25 November 2015

A Contemplative Moment: Renunciation


". . .neither the way to contemplation nor contemplation itself should be thought of as either dramatic or strange. In fact, if we enter the contemplative life with our minds too full of the language and poetry of a St John of the Cross we are apt to get side-tracked by our own imagination and wander for the rest of our days in an austere and misguided dream. If instead of translating the language of St John of the Cross into practice we become attached to its figures for the poetic pleasure our own minds absorb from them, we shall be no further advanced than we were before. 

It is easy to stand St John of the Cross on his own head by becoming attached to his doctrine of detachment. . . . In practice the way to contemplation is an obscurity that is so obscure it is no longer even dramatic. There is nothing left in it that can be grasped and cherished as heroic or even unusual. And so, for a contemplative, there is supreme value in the ordinary routine of work and poverty and hardship and monotony that characterize the lives of all poor and uninteresting and forgotten people in the world.

Father (Louis) Thomas Merton, OCSO, Seeds of Contemplation

21 November 2015

Pro Orantibus Day: For Those Who Pray

Today the Church celebrates "pro orantibus" day, namely the day when we celebrate those who spend their lives in prayer. Cloistered and eremitical vocations certainly are the main ones we call to mind but I am especially reminded of all those are elderly and others who may be isolated or unable to do active ministry who spend their days and nights praying for our world, for our parishes, and so forth.

In prayer we allow God to love and accompany us, to work within and transform our hearts and make us into his own prayers in our world. We give ourselves to God so God might give himself to us and to those to whom we witness. We give ourselves to God so that the face we turn to the world is the very image of God-made-flesh. And of course, we pray and give our lives to prayer so that the deepest law of creation, Love-in-Act, is even more clearly revealed and made more pervasive within and through those same lives. In other words, we do so to glorify God and sanctify our world.

Contemplatives, whether hermits or not, remind us all that God completes us, that we are not truly human unless we are covenant partners with God. The positive side of this, of course,  is that this relationship is the foundation of ALL of our lives and we are each and all of us called to embrace it more fully day by day --- lack of cloister notwithstanding. While "pro orantibus" day celebrates in a special way those who live cloistered and eremitical lives, it also celebrates every person who lives his or her life for God and all that is precious to God by committing to be persons who truly allow God to work within us,

15 November 2015

Can a Hermit Live Eremitical Life Without Law?

[[Sister Laurel, is it possible to live as a hermit without law? One of the things you seem very keen on is the importance or the positive place of law in your life and in the lives of all diocesan hermits. You are probably aware that one hermit writes regularly about legalism and just recently wrote a piece called "Beware of the Scribes". (cf., Beware the Scribes!) It isn't always easy to know what or who she is referring to but she does seem to have problems with canon 603 and I think she has some real problems with what you write. I am guessing and say that mainly because I don't know anyone else writing about the things you do.). Do you get charged with being a legalist very often? Anyway my basic question is, is it possible to live without law?]]

Thanks for the question. Yes, I am aware of both the blog you referenced (I have linked to it previously) and the specific (now-redacted) post you noted. It is true that Ms McClure (aka "joyful hermit"--- please see her Google and public LinkedIN profiles) and I do not see eye to eye on the place of law in the life of consecrated hermits or even on the nature of consecrated eremitical life. It is also the case that both of us have written against positions held by the other which, to some extent, only makes sense since she is a non-canonical (in this case, a lay) hermit and I am writing as a canon 603 (that is, a consecrated) hermit.

The charge that I am a legalist (even when not using the word itself) has been made a handful times over the years (sometimes by Ms McClure). In most instances  it was a charge made by someone styling themselves as a religious or consecrated hermit when they were neither. In some instances the person had sought canonical standing and been rejected by their diocese. (Note well, the reasons for rejection need not have been and were not always personal.) A somewhat similar occasion involved a person who thought the term hermit should apply to anyone going off for the weekend on a period of quiet or retreat. If they wanted to call themselves hermits, then fine. He proposed the word could mean whatever the individual wanted it to mean and called this "pushing the boundaries" of meaning. I disagreed and argued not only that the Church has clearly defined the nature of what she recognizes as eremitical life --- and done so in a way which allows for significant flexibility and variation as well, but that eremitical solitude was neither a part time  avocation nor was it a form of individualism.

On Individualism and Reflecting on Canon 603:

As you can tell from this and from many other posts here, I have come to have a significant suspicion of the individualism and alienation which drives so much in our contemporary world and I am especially concerned that it not be validated with the name "hermit". A tendency to individualism at the expense of ecclesial accountability is very real and something I am personally tempted to. It goes hand in hand with the tendency to mediocrity (which does not necessarily mean one should be driven instead by perfectionism!). I personally suspect these specific temptations (especially individualism at the expense of compassion and ecclesiality) are endemic to the eremitical vocation. Finding individualism to be a kind of epidemic in our culture does not surprise me, but it does make me pretty keen (as you rightly put it) on the positive place of "law", or maybe more accurately, of structures and relationships assuring accountability and sound discernment in the hermit's life.

A second element in some of my writing since perpetual (eremitical) profession in 2007 is the proprietary sense I have for this vocation. I believe written about this once before (see, On Encouraging or Discouraging Eremitical Vocations) but it was quite a while ago. Essentially I mean in this that I was surprised to discover after perpetual profession and consecration not only a sense of personal accountability for my own vocation, but a sense of responsibility for the eremitical tradition itself and in particular, concern for the vocation of the diocesan hermit professed under c 603. In a sense I felt a kind of proprietariness regarding the call, not as though I "owned it" exactly, but certainly as one who understood it from the inside out while being commissioned to live it canonically (in the name of the Church). The result of that has been a lot of thinking and writing about c 603, the structures and relationships it assures to help maintain accountability, the ecclesial nature of the vocation itself, and the hermit's taking on a place in the living (and recently renewed!) tradition of eremitical life.

None of these concerns are driven by legalism but they are certainly prompted by reflection on the place of the canon in nurturing, protecting, and governing solitary eremitical vocations. You see, I mainly live my life within the world created by public profession under canon 603. I can understand where some looking on from outside see my concerns as driven by legalism but the truth it that they are the result of taking the obligations and nature of my vocation seriously. This, in turn, has to do with taking seriously what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church in this vocation; it is about honoring God and acting in a way which is truly accountable to God's own Church and to all those with whom I come into contact --- those, that is, for whom I live this vocation. In my understanding acting responsibly is an act of love so again, none of this is driven by legalism (and, in light of Ms McClure's charges and those of two or three others, I have thought and prayed about this a lot!); neither then is it about "desiring to diminish or elevate Catholic hermits one over another" or "to lord it over others," as Ms McClure suggested (some are) doing. (By the way, I don't know anyone who writes about what I write about either, but if you should find someone please let me know; I would love to read their stuff!)

Why I Reject the Charge that I am a Legalist:

Life under canon 603 is eremitical life lived within a certain environment and context. That context is ecclesial; the canon itself helps establish that context while it also specifies the conditions one would find in any desert and defines the goals of living there. The vows outline a condition of religious poverty, listening, and chaste love in celibacy --- in other words a generous life of selflessness. The elements of the canon apart from these specify a life which is given to providing space and time to God alone. The goal of the life is union with God and with all that is precious to God. The space is both external and a matter of one's heart, mind, and body. The elements of assiduous prayer and penance and the silence of solitude provide for the realization of this goal. And yet, the canon also is very clear that the vocation it defines is one of generosity to and love for more than God alone. It carefully states that it is a life lived "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." My Rule is the more personal translation of the way I live these elements and specifies the ways the various relationships (including those of director, delegate, Bishop, parish, pastor and Oblate contacts or prioresses are honored and serve the vocation.).

