15 September 2018

On Ongoing and Serious Discernment Post-Perpetual Eremitical Profession

[[Dear Sister Laurel,  As I read your last post (cf.,September 4, 2018), I was struck by how much discernment you were engaged in. I think most people think of discernment as something one does at the beginning of a vocation but once one reaches profession and especially perpetual profession there won't be any more serious discernment required regarding vocation itself. But that's clearly not true, is it?

I also see much more clearly the role of your director/delegate in assisting you to live out this vocation more fully. There is a real partnership between the two of you which benefits the c 603 vocation as well as your own personal vocation. You have written about this before but this made the picture so much clearer for me! I wondered if you could say more about solitude and the work you have undertaken with Sister M. It seems to me that your relationship and work with her underscores the difference between isolation and solitude. But at the same time your work with her must take you out of the hermitage and away from the silence of solitude frequently. How does this work? Do you think you are changing the idea of what eremitical life is or requires?]]

Many thanks for your observations and questions; the last is a huge one! Yes, throughout the work with my director, but especially during the first year there was a fair amount of vocational discernment going on. That first year critical questions were raised with a new intensity: Was my commitment to eremitical life rooted in God's call or in my own brokenness or woundedness? Or, and this is what was reaffirmed in new and compelling ways, "Is my call a paradox rooted in both of these as my motto reminds me: 'My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.'" In the second year those initial questions quieted some as I worked through other things, and then, in the first months of the third year of work, I experienced a critical piece of healing coupled with a renewed or even increased excitement over canon 603 and it's adequacy and importance in nurturing  solitary eremitical vocations. My own passion re this canon and my experience of spending the last decade and more "unpacking" it in my own life plus the way an eremitical life made the inner work both possible and morally obligatory was strengthened throughout these past years; it also seems to have led to insights I can share with those involved in the discernment and formation of such vocations.

What is true is that once one has made perpetual profession one can generally rest in the assurance that one need not do continuing discernment over whether one has this vocation or not. Everyone has weighed in and found that one does. But there are several reasons eremitical life may need to be discerned anew: 1) it is rare and few are called to live a life of the silence of solitude; solitude comes in many forms, most of them transitional or temporary. It might not be unheard of to mistake this for a life calling, particularly if one is thriving in it. 2) the same circumstances that contribute to the making of the heart of a hermit can make one unsuited for such a call; while I think the difference is fairly easy to discern in most cases, I can think of a few where new information makes this less facile. 3) the eremitical life is a call to the privilege of love; its solitude is a rare form of community. If one undertakes personal/inner work which opens one to more common forms of loving, being loved, and participating in community, one will need to look again at one's vocational path. We are ALWAYS called to abundant human life -- that foundational vocation does not change --- but the path to achieving this can change. One must be sure one is responding appropriately --- especially when eremitical life is such an atypical route to human wholeness and holiness.

Working Within the Hermitage:

My work with Sister Marietta does not take me out of the hermitage, at least not usually. She comes here for our meetings and has done that for at least the last 15 years or so. Similarly, when I used to meet with the Vicar for Religious when first becoming a hermit, Sister Susan also drove here from the chancery. (Now that she is co-delegate and on her congregation's leadership team (Vicar) she still will drive here from her Motherhouse in Redwood City when that is possible; unfortunately, because she does not reside in Redwood City but lives down the coast, we don't get to see each other frequently or even often; usually these days we talk by phone!) My relationships with Sisters Marietta and Susan have underscored the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude, just as you say. My work with Marietta has led to changes in the degree of physical solitude I have experienced for the time being, but at the same time it has emphasized the way I come to wholeness in the silence of solitude and eremitical prayer. The work I have done with Sister Marietta is mainly done alone in the time between our appointments -- though she has been uniquely supportive of and present to/for me as I have needed.

Yes, this work with an accompanist and the delegate's role generally tend to be ones of real partnership. In c 603 life one reason this is true is because both the delegate and the hermit are responsible not only for the hermit's own vocation, but for the c 603 vocation itself. (This latter commitment on the hermit's part can also be part of what motivates her to continue discerning her own vocation even after perpetual profession; she is concerned that c 603 vocations be authentic and well-discerned!) But the partnership involved means that the hermit will do all she has committed to do in her profession, and her delegate will be there for her whenever needed and as that is possible. When the diocese asked me to select a delegate they wanted someone who would serve as a "quasi-superior." Over time Sisters Marietta and Susan and I have talked about this and the way the delegate(s)  should function in my life; at the same time my relationship with Marietta has changed, my own religious (eremitical) life has matured, and the way obedience is exercised between us generally involves mutual discussion of needs, limits, and perceptions. I attend to my life and to the God who is sovereign over that life; Marietta does the same. Together we work for my own well-being and (usually implicitly) the well-being of the diocesan hermit vocation.

Changing the Idea of Eremitical Life?

So, as to your last question, do I think I am changing the idea of what eremitical life is or requires? No, not really. Throughout the history of eremitical life hermits have always had elders or mentors to whom they could turn at need for instruction, words of encouragement, correction, and challenge. This was true in the deserts of Nitria and Scete; it was true in medieval times when hermits went to bishops for supervision and support. If you have read St Francis of Assisi's Rule for hermits/hermitages you may remember that Francis outlined a situation of three persons, four at most, two of whom served as "Mother" to the others. These brothers also had "custos" or superiors. It was the task of the "Mothers" to guard and otherwise serve the Sons as Martha served Jesus and Mary in the gospel parable. Roles were changed after some time of guaranteed silence, solitude, and contemplation with the brothers taking turns as "Sons" or "Mothers". Both Sons and Mothers lived in solitude, in this arrangement but it seems that the solitude of the "Sons" was stricter with the "Mothers" keeping people away from the "Sons".

The overall point here, and something which is emphasized in Canon 603 is that hermits require supervision, direction, and sometimes, the kind of accompaniment I have been afforded by my own director. Francis was not timid about using the term "Mothers" for those who served the "Sons" and their vocations in the way Francis' Rule outlined. There is an incredible intimacy and necessary dependency fostering maturation in solitude necessary in Francis' vision of eremitical life. It was a true partnership, and, since the roles could and would be reversed, one marked by the equality of peers. I think, unfortunately, that we think of hermits in more individualistic terms than is often healthy -- often because we equate solitude with physical solitude rather than with the intimacy of communion with God. But hermits are not called simply to "do their own things"; they are called to negotiate to demands of life "with God alone" and that requires assistance (which means it requires forms of community) even as the relationship (community) is lived in the silence of solitude.