02 October 2015

Is Vocation Ever Coercive?

 [[Sister Laurel, do you think God wanted you to be chronically ill so that you would become a hermit?  I am asking because one blogger on the eremitical life wrote that without her chronic illness she might well be tempted to live as other than a hermit and God told her he didn't want that. Here is what she said, [[perhaps the hermit would be drawn out from its vocational calling as a consecrated Catholic hermit. The temptation would be great to do so. The Lord has told it in the witnessed presence of [name] that if the physical pain were eased, this soul would be back out into the world--and the Lord did not will that.]] Do you think God would refuse to heal you so that you can keep on living as a hermit? I also wondered how the Church would deal with someone who was so tempted to leave a vocation as a hermit that God had to inflict her with serious pain and illness to keep her in the hermitage! I mean that sounds kind of depraved to me.

In what kind of God do we believe?

My answer is an unequivocal NO! I think it is always important to ask ourselves what kind of God would operate in this way. If we leave the character of such a God merely implicit we may never see that we have suggested God is some kind of monster responsible for the sufferings and tragedies of our lives. I think it is clear that the author of the comments suffers from serious pain and that that means she struggles to make sense of the dislocation that has caused. But to attribute all of this to a God who wants her to be a hermit and knows she would consider returning to "the world" outside her hermitage, and thus actually causes her to have terrible physical pain to prevent that is simply awful theology in any number of ways. Catholic faith's theology of vocation is skewed in this presentation, as is a theology of discernment. The same is true of our concept of free will, authentic freedom, providence, and of course, any other bit of theology that depends on an eternally faithful, self-emptying, creative, merciful God who is love-in-act itself.

Still, the questions you asked are important and the problem of theodicy (a theology of suffering) is one with which theologians and every individual human being struggles. But no. I do not believe God willed me to develop a medically and surgically intractable seizure disorder accompanied by chronic pain. Never! No God worth worshiping would will such a situation. Illness is a symptom of sin, the state of estrangement from the ground of being and meaning. We are all more or less subject to it, more or less threatened by it, and in many ways assured that one day we will know it intimately. Sometimes we are complicit in the illnesses that befall us or those near us. In any case illness is an enemy of God. Sin and death are intimately related and death, we are told in Scripture, is the final enemy to be placed under God's feet. We simply cannot buy into theodicies that make God complicit in these realities.

The Place of Chronic Illness in my Own Life:

But what do I believe about the place of chronic illness and God's will in my life? Clearly I believe that God called me to this life and I believe that chronic illness is an important source of my understanding of this vocation; in fact, I would argue that I am suited to this vocation in a unique way because of chronic illness and other life circumstances. I would even argue these elements of my life prepared me for this call and for living it ever more deeply and authentically. When I quoted the passage from The Hermitage Within recently (cf A Contemplative Moment on Entire Availability) I was pointing to something profoundly true in my own life, namely, that even when our lives are stripped of individual discrete gifts and talents, when all we have to offer is a kind of emptiness, God can and will make a gift of that (of us!). It is precisely this bottom line kind of situation the eremitical life witnesses to. As I have written here a number of times now, human beings ARE covenant realities, made for and of union with God. Their weakness is the counterpart of divine power and sovereignty;  unless a person's life evidences significant weakness and stripping or emptying how can they witness to the unmerited fullness of the grace of God?

At the same time, whether life has stripped the person in this way or they have renounced the use of so many of their gifts and talents in becoming a hermit, they MUST witness to the other side of the equation. When one looks closely at her life one MUST see a life defined not by the things that stripped and emptied that life of gifts and talents (or of the opportunities to use these) but instead a life defined by the grace of God that transfigures and redeems such a life. Here is one of the differences between a hermit and a failure at life, between a hermit and a curmudgeon, between a hermit whose life is truly one of the silence of solitude (the quies of a life in union with God) and one whose silence is merely a mute scream of anguish, between an authentic hermit and an isolated individual whose life is marked by deprivation and lack of real relatedness (which would include a superficial or nominal relationship with God).

For a long time I was unable to see various circumstances in my life as gifts which truly prepared me for answering this unique call of God with a commitment to eremitical life. They really seemed to be obstacles to the fullness God was calling me to instead. Today I see them as gifts, not because God willed them but because God transfigured them in ways which made an infinite sense of them. Thus, I am not saying I believe God always called me to be a hermit, much less that God willed the negative circumstances in my life that especially prepared me for the response I was to make to God's call --- circumstances like chronic illness for instance. Part of what I am saying is that God always called me to be fully alive and especially to be myself in union with Himself; the circumstances of my life tailored the kind of answer or response I could and would give.

