08 December 2014

Hermit Life as Prophetic

[[Hi Sister O'Neal, given that Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter does not even mention canonical hermits and exhorts religious to think of the distinctive characteristic of religious life as prophecy, how does this fit in with your own vocation? I admit I have a very hard time thinking of hermit life as prophetic! It seems selfish and very old-fashioned to me. Prophets always seemed more exciting and into a freshness and newness that challenged those they came to. But hermits sit in their cells and pray. How can that be considered prophetic?]]

This is truly a great set of questions! I am not sure I can do them justice, in fact, but I also look forward to trying. First, though Francis did not mention diocesan hermits explicitly, they are included in the category of consecrated persons to whom the letter is mainly directed. Also, Francis did speak specifically to contemplatives and made suggestions to them regarding ways they could be a prophetic presence in our world. Even so, I believe that my own vocation is profoundly prophetic and I have felt this way for at least the past 25 years or so, and most especially over the past 10 years or so. The key for me is that this vocation is a way of proclaiming the truth, challenge, and promise of the Gospel in and for a world which, at every point, stands for something else entirely.

For instance, my vocation says that we are never truly alone and that God is a constitutive part of our very being. (Consider what a complete absurdity the above picture symbolizing the life of the hermit would represent if neither part of this assertion were true!) We are dialogical events at our very heart and this means that our basic gift and task is our humanity. No matter what else goes on in our lives, no matter what other successes and failures touch or characterize us, this basic charism and challenge is still ours and always something we can, with the grace of God, fulfill. Isn't that the real success of Jesus on the Cross? Namely, that in the midst of abject failure and absolute degradation Jesus remained true to the dialogical reality he was, continued to depend totally on God to make his life (and his failure) meaningful, and remained wholly open to the power of Love-in-Act to transform the world --- even (or especially) the godless realms of sin and death which so condition it at every point. This is indeed a prophetic word our world needs to hear and it is one, I think, hermits can proclaim with their lives precisely because in most every way our world measures success, personal significance, or meaningfulness, the hermit fails to measure up.

Similarly then, the eremitical vocation therefore says that solitude is not the same as isolation. In a world characterized by isolation and, to a tremendous degree, the fear that life is essentially meaningless, especially when we find ourselves alone (Merton used to speak about the terror of boredom and futility), my vocation speaks directly to that and says, "Not so!" In a world where folks seem to feel like exiles and be in search of relationships which allow them to be loved and to feel as though they belong, the hermit reminds us that ultimately speaking, that is beyond any limit or conditioning element, God loves us, holds us to be infinitely precious, and transforms us into persons who CAN love others as well as ourselves. We say with our lives of eremitical solitude that belonging begins with this fundamental relationship and from there extends to family, Church, world at large, and even cosmos. Because we are at home with God and with ourselves, we know that we can be at and make our home anywhere; we can recognize and empathize with others who may feel or be alienated and call them brother or sister precisely because we are in communion with God. One of the reasons I stress the ecclesial nature of the consecrated eremitical vocation in the church is precisely because this stands in such stark and prophetic contrast to more worldly versions of eremitical life which are essentially individualistic and estranged.

Exile is a central category for understanding the eremitical life. In fact, hermits voluntarily embrace exile, a life of distinct alienness and marginality precisely so they can witness to the more profound belonging that characterizes every life in union with God. This dynamic of exile and more profound belonging seems to me to be quintessentially typical of the prophetic life. And of course this is important because life as we know it is a pilgrimage in which we are each exiles to greater and lesser degrees. Whether it is through experiences of acute or chronic illness, betrayal or bereavement, failures in work or studies, loss of friendships or any of the 1000's of things which set us apart from others every day of our lives including, sometimes, our prayer and yearning for God, we know deep down that we are not truly at home and that we are made for something else, something more, something which completes us and gives us (and the rest of creation) rest. Through her voluntary exile and all that characterizes it the hermit witnesses to this something more and to the completion and rest that is ours in God alone. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a prophetic word the world needs to hear.

At the foundation of all of this is the hermit's prayer and penance which she undertakes for God's own sake. God wills to be the answer to the question we are, the completion of a love which seeks fulfillment in another, the rest which comes of truly being heard --- and therefore, truly being precious to and part of God's very life. God seeks through us to transform and bring to completion the creation we are and in which we now live. He seeks to make of it a new creation where heaven and earth entirely interpenetrate one another; He seeks, in other words, to be all in all. If we are aware of the pain, isolation, desperate search for meaning, and struggle of those around us, we must also be aware that our God has revealed himself to us as Emmanuel, God-with-us, but is prevented from realizing this goal at every turn. While Christ was God's unique counterpart, God also seeks in each of us a counterpart to receive and return his love so that he might be Emmanuel more extensively. A hermit gives her life so that she might truly be there for God in at least this small way. She does so so in union with Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit so that one day, there will be a new heaven and new earth whose heart is life in communion-with-God. It seems to me this is and has always been the very essence of the prophet's work and commission.

By the way, your comments on prophets and the freshness, newness, and excitement of the prophet's life deserve some comment too but, unfortunately, I have to stop here. For now let me say that so long as God --- who is always new (God could not be eternal otherwise) --- is at the center of our lives, the freshness, newness and excitement you mentioned will be there too. While we might not commonly associate these words with contemplative lives of prayer and penance, this is the reason such persons are so essentially happy and sort of "unstoppable" if you know what I mean. Contemplative life and (I am bound to say) eremitical life in particular is an adventure --- no doubt about it! I suspect that people are in search of just such an adventure and, as I have already written in Always Beginners, the reason we almost compulsively seek the newest gadget, car, computer, smart phone, or become shopaholics and the like is because most often we have substituted the quest for the novel (Gk. nova, new in time) for that which is always qualitatively new in our lives (Gk. kainotes, kainos), namely a relationship with the creator God in whom all newness is rooted, a communion with that Love-in-Act who makes all things new. In this too hermits (and anyone who makes a vow or embraces the value of evangelical poverty) serve as a prophetic presence and speak a prophetic word to our world.

Please note that I have written about all of these things in the past so I am aware that much of this post is repetitive; I have simply not tended to link them to the word prophetic so, thank you (along with Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter) for providing the opportunity to do that.