25 February 2024

Eremitism and Eucharistic Spirituality, Pointed Questions (Reprise)

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
How is it that hermits reflect the centrality of Eucharist in their spiritual lives if they do not attend Mass daily? I heard you remark in another context that you didn't attend Mass if solitude required otherwise. My understanding is that religious are required canonically to attend Mass daily if that is possible, and you yourself say on this blog that Eucharist is the center of everything that happens at your hermitage. So, how is it you can skip Mass just because it is more convenient to remain in solitude and still claim the title Sister and assert how central Eucharist is in your life? My other question is how do you receive Communion if there is no one there but yourself? Isn't self-communication forbidden to Catholics?]]

These topics, as you apparently are aware, came up on the Catholic Hermits list. One person there argued that hermits, like anyone else, should get to Mass as often as possible (daily!), and should not miss simply because it was "inconvenient" to one's solitude. Since, they argued, religious are required to participate at Mass in this way it makes sense that diocesan hermits are also so required. Others have argued that in today's world of easy transportation and numerous parishes people should be able to get to Mass daily one way or another and that hermits certainly should do so. Some know hermits who attend the parish Mass each day, or at least most every day and argue on that basis. My own argument was that fidelity to solitude sometimes meant not getting to daily Mass. I believe it is possible to develop a strong Eucharistic spirituality in solitude even without getting to Mass daily and that is what I want to look at in this post.

On the Place of Solitude in the Hermit's Life

However, before I say more in response to your question I need to clarify one critical point. Your comments include a misconstrual of what I said, and a misunderstanding regarding the nature of eremitical solitude. Namely, hermits do not skip Mass merely because it is inconvenient to their solitude; they do so because solitude is their full-time calling and the actual occasion, environment, and resulting quality of whatever union with God is achieved in their life. Solitude is not just a means for the hermit, but a goal as well. In this perspective, solitude (or what Canon 603 refers to as the "silence of solitude") is not a self-indulgent luxury which just happens to provide an environment for other things in the hermit's life (though external silence and physical solitude will certainly serve in this way). It is instead the reality which is achieved together with God when a hermit is faithful to (among other things) long term external silence and solitude. Thus, it is important that the hermit  maintain her faithfulness to this long term external silence and solitude. Solitude is, again, both the means to and the goal of the hermit's existence because eremitical solitude itself is a form of communal or ecclesial existence and an expression of union with God and all that is precious to God.

In saying this I mean that the hermit's life is to give witness to the union with God which is achieved in solitude as well as the "silence of solitude" which is an expression and sign of this union, and so, to the redemption of all forms of human isolation, alienation and estrangement achieved therein. They are called to come to wholeness and holiness in solitude and their witness is to the most foundational relationship present in the human being, the relationship with God who is creator and ground of all existence. In other words, although community is important to the hermit, it is primarily the koinonia (communion) of solitude that is their vocation. They are called by God through the agency of his Church to the very rare and paradoxical reality of eremitical solitude --- a form of union with God and others marked by and grounded in aloneness with the Alone. Unless we understand that solitude is not isolation, not alienation, nor a feeble excuse for the misanthrope, and certainly not a luxury for the hermit, we may believe that it conflicts with a truly Eucharistic spirituality. My argument is that it does not and that the way the hermit approaches attendance at Mass is dependent upon this way of seeing things.

Eucharistic Spirituality in General

When we speak of Eucharistic Spirituality what is it we are talking about then? And for the hermit who claims that the Eucharist is at the heart of everything that happens in the hermitage, what is she really talking about --- especially if the Mass is not (or is rarely) celebrated at the hermitage? Of course it means a spirituality focused on the Eucharist itself and the hermit will usually (not always) reserve Eucharist in her hermitage, pray in the presence of the Eucharist, celebrate Communion services (Liturgies of the Word with Communion), and so forth. But even more than this everything at the hermitage will be geared towards Christ's incarnation climaxed in his cross and resurrection. It seems to me that the focus involves two particular and interrelated processes: first, that, in a dynamic of kenosis or self-emptying, the Word is made flesh, and second, that, in a dynamic of conversion, reconciliation, and transfiguration, flesh (in the Pauline sense) is made Word. Everything that happens is meant to be an occasion of one or both of these and at the center of it all is the Presence of the Risen Christ in Word and Sacrament, reminding, summoning, challenging, nourishing, and consoling.

Eucharistic Spirituality, The Word Made Flesh

God has chosen to come to us as a human person. More than that he has chosen to be present in a power perfected in weakness (asthenia). He is present in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. He enters into sin and death, the truly or definitvely godless realities and transforms them with his presence. In other words he makes what was literally godless into sacraments of his love, his being God for and with others. For me the Eucharist is a symbol of this specific process and presence (and I mean symbol in the most intensive sense as that reality which does not merely stand for something else (that would be a sign or metaphor) but rather as something that participates in the very reality it mediates). While Mass is the place where we literally re-member all of this, where bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, where the Word of God is proclaimed with power, Eucharistic Spirituality seems to me to be that spirituality where all this is worked out in everyday life so that every meal is holy, every reality is looked at with eyes that can see God's presence there, and where one is nourished, challenged, consoled, etc, with that presence in the unexpected place and way.

Eucharistic spirituality, is a spirituality which is open to God's presence in ordinariness, not only to his presence at Mass or the more exalted moments of prayer, etc, but in the humbleness of human life generally. And for the hermit this means in the solitariness of ordinary life --- for it is in solitude that we are generally weakest, and our brokenness is most clearly revealed. My own focus in the hermitage is the transformation of ordinariness into Sacrament. This is essentially Eucharistic. Everything should serve this. Everything within the hermitage serves the Word becoming flesh, the allowing of God to dwell within, to love, minister to, and to transform with his presence. Everything becomes a matter of dying to self and rising in God, to learning obedience (hearing and responding to the Word of God) in a way which leads to purity of heart. Yes, often (though not always) Eucharist is present in the hermitage, but whether or not it is present it remains the living symbol of what everything in the hermitage can and is meant to be if given over to the purposes of eremitical life. I sincerely believe that if the hermit practices Eucharistic spirituality she recognizes that her hermitage itself is meant to be a tabernacle situated in the midst of her community and that her own life is bread broken and wine poured out for others.

Eucharistic Spirituality, Flesh Made Word

The second and interrelated process which makes up a genuinely Eucharistic spirituality focuses on what happens to the hermit --- or really, to any Christian for whom Eucharist is central --- namely, that they become a Word Event which embodies and proclaims the Gospel of God in Christ. For the hermitage to become tabernacle, for the hermit to become bread broken and wine poured out for others, the hermit herself must, over time, be transformed and transfigured.

Flesh, in the Pauline sense of the term, means the whole person, body and soul, under the sway of sin. It means being a person of divided heart, one who is enmeshed in processes and realities which are resistant to Christ. It means being less than fully human, and in terms of language, it means being distorted forms of language events which are less than a univocal hymn of praise and gratitude --- screams of pain and anguish, lies or hypocritical formulations and identity, utterances (of anger, prejudice, arrogance, indifference, selfishness, etc) which foster division, insecurity, and suffering for others, a noisy or insecure presence which cannot abide silence and is unable to listen or respond lovingly and with compassion --- all are the less than human forms of language event we are, at least at times. These are also examples of what Paul would have termed "flesh" (sarx).