It would be very simple to neglect or ignore elements of this canonically defined life and make it about myself --- my introversion or love of solitude, my chronic illness, my interests in theology and spirituality (especially my struggles or "successes" there), my love for music study, and writing. But the canon and my public dedication (profession) and consecration means that my life is lived in a different environment, context, and with a much different focus than would be the case without it. For me the canon opened  (and demanded I embrace in every way!) a world which is fundamentally other-centered. That is it defined a vision of eremitical life which is focused first of all on God (Union with God and concern therefore with God's will, God's plan, God's vision, etc)  and then on those whom God loves with an everlasting love --- namely, the Church and the world the hermit is called to serve in Christ. Profession and consecration served as a specifically ecclesial doorway to this world. In other words the canon defines this as a vocation of both profound and extensive relatedness, first with God and then with the whole of God's creation; because of this it creates the necessary context (structure, relationships, and commitments) to be sure this definition is realized (embodied) in the hermit's life.

Were this other-centered focus to fall away, either because I begin to live an individualistic life or because I simply cease to be faithful to the canon that defines and governs that life in all the ways that governance occurs, I could well be left with nothing but my false self, a few pious nods daily (or weekly!) to God --- and perhaps a few mildly creative hobbies! In my mind's eye this is similar to what happens when the hermit's external desert is exchanged for a comfortable, even luxurious environment or what happens when the desert prevents the ecclesial relatedness which is part of any calling in the Church or is embraced in an act of misanthropy. Living authentically as a hermit becomes much harder and certainly so as a life commitment without the appropriate environment or context. I truly admire those who can live as hermits apart from such a context. Lay hermits, for instance, live a vocation which shares membership in the Body of Christ due to baptism, but they often do so without a specific commitment or supportive relationships so many say are needed as a part of the environment and context of their lives. The ones I know who are successful have integrated at least some of these into their lives (regular contact with a spiritual director and parish Sacramental life, for instance)

Can One Live as a Hermit Apart From Law?

The brief answer to the question of whether one can live as a hermit without law is yes if one is using the term law in the narrow sense of Canon Law. But the real answer is not so simple. Law may also mean a Rule or Plan of Life however, and I think it is less possible to live as a hermit without such a guide and guardrail --- even if one only has an internalized Rule or Plan. If one were to live in a rural or more isolated area without contact with others, computer or media access, no phone, and perhaps biweekly access to the Eucharist and other Sacraments, then a Rule would still be necessary, but less so. The external environment itself will serve to dictate the rhythms and focuses of the life. Hermits always try to recreate this physical environment to whatever extent they can. They are up early, go to bed early, often spend some time in vigil, and measure the periods of their day by alternating prayer, lectio, labor, rest, work, more prayer, and study. One's Rule creates an environment of sorts which may fly in the face of the natural environment in which one finds oneself and this is especially true for the urban hermit who must separate herself from so much in order to embrace and be embraced by God in the silence of solitude.

But one still needs to live this life for God and for others and that, it seems to me, to require some kind of structured and defined commitment. Just as canon 603 provides hermits in the Catholic Church with a vision of this vocation, its structure and significance, the isolated hermit especially needs something which specifies a similar vision and significance. If we can call this element "law" in a broad sense then I think it would argue law is always necessary for the hermit. Similarly, (and I am assuming through all of this you mean a hermit living this vocation within the Church)  a hermit must participate in the relationships which assure not only one's fidelity but also one's growth in this vocation. The call is a gift of God to the Church and if one does not really thrive as a human being or one's witness to the redemption which is ours in Christ and the continuing sanctification which comes from the Spirit, then this is not the eremitical life envisioned by the Church. We simply need the relationship with spiritual director or other "elders" of some sort to help us in assuring the growth, integral relatedness, and witness which should be ours as hermits.

So, I guess I have come to the conclusion that a hermit life within the Church is not really possible without law in some sense.  One can always live alone, but eremitical life is different than simply living alone.  One can always make it up as one goes, but that is not the same thing as being truly open and responsive to the Spirit who comes to us in surprising, but also profoundly "ordering" and "sense-making" ways. (see also. Formation, Flexibility, and Making Space for the Holy Spirit.) The "law" I am speaking of does not need to be Canon 603 in a formal sense but the eremitical life lived within the Church still needs to involve the vision and central elements of canon 603 even when these are not codified in Law or embodied in a written Rule or Plan. This is because Divine Law is reflected and mediated in various forms of church and personal law. Because the Church itself is a community and community does not exist without some sort of law (ordering principle), structure, and especially the kinds of bonds which constitute real relatedness (which implies rights and obligations given and assumed for the sake of others and the glorification of God). I think all of this means "law" in some form or another.

Excursus on Canon Law as Ministerial:

Of course, at the same time, I don't believe that the Divine Law is merely above Canon Law any more than I believe Canon Law is somehow autonomous, or a law unto itself. Neither do I hold that Canon Law is a genus or subset of the species Law. Instead I believe it is merely analogous to civil law, and must be approached differently in relation (namely, in both subordination and service) to Theological truth and life. James Coriden describes this perspective on Canon Law in his work on the Ministry of Canon Law. I am entirely convinced that canon law especially should always serve love and the Law of Love --- or, as Thomas Aquinas said, it should be "an ordination of reason for the common good promulgated [by those who have] care of the community." (ST I-II, 90, 4) While I am not personally convinced Canon Law per se always functions in this way, I am certain that c 603 does.

11 November 2015

Can Dioceses Add Conditions to Canon 603 in Ways Which are Onerous?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, What happened in Spain in those earlier centuries with people who were living as hermits in good faith? Were they imprisoned? It hardly seems fair if they were! Maybe canon 603 is more positive in its origins and reason for being but can't dioceses begin adding their own conditions and qualifications to it? What prevents a diocese from making the conditions so burdensome that they infringe on the freedom of hermits in this place? Do hermits find c 603 sufficient to govern a real eremitical life?]]

Canon 603 as an Improvement on Diocesan Canons

Your questions are well taken and similar questions have been raised in the past. (cf, On the Growing Institutionalization of the Eremitical Vocation as well as Followup on the Institutionalization of Eremitism, et al). It is entirely true that individual dioceses can compose guidelines for admission to c 603 life and make these necessary for those living the life in this local Church. Occasionally we see nods in this direction (and which actually go further than this) when, for instance, a Bishop writes a hermit's Rule for her. (cf., Should a Bishop Write a Hermit's Rule?) Guidelines, however are a good idea so long as they truly remain guidelines and the diocese itself --- along with the candidate herself --- remains open to a genuine process of discernment which respects the differences between hermits and the hermit's own experience and wisdom. On the whole I would say that dioceses have not chosen to go in the direction of writing out specific guidelines, but it is the case that all the dioceses I know of (not a lot in other words!) do have at least a list of unwritten guidelines and even requirements for admission to profession.

One of the real improvements, it seems to me, is the contemporary Church's openness to hermits in the lay, clerical or consecrated states. Today the Church allows people to respond to whatever call they feel they have without inordinate restrictions and requirements. A lay person, for instance, can decide in good faith that they are called to eremitical life and live it as they feel compelled to do. Canon 603 does not bind these persons either morally or in law but it still provides a good norm by which one can measure one's efforts. Gone are the days when folks could be locked up by the Church for transgressing diocesan norms in this matter! It is true that there are requirements for admission to public or ecclesial vocations but there is no doubt in my mind that these generally serve love.

Another real improve-ment is that Canon 603 is universal in scope. Though, as noted, guidelines are not only allowed but are prudent, Eremitical Life's inclusion in the Universal Code of Canon Law via c 603 does not allow for competing canons on the diocesan level. This leads not only to significant consistency, but demands the cultivation of a shared wisdom which positively affects the entire Church and all hermit vocations. A third real bit of brilliance codified in canon 603 is the remarkable way it articulates non-negotiable elements and allows for their flexible expression within the hermit's own Rule and life. I believe that c 603 is entirely sufficient so long as enough care is taken in the writing of the Rule with all that entails in terms of time for formation and discernment. Likewise, dioceses must not treat the Rule as a simple document anyone can write at any time, but as one rooted in lived experience which requires and also demonstrates the adequacy of formation and discernment. (cf Writing a Rule for the Various Stages in Formation and Discernment and Why Several Rules Over Time?)

