31 August 2016

The Desert is a Dangerous Place, Eremitical Life is a Perilous Reality

 Dear Sister, usually when you write about the silence of solitude it is a positive thing but your last piece was pretty dark. I wondered if you were okay and if this was a new discovery you had made about the power of the silence of solitude? Someone else wrote about the suffering you were experiencing. Have I missed something (I ask because I care)!

Please don't be concerned. About three months ago I wrote about doing some inner work with my director which was demanding and challenging. I have continued with that and sometimes it has been reflected in my posts --- though generally it has meant fewer posts or posts which were poorly written and kind of rambling --- probably the result of putting these up before allowing my thoughts to mature and gel. I suspect the person referring to suffering was referring to some part of that constellation of posts. The piece I wrote a couple of days ago on Eremitical silence as harrowing as well as hallowing was not a new insight, no, but I certainly know it more deeply and extensively than I did from previous work. Moreover it is an important dimension of eremitical silence I have needed and now need to treat more explicitly --- especially in light of questions I am receiving about eremitical life and candidates with serious mental illness (I am working on one of these right now), or about topics like formation, the need for careful discernment, the indispensability of competent and regular spiritual direction, the danger of eremitical solitude, and so forth.

I have written before that eremitical silence and solitude are not easy and that the vocation itself is demanding. I have quoted Merton and others, noted that this is not a vocation generally suited for those with mental illness (though when it seems possible for someone who functions well and whose illness is stable this should be determined carefully by chancery, directors, therapists, etc on a case by case basis); I have explained that eremitical solitude is not the normal way to achieve personal wholeness and holiness, and I've described instances of individuals who were clearly decompensating as the result of living in an isolation they called "eremitical". I've even written a few times about battling with demons --- usually those of one's own heart! What I may not have done clearly enough is describe the way desert silence and solitude can strip away defenses and break open one's mind and heart to deeper and deeper levels of woundedness (some would speak of deeper or more foundational levels of sinfulness and alienation here but woundedness seems the better choice to me). This has always been implicit in posts referring to inner work, spiritual direction, and the other topics I have mentioned above and it was more explicit in the posts on battling with demons -- a perennial topic for the desert Abbas and Ammas --- but it needed to be made even more explicit I think.

The Desert is a Dangerous Place:

As I approach this anniversary of my perpetual profession as a diocesan hermit (02. September) I have looked back on some of the topics I have felt passionately (and sometimes written extensively) about. What is clear to me is that most of them have at their core the fact that this vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church (and only then to the individual) and thus requires the church to treat it with real respect for precisely the gift it is. This means (or has meant) codifying it in canon law, carefully discerning candidates for profession, demanding Rules be written only after a candidate has sufficient experience living the life under competent direction, continuing direction and regular supervision (legitimate superiors), and providing lists of or even access to resources an individual may draw from in order to get the initial formation she needs to live this life well "in the name of the Church". But the flip side to all of this, the reason the charismatic nature of the vocation must be recognized and adequate care taken in all of these ways is also precisely because solitary eremitical life in the silence of solitude is dangerous for one not truly called to it --- or for one who undertakes it without sufficient support and assistance!

After all, one vows to listen in silence and solitude to the voice of God dwelling in one's heart. Moreover, one vows to give that entire heart over to God to love into wholeness and holiness; in this way one comes to know and reflect the silence OF solitude. That is what obedience is all about. But at the same time, the journey into the depths of one's own heart, as I wrote in the last post, can be a harrowing experience, for though one's heart is meant to belong to God alone, very much more dwells and often has dominance there than God alone. Similarly, while God never abandons us, there are times when God's presence takes the form of darkness and distance precisely so we can come to know those parts of our hearts which war against (him) --- against love and life itself --- and which divide us as persons so that quite often we stand diminished, fragmented and at war with ourselves. I wrote recently that the Holy Spirit maintained (was!) the bond of communion between Father and Son, but that additionally it was the Holy Spirit that maintained distance between them as well --- especially during Jesus' descent into hell, for instance. And so it is in the hermit's sometimes dark silence of solitude. God is experienced as absence or remoteness but it is still God's presence we know in these challenging ways.