In the power of the Spirit, these can be transformed, transfigured into articulate expressions of Gospel wholeness, joy, peace, hope, and challenge. That which is less than human can become authentically human; sinners are reconciled to become persons who are truly and wholly authored by God. As one steeps oneself in and seriously contends with the Word of God one is transformed into an expression of that Word. In silence and solitude flesh can become Word just as the Word becomes Flesh. All of this is genuinely Eucharistic spirituality I think, and it remains Eucharistic even if the hermit does not celebrate Eucharist with her parish community daily. For the hermit, those privileged celebrations lead back to silence while solitude and the silence of solitude prepare for the hermit's participation at Mass. But they are all part of a single spirituality in which Christ is received as guest and gift and ordinary reality is transformed into an expression of his presence. Such a spirituality is open to anyone who cannot actually get to Mass more than once a week, and sometimes less frequently.  It is inspired by the Eucharist and modeled on Eucharistic transformation, life, and hope. In fact, I suspect it may well be an instance of genuinely Eucharistic spirituality our world truly needs.

Hermits and Self-Communication

Your last question was also raised on the Catholic Hermits list. It is customary that people do not self-commu-nicate and there are very good theological reasons for this, but solitary hermits are an accepted exception. Canonists are apparently clear (according to a clarification offered on the Catholic Hermits list) that this is a unique situation which calls for such an exception to general custom and theological wisdom. It is also, it seems to me, a sign of how truly esteemed and unusual is the hermit vocation for such an exception to be made. The Church allows this exception precisely because of the importance of eremitical solitude lived in the heart of the church. I would argue that eremitical solitude, to whatever extent it is lived authentically, is essentially Eucharistic --- even when the hermit is unable to leave her hermitage to attend Mass --- and is therefore a very good reason for this singular exception to be made.

In any case, hermits should certainly be careful of their use of this permission. Their own communions must always be seen as extensions of the parish and/or diocesan liturgy, their hermitages must be understood as tabernacles of Christ's presence, and the silence of solitude must be embraced as a natural expression of communal life and love. While the hermit does not literally receive Eucharist from the hands of another during Communion services in the hermitage, she does receive this Sacrament as a gift of the parish community and so, from their hands. The communal nature of the eremitical life is constantly underscored by the presence of Eucharist in the hermitage, and the quality of being "alone with the Alone" FOR the salvation of the world is underscored in this way as well. Eremitical life is not selfish, not individualistic or privatistic, and emphatically not a matter of merely living alone -- much less doing so in whatever way one likes. The presence of Eucharist both symbolizes and so, reminds and calls us to realize this (make this real) more and more fully everyday. I should note that it is entirely reasonable to expect that should a hermit ever tend to take the Eucharist for granted or become arrogant or simply lax in her praxis and perspective, then, at least for a time, she should forego even the reservation of the Eucharist, and get to Mass more often, until she recovers her proper perspective and devotion.

Summing Things Up

For me the bottom line in all of this is that while the celebration of Eucharist is indeed the source and summit of ecclesial life --- and it certainly is that for the hermit as well --- a truly Eucharistic spirituality does NOT necessarily require that one go to Mass daily. The hermit's life will be imprinted with the cross, be emptied, broken and given to others precisely insofar as she is faithful to eremitical solitude lived in the heart of the Church. She will celebrate every day, and do so with her faith community, even when the demands of solitude mean she cannot be physically present with them at Mass. If this is not the case, then we are implicitly saying to many people who pray, suffer, and love at least as fully and well as do daily Mass  participants (or diocesan hermits!) --- but who cannot get to Mass regularly --- that they cannot be said to have or even be able to develop a truly Eucharistic spirituality. I am positive we do not want to do that, wouldn't you agree?

see also: Notes from Stillsong Hermitage: On the Reservation of Eucharist by Hermits

24 February 2024

Second Sunday of Lent: On Jesus' Transfiguration and Learning to See With New Eyes (reprise)

Transfiguration by Lewis Bowman
Have you ever been walking along a well-known road and suddenly had a bed of flowers take on a vividness which takes your breath away? Similarly, have you ever been walking along or sitting quietly outside when a breeze rustles some leaves above your head and you were struck breathless by an image of the Spirit moving through the world? I have had both happen, and, in the face of God's constant presence, what is in some ways more striking is how infrequent such peak moments are.

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. In part it depends upon our expectations. In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams in either white or black shirts, observers were asked to concentrate on the number of passes of a basketball that occurred as players wove in and out around one another. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest, and moves on. At the end of the experiment observers were asked two questions: 1) how many passes were there, and 2) did you see the gorilla? Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla. Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. (This observation reflects the fact that while focusing on certain things we exclude those that don't fit our focus; in the case of this test, viewers work actively to see and count the basketball passes while pushing other things out of their visual frame to help in completing the task they have been given. Unfortunately, this can become a more habitual way of looking at the world and that is not helpful.) Even more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of blindness and ignorance. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.

For the past two weeks we have been reading the central chapter of Matthew's Gospel --- the chapter that stands right smack in the middle of his version of the Good News. It is Matt's collection of Jesus' parables --- the stories Jesus tells to help break us open and free us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that instead we might commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout this collection of parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal Sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment involving the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

Taking Offense at Jesus:

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard last Friday. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the already-significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority Jesus possessed which they could not deny, they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they decided they saw only the son of Mary, the son of Joseph and "took offense at him." Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and to the God he revealed. Similarly, Jesus' disciples too could not really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refuses to accept this.

It is in the face of these situations that we hear today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain apart. He takes them away from the world they know (or believe they know) so well, away from peers, away from their ordinary perspective, and he invites them to see who he really is. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus' is at prayer --- attending to the most fundamental relationship of his life --- when the Transfiguration occurs. Matthew does not structure his account in the same way. Instead he shows Jesus as the one whose life is a profound dialogue with God's law and prophets, who is in fact the culmination and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the culmination of the Divine-Human dialogue we call covenant. He is God-with-us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. This is what the disciples see --- not so much a foretelling of Jesus' future glory as the reality which stands right in front of them --- if only they had the eyes to see.

Learning to See with New Eyes:

In light of all of this a video I watched today was particularly helpful. A colorblind man was given Enchroma glasses --- a form of sunglasses that allows colorblind persons to see color, often for the first time in their lives. By screening out certain wavelengths of light, someone who has only seen the world in shades of brown their whole lives are finally able to see things they have never seen before; browns are transformed into yellows and reds and purples and suddenly trees look truly green and three-dimensional or the colorful fruit of these trees no longer simply blend into the same-color background. In this video the man was overwhelmed and overcome by what he had been missing; he could not speak, did not really know what to do with his hands, was "reduced" to tears. He literally did not know what to do with himself and eventually expressed it all as he hugged his wife in love and gratitude. Even in the face of this immediate miracle, more is required; it will still take regular wearing of the Enchroma glasses before the man's brain grows accustomed to this new way of seeing the world around him. Meanwhile, family members were struck with just how much they themselves may have taken for granted as everyday they moved through their own world of "ordinary" color and texture. The entire situation involved a Transfiguration almost as momentous as the one the disciples experienced in today's Gospel.

