06 July 2016

Do Hermits Outgrow the need for Spiritual Direction?

[[Dear Sister, does it ever happen that a hermit kind of "outgrows" the need for a spiritual director? Is a director something they need in their early years but then do not need as they grow as hermits and Christ becomes their director? What would happen to you if you decided you no longer needed a director or moved to a place where the Sacraments were unavailable to you?]]

Thanks for your questions. I would have to say no, hermits do not outgrow the need for direction; their need will shift and change over time and circumstances in terms of the content and frequency of meetings, but the place of spiritual direction in any life dedicated to obedience is constant. For instance when I first began meeting with my director we tended to meet monthly or bimonthly. These days we ordinarily meet every two or three months and in times of significant growth or healing we may meet weekly or even more frequently on a temporary basis. In this way we honor the movement of the Spirit. Growth is always possible; more growth in wholeness and holiness is always something God calls us to. (And, by the way, God in Christ and the Holy Spirit is ALWAYS the actual director in an SD relationship. It just happens that God's presence is ordinarily mediated through the profound mutual listening for God so characteristic of the direction relationship.

More, it almost always helps to discuss what one has experienced or discerned with another --- both to be sure one is not mistaken or deluded and to allow another spiritually attuned person to hear one in all of this.  We need to externalize, articulate, and share what happens between ourselves and God as part of claiming it completely. Remember that it was during the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth that both women came to share a fuller knowledge of the way God was working in their lives and the life of the whole of their People. Neither understood this apart from this sharing with the other. This is a significant lesson occurring several times in the Gospel of Luke; another version of it is found in the story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, for instance. Experiences of prayer are rich, multi-layered things and our own growth is similar. Unless we can talk about these regularly with someone who knows how to listen and how to help us see more clearly --- someone on the same journey --- we will never really plumb the depths of our own lives to the degree God invites and to the degree our commitment to God requires. Our vision and perception will continue to be narrow and contained. Spiritual direction helps us see and share the joy of Christ's presence and activity in our lives in ways every disciple needs.

But there are additional reasons a hermit more specifically requires a spiritual director and regular meetings or conversations with her. The first is there is rarely another way for the hermit to be sure she is not substituting her own biases, blindness, woundedness and other significant limitations for the voice of God. Living in solitude often means being unable to check one's perception and interpretations with anyone.  One reads, thinks, studies, does lectio, writes and prays, all in an intimate relationship with the God who at the same time never ceases being WHOLLY OTHER --- except as God is incarnated and/or mediated through the heart and mind of another. A spiritual director acts in ways which serve this need for an incarnate God. It is no small ministry! 

Of course this WHOLLY OTHER God is our companion in all things and of course we bring all things to him, but to treat him as though he is just like us but bigger, communicates like we do, and engages in the heavenly equivalent of instant messages or mystical Skype calls, especially on a routine or regular basis, is simply nonsense --- and idolatrous nonsense as well. A good director can remind us of the eternal mystery of God even as she helps in the process of incarnation; she can help prevent our falling into idolatry or otherwise deluding ourselves. After all,  God, along with many other things, inhabits, touches, illuminates and  moves our hearts and minds; he empowers our will. Over time God makes us truly human and truly free. But from within every one of us he has constant competition in this. As I have said before, the demons we each battle are all-too-often the demons of our own hearts and far more often they are these demons than they are something assailing us from without!!! For a hermit who claims no need for regular competent direction or participation in the Church's sacramental life I would suggest such a battle has actually been lost in some sense.

Additionally, the temptation to individualism (even in the more extreme form of narcissism) is huge in our world and culture. Hermits are, at least in part, products of this same world and culture. It is SO easy to clothe the impulses to individualism --- even as narcissism --- in distorted religious and pious language and then mistakenly call what one is doing in this way "Eremitical life" or "Eremitical solitude"!! Similarly, it is possible to turn one's back on the whole of God's good creation outside the hermitage in an act which is selfish, uncharitable, and driven by ego-centeredness and call this (wrongly) what the Church calls "Stricter separation from the world"!! In order to really discern what is in her heart and what truly drives her the hermit MUST have a competent director who understands the spiritual life, is a regular practitioner of prayer, and is committed to her own growth in wholeness and holiness. (By the way, the notion that such a director must be a hermit is fallacious. It is, however, helpful if she is a religious who prays contemplatively and who has experience (my vote) in formation  work and at least as much experience living the vows as the hermit.)

Spiritual Direction is NOT Spiritual Counsel

Finally, as something which may clarify my answer, let me point out that while spiritual direction is sometimes located within schools of "pastoral counseling", spiritual direction is NOT essentially a matter of giving others counsel or advice. Spiritual direction is ordinarily a long-term form of accompaniment where the director journeys with the directee in her sojourn with God. It is not essentially geared to problem solving nor, as one blogger wrote recently, does it require "progress within six weeks" lest the director refer the directee to someone new!! Direction is NOT therapy (even if it were the putative six week deadline would be nonsense)--- though it is profoundly therapeutic. I have worked with my director (a Sister of the Holy Family) since about 1982  and, God-willing, I pray she will be able to accompany me on this adventure for many more years! I routinely accompany directees for 10-15 years and more unless and until they journey beyond what I have to offer them in my own competencies or a move or some other set of circumstances occurs to cause us to part ways. Progress, however, is usually only visible over longer time frames and patience as well as humility is necessary if one is to accompany someone in a journey to holiness.