On the other hand  we also still have dioceses which, for one reason and another, have refused to implement canon 603. Some of the reasons are good ones; others are not. For instance, some of these dioceses still need to get up to speed on eremitical life itself (a problem which carried more weight 15 to 20 years ago than it does now, 32 years into the life of Canon 603); others have had bad experiences with candidates or actual professed hermits and have not found ways to ensure adequate formation of candidates or discernment of solitary eremitical vocations, while some simply do not believe there is such a thing as a valid vocation to the solitary eremitical life. There has always been an understandable tendency to distrust singular vocations in the Church. Mark Miles' work makes that clear enough in his brief history of this vocation (cf., Chapter 1, Canon 603: Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition, Rome 2003). Canons 603 and 604 (Consecrated Virgins living in the World) have certainly not put an end to this entirely --- nor, perhaps should they! Still, canon 603 and the increased number of sound vocations it produces will (eventually) influence these dioceses to do whatever it takes to implement the canon when suitable candidates appear at the chancery door.

At the same time, unfortunate as this is, we do still have people calling themselves Catholic Hermits and soliciting contributions despite having no right to do so. Generally the Church does not take action against such folks unless complaints are brought to the diocesan bishop. Then a diocese may well require the person to cease calling themselves a Catholic Hermit --- though they are unlikely to do or need to do much more than this. Still, civil laws may apply --- those against fraud, for instance --- so people pretending to be living eremitical life in the name of the Church do need to be aware of this. We may also have diocesan hermits who are living less than true eremitical lives. Beyond the everyday struggle to live this vocation with integrity --- a struggle we all experience, I think --- some perhaps are too involved in active ministry, some might give their "hermitage" over to all kinds of activities but not to God alone! Some are lone pious individuals who perhaps aspire to eremitical life but, for whatever reason, have not embraced it fully or consistently. And some never wanted to live eremitical life at all; they merely wanted the perks that come with canonical standing. Canon 603 stands as a firm and universal norm in all of these cases and will challenge both hermits and dioceses to embrace the desert existence it codifies more fully and authentically --- or deal appropriately with those who cannot or will not.

The Situation in Early Spain and the Responsibility to "Count the Cost":

In the centuries Mark Miles, JCD, was writing about, he gives no details about the variety of penalties or the way these were levelled against people and I don't know anything more about those myself. It seems to me, however, that the very fact of a range of penalties all the way up to imprisonment and excommunication indicates false hermits were a clear problem in at least two major senses.  I suspect everyone was aware of this situation --- whether they were the victims or the perpetrators of fraud! Thus, historically naive as this may actually be, I don't think many folks were unceremoniously snatched up and thrown into prison without being aware of the danger. If they were aware of the penalties and chose to continue to dress in religious garb, beg alms as a Catholic hermit, preach, etc., despite having no authorization to do so, then one can argue they also chose to suffer the consequences. You may remember that Aquinas wrote famously about primacy of conscience when he said that if one should be penalized unjustly (in this case he was speaking about excommunication) one had to to act in good conscience and this would also mean one would need to bear the punishment which was the consequence of that, and do so with humility.

This lesson, I think, is brought home by recent Scripture readings. Yesterday we heard the story of the man who builds his house on sand and a week or two ago we heard a similar story about starting to build a house without counting the cost. If one chooses to live (or at least to style oneself) as a hermit, then one should probably look seriously at what the Church actually says about such matters before doing so. Otherwise it is like setting out to build a house without counting the cost. It is foolish and shortsighted at best. Ignorance is not always an excuse! More importantly, ignorance can be hurtful and even disastrous for everyone involved. One really must ascertain and count the cost of whatever it is one proposes to do. (By the way, I think this also means the dioceses or regions which are refusing to implement c 603 under any circumstances need to do their own assessment of the cost of their own policy here. Ignorance and a failure to count the cost or honor the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit does not only occur on the hermit's side of the equation!)

On External and Internal Controls for Dioceses:

What prevents a diocese from establishing conditions or quali-fications so burdensome that they infringe on the freedom of hermits (or hermit candidates) in this place? On the one hand I think the answer must be nothing at all --- if, that is, we are asking what external constraints are in place to prevent this. Besides c 603 itself, the one canon which might apply a little here is c 605 which requires bishops to be open to new forms of consecrated life. But of course what constitutes openness cannot be legislated.

On the other hand though, I believe our dioceses generally are staffed by people of good will, genuine faith, and professional competence; because of that there are any number of inner constraints and drives which will prevent them from enacting burdensome and essentially punitive requirements and restrictions. Not least, most of the diocesan personnel I know are committed to truly discerning the will of God in a given situation; they spend time in prayer and reflection while evaluating a person's petition or Rule, for instance. They meet with the person, both at the chancery and (sometimes) in the hermit's own place in order to really gauge the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them. They are generally committed to seeing where the Holy Spirit is working and where that can be honored and celebrated using canon 603 itself.

Hermits who are already professed and therefore already have an approved Rule and have entered into what amounts to a legitimate and covenant relationship with their bishop cannot, it seems to me, have arbitrary conditions or requirements imposed on them unilaterally.  However, if a bishop requires something in obedience and the hermit cannot go along with this in good faith, then the situation will require resolution --- something which may not always be a happy one for everyone involved. I have written about this before in When the Discernment of Bishops and Hermits Conflict. I do think we have to trust in the good will and charity of dioceses in general in these matters --- just as dioceses have to trust the good will and discernment of the hermit working regularly with a competent director. In any case, except for dioceses or regions determining they will not use canon 603 at all (which I personally believe is an indefensible position), I have heard of no situations which rise to the level of increased constraints and requirements which are actually onerous to the hermits in these dioceses. Granted, some requirements simply cannot be met by everyone --- nor should they be. Just as dioceses must take care in applying canon 603 (and any guidelines they develop!) wisely and prudently, the rest of us have to be careful not to identify valid requirements as "too onerous" simply because some will be excluded from profession because of them.

09 November 2015

Fraudulent Hermits a Problem Through History?

[[Dear Sister, I appreciate there are not a lot of fraudulent hermits out there. I also understand the reasons you claim that canon 603 was not made law because of abuses but have fraudulent hermits been a problem in the history of the Church? You wrote about a canonist being wrong if he said c 603 was developed because of abuses but I would bet there have been problems with this in the past.]]

Thanks for writing again. Yes, as I recall the canonist was reported to have said c 603 itself was a revision of something in the 1917 Code and also that it was developed in order to prevent abuses as well as to accommodate those who desired an "official stamp of approval". While the 1983 Code of Canon Law is a revision of the 1917 Code (which may have been what this canonist actually said) there was NO provision for hermits in the 1917 Code so c 603 per se is not a revision of anything in universal law. Neither was canon 603 itself developed to deal with abuses. Solitary eremitical life had pretty much died out in the Western Church --- at least in the contemporary Church. If there were lay hermits around they were neither a major problem nor instance of abuse of the eremitical life. Meanwhile the hermits that existed in semi-eremitical institutes like the Camaldolese or Carthusians were sufficiently governed by Canon Law and the institutes' own proper law (constitutions and statutes). A new canon would have been unnecessary for these reasons.

However in the history of eremitical life there have been various attempts to deal with both authentic and false or fraudulent hermits. Mark Miles documents some of this history in his Dissertation, Canon  603 Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition. He notes that until the Council of Trent (16th C) there were uneven attempts to deal with this form of life at diocesan synods -- though with the Gregorian reforms there were some papal attempts to tighten controls over this form of life. After the Council of Trent bishops were "encouraged to use whatever means necessary to reform the life of clergy and religious" and the result was that many countries "adopted the medium of the diocesan synod to regulate the relationship between hermit and priest, and hermit and bishop." Spain and France in particular adopted such means of regulating individual hermits including a pledge of obedience to the diocesan bishop. In the case of authentic hermits this was done "to offer security and protection" to these persons.

