03 March 2018

The Desert Fathers and Mothers: On the Hermit's Need for Human Relationships in Achieving Holiness

[[When one desert father told another of his plans to “shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,” the second monk replied, “ Unless thou first amend thy life going to and fro amongst men, thou shall not avail to amend it dwelling alone.”]] (Sayings of the Desert fathers and Mothers)

I think this Desert Father and Mother apothegm is especially important and fascinating because it explicitly forbids one to move into solitude and away from others merely in some attempt to perfect oneself. This flies in the face of the way many conceive of eremitical life as well as the way some would-be-hermits describe the vocation. But it should not surprise anyone who carefully reflects on the Great Commandment and the interrelatedness of its two elements, love of God and love of neighbor. Especially it should not surprise those who live eremitical life in the name of the Church; we know the communal nature of our eremitical solitude --- nuanced and rare as it may be. We know too that our formation as hermits generally comes after (and requires) years of life in community, whether religious or parish (along with all of the forms of community we experience throughout life). Similarly, ongoing formation requires personal work with directors and delegates --- and usually some degree of life in a parish community. (As I have written here before, actual eremitical reclusion today is allowed by the Church in only two congregations: Camaldolese and Carthusian. It is important to recognize the community context, supervision, and support this even rarer vocation calls for.)

The human perfection we call holiness is the wholeness of the reconciled person who is therefore alive in the fullness of his or her personal truth. This implies reconciliation with God, with self, and with all else in God. It implies a profound capacity for compassion, for the ability to see Christ in others, and the willingness to spend oneself for the sake of others. Desert elders knew the desire to seek perfection in physical reclusion by turning one's back on people is badly motivated and can lack the preparation necessary for becoming a hermit and moving into eremitical solitude. They knew that solitude is a demanding and dangerous environment and particularly so for those unprepared for and not called to it. Even in those who are called to it eremitical solitude can be the source of illusory and delusional thinking and perceptions. Thus the requirement for ongoing direction by experienced spiritual directors and the supervision by bishops and/or their delegates.

The desert Fathers were convinced that the way human beings come to achieve the necessary experience leading to repentance for sin and amendment of life is through one's ordinary interactions with other human beings. Contrary to popular opinion perhaps, the authentic eremitical vocation is not one where an individual moves into the desert merely to pursue personal or "spiritual" perfection in some sort of "solitary splendor" or in an interpersonal and relational vacuum. One moves into solitude 1) because solitude has truly opened her door to one, and 2) because with the church one discerns this is what God is calling one to and is prepared to live for the whole of her life as the fulfillment of the Great Commandment. Discernment that one is called in this way will include a sense that one is healthy in terms of interpersonal relationships and that one has achieved relative maturity in one's spirituality and Catholic identity. This is a traditional stance. St Benedict, for instance, affirms that hermits must have lived in community for some time and, of course, not be in the first blush of conversion.

I want to emphasize the place of discernment here, not only the discernment we each do on our own but the discernment we do with the Church itself in the person of legitimate superiors and directors, i.e., bishops, vicars of religious, delegates, et al. Part of this discernment, and indeed initial and ongoing formation is meant to ensure that the hermit or hermit candidate's motives are not selfish or otherwise misguided and that solitude has indeed herself opened the door to this vocation. What this means is that the hermit/candidate is responding to a Divine call; the Church will also make sure the hermit/candidate is prepared not only to live in solitude but more, that she will grow and thrive in it in ways which will be a gift to the Church and thus, to others. There are subtleties involved here and nuances which the hermit/candidate may not appreciate until much later and may not be able to determine on her own. It is also important to remember that since a hermit does not do apostolic ministry** the ways she lives her solitude and the meaning her life embodies within and as a result of this solitude are themselves the gift God gives the Church through the hermit. Supervision and discernment (mutual and otherwise) are required not only early on for a candidate not yet admitted to profession but throughout the hermit's life. ***

One of the reasons I stressed these needs (supervision and discernment) and the way they are ensured is because they are a part of the hermit's integral need for others in her life. Whether we are hermits or even recluses we need others who know us well and are capable of assessing in a continuing way the quality of our vocation, and encouraging and assisting us to grow in our responsiveness to it. Canonical (consecrated) hermits are called to ecclesial vocations and the Church has the right and obligation to oversee these just as she expects us to continue to grow as human beings; canonical hermits have accepted the obligation to grow and participate in those "professional" relationships which help ensure that. Yes, hermits do grow in light of their experience of the love of God; they grow as human beings and as hermits through their experience of Christ in the silence of solitude and the disciplined and attentive living of their Rule and horarium, but what growth there is in these things is often dependent on the hermit's work with her director and delegate, and also with her interactions and relationships with folks from her parish and/or diocese.

In eremitical (or any other) solitude it is simply too easy to say, "God wills this," or "God is calling me to that," when discernment is done by the hermit alone. In such a situation the temptation is to canonize or apotheosize one's own opinions, perceptions, tendencies, and so forth. God does not literally speak to us as human beings do but instead does so through Sacred texts, sacraments, prayer, and the fruits of our choices and actions, etc; since we learn to love and be loved in our contact with others, hermits must 1) be well-formed in learning to hear (discern) and respond to God in authentic ways, and 2) they must be adequately supervised and directed in this. This does not mean one meets every week or even every month with one's delegate, or spiritual director. "Adequate" means whatever is sufficient to allow the hermit/candidate to grow in her vocation first as a human being called to live from and mediate the love of God (and others) and secondly as a hermit who does this in the silence of solitude.

** Hermits may do some very limited apostolic ministry but are not and cannot be identified in terms of this ministry as are apostolic or ministerial religious. The silence of solitude is always primary and definitive for the hermit's life.

*** Some have written that the need for direction and supervision cease to be important when the hermit has lived the life for some time. I believe this is a false conclusion, It is true that the nature of direction and the supervisory relationships change with time and maturity but it seems to me they may become even more critical over time. Whether that is generally true or not the need for ongoing formation and discernment continues through the whole of the hermit's life.