21 March 2016

Questions on the Experience of Redemption at the Heart of Eremitical Life

 [[ Hi Sister Laurel, I began reading your blog once in a while a couple of years ago just out of curiosity about hermits. It never occurred to me that this was a meaningful vocation and I held a lot of the preconceptions and prejudices you have mentioned from time to time. But even as I let go of some of these I could not see the real difficulty or significance of the vocation. I mean I knew I was not called to it myself, but it seemed that so long as a person is an introvert then it wouldn't be all that difficult  -- especially if they didn't have something better to do! Like someone wrote you a while back, you just say some prayers, do a little gardening, stay away from people and what was such a big a deal? Okay, so now I am beginning to get it.

When you wrote about the "redemptive experience" that MUST be at the center of the life, or the activity of God which has to stand at its heart I began to see this as a real vocation. Then you said that unless that [redemptive activity of God] is there a diocese would have nothing to discern and nothing they could give to the candidate either. And then you also said that this redemptive experience could make sense of a life that was empty and absurd otherwise and something clicked for me. It's all about God and what we allow him to do with us! I was taught that in religion classes, but I just hadn't seen the hermit's life as an image of or witness to that same truth! And now I see that that is the ONE thing a hermit is called to witness to. The ONE and only thing!! That is really amazing to me! . . . How did you come to know this?  Did you learn about it in theology school? Was it because you were chronically ill? And what is the hardest thing about it, about living as a hermit I mean? Can I write you about this again when my questions become clearer?]]

Thanks for your patience in waiting for me to finally get to this. I think I can hear the excitement of discovery in what you write. The questions you asked are clear enough, I think, but more about that at the bottom! So is the insight you are so excited about (which I will tweak a little here), namely, it's all about God and what God DOES do with our lives if only we allow God to love us as radically as God wills to love us; that is the ONE thing a hermit is called to witness to, the ONE and only thing. Let me start there. There are many ways to describe the general and universal call involved. We can talk about glorifying God, being the counterpart and dialogue partner of God, being radically obedient to God, letting God be sovereign, living the love of God, allowing the mercy of God to do justice in our lives and world, letting God make us holy, "I, yet not I, but Christ in me," conversion, redemption, etc. In some ways we are each and all of us called to this vocation. It is what it means to be truly human.

How Does the Eremitical Vocation Differ?

It seems to me that what makes the call of the hermit different is that it is in becoming and being this [expression of God's redemption] and nothing else, and doing so in the silence of solitude that is the gift (or charism) she brings to the Church and world; it is the one "ministry" she is absolutely called to in the Church. Unlike with most other vocations, it necessarily occurs in eremitical silence and solitude and in some ways is completely hidden from others. She is called to be herself in God --- to be the prayer God makes of her and to do that in stricter separation from "the world" and in the silence of solitude. Everything else, including intercessory prayer, is secondary to this.  In this call she mirrors the radical solitude of Jesus who certainly lived for and ministered to others, but who first and foremost was the unique counterpart of the One he called Abba, and was most truly human only to the extent that he was profoundly and even exhaustively open and responsive to God thus revealing and implicating God in everything he said, was, and did.

Though this was true in the apparent failure of his healing and preaching ministry, it was most exhaustively true in the abject weakness, emptiness, and absurdity of his passion and sinful or godless death by crucifixion. Everything Jesus did and said was secondary to and an expression of his allowing God to be revealed (made known and made real in space and time) in and through every moment and mood of his life. Jesus revealed the extent to which the One he called Abba is "with us". He did so in what must have been a very painful solitude --- a solitude marked by misunderstanding and failure or even a refusal to understand him, by a sense of mission even his closest disciples contradicted, rejected, or betrayed, by the realities of failure, sin, shame, incredible physical and emotional pain, abandonment and godless death, but above all a solitude shaped by a remarkable life-giving intimacy with God. It is this vocation to be God's counterpart, to enter into and witness to a similar intimacy with God that stands at the root of everything else Christians live and do to which a hermit is called.