Journeying With a Competent Director:

The listening (hearkening, obedience) one does involves a breaking open of the hardened and well-defended heart or false "self", and leads to a kind of stripping away of the false and distorted as well as to a revelation of the fearful, fragile, and (thanks be to God) the rich potential living at the core of ourselves. The result is a vulnerability which is excruciatingly painful and which absolutely requires the assistance of a competent director who knows not only how to do this kind of spiritual or "inner" work, but also when it is time to do it as well as when the hermit is strong enough (in her inner covenantal life with God or Selfhood) to attempt it. At these times some parts of the hermit's Rule may be suspended and other changes made to accommodate differing needs for rest, prayer, food, recreation, direction or contact with one's delegate, etc.

Though one's director need not (and probably will not) be a hermit, it takes someone knowledgeable and personally experienced in the same kind of inner journey to assist and accompany the hermit in all of this. Otherwise one will have the equivalent of the blind leading the blind into the pit and tragedy will ensue. (It should go without saying that a "hermit" attempting to live in the desert without the assistance of a competent director with whom they meet regularly is, from my perspective, perhaps the greatest fool I could name. Unfortunately it happens.) In any case, it is also at this time that the hermit's own knowledge, experience and faith, all tested over time, prove their greatest worth.

On my Anniversary:

Despite all I have said here and in a few recent posts which may have seemed uncharacteristically "dark", let me also reiterate that I could not be happier in my vocation as a diocesan hermit. While the inner work in which I have recently been engaged has been difficult and rending (harrowing) it has simultaneously been a clear source of abundant life (hallowing) as well. There is no doubt in my mind that the temporary suffering of this work itself is a grace of God, not simply a source of grace as much suffering is and can be, but a wounding and profoundly life-giving touch of God (him)self and one that I might never have known but for this vocation and those who assist me in it.

Deep healing and growth in holiness is clearly something God is calling me to "in the silence of solitude" and apart from canonical eremitical life I would have neither the time nor the space and discipline for prayer, the access to sufficient direction or supervision, the commitment of profession which empowers and sustains the work, nor would I have the motivation or have been able to grow as sufficiently as I have needed in the commitment which make perseverance in this specific journey possible. God has truly blessed me in this and though there is pain and a sense of great fragility right now, I approach this anniversary with even more life, strength, and gratitude than I have known in the past. The promise of the future, though still being worked out "in fear and trembling" as Paul might put it, is very full indeed.

Adequately honoring this Gift of the Holy Spirit:

Dioceses that fail to pay attention to the reality and perhaps the inevitability of this experience of God in the darkness and abject suffering of the silence of solitude will be unable to assist hermits they profess. Even more problematically they are apt to profess "hermits" who can neither negotiate nor thrive (come to the abundant life Jesus promises) in the desert of eremitical life. Outright illness or a lack of integrity marked by mediocrity and "vocations" which are thus disedifying and even scandalous to all involved will be the result.

To summarize, the desert is a dangerous place. Eremitical silence and solitude are perilous realities and dioceses professing hermits need to be keenly aware of these facts. Especially they must never believe they are merely entrusting individuals to some sort of prayer-filled life of mere peace and quiet! The eremitical contemplative life of prayer in the silence of solitude is wonderful, yes, but it is also a source of real and deep anguish. Becoming God's own prayer in this world is both hallowing and harrowing, often at the very same time. When Jesus said, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword!" he might very well have been speaking, for those called to it, of the significantly growth-full moments of eremitical life! Again, this is something of which dioceses and candidates to canon 603 eremitical life must be aware if they are to truly and adequately honor this rare, valuable, and mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit.