26 October 2016

On Hermits and "Going it Alone"

 [[Dear Sister,
      I have always had the impression that hermits "go it alone" with God and don't need the assistance of others in day to day matters. I mean I guess they need doctors and things but for other kinds of healing need to turn to God alone. But you seemed to say that you turned to your director and not to God over the past few months. Isn't this contrary to your vocation? Shouldn't you have been able to dwell with God alone to find the healing you needed?]]

Thanks for your questions. I think they represent a somewhat stereotypical idea of eremitical life that may be quite common. I suspect that this idea is common among some hermits even. I am not sure of that. I will say that your impression represents a temptation for me sometimes, the temptation to "go it alone" and to convince myself that doing so means doing it with God in isolation when in fact God is calling me to get the assistance I need (including the assistance God desires to give me) from others who are a significant part of this ecclesial vocation. What I mean is this: God comes to us all, hermits and non hermits, in many different ways. God comes to us in solitary prayer of course, but also in liturgical prayer, the Sacraments, the daily readings, lectio divina, interactions with others, the privileged time with our spiritual directors, the directions of legitimate superiors, conversations with good friends, a simple hug from a fellow parishioner or our pastor, etc, etc. All of these point to the profound and paradoxical relatedness which characterizes eremitical solitude as codified in Church (canon) law.

The Hermit as Ecclesiola:

A hermit lives in the silence of solitude, of course. The work and prayer she does is solitary --- a matter of living from and for her relationship with God (in communion with God) in physical solitude. But even within this overarching and definitive context, one must also discern when God (him)self wills the hermit to turn more directly to others so that the life God summons her to can be embraced more fully and truly. This is another dimension of having an ecclesial vocation --- a vocation which is part of the Church's own patrimony --- and living a solitude which is embedded within a faith community, is integral to and lives from and for that community.

One of the things I have written about a number of times is that the hermit is not simply a lone person. S/he is an "ecclesiola" --- a "little church" to use Peter Damian's term, a paradigm, that is, of the praying Church. The canonical hermit especially is not simply a lone person trying to "go it alone" while spending time saying prayers or doing pious things. Of course she will do these things, but on a much deeper level the hermit lives a desert spirituality in Christ,  a spirituality dependent upon God alone within the Body of Christ in whose name she has been called and consecrated. Thus she will draw from the Church's life sacramentally, intellectually, emotionally and psychologically, and she will do this through the privileged mediatory channels the Church requires her to build into her solitary eremitical life: parish and diocesan life, Rule and spiritual direction, and the supervision of legitimate superiors (Bishop, Vicars, and delegate).

Spiritual Direction as Incarnational:

Bearing that in mind it is important that I correct one statement you made, namely, that I turned to my director and not to God in the past five months. Nothing could be further from the truth. Turning to my director as I did this last Summer on June 1st was a way of turning to God, a way of allowing the wounded parts of my heart to be opened to God and effectively transformed and healed by God through the mediation of a human heart and intellect, a divinized (that is, a profoundly humanized) presence expressed and realized in truly human hearing, address, love, and touch. In this work my director used her professional expertise and competence of course, and above all, she worked with me in light of her own relationship with God in all the ways God lives in and through her.

The work was therefore profoundly incarnational; in the person of my director, God assumed flesh --- just as is meant to be the case with any Christian who has responded faithfully to the call to truly embody Christ. This is not hyperbole. It is the very meaning of Christian existence. Let me be as clear on that as I possibly can. The relationship with my director is, as in all authentic direction relationships, a sacramental one; over the past few months, however, that became more subjectively true than ever. In these five months I poured out my heart to God (and to Sister Marietta!) --- more profoundly than I had ever managed before; I clung in growing and deepening trust and faith to God in the person of my director and through her (in addition to the ordinary and more solitary ways God comes to me) God effected a healing I truly could not have imagined. My very capacity to be this open was a sign of healing and growth --- not because I had purposely withheld myself from the work of direction (much less of prayer!), but because dimensions of my heart were not even accessible to me and could not be made so vulnerable in the past. Please understand that such vulnerability is itself the fruit of Divine Love and thus, a grace of God --- as is any person who loves us in a way which empowers such vulnerability, openness and trust.