One point I should address here is the idea of paradigm or, maybe even better, that of icon. I do not mean to argue that the eremitical vocation is something special in the sense of it being elitist. Every human being is called to the same identity as God's counterpart, the same existential solitude, the same dialogue with God, the same humanity which occurs in union with God. Just as I recognize that Consecrated Virgins are icons of the Church as Bride of Christ, and just as I argue that they are equally icons of the nuptial relationship every person is called to eschatologically, so I argue that hermits are icons of the dialogical relationship constituting a humanity where Divine power is made perfect in weakness. They serve to remind people of a universal truth, a universal identity. They are paradigms of this. However, this also means that in many ways the hermit's path to this witness differs significantly from the path of others. Others are called to share God's love via different gifts and talents and to do so in a multitude of forms of active ministry. In other words the mission and charism of their lives is different from that of the hermit but the redemptive reality at the heart of their lives and identity as human is the largely same.

Here Paul's image of the single body with many members and different functions is critically important. The hermit vocation is not a higher vocation, a way in which one is elect and others are not. It is simply a path some are especially fitted for and called to by the combination of life circumstances and Divine love. The Church's proclamation of the Gospel requires priests and religious, mothers and fathers, doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists and others following innumerable paths in service of humanity, and in fact of the whole of creation. None of these are called to a "higher" vocation than any other. Each and all of us are called to know God and to reveal or witness to that "knowledge" to others. I say that genuine eremitical vocations are rare --- and they are. But their rarity is not a denial or contradiction of their universal relevance -- nor of the universal solitariness of human being.  It affirms these even as it poses with a particular vividness the question which human beings are and the answer whom God is.

Your Questions:

How did I come to know this? Was it through school, chronic illness or what? The answer is that I have come to know this in a variety of ways. Certainly college and graduate school were important for learning Paul and Mark's theologies of the cross and otherwise becoming familiar with Scripture. Though this is so much more than lectures and book learning it remains true that lectures and book learning have helped and continue to help keep me related to God, anchored in theological truth, as they provide language, categories of thought, and interlocutors who can help me reflect on my own experience and check my theologizing.

Prayer is a second source, especially contemplative prayer in solitude. There's no way to describe briefly all the ways this has been important though I have talked about some of this in the blog piece Central Formative Theological Insights. The insights described there were also profoundly linked to my experience of God in prayer --- or, maybe better said, to the experiences of reality and self supported and empowered by prayer. The notion of a God who is profoundly present within us, who is a constant source of life and meaning even when everything else seems to militate against these is as much a result of prayer as it is a theological insight. The place of prayer in my life is a source and foundation which makes the theological insights a good deal more than clever intellectual constructs. Prayer calls for theology and theology itself leads to and cannot really be done without prayer. The two are inextricable. It is possible to say that together they are a single source of my knowledge of God and the place God plays in my life.

Chronic illness is a third source because it is a significant piece of the context of everything else that happens in my life, of all that I am and do. It put an end to future plans and preparation, made a number of gifts useless, isolated me in significant ways, was often dehumanizing, and confronted me with my own weakness and complete dependence upon God for the redemption and transfiguration of my life. It was in this way I came to know that existing in isolation was dehumanizing while existing in solitude (that is, in communion with God and with others in God) made me truly human. Above all, chronic illness confronted me with the question of meaning; my life was a scream of anguish and in the infrequent times that scream became more or less articulate, the question it clamored for an answer to was, "WHY??!!" At the same time though, it made it important that I not adopt a "solution" which was merely a way of validating my isolation.

Once I became a hermit (long before becoming diocesan) I began to live, read about and reflect even more seriously on the eremitical vocation. That too was an important source of knowing that "it's all about God and what God DOES do if only we allow God to love us as radically as God wills to do" that is the ONE thing hermits MUST witness to precisely in stricter separation and the silence of solitude, the really meaningful and rare gift hermits bring to the Church and world. You see, it was eremitical solitude (not the isolation of chronic illness or the solitude of introversion) that convinced me of the vast difference between these two realities. It also, as you probably know since you have been reading here for a couple of years, taught me the difference between using gifts and talents and being made to be the gift precisely in being redeemed. My illness was not healed, many of my gifts and talents remain essentially unused and unusable but all of these and more become a larger gift which witnesses to the love and faithfulness of God that reconciles and makes whole.

Above all then it was the lesson I was taught by coming to know and be known by the love of God. That love received in faith transfigured my life in so many ways that of course I felt called to witness to this. What the other elements helped me learn was that, as you say, that was the ONE and only thing I was called to witness to with a kind of starkness eremitical life does best. I am not a hermit because, for instance and like some, I am mainly critical of the institutional Church --- though my solitude may provide the perspective from which I, like the desert Fathers and Mothers, may be critical and even prophetic. I am not a hermit because I think everyone is called to something similar --- though I would agree that solitude itself is the most universal of vocations and my life can point to the relatedness of which that solitude consists. It took me a number of years to come to the conclusion that this really was the ONLY thing I was truly called to witness to.

What is the Hardest Thing?

I am not sure how to answer this. Living as a hermit is an integrated whole and sometimes it is all easy while other times it is all hard. Perhaps the single hardest thing (sometimes) is giving myself completely to God in all things; there is such a pull to keep something "for myself" despite the fact that I understand the paradox that I only truly possess myself to the extent I: 1) give myself to God and 2) receive myself from God as complete gift. As I wrote here not too long ago, it is one thing to offer God my entire life in baptism or religious profession and to renew that offer each day, for instance; it's entirely another to actually give my Self to God as exhaustively as possible and as willed by God. But there is another paradox involved here which makes what is sometimes difficult a good deal easier and that is that to the degree I am forgetful of self, to the degree my discernment focuses on the life which summons me. That life is bigger than I am and yet it is something I can attend to and focus on without getting lost in self. Here giving my entire self to God means receiving the gift God gives --- the gift God is! --- and doing so without limit.

This distinction between giving one's life and giving one's' entire self by allowing God to love one exhaustively has always been hardest and is at the root of my writing or talking about the dangers (and temptation) of mediocrity and compromise in eremitical life. It is also at the root of moving from being justified to being made whole and truly holy or of standing in right relationship with God (being righteous) to living in union with God.  Another way of saying this is to point to the difference between praying and being made God's own prayer in our world. How much easier it is to pray at a number of set places during the day than to allow ourselves to become the word event which glorifies God at each and every moment.

Now let me be clear, or at least try to be clearer. I do not mean we are called to an obsessive kind of self-consciousness in which we become incapable of spontaneity or joy. Just the opposite is the case. I mean merely that the tendency to compartmentalize (or individualize) our lives and to see them in terms of the things we do ourselves and the things God does, or the things we do ourselves and the things we do through and with the power of God, is very easy for us. (It is also a symptom of our sinful state of estrangement and alienation.) Much harder to hold onto is an awareness that everything we do or are is meant to be done through, with, and in God. It is easy to think of ourselves as God's partners in this or that. Much harder to hold onto indeed is the truth that we are only human, we are only truly ourselves to the extent it is not us but Christ in us who is living this life.

One person (A. M. Allchin?)  puts it this way, "We are not individuals, we are persons!"  Living from this reality is a matter of mindfulness and real attentiveness, an awareness we can only acquiesce to, in, and through the grace of God. This truth and the process of realizing this truth in space and time is what the Eastern Church termed "theosis"; it is the result of redemption and the remaking of our minds and hearts by God but it also involves our conscious choice to live from and for this remaking. lt involves a trust in its truth, a continuing act of faith that this is really the way things are and are made to be by God's love. It depends on our allowing the true self (what Merton calls, "a spontaneity") to really be when it is more usual to live from the false self and its ingrained habits, resistance, and complacency.

The second single hardest thing is discerning the degree of active ministry I am truly called by God to do. My motives regarding doing active ministry are one of the more conflicted things I experience. Discerning when and where to do active ministry means moving through self-consciousness, to a much deeper consciousness of self-in-God and the ways in which I am called to live, and then finally, to a forgetfulness of self in Christ which empowers whatever choice needs to be made so it is truly for others. I try to live my Rule while staying open to patterns which may signal a need to change that occasionally or make something within it more concrete. I also try to accommodate those ways in which I am asked or may feel called to serve which are important both to those to whom I minister actively and to the enrichment and deepening of my eremitical life. All one can do is to continue choosing what is truly worthy of oneself and one's calling, to do so in God, and thus hone or purify that process with each and every choice.

You may have been expecting an answer about more concrete things that are difficult for me. If that's the case then yes, please do ask any specific questions that have been raised for you. I'll do my best to respond.