27 November 2018

On Hermits, Ministry, and Community --- Learning to see with New Eyes

[[Dear Rev. Sister, There are two things about your life which I don't understand. The first is how you justify not doing any kind of ministry like other Sisters do. The second one has to do with how you live community if you don't live in a religious community with other Sisters. I don't see how you can be a religious if you don't live in community. Isn't that the very definition of a religious? It seems to me the Church is making a mistake in professing hermits. Our world needs religious who model community, not individuals who can't or anyway don't live even in community. It also needs Sisters who do ministry. Some parishes have never even seen a Religious Sister in recent years and the laity are not committed to ministry like a Sister is. I think we need Sisters who model ministry, not those who live alone and do nothing. By the way are you allowed to go home for Thanksgiving?]]

Good questions. Canon 603, the canon which governs my life and that of other solitary consecrated hermits has led to some changes in the way we see religious life; at the same time some dimensions of consecrated life which were long-accepted are underscored and call us to an even deeper appreciate the Church's theology of consecrated life. In particular, the Church's approach to eremitical life is all-important for understanding why hermits exist and why the Church consecrates them and thus, recognizes or even  "honors" their existence! Your questions are really posed to the Church itself, I think: why does she esteem this vocation? Why recognize it as a divine call at all? What justifies this? Isn't eremitical life itself --- as I once would have put it --- a waste of skin?

Your first question has to do with ministry and assumes (or asserts) I don't do any or that I "live alone and do nothing". While you don't use the word, I think you are wondering about active ministry and why I don't do much of that in the way apostolic or ministerial Sisters do. It is true that active ministry is not and cannot be primary in my life, but I still do a significant (that is, a meaningful) degree of this within the limitations of solitary eremitical life. I am Pastoral Assistant at St Perpetua Catholic Community and do Communion Services once a week and a handful of other things from time to time; I also do spiritual direction and some writing. But this aside, my own eremitical solitude and prayer are actually my primary ministry and gift to the Church and world.

You see, I try to share some of what this is all about on this blog; what I try to live is something Merton said this way: “the Christian solitary today should 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.” The hermitage represents for the individual and society that place where the hermit “can create a new pattern which will fulfill (her) special needs for growth. . .and confront the triple specters of ”boredom, futility, and unfulfillment, which so terrify the modern American.”

The freedom of the hermit is at the service of this witness which is her ministry. I think it's pretty important, but you are correct that I am not involved in active ministry in the same way or to the same degree as ministerial or apostolic Sisters. I am a contemplative and while there are several ways of describing this I like Thomas Merton's: [[The contemplation of the Christian [hermit] is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating [her] own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] This is the same awareness we have when we understand ourselves in the Pauline sense of "Earthen vessels" or when we embrace the reality of authentic incarnation through kenosis. My life is dedicated to this kind of growth, self-emptying and incarnation. It is the contemplative way of prayer and the way to holiness to which God calls me. The question then, is why is this witness so important? Why would God call someone to this and why would the Church recognize and esteem such a call?

I think you can imagine a spectrum of human needs and corresponding ecclesial ministries. People seek to be fed, taught, and healed; they need advocates and assistance in all kinds of ways (attorneys, social workers, spiritual directors, etc.); they need the Gospel proclaimed to them in Word and deed. Active ministry fills all of these roles and more, but a human being's deepest need, a need which is most vividly revealed when suffering drives a person to the depths of helplessness and hopelessness, for instance, is the need to be assured that faith in God is not only reasonable, but that, in fact, one's relationship with God is the single thing which will complete us and bring real happiness and peace; it is the single thing that will inspire, strengthen, and provide the impetus for moving forward or enabling one to live fully and freely no matter the limitations or constraints also present. While every religious witnesses to the importance of one's relationship with God, some do so in a more primary and, in some ways, even more vivid and exclusive way; these religious are contemplatives and a relative few are hermits.

While it is true that hermits pray "assiduously" --- as canon 603 puts the matter --- what this means most fundamentally is that we try to allow God to work in us in ways which make of our hermitages outposts of the Kingdom of God, and (we sincerely hope) mediators of the energy of love we know as the Holy Spirit. I have a deep trust that the love of God, when embodied in this way changes the world --- though I have no sense of how that is and no way to quantify it. I hold people in prayer and trust that because God is at the center of both of our lives they will experience some degree of being accompanied by me in God, some sense of presence and love beyond what they might otherwise have experienced; and yet, the experience of this is not crucial; the fact of it is, however. When I think of praying in this way I think of binding people together in ways that begin to reflect the unity of the Kingdom once fulfilled. I think of allowing the Kingdom to come in my own heart and in the world around me. I do not pray to change God's mind, or to ask God for something he has not already anticipated; I pray to enter into God's own will and love for the persons for whom I am praying.  I think of this as ministerial, though no doubt it is not the active ministry most folks would recognize.