For most of us, such an event would overwhelm us with awe and gratitude as well. But not Peter --- at least it does not seem so to me! Instead, he outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right then and there. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks who want so desperately to hang onto and even control amazing prayer experiences --- immediately making them the basis for some ministerial project or other; unfortunately, in doing so, they, in acting too quickly and even precipitously, fail to sit quietly with and appreciate these experiences fully or allow enough time to let them remake us and thus, learn to live from them! Peter is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to similarly build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus in a way which makes Jesus just one of an equal trio of religious patriarchs --- while neglecting the qualitative newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed and needs to be processed in personal conversion. Peter has missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this text, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! You have ears; learn to listen to him. You have eyes; learn to see him with new eyes!!!"

Like Peter, and like the colorblind man who needed wear the glasses consistently enough to allow his brain to really begin to process colors in a new way, we must take the time to see what is right in front of us and we must practice seeing in this way. We must learn to see the sacred which is present and incarnated in ordinary reality. We must learn to listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through every believer and the whole of creation. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. 

There is a real humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person with real vision. We must be able to recognize and admit how very little we see, how unwilling or unable we often are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom Jesus and John the Baptizer both proclaimed was right "at hand" then and there! How easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.

21 February 2024

Feast of Saint Peter Damian by Genevieve Pasquier

 Who is Peter Damian, Monk at the heart of Church's 11th-century reforms?

A Camaldolese monk, advisor to multiple popes, and author, Peter Damian life's greatest battle was the reform of the Church, particularly combating the clergy's licentious ways

By Geneviève Pasquier at  La Croix

February 21, 2024

Born into poverty in Ravenna, northeastern Italy, in 1007, Peter, the youngest of six, was abandoned by his mother after his father's death. Orphaned, he was taken in by a brother named Damian, a name he later added to his own in gratitude. Excelling in his studies in Faenza and Parma, he returned to Ravenna to become a renowned teacher.

As a Camaldolese hermit, drawn to a solitary and contemplative life, he in 1035 joined the small hermitage of Fonte Avellana in the Marches, Italy. The Camaldolese Order, a strict Benedictine monastic order founded by Saint Romuald, blends communal life with eremitism, with monks living secluded in their cells. In his short treatise Dominus Vobiscum, Peter Damian describes the cell as "the place where God converses with men... a witness to a secret dialogue with the divine; and what a sublime sight it is when the brother, secluded in his cell, sings the nocturnal psalmody, standing guard before the camp of God."

Tasked with reform

Quickly becoming the spiritual leader of small hermit groups, his fame spread, leading to invitations to teach at other monasteries. Eight years later, he was appointed prior of Fonte Avellana, where he reorganized the hermitage and founded others nearby. He connected with major monasteries of his time, like Cluny and Montecassino.

As an advisor to popes during a challenging period for the Church characterized by lax clerical lifestyles, Peter Damian fought against two prevalent issues: simony, or the buying of ecclesiastical offices, and nicolaitanism, the disregard of celibacy. His reputation for integrity and sanctity preceded his reaching Rome, and Pope Stephen IX called him in 1057 to assist in reforming the clergy, appointing him cardinal and bishop of Ostia. Over the next six years, the pope tasked him with missions of conciliation and reform, sending him as a legate to Milan, France, Florence, and Germany. In France, he defended the rights of Cluny's Benedictine monks against the Archbishop of Mâcon's abuses.

Doctor of the Church

He participated in the 1059 Lateran Synod, convened by Pope Nicholas II to combat investitures, the appointment of bishops and abbots by secular rulers. The synod reserved papal election rights to the cardinals alone and declared that no priest could receive a church from a layperson, a decision that faced opposition from monarchs who saw bishops as extensions of their authority. Peter Damian continued his reform efforts alongside Pope Gregory VII, challenging the Holy Roman Emperors' investiture practices. His confrontations with Emperor Henry IV of Germany, who insisted on appointing bishops and abbots, culminated shortly after Peter Damian's death. Henry IV, excommunicated and deposed, made a penitential journey to meet Pope Gregory VII at Matilda of Tuscany's castle in Canossa on January 28, 1077, giving rise to the phrase "to go to Canossa," meaning to submit to an opponent's demands.

A prolific writer, Peter Damian's theological works include an extensive correspondence with monks, clergy, popes, and kings. His surviving works comprise 158 letters, 75 sermons, poems, 60 saint biographies, and treatises addressing topics like the omnipotence of God, the Trinity, the Messiah, and simony. His moral rigor is evident in "The Book of Gomorrah," a pamphlet criticizing the clergy's misconduct, including illicit priestly unions and homosexuality. In 1067, he was permitted to return to Fonte Avellana, relinquishing the Ostia diocese. He died in February 1072, with the public acclaiming him a saint at his funeral. His sainthood was officially recognized by Pope Leo XII, who declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1828.

Read more at: https://international.la-croix.com/news/religion/who-is-peter-damian-monk-at-the-heart-of-churchs-11th-century-reforms/19221

Feast of Saint Peter Damian (Reprise)

Today is the feast of the Camaldolese Saint, Cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, St Peter Damian. Peter Damian is generally best known for his role in the Gregorian Reform. He fought Simony and worked tirelessly for the welfare of the church as a whole. Hermits know him best for a few of his letters, but especially #28, "Dominus Vobiscum". Written to Leo of Sitria, letter #28 explores the relation of the hermit to the whole church and speaks of a solitary as an ecclesiola, or little church. Damian had been asked if it was proper to recite lines like "The Lord Be With you" when the hermit was the only one present at liturgy. The result was this letter which explains how the church is wholly present in all of her members, both together and individually. He writes:

[[The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church. . . .From all the aforementioned it is clear that, because the whole Church can be found in one individual person and the Church itself is called a virgin, Holy Church is both one in all its members and complete in each of them. It is truly simple among many through the unity of faith and multiple in each individual through the bond of love and various charismatic gifts, because all are from one and all are one.]]

Because of this unity Damian notes that he sees no harm in a hermit alone in cell saying things which are said by the gathered Church. In this reflection, Damian establishes the communal nature of the solitary vocation and forever condemns the notion that hermits are isolated or "lone" persons. His comments thus have much broader implications for the nature of eremitical life than the licitness of saying certain prayers or using communal phrases in liturgy per se. In the latter part of the letter Damian not only praises the eremitical life but writes an extended encomium on the nature of the eremitical cell. The images he uses are numerous and diverse; they clearly reflect extended time spent in solitude and his own awareness of all the ways the hermitage or cell has functioned in his own life and those of other hermits. Furnace, kiln, battlefield, storehouse, workshop, arena of spiritual combat, fort and defensive edifice, [place assisting the] death of vices and kindling of virtues, Jacob's ladder, golden road, etc --- all are touched on here. Peter Damian's rich collection of images serves to underscore the classic observation of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: "Dwell (or remain) within your cell and your cell  will teach you everything."