But fraudulent hermits (or those who were false in the sense of being inauthentic) were indeed a problem and a number of steps were taken to control this. In the sixth century hermits were seen as a kind of monk and were required to spend a period of time in a monastery in order to prove his vocation. Hermits who spent "strict training in a monastery" would then be allowed to leave to live as a "full solitary". Miles notes that only then would their "aversion to common life [be] seen as legitimate." (Though technically correct perhaps, I find the historical use of the term aversion here strikingly infelicitous!) After the Council of Trent Pope Benedict XIV proposed a set of norms for the hermits in the diocese of Rome and encouraged other dioceses to do something similar. This work by Benedict XIV recognized "four kinds of hermits that had existed up to that point: [those] linked to a religious order, [those] that lived as a group or congregation under the rule and direction of the diocesan bishop, those that lived completely alone and also under the direction of the bishop and finally, the false hermits." Miles DHET, 85 (Emphasis added.)

With regard to the last group, Spain (including its colonies and territories), for instance, generally required hermits "to be received and instituted in a legitimate way by the diocesan Bishop and remain obedient to him." Miles writes, "Those unwilling to follow this practice were outlawed in most parts of the territory (Mexico)." A number of punishments were associated with infringements of the established legal practice including excommunication (some dioceses in Spain) and in some "false hermits might even find themselves in jail." (Miles, 86) In most countries bishops were similarly directly responsible for the hermits living in his diocese. Minimum ages (40 years) were set by synods as were the permissions or prohibitions of single women pursuing this vocation, candidates were vetted, conditions for moving from one hermitage to another were established as were conditions re wearing a habit and the nature of the habit (e.g., it could not be the same as those worn by established and recognized congregations of monks), etc. Other conditions that were legislated included conditions of life in cell: women were prohibited entry, solitaries could not leave their cells and loiter outside, other situations leading to scandal were regulated and so were the norms for begging for alms. (Especially hermits were not allowed to range far and wide or beg at all hours. The vocation was solitary and sedentary rather than one of peripatetic mendicancy and this had to be respected.)

It seems clear from all of this that the term "false hermits" had two overlapping senses. The first was folks who were under no ecclesiastical authority or direction but who wandered the diocese calling themselves hermits, begging for alms, dressing in habits sometimes mimicking those of clerics and monks, and generally living a life of pretense in this way. The purpose of these varied diocesan norms was indeed to prevent false hermits of this type from operating with impunity. Additionally the norms helped protect the marriage bond and Sacrament of matrimony by preventing married persons from becoming hermits (all Spanish dioceses legislated this) and some excluded single women from living an eremitical life. (Thank God some other countries did not adopt this norm!) The second type of false hermit was as important, namely legitimate hermits who were giving scandal or substituting individualism for an eremitism the Church recognized as authentic. These too were living lives of pretense though it was the more serious pretense of hypocrisy and actual infidelity to an ecclesial commitment and commission.

The distinction between these norms and canon 603 comes from the fact that the contem-porary Latin Church had not had solitary hermits for at least a century and a half. Dioceses were not plagued with false hermits in at least the first sense. Moreover, as I have explained before monks in solemn vows were discovering eremitical vocations but had to be secularized in order to pursue their call to be hermits. Bishop de Roo wrote an intervention for the Second Vatican Council listing five positive reasons (cf On Betraying the Eremitical  Vocation) for recognizing eremitical life as a state of perfection. He was not proposing the Church deal with abuses. My objections to what the canonist was supposed to have said dealt with the application of general historical conditions to the development of canon 603 per se. In no way would I try to suggest diocesan canons were not formulated to fight abuses nor that c 603 could be used in this way if necessary, but the fact is that was not the situation leading to canon 603 itself. This is not why canon 603 was created and promulgated.

By the way, it is also important to note that contrary to the arguments of those who say c 603 is a needless and even destructive instance of increased institutionalization of eremitical life, when viewed against this background c 603 actually represents a less onerous and more flexible instance of canonical institutionalization than has often been the case in Church history. I would argue this is precisely because its roots are positive and an attempt to codify in some protective and nurturing way a precious and prophetic charisma of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the argument that canon 603 is a deviation from and even a distortion of the traditional practice of just going off on one's own to live as a hermit is even more clearly specious than I have demonstrated in the past. Far from being the norm for hermits in the Roman Catholic Church, the examples mentioned above point to a widespread ecclesiastical practice of discouraging or even prohibiting this form of eremitical life as "false". The Church has always acted (though perhaps not always carefully or consistently enough) in a variety of ways to protect a fragile but vital vocation from multiple kinds of "falseness." In this, and in other things, law is used in an attempt to serve love.

References in this article are mainly taken from the doctoral dissertation mentioned. I am not sure how available it is generally but again, the work is entitled, Canon  603 Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition by Mark Gerard Miles. Gregorian Pontifical University, Rome 2003.

Embracing C 603 Life: Is Formation Possible Apart from Religious Life?

[[Dear Sister, I was wondering about something you said [recently]. If a person wants to become a diocesan hermit and needs to learn about the vows how do they do that? Also, if c 603 hermits are religious like all religious do other canons apply to their life besides c 603? Which ones? Will my diocese expect me to know all these things before I petition them for admission to profession? It seems to me that unless a person has been a religious in the past there is a lot to learn. I wonder if it is really possible though I know you say it is!]]

Good questions. I think your diocese will require that you have lived the silence of solitude as a hermit for some time before allowing you to petition for admission to profession. Certain things will be part and parcel of that including living a simple, God-centered life, of assiduous prayer and penance which is withdrawn from that which is resistant to Christ as well as from some of those things which are good but not really meant for hermits. That period will also be expected to be under supervision and receive regular spiritual direction. I think they will also expect you to understand and have lived the vows in an essential way before admitting you to temporary profession. They will expect you to have lived and studied the vows with all that means both theologically and canonically before admitting you to perpetual profession. (As you surmise, those who have been members of a religious institute will be ahead of the game, though applying what they know to canon 603 life will still need to be done.)

Remember that all of this will take some years and you will generally approach things in the stages I outlined. It needn't be as overwhelming as it seems to you at this point in time. One of the ways you will demonstrate your understanding of the vows (and also gauge your own understanding of these) is by writing your Rule. (Your Rule will provide a brief theology of the vows as you understand and live them and will include your vow formula.) But how do you get the understanding you need to do that? I think there are two main ways.

The first is by reading, reflecting on and living what you read --- and then reflecting on that as well. There are a number of good works on religious life and the vows, usually therefore on the vows in a communal context. Still, except for the vow of poverty which needs to be justified and conceived somewhat differently for someone living a solitary life, they work well for the hermit. The best I know of is that of Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM. A good introductory and summary volume is New Wineskins. Sandra also has a trilogy after that with each volume named after the parable of the pearl and the field. Volume 1 is called Finding the Treasure, Vol 2 is Selling All, and Volume 3 is Buying the Field. You might start with New Wineskins. Another work on the nature and content of monastic profession is Centered on Christ, A Guide to Monastic Profession, by Augustine Roberts OCSO. This is one of those books I read and reread periodically. It is especially apt for any canon 603 hermit despite its coenobitical (and Benedictine) context. A final suggestion is the work, Christian Totality, Theology of the Consecrated Life by Basil Cole OP and Paul Conner OP.

The second way (and one which would need to be complementary to the reading you will do) is meeting regularly with a vowed religious for discussions on the vows and their content. Some of this may be possible with your director but more likely it will require your arranging something -- possibly with the assistance of your diocese -- with someone doing formation for a religious or monastic community in your  area. This is a good place to become informed of and acquainted with the other canons which apply to consecrated eremitical life --- especially in terms of the vows. Further, it is a real gift to be able to see how others live the vows and an especial joy to hear them reflect on their meaning in their own lives and the lives of their institutes. Not only does every religious reflect on these vows (thus their minds, hearts, and lives will have moved in directions and to depths you too are invited to go in time) but it is important to understand that what you are being called to live is something you do in a kind of solidarity with all these others.  I think any solitary hermit will find this consoling and empowering.