Similarly, in contemplative prayer I simply allow God to be God --- and to complete and perfect me as the one God calls me to be. In this way I give witness to the same thing Thomas Merton once discussed when he spoke about the fundamental vocation of the hermit. What Merton said in a passage very similar to the observation quoted above, was that he owed it to his community to live happily and at peace in his hermitage and in union with God. If the hermit does that, Merton affirmed, she witnesses to certain truths about the relation of nature and grace. When I have written about this here I have spoken of the "dialogical" or covenantal nature of the human being. Hermits witness above all, it seems to me, to the truth I wrote about recently, namely, that which only I can do (in this case, to be myself), I cannot do alone. But hermits do this on the most foundational level, the level of being itself. We say that the human person, insofar as she is truly an "I" is constituted as a "we", that God is a constitutional part of our selves.

When hermits through the ages have said that "God alone is sufficient for us" they have not truly meant we can live lives of total isolation (though physical solitude is crucial here); they have meant God is the One necessary if we are to truly be ourselves. We speak of this "being ourselves" with and in God as being whole and holy or being complete(d) and perfect(ed).  Again, I believe these things have important ministerial dimensions and are profoundly pastoral; it is important that persons understand the eremitical life for this reason, but I think that even when the vocation is not well-understood, it remains provocative and raises questions for those who hear of hermits in their midst (in the Universal Church, diocese, or even in the parish), for instance.

Sisters and Community, Presence in Parishes, etc.

Clearly I disagree with you that the Church is making a mistake in professing hermits. But again, they are not trying to profess ministerial Sisters in doing so. They (the Church) pray that these professions will witness to the Gospel, to the truth that our God loves us unconditionally and eternally and will never leave us. They (hermits)witness to the fact that our God's love completes and sanctifies us no matter our personal poverty otherwise. They (hermits) say this with their lives. But they also witness to community rather than isolation; solitary consecrated hermits have what are called "ecclesial vocations"; they exist in the heart of the Church in a silence and solitude which are the deepest expression of identity and community. (Imagine a communion which is beyond words and busyness, a communion marked by rest and simply "being with and for".) Every person is called to know and witness to this profound solitude whose heart is the identity (selfhood) and relatedness of communion with and in God -- though very few will do so in eremitical solitude. We all know what it means to stand alone, to be our selves alone; this latter occurs only with and in God. The paradox at the heart of our faith is that when we are truly ourselves, when we are our selves alone we no longer stand alone; instead we are more profoundly related to God and one another than ever before. (Hence the article I wrote which affirmed, "That which only we (ourselves) can do, we cannot do alone!"

The problems you raise with regard to Sisters in parishes and children who have never seen or been taught by a Sister are very real. However, there have always been different vocations and we do no one any service by refusing to recognize those that we believe are less needed than those we miss and more evidently esteem. That is a little like asking a store to stop selling apples because farmers have been unable over the last decade or so to provide as many oranges as they once did. The problem, which is likely a complex one, needs to be resolved in different ways and on different levels --- if resolution is even possible. Meanwhile, while you are correct that prior to canon 603, the term "religious" applied only to those living in a community with other Religious Sisters and Brothers, canonists now recognize that in light of canon 603, the term religious now applies to persons with no formal bonds to a religious institute. (Handbook on Canons 573-746). This does not include hermits with private vows, of course, but those who instead are legitimately consecrated by the Church in a Rite of Public Profession and Consecration.

More and more, the laity (in the vocational rather than hierarchical sense of that term) are able to do ministry in the same way Religious Sisters once did within parishes. They are better educated theologically and pastorally and while they tend to work full time elsewhere, the contributions lay persons make to the life of a parish is significant (invaluable) and will continue to grow to be more so. The Church Vatican II envisioned is, in some ways, a very different Church than most of us knew as children or young adults. As the numbers of Religious men and women dwindle, the laity will become more and more responsible for the very life of the Church and all the ministry done therein. In the same way as the number of ordained celibate priests declines (and we do not see this decline diminishing in the near future), alternatives will need to be found to ensure the Church's Sacramental ministry. But God has always provided, and will continue to provide -- if only we have the vision and the courage to embrace the solutions which open to us! The Gospel continually challenges us to learn and be made able to "see with new eyes". In each of the situations you outlined this need is perhaps the greatest one we face.


Yes, I am certainly allowed to "go home" for Thanksgiving. I ordinarily do not do so. Last year I celebrated Mass and ate dinner with the Friars at San Damiano though. This year, I went to Mass, had coffee with a Dominican friend, and then I stayed in and spent a relatively quiet day, reading, praying and working on a reflection for the service on Friday morning. I did have turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce for dinner --- along with pumpkin ice cream and caramel sauce. (Of course last month I was able to go on retreat with Ilia Delio, OSF, then to spend several days with old friends, and at the beginning of this month I was able to attend a weekend retreat with Brother Mickey McGrath (cf picture to the right) so there has been an almost unprecedented amount of time away from my hermitage, a lot of celebrating, and a good chunk (experience) of "home" as well. It has been a wonderful Thanksgiving "season" and I am looking forward to Advent back in relatively uninterrupted solitude.)

I sincerely hope this is helpful to you.