17 February 2024

On Assisting Others to Write Liveable Rules of Life

[[ Dear Sister Laurel, do you assist people in writing their Rule for c 603?]]

Great question!! The answer is, "yes and no" or maybe,"not quite". Let me explain. I believe that writing a liveable Rule requires experience of living as a hermit and, more and more, defining one's life in terms of Canon 603. As I have written in the past, the aim is to help engage the candidate for profession under c 603 in a process of discernment and formation that allows them to eventually write a livable Rule reflecting the way they live and will continue to live c 603 for the rest of their lives. I envision the person becoming increasingly capable of embodying the terms and spirit of consecrated solitary eremitical life lived in the name of the Church, and writing a Rule reflecting all of that within it.

Because, despite profound similarities, each person will embody these terms differently than any other hermit, the process is a flexible one allowing for the candidate's exploration of all of the dimensions of canon 603, and providing the experience and guidance needed to write the Rule the canon requires. Thus, the assistance I provide often has nothing to do directly with the writing of the Rule itself; it is focused on a broader process which allows all participants to discern the presence and quality of a solitary eremitical vocation as well which includes providing space and time for the formation necessary to be admitted to profession and eventual consecration under c 603. At the same time, the writing of the various drafts (or draft portions) of the Rule, is part of what allows me (and any diocesan personnel I might work with) to assess the candidate's vocation and readiness for commitment over time.

When I first began envisioning this process I had a couple of thoughts. First, such a process which draws directly from the essential elements of the canon itself was a wiser and more effective approach than the increasing establishment of canonical hoops for those approaching their dioceses to jump through. Such canonical approaches tend to be arbitrary and provide no assurance that the person meeting such requirements develops the heart of a hermit or even truly lives the life. What Rule the person writes might or might not reflect adequate experience of living eremitism nor the wisdom needed to continue with ongoing formation. Secondly, I saw that using the canon's requirement that the hermit write a Rule of life was meant to reflect the person's readiness to live the canon in fullness. This, along with the formative nature of my own writing of my Rule, in turn led me to consider the process of writing as driving a process of both discernment and formation. Thirdly, I understood that this process could assist diocesan personnel in their work with candidates/petitioners so decisions re admission to profession and/or consecration would not be arbitrary. It would provide an effective path for both hermit and diocese to work together for as long as necessary without being onerous for either.

More recently I have come to see that my own accompaniment of those seeking formation as a c 603 hermit needs to include more frequent meetings than might be necessary for the entire diocesan team (though they will need to be apprised of how things progress), and that has also meant that the writing of the Rule itself, while the goal we keep in mind,  is not the direct topic of most meetings. It becomes more the direct topic as the person nears readiness for profession and the diocese approaches admission to this commitment. However, I do get requests to assist folks in writing their Rules and nothing more. I will certainly do what I can if the person is truly living as a hermit and has done for some time (say a couple of years). Otherwise, however, the attempt to write a Rule will be premature and fail to serve the incredibly creative ways it can do in terms of the vocation's discernment and formation. 

I hope this is helpful. I received a request for help in writing a Rule in just the last couple of days, so I need to be clear that while I am happy to do that, it needs to be part of a larger process of discernment and formation and too, requires experience on the part of the candidate (petitioner) to even begin. Too often in the past dioceses have sent folks off to write a Rule as though it was simply a discrete item on a list of things to cover or get done. The writing of a liveable Rule is much more critical and integral to the entire eremitical project of one's life. It requires expertise and wisdom, and writing it teaches or inculcates some of the skills the hermit will need throughout her life. For these reasons I should underscore here that the hermit herself needs to write the Rule, not her bishop, her spiritual director, et al!! I can assist in this, but it is the hermit's own responsibility. Your question gives me the chance to explain some of that, so thank you.

On the Portrait for the Seville 2024 Holy Week Poster: Where is the real Blasphemy and Obscenity?

A new poster for Holy Week in Seville, Spain has caused an uproar. My first impression when I saw a close-up of its face and eyes was that it was beautiful and that in many ways, this is the Christ I know from prayer and the Scriptures. It represents a Risen Christ who is, perhaps, too young, and too European still, but the heart of this Jesus is very much the heart of the One who has accompanied me throughout my life. It is gentle, strong, receptive, and speaks of mercy. This Christ is marked with the signs of the cross, as any credible representation must be, but he is no longer overwhelmed by them. This is a courageous figure then, and an unassuming one. One can truly imagine that in him and in his abject and obedient helplessness before a brutal world of imperial and religious power, God has overpowered sin and death and brought a new life (which I think implies a new youthfulness) to the world. 

At the same time, one can begin to imagine what it will mean for God to re-embody us in what the book of Revelations calls a "new heaven and a new earth". What we should know is that we don't really have any clear idea what that will be like. Today, because we are baptized into Christ's death, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, We know what Mary Coloe, in one of her books on John, calls "Eternity Life" --- a share in what one day will be eternal life where we will be re-embodied as part of God's new creation. In this case, the newness and, for many people, the strangeness of this portrait will challenge them because it witnesses to a Christ not devoid of strength or masculinity, but certainly empty of machismo. And some of us will find a Christ with a significantly feminine strength as well --- the femininity of the One who listens deeply, comforts, and mothers us in our need.

I will not likely use this image of Christ any more than I use any other image of Christ in my prayer or reflection. Even so, neither will I look at such a figure as "blasphemous", "repulsive", or an insult to God. The artist used his own Son, Horacio, as a model. The portrait is as true and filled with love as he could make it. It is certainly a good reflection of some major dimensions of the Christ Event. Some of the critics decry the poster as effeminate or homoerotic. Others look at this work and compare it to "pictures in books" they have seen representing Christ; they judge it because it does not match these with some believing that these traditional portraits are accurate or even photographic images of Jesus or the Risen Christ; these folks also hold that the artist has betrayed them and offended God in veering from these "traditional" portrayals!!!

During this season of Lent, it is important to remember that our God is one of surprises. He has willed from the beginning of time to dwell with us and to reconcile us to Himself so that we live as part of his very life. We do not know what Jesus of Nazareth looked like except that he was a Middle Eastern Jew, and in that sense unlike our Medieval European portraits convey. As for the Risen Christ, the Gospel portrayals are clear that he is radically unfamiliar and escapes recognition; neither ghost nor revivified corpse, nor mere spirit, he is beyond all of the categories known to describe the dead or the living up to that point. Humility in all of this is marked by our openness to surprise and a strong sense of how God and his Christ always escape and transcend our limited intellects and imaginations. At the same time, humility is found in our willingness to allow God to reveal himself in whomever and whatever way he wishes to do that. It seems to me that the inability to see Emmanuel in this portrait (or in the groups of people some see it representing) is the true blasphemy, sacrilege, or obscenity.

Followup on Does a Rule Need to be Perfect: More on Writing Several Rules over Time (Reprise)

[[Dear Sister, thanks for your reply to my question. What happens if I don't want to write more than one Rule and my diocese doesn't ask me to? What I have written so far seems fine to me and I can't see revising it. Besides I am not much of a writer.]]

