29 August 2015

Questions on Prayer, Penance, Eremitism as Heroic and the Writing of One's Rule

[[Dear Sister, Given the fact that the full time "job" of a consecrated hermit is to offer prayer and penance on behalf of the Church and world, should the "plan of life" or "rule" of a consecrated hermit be that much more intense than that of your average devout lay person?

The history of eremitical life is full of ascetic feats. While one should not be masochistic about it, it seems to me that the hermit should push him or herself a far more than a devout lay person since a hermit does not have to put up with the daily mortifications that come with everyday life (i.e. Deadlines, commutes, super annoying work colleagues etc.) and they have the time to do extra in terms of prayer and penance. I think the hermit vocation should have a bit of heroism (so long as it doesn't turn into pride) in terms of the effort put forward. Otherwise, I think it could become a very self-indulgent life style (i.e. Stay quiet all day, say a couple prayers, meditate, do a little gardening or something...sounds nice...nothing wrong with it...but certainly not that big of a deal).

So my question is: when a hermit is developing his/her rule of life, what mortifications should he/she take into account? Should the hermit purposefully take on extra prayers and devotions on behalf of the Church and world? How does one discern this? Thank you. ]]

Offering prayers vs Being God's own Prayer:

Thanks for writing again. The first thing I need to say is that I personally would tend not to say the hermit is mainly meant to offer prayers on behalf of the world (though she will do this), much less penance, so much as she is called to embrace a life of prayer and penance on behalf of the world. The first is about doing things (and prayer and penance are necessary things). The second, however, is more primarily about being; specifically, it is about being someone  at once ordinary and extraordinary who is God's own prayer in our world. Hermits are more about who God makes them to be than they are persons who define themselves in terms of what they do. While we can't entirely separate these two dimensions of our lives, we do have to settle on whether we define a hermit in terms of who she is or in terms of the tools that help God achieve this in and with her.

I choose the former. This doesn't mean hermits do nothing or are called to do nothing at all, of course --- far from it! But at the end of the day I succeed or fail in this life only in terms of who I am as a result and in light of the love and mercy of God. Prayer and penance are at the heart of becoming this person but the real task of the hermit is to truly BE a person whose only salvation, whose life's only justification is God.  I am convinced that a lot of the talk of the hermit offering prayers, etc comes from either a world that esteems doing over being --- often as a distraction from the deeper questions of our identity, or from the hermit's own inability to state a deeper rational for his/her life. As I have also said to you, the Rules I see from "beginners" or those seeking to become diocesan hermits most often err on the side of cramming the horarium full of more and more prayers, etc. It seems to me these folks see praying as a matter of something they do rather than someone they are because God is allowed to work freely in them.

This doesn't mean intercessory prayer is not part of the hermit's life (As I note below it is a natural part of my own life), but it does mean this is neither the reason for her life, nor is it always appropriately motivated. A third reason, and one I will also mention below, is guilt --- guilt at the leisure of the life, at its joy and peace, guilt one is actually called to this and has been granted the freedom to follow such a call in the name of the Church. (Your last sentence, by the way, seems to resonate with a sense that surely these things couldn't be the real justification for or central characteristics of eremitical life. I'll talk about that below because I think it is very important. If we don't understand this then we don't understand eremitical life itself.)

On Comparisons and Competition:

The second thing I would say right off the top is we ought to be VERY careful of falling into the trap of comparing eremitical life with the life most folks live every day. There is no life without its mortifications and no vocation that is not called to exhaustive holiness. We need to be careful not to fall into a subtle kind of elitism here and especially not into a  (worldly) mindset which compels us to be doing things simply because we have the time to do them or (a common but hidden and often subconscious reason) because we now feel guilty we have a kind of holy leisure others do not!

It is not helpful to speak in terms of pushing oneself more than "a devout lay person" does. There are at least two reasons. First, while this life demands one's best efforts, it is not about pushing oneself to do extra feats of piety or asceticism. It is about responding fully to God's call to be loved by God and discerning the ways necessary for doing this. This takes effort, yes, but it also takes a kind of sacred leisure and a submission that is just the opposite of pushing. Secondly, neither you nor I knows what the life of this supposed "devout lay person" consists of really. Nor do we know to what God calls them or how. More often than not I am impressed with the degree of silence, solitude, prayer, penance, service, charity, Scripture reading (lectio), etc., is integral to the lives of many of the people I pray with regularly. Often it seems far more "intense" than my own life. We simply cannot judge in this way and we certainly ought not compete. Perhaps one of the real mortifications for the hermit is the recognition that in many ways, though our lives are not "cushy" (to quote Sister Victoria, OSCO), they are more ordered, qualitatively full, relaxed and leisurely than the lives of so many. But then, perhaps that is another of the things we are meant to witness to the importance of --- especially in a world so overburdened with doing at the expense of being and so incapable of genuine leisure, solitude, or silence!

