us discerned that eremitical life created the potential for significantly meaningful and fruitful lives when our illnesses militated against that. We each recognize that eremitical life allows us to live an authentic religious life which is not self-centered even while it requires signifcant physical solitude. Moreover my sense is that each of us has come to an essential wholeness and even holiness in which illness is deprived of its capacity to define and dominate our lives despite the symptoms that trouble us every single day. (This is one of the reasons I personally have very little tolerance for self-labeled "Catholic hermits" for whom eremitical life is little more than an opportunity to justify and wax endlessly about their own "God-willed" isolation and unrelenting physical problems.) Here as in everything in Christian life the truth is, "By their fruits ye shall know them!" --- that reflection of what God has done in one's life in the desert is, perhaps, the only really typical (and compelling!) piece of any genuine hermit's story!

I hope these answers are helpful. It is unlikely I will write about some parts of this again very soon. Still, if I have been unclear or raised additional questions, I hope you will get back to me with those.