They tailored or shaped the form which my response to God's love and promise of life would need to take just as they shaped the aspects of the Gospel I would be most responsive to. They urged me to respond to the Word of Life wherever it entered my life, in the smallest and most ordinary ways --- and in a few absolutely extraordinary ones as well. Especially all this defined my call in terms of weakness, emptiness, and stripping because it was these which were redeemed and transformed by the unfailing love of God. These were what needed to be transfigured so that they would not have the last word in my life, or better, so that they would speak of victory rather than of absurdity, defeat and destruction! The various vocations I felt called to (Religious life, teaching, writing, and music) served, both more and less well in the accomplishment of all that. As my director reminded me when we spoke about some of this last week, God's word (so Isaiah 55 promises) does not return to him void.

Vocation as collaboration:

The one "shaped response" which was truly adequate, to the circumstances of my own life and the necessary and unique witness to their redemption or perfecting is, in fact, eremitical life and beyond that, solitary eremitical life. In other words, my entire life prepared me to make this specific and radical response to the creative call of God. I have the sense that God's call and my response are a collaboration which makes my whole life an expression of Gospel truth and joy. Thus it seems to me that vocation is always a matter of collaborating (or, at the very least, cooperating!) with the creator God who brings life out of death and an awesome and infinitely complex cosmos out of nothing at all.Today I recognize that had the circumstances of my life been different  I would likely have still become a theologian and religious Sister with a bent for solitude, but my call to eremitism is more radical because the answer to the question of my life needed to be a truly radical one.

Thus, the vocation we eventually embrace is something which frees us; it makes sense of and answers or completes (resolves) the questions we are. It is a supreme act of love on God's part and our embrace is an act of worship only we can make or become. Our whole lives we listen for that God who calls each and all of us to life and freedom in the midst of even the worst circumstances. We listen to the deepest yearnings of our heart, to the cries of anguish that result when those yearnings are frustrated, denied, and damped, to the potential and talents we hold and develop as signs of the promise of our lives, and the words of encouragement we cling to as part of what motivates and gives us hope. The response we will one day become is shaped in all of these ways and more by the God who is with us in all things. Each of these is a face of vocation, an aspect of the creative and loving call of the God who, standing with us moment by moment, draws us more deeply into a genuine future --- and in fact, into our own truest future.

The only personally diminishing or coercive aspects of this picture are those supplied by sin and evil. So, no, I absolutely reject the notion that God willed me or anyone else to be ill so that we might be forced somehow to become a hermit. The notion that God might thereafter have refused to ease my (or anyone's) suffering much less made it worse lest I (or they) chose something else is absolute anathema and quite frankly, it is blasphemous anathema at that. Such a "God" is unworthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; this God would be a scandal and only worthy of our rejection. To believe in such a God is to apotheosize coercion and violence. It is to transform the idea of a vocation or call from an awesome gift into an oppressive, even crippling burden and to make ludicrous any attempts to speak of Gospel freedom or the covenant nature of human existence. As you have said so well, all this sounds "depraved."

The Church and the Discernment of Eremitical Vocations:

Your question about the church's approach to a person struggling in the way the person you quoted seems to be struggling is also a good one. I don't think anyone I know in vocations work would let a person who admitted such deep unhappiness with a vocational path to continue pursuing it. Above all, my sense is the Church (diocesan Vicars, Bishops, vocation personnel, pastors, etc) would encourage the person to embrace the world as sacramental and push her to seek God in those things she really loves and is drawn to. That is especially true if there is significant suffering; after all, God does not will suffering and there must be sources of life and inspiration which allow the grace of God to counter such difficulty. Since suffering and chronic illness tend to isolate one, unless there are strong indications that solitude is precisely this person's way to human wholeness and profound joy, I sincerely doubt any diocese would allow them to be professed or consecrated as a solitary hermit.

It is not easy to make sense of the suffering that exists in our lives and to some extent I can understand why the person you cited wrote what she did. After all, the Old Testament is full of stories which attribute the calamities of life to "the gods". But more and more what emerges throughout the OT is the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob and Israel who is revealed in terms of mercy and compassion. In the New Testament the revelation of just HOW exhaustively merciful and compassionate this real God is is realized in our midst as he spends himself to rescue us from sin and death by becoming subject to these things in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus his Christ. It is here especially that love has the last word as reconciliation (union or completion) and life are brought forth from the depths of godless death and godless death itself is destroyed forever. To affirm that God refuses to ease a person's pain or even exacerbates it so that she cannot pursue another way of living is to implicitly reclaim the gods being progressively rejected in the Old Testament at the expense of the God of Jesus Christ. Probably we all have pockets of such belief deep within us, but if we are to respond to the gifts our vocations truly are it is really imperative that we outgrow these and allow them to be replaced by the merciful and compassionate God of Jesus Christ.