Good questions and similar to others I have been asked (another person said they weren't much of a writer, for instance, and wondered what then?). The purpose of the suggestion of writing and using several different Rules over time is first of all to assist both the candidate and the diocese in maintaining a discernment process that is both long enough but not onerous to either relevant diocesan personnel or the candidate herself.

Sometimes it takes a while for the quality of the vocation to become clear to the diocesan staff working with the candidate. Indications of growth can be more clearly seen in the quality of the Rule (or portions of the Rule) being submitted --- especially since the hermit's life is lived in solitude and not in a house of formation with intense oversight and more constant evaluation. Moreover, dioceses are not responsible for the formation of a hermit; that occurs in solitude itself. Even so dioceses must evaluate the way the individual's formation in eremitical solitude is proceeding and they may be helpful in making concrete suggestions or supplying access to resources from which the candidate might benefit. Several different Rules written over a period of years will uncover areas of strength, weakness, and even deficiency and allow the diocese to respond both knowledgeably and appropriately.

What tends to happen when a diocese does not have such a tool to use is either the relatively immediate acceptance of candidates as suitable for discernment or a more or less immediate dismissal as unsuitable. Dioceses cannot usually follow the hermit's progress sufficiently closely otherwise and without such a tool they may have neither the time, the expertise, nor the patience to extend the discernment period sufficiently. Likewise they may not have the basis for helpful conversations with the candidate that such Rules can provide. I have always felt fortunate to have had a Sister work with me over a period of five years and during those years to actually meet with me at my hermitage. She listened carefully, consulted experts in the eremitical life and its formation and discernment, and generally did what she could in my regard; still, I believe the tool being discussed here would have assisted her and the diocese more generally. It would have helped me as well.

Of course, you are free to write one Rule and trust that that is sufficient in providing insight into your vocation for your diocese. Perhaps it will be sufficient to govern your eremitical life for some time as well. If you have a background in religious life and are familiar with the way Rules are written and function that is much more likely. Similarly, of course, your diocese is free to adopt whatever approach works best for them as well. I personally suggest the use of several Rules written over several years so that dioceses have 1) sufficient resources (including time) for discernment, so 2) the process of discernment and formation will not be curtailed prematurely or stretched endlessly and fruitlessly. I also suggest it so that 3) the candidate herself has a kind of structure which allows what happens in the freedom of solitude to be made clear to her diocese while assuring sufficient time for that to mature. (It is important to remember that the process of writing is a very significantly formative experience itself and contributes to one's own discernment as well.)

Ordinary time frames (for candidacy, novitiate, juniorate, and perpetual profession) do not really work for solitary hermits because the hermit's time in solitude is not so closely observed; neither does it have the degree of social interaction which is a normal element of growth in religious life. Beyond these there is a rhythm to life in eremitical solitude which will include both "tearing down" and building up and which occurs according to God's own time, not to a more or less arbitrary or even more usual temporal schema. Something must replace or at least approximate some of the functions the more usual elements of life in community serve but do so instead in terms of the diocese's relation with the candidate. It must allow and assist both candidate and diocese to have patience with this unique and sometimes counterintuitive process of formation. Moreover, both hermit candidate and diocese must recognize that the eremitical life is about the quality of the journey with God itself and not become too focused on destination points per se (postulancy, novitiate, juniorate, etc).

To summarize then, the use of several Rules written to reflect stages or degrees of growth as the candidate herself is ready to do this helps ensure both individual flexibility from candidate to candidate as well as sufficient length of time and patience on everyone's part to assure adequate growth and discernment. It is merely a tool, though I believe it could be a very effective one in assuring authentic vocations are recognized and fostered.

13 February 2024

On Some of the Purposes of Lent (Reprise)

I really love Sunday's Gospel, especially at the beginning of Lent. The thing that strikes me most about it is that Jesus' 40 days in the desert are days spent coming to terms with and consolidating the identity which has just been announced and brought to be in him. (When God speaks, the things he says become events, things that really happen in space and time, and so too with the announcement that Jesus is his beloved Son in whom he is well-pleased.) Subsequently, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit of love, the Spirit of Sonship, to explore that identity, to allow it to define him in space and time more and more exhaustively, to allow it to become the whole of who he is. One of the purposes of Lent is to allow us to do the same.

A sister friend I go to coffee with on Sundays remarked on the way from Mass that she had had a conversation with her spiritual director this last week where he noted that perhaps Jesus' post-baptismal time in the desert was a time for him to savor the experience he had had at his baptism. It was a wonderful comment that took my own sense of this passage in a new and deeper direction. Because of the struggle involved in the passage I had never thought to use the word savor in the same context, but as my friend rightly pointed out, the two often go together in our spiritual lives. They certainly do so in hermitages! My own director had asked me to do something similar when we met this last week by suggesting I consider going back to all those pivotal moments of my life which have brought me to the silence of solitude as the vocation and gift of my life. Essentially she was asking me not only to consider these intellectually (though she was doing that too) but to savor them anew and in this savoring to come to an even greater consolidation of my identity in God and as diocesan hermit.

Hermitages are places which reprise the same experience of consolidation and integration of our identity in God. They are deserts in which we come not only to learn who we are in terms of God alone, but to allow that to define our entire existence really and concretely -- in what we value, how we behave, in the choices we make, and those with whom we identify, etc. In last year's "In Good Faith" podcast for 
A Nun's Life, I noted that for me the choice which is fundamental to all of Lent and all of the spiritual life, "Choose Life, not death" is the choice between accepting and living my life according to the way God defines me or according to the way the "world" defines me. It means that no matter how poor, inadequate, ill, and so forth I also am, I choose to make God's announcement that in Christ  I am his beloved daughter in whom he is well-pleased the central truth of my life which colors and grounds everything else. Learning to live from that definition (and so, from the one who announces it) is the task of the hermit; the hermitage is the place to which the Spirit of love and Sonship drive us so that we can savor the truth of this incomprehensible mystery even as we struggle to allow it to become the whole of who we are.

But hermitages are, of course, not the only places which reprise these dynamics. Each of us has been baptized, and in each of our baptisms what was announced to us was the fact that we were now God's adopted beloved daughters and sons. Lent gives us the space and time where we can focus on the truth of this, claim that truth more whole-heartedly, and, as Thomas Merton once said, "get rid of any impersonation that has followed us" to the [desert]. We need to take time to identify and struggle with the falseness within us, but also to accept and appreciate the more profound truth of who we are and who we are called to become in savoring our experiences of God's love. As we fast in various ways, we must be sure to also taste and smell as completely as we can the nourishing Word of God's love for us. After all, the act of savoring is the truest counterpart of fasting for the Christian. The word we are called to savor is the word which defines us as valued and valuable in ways the world cannot imagine and nourishes us where the things of the world cannot. It is this Word we are called both to grapple with and to savor during these 40 days, just as Jesus himself did.

Thus, as I fast this Lent (in whatever ways that means), I am going to remember to allow myself not only to get in touch with my own deepest hungers and the hungers I share with all others (another very good reason to fast), but also to get in touch anew with the ways I have been fed and nourished throughout my life --- the experiences I need to savor as well. Perhaps then when Lent comes to an end I will be better able to claim and celebrate the one I am in God. My prayer is that each of us is able to do something similar with our own time in the desert.

