25 February 2018

On Eremitical Life, Hiddenness, and Illness

[[Dear Sister, what happens to hermits when they become ill? If one is supposed to "be hidden from the eyes of men" then how do they manage illnesses? Can they get help from others? Can they make Doctor's visits? I have been reading a blog post [title omitted here by Sister Laurel] by a Catholic hermit who claims that illness is a real issue because the hermit is supposed to live a hidden life. Her situation (she is too weak to get up to fix meals or even to go to the doctor) raises other questions for me. How can a diocesan bishop allow a hermit to be in such circumstances?  How do you balance the hiddenness of your vocation with times of illness. Do you ever need assistance with things? How do you handle that?]]

Interesting questions! Let me start by outlining something about "hiddenness" itself. This will not only explain why "hiddenness" is not present in canon 603 while it is present in the catechism's paragraphs on eremitical life, but it will also prepare the way for thinking about your questions re illness.

Hiddenness is not a primary value:

The hiddenness of the Catholic hermit (that is, the hiddenness of the hermit whom the Church herself has admitted to public profession and consecration!!) is only implicitly defined by canon 603. While hiddenness is explicitly mentioned in the catechism, this text is not legislative or prescriptive. It is descriptive but not prescriptive in the same way the central elements of c 603 are prescriptive. This does not mean hiddenness is unimportant, but it does mean it is derived from and secondary to the elements of the life c.603 legislates. A canonical or consecrated hermit is not bound to live hiddenness; it is the result of and is shaped by the things she IS bound to live, namely, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, the evangelical counsels, all supervised by the diocesan bishop and those he delegates to do so in his place. What this means is that as significant as hiddenness may be to the Catholic hermit, these other elements have priority to any notion of hiddenness; more, these other things give a better sense of what defines eremitical life!

Another way of looking at this is to note that hiddenness may or may not be edifying. It is the reasons one manifests hiddenness that are more important than hiddenness itself I think. What I mean is that in eremitical life hiddenness is rarely a value in and of itself (in most areas of life hiddenness -- not privacy or discretion --- is a disvalue and this can be true even in eremitical life). That is especially true in Christian eremitical life where witness is a very high value in eremitical and other forms of discipleship. (For that matter discipleship is itself a very high value which must be seen to undergird other values like solitude, silence, and penance, for instance.) Because I embrace a life of the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance I will find there is an essential hiddenness about my life but you see, my life is a hidden one because my engagement with God and my commitment to life mainly takes place in a hermit's cell. Thus the questions I ask myself in discerning whether I am called to this or that activity (outside the general outlines of my Rule) is rooted in whether these are commitments to God and life in and for God in my eremitical calling, not whether it fosters hiddenness or not.

To choose hiddenness for its own sake may allow or even invite one to mask all kinds of problems or label any form of separation from others as "eremitical" when they are really a refusal to engage or to live with and for others, that is, when they are a refusal to love as Christians are called to love. Self-hatred, misanthropy, selfishness, and any number of other "pathologies" can take root and/or thrive in "hiddenness from the eyes of (others)". The reason for one's hiddenness is and must be rooted in a higher and transcendent value which makes hiddenness itself meaningful as a Christian value. For the solitary Catholic (canonical) hermit some of these are the central elements of canon 603. For the Catholic (i.e., the canonical) hermit who is part of a community or congregation they are the central elements of their Rule and Constitutions.

Dealing With Illness and other Needs:

All of this helps explain why canon 603, the canon which governs (consecrated) solitary eremitical life in the Roman Catholic Church does not even mention "hiddenness from the eyes of men," while the catechism includes this. Again, the canon is prescriptive in nature; it defines the elements which are primary or essential. It prescribes these as essential like a doctor prescribing medications indicates these are essential. The catechism is descriptive and includes elements which are secondary or derivative --- that is, elements which are less essential or which derive from the more primary, essential elements; these are still part of the picture drawn by someone describing eremitical life as a whole.

If I thought I was primarily or mainly called to live a life of "hiddenness from the eyes of (others)" I would struggle constantly with whether or not I could leave my hermitage to shop, attend Mass, go to doctor's visits, or even (as I did today) attend a Town hall meeting on stopping gun violence! Heck, I would have to question whether one could even be called to public vows if one is primarily called to this same hiddenness. But I am called to live an essentially Christian eremitical vocation of assiduous prayer and penance in the silence of solitude. Sometimes that means being openly and demonstrably a member of a number of human communities! Moreover, I am a Catholic hermit with a serious chronic illness. That means I have needs and must meet them if I am to live life prayerfully --- that is attentively, gratefully, and responsibly.


