03 March 2017

On Woundedness, Healing, and the Vocation to Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, When you write about the inner work you have been doing and the healing it has caused it makes me wonder if you are thinking of leaving your vows as a hermit. I am not quite sure how to ask this but you have written that hermits need to be well to make vows. Do you still hold this? Were you well when you made your vows or did you become a hermit because you were not well? (Please don't get me wrong. I love your blog and I wouldn't have thought of asking about this except for your raising the issue yourself!!!) You have also said that with this inner work you have come to stand in a place where you have never been before (I think I got that right) so could this mean you might be happier doing active ministry and not living as a hermit?]]

Really important questions. Thank you for them and don't worry, I think I understand why you asked them. Thank you also for loving my blog; it has grown into something I never foresaw and most of the time am rather proud of. Let me begin my response by saying I think you may have missed a recent post I put up on "Creating the Heart of a Hermit" (that's  not the exact title). In that post I affirmed that in the work I have been doing what became clear to me was that God has been preparing me for this vocation throughout the whole of my life. By that I don't mean that God planned the events which tended to isolate me or keep me feeling profoundly alone (I could never love or serve such a God), but rather, that God was continually present, unceasingly calling me by Name to live freely and fully in communion with (Him) and loving me in a way which empowered me to realize the potential (He) endowed me with.

The movement of God in my life was constantly about the transformation of isolation into authentic solitude and I grew to love solitude as an expression of community even if it is rarely understood in this way by non hermits. In other words, God does not will isolation but solitude is one form of the redemption of isolation, a redemption marked by reconciliation with one's deepest self, with God and with others. It is marked by the healing of woundedness; as one grows in what I refer to in the language of canon 603 as "the silence of solitude" so too one may experience deeper healing and the call to this. Thus, I believe that my heart IS the heart of a hermit and that this heart has been formed both implicitly and explicitly over a period of almost seven decades by the love of God. In other words, I am not leaving my vows or this life. I am called to it by God through the mediation of (His) Church and I am surer of that today than I was even on the day I  made definitive profession.

But this leaves some of your thornier questions untouched, doesn't it? Let me give them a shot. First, the questions about wellness. What I have said in the past is that while the environment of the hermitage allows personal healing work to be undertaken it is better to take care of such matters before making any public commitment. I have also written that eremitical life is not the life for folks with serious mental illnesses, especially those with thought disorders or disorders with religious ideation. But the fact is that many people may function very well, have sound spiritualties, well-developed theologies, and be essentially well despite deep woundedness from this or that trauma. Their woundedness may be the basis of their turning to God long before they learn faith or the love of God. It may also be a major source of their capacity for compassion and service or ministry. I believe this describes my own journey to and within eremitical life --- I was profoundly wounded but essentially well as well as capable of and committed to a growing wholeness and holiness in the silence of solitude.*** It is important to remember that in Christianity we refer to wounded healers and a Divine power made perfect in weakness for a reason! We proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and we know that this good news can ONLY be truly heard and embraced by those who have come to know their own sinfulness and/or woundedness.

However, I am not talking about serious mental illness when I refer to woundedness and eremitical life specifically and I continue to believe those who have serious mental illnesses should ordinarily not be admitted to profession or consecration as hermits. But I do believe that some persons may be profoundly initiated by their woundedness into both the physical isolation which is central to eremitical solitude and the yearning for the love of God which can help redeem and transfigure isolation into authentic solitude. When this happens such a person may find that they are well-prepared temperamentally and perhaps  psychologically if not in other ways (intellectually and spiritually, for instance) to embrace a call to eremitical life so long as that life is well and competently directed and the person's commitment to growing in wholeness and holiness are strong. Remember that Thomas Merton rather famously is reported to have said that "Hermits are made by difficult Mothers" and his own youth and adolescence were marked by significant loss and aloneness. The result was a sense of existential emptiness  --- wonderfully chronicled and analyzed in Gunn's Journeys into Emptiness --- which, through long formation, was transfigured in his monastic and eremitical life into a solitude defined in terms of communion, love, and remarkable fruitfulness.

One of the reasons eremitical vocations must be carefully discerned over a period of time and require recommendations by longtime spiritual directors, Vicars for Religious, pastors and others, sometimes including psychologists and physicians, has to do not only with the eccentricity of the vocation and the rarity of someone being meant to live a fully human life in the silence of solitude, but with the need to be sure the person's capacity for living this vocation in a healthy and fruitful way is certain. This was one of the first questions my own diocese and Vicar had to ask when they began considering professing me or anyone else under canon 603. Sister Susan Blomstad, OSF (Vicar for Religious and Director of Vocations at the time) travelled to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur with another Sister to question the prior about this particular question: What did the Camaldolese look for in discerning candidates who could live healthy eremitical lives? Every diocese that has proposed to profess anyone under c 603 has had to deal directly with the same question, not because eremitical life is unhealthy but because it is extremely rare and eccentric.

Personal woundedness can cut two ways: it can make a person absolutely unsuitable for this vocation and require they discern a different call which is really their personal way to wholeness and holiness, or it can actually shape a person's heart and psyche in ways which would then make this call a gift of God  that is especially tailored to the person's fulfillment in Christ and the context for a journey to genuine wholeness and holiness. Which way the person's woundedness will cut takes time to become evident; it will need ongoing work with a director, the discernment of a number of qualified people, and commitment to the life itself (prior to vows as well as thereafter) to reach clarity. Those who are dismayed that the time frame for becoming a diocesan hermit is long and individualized, or that it requires significant evidence of the candidate's capacity to make the commitment required and to thrive in light of this commitment (something evident with temporary vows in those eventually admitted to perpetual profession) probably have not adequately appreciated the various reasons for and types of solitude, or the distinction between being a hermit, especially one living eremitical life in the name of the Church, and being a lone individual who is pretty much simply "doing his/her own thing".

I think I have answered all of your questions. If I missed something, or if my responses raise more questions for you please get back to me. Your questions were really excellent and drew from several of my posts or positions written over a period of time; I enjoy responding to those kinds of queries and usually see no reason at all to take offense. For the most part they help me come to greater clarity on things I might never consider directly on my own, so again, thank you. I really want you to feel free to follow up if that is necessary.

*** when I speak of essential wellness here I am not speaking about physical health. As readers tend to know, I have struggled with chronic physical illness my entire adult life. This was a factor in my discernment of eremitical life but was not the defining element. Today it is even less influential in regard to my vocation while remaining something I struggle with. Many diocesan hermits have similar concerns with health issues and these may have played a part in discerning a vocation to solitude rather than to apostolic religious life; even so, none of those I know became hermits because of illness. Instead illness may have been a large part of creating a desert context which intensified or sharpened our search for God just as it deepened our meeting with God and our embrace of the gratuitous love offered to us in this "wilderness."