Merton quotation taken from Contemplation in a World of Action, "Christian Solitude," p 244.

25 January 2024

Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart

Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis prægustatum
in mortis examine.

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
from whose pierced side
flowed water and blood:
Be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death!

22 January 2024

Fundamental Questions from a Reader in China Interested in Eremitical Life

[[Sister Laurel M O'Neal, Praised be Jesus Christ! I am Chinese and live in China. I am seriously considering Eremitical Monasticism, now I decide to visit the Chartreuse in France. I was attracted to Eremitical life and Carthusian way of life by the examples of Desert Fathers. I found your blog by chance and I have to say your articles are great! It brings much edification and inspiration to me! I have some questions. Could you share what draws you to Eremitical life in the form of Diocesan Hermit? Did you consider other forms of Eremitical Monasticism like Carthusian or Camaldolese? I wonder what is life like being a hermit under the provision and guidance of a Bishop? It seems very strange for me because a Diocesan Bishop is not a hermit, he is not even a "monk" (In the traditional usage), how could you live your hidden, solitude and ascetic life under a man who is not a monk? I also wonder, as a hermit, how do you practice the commandment of loving thy neighbour? I am certain hermit loves God, but I am not certain do they love people. Besides, have you ever consider Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic, I think you know the Eastern Christianity always honour hermit, if you ever consider them, why do you remain Latin Catholic?]]

Hi there and many thanks for your questions. I will try to answer them here, but please know that I have written about all but one of them before so will also try to link you to those posts if I can. First, let me say how glad I am you are considering eremitical life with the Carthusians. If you have not yet read An Infinity of Little Hours, you might try it. It can give you a good idea (a kind of snapshot) of the Carthusian life from the perspective of five men who entered in roughly the same timespan; it gives a good sense of the men's personalities and what they struggled with during their first five years of Carthusian life (if they remained for those years). Another is Halfway to Eternity. They are different books and I return to them occasionally as I (sometimes) reflect on Carthusian life and how it differs from c 603 eremitism. There is also a series of small paperbacks under the rubric Novice Conferences on different aspects of Carthusian life: prayer, silence, liturgical seasons, etc. which you might find interesting.

What draws me to eremitical life under c 603? I have come to the conviction that c 603 allows for a sound eremitical life that also corresponds in necessary ways to contemporary life in the church, though when I first read the canon I had never considered eremitical life at all. I had lived as a religious, worked as a hospital chaplain, and was becoming more a contemplative, but I also struggled with chronic illness myself. This was both an opportunity for inner work and prayer and a challenge I needed to work with and through every day of my life. Eremitical Life seemed to be the appropriate context for both of these dimensions (opportunity and challenge). Beyond that, my education was in Systematic Theology and I wanted to continue pursuing that and doing some limited ministry to others, particularly if it could be done via writing. All of these things suggested I needed to live on my own rather than in a community where I would be limited by or to a community horarium, but how to do that in a way that was truly faithful to religious (later, eremitical) life per se? 

At the beginning of the church year, Advent 1983, the Revised Code of Canon Law was published and I read c 603 for the first time early in 1984. It treated solitary eremitical life, not life in a community and listed central elements that either already shaped my life, or could well do if I found I was called to this. One of the things that was compelling to me was the way all of the above elements of my life could work together within this framework to produce a truly fruitful eremitical life. In other words, it looked to me like a God-given grace that answered many of my needs and called me beyond what often looked merely like limitations. It allowed these "limitations" to become opportunities for a new, and unimagined fullness --- meaningful parts of a whole rather than divisive and conflicting parts of some great and incoherent absurdity.

You ask about the Camaldolese and whether I considered them. Well, first remember the only woman's Camaldolese Motherhouse was in Italy. I had no thought at all of moving to another country to pursue eremitical or semi-eremitical life. The monks of New Camaldoli and their spirituality appealed to me more and more as I read about these. I came to know some of the monks and eventually became an oblate with them, however, I made my oblature with a small women's monastery in Windsor, New York I had become aware of during this time. (Ironically, when my diocese was trying to decide what was required to live a healthy eremitical life, the Vicar for Religious and another Sister in the chancery traveled to Big Sur to speak to the prior there. I only learned of this years later after I had become an oblate with the Camaldolese.)  The world of hermits in the Church is a small one!! I remain an oblate with Transfiguration Monastery in Windsor (and within the larger Camaldolese family of New Camaldoli, particularly with Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, CA); this relationship with the Camaldolese is a good piece of my c 603 identity because the Camaldolese triple good (solitude, community, and evangelization/witness/martyrdom) in my estimation, suits c 603 and eremitical life lived within a diocese/parish very well. 

Regarding your question about hermits and diocesan bishops, one of the wisest things my diocese asked me to do before profession under c 603 was to choose a delegate or Director (not a spiritual director!) who would serve both me and the bishop in the supervision of my life and vocation. S/he would serve as a "quasi-superior" for me. The diocese recognized that hermits may need time with their Director beyond that which a bishop is truly able to give. There is something similarly true regarding a bishop's expertise in such things. As you say, bishops are not hermits (Peter Damian was a notable exception) and are, generally speaking, unlikely to be able to direct a hermit's spiritual life. Most recognize this and some few are well-trained to do this kind of work.

My own delegate (and co-delegate) are both religious women with backgrounds in leadership and formation. One of them was Vicar for Religious in my early years of seeking admission to profession and consecration under c 603; the other was my spiritual director when I discovered c 603. I don't think it takes a hermit to be a spiritual director or delegate to a hermit, but I do think such a person needs to be profoundly prayerful and have a strong background in psychology and spirituality. Expertise in formation (initial and ongoing) is also critical. Meanwhile, bishops are called to supervise c 603 hermits under their purview, not to direct them or their formation. I meet far more often with my Director (delegate) than with my bishops and they typically have turned to her if there is a need. It is a good and effective arrangement. 

All the canonical hermits I know love God and God's good creation which includes human beings. Most hermits simply love people and they love being of service to them and the whole of God's creation. Most of us do some limited form of ministry and have some limited contact with friends and relatives precisely because we love them --- and need such persons to be able to love fully. However, the greater indicator for me of the hermit's capacity for love of others is the reason we live lives of solitude. Solitude is actually the redemption of isolation; it is motivated by love for God, for oneself and for all that is precious to God. I once wrote the following in considering the question of fraudulent hermits and "whom does it hurt?" to profess those who are not really called to this rare vocation. I think it is a good, if an indirect, indicator of the love that must motivate and sustain a hermit if she is to be faithful to her call and empower others to be the persons they are called to be: 

[[Secondly, it hurts those who most need the witness of this specific vocation, namely those who for whatever reason find themselves unable to compete with the world on its own terms: the chronically ill, disabled, and otherwise marginalized who may believe the world's hype that wealth is measured in terms of goods and social status, able-bodiedness, youth, productivity, and so forth.  Hermits say to these people that they are valued beyond all reckoning by a God who knows them inside out. Hermits say to these people that real wealth is measured in terms of love and that one of the most precious symbols of Christianity is that of treasure contained in clay pots, while real strength is perfected and most fully revealed in weakness. To attempt to witness to the truth of the Gospel by living a lie and building it into the foundation of one's eremitical life destroys the capacity of the hermit to witness effectively to these truths. To proclaim the fundamental truth that in Christianity real treasure is contained in clay pots is made impossible if one refuses to be the pot one has been made by the potter to be . . . but claims instead to be something else . . ..]]

