17 February 2016

Witnessing to the Truth that God Alone is Enough

[[Dear Sister Laurel, am I right when I say you are writing that it is not only about living alone or even the other things hermits do, but WHY they do these things that is most important? Also, I see why you say that being a solitary is not always the same as being a hermit but isn't that just a matter of externals? Don't solitaries and hermits witness to the same thing?]]

Thanks for the questions. It is always good to hear from someone grappling with what I write. It is also terrific to get a chance to clarify when I haven't been clear enough. So, let me give that a shot.

First, it is true that it is WHY hermits do what they do that is most important but it is also the case that what they do and why they do it are inextricably wed. What I mean is that they are called to witness to Christ's redemption precisely by living as they do. If they live in some other way the witness they give is a different one. Let's say that the witness one is meant to give is that redemption in Christ empowers one to give one's life in service to others, that it allows one to let go of other ways of validating one's life and simply give one's life for those Christ loves. If this is the case then one must live a life geared to ministering to others. All kinds of active ministries are possible and many different living arrangements will support and contribute to this witness.  At the same time, if one wishes to witness effectively or credibly to the redemptive power of the Christ Event one cannot live in a way which contradicts that witness.

So, let's say that because of the message of the Cross one believes that God redeems and makes infinitely meaningful the life of one who is responsive to God's grace even when they are otherwise incapable of anything else, even when the discrete gifts they have been given have been lost or made unusable, even when their weakness or sinfulness or failure is their main or only other contribution to the situation. How would this person live in order to proclaim this message? Again, there are many ways but it seems to me that one of these is more radical than all the others, namely, eremitical life.

Traditionally it has been said that the essential proclam-ation of the hermit's life is that "God alone is enough." When we unpack this statement it is a restatement of the message of the cross: God can and DOES complete us as human beings, only the God of Jesus Christ can and does  redeem us, only that same God can and does make infinitely meaningful and fruitful those lives which have been marked and marred by death and senselessness in all its forms; only God can make freely and sacrificially loving those lives that have been isolated, reviled, rejected, and betrayed at every turn. Only God can make a gift of our lives when the circumstances of life and our denial of or collusion with those circumstances have made of them all that I described above.  Only such a God can and will still the scream of anguish one becomes or transforms the muteness and emptiness of a failed and relatively loveless life without God into a jubilant canticle empowered by an inexhaustible Love-in-Act. Only the God of Jesus Christ raises the demeaned, absurd, and alienated inhumanity of a sinful and godless autonomy to New Life which is essentially "theonomous".

Moreover, the statement "God alone is enough" implies the corollary that such a God is worth entrusting our entire lives to. It says the Gospel of this God is worth giving our entire lives for. This God and his Gospel are worth letting go of all worldly possibilities, relinquishing every discrete gift and talent, every potentiality we may possess EXCEPT for hearts and lives which are open to being completed and transfigured by him in his Christ. Entrusting our lives in this way is the essence of faith. In Christ when we are empty we are full, when weak powerful, when we seem most alone we exist in communion with God and all that is grounded in God, when silenced and mute our lives can and will sing with the grace and justice of heaven. When every prop is kicked out or otherwise relinquished, God alone is enough.

This paradox is the radical form of the gospel truth which animated and flowed from Christ's own profound obedience unto death --- especially death on a cross. Similarly it is the paradox which stands at the heart of the hermit's vocation that she must (and can really only) witness to as radically as she is called to do in the silence of solitude. For this reason canon 603 defines a desert spirituality which seeks not only to define a contemplative life given over to God in prayer, but in which the externals of one's life reprise the loneliness, muteness, weakness, and  incapacity, of the cross of Christ. Again, the obedience, that is, the openness and responsiveness to God we cultivate in the personal poverty, asceticism, silence, and solitude of the desert is transfigured into the silence of solitude, the joy-filled quies of rest, stillness, and eternal life in God. THAT is the witness of the hermit's life and it is important that the externals correspond and contribute to this witness.

A Final Note on the Noun Solitary:

A solitary in the sense Anglicans use the term with regard to canon 14.3 may not live a desert spirituality. I am sure they each do witness to the redemption achieved in Christ but most apparently do not feel called to live as hermits or need to witness to the paradox of the cross with the same radicalness.** Nor, of course, is there anything wrong with that so long as the two terms are not used interchangeably. The Anglican Church recognizes solitary or "single religious" who do not need to be hermits. The Roman Catholic Church on the other hand, does not; thus, in her tradition solitaries tend to be hermits who are part of a coenobitical community but who live in cells apart from the others. Grimlaicus' Rule for Solitaries was written for just such hermit monks. Thus too, when Roman Catholicism speaks of solitary hermits she may now also mean diocesan hermits professed and consecrated under canon 603, hermits who are not part of a monastic or eremitical community. These might be considered solitaries but most use the terms hermit or anchorite as reflected in canon 603.

 **N.B., especially in this context radical does not mean better; instead it implies a kind of fundamental truth and simplicity. It is important to remember that throughout the history of the Church the fact that hermits did not engage in active ministry nor live in community led to the inevitable question of how loving and how Christian such a solitary vocation could be considered. Within the Body of Christ there are many members and, as a recent Sunday lection reminded us, they are all important to the functioning of the whole.

Hermits are spoken of as existing at the heart of the Church. Sometimes this is meant to refer to their prayer and there is certainly profound truth in this --- especially so long as we understand prayer to be the work God does within each of us in our poverty. ([[In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.]] Rom 8:26) And of course prayer would also be the language of the silence of solitude, the unique charism of eremitical life but that eschatological quies to which we are all called and from which all legitimate ministry itself flows. To witness to this basic and universal foundation and call is an act of love hermits commit to on behalf of the entire body of Christ --- another reason to insist on the ecclesial nature of such a vocation. What sense would it make otherwise?