22 March 2015

What do you Like Best About Eremitical Life?

 [[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered if you could explain what you like best about the eremitical life? Since you don't do a lot of active minis-try that would provide variety, I am assuming that is not a favorite part, so what is? Maybe this is not the best way to ask the question. I guess I am really wondering what part of your life is most enriching or what part you look forward to every day especially if every day is the same because of your schedule. I hope you can understand what I am asking here. Thank you.]]

Now that is a challenging question! It is not challenging because I don't know what I look forward to each day or really like, but because there is no one thing I like best. I guess saying that out loud gives me the key to answering your question then.  What I like best about eremitical life is the way I can relate to God and grow in, with, and through him in this vocation. This is also a way of saying I like the way this vocation allows me to serve the Church and world despite or even through the limitations I also experience. Each of the elements of my life helps in this and some days I like one thing more than another but still, that is because each one contributes to my encounter with God --- usually in the depths of my own heart --- in different ways, to different degrees, on different days.

So, on most days I love the silence and solitude and especially I love quiet prayer periods or more spontaneous times of contemplative prayer which intensify these and transform them into the silence of solitude --- where I simply rest in God's presence or, in the image I have used most recently, rest in God's gaze. It is here that I come to know myself as God knows me and thus am allowed to transcend the world's categories, questions, or judgments. Sometimes these periods are like the one prayer experience I have described here in the past. But whether or not this is true, these periods are ordinarily surprising, or at least never the same; they are transformative and re-creative even when it takes reflective time to realize that this has been happening.

Another thing that I do each day which is usually something I really love is Scripture, whether I do that as part of lectio or as a resource for study or writing. Engagement with Scripture is one of the "wildest rides" I can point to in my life. It is demanding, challenging, and often exhilarating. Sometimes it doesn't speak to me in any immediately dramatic way. But it works on my heart like water on something relatively impervious --- gradually, insistently, and inevitably. Other times, for instance when reading Jesus' parables or other's stories about Jesus, or even the theological reflection of John and Paul, I have the sense that I am being touched by a "living word" and brought into a different world or Kingdom in this way. It always draws me in more deeply and even when I have heard a story or passage thousands of times before something speaks to me on some level in a new way, leads to a new way of understanding reality, or shows me something I had never seen before.

A third piece of this life I love and look forward to is the writing I do. Some of this is specifically theological and there is no doubt that my grappling with Scripture is important for driving at least some of my writing. Whether the writing is the journaling I do for personal growth work, the blogging I do which, in its better moments is an exploration of canon 603 and its importance, a reflection on Scriptures I have been spending time with, or the pieces which can be labeled "spirituality," they tend to be articulations of what happens in prayer and in my own engagement with Christ. One topic I spend time on, of course, is reflection on the place of eremitical life under canon 603 in the life of the Church herself. Since I am especially interested in the possibility of treating chronic illness as a vocation to proclaim with one's life the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a special vividness, and since I have come to understand eremitical solitude as a communal or dialogical reality which is especially suited to the transfiguration of the isolation associated with chronic illness, etc, I write a lot about canon 603 and the solitary eremitical vocation.

A second area of theology I return to again and again is the theology of the Cross. I remember that when I first met with Archbishop (then Bishop) Allen Vigneron he asked me a conversation-starter kind of question about my favorite saint. I spoke about Saint Paul (wondering if perhaps I shouldn't have chosen someone who was not also an Apostle --- someone like St Benedict or St Romuald or St John of the Cross) and began to talk about his theology of the cross.  I explained that if I could spend the rest of my life trying to or coming to understand his theology of the cross I would be a happy camper. (I have always wondered what Archbishop Vigneron made of this unexpected answer!)

I saw incredible paradoxes and amazing beauty in the symmetries of the cross and I still discover dimensions I had not seen. Most recently one of these was the honor/shame dialectic and the paradox of the glory of God revealed in the deepest shame imaginable. I have written previously about God being found in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. This paradox is a deepening of that insight. The Cross is the Event which reveals the source even as it functions as the criterion of all the theology we have that is truly capable of redeeming people's lives. It is the ultimate source of the recent theology I did on humility as being lifted up to be seen as God sees us beyond any notions of worthiness or unworthiness. My life as a hermit allows me to stay focused on the cross in innumerable ways, not only intellectually (reading and thinking about this theology), but personally, spiritually, and emotionally. That is an incredible gift which the Church --- via the person of Archbishop Vigneron and the Diocese of Oakland --- has given me in professing and consecrating me as a diocesan hermit.

There are other things I love about eremitical life (not least the limited but still significant (meaningful) presence and ministry in my parish it makes possible or my spiritual direction ministry); these are also related in one way and another to the person I am in light of living contemplatively within the Divine dialogue I know as the silence of solitude. One of the things which is especially important to me is the freedom I have to live my life as I discern God wills.

Whether I am sick or well, able to keep strictly to a schedule or not, I have the sense that I live this life by the grace of God and that God is present with me in all of the day's moments and moods. It doesn't matter so much if writing goes well or ill, if prayer seems profound or not, if the day is tedious or exciting, all of it is inspired, all of it is what I am called to and I am not alone in it. This means that it is meaningful and even that it glorifies God. I try to live it well, of course, and I both fail and succeed in that, but I suppose what I love best is that it is indeed what I am called to live in and through Christ. It is the way of life that allows me to most be myself in spite of the things that militate against that; moreover it is the thing which allows me to speak of my life in terms of a sense of mission.  The difficulty in pointing to any one thing I most like about eremitical life is that, even if in the short term they cause difficulty, struggle, tedium, etc., all of the things that constitute it make me profoundly happy and at peace. I think God is genuinely praised and glorified when this is true.

I hope this gives you something of an answer to your question. I have kind of worked my way through to an actual answer --- from the individual pieces of the life that are most life giving to me to the reasons this life as a whole is something I love. One thing I hope I have managed to convey is that even when the schedule is the same day to day, the content is never really the same because at the heart of it is a relationship with the living and inexhaustible God. Your question focuses on the absence of variety and in some ways, the absence of novelty (neos). But really there is always newness rooted in the deeper newness (kainotes) of God.

Imagine plunging into the ocean at different points within a large circle. The surface looks the same from point to point but the world one enters in each dive is vastly different and differently compelling from place to place. So, following the same daily horarium, I sit in the same chair (or use the same prayer bench) to pray; I work at the same desk day in and day out. I open the same book of Scriptures and often read the same stories again and again or pray the same psalms, and so forth. I rise at the same hour each day, pray at the same times, eat the same meals at the same hours, wear the same habit and prayer garment, make the same gestures and generally do the same things day after day. There is variation when I am ill or need to leave the hermitage, but in the main it is a life of routine and sometimes even tedium. But the eremitical life is really about what happens below the surface as one opens oneself to God. It is the reason the classic admonition of the Desert Fathers, "Dwell (remain) in your cell and your cell will teach you everything" can be true, the only reason "custody of the cell" is such a high value in eremitical life or stability of place such a similarly high value in monasticism.