While there is a kind of threshold level of knowledge one needs to be professed and certainly to be perpetually professed, the fact is the vows represent a world one explores more and more deeply every day of one's life. There is a lot to learn but part of the commitment of vows is the commitment to continue that very process. This is one reason monastic vows usually include conversatio morum --- a commitment to continue to grow in grace and thus, to metanoia. You might remember I once wrote here that profession was not a form of graduation but more analogous to a terminal degree which says the person is ready to continue learning on their own and also in collaboration with others with a similar "formation" and commitment. It is critically important that one commits to conversatio --- more critical than the knowledge one has at the time of profession. Thus, I would say your diocese will expect you to have the threshold level of knowledge mentioned above but even more they will expect you to have demonstrated initiative in gaining that knowledge and a disciplined commitment to growing in it in both mind and heart every day of your life.

P.S., as noted briefly above, other canons do indeed apply to Canon 603 life. I will say more about that either as an addendum to this post or in another post. Sorry for having skipped over that part before publishing this! Check back in a day or so for additional information.

07 November 2015

On Discerning a C 603 Vocation and Thinking About the Graces Attached

[[Hi Sister, you recently said that if a person is called to be a hermit their life will be more about the journey than the destination. What you said was: [[If you believe you have a vocation then give yourself over wholeheartedly to a genuine discernment and formation process and be patient with however long it takes. If you are called to be a hermit your life will be more about the journey than a particular destination (e.g., consecration) anyway. Trust God; trust the process or journey; trust the Church, and look to what is most loving and edifying for everyone involved.]] I am trying to discern a vocation to hermit life and I feel that I am called to be consecrated under canon 603. If this is God's will for me won't it be a mistake to wait for a long process of discernment? If there are certain graces attached to consecration and this is God's will, then wouldn't waiting deprive me of the graces necessary to live my vocation? I don't mean to be nasty but since you are consecrated isn't it easier for you to argue someone looking to be consecrated shouldn't be too focused on the "destination" where that is consecration?]]

Where I am Coming From:

I can understand why you might think the way I am arguing is easier because I am consecrated. I guess it can sound a little like someone who has already crossed some putative "finish line" to say to other racers that the real task is to take care to look at the countryside as they run along. But profession and even consecration, as critical these are, is not a finish line nor are they the goal of any hermit's life (cf., Profession is Not Graduation). Let me remind you a little of my own background with canon 603. From the time I first approached my diocese with a request to be professed under canon 603 to the day I was perpetually professed took about 23 years. During the majority of those years the diocese had decided not to profess anyone under canon 603 due to some unidentified problem with their use of the canon once before. The Vicar who had worked with me for five years in discernment and preparation for profession was unaware of the decision and both of us had to come to terms with it. (She also had the unenviable job of informing me of the diocesan (Bishop's) position.)

My own seemingly inevitable decision at this point was to continue living as a hermit and though I wanted to be consecrated one of the things I had to come to terms with was the fact that that might not be possible in this particular diocese -- at least not in the foreseeable future. I mainly did that in two ways: 1) I came in time to realize that I might well be living eremitical life as a lay hermit and if that was God's will then well and good; my life was a gift of God in whatever state of life eremitism was lived. I needed to really internalize this. 2) I came to realize that my focus on definitive profession and consecration (either as goal or as disappointment) was leading me away from living my life in the way God was truly calling me to no matter what lay in the future, namely, eremitical life's contemplative focus on the present moment while resting securely in Him. Should a decision to seek consecration again be made down the line it could only be as a fresh discernment rooted in a new sense of the present work of the Holy Spirit in my life.

Why do We Seek Consecration?

In time my life as a hermit came to a kind of fruitfulness which compelled me to seek admission to profession and consecration once again (this was about 15 years after my diocese decided not to profess anyone under c 603). What was different, vastly different in fact, were the reasons I was pursuing this. I had become a hermit with something significant (i.e., meaningful) to offer the Church. I was now looking for a way to do that rather than looking for the Church to make me into something I had not yet become. While admission to perpetual profession and consecration was certainly a gift to me, I sought this in order to share the way the Holy Spirit was working in my life and, I sincerely believed, might be seeking to work or actually be working in the lives of many others as well.

As I look back on all those years I cannot regret the time spent in the journey itself. These years taught me the fundamental lesson that the journey with God IS the essence of the vocation. Moreover these years had definite discrete graces which are still important as part of my eremitical identity. One of these was the lesson that with God nothing is lost or wasted. To be able to say that with my life was and is as tremendous a gift as are any number of other things I do the same with. For instance, that chronic illness can serve as a vocation to proclaim the Gospel with incredible vividness, that God's power is perfected in weakness and kenosis (self-emptying), both human and divine, that lay eremitical life is a significant instance of the eremitical vocation and that consecrated eremitical life is not a "higher" form of vocation, or again, that simply living a relatively pious life alone does not necessarily constitute eremitical life, etc --- all of these are gifts of the eremitical journey with God.

Graces are attached to living an eremitical life with fidelity and attentiveness no matter the state of life involved. Had I continued to focus on either my hope for consecration or my disappointment over the diocese's decision regarding c 603 generally, I would not have been able to embrace the grace being offered to me each and every day. Moreover, had I not done that to the degree I did (which is imperfectly but really!), I would have been in no position to petition my diocese once again for admission to profession and consecration. Again, I would not have become either a contemplative or a hermit during those intervening years. I would not have learned the essential rhythm and perspective of the eremitical life. I would not have grown in necessary detachment nor in the kind of selflessness that is needed by any hermit, consecrated or not, to live even a single day faithfully. I would not have grown sufficiently in faith or my capacity for obedience because I would have failed to trust God's daily sufficiency or his  ability to bring all things to a meaningful conclusion for those who do trust in him. Similarly, my own capacity for stability in the monastic sense, for patience with and trust in superiors (in a general sense), and for reliance on my own initiative would not have developed in the way they did during the long intervening period.

  One thing implied here that was really important is that these years prepared me for life AFTER consecration. They prepared me for the relative obscurity of eremitical life, even (and maybe especially) when it is lived in the name of the Church. You see, after the profession ceremony, after consecration, after the articles in the diocesan and local papers, one mainly retires back into the obscurity of the hermitage. These years demanded I live this life in the way it would need to be lived no matter the state involved. It is true that I am aware of being commissioned to live this life in the Church's name and that I am grateful every day (and sometimes a little awed) that this is the case, but the bottom line is that in those years I learned to trust the Holy Spirit and the gift God makes of my life whether I am ecclesially commissioned in this specific way or not. It was and is a critical lesson.

On the Notion of Missing Graces:

If you are called to be consecrated under canon 603 I truly believe your diocese will eventually discern this. If they are not open to professing anyone under c 603 for reasons that have nothing to do with you, then you may one day decide to leave your diocese. However, I would argue that if you stay and live as a hermit in an exemplary way you will be able to help your diocese to move forward in their own approach to the canon. You will also be demonstrating precisely the kind of hermit you have become. In any case, the fact is you are missing no graces except those you do not embrace because your head and heart are too full of your own determinations. We sometimes think of graces as discrete realities which are other than Godself. But this is not so. God does not have some kind of storage locker with large packages of graces labelled, "for those consecrated by the Church" or smaller ones labelled "for those who live eremitical life in the lay state". Instead grace is the powerful and living presence of God in whatever way God shares Godself.

You see, God gives us himself in the very ways we need him to give himself to us day by day and in fact, in ways that are always marked with a prodigality which is wondrous. We have to trust that. It is the essence of faith. If one day you are called forth from the assembly in the presence of the entire Communion of Saints to be professed and consecrated under canon 603 then you will embrace the rights and obligations of that state of life and God will continue not only to call you but to give himself to you in the ways you need in order to honor and fulfill this call. This is another of the lessons I learned during those years my diocese was professing no one. The question is really what do you want? Do you want some kind of "package" filled with abstract, hypostatized "graces" --- a "package" which is supposedly bigger and glitzier because you are consecrated --- or do you want God in the ways God chooses to give himself to you because he is intimately familiar with what you need but also what his People need?

A Contemplative Moment: on Contemplation and Detachment

True contemplation is the work of a love that transcends all satisfaction and all experience to rest in the night of pure and naked faith. This faith brings us close to God that it may be said to touch and grasp Him as He is, though in darkness. And the effect of that contact is often a deep peace that overflows into the lower faculties of the soul and thus constitutes an "experience." Yet that experience or feeling of peace always remains an accident of contemplation, so that the absence of this "sense" does not mean that our contact with God has ceased.