Neither is a director about discerning what a directee should or shouldn't do. The point of direction, which again is rightly understood as a long-term relationship, is to assist a person in their OWN journey with God, to help them pay attention to God's presence in the depths of their being (heart) or the world around them and to respond in the best (most human, most Christian) way possible, to assist them in THEIR discernment (one does not discern FOR a directee!!!), and to support them as they (continue to learn to) obey the call of God to union. As I noted in the posts I put up on intense inner work (which may be a kind of specialization within the discipline and art of spiritual direction not all directors may do), a competent director ALWAYS works toward the enhancement of the client's freedom and wholeness. Since the journey toward wholeness and holiness takes the whole of a person's life and since this journey (especially the eremitical version!) is always fraught with dangers --- most especially the danger of fooling oneself in significant ways --- a competent director is simply indispensable.

Changes in My Own Eremitical Life:

Your question about major changes in my own eremitical life is really significant.  Remember that if a diocese admits a hermit to definitive (perpetual or solemn) profession it will be WITH an approved Rule which binds the hermit both morally and legally. This Rule will include all the necessary elements of the life including how she understands and lives the elements of the canon and evangelical counsels, how she provides materially and spiritually for herself, etc. Let's be clear then that an ongoing arrangement for regular Spiritual direction and sacramental reception is INVARIABLY required of the consecrated hermit by all dioceses as is a reference or evaluation from the hermit's director prior to profession. No one is professed under canon 603 without meeting these requirements and, in fact, without living under direction for some time prior to profession as well to ensure the hermit's life is sound. The need for ongoing competent direction in eremitical life is a traditional position through centuries of eremitism. For the most part dioceses recognize and admit no one even to mutual discernment until this fundamental piece of things is in place. The same is true of regular participation in the Sacramental life of the Church.

Thus, should there be a material change in the way the hermit lives she will need to modify her Rule. There is no avoiding or ignoring such a necessity if one is truly responsible. This modification might be approved by her delegate on a temporary basis in instances of less substantial change but if the change is substantial (say, for instance, that illness, a major move within the diocese, or other circumstances do not allow for regular Mass attendance, regular spiritual direction, etc.) then the bishop supervising the hermit and those involved with such vocations in the diocese will evaluate the situation and 1) approve the change, 2) deny or disapprove the change, as well as 3) evaluate whether or not the person is even capable of living c 603 eremitical life in the name of the Church if the hermit refuses or proves unable to live her Rule as approved. Everything will be discussed between delegate, hermit, director and diocesan curia; solutions to any deficiencies will be sought first, of course, but a hermit insisting she needs none of the elements which were required and written into in her canonically  approved Rule would find the diocese well within its rights to begin a process of dispensation of vows. You see, the Church rightly believes that certain arrangements are indispensable for living eremitical life well --- ESPECIALLY if one is going to do so in the name of the Church because she is publicly consecrated and commissioned BY THE Church to do so.

Dedicated Lay Hermits vs Consecrated Hermits:

Dedicated lay hermits (those hermits in the lay or baptized state who have not been professed and consecrated BY THE CHURCH but who have private vows instead) may believe they can do whatever they wish or discern is appropriate with regard to spiritual direction, regular access to sacraments, moving to remote areas, and any number of other things --- though NB, such a hermit's baptismal obligations do not cease to bind her --- but a professed and consecrated hermit (one with public vows, etc) is even less free to behave in this way. Not only is she bound by baptismal obligations, but she is responsible in conjunction with her diocese and diocesan Bishop for living a public ECCLESIAL vocation with public rights, obligations, and expectations, because she is bound canonically via both canon and proper law to a NEW AND STABLE ECCLESIAL STATE OF LIFE. She must, therefore, live her life fully and abundantly within canonical and institutional structures which govern and articulate this specific incarnation or expression of the eremitical life.

Of course all of what I describe as being true for the canonical or publicly professed hermit is true for me. My eremitical life is a very free and flexible one and my obligation to obedience is one which finds my superiors and myself working together to hear the will of God in all things not only for my own good, but for the good of this vocation and that of the Church herself. Because we are faithful in this I experience ever greater degrees of wholeness and authentic freedom in my life. Profoundly free though I am, I am NOT at liberty to simply go my own way without supervision or mutual discernment and permission --- meaning of course that I am not free to simply go my own way by asserting I have some special knowledge of the will of God which is shared by no one else simply because I have lived as a hermit since 1985 or a diocesan hermit since 2007. Going one's own way in relative isolation may be individualism or it may be the way some privately vowed (not professed!) hermits operate, but it is not the way a canonical hermit living solitary eremitical life in the name of the Church operates. To the degree she lives an ecclesial vocation in witness and charity to others she cannot and will not do so.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.