01 January 2015

Questions on the Relation of Committed Singleness to Diocesan Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that the New Year will be truly blessed. 

The other day I was having coffee with a friend of mine and I was speaking with him about the call to single life (as the Church envisions it). I know that this is my calling (whether it leads to a fully eremitic vocation has yet to be seen). In the course of our conversation he said that the single vocation is a tough one because unlike marriage, priesthood and even religious life; the call to single life is very hidden and often misunderstood. It inherently includes much solitude. 

After the conversation with my friend, I was wondering if the single life has as its base the eremitic life. Could it be that it is the eremitic ideal and its pillars that are the font of spirituality for the committed Catholic single? [After all] The single life (in a Catholic sense) involves active service but also a more contemplative life of prayer in worship of God and intercession for the Church and others. In addition, single life involves much solitude and a unique hiddenness not found in other vocations (even marriage). Even though I am busy at work; at the end of the day, when everyone goes home to their families, I'm on my own (I don't think this is a bad thing by the way).  This means that a large portion of my life is spent in solitude. This solitude is a blessing as it leaves me more time for prayer and lectio than my married counterparts (or even parish priests and active religious as many of their meetings take place in the evening).

Thus, I see a great convergence between the eremitic vocation and the Christian single vocation as many of its key pillars are plentifully present in how a committed single Catholic lives his/her life (prayer, lectio, solitude, hidenness etc.). In fact, due to the large amounts of solitude I think hermits and singles might even have more in common than even contemplative or cloistered religious as they usually live in community. I would welcome your insights on this. Do you think my thoughts are correct or do they demonstrate a misunderstanding of these two vocations? Also, what special insights do you think the eremitic life can give to committed people living the Catholic understanding of the single vocation. Should committed Catholic singles look to the hermit vocation for their sustenance and spiritual baseline or touchstone? Thank you again for your important presence on the Internet! :)

Thanks for writing again. I hope your own Christmastide is going well and that this year is a blessed one for you. I will answer your questions referring to committed singleness (sometimes just "singleness") throughout.  I am assuming in the rest of what I say here that "committed singleness" is unmarried lay life with a private dedication to celibacy (that is, a private commitment to remain unmarried) for  the sake of the Kingdom. If I do not think of it this way I have a very hard time thinking of it as a true vocation at all. (I will hold my doubts about this for another time I think.) When I speak of eremitical life here I will mainly be speaking of diocesan or other consecrated (canonical) eremitism unless I specify lay eremitism.

Regarding your specific suggestions and questions I think you have the relationship between the two realities backwards and are also generalizing too readily from your own experience. First of all eremitical life builds on single life, not the other way around; it presupposes singleness and both specifies and transforms that in a nuptial relationship with Christ. Secondly though, there is nothing that says a committed single person needs to live an essentially contemplative life nor that they need to have lots of solitude, much less that solitude needs to be a defining characteristic of their lives. (All people need some degree of physical solitude for spiritual health, but ordinarily one's life is not defined in these terms.) A committed single may well be something of a loner, but this is not essential to the life. Further, committed single persons are not simply living eremitical-life-lite nor is their spirituality necessarily a desert spirituality at all. Your own spirituality may be such a spirituality and you may actually be called to be a hermit, but that form of life is not typical of the majority of persons living singleness, committed or otherwise. In any case, even if your own life evolves into an eremitical one, it will have grown out of your singleness, not the other way around.

What you may be sensing is that there is a similar underlying (natural) foundation for both vocations (and for any other). As I have written elsewhere, [[Solitude is the most catholic of vocations, and a specifically eremitic vocation to solitude serves to remind us of its basic importance in the life of every person, not only as existential predicament,  but as Christian value, challenge, and call.  All of us struggle to maintain an appropriate tension between independence and committedness to others which is characteristic of truly human solitude.]] ("Eremitism: Call to the Chronically Ill and Disabled", Review For Religious, vol 48, num 2, March/April 1989) Most fundamentally we are each and every one of us, no matter our vocational path, a covenantal or dialogical relationship with God. It is not simply that we have such a relationship but more that we, to the extent we are truly human and truly individuals, ARE this relationship and are called more and more to be this relationship. This is a profound paradox. In the NT Paul expressed it this way, "I yet not I but Christ in me." We are most truly ourselves to the extent we are an intimate relationship with God and bear witness to God's presence in us. We are most truly ourselves (and most truly free) to the extent God is sovereign (theonomous) in us. (It is Baptism that restores the "theonomy" we each are and opens us more fully to this sovereignty. It consecrates or sets us apart for God and in God and thus frees us to be more truly ourselves.)

Out of this fundamental solitude with its dialectic of aloneness and community grow both cenobitism and eremitism. Because of human solitude's very nature, singleness, marriage, consecrated celibacy, consecrated virginity, ordained life, cloistered and ministerial religious life, secular life and life withdrawn in and for the silence of solitude, all have their roots therein. I think you are trying to get to this underlying foundation which grounds both the eremitical and the single vocation (no matter what form the latter takes). I would also suggest that all vocations are only more or less understood --- though some may be rarer and more misunderstood of course. The existence of stereotypes of marriage, singleness, hermit life, priesthood, religious life, (consecrated) virginity, etc all argue for the truth of this suggestion. In any case, being misunderstood is not an essential characteristic of any vocation itself.