Hermiting as an Heroic Vocation:

The third thing I should say is that the notion of "hermit as hero" (or eremitical life as heroic)  turns me off completely. I once read somewhere that the eremitical life is heroic (I don't remember now if it was Thomas Merton, Jean LeClercq,  Cornelius Wencel, Peter Damian, Paul Giustiniani, or just who it was who said it). I think in my early years and first attempts to write a Rule (which I guess rules Wencel out as a possible source) I may even have written the same thing. It embarrasses me today that I did that because I am now more attuned to the ways "the world" creeps into eremitical life in the heart of the hermit. It is true that we can speak of eremitical life as one of undeniable virtue, discipline, and faithfulness. One hopes that every hermit will become the whole and holy human being God calls him/her to be. That takes significant faithfulness and obedience.

If you choose to call the normal disciplines and daily faithfulnesses of an eremitical life which is truly obedient (open, attentive, and responsive) to God either inadequate or "heroic" you need to ask yourself why you find it important or necessary to do so. I remember the reasons I did the latter and they were pretty self-centered and otherwise disedifying. Now I am much more aware that the mom who gets up every day to take care of her family despite frequent migraines, or the adolescent who goes to school and studies every day despite living in a neighborhood that militates against these things in every way, seem no less heroic to me than the hermit who is faithful to her Rule.

Again, we are called and do our best to allow God to do with and in us what only God can do, no more, but certainly no less. If that is "heroic" then so be it. But more often than not, it seems to me the use of the term "heroic" in regard to this life is a way of buying into a destructive tendency to compare oneself or one's vocations with others or a way of justifying our lives to people who really might not understand or accept this vocation otherwise.

(Personally, I seriously wonder if it is ever possible to say our own vocations or lives are "heroic". The very use of the word in this way seems to imply pride (or a justification of failure and bolstering of deep insecurity). I think it is also quite often a way of justifying a vocation one may consider (or at least fear deep down is) unjustifiable otherwise, and of course, it is a way of pointing to self and the things hermits do rather than to the persons they are called to be by the power of God. After all God has called me to this and fits me for it, just as God does with every vocation he gifts us with. There is nothing heroic in becoming the persons God calls us to be with the grace (the powerful presence) of God --- and yet, in our sin and brokenness, that is often the most heroic thing of all --- whatever the vocational path involved.)

Authentic vs Inauthentic Eremitical Life:

You wrote: [[ Otherwise, I think it could become a very self-indulgent life style (i.e. Stay quiet all day, say a couple prayers, meditate, do a little gardening or something...sounds nice...nothing wrong with it...but certainly not that big of a deal)]]

I will talk about other aspects of this sentence again in another post (especially the "stay quiet all day, meditate. . ." piece of things), if you don't mind, but for now, the truth is that in some ways, many ways in fact, eremitical life is no big deal at all. We live our lives so that, as Thomas Merton once wrote, people can be reassured of certain truths about human nature and the grace of God. That is one of the truest, simplest, and most significant things Merton ever said about the eremitical life. In this observation Merton has captured the heart of eremitical life and especially in what its unique witness consists. I have either said or implied this here any number of ways: God loves with an everlasting love, we are truly human only when we allow God to be God in and through us, our freedom is the counterpart of the sovereignty of God, most fundamentally we ARE a covenant with God, our hearts ARE the places where God bears witness to Godself, we are called to be transparent to the power and presence (love) of God, the silence of solitude is about communion with God, etc. The notion that God raises us to humility is linked to this observation of Merton as well.

All a hermit can do with her life is witness to the essential truth that we are made for God, are incomplete without God, and are redeemed and transfigured by God's unfailing love. Doing so is what every person is called to but only the hermit does so in the silence of solitude; only for the hermit is this the single lesson or unique witness of her life. After all, the hermit really has no significant apostolic ministry to fall back on in this regard. Again, I think that while prayer periods and penance are essential to the life witnessing in this way, the hermit has to be particularly careful not to make these somehow extraordinary in the sense of making them especially onerous, especially uncomfortable, especially numerous, especially intense, etc. In today's world faithfulness and lifetime commitments are becoming extraordinary things. As tame and "ordinary" as this might sound when measured against the muscular asceticism of hermits throughout the ages, a lifetime of faithfulness to God in the giving of self over to God's love and purposes for the sake of others is, of itself, extraordinarily demanding.

Karen Fredette has described eremitical life as doing something ordinary with an extraordinary motivation. I have written similarly about the essential hiddenness of the vocation as a call to extraordinary ordinariness. (Cf., Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness) One of the things a hermit needs to come to terms with is the utter ordinariness of the life. The paradox is, when such a life is lived in, from, for and through God's love/self, everything about it is extraordinary. But that requires this be an authentic eremitical life where everything the hermit is and does is meant to reveal God. (After all, that's the real meaning of glorifying God.) You are entirely correct that the life is not a self-indulgent one, but not because one has substituted an arbitrary penitential practice or series of mortifications. It is not self-indulgent because one REALLY, not just nominally, lives from and for the truth that God alone is enough.

