02 October 2018

On Selfishness versus Selflessness in Eremitical Life

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered if you could clarify how an eremitical vocation is not a selfish vocation, particularly in light of your last post on limited ministry and having an apostolate to the eremitical life/hermitage. Thank you.]]

Thanks for your question. I have been struggling to articulate the truth of this since August 2015 or so and gradually moving towards this important point in my prayer and reflection for a lot longer than that. One of the posts I wrote prior to the last post (01. October. 2018) dealt with the distinction between retiring to a hermitage out of selfishness and doing so out of a genuine love for others; it is found here: On the Question of Selfishness versus Hiddenness Lived for Others. I would urge you to take a look at this. I think it is clearer in some ways than my last post, but it does not use the language of "apostolate", a form of structured evangelization or proclamation of the Gospel to which one is sent (or with which one is entrusted) by the Church.

You see, hermits evangelize precisely by becoming whole and holy in their hermitages and thus witnessing to the fact that every human being, no matter how poor, is called to and can attain the same authentic humanity. We say that God completes us, that God alone is sufficient for us. I think this is what Merton was speaking of when he said (paraphrase) "the primary duty of the hermit is to live in (his) hermitage without pretense in a fundamental peace (and joy)," or, that the hermit makes "fundamental claims about nature and grace" which truly gives hope to others. What Merton saw, and I think what every authentic hermit sees is that his "apostolate" was exercised precisely within the hermitage. We are sent forth (made apostles) to proclaim the Good News with our lives, but the place within which that apostolate always occurs is the hermitage through  "stricter separation from the world," and "the silence of solitude" lived and achieved there. The Church is entrusted with this vocation and is responsible for sending hermits forth into their hermitages because she believes profoundly that commissioning hermits paradoxically advances the proclamation of the Gospel in our world.

I think it is relatively easy to substitute selfishness for the unselfishness of the authentic eremitical vocation. While people are free to choose lay eremitical life, it is easier to do so selfishly when hermits are not charged (commissioned) by the church with the mission canonical hermits are charged with, when, that is, someone simply chooses solitude as the environment in which they will live their lives. Whether true or not, this choice usually seems at least somewhat selfish to those looking at the hermit's life unless there are mitigating circumstances which make solitude a necessary context for living a life of wholeness and holiness. Here is one place admission to canonical standing helps clarify the motivation and meaning of the hermit's solitude. Moreover, since the external trappings are mainly the same for each one these do not clarify whether the life lived is essentially selfish or not;  thus too, determining selfishness and unselfishness is part of what makes discernment and formation both critical, difficult, and relatively time consuming. Over time the Church will see that the hermit's life is lived for God and for others, and that the hermit will persevere in the sacrifices needed in order to do this in "the silence of solitude" or she will find that the hermit is not called to eremitical life. The Church will find that she is meant to mediate God's own "sending" or missioning a person into stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude, or she is not.

Certain things will be evident in the life of eremitical authenticity: faithfulness to one's Rule, perseverance in trust in the God who alone is sufficient for us, growth in wholeness and holiness as one undertakes one's life of prayer, personal work, lectio, and study in silence and solitude.  One's love for God, for others and for oneself will also grow; personal healing and maturation will clearly be present in an ongoing way. The capacity to securely hold onto the foundational vision of the life as one negotiates legitimate ministerial claims upon one's time and energies will gradually be revealed and strengthened. A deep happiness at being oneself as a hermit which is not the same as the superficial happiness of getting one's own way or "doing one's own thing" will be increasingly evident, and one will be entirely comfortable with the sacrifices the vocation requires because the grace of the vocation is so much greater and important to and for others.

Although not quite on topic, let me say here that the profound sense some bishops and vicars have that this vocation should not be rushed into, that formation and discernment both take time (at least five years for initial formation and discernment) are right on target. (I would suggest at least five years mutual discernment is necessary before one can be admitted to temporary profession but that this is not long enough to admit to perpetual profession unless there is significant religious formation and life experience before beginning the pursuit of profession under c 603.) In any case, it is only over time that the motivation and sacrifices which are part and parcel of the vocation become truly clear to everyone involved in the processes of discernment and formation. One of these sacrifices is active ministry except on a very limited basis; at the same time the conviction that life in the hermitage itself is our apostolate is something we will come to see clearly only in time.

The bottom line in distinguishing between selfishness and selflessness is rooted in the truth that it is a profoundly loving and ministerial act to accept the commission to become the persons God calls us to be in the silence of solitude. Because the hermit believes deeply in this paradoxical truth and embraces it wholeheartedly she will make every sacrifice including the renunciation of many discrete gifts and talents which would be tied to ministries outside the hermitage in order to live the truth of the completion and redemption  that comes to her as the fruits of eremitical life.  She will wholeheartedly embrace stricter separation from the world and life lived in and for the silence of solitude along with the other requirements of c 603 precisely because doing so will allow her own redemption and the unique proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ associated with her eremitical life. She will do so in order to witness to the power of the grace of God to transform every human poverty into the fullness of incarnational humanity. She will embrace and allow God to achieve in her life the self-emptying required to glorify God in the silence of eremitical solitude.

Moreover, she will do so for the sake of those from whom she is largely separated and to whom her life is largely hidden in order that they may also know the freedom and hope of life lived in communion with God. To fail in this is to fail to allow God to redeem one in the solitude of the hermitage; it is to fail to commit to the growth in wholeness and holiness the love of God makes possible and to live an isolated egotism rather than the silence of solitude. Beside the importance of the Church's "sending" of the hermit into "the silence of solitude," this is the reason the redemptive element is also so crucial for discerning authentic eremitical vocations.  When the hermit's eremitical life fails to reflect an experience of redemption in solitude there is simply nothing for her to witness to and she will have failed to live eremitical life successfully ---  or at least to demonstrate this was what she was called and sent to by God via the ministry of God's Church..

I sincerely hope this is helpful to you.