04 January 2019

Once Again on the Importance of Canonical Standing in Nurturing and Supporting the Eremitical Vocation

[[Dear Sister, I wondered if one of the reasons you support canonical standing for hermits has to do with the difficulty and importance of people understanding that solitude is more about communion or community than it is about isolation? What I was thinking was that it takes people to discern whether one is living an isolated life or one of eremitical solitude and the individual might not even know the difference. I also wondered if countering stereotypes of hermits is part of this same need for canonical standing or Church approval. Is this the reason the Church requires the hermit to jump through so many "hoops" to be professed canonically? I think you have written about this some. Lastly, I wondered if your own distinction between isolation and solitude as a "unique form of community" is rooted in your own experience of isolation or of growing to maturity in eremitical solitude? I don't think you have said much about this.]]

Thanks for your questions. They are excellent and it is very cool to hear you were wondering about this! I think I have written about all of these things except perhaps my own experience with/of isolation; I know I did some writing about the importance of canonical standing in On Hermit Ministry and the Call to Become God's Own Prayer and there may be another recent article that did the same. You might check under the label "solitude vs isolation" to see some of the ways I have approached this topic, especially as the place of the Church's discernment is revealed; the same is true of the label "eremitism as ecclesial" (or variations of this). One clarification, I do think canonical standing is important for hermits who live their vocations in the name of the Church, and I believe that strictly speaking, eremitical life is a gift of God to the Church and World which needs to be governed and supervised --- not always easy with such a prophetic vocation, but necessary nonetheless. At the same time I believe that many more than these relative few (consecrated/canonical hermits) are called instead to be lay hermits and to live eremitical life with the aid of spiritual directors and the support of their parishes; I also believe that the Church and world can and should benefit significantly from these lay eremitical lives --- no less than they do from the lives of consecrated hermits.

Difficulties in Discerning the Difference between Isolated Persons and Hermits:

That said, I do agree that there can be a significant difficulty in discerning the difference between an isolated person and one who has been embraced by and embraced eremitical solitude. (Remember that Merton writes poignantly about the necessity of solitude herself opening the door to the one who would be a hermit!) It requires a real knowledge of the person's heart and her commitment to and relationship with Life, Truth, and Love,  not merely a sense of the external silence and physical solitude of the person's life. I also agree that the process of discernment associated with the relatively long journey toward eremitical profession and consecration (always public or canonical in nature!) is a central way the Church lays bare and resolves this difficult question on a case by case basis. But the general difficulty remains and is evident even in newsletters, etc., which are meant to support and nurture eremitical vocations per se. One of the reasons I am not particularly enthusiastic about the self-identification so prevalent in forums like that of Raven's Bread (a newsletter for hermits, solitaries, and others who love solitude), for instance. is because just about anyone can call themselves a hermit and never feel a need to draw important distinctions regarding motivation, personal woundedness vs relative wholeness, historical and ecclesial understandings of the vocation, or to attend much to the tradition of eremitical life.

In today's excessively individualistic society everything from  an intolerant or self-indulgent cocooning to agoraphobia and misanthropy can be subsumed under the rubric "eremitism" in order to attempt to validate expressions of selfishness and woundedness while escaping the need for responsibility to Church and world in regard to a vocation which is meant for the edification of others via a unique proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This tendency to re-brand any number of social deficiencies and "disorders" as "eremitism" because solitude is defined only in terms of physical aloneness goes hand in hand with the tendency to rebrand or redefine license as authentic freedom. But eremitical solitude is only partly about physical solitude; at its heart it is about communion -- communion with God, with oneself, and with all others, communion which vividly defines the nature of the human being as a covenantal reality and human freedom as the counterpart of divine sovereignty.

In any case, just because someone says, "I am a hermit" in today's world does not mean they are one --- at least not as the Church understands the term; you are exactly right in pointing to the need for discernment in this. Even more important than the distinction between solitude and isolation in the need for canonical standing is the way in which this distinction is achieved and the reality it witnesses to in the authentic hermit: namely through her experience of the love of God in Christ which heals and transforms isolation into solitude. Because the canonical hermit is very specifically called and commissioned to live a solitude which vividly and consciously proclaims the life and love of God, the mutual discernment of the canonical process is necessary and helpful for all eremitical vocations. This is so because such a vocation results in wholeness, holiness, and a freedom expressed in compassionate self-gift rather than an isolation associated with personal woundedness, lack of freedom, a lack of generosity, and the incapacity for compassion or sacrifice. Distinguishing between these dimensions (solitude vs isolation, healthy withdrawal vs unhealthy withdrawal) in oneself is difficult; they can co-exist, especially in the beginning of an eremitical life when so much is ambiguous and still needs to be sorted out, integrated, or formed.