Like most folks I have a number of people I can call for assistance. My director and I meet regularly here at the hermitage and she is available in between meetings should I need to contact her. I belong to a parish community and am ordinarily able to attend Mass 2-3 days a week; parish members, my pastor, a number of friends, are all available should I need various kinds of assistance. I generally simply need to ask and we will find a way to work things out together. But let me be clear here, in most situations I am the one responsible for initiating contact or the request for help. I do not expect people to read my mind and precisely because the majority of my life is undertaken in the silence of solitude I don't expect folks to worry about me or call to check on me if they don't see me for some time.

If I become as sick as the person you describe purportedly is or was, then arrangements would need to be made for regular assistance unless hospitalization is the real need. In such a situation there would be absolutely no problem at all having people come into the hermitage to assist me and no problem if I need transportation to doctors appointments or if I need to be hospitalized. As noted above, canonical (consecrated) hermits do NOT primarily commit to remain hidden from others. They commit to an essentially solitary vocation of Christian life and love where the foundational and defining relationship is a hidden one. The diocesan hermit's delegate or director, and ultimately, of course, her Bishop are responsible for ensuring she can (and does) live her Rule and fulfill her vows --- along with anything else which constitute essential elements of her eremitical calling.

This is true in initial discernment, through temporary vows (which should allow sufficient time for the diocese to be sure the person can truly live the life before admission to perpetual profession; they will continue to do something similar after perpetual profession as well. (While serious failures to live eremitical life after perpetual profession might actually require dispensation of vows, elder hermits becoming seriously ill after years of living eremitical life, for instance, are another matter. Though these hermits might well need to move to some form of assisted or modified solitary/communal living to deal adequately with their illness or disability no one would seriously suggest their vows should be dispensed.)

As a point of information however, the blogger you are referring to, is not a consecrated (canonical) hermit. She is a lay person living as a dedicated hermit with private vows. This means her bishop is no more directly responsible for supervising the way she lives than he is for supervising the way any other lay person in his diocese lives. Her life may raise all kinds of questions but the actions of the bishop of her diocese do not --- at least not in her regard.

I hope this is helpful.

15 February 2018

Choose Life (Reprise)


When I was a very young sister, I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then:

Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister H Kelly)

The readings from the Thursday after Ash Wednesday both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accomodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."

The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]

I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are CALLED to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.

God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.

The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us PARE DOWN all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.

It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose death  instead.

Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!

02 February 2018

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Overture to Hansel and Gretel



Well, OCO now has one more concert under its belt with only two pieces this time. The main piece in last weekend's concert was Mahler's 4th Symphony but that is not "up" yet --- meaning our really wonderful videographer has not managed that yet! The overture was Humperdinck's "Overture to Hansel and Gretel" and it was conducted by Shannon Houston, our Associate Conductor. Because we are an amateur orchestra whose players all have day jobs, we all get the chance to do things which stretch us. Thus, Shannon is a fine violinist who most often plays principle second with OCO and is learning conducting at the same time. (Speaking of being stretched, our videographer is actually one of our bassists, Carol de Arment. Carol is teaching herself the in's and out's of videography and in the process of putting together a long piece chronicling the 25 year history of OCO!) Remember to enlarge to full screen!

Addendum: apologies to Carol deArment! She sent me a link to the first movement of the Mahler this morning --- probably not long after I noted the symphony was not up yet! I also said above that the music we play stretches us --- and in ways which are hard to quantify. In speaking about this program Marty, our conductor, did a little quantifying; she said had waited to conduct Mahler for 25 years! That is partly dependent on having an orchestra that can do that technically, but it is very much more a matter of being a conductor who can help them do that! It takes its own kind of stretching to lead an orchestra to play difficult music and to do so as an ensemble which has come to share in the conductor's (and the composer's) musical sense and artistic vision. Getting there, to whatever extent we do that, is really hard work! Ultimately it is usually joyful as well. In any case, here is the first movement of Mahler's 4th symphony.