02 August 2015

Witnessing to the God who Saves: On Eremitical Hiddenness and Interiority

[[Sister Laurel, when you write, "in every person's life God works silently in incredible hiddenness," I wonder. Is this what the followers of Francis de Sales mean by "interiority?" I spoke with [a Sister friend] a few months ago - and she asked me "How is that interiority coming?" I didn't know how to answer her, but I thought it might be something like this.]] (There were other questions included in this email about the distinction between being the gift and using gifts. Some reflected on the idea of merely being present to others and being gift in that way. I focus on those here as well.)
While it is true I am saying the hermit is a gift simply in being present to others, I am saying more than that as well because quite often (in fact, most of the time) a hermit is present to no one but God. Before you go out and do, before you are present to or for others in any way at all, and even if you never go out to others, I am saying that God is at work in you healing and sanctifying. That, as I understand it,  is the witness of the hermit life. That is its special gift or charism.  We say this with our lives; whether we ever speak to a living soul, pray for another person or not (though of course we will pray for others), whether we ever write another word, or paint another picture, or use our individual gifts in any way at all, we witness to the Gospel  and to the God who makes us whole and holy simply by being ourselves as redeemed.

Extending this to you and all others it means that should you (or they) never take another person shopping, never make another person smile, never use the gift you are in any way except to allow the God who is faithfulness itself to be faithful to you, THAT is the hiddenness and the gift I am mainly talking about. Yes, it involves the hiddenness of God at work in us but that is the very reason we are gift. We witness to the presence of God in the silence of solitude, in the darkness, in the depths of aloneness, etc. We do that by becoming whole, by becoming loving (something that requires an Other to love us and call us to love), by not going off the rails in solitude and by not becoming narcissists or unbalanced cynics merely turned in on self and dissipated in distraction. We do it by relating to God, by allowing God to be God.

Cultivating this sense of God at work in us, emptying ourselves (or being stripped by circumstances and learning to see this as an incredible gift) so that we only witness to God, allowing ourselves to let go of anything but God as the source and validation of our lives is, I think at least, the heart of cultivating a sense of interiority. Interiority itself is our life of Communion with the God who is the creator, source, and ground of that same life. It’s focus is God and includes his redemption of us, his healing, sanctification, and intimacy. When I wrote here before about developing a spirituality of discernment I was also writing about cultivating interiority. That is why resisting discernment while speaking constantly about “discerning” is actually a resistance to the development of interiority; if one cannot deal with one's feelings and all that is going on within them, then neither can one claim to be a discerning person with a healthy interiority.  If and to the extent one does not see the whole of reality from the perspective of the light and life of God, then to that extent one has not developed a genuine interiority. (I will have to ask my pastor about St Francis de Sales' own take on interiority! I simply don't know Francis well enough.) 

Most of us witness to all of this by using our gifts. Hermits (and especially recluses) do it by flourishing in an environment which really does say God alone is enough. In this environment the gifts we have possessed from birth and for whose development we have often spent time, money and effort in education and training may well be largely irrelevant. When I speak of us being the gift I mean that the hermit's very life and capacity for love says God is real, faithful, and an intimate, integral, and even inalienable part of our deepest reality. My eremitical life is not about me, my intelligence, my persistence (and stubbornness!), my creativity (or lack thereof), my musicality, or any other specific talents which may also be present. It is about God as source and ground, God as faithful lover, friend and sovereign, God as redeemer who will never let go of us but instead transfigures us so we truly image God. That is what makes my life a gift --- even, and maybe especially, when I do not touch anyone directly, even when I reject the role of "prayer warrior" (which seems to me to emphasize a kind of worldly perspective on the primacy of doing over being), even when chronic illness allows for no ministry at all but only my own hungry and even desperate openness to God in weakness and incapacity.

The church that professed and consecrated me under a new and largely unprecedented canon witnesses to this truth. The existence of canon 603 itself witnesses to this eremitical truth and describes the gift it represents under the heading “the silence of solitude”.  My bishop and delegate witness to this by coming to know me and the way God has worked in my life, as well as by professing me and continuing to allow me to live this life in the name of the Church. This witness to the providence of God at work in the silence of solitude is why canonical standing and the relationships established there in law are so vital. The church continues to esteem eremitical life as a pure, even starkly contemplative instance of the abundant sufficiency of God. God is the gift this life witnesses to precisely as it turns its back on --- or is stripped of --- every gift it otherwise ‘possesses’.  And of course, this is also why c 603 must not be misused or abused as a stopgap solution for those with no true eremitical vocation. To do so is, for instance, to risk honoring selfishness and spiritual mediocrity ("lukewarmness") or institutionalizing cowardice and misanthropy. The eremitical life is a generous one of giving oneself to God for the sake of others. But it is also rare to be graced or called to witness in this particular form of stripping and emptiness (kenosis).

As I noted here recently, I once thought contemplative life and especially eremitic life was a waste and incredibly selfish. For those authentic hermits the Church professes and consecrates, and for those authentic lay hermits who live in a hiddenness only God can and does make sense of, the very thing that made this life look selfish to me is its gift or charism. It is the solitude of the hermit's life, the absence of others, and even her inability to minister actively to others or use her gifts which God transforms into an ultimate gift. Of course, in coming to understand this, it is terribly important that we see the "I" of the hermit as the "We" symbolized by the term "the silence of solitude". It is equally important that we never profess anyone who does not thrive as a human being in this very specific environment. In other words, my life, I think, is meant to witness starkly and exclusively to the God who makes of an entirely impoverished "me" a sacramental "We" when I could do nothing at all but allow this to be done in me.