To become attached to the "experience" of peace is to threaten the true and essential and vital union of our soul with God above sense and experience in the darkness of a pure and perfect love.

And so, although this sense of peace may be a sign that we are united to God it is still only a sign --- an accident. The substance of the union may be had without any such sense, and sometimes when we have no feeling of peace or of God's presence He is more truly present to us than he has ever been before. If we attach too much importance to these acccidentals we will run the risk of losing what is essential, which is the perfect acceptance of God's will, whatever our feelings happen to be.

But if I think the most important thing in life is a feeling of interior peace I will be all the more disturbed when I notice I do not have it. And sense I cannot directly produce the feeling in myself whenever I want to, the disturbance will increase with the failure of my efforts. Finally I will lose my patience by refusing to accept this situation which I cannot control and so I will lose the one important reality, union with the will of God, without which true peace is completely impossible.

Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

02 November 2015


 It began last night. It is continuing this morning. It is rain, real honest to goodness rain. Not a smattering of rain, not a mist. Not just enough to make the roadways dangerously slick or to make one wonder if it is just a really heavy fog. Real rain. Puddles on the ground, piles of dark clouds in the sky, need to find the long unused jacket in the closet type rain!

My prayer this morning (maybe this is a bit obvious!) was about the rain. About gratitude to God for its coming, about all the stressed trees and plants around the area that will drink this up gladly. About trees that didn't make it through the last four years and empty reservoirs and sinking aquifers diminishing our capacity to hold groundwater. About concerns for mudslides and endangered property if this is the beginning of the "monsoon" season El NiƱo COULD bring us --- or even if it is not (for these are perennial problems in California even without a drought).  About clients driving here today and my concern for their safety and the safety of all on the roads today. It has been so dry for so long rain is both a blessing and a potential curse.

But mainly my prayer was of gratitude and hope. Gratitude to God for this gift and the gift of all life. Hope that folks pause to appreciate this day and our world; hope that we have learned (or do learn!) to husband its resources better. Hope for new life in all of its forms. (And on All Souls day that was especially poignant.) Hope that complacency in the face of the wonder of rain would not quickly replace the joy of and delight in its coming. Hope that, as in the reading a week ago or so, we learn to really attend to the weather but also to attend to all the ways God comes to us at any moment. Hope.

26 October 2015

Basic Questions

I received an email with a number of questions, many that have been answered here before so I thought I would post them and try to include some of the links (or at least the label links) leading to appropriate answers. The questions are:

Do I need to be a sister before entering the Eremitical life?

No, but there is no doubt that someone with formation in a religious community will often be better prepared to move into eremitical solitude with a sense of 8what a solitary religious life entails and with the personal qualities and functional "skills" necessary to succeed there. Somehow one must get the social and spiritual formation religious life entails.  I believe an individual can do this but it involves education in theology, spirituality and the disciplines associated with these in prayer, lectio, study, etc. This is especially true of consecrated solitary eremitical life under canon 603. At the very least such a life needs to include the central formative elements of any religious life including education in the meaning of the vows and a grounding in Scripture which will allow one to read it intelligently and live from it as a truly deep and pervasive source of life. Moreover one needs a sense of the eremitical tradition in which one is seeking a place as a living representative. Please check out some of the other posts here on the formation of the lay or diocesan hermit, etc.

Do I need to find a specific direction such as Dominican, Benedictine, etc. ahead of time?

No. However, in my experience most hermits have developed a kinship or affinity with a particular spiritual tradition well before becoming either a lay or a diocesan hermit. Still, this is not necessary. I have felt keen resonances with Franciscan, Camaldolese Benedictine, and Cistercian spiritualities. While I was a Franciscan and am now an oblate with the Camaldolese Benedictines I retain strong affinities with Franciscanism and am discovering ever greater resonances with Cistercian spirituality. At the same time my prayer resonates with the "spirit" of John of the Cross, and so, Carmelite tradition too. The bottom line here is that I am professed as a diocesan hermit, not as Camaldolese or Franciscan or Cistercian and that profession gives me the freedom to seek the wealth in any spiritual tradition, especially those with a strong love for silence and solitude. In some ways the diocesan hermit can serve as a symbol of the place where many traditions come together in the silence of solitude.

At what point do I contact the diocese for guidance?

Until you have lived as a hermit in a conscious, dedicated, and supervised way for at least a couple of years I personally believe it is premature to contact a diocese for guidance. The most they can or usually will say to a person without at least this background is, "Go and live in solitude. Model your life on canon 603 to the degree any lay hermit can, and, if you still are interested in pursuing this option and discerning a vocation to consecrated solitary eremitical life, then contact us again." The way I have summarized this in the past is by saying a person must truly be a hermit in some essential sense before contacting their diocese. You see, dioceses are not responsible for the formation of hermits. Hermits are formed in the silence of solitude, and though this takes guidance it is strongly dependent on the hermit's initiative and personal discernment.

One of the reasons I use the picture just above as a symbol of this life is because it underscores the place of the silence of solitude in the formation of the hermit, especially the diocesan hermit. If one cannot be responsible for and acquire the education and formation one needs apart from the diocese --- at least in the main --- one is unlikely to have a vocation to solitary eremitical life. Moreover, until and unless you have this background, most dioceses are unlikely to consider you a serious candidate for eventual profession. (My own diocese has, in the past at least, said they will not even consider a person for profession under canon 603 until they have lived as a hermit under direction for at least five years. I think that is very wise and believe it is the very minimum necessary even, and maybe especially, if one is coming from a religious community.) Please see the other posts on Time Frames, When to contact one's diocese, etc. Check the labels below and in the right hand panel.

I noticed that you wear a habit, which appeals to me as well. Is this something that relates to the community you associate with, or is this a separate decision you or the diocese may have made?

The habit I wear is very specifically NOT a Camaldolese habit, nor is the cowl I wear for prayer cut in the same way a Camaldolese cowl is cut. Since I am not professed as a Camaldolese nor any other religious Order or congregation, I wear a fairly generic habit which really matches none that I know of. Diocesan hermits must be given permission to wear a habit and no bishop can give permission for them to wear the habit of a specific Order or congregation. Thus, those who turn up in Franciscan habits, or Carthusian habits, for instance are really wearing garb they have no right to. Since I am not professed as a Franciscan I do NOT wear a Franciscan habit. A friend and diocesan hermit who is associated with the Carmelites does NOT wear a Carmelite habit because the habit is a symbol of one who is formally entrusted with and thus has rights and obligations in regard a specific Tradition.

Not all diocesan hermits wear habits and not all bishops grant permission for the wearing of religious garb. Please see other posts on Titles and Habits, etc. By the way, one of the things you should discern is whether you are called to lay eremitical life or c 603 eremitical life. Don't allow the appeal of wearing a habit prevent you from looking seriously at the possibility that IF God is calling you to eremitical life it may well be as a hermit in the lay state, nor, for that matter, that wearing a habit may not be the witness God is calling you to in any case.

Do you attend Mass?

Of course. I attend Sunday Mass most weeks and daily Mass usually at least once or twice during a week. Sometimes I skip the entire week of daily Mass for a period of increased silence or uninterrupted solitude and other times I may attend several days a week. My baptismal obligations are not generally abrogated by my canonical profession though my commitment to solitude may sometimes require missing Mass at my parish. Similarly, the fact that I have the right to reserve Eucharist in my hermitage makes it absolutely imperative that I get to Mass regularly so that both the reservation and any Communion service I do in the hermitage is integrally linked to the Community celebration of Mass.  Please see the post on Solitude and Sunday Obligation (follow the labels at the bottom for similar posts) and the posts on Eucharistic Spirituality and Solitude.

Do you have any reading material to suggest as I traverse this path?

