13 November 2018

On Apostolic Ministry vs the Ministry of Hermits

Dear Sister Laurel, Today's society is one of action, which is how practically everyone, religious included seem to live.  If one is quiet or humble, it's generally looked down on.  What are your thoughts about this?

Good question! First off, I don’t think quietness and humility per se are the problem. What I mean is if one is a contemplative religious or hermit it is not quietness or humility which are problematical in a world which esteems active ministry. All religious life, active, or contemplative, --- indeed all Christian life --- value quietness (silence, stillness, self-control, etc.) and genuine humility (a loving self honesty), but there is no doubt our church generally esteems active ministry and what is called Apostolic religious life while it fails to truly esteem adequately contemplative life and especially eremitical life. I say this although the Church still writes contemporary documents honoring contemplative life; namely, in  spite of these and the fulsome praise of eremitical life given by Bp Remi de Roo in his intervention at Vatican II, for instance, it is still possible to find bishops and dioceses who/that will not give the implementation of canon 603 a chance, and who fail to demonstrate any genuine understanding of the eremitical vocation's charism or pneumatic gift-quality.

What I believe is that unless the church is truly able to see these things (forms of life and their charisms) as powerful and effective ways of proclaiming the Gospel, I don’t think this will change. Our world is in terrible need of hearing the Gospel proclaimed in every possible key and yet all too often contemplative life is seen as ineffective or even selfish. In a world marked and marred by individualism, eremitical life strikes people as a symptom and even the epitome of a cultural epidemic of alienation, selfishness, and self-centeredness. Once again people have to see these things (contemplative and eremitical life) as being powerful ways of witnessing to and proclaiming the generosity, self-emptying, grace, promise, and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For instance,  while I agree hermits should be persons of assiduous prayer, I don’t think the idea of being powerhouses of prayer, for instance, ordinarily serves as much more than a thinly veiled form of active ministry; it is not the way to achieve the goal just mentioned. On the other hand, witnessing to the salvific love of God that heals, sanctifies, completes, and perfects a person even when the person seems otherwise to have no specific gifts, ministries, or "use" in the community is a particularly vivid witness to the power of the Gospel. Until contemplative religious and hermits do this and make sure the Church understands what contemplative and by extension, eremitical life are really all about I think we will continue to have problems with a failure to esteem such lives.

At the same time, this difficulty in esteeming contemplative and/or eremitical life is not only the hierarchy's problem --- or not their problem alone. Would-be candidates presenting themselves to chanceries and petitioning to be admitted to profession and consecration under canon 603, for instance, frequently are every bit as selfish, self-centered, alienated, and so forth as bishops and vicars or vocation personnel fear! They quite often are social and professional failures who are looking for a way to validate that failure while at the same time they retreat from its consequences into a "hermitage". They might well, for example, have bought into the culture's new fad called "cocooning" and now be seeking a way to give it a bit of religious and even ecclesial standing and prestige. They might have been found unsuitable during a trial of religious life, perhaps even after several tries of different communities and merely be looking for a way to get permission to wear a habit. Some have been unable to cut the apron strings and still live with parents. And so forth.

In relatively rare instances some of these people may discover they actually do have a vocation to eremitical or contemplative religious life which they will need to grow into; dioceses will need to carefully discern and pay attention to the eremitical formation of such persons. These kinds of experiences will demonstrate the redemptive character of eremitical life and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so again, I believe they bring us back to my first conclusion, namely, it is only insofar as the Church is able to see that eremitical life witnesses to the effective and redemptive power of the Gospel that she will truly be able to come to esteem it appropriately. After all, if one cannot see the power of the Gospel at work in the person supposedly "called" to an ecclesial vocation how can one consider it any valid kind of call by Christ in the his Church?

Quietness and humility can be effective signs of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and the Gospel. In fact, when they are healthy and genuine, they tend to be the consequence of being profoundly loved and authentic individuality and independence. Noisiness, arrogance, etc are just the opposite. What c 603 calls "the silence of solitude" is about much more than external silence of course. Eremitical life begins there and finds that a source of life, but at the same time the silence of solitude points to the inner quiet that results when we discover how profoundly and unceasing loved we are by God; it is the quiet that comes when we let go of all the various forms of drivenness and insecurity that make our lives a noisy, clamorous seeking. The silence of solitude is the result of being held securely by God and learning to rest in that in ever greater union with Him.

Thus both stillness (quies or hesychasm) and genuine humility are the result of the love we come to know in external silence. Hermits witness to this, and to the radical hope human beings need to live truly human lives at all. In a time when belief in God is often seen as silly or unintelligent, hermits live fully human lives and grow in that in a solitude which is defined in terms of communion with God. As I have quoted here a number of times. Thomas Merton wrote the one gift the (monastic) hermit gives to the world is: to “bear witness to the fact that certain basic claims about solitude and peace are in fact true, [for] in doing this, [they] will restore people’s confidence first in their own humanity and beyond that in God’s grace.”