28 July 2015

More on the Hiddenness of the Hermit Vocation

[[Hi Sister Laurel, thank you for telling your story from the perspective of using gifts vs being the gift. Two things surprised me a little. The first was the idea that the hiddenness of the eremitical life has to do mainly with the work God is doing within the hermit. This really is the vocation of the hermit and where else can it happen but in hiddenness? The second was that in letting go of a concern to use the gifts God has given us and instead focusing on the gift God makes of us we are involved in what the Gospel calls "dying to self"! I had never thought about it that way but this is the sense it made to me. The motto, "Let go and let God" fits here doesn't it?]]

The Hiddenness of the Hermit Vocation:

Thanks for writing. You got it exactly right with regard to the hiddenness of the eremitical life!  I especially liked your rhetorical question, ". . . where else can it happen but in hiddenness?" Most of the time when hermits speak about the hiddenness of their lives they speak about people not knowing they are hermits or doing things anonymously. Others speak of not wearing habits, not using titles or post-nomial initials and the like lest the hiddenness of the vocation be betrayed. I have written several times now about the tension between the hiddenness of the vocation and its public character --- its call to witness to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church in this way of life. All of these have some greater or lesser degree of validity but I think that when we recognize that eremitical life is about letting God do God's own silent and solitary work in the hiddenness of the human heart we have put our finger on the heart of the matter of eremitical hiddenness.

It seems to me that in every person's life God works silently in incredible hiddenness. The hermit commits her entire life to allowing this and witnessing to it. The very fact that she retires to a hermitage witnesses to her commitment to and faith in this hidden work of God. The fact that she embraces a life of the silence of solitude is a commitment that witnesses to it. Those of us who wear habits, use titles and post-nomial initials that prompt people to ask about our lives are a commitment and (paradoxically) witness to this incredible hiddenness. It is always striking to me that when people learn I am a hermit they tend to be completely off-footed. I noted that recently I played violin for a funeral held in our parish and that this was well-received. People understood this use of gifts and they wondered what I did here at the parish; they expected that I taught, perhaps music, or that I was a liturgist or any number of other things but they looked a bit stunned when they heard I was a hermit and rarely played violin this way. No one actually said, "Oh what a waste," of course; surprise and maybe puzzlement was what was generally expressed. I am hoping folks realized that the violin expressed and reflected what happens to my own heart in the ordinary silence and solitude of my hermitage.

In any case, the gifts we occasionally use and those we relinquish in the name of our lives as hermits witness to the essential hiddenness of those lives and of the God powerfully at work there. We know that God works this way in every person's life but it seems to  me that relatively few people actually commit to revealing this by embracing an essential hiddenness. Cloistered nuns and monks do so, hermits do so; it is a witness our world needs --- and one that throws folks off-balance when they meet it face to face. The Kingdom of God comes in this way. It grows silently in the darkness and night when we can do nothing but trust in the One who is its source. It bursts forth when we have reached the limits of our own patience, when we have finally relinquished any pretense of control or even understanding. It comes in victory at the same time we admit defeat and steals upon us -- gently silencing the prayer that storms heaven so that heaven can simply sing within us.

 Prayer is certainly the hermit's main ministry but only if it is genuinely the work she allows God to do in, with, and through her, the work which allows her to set her own concerns, frailties, strengths, and even her talents and gifts aside so to speak so that the hidden work and presence of God may flourish within her. I have written before that it is the hermit's very vocation to become God's own prayer in our world; in fact, that is really the fundamental vocation of every person because it is the thing which characterizes authentic humanity. Hermits, it seems to me, undertake this with a special dedication in a way which is largely stripped of the activities and ministries which, while usually revelatory, may actually distract attention from that foundational presence at work in the solitary silence of every human heart. See also, Essential Hiddenness: A Call to extraordinary ordinariness for a post on the universality of this call.

God-given gifts and Dying to Self:

Ordinarily we speak of dying to self in terms of using our gifts generously and selflessly. This is an entirely valid and critical piece of what dying to self really means. However, I think the idea of letting go of significant gifts God has given us so that who we are ourselves, that is, so that we are who God makes us to be most fundamentally, is the real witness of our lives; it is a special and even more radical kind of dying to self peculiar to the eremitical life --- though we find suggestions of it in old age, chronic illness, etc. This really is a new insight for me --- one, that is, I have only just begun thinking consciously about in connection with the idea that the hermit's life is an essentially hidden one. It is a paradox because at the same time we let go of those gifts we become freer to use them without pressure or self-consciousness should appropriate opportunities arise. Even so, we are not our gifts, not most fundamentally, nor is our life ultimately about a struggle to protect or even to use those gifts.  And when we are deprived of those gifts or of the ability to use them by illness or other life circumstances the deepest or foundational meaning and mystery of our lives can become clear. This too is a form of dying to self --- perhaps the most radical form short of the physical death of red martyrdom.

I think hermits have known this right along.  It is what allows them to use the term "white martyrdom" for their lives. I have written here that I once thought of contemplatives and hermits as selfish rather than selfless. Back then I was thinking of the multitude of wasted gifts and of some sort of failure to honor them but I was not thinking of a life which explicitly honored the giver of all gifts in a more transparent way or was a naked expression of (dependence on) that giver and the redemption he occasions in us. At the same time I was very young; I had not really faced a situation where my own God-given gifts were either unusable or where, in my brokenness, emptiness, and incapacity, I knew more fully and clearly my own need for radical redemption --- much less had I come to actually know that redemption.

Only as I came face to face with these and the immense question "WHY?!" that drove me did I begin to sense that eremitical life could "make sense of the whole of my life." My sense of this, however, was still inchoate; it was as unformed as my own eremitical identity for I was not, in any sense of the term, a hermit. In time, and especially in the silence of solitude, God did with my life what the Gospel promises and proclaims. He loved me into wholeness and continues to do so. That hidden, unceasing, and unconquerable redemptive Love-in-act is what my vocation witnesses to. Hermits have seen right along that their witness is more fundamental and radical than even the use of God-given gifts for the sake of others can make clear.

One of the reasons the hermit life will always be rare is because we need people who use their God-given gifts in the multitude of ways which enrich our lives every day. In no way am I suggesting that such gifts are unimportant or, generally speaking, should not be used in assisting in the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is the usual way we cooperate with God and reveal God's life to others.

But at the same time there will always be a few of us who have come to a place where chronic illness (or whatever else!) made this impossible; and yet, through a Divine mercy and wisdom we can hardly believe, much less describe, we have been redeemed and become gifts more precious than any or all of the individual talents we once carefully developed and shepherded. Through a more radical and counter-cultural kenosis (self-emptying), in the hiddenness of a life more fundamentally about being made gift than about using our talents, hermits are called to witness to the inexhaustible, transcendent, and redemptive reality dwelling in the very core of our being -- the infinitely loving source and ground of our lives. Those redeemed and transfigured lives say, "God alone is enough!" With St Paul (who himself was stripped and emptied by life's circumstances and who spent time in the desert learning to see the new kind of sense his life held in light of the crucified Christ), we proclaim in the starkest way we can, "I, yet not I but Christ within me!"