09 October 2015

On the Validity of Defining Solitude in terms of Community

[[Dear Sister, if you define solitude in terms of communion with God I can understand that but I am not sure how you move from there to communion with others. I am having a hard time seeing the difference between life in solitude then and life in community. If both are communal then what is the difference? Why don't you just say that the eremitical vocation is about being alone with God?]]

Good questions, thanks for these. Remember that I (and most of the theologians I know) define God not as A Being but as the ground and source of all being and meaning, and therefore too, the ground and source of all that is truly personal and of all relatedness. In, with and through God, we are related to everything and everyone else. If we live in communion with God then to some extent we are in communion with the rest of reality. And of course this works the other way around -- though not in the same way. If we love others, honor creation, are stewards of reality, we also love and honor God.

Thus, when I think about eremitical solitude and especially, when I think about the difference between eremitical life and isolated, alienated, or estranged life the difference is in relatedness in and through God. To describe this I talk about the communal dimension of life in the silence of solitude. Still, this does not make my life one of cenobitical or community life since from 85-95% of my life is spent in solitude. Moreover, the time I spend with others is either in direct service to them (spiritual direction) or in order that I might live a richer and completely healthy solitude (occasional time with good friends). For a Trappistine Sister living, working, eating, praying, and recreating with others --- though often silently --- there are also periods of solitude: silent prayer, lectio, study, etc, but the context for everything is life in (and for) community and the search for God that community makes possible.

I don't speak about eremitical solitude ONLY as being alone with God for a couple of reasons. First my experience is that even (and perhaps especially) in the most profound prayer experiences I have had --- those where there was an undoubted union with God in a way which even involved typical physical effects, either others were present supporting me and/or there were reminders in my prayer itself  of the fact that in God I was related to all others and all else. (I have noted before that in one prayer period I experienced having the entire attention of God and the moment I noted that --- with a kind of awed "This is so but how can this be so?" --- I was reassured that everyone else ALSO had God's entire attention; no one was being shortchanged or disregarded here.) It was another of those great paradoxes that underscored the truth of the experience. While I was not really aware of others per se, I was aware of them in a general sense through their relationship with God. In other words, at those times I was most completely taken up in God I was also clearly concerned with and reassured about others. I was aware of them more than at other times, in part because God, who never ceased being wholly or exhaustively concerned with each and all of us, directed my attention there as a consequence of his immeasurable love.

The second reason has to do with canon 603 itself. It describes this vocation as one of stricter withdrawal or separation from "the world" (i.e., from that which is resistant to Christ), the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels, assiduous prayer and penance under a rule I write and the supervision of my Bishop. But it also says this vocation is one undertaken for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. By definition, I do not live it merely alone with God but for the sake of all those God holds as precious. So far as I can see this essential element of the canon is no less important or central than any other element. It implies and perhaps demands that my life is not merely absorbed in God as a life of personal piety, but that it is also is concerned with witnessing to some basic truths every person needs to hear and know. It is also, then, a life of prayer for others --- though I consider this secondary to the witness it offers. (Some hermits clearly consider this primary instead of secondary and are entirely free to do so.)

 Moreover, canon 603 says that to the extent my life is absorbed in God it will necessarily be concerned with all God calls his own. While I am certainly concerned with my own salvation, eremitical life is not simply a solitary quest for my own salvation, my own perfection. It is not some form of pious navel gazing or self-centeredness. The focus in not on me but on God and allowing God to be God, not only for myself, but for the whole of creation. Thus, while on one level I can speak of the eremitical vocation being one of being alone with God I think generally this is misleading to others, whether they be other candidates, Bishops and Vicars for Religious, or simply those looking into what a contemporary vocation to eremitical life is all about in the face of a culture taken up with individualism or given over to "cocooning". For all these reasons I have tried to be careful to define eremitical life as one of "being alone with God for the sake of others." Now I may need to say instead that it is "being alone with God in communion with as well as for the sake of others." If any of these elements is missing, then we don't have authentic eremitical life as the Church defines it. We do not have the silence of solitude but instead a life of dumb isolation and individualism.

Artist, Mary Southard, CSJ
In either solitude or community the aim of religious life (or of the lay eremitical life) is the same, namely, to seek and give ourselves over to God for God's own sake (for this is God's deepest desire) and for the sake of the perfection or fulfillment of God's entire creation. But the contexts are different. In my hermitage I mainly do this while physically alone and linked to others through my relationship with God. In community Sisters or nuns mainly do this while physically together and more directly dependent on the environment created by others to facilitate every Sister's quest for God. There is a communal dimension to my solitude (or that of any authentic hermit) but physical solitude is primary. For cenobites there is naturally a strong solitary dimension to their life in community but the context of community is still primary or definitive of the life they live.