The way I personally live this vocation for others includes allowing them to share in any insights, wisdom, or examples that come from my life. I write and accompany others in spiritual direction or on their way to eremitical profession and consecration under c 603. I also teach Scripture at my parish (and, since ZOOM, to those who are interested from beyond my parish boundaries). I write/give reflections or homilies to various communities. But the life itself is lived for others to remind them of the unique dignity of the human person in covenant with God. God wills to dwell with us; we are made to dwell with God, and to do so together --- even in solitude. This is what true Divinity and true humanity consist of. Eremitical Solitude is not about isolation but communion; so are humanity and divinity about communion. The poverty, chastity, and obedience of the Evangelical counsels each point to and empower one to become an expression of the human person whose only completion comes in and with God for the sake of God's own will and for the whole of God's creation. To give one's life for such a purpose is, as I understand it, an act of love.

Your last question is about remaining a c 603 hermit in the Latin or Western Church when the Eastern Church has a stronger history of honoring eremitical life. It's a great question and not one I have ever been asked here before. At the same time, while my spirituality and theology often happen to tend toward the Eastern Church, I have never considered changing Churches in this. I remain impressed with c 603 and the fact that it honors solitary eremitical life in a way the Eastern Church has never really done. As I understand it, a connection with a monastery is a prerequisite of eremitical life in the Eastern Church. At the same time, I recognize that to be able to return to a monastery when one can no longer live alone with God is important, and something c 603 cannot protect. Even so, C 603 allows the solitary hermit to find the resources she personally needs to live a healthy eremitical life --- which could well result in the best of both worlds, so to speak.

Sorry, no links yet! As soon as I have time to add the labels for those links I will.

Responses to Questions about Friends, Family, Wills, "the World" and Similar Questions

[[. . .I've read some of your notes on friendships and the importance of them, but since you said only clients or your director ever come visit you, do you never have visits with friends? And I haven't seen any mention of family. I feel in an eremetical life it would be hard to see family, because they are such a connection to life on earth, memories, attachments, and not the looking forward to life in Heaven. Do you have any family you ever see? (I hope I'm not trying too much). . . A bit more Memento Mori related-what will happen to the few things you do own when you die? Do you write out a will just like a non-hermit? And is it more fitting to the vow of poverty to rent or own your living space? If you rent, you obviously can't claim it as yours, but if you own it, it may be more confusing to the vow of poverty if you're not having to pay for it forever. ]]

Hi there, I have cited part of your email to respond to what you said about family and memento mori. First, I now have only my sister and niece living. We see each other rarely --- a function of distance and finances!! When we have been able to get together, it has been wonderful; in those cases, I go to where my sister lives and we spend time together talking, watching her favorite movies, eating favorite dishes, and even going to Disneyland! One thing I know is that loving family, communicating with them in whatever way one has available (including occasional visits, internet, phone calls, etc), thinking about and praying for them, and remembering life at home, do not need to detract from life with God or from looking forward to eternal life with God.

One of the things you may have gathered from earlier posts or emails is that I do not refer to everything outside the hermitage as "the world". Instead, while I do live within my hermitage embracing and moving toward "the silence of solitude," and while God draws me more and more deeply into intimacy with him, what has often denigratingly been called, "the world," is more accurately defined as that which is resistant to Christ, resistant to love, and tending to reject the God who is the source and ground of all creation. My family is not necessarily part of "the world" in that sense any more than I am or a convent or hermitage is part of the world in the way you use the term. Moreover, God dwells with and in them, just as he does with anyone I know in "life on earth". It is important to recognize that what we call heaven is less a place "out there somewhere" than it is a state wherein the very life of God is shared with us and also (importantly) through us. We don't know what that final sharing will be like once God is "all in all" and there is "a new heaven and a new earth," but we do know that life here shares in the One's life who is Emmanuel, God with us, and one day will do so fully.

I am not pulled away from life with God by my loves, memories, friendships, and so forth; they do not necessarily detract from my life with God, i.e., my life in heaven or what Mary Coelho, in writing about the Gospel of John, calls "eternity life". Quite often these things can mediate God's presence/love to me and turn me towards God more fully and intimately. I recognize this is a different perspective than that which is often associated with "contemptus mundi" or similar dated monastic motives; I also note the need to cultivate the silence of solitude that allows the hermit to spend quality time with God alone. At the same time I recognize that my own heart is marked and marred by "the world" in the way this phrase might be most familiar to you; if I speak so easily about "leaving the world" in entering a convent or "returning to the world" when leaving the convent or hermitage behind perhaps, I will never recognize the way I have closed "the world" up inside the hermitage right with me. That would be the real and blind tragedy!!

Speaking to Parish During the Pandemic
As for visits with friends, yes, I see friends from the parish on Fridays for coffee after Friday Mass as often as I can. Another friend and I travel a short way to Church each Sunday morning. I also see good friends and others in classes I teach each Thursday morning. I no longer play violin or see the friends I saw once a week in orchestra (effects of a broken wrist), nor do my Dominican friend and I go out for coffee after Sunday Mass because she no longer travels this way each week. Still, I occasionally go out for a meal with another Sister or meet via ZOOM with my former pastor (a good friend and in many ways, the (slightly) older brother I never had) as well as with other good friends I see all too rarely! There are no hard and fast rules in this regard except that my life with God is something I must and do take care to give priority, and it is actually richer and fuller to the extent my eremitical solitude is seasoned with such life-giving relationships. Were that to shift, I would need to change whatever it took to make sure friendships, etc., contribute demonstrably to my eremitical life with God.

So, what happens to the things I own when I die? Some will be gifted, others sold, and a lot will probably simply be thrown away. Every person in the church preparing for public profession is required to make up a will before that day and to keep it updated as needs change. Also, since diocesan hermits need to support themselves, and since for me that means a theological library, clothes, furniture, music, computer and equipment for ZOOM, etc. I have a small household of "stuff" to get rid of at some point. Other kinds of provisions are also my responsibility, insurance, DPOAH, and so forth. Whether it is more fitting to rent or own, I can't say. But since I cannot own, I must rent. I would prefer to own (or to have a secure hermitage on church property) --- I would like to own a hermitage (I would actually love to have a tree house as we see on the TV show, Treehouse Master), but it has never been possible. Poverty implies living simply, of course, but for me personally, I define it mainly or primarily in terms of my dependence upon God alone as the sole source of strength, meaning, and validation of my life. So long as I truly put that first and continue to grow in it, everything else tends to fall into place --- no matter the material or financial circumstances.

16 January 2024

From the Desert Fathers and Mothers: The Hermit's Need for Human Relationships in Achieving Genuine Holiness (Reprise)


[[Sister Laurel, you wrote once about hermits not separating themselves from people to pursue personal holiness, but I thought that was what being a hermit was all about. Could you address this question again or repost what you wrote?]]

