04 September 2021

Purposes of Stricter Separation from the World (Reprise)

[Dear Sister, What is the purpose of "stricter separation from the world" in your life? You have mentioned it as an element of hermit life, but I really don't get it. The Sisters I know are deeply involved in this world and it seems to me it is what Christ was all about. Can you help me understand?]]

Great question! I have written a little about stricter separation from the world, especially what it does and doesn't mean, so I would invite you to check out labels leading to those articles for additional thoughts. But you are correct, I have not really written about the purpose of stricter separation, nor have I spoken explicitly about the validity of this approach in spirituality --- which does indeed seem rather different from Jesus' usual way of doing things. In fact, "stricter separation from the world" was not something I would have chosen myself without circumstances which led me to understand it differently than I did as a young Sister. As your own comment suggests, it hardly seems to comport with a Christian perspective which honors the incarnation and the sanctity of all creation in Christ. For me it always sounded selfish and lacking in charity --- not to mention in generosity!

It is important to remember that separation from the world means first of all separation from that which is resistant or uncongenial to Christ, and that it involves detachment from that which promises fulfillment, meaning, and hope apart from him and the God he mediates. This sense of the term "world" refers to anything which is untrue, distorted, resistant to life, to love, and to all the rest of the values which constitute life in God. But it is not God's good creation, therefore, from which we mainly separate ourselves. It is "the world" of falsehood, chaos, and meaninglessness, and this means that it is not something distinct existing merely outside of ourselves, but instead a reality which is intimately related to the darkness, woundedness, distortions, and sclerosis (hardness) of our own hearts.

Keeping this in mind, there are several reasons then for embracing stricter separation from the world. The first is that such separation distances us from the constant reinforcement of values, behaviors, expectations, and so forth which bombard us otherwise. Consider all the things we each see every day that tell us who we are and must be --- despite the fact that almost none of them are consistent with the values of the Kingdom of God! The second reason, however, has to do with allowing ourselves the space and time --- and the silence and solitude --- to meet ourselves without all the supports, props, and distractions of "the world." It is hard to see ourselves for who we really are otherwise. Once the props are down or removed we come to experience our own poverty. When we are not measuring (and in fact CANNOT measure) success, integrity, fruitfulness, etc., according to the terms constituting, "the world" we come face to face with what we are really all about. So the first part of stricter separation is all about reality checks. Conversion, after all, requires confrontation with truth.

The third and most fundamental reason for stricter separation from the world is to allow the space and time needed for a meeting with God. If our hearts (and so, our very selves) are, in part, darkened, distorted, sclerosed and untrue, they are also the place where God bears witness to himself and the truth of who we are. All the elements of the eremitical life, including stricter separation, are geared towards the meeting (and eventually, union) with God which verifies (makes true), heals, and brings to fullness of life. It is in this meeting that we learn how precious we are despite our very real human poverty, here that we learn how constant and secure God's love, here that we begin to have a sense of what we are really capable of and meant for. It is in this meeting with God that we come to know genuine freedom, come to experience an imperishable hope, and are commissioned to go out to others to summon them to something similar.

There is a fourth reason for stricter separation from the world then. We must step away from the distorted perspectives and values which constitute "the world" in order to affirm the deeper truth and beauty of the world around us. We come to know everything in God and that leads us to see with God's eyes. Hermits assume a marginal place so that they may also serve a prophetic function by speaking the truth into a situation in a way which affirms its deepest and truest reality. It will also summon to conversion. Stricter separation from "the world" allows us to love God's world into wholeness. It is a servant of true engagement and commitment. Stricter separation from "the world" is a tool for loving the whole of God's creation; it is neither escapist nor selfish and cannot be allowed to devolve into these.

Now, I suspect that your only objection to any of this would be, "But why a LIFE of stricter separation from the world?" Hermits witness to this basic dynamic and the need for the freedom that results from being the person God makes us to be. The hermit reminds us again and again then of the foundational relationship that grounds our being, and of the task of individuation it summons us to achieve. We are made for life with God. Separation from the world contributes to this in the life of every person at the same time it rejects enmeshment, and hermits say this particularly clearly with their lives.

I hope this helps. It doesn't answer every aspect but it is a beginning. Thanks again for a really great and challenging question. I enjoyed working on it!