There are any number of good reads out there on eremitical life today. The best I know is Cornelius Wencel's The Eremitic Life. Personally the most important books in my own journey have included Wencel's book along with Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action, his essay, "Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude" and Cashen's study of solitude in Thomas Merton's thought by the name Solitude. Also helpful was Sister Jeremy Hall's Silence, Solitude, Simplicity, A Hermit's Love Affair With a Noisy, Crowded, and Complicated World, The Hermitage Within, and LeClercq's Alone With God. There are a number of important works on solitude itself too including those by Barbour, Koch, Storr and Buchholz. An introduction to the growing phenomenon of eremitical life of all sorts today is Consider the Ravens by the Fredette's. Meanwhile, a new monograph called Seeking in Solitude by Bernadette McNary-Zak is generally quite fine and one I recommend but probably not where one would begin reading. My own suggestion is that you start with Wencel or Merton or Hall and then read the others. Also read in and about the Desert Fathers and Mothers! They are a fount of the life you are seeking to enter.

Do you go out into the community to serve or gather with others living  the Eremitic life? (Is that a silly question, lol?)

I serve at my parish in several meaningful but quite limited ways. Mostly my work as a spiritual director and as a writer (theology, spirituality) is done from the hermitage. I don't usually meet with others living eremitical lives, no (very rarely I am able to get to Incarnation monastery, etc. ), but I do stay connected to many of them via computer and the Network of Diocesan Hermits.  You will find a number of posts here on hermits and  ministry and on the meaning and requirements of living solitude right on up to complete reclusion here. Please take a look.

Do you have any suggestions for someone looking into this form of life?

At first I hesitated answering this thinking the answer would be too complex and perhaps too lengthy. Perhaps, I thought, I could tackle it in another post just for this purpose. That remains an option. However, two things I consider critical did come to mind so I will add those here.  In the first place I have to say that the single most important suggestion I can make is that one work regularly with a good and experienced director who is knowledgeable in contemplative prayer and in spiritual formation. This person does not need to be a hermit but they must be knowledgeable, experienced, and competent! This is an absolute sine qua non in eremitical life and in discerning such a vocation. Especially, it seems to me, they must be skilled in lovingly assisting the directee to be honest with themselves and God about their own motivations, etc. They must help a directee to seek and embrace Truth in all the ways this is revealed in their lives.

A second thing I should say here is that anyone looking into this life must understand that there are many kinds of solitude and most are not eremitical. If one is called to various degrees of silence AND solitude one still may not be called to live the silence OF solitude in the eremitical life. If one is called to eremitical life there are several options: 1) eremitical life in the lay state (the majority of hermits are lay hermits I think), 2) consecrated life as a hermit in a religious congregation, and 3) consecrated life as a solitary hermit under canon 603. One might be called to any of these. A lot of discernment is involved and one must be prepared to give oneself over to the process. (Hence the importance of a competent spiritual director!)

Many times folks write and seem to have concluded their vocation is a foregone conclusion. Sometimes this simply means they are intrigued by the idea. But interest or even attraction does not necessarily mean a vocation. Often (though not in the case of the person asking these particular questions) they believe because they live alone they are truly called to be a hermit or are actually already hermits. Yet, the truth is quite often that they are still merely lone individuals primarily interested in "getting consecrated", wearing a habit, reserving Eucharist in their own place, or are persons who are simply interested in validating their own aloneness and individualism. Mainly these folks have very little sense of what being a hermit actually means and they are not really interested in the radical conversion of their living situations or their hearts and minds in the way eremitical life requires.

The actual process of discernment has not really happened here nor can it until and unless the candidate commits to a process of formation and conversion. Discernment is, in some ways, an evaluation of the way this formation in the silence of solitude either causes one to grow and thrive or to be diminished and stifled. This is why I wrote recently of being able to discern whether one is called to eremitical life only when one is striving to live the life, not while preparing to live it. (cf. Should We Just Ease into Eremitical Life to Discern a Vocation to Eremitism?) So, again, my suggestion is to remember that what you are called to is God's will for what is most loving for others as well as yourself!  If you believe you have a vocation then give yourself over wholeheartedly to a genuine discernment and formation process and be patient with however long it takes. If you are called to be a hermit your life will be more about the journey than a particular destination (e.g., consecration) anyway. Trust God; trust the process or journey; trust the Church, and look to what is most loving and edifying for everyone involved.

Meanwhile, I'll think a bit more about what else I might suggest. I have written about this a lot in various ways over the years so perhaps I do need to pull that all together in a single post.

24 October 2015

Reflections from Friday's Readings

One of the fundamental keys for self-help groups and 12 step programs is the recognition that the person needing help "hits bottom" and comes to a profound sense of their own powerlessness to change things. Though we think of this as a contemporary bit of wisdom it is quite ancient and something Paul has been writing about in his Letter to the Romans for the last two weeks. From the portrait we find in Paul we are apt to recognize clearly that the dynamics of sin and of addiction are almost identical, especially as he describes things today: [["For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members."!]]

The "law of (the) mind" is the law (the inner drive and foundational dynamism) of the inner self, the good will and seat of the desire to do good, to know, embrace, and be truth. It is the fundamental law of the self, the God-given source of vocation and all creativity. It is the law which is at war with the law of sin. The whole self under the power of sin (the flesh) is at war with the whole self under the power of the Spirit (the spirit). What Paul knows with absolute certainty is that the attempt to keep the Law on his own power (flesh) only leads more deeply into sin. After all, to attempt to take what can only be received as gift is to betray both the giver and ourselves who are meant to be receivers. It is to increase the distance between ourselves and God.  Our inner self desires to do good and avoid evil but has no power of itself. Paul knew human beings to be locked in a situation of sin, a bondage of the will, and heart. In such a situation of bondage God's greatest gifts, the Law and the call to pray (to worship God in truth and purity of heart) become traps to idolatry and occasion an even more extreme situation of estrangement and alienation (sin).

It is, as I described earlier in the week, a bit like jumping off a cliff in an attempt to fly and then trying to arrest the inevitable fall (much less believing we can somehow then launch ourselves into flight!) by pulling on the tops of our shoes! Thus, Paul follows his depressing and realistic analysis with a cry of abject helplessness: [[Who will save me from this body of death?]] But Paul's "hitting bottom" was also the moment of his being "exalted" to his original dignity and freedom. Judgment came in his meeting with God in Christ, but so did redemption and so, Paul's cry of abjection is followed by one of exultation, [[Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!]] The realization that he could do nothing to save himself and was thus in bondage to sin was turned on its head as he came to realize he need do nothing but embrace his powerlessness; in that moment he became open (obedient) and Absolute Power (in the weakness of the Crucified Christ) embraced him. Love-in-Act grasped, shook him, and freed him of "the law of sin" so that he might live instead from the grace of God.

Incapacity to Keep the Law or to be People of Prayer apart from God:

One of the striking pieces of Paul's insight here, an insight rooted in his experience of powerlessness is the way two things become complicit in our sin. The first is Law and the second is prayer. I have written recently about Paul's position on the Law. With Prayer what we need to see is that to truly pray we must admit our powerlessness so that God might then work within us. Paul said it this way, "The Spirit helps us in our infirmities. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit, with groanings too deep for words intercedes for us." My sense is the Church works very hard to make sure we model this in all of our prayer, all of our liturgy. Just as in addiction, so too in any spiritual life: everything hinges on our deep and dual confession of powerlessness and trust in God.

We begin every prayer with the sign of the cross and the words, "In the Name (that is, in the the dynamic, powerful, and empowering presence), of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." In other words, we open ourselves to being moved and empowered by God's own presence. We complete our prayers in the same way, but this time, like Paul's dual confession in Friday's first reading, it is an expression of gratitude and hope rooted again in the powerful presence of the Triune God within and around us. In monastic life and the Liturgy of the Hours we begin the very first prayer of the day with the hopeful plea, "Lord Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise." Again, we know we are powerless to say a single word in prayer much less praise God with our lives unless God empowers us in this way. We trust that God will do so but we are equally clear that he must. At every subsequent hour we begin by intoning, O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me!" This is a prayer I personally pray many times a day in all kinds of situations. At these moments I am reminded of my own powerlessness, but also the power I have in Christ, and the covenant relation with God I truly am.

Paying Attention to the Weather?