Fooling Ourselves and Misleading Others: The Importance of Mutual Discernment

Moreover, apart from this, our ability to fool ourselves and justify isolation --- especially by applying a label like "hermit" to validate this, by uncritically comparing ourselves to "hermits" of different centuries with different (and sometimes less valid) or actually unhealthy sensibilities and spiritualities, or (when unhealthy withdrawal or selfish isolation are met with skepticism or concern) by concluding, for instance, that we are simply misunderstood by "the world" which we believe we are somehow superior to spiritually or otherwise --- is simply too easy to do. But in these situations the so-called "hermit" will never witness adequately to the power of the love of God which unites her with all God loves; she will never be able to proclaim the Gospel in the unique way a hermit called to human wholeness and holiness will.

It takes others to assess and assist the hermit in assessing the real nature of her physical solitude, her deep motivations, her understanding of the nature of the vocation itself, the place of her relationship with God in Christ and others, and her own wholeness and holiness, if they are to truly discern the presence of an eremitical vocation. This has always been true in the church but it is much more urgent since canon 603 and the possibility of dioceses accepting hermit candidates without long formation in religious and/or monastic life.  Further, because of the individualism of our society, eremitism looks like many other things today  but at its heart it is generously (sacrificially) countercultural. Thus, because it is lived for others it is not a facile rejection of the world outside the hermitage nor an expression of spiritualities which falsely hypostasize and demonize "the world". (See posts re Thomas Merton's treatment of the notion of "the world" for explanations of this.)  Countering this false and destructive approach to the world around us and other stereotypes and misconceptions is certainly a part of the importance of canonical standing and the sometimes-lengthy discernment those seeking profession require.

After all, how can a church be expected to profess individuals to a genuinely compassionate and generous eremitical life without making sure the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude is something candidates for profession and consecration have come to understand on the basis of long-experience, prayer, and even struggle to love effectively while embracing the life of a hermit? I sincerely believe the "hoops" we often refer to having candidates jump through are not usually onerous and are completely reasonable as the Church attempts to adequately embrace and celebrate the gift which God has given her in the midst of a world so often marked and marred by individualism and license. This is especially true given the uniqueness of each vocation and the way each candidate serves to educate the Church on the way the Holy Spirit brings individuals to an authentic eremitical vocation.

My Own Experience of the Distinction Between Isolation and Eremitical Solitude:

Your question about my own experience of isolation and growing to maturity in solitude is very perceptive. I insist that solitude is a unique experience of community partly because I have experienced the unhealthiness or destructiveness of isolation (physical, emotional, etc.) and its antithesis in the healing character of solitude,  partly because psychology and theology stress the importance of human relatedness (theology stresses this is our very nature), and partly because my own growth in solitary eremitical life (including the inner work I have undertaken over the past couple of years with my director) have each underscored this in its own complementary way.

Taking all these things together I would say I have been exploring the distinction between isolation and solitude for the whole of my life; I began long before I began doing so in a conscious way by focusing on eremitical solitude as a result of the publication of canon 603 in 1983. A number of factors made this necessary, not least significant childhood experiences of isolation and the effect of medically and surgically intractable epilepsy from the age of @ 19.  Similarly, the really positive influences in my life have underscored the communal nature of solitude along with the solitary pole of all community; that has been especially true with violin and orchestral playing, but also with academic work in Theology, my experience of community in religious life, work with physicians and others, and the gift of friendships, parish relationships, etc.

Without the deep and extensively-rooted sense that solitude represents the redemption of isolation, or the profound experience of being communal at our core, I do not know how I could have made sense of eremitical life or embraced it as a divine vocation. Thomas Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action captured my imagination but it did so because it spoke to and built on my life-experience of isolation vs. solitude. Without the experience of having the whole of my life being called to this particular form of self-gift, or the sense of the significance such a life holds where even many discrete gifts and talents are relinquished in order to witness to the way God alone creates, calls, and completes us as covenant partners in a relationship foundational for authentic human being, I could only have rejected eremitical life as the epitome of an unhealthy and inhuman withdrawal. For a host of reasons through the whole of my life I have been uniquely sensitized to isolation and marked with a hunger for genuine solitude. The inner work I have undertaken as part of spiritual direction is a commitment to being made more and more whole and holy in this kind of deeply relational or communal solitude.

By the way, in my emphasis on the ecclesial nature of this vocation this same dynamic is a defining element. While it is true that I often speak of ecclesial vocations in terms of ecclesial rights, obligations, and stable and governing structures, the communal nature of every such vocation is at the heart of the term "ecclesial". Ecclesial vocations represent vocations summoned forth by God from the "called ones" constituting the ecclesia. We say canonical hermits live eremitical life in the name of the Church and by that we mean such hermits are specifically authorized to live these vocations in the power and as an instance of the presence of the ecclesia. In other words, all such vocations are commissioned by the Church; they are nourished by, embraced on behalf of that community and missioned by and for that same community as well as those outside it; finally they are lived in a way which edifies (builds up) the faith community/ecclesia. While it does happen, it is hard for me to conceive how someone claiming to be called by God to be a canonical hermit could  honestly accept consecration to this ecclesial vocation if she failed to appreciate the communal dimension of her solitude and was committed to an individualistic isolation instead of eremitical solitude.