But hiddenness is an essential characteristic of the eremitical life. This hiddenness is specifically tied to anachoresis, a purposeful and deliberate withdrawal from that which is contrary to God and the eyes of others so that one might live in communion with God. This anachoresis is not simply the quest for privacy or discretion though it also involves these. (I suspect privacy is really a more apt term for what your friend was trying to describe than "hiddenness" per se. Hiddenness is hardly an essential characteristic of singleness itself or of the commitment to remain unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom.) Neither is the anachoresis of eremitical life simply about being alone or remaining unmarried. Instead it is about being alone WITH God for the sake of others including for God's own sake. The hermit lives her life, therefore, in a way which witnesses to the truth that God alone is enough. She withdraws from much of the world (including much that is very good and of God) in order to explore a deeper dimension of the world which is often ignored and these days frequently explicitly denied and rejected. It is this positive dynamic which constitutes the cause of both eremitism's hiddenness and its tendency to be misunderstood.

At bottom eremitical life is rooted in, dedicated to, consecrated or set apart by and for God and God's purposes; it is defined by and responsible for witnessing to the hidden foundational relationship which is the ground of creation and the source of every human life in its poverty and in its greatness. This relationship is the sufficient reason for human life, the thing we strive to embody and share with others. It is the source of all creativity and generativity and, in fact, is the aim or telos of creation. Moreover, just as God is the ground, source, and absolute future of all reality, our participation in this foundational relationship relates us to all others as well and witnesses to this often-forgotten truth. It could be argued that this participation is really the entire work of the hermit, the whole purpose and essential ministry of her life and that it MUST occur in the hiddenness of solitude. After all, this is an essential part of the witness the hermit seeks to give. She grows to human fullness and comes to love more fully and authentically because of a relationship which is both hidden yet pervasive in all of creation. In this way she reveals to everyone the hidden and living mystery which is the foundation of their own lives and the source of the hope proclaiming the ultimate future of the entire creation.

Your observation that committed singles may have more in common with hermits than even cloistered Religious do because these Religious live in community leads to a couple of thoughts on the nature of eremitical solitude. As I have already noted, eremitical solitude is not merely about being alone but being alone with God for the sake of others. External or physical solitude is only the tip of a very big iceberg. It is important but exists for the sake of the deeper solitude of one's relationship with God. Many people live alone, many either do not have familes or no longer have spouses. Only a minority dedicate themselves entirely to the deeper solitude of one's relationship with God and fewer still to a desert spirituality. Cloistered religious live in community but community itself is lived in order to foster and nurture this deeper solitude. While communities may certainly differ, if you have ever spent time in a Camaldolese house or some Trappist houses you will know what I mean. In the Trappistine monastery I am familiar with, for instance, while there is a strong and joyful community there, each person maintains an essential silence which protects the foundational solitude each Sister is called to and from which genuine community grows. Work and Meals mainly occur in silence. Recreation is regular and scheduled. Community is not merely about living together any more than eremitical (or monastic) solitude is merely about being alone. Community is established for the sake of God and members' life in God just as Eremitism is.

Given this analysis I am suggesting that contemplative Religious who live in community may well have a good deal more in common with hermits than with those who simply live alone even if they are committed Christian singles. With contemplative religious who share a desert spirituality and the silence, solitude and penance that implies, a significant prayer life structured similarly to that of a hermit (or vice versa!), vows which incarnate and express the same values or counsels, and a commitment to community based on each person becoming their truest selves in communion with God (something a diocesan hermit is certainly committed to in her parish and ministry), we are describing lives whose every aspect will resonate with those of the hermit.  This would be much less true of committed Christians choosing to remain unmarried; generally they share relatively few of these characteristics. There are many entirely valid and meaningful ways to live a Christian life as a committed single. Living alone, even with a commitment to remain unmarried, is simply not enough to establish the kind of affinity or kinship you have suggested exists between such a person and a hermit. All of this is one of the reasons I write again and again that a hermit is not simply a lone pious person but is instead a desert dweller.

Finally, you asked if committed singles should look to hermits as their spiritual baseline or touchstone. I would say that generally the answer is no except to the extent the hermit reminds them of the foundational solitude and need for community which exists for every person. While hermits can also remind committed singles that their prayer lives can be both profound and versatile without demanding a community with whom one can pray Office,  this reminder to foundational (and dialogical or covenantal) solitude is the main thing hermits image for others. Most singles will be called to far greater levels of active ministry, greater degrees of direct community and an essential and meaningful secularity. Hermits will serve as an adequate paradigm for very few committed singles and for those they do I would recommend they become lay hermits in an explicit and conscious way. What is true is that every vocation reminds us of a particular aspect of what it means to be a committed Christian. Committed singles generally need to draw on the lessons of every vocation including marriage --- not least (though not only) because there is no overarching picture of what such a vocation looks like nor single description of its essential nature.

I hope this is helpful.