Sure, I can repost one of the articles I have written on this; I think it is the one you are asking about. It was based on two things, 1) a quote from the Desert Abbas and Ammas, and 2) a central element of c 603 that says we live this life for the sake (salvation) of others. Together they provide a perspective on eremitical life that precludes selfishness even in the name of seeking personal holiness, and which contributes to notions of eremitical solitude as a unique but very real form of community. Here is that post. If it leaves you with questions, please get back to me.

[[When one desert father told another of his plans to “shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,” the second monk replied, “Unless thou first amend thy life going to and fro amongst men, thou shall not avail to amend it dwelling alone.”]] (Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers)

I think this Desert apothegm is fascinating and especially important because it explicitly forbids one to move into solitude and away from others merely in some attempt to perfect oneself. This flies in the face of the way many conceive of eremitical life as well as the way some would-be-hermits describe the vocation. But it should not surprise anyone who carefully reflects on the Great Commandment and the interrelatedness of its two elements, love of God and love of neighbor. Especially it should not surprise those who live eremitical life in the name of the Church; we know the communal nature of our eremitical solitude --- nuanced and rare as it may be. 

We know too that our formation as hermits generally comes after (and requires) years of life in community, whether religious or parish (along with all of the other forms of community we experience throughout life). Similarly, ongoing formation requires personal work with directors and delegates --- and usually some degree of life in a parish community. It can certainly and especially benefit from extended periods in a monastic community whenever that is possible. (As I have written here before, actual eremitical reclusion today (reclusion is a much stricter solitude than most hermits are called to) is allowed by the Church in only two congregations: Camaldolese and Carthusian, and even in these very rare cases it is important to recognize the community context, supervision, and support this vocation requires and implies.)

The genuine human perfection we call holiness is the wholeness of the reconciled and integrated person who is therefore alive in God and the fullness of his or her personal truth. This implies reconciliation with God, with self, and with all else in God. It implies a profound capacity for compassion, the ability to see Christ in others, and the willingness to spend oneself for the sake of others while becoming more and more completely dependent upon God as the source of our Selves. 

Desert elders knew the desire to seek perfection in physical reclusion by simply turning one's back on people was doomed to failure; it is frequently badly motivated, is paradoxically guided by a spirit of perfectionism and competition which is a betrayal of genuine humility, and can lack the preparation necessary for becoming a hermit and moving into, much less sustaining a healthy eremitical solitude. They knew that solitude is a demanding and dangerous environment particularly so for those unprepared for or not called to it. Even in those who are called to it, eremitical solitude can be the source of illusory and delusional thinking and perceptions -- especially about oneself and God. Thus, the requirement for ongoing direction by experienced spiritual directors and the supervision by bishops and/or their delegates.

The Desert Fathers were convinced that the way human beings come to achieve the necessary experience leading to repentance for sin and amendment of life is through one's ordinary interactions with other human beings. Contrary to popular opinion perhaps, the authentic eremitical vocation is not one where an individual moves into the desert merely to pursue personal or "spiritual" perfection in some sort of "solitary splendor" or in an interpersonal and relational vacuum. One moves into solitude 1) because solitude has truly opened her door to one, and 2) because with the church one discerns this is what God is calling one to and is prepared to live for the whole of her life as the fulfillment of the Great Commandment. Discernment that one is called in this way will include a sense that one is healthy in terms of interpersonal relationships and that one has achieved relative maturity in one's spirituality and Catholic identity. This is a traditional stance. St Benedict, for instance, affirms that hermits must have lived in community for some time and, of course, not be in the first blush of conversion.

I want to emphasize the place of discernment here, not only the discernment we each do on our own but the discernment we do with the Church itself in the person of legitimate superiors and directors, i.e., bishops, vicars of religious, delegates, et al. Part of this discernment, and indeed initial and ongoing formation is meant to ensure that the hermit or hermit candidate's motives are not selfish or otherwise misguided and that solitude has indeed opened the door to this vocation herself. What this means is that the hermit/candidate is responding to a Divine call; the Church will also make sure the hermit/candidate is prepared not only to live in solitude but more, that she will grow and thrive in it in ways that will be a gift to the Church and thus, to others. There are subtleties involved here and nuances that the hermit/candidate may not appreciate until much later and may not be able to determine on her own. It is also important to remember that since a hermit does not do apostolic ministry** the ways she lives her solitude and the meaning her life embodies within and as a result of this solitude are themselves the gift God gives the Church through the hermit. Supervision and discernment (mutual and otherwise) are required not only early on for a candidate not yet admitted to profession but throughout the hermit's life. ***

One of the reasons I stressed the need for supervision and discernment and the way they are ensured is because they are a part of the hermit's integral need for others in her life. Whether we are hermits or even recluses we need others who know us well and are capable of assessing in a continuing way the quality of our vocational life, as well as encouraging and assisting us to grow in our responsiveness to God's call to abundant life. Canonical (consecrated) hermits are called to ecclesial vocations and the Church has the right and obligation to oversee these just as she expects us to continue to grow as human beings; canonical hermits have accepted the obligation to grow and participate in those "professional" relationships which help ensure that. Yes, hermits do grow in light of their experience of the love of God; they grow in authentic humanity and as hermits through their experience of Christ in the silence of solitude and the disciplined and attentive living of their Rule and horarium, but what growth there is in these things is often dependent on the hermit's work with her director and delegate, and also with her interactions and relationships with folks from her parish and/or diocese.

In eremitical (or any other) solitude it is simply too easy to say, "God wills this," or "God is calling me to that," when discernment is done by the hermit alone. In such a situation the temptation is to canonize or apotheosize one's own opinions, perceptions, tendencies, and so forth as the movement of the Holy Spirit. God does not literally speak to us as human beings do but instead does so through Sacred texts, sacraments, prayer, and the fruits of our choices and actions; since we learn to love and be loved in our connection with others, hermits must 1) be well-formed in learning to hear (discern) and respond to God in authentic ways, and 2) they must be adequately supervised and directed in this. This does not mean one meets every week or even every month with one's delegate or spiritual director. "Adequate" means whatever is sufficient to allow the hermit/candidate to grow in her vocation first as a human being called to live from and mediate the love of God (and others) and to do this as a hermit in the silence of solitude.

** Hermits may do some very limited apostolic ministry but are not and cannot be identified in terms of this ministry as are apostolic or ministerial religious. The silence of solitude is always primary and definitive for the hermit's life. Still, while the hermit will certainly seek her own maturation in holiness, she will do this for the sake of others, not as a selfish quest for isolated personal perfection (itself an impossible and self-contradictory quest). 

*** Some have written that the need for direction and supervision cease to be important when the hermit has lived the life for some time. I believe this is a false conclusion. It is true that the nature of direction and the supervisory relationships change with time and maturity, but it seems to me they may become even more critical over time. Whether that is generally true or not, the need for ongoing formation and discernment continues throughout the whole of the hermit's life. Given the thin line drawn above between an isolating, selfish quest for holiness and what is instead an other-centered maturation in holiness, the need for a good spiritual director is actually urgent for a hermit her entire life.