(By the way, it has often seemed to me that some lives given over to the approach which is about piling on prayers, adding "heroic" or onerous mortifications, etc are far less about truly giving themselves over to God than many folks who only say prayers "a couple of times a day"! That is because such lives are often still mainly focused on self and what more one can do, omit, sacrifice, suffer, and so forth than they are about what God is seeking from and for them. Such a life may be as inauthentic an eremitical life as that being lived by someone watching 10-12 hours of TV everyday or never praying at all!)

Approaching the Question of Prayer and Penance: 

It seems to me that in writing a Rule one has to ask themselves "what are the ways God has most powerfully and regularly spoken to or worked in my life?" The corollary here is, "What tools, or forms of penance have most assisted me in giving my entire self over to God's love?" The second corollary is, "What ways am I most unable to hearken to or in what ways am I resistant to being wholly available to God's love?" (For those who who pray  this, one asks a similar question during an examen of consciousness, for instance: "How well have I lived this part of my day and what can I do to improve that?") When one writes down the main ways God speaks one will have a pretty good sense of what prayer forms are to be included in one's Rule or Plan of Life. The first corollary gives one the primary forms of penance which are important in supporting one's life of prayer. For the hermit these may include poverty, silence (which is a good deal more than simply "staying quiet all day"!), solitude, loneliness, fasting (all kinds), a regular life, journaling, writing, study, chores, regular exercise, and so forth.

The second corollary is a way of determining what further forms of mortification are really necessary. For instance, one might like to stay up reading and then be wiped out the next day; one is thus less attentive to the various ways God comes to one that day. Leaving the kitchen a mess before one goes to bed or otherwise frequently leaving regular chores undone means being unable to enter into a new day (or part of one's day) with the freedom and freshness necessary. Being irritable or grumpy closes one off to God in several different ways. One might resist turning off one's computer or limiting the time when one can answer phone calls or emails, or insisting on the wisdom of multitasking and eating on the run or any number of other things which are SOP in our world today. In most lives these things might be okay (though I would argue against all of them) but they would seriously detract from the hermit's life.

One would therefore add some form of penance (really, some form of discipline or order) in these instances which is tailored to deal with the problem. These are minor examples, of course, but the basic truth is that penance is whatever is necessary to assist or regularize one's prayer life. It involves whatever kinds of things are part of giving one's entire self and one's entire abode over to God. There is nothing heroic about making sure the house is tidy and relatively clean before you sing Compline and go to bed, nothing heroic about getting enough rest or eating a simple but nourishing diet, and nothing heroic or even very extraordinary about journaling to work through one's bad mood or limiting one's access to computer and phones; but the commitment to these are significantly challenging for many people --- and perhaps for some hermits, especially day in and day out!

As I understand asceticism then, the kinds of things we build in as penitential need to be the kinds of sacrifices which should be organic to our lives, that is, the kinds of things which are not arbitrarily imposed and which open us to the presence of God or prevent us from being closed off from or too busy, tired, satiated, or distracted to be attentive and open to God in the normal course of our days. I think if you begin to pay attention in this way you will find the "mortifications" which are an organic outgrowth of your life will be plenty demanding! That is especially true given the stricter separation, silence, solitude, and poverty which are integral to the eremitical life already. The life itself is penitential. Moreover, these normal sacrifices will represent a true witness to the kinds of relevant sacrifices every person is called to make in order to put God at the center of our lives.

Your Questions:

Do hermits take on extra prayers and penances on behalf of the world? Should we? How do we discern this?

It seems to me your questions are different from all the comments that prepared the way for them. Divorced from that context they are straightforward. Do hermits pray on behalf of the world around us? Absolutely. We pray all the time for others, for the state of the world, for persons who come to us with requests and concerns, for God's plans and purposes, for the Kingdom which is gradually coming to be a more extensive and pervasive presence, for family and friends and enemies and strangers.

I am not sure what it means to say "extra" prayers though. My experience is these prayers are simply a natural part of a life of prayer, a natural part of concerning oneself with the life and concerns of God, a natural part of hearing the anguished cries and the deep yearnings of the world God loves so profoundly. If I watch the news I am praying, if I read the newspaper I pray for the people and situations that enter my life in this way; if I travel on a train I try to pray for those traveling with me or those standing on platforms. If you mean are these written into my Rule, they are not. While I don't consider them to be "extra" neither are they "mandatory" in the sense of being "binding in law"; they are instead, a natural and necessary expression of love of God and of those precious to God.

Do hermits do penance on behalf of the world around us? I am sure some do. I do not except in the sense that my life is one of assiduous prayer and penance and that entire life is lived for others. But note well, it is the life I live which is for others, not the discrete penances I undertake. The concept of doing penance on behalf of others does not make sense to me personally except in this indirect sense. The only discussions I have heard which treat of doing penances directly for others sees penance as reparative (offered in reparation) and I simply do not understand the place of reparative actions in light of the achievements of Christ. I can certainly see the point of contributing acts of generosity to our world but beyond that adding acts of penance besides those needed to be truly open to the presence of God in my life or truly compassionate for others makes no sense to me. I believe I have answered the question of discernment in the section above. If this is not clear or raises more questions, please get back to me.