21 October 2018

On Hermit Ministry and the Call to become God's own Prayer in our World

[[Dear Sister, I've been thinking about what you wrote about eremitical life not being selfish earlier this month. I also read the post you linked that one to. I think I understand your position but how in the world would the Church be able to distinguish between someone who is living a form of selfishness and someone who gives up using discrete gifts for the sake of a more basic message?  How does the Church at large see what hermit's witness to when they have such a strong emphasis on ministering to others in active ministries? Do you see your prayer for others being an important piece of your own ministry (not sure I understand about becoming God's own prayer but I don't like the language of "prayer warrior" either)?]]

Your questions are important; thank you for them. Your first question has to do with discernment and implicitly it addresses the importance of the Church's role in governing and supervising eremitical vocations --- at least to the extent they are truly eremitical and genuinely witness to the fact that God alone is sufficient for us. It is true that superficially a selfish life and a life that instead gives up discrete gifts for the sake of this message largely look the same. Both are mainly not involved in active ministry; both are lived in a kind of separation from others. At bottom, however, I think it becomes clear that the motivation for these will differ one from the other; at the same time, when one looks deeper, it becomes clear that the first is NOT lived for the salvation of others while the second one is. You see, the second and authentically eremitical vocation is motivated by love, first of all by love of God and in and through that, by one's love of everyone and everything grounded in God; it will be marked not by selfishness but by the gift of one's time. energy, resources, dwelling place, etc (including the sacrifice of some or most all of one's specific gifts and talents) for God's own sake. It is a difficult paradox which trusts that the Gospel message turns on the power of God being made perfect in weakness or even emptiness.

My sense is that the evidence that this is a vocation of love and self-sacrifice will simply not be the case in the instance of selfishness. A diocese will, over time, be able to see that a "hermit" lives this life mainly as an expression of selflessness and isolation. They will be able to discern how and why others are living vocations of love instead. Similarly then, they will be able to discern whether this person is simply an isolated person "happy" (or deeply unhappy!) in their isolation (that is, they are not living or seeking to live eremitical solitude in order to love God and others) and who are perhaps attempting to validate this antisocial stance by achieving the standing of a religious, or whether this person/candidate has embraced a necessary separation from others in order to serve them as a hermit. (For those with chronic illnesses, and other forms of brokenness that they are working with and through with spiritual direction, etc., the Church will generally be able to see that isolation has been transformed by God into solitude with God for the sake of others and a "stricter separation from the world" than that embraced by other religious; they will be able to see that the person desiring to be recognized as a hermit will have worked towards and embraced this important redemptive distinction.) I think this is one way the Church discerns whether they are dealing with a lone, profoundly unhappy and isolated individual or whether they are dealing with an authentic eremitical vocation.

Your question about seeing can also be a question about understanding, namely, how does the Church understand what hermit's witness to when they have such a strong emphasis on ministering to others. Here I think the Church must turn to her own theology of the Cross, her own reflection on the cross of Christ and how it was that at the moment Jesus was most incapable of active ministry, when he had to let go of all of his discrete gifts and talents, when, that is, he could count on nothing and no one but the power of God's love working in and through him in his abject poverty and weakness, that was his most powerful act of ministry. Jesus' death on the cross changed the whole of reality; it was  not a matter of healing 1 person or 1000, or even 1,000,000's. His openness and responsiveness to God alone, his witness to the fact that God's love alone is sufficient for us and for reconciling and perfecting the whole of reality, was something he did only as his deepest, most exhaustive act of self-emptying.

