[[ Sister Laurel, are you saying it is unnecessary to use our gifts? Aren't hermits called to use their gifts? Also, how can one tell the difference between selfishness and the generous hiddenness of the hermit?]]
Thanks for your questions. I have been straining to speak of what is primary or most foundational in the hermit's life, what, above all, they witness to for the sake of others. To do this I have had to point to one dimension of the life --- although I think it is most basic, namely, that the hermit in her poverty and emptiness is called to live the relationship with God which is actually at the heart of every genuine act of ministry. Below all the gifts we are given to develop and use stands this relationship; it is, in fact, the very essence of what it means to be human. We ARE this relationship, this covenant with God, or we are simply not human. The hermit commits herself to a life of prayer, to the realization or perfection of this relationship. When we speak of human wholeness or holiness we are speaking of this fundamental covenantal relationship and its fullness and sufficiency in this person's life.
Of course we are called to use our gifts. I believe we will do that effectively to the extent this relationship with God is really the heart of our lives. Otherwise our "ministry" will be an expression of self-assertion instead of the mission of God. But there are few vocations in the Church which point to this truth in quite the same way as that of contemplatives and especially hermits and recluses. Our lives speak to the primacy of our relationship with God. They especially do that if we are made more fully human in the silence of solitude, if, in fact, we come to greater wholeness, greater capacity to love not only God but ourselves and others.
To sit in prayer is a gift of self to God and it is really something we do for the sake of others (first God, then all human beings). It means giving one's time, energy, attention, hopes, dreams, questions and desires to God so that God might have our lives as a dedicated place of personal presence. To sit in prayer extends the Kingdom of God in our world in ways which transcend our own small lives. It can mean foregoing more obvious gifts of self to others in order 1) to worship the God who deserves our entire attention, and 2) to at least raise the God/Meaning question in others' minds in a way which affirms we truly believe the inescapable love of God is the foundation of and impulse behind everything --- including every gift, ministry, and service we do for others. If we live our lives well then they may effectively invite others to entrust themselves to God similarly --- whatever the individual vocation.
On the Distinction Between Selfishness and Generous Hiddenness:
How do we tell the difference between selfishness and a hiddenness which is lived for others? One fundamental way is by the hermit's living of the Rule she has written and the Church has approved canonically. It is important to understand that a Rule is approved with the sincere expectation and hope that it will lead to the generous living of an authentically eremitical life under canon 603. Canonists look at proposed Rules with an eye to their canonical soundness but bishops look at a hermit's Rule for the sense that it is a sound expression of gospel life lived in the silence of solitude. It is a document that reflects a sense of the life defined in the canon as well as the individual hermit's own unique way of embodying that. Moreover, when a Rule is approved the hope it will serve in the anticipated way is often explicitly mentioned in the Bishop's formal document of approval. One of the reasons Rules are rewritten occasionally is to be sure they really serve the hermit in her authentic living of an eremitical life which truly honors the vocation (including the public rights and obligations) the Church has extended to this person.
A second sign of a hiddenness which is lived for others is that the silence of solitude really leads to a more generous, more loving person who is more fully alive and more truly a mediator of the presence of God than was the case in a different context. I think it is easy to find so-called hermits whose lives and language have a coating of piety but who, in general, are unhappy, misanthropic, unfulfilled, and selfish. It is not enough to persevere in fidelity to one's Rule if there is no joy, no more abundant life, no signs of genuine growth and increasing personal and spiritual maturity. Faithfulness to one's Rule is important, even foundational, but it must produce characteristic fruit in the hermit's life or it is much more likely we are dealing with a distorted and crippled individualism disguised as faithfulness and perseverance.
A third sign that we are not dealing with selfishness is the well-grounded conviction that this person is living this life so that they may witness to the God who meets our emptiness with his fullness.The life leading to this conviction has a number of faces, some more distinct than others, some less developed or explicit. In general though it has two aspects which are central to the hermit's lived commitment: 1) the sense that God can only be God in our world if we are obedient (open and responsive) to God's call; 2) the sense that we can only give what God empowers us to give which requires both prayer and penance (together these lead to an, emptying in preparation for, an opening to, and also a filling with the dynamic power of God). This lived commitment may include an experience of profound emptiness and stripping by the circumstances of life which God makes sense and use of --- not because God wills or "causes these circumstances", but because God transfigures them with his presence. This is certainly the message of the Cross with Jesus' descent into hell and subsequent bodily resurrection.
For the person of faith, suffering leads to obedience not because it breaks us down and makes us do the will of God rather than our own, but because it opens us to the profoundest weakness, incapacity, and emptiness and therefore, to the most fundamental and neuralgic questions of meaning. Suffering opens us to the "answer" we know as God. When we are empty and incomplete we can be open to being filled and completed by the One who bears witness to Himself within us. We cannot actually be open to being completed by God if we already know ourselves as complete, nor to the answer God is if we refuse to pose the question of our own existence in as radical a way as is possible. I see hermits, therefore, as people who pose the question(s) of God and meaning as radically as possible.
This also leads us to a sense that our very emptiness and the things which cause them open us to the greatest gift others need as well. We must come to know our own pain and need as a miniscule fraction of the pain and need of a suffering world and thus we know that our own consolation and redemption point to something the world needs. Our lives, redeemed and transfigured, empty perhaps of usable gifts, strength, worldly wisdom or expertise, and the opportunities to use these as apostolic religious do, reveal the God who freely completes and empowers us nonetheless --- if we will only entrust our lives to him.
The focus here, however, is God. If the hermit or hermit candidate focuses instead on her own suffering, her own pain and yearning for meaning, or if she begins instead to distract herself from these and thus from the God who reveals Godself in such circumstances, she has shifted from the authentic dynamic of the eremitical life and substituted an ungenerous self centeredness in its place. I should note that this is the primary reason essential healing and personal work needs to be done before one retires to solitude. It is also a central reason this vocation is recognized as a second-half-of-life vocation. One needs to have experienced the kinds of stripping and maturing that ordinarily occur in adulthood --- and especially in the demands of life with others --- to become open to God in the radical way eremitical life represents. One then needs to learn over time in solitude to truly turn to God, truly open to God in ways which allow his ever fuller indwelling and one's own transfiguration.
The fact is that there are some hermits whose lives do not immediately reflect one or the other of these aspects of the dynamic outlined. Some have not been stripped by the circumstances of life; generally, these hermits will open to God more slowly as the rigor of the life with its tedium and routine do as they are meant. But there are others who have been stripped of many things by the exigencies of life but, for instance, whose spirituality does not allow them to really open to the transfiguring presence of God. They may, for instance, resent and grieve the various forms of stripping and emptying life has required or occasioned but never commit to or undertake the work associated with healing these. When this is true such persons find it difficult indeed to open (or let God open them) to the even greater stripping and self-emptying involved in giving their whole selves over to God. In such situations the "hermitage" is a refuge from change and "the world out there" while in truth the hermit carries "the world" she is meant to separate herself from so deeply in her heart that genuine transfiguration becomes nearly impossible. Because of its pious veneer and the self-delusion at its core such a life can actually become an instance of the sin against the Holy Spirit rather than an authentic eremitical LIFE which is more and more wholly given over to that Spirit --- and thus lived for others.
A Postscript on the place of canonical standing in regard to your question:
To reiterate, the Church is responsible for publicly professing hermits who live lives of generous hiddenness, not lives of selfish indulgence and individualism. This is because truly generous eremitical lives serve God and others precisely in their profound emptinesses and stripping --- when God is allowed to meet these with his fullness. There is, for the hermit, no middle ground here I think. Either one commits to live for God and those precious to God by one's openness to being redeemed and transfigured or one fails to do so. For instance, there is little or no apostolic ministry to attenuate the starkness of the choice here. Nor does one retire from being a hermit whose entire life poses (and is given over to posing) this fundamental choice as radically as possible. Canonical standing not only attests to the authenticity of the vocation but the graced state (the consecrated state of life), the relationships (legitimate superiors, diocesan stability, etc), and the public accountability such standing both indicates and helps insure but it supports one in living this out exhaustively with and for the whole of one's life. Again, canonical standing in this matter serves love on a number of levels.