Choose LIFE!

My vocation to eremitical solitude, as I mentioned a couple of months ago, is not in question, but what I am also even clearer about is the importance of making sure hermits have truly competent directors and that they make their commitments to the silence of solitude as decidedly ecclesial vocations. Hermits are part of the Body of Christ and while their lives differ from those of most people in embracing a solitary desert spirituality, the basic decision is for life within the Body --- not for the isolation of death. The transition from more contact with and dependence upon my director to more usual eremitical solitude once again is something she and I will both assume responsibility for just as we both assumed responsibility for a more intense and extensive contact in the first place.

So let me also be clear in the matter of this distinction. It is a call to LIFE, to ABUNDANT LIFE I am meant to live as a hermit; I am not called to a kind of half-life of external or physical solitude which is merely labeled "eremitical" --- heroic as that may seem to others. When life itself requires the mediation of God's presence through the assistance of others the hermit will reach out and accept that assistance and mediation --- though she will do so in a way which protects the essential solitude of her vocation more generally. "God alone" never means an exaggerated dependence on what is often mistakenly taken to be the direct or immediate presence of God without regard to the fruit of this dependence. That way lies narcissism and delusion. Instead hermits, like anyone else, choose LIFE and the God of Life in Christ; moreover they do so by paying attention to the fruit of the choices they make, both in the short and long term.

There are times when we all need the God Who is mediated to us in relationships with other human beings. We need the God mediated in bread and wine and oil, in the proclaimed Word celebrated in human voice and broken open in human thought, or even in a kiss of peace, for instance, which sanctifies (or better maybe, expresses the sanctity of) human touch; in other words we each need the people required to realize all of these and so many more instances of God's sacramental presence. The hermit embraces a vocation which is ecclesial in this sense as well: her call is mediated to her by the Church in one way and another on a daily basis and she responds similarly as is appropriate for one committed to choosing life not death. I find canon 603 to be beautifully written in this sense as well as others I have mentioned in the past: that is, it demands the hermit be living an ecclesial life in every sense both despite and because of  the accent on "stricter separation from the world" and "the silence of solitude". It provides for an approved Rule, for profession governed by the life and canons of the Church, for the supervision of legitimate superiors and (implicitly) spiritual director, for a local (diocesan) Church context and for the sacramental mediation of God's presence all of these provide and allow. Remember that in the Church's wisdom even vocations to actual reclusion require structures and relationships which underscore the mediated and ecclesial character of the recluse hermit's vocational call and response. These allow one to live a healthy anachoresis or "withdrawal" instead of an unhealthy isolation.

The Contemplative Life: Dealing with What IS:

One final word on your last question, "Shouldn't I have been able to "dwell with God alone" and find the healing needed?" Contemplative life is about dealing with reality. I cannot say whether I "should have been" able or not. The fact was I was NOT able to "achieve" the healing necessary without this very specific and intense assistance at this time. I was being called to greater or more abundant life in Christ and that meant working with my director in the way we have for the past five months. We both discerned the truth and necessity of this work. We both paid attention to signs of healing, greater life, shifts in prayer, signs of increased spontaneity, creativity, wholeness, recovered gifts, etc as we engaged in this work. We both understood and were committed (in differing ways) to my eremitical vocation and were clear that paradoxically it was the authenticity of this vocation which made this work possible and even necessary at this time. And, at those many difficult times when I was simply so immersed in the pain and even terror of the work itself and could not hold a wider perspective, I counted on my director (and my delegate, by the way) to do that for me --- and for the Church who has entrusted this vocation to me and to our work together. 

 Again, this is part of the giftedness an ecclesial vocation involves. While this may be a surprise to some, it means I and other canonical hermits are called and empowered to respond to God in the unexpected but very real way God comes to us and less to some more abstract notion of what "should" be the case. The structures and relationships codified in canon law (c 603 etc) are established to serve love and the choice of life by the solitary hermit. It does so by empowering the ability of diocesan hermits to live in the present moment and to avoid significant mistakes in discernment which occur in the absence of competent direction or religious leadership and supervision as we attempt instead and misguidedly to "Go it alone".

I hope this is helpful.