15 April 2016

Alone a Lot: A Call to Eremitical Life??

[[Dear Sister, if a person is alone a lot in their life or have been alone a lot, does this mean God is telling them they should become a hermit? As an older adult I am dealing with chronic illness but I have also been alone a lot in my life because of a dysfunctional family and other circumstances. It never occurred to me that living as a hermit was something I could do, and honestly I never would have wanted to do that, but now I am wondering if maybe I haven't missed God's call and that maybe he is saying, "I want you to be a hermit!"]]

Thanks for your questions. They are important. I may have answered something similar in the past so look through posts on discerning an eremitical vocation for further responses. (I have definitely written a lot about chronic illness so I will not do that here.) The first question has to be answered no. If a person has been alone a lot, especially in the circumstances you describe (dysfunctional family and chronic illness) this does not necessarily mean they are being called to be a hermit. Most of the time it will mean just the opposite. In the case of a dysfunctional family it may well be that what God is really calling a person to is healing from the trauma and woundedness occasioned by the family dynamics and from there moving forward to real family life and a strongly social life of generosity and compassion. Certainly God is calling such a person to healing and wholeness, to the capacity to really love others and to receive love. Where that is to be achieved and what one is called to do once that healing is largely in hand is another question which will need to be carefully discerned.

The point is that God did not will the family dysfunction nor does it automatically point to a vocation to be a hermit. God can and will use the circumstances of one's life to create something wonderful and unexpected but what that is in any individual case is not always easy to discern. It is not necessarily obvious. What has to be discerned in determining whether one is called to be a hermit or not is how one thrives or fails to thrive in physical solitude and external silence. For instance, in some cases where family dysfunction leads to the isolating of children and adolescents, physical (and emotional!) solitude itself becomes mainly or primarily a destructive force in those persons' lives. It also becomes self-reinforcing: isolation leads to personal dysfunction in relating to others which leads to further isolation, etc. etc. Short periods of solitude may be helpful as in anyone's life but in such a case as this, to choose a life of eremitical solitude would be contrary to what God wills; it would lead to the further crippling and stunting of the person's human capacities.

In some instances of serious family dysfunction and related isolation, however, individuals may find that despite the isolation (which will still be harmful in such a situation), they somehow also managed to thrive in their physical solitude --- typically through experiences of transcendence which sustained and even inspired in profoundly creative ways. In such cases some healing will still need to be secured and some therapy will probably be necessary, but should such a person feel inclined to embrace eremitical solitude it will be because, to some extent, they developed "the heart of a hermit" during those difficult years at home and have a sense that they can and might well even be called at some point, to thrive in solitude as a result. Again, at the heart of such a sense is the fact that Solitude herself (solitude as hermits understand it) has opened her door to them and that physical solitude is a (and perhaps the) privileged place where God will speak to them and love them into wholeness. Some of these folks might well discern other vocations which require long periods of prayer, thought, study, solitary work, etc without ever becoming (or wanting to become) hermits. But to some extent or other, they will still have "the heart of a hermit" --- just not the actual vocation to eremitical life itself.

Eremitical solitude is neither a way to avoid the healing work needed when one has experienced serious occasions of unchosen and extended isolation, nor a way of validating these (much less extending them) and the harm they do; neither are these periods of themselves signs of a call to eremitical solitude. Because eremitical solitude is not the same as isolation, because it involves a profound (sense of) community and communion with God, a call to eremitical solitude must come to one in spite of such experiences of isolation and can only build on and further occasion healing from the damage done by such experiences. Again, the criterion for discernment in such instances is that the person thrives in eremitical solitude; it is an essentially creative environment or context where the person's capacity for creativity, and even more especially, for loving others and living in communion with God and all that is precious to God grows and matures.

When we ask what God is calling us to, the specific state of life and pathway (religious life, priesthood, marriage, dedicated singleness, lay or consecrated eremitical life, teaching, writing, etc) is heard only after we hear God say, "I want you to be whole and loved and capable of loving others with your whole self! I want you to be yourself and supremely happy in that!" Only then does God "say" (so to speak), "I want you to do this AS A hermit (etc)" The bottom line is the same: if a person does not achieve holiness, personal wholeness and deep happiness and joy in eremitical solitude, if they do not truly thrive there as compassionate and generous human beings, then that is not where God is calling them.