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On Spiritual Formation for People Seeking Eremitic Life

I take heart from the quote below by the now Saint John Paul II. At first, those of us from any generation, but particularly, we from the X-Gen onwards, to the young ones of today, might even take offense at his words. Perhaps they sting a bit? Perhaps a bit too close to home?

We must admit. He was and remains wise. His wisdom speaks to us. He speaks with a father’s dear heart for his daughters and sons. He speaks with a paternal heart for the people of the world. He has a prayerful sense of the needs of people today, and of our needs for spiritual formation.

This particular clip comes from his holiness address to the prior of the Charthusian Order for the ninth centenary of St Bruno’s death. I focus in on this particular clip because of its significance to the theme of this website. Namely, the formation of an eremitic charism. Especially, how people who live alone in the world can come to terms with their loneliness, moving through that desert, into a conscious choosing of solitude for the sake of God’s love.

I focus on the saint’s words here, because my heart also prays for those who will come forward. My heart prays daily for those who are and will be seeking the particular life of solitude, fasting, prayer, and seclusion that draws the heart to God in a particularly powerful and immediate way. My heart draws into this space of prayer, as I sense there are so many among us, in the west, who need this form of life, for its teachings, wisdom, and strength, but who have as yet not heard or learned about this way of life.

Like so many of us, searching for so many years, never being shown clearly this path, nor given the tools to live this life. This way is kin with the anchorite and eremitic charism that draws the heart to appreciate the vocation of the hermit. Whether or not we live as a hermit, or even conceive of that idea as yet, is beside the point.

The point and focus is Jesus crucified – the point of Him is God the origin and source of all loving kindness, mercy, and forgiveness. The point of the Father of Mercy for our lives is how we can orient our way, our daily life, our life-practice, to give us a deep abiding resilience, hope, surety in faith, and contentment in spirit, that feeds the heart and mind continually from the perpetual font of God’s silence, God’s solitude, God’s passionate and eternal heart of desert and oneness.

Saint John Paul II says, “In this spirit the discernment and formation of the candidates presenting themselves necessitates renewed attention from the novice masters. Indeed today’s culture marked by strong hedonistic currents, by the wish for possessions and a certain wrong conception of freedom, does not make it easy for the young to express their generosity when they want to consecrate their lives to Christ, to follow him on the path of self-offering love, of concrete and generous service.”

We in those generations of whom the saint speaks do not like to hear so directly the truth of our lives! We instinctively shrink from the harshness of the paternal words. This reminds me of so many over the years who have said to me, that the Church fathers are paternalistic. They say this as a final judgement. They say this to mean, we will no longer listen to them. They are just paternalistic men, stuck in their old ways. They do not respect the efforts of these holy men.

They and myself included during those years, turned our face away from the genuine paternalism of the fathers. We were so young and foolish! We did not even bother to read the more ancient father’s words of condemnation for many forms of social life and culture that turn the heart away from obedience to God’s eternal Word. Then we might have understood the depth of the “paternalistic” heart – that heart that seeks fiercely for the well being of his children!

There is just so much power and truth in Saint John Paul II’s words here, that they could well form the basis of a whole formation program that spans at least five initial years, and then provides inspiring guidelines for a life-long formation program. I so wish we had the space here in this little blog to map that work!

But I must acknowledge my own limits for today, and entrust this work of the Holy Spirit to God’s timing and God’s providence. I sense clearly the Lord is moving within us to bring about some essential stepping stones toward providing a more general, and more accessible path to living the solitary life within the world of laity and in the wider world. I sense this charism and path is essential for the renewal and strength of the western Church in the years ahead.

Saint John Paul II continues, “The complexity of each one’s itinerary, their psychological fragility, the difficulties to live faithfully over the years, all this suggests that nothing must be neglected to give those who ask for admission to the carthusian ” desert ” a formation spanning all the dimensions of the human person.”

Here we see the large sketching of the map of formation. Here we see that the paternal heart does not just clip the whip of harsh truth, but seeks a path forward in mercy and justice. Here we see a father of our hearts. Here we sense his passionate desire for our well being. Here we see his clarity of vision that sees well into the future. He wants to provide for his children, and for their children. He is in this way a classic “grandfather” whose life of dedication to prayer and solitude speaks through his life, his words, and his actions.

He is, after all, more than most, a hermit father of the Church, an Abba of the eremitic tradition of prayer, sacrifice, solitude, fasting, penitential life, and self-giving. All we need think of are the hundreds of images of him holding fast to his shepherd’s staff with the particularly beautiful image of the cross and Jesus crucified towering just alongside his head, bowed in prayer, with all the concentration he can muster in the midst of crowds and liturgies and throngs of people… His witness is for a purpose. Do you sense in your heart what that purpose is for you?

Saint John Paul II continues, “What is more, particular attention must be given to the choice of educators able to accompany candidates on the paths of interior liberation and docility to the Holy Spirit.”

A profound insight. Truly astonishing for today’s blunt and obtuse world where we tend to think one size fits all, and education is but a stack of books to throw at people. His vision implies the ability to discern who among us may be gifted enough, with enough skills, and maturity, and who has walked the spiritual path long enough to have that interior wisdom necessary to guide the younger ones in the spiritual path.

“Interior liberation,” wow. How true. “Docility to the Holy Spirit,” even more wow. More true than you can ever imagine, upon first considering and contemplating the mystery of the human heart and mind, and our relation to the Spirit of God’s actions within us… Not to mention that the Holy Father was speaking of a profound and rich tradition that spans thousands of years now, going back to Jesus, and further, to the time of Abraham and Moses, Jeremiah and Elijah… referring to all of this simply by using the term “docility.”

The Holy Father concludes my clip of the address, “Finally, aware that life together as brothers is a fundamental element of the itinerary of consecrated persons, communities must be invited to live unreservedly their mutual love, and develop a spiritual climate and lifestyle in conformity with your Order’s charisma.”

There are more depths in these words than can ever be expressed. Many lifetimes would not do justice. Yet that very journey is something that I feel and suggest as a very worthy project. Will you consider this for your life, a worthy project? Perhaps over time, the wisdom here will take hold of your heart, like it has with mine…

Perhaps you will dance in silence, as the music of eternity takes hold of your wild and crazy mind, and spins your consciousness away into the oblivion of silence. Then in that madness, which is surely the deepest form of sanity, will entice you, beg of you, invite of you, to respond…

Like St Bonaventure suggests, you will then be reduced to tears of contrition. Don’t resist. Allow these tears, for they are the sacred medicine that brings you back to God…

And the gift of tears, if you are one of the chosen, will not simply end after one session. But will continue as your heart melts with true joy. As your sensitivity is given over to God’s compassionate love for all of humanity, and especially for the poorest of the poor…

Source: From the message of John Paul II to the prior of the Charthusian Order for the ninth centenary of St Bruno’s death, From the Vatican, May 14, 2001.

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Saint Pope John Paul II

Saint Pope John Paul II

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Author: Joseph Bowers PhD

Dr Joseph Bowers holds a Ph.D. Counselling, M.Ed. Counselling, Grad. Cert. Higher Education, and B.A. with Distinction in Religious Studies and Philosophy. Joseph is a founding member of the counselling profession in Australia, Honorary of the Australian Counselling Association, and Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the UNE. His experience since the 1980s includes roles in Pastoral Counselling, Counselling Psychotherapy, Clinical Supervision and Counsellor Education; for the past two decades training therapists and in practice as a specialist in personal development, disability and mental health. He is currently doing a post-doctoral study in spirituality leading to a doctorate in theology.

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