31 January 2016

On the Redemptive Experience at the heart of Eremitical Life (Followup to last two posts)

[[ Thanks for answering my follow up question. What happens if a person has already had the kind of life-changing redemptive experience of God's love before they decide to become a hermit? Does your criterion for discernment still work? I am thinking of the way canon 603 came to be with the dozen or so monks you have written about who had to leave solemn vows in order to pursue eremitical life. It seems they must already have had a life-changing redemptive experience which happened prior to eremitical solitude don't you think?]]

Really great questions! In the case you mention, monks who come late to a sense of an eremitical call, it seems clear that while they had already had the central redemptive experiences which allowed them to be solemnly professed and consecrated as monks after years of formation, and then allowed them to live this life faithfully with patience and growing in union with God, they must also have experienced something truly life changing in a very striking and compelling way if it led them to seek secularization and dispensation from their solemn vows. While the growth in wholeness and holiness which led to this compelling experience was not one of eremitical solitude it was very definitely one of the silence of solitude which is characteristic of monastic life.

There is some difference in these two forms of the silence of solitude but in my experience they are more alike than different and call for and complete one another. That is why monastics take regular "desert days" in order to have time and space for eremitical silence and solitude and hermits like myself take retreat time at places like Redwoods Abbey where the experience of shared silence and solitude is so very real. Monks and Nuns need desert days as an intensification of the silence, solitude, and freedom of the eremitical life which complement life in community. Hermits need the experience of shared solitude, values, communal prayer, and general monastic sensibility which complements and even completes the solitary eremitical life in the Church. The point, however, is that these two forms of the silence of solitude, while not identical, are profoundly related; they naturally complement and call for one another.

In the history of monastic life the solitude of the early desert Fathers and Mothers often led them to create communities; later in monastic communities monks and nuns saw eremitical solitude as the summit of the monastic life which is centered on seeking God. Even so, when monks like those whose lives led to the eventual establishment of canon 603, monks who have given their entire lives to God in monastic community decide to leave everything they have known and loved for decades in order to follow a Divine call to eremitical solitude, we must see that this is part of a vocation to a redemptive transformation. I admit I have only corresponded very briefly with one of these original monk-hermits in British Columbia (he wrote me to discuss an article I had published). Your question makes me want to renew my correspondence and ask him about the character of the call he has lived as a hermit. What I am sure of is that sometimes a change in our vocational call (say from community to eremitical solitude, for instance) represents an intensification and deepening of the redemptive experiences we have already known. While I was not thinking about this in my earlier answers I was not excluding it either.

The bottom line in all of this remains that a hermit, to be authentic and credible, must demonstrate an experience of God's redemptive love experienced in the silence of solitude. If they have had such an experience they will be capable of witnessing to the gift that eremitical solitude is meant to be in the Church. If not, their eremitical life will be relatively empty, formalistic, and perhaps even fraudulent. Every vocation is a call to the redemptive love of God; every vocation is a way of sharing that same redemptive love and witnessing to it to others. Every vocation is a particular gift to the Church whose charismatic quality witnesses to the way the love of God meets concrete human potentials and needs. The way we discern a vocation is by attending to the gift of God's love and the concrete ways that love shapes our lives. If our lives are not shaped in a salvific way within a particular state of life we must, it seems to me, conclude either that God has not called us to this state or that we are somehow rejecting or avoiding God's call within this state.

When the Church must discern the nature of a vocation as rare, as counter cultural, and even as uniquely prophetic as is solitary eremitical life, she must be able to discern that this life shapes the candidate for profession, consecration, and beyond in a distinctly salvific way. While the process of discernment and formation allows for a diocese following a candidate or temporary professed hermit for a number of years in order to be sure this is the case before admitting them to perpetual profession and consecration, the history of eremitical life is also full of those who call themselves hermits as a validation of individualism and self-centeredness. It may well be the Church does not find a convincing redemptive experience at the heart of a candidate's life and will need to refuse to profess or consecrate them.