Luke's Gospel reminds us how urgent this all is, and how attentive we must be at all times to the smallest sign of God's presence and our own powerlessness apart from that presence. Jesus begins by noting how clearly the people see and understand the signs of coming rain or hot winds. There is nothing trivial in this knowledge. In the Middle East of Jesus' day drought or famine led to social unrest and dislocation, loss of unity and death. Just recently we read that the war in Syria was caused in part by a terrible drought followed by the movement of 1.5M people to urban areas. The economy was destabilized, social unrest occurred and then war. Analysts note that because no one really paid attention to the drought as a factor in the county's situation they deemed Syria to be stable even the day before war broke out; this critical inattentiveness to what should have never been overlooked contributed to or (some opine) even caused the catastrophe in which many nations are now embroiled in one way and another. In California, where we are experiencing a serious drought people have begun to pay keen attention to clouds, water tables, fire conditions, El Nino, Hurricane Patricia, and so forth. We know how fragile the situation in which we find ourselves and we watch carefully lest we face disaster down the line. And yet, how many of us look so assiduously for the signs of God's presence --- or at the signs of our own critical need for God's presence?

As in these situations, and exactly like someone in a twelve step program who begins (and continues every step of) their journey into a hope-filled future by admitting the situation from which they cannot extricate themselves as they also open themselves to a "higher power," we are called to make our own Paul's dual confession of bondage to sin and the grateful celebration of freedom (being empowered by grace) in Christ.  At every moment and mood, with every prayer or attempt to be our true selves we are called to remember and claim our powerlessness so that God may simultaneously empower, free, and exalt  us to true dignity and humility. Embracing our personal poverty is the occasion for the triumph of God's great love. As Paul also reminds us, "(God's) grace is sufficient for (us). (God's) power is made perfect in weakness" --- both that of Christ and our own! We know how to do this:  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we make our prayers and live our lives. In the Name of God our lives are made God's own prayers. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

23 October 2015

Halleluia Chorus: Foodcourt Flashmob

I suppose I "should" save this for Christmas but I happened to see it tonight and was moved to tears. I loved that the choir is all ages and I especially loved the rapt expression on so many of the children's faces as well as the joy on the faces of most of the adults. I remembered my first experience of orchestra (6th or 7th grade) --- the most profound experience of community I had known to that point. I think the choristers know that sense when they make music together; they show it in their attentiveness to one another and their own wonder and joy at what is being wrought here with and for others --- all beyond any individual's capacities. I was also struck by how hungry we are for this kind of freedom of expression, this ability to powerfully draw others into the world of our own witness; imagine trying to proclaim the Sovereignty of Christ otherwise in a food court.

Yes, it's wonderful music and there is no doubt this  music moves us with the power of the Transcendent, but here the lyrics are key for this IS proclamation. Given today's first reading, Handel's celebration of "the Kingdom of God and of his Christ" is precisely what Paul was proclaiming as the solution to the human predicament we call sin and it echoes the power of Paul's own text! "Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Lay Hermits and the Difficulty of Terminology

Last month I posted a response to a question about terminology on the blog  Lay Hermit Intercessor. Since then a number of questions have been posed about the terminology "lay hermit" as well as about the incidence of stereotypes and frauds living as Catholic Hermits --- some prompted by recent posts by another blogger on A Catholic Hermit.  As a result I am going to repost the last part of  last month's article --- specifically that having to do with the basic division of hermits into privately vowed and those who are publicly professed.

Meanwhile let me take one more opportunity to say that Michael Miller's blog Lay Hermit Intercessor is growing into a significant example of a lay hermit's life, work, and struggles. Some of the recent reflections which Mr Miller has posted are incredibly poignant and beautiful in their love, simplicity, and humanity. I believe Mr Miller's life is a service to the Church and  a maturing witness to eremitical life lived in the lay state. Especially, he is a hermit persevering in a little-understood and even less-appreciated form of life sans the support and validation afforded by public profession and consecration. I think that is really admirable and an important reason to distinguish between lay and consecrated.

Related Questions:

[[Sister Laurel, would you agree or disagree that the important distinction in hermits is between those who are privately professed and those who are publicly professed?]]

I agree that this can be seen as the most basic distinction, but it is also the case that one needs to be using the words "private" and "public" in the way the Church herself uses them.

Namely, public vows are those which, 1) are associated with public rights and obligations [and corresponding graces] beyond those that come with baptism, 2) with the exceptions ** mentioned below, are the necessary way one is established in a new and stable state of life, namely, the consecrated and/or religious state, 3) are necessarily associated with religious life and are essential for one claiming to be a professed religious, 4) are associated with vocations lived in the name of the Church (one becomes a Catholic Religious, Catholic hermit, etc.), and 5) involve canonical relationships (legitimate superiors, an approved Rule and the legal and moral obligation to live one's Rule, etc.) which are meant to ensure the integrity of the vocation itself and one's vocational response. If one speaks of public vows ALL of these things are necessarily implied.

(**The exceptions referred to in #2 above are consecrated virginity and c 603: CV's make no vows but do make a significant commitment; c 603 hermits may use a form of commitment using "other sacred bonds". Both involve God's consecration of the person mediated through the ministry of the Church. It is in this way these persons enter the consecrated state.)

Meanwhile, private vows are those which 1) are not associated with public or canonical rights and obligations beyond baptism or whatever state the person is already in, 2) do not initiate or establish one in a new and stable state of life, 3) are not religious vows which, by definition, are public, 4) are not associated with public vocations lived in the name of the Church (one does not become a Catholic Hermit with private vows), and 5) are not associated with the establishment of canonical relationships meant to ensure the integrity of one's vocational response. (That is, they do not involve legitimate superiors, or legal obligations to live one's Rule, but they do involve the moral obligation to live one's Rule or Plan of Life.) If one identifies oneself as privately vowed ALL of these limitations or exclusions are necessarily implied.

So, in summary, yes, one can certainly assert that the one distinction that "matters" for a hermit is that between public and private vows so long as one is not trying to reduce or even trivialize the meaning of these terms to their more common senses of known and unknown to others . . .. In other words, if one asserts this is the only distinction that matters then one needs to explain why they are such significant terms in the life of the Church. [One needs to unpack them and demonstrate how distinct from one another they are while doing justice to the ways they are identical.] Most of my efforts in speaking about this in the past has involved  "unpacking" the way the Church uses these terms to speak of non-canonical and canonical eremitical vocations and the significant but differing commitments and obligations associated with these.

Addendum, 10/24/2015: [[Sister Laurel, you are recommending this blog as an example of a lay [hermit's life and work] but Michael Miller identifies himself as "Brother Michael of the Cross." I didn't think that was allowed.]]

It is sometimes profoundly difficult to make the decision to remain a lay hermit rather than becoming a religious and every hermit has had to struggle with those deep desires to be accepted as a religious as opposed to embracing eremitical life in the lay state --- especially since the Church has tended to devalue lay life for such a long time. That only began to change in a substantive way with Vatican II. Despite living their callings "in the heart of the Church", Hermits are already marginalized by their very vocation. When the Church herself treats lay vocations as less meaningful than those to the consecrated or ordained states, for instance, that marginalization can be compounded and rendered very painful indeed.

Mr Miller's blog, as is the case for all blogs, is a work in progress and one of the signs that this is so is the evidence it gives of this exact struggle in his own life. Over time Mr Miller has embraced the eremitical life and done so as a lay person; moreover, as noted earlier, he has done so without the support or validation a public vocation necessarily has. This is part of the hiddenness of the vocation in Mr Miller's specific case as it may well be in the case of all lay hermits today. As with all aspects of the eremitical vocation defined by the Church, this one is not always an easy one to negotiate.

Personally, I believe vestiges of the struggle will drop away in time. I think one of the reasons for blogs is to help us find our true and unique voices; it seems to me Michael's blog shows evidence of his doing just that. It is a sacred and challenging process. What is important is the identity Mr Miller has embraced and is expressing more and more characteristically in his posts. All of these are signed Michael Miller and it is my sense that in these articles he speaks honestly from his heart (and from the heart of the Church!) as one intimately familiar with prayer, suffering, eremitical solitude, and the love and joy of faith in Christ.