My own conviction is that hermits are called to a similar degree of self-emptying. My own life and death are not going to change all of reality in the way Jesus's did, but I participate in moving that same change in Christ forward and I can certainly witness to the foundational truth that nothing at all (including isolation and the lack of gifts and talents with which one can or will serve others) will separate us from the love of God. More, even in our emptiness and incapacity we can witness to a love that is deeper than death and itself can transform all of reality. My own hope is that the Church will come in time to understand more completely that hermits are not primarily called to be prayer warriors or "power houses of prayer", for instance, or to measure their lives in terms of various active ministries, but instead, that we are called to witness in a form of white martyrdom to the Cross of Christ and the way human emptiness itself can become a Sacrament of the powerful and eternal Love-in-act that is God --- if only we are truly obedient to that Love-in-Act. This obedience (which is always motivated by love, faith, and a degree of selflessness) is what I was referring to in the first couple of paragraphs above --- the thing that distinguishes a true hermit from a lone individual whose life is marked by isolation rather than eremitical solitude.

So, in saying this, I think I have anticipated your question about being a prayer warrior vs becoming God's own prayer. Yes, I believe the assiduous prayer a hermit does is important and indispensable. However, in saying I believe the hermit (especially and paradigmatically) is meant to become God's own prayer in the world, what I mean is that in our radical self-emptying and obedience we open ourselves to becoming the Word God speaks to the world. This word, like the Word Incarnate in Christ, will be the embodiment of God's own will, love, life, dreams, purposes, etc. When you or I pray we pour ourselves into our prayer and our prayer is an expression of who we are and yearn to become. At the same time, in prayer (and thus, in Christ) we are taken up more intimately into God's own life. God's own being, will, and "yearnings" for the whole of creation are realties we are called on to express and embody or incarnate with our own lives. When we allow this foundational transformation to occur we more fully become the new creation we were made in baptism, a new kind of language or word event; we become flesh made Word and a personal expression of the Kingdom/Reign (sovereignty) of God. In other words, while hermits (and others!) are called upon to pray assiduously, we are made more fundamentally to be God's own prayer in our world and to witness to the fact that every person is capable of and called to this.

Addendum: I realized I did not answer your question re how the church sees this vocation given her strong emphasis on active ministry. It is a really good question, perceptive and insightful. Unfortunately, despite documents and other clear statements on the importance of contemplative life, my own experience is that generally speaking, chancery personnel distrust contemplative life and especially eremitical forms of contemplative live. In part this is because everything happening there is inner --- a matter of the deepest parts of the human person alone with God --- without this necessarily spilling over into active ministry or immediate personal change (growth here is ordinarily slow and quiet); for this reason such vocations can be difficult to  deal with and seem difficult to govern by those charged with such tasks in the chancery --- especially when these persons are not contemplatives or essentially contemplative themselves.  But in part it is because among chancery clergy and religious  there is sometimes a kind of sense that contemplative prayer is relatively insignificant in comparison to active ministry. (This may well be a reason prayer itself is consistently made into a quasi-active ministry and hermits are called (or called to be) "prayer warriors" by some; this may also stem from the traditional vision of hermits battling the demonic in our world) The notion that the hermit is called to BE someone, namely God's own prayer in our world, rather than simply being called to DO something, namely assiduous prayer and penance is not an easy theologicaL transition for some to take hold of.

It is the case that some who do not understand contemplative prayer mischaracterize and distrust it. This tends to be a more Protestant than Catholic failing but some Catholic clergy has been known to see contemplative prayer in an elitist way, and so, dismiss ordinary person's accounts that they are called to it. Also, however, given the prevalence of individualism rampant in today's society which includes experiments in cocooning and an overemphasis on electronic devices even when we are together socially,  chancery personnel are right to be suspicious of (or at least cautious about) individuals claiming to have felt they have an eremitical vocation, since such vocations are actually antithetical to the individualism of the culture and meant to be prophetic in this regard. Finally, there is the simple fact that such vocations have always been statistically and spiritually rare. Church officials are, in this regard as well, rightly cautious in discerning eremitical vocations or dealing with something whose nature is so clearly paradoxical (e.g., communal in solitude, witnessing in silence, etc).

Thanks again for your questions. I sincerely hope my answer is helpful. Get back to me if it raises more questions.