25 September 2007

Some questions on Eremitic Life, Canonical Status, "Success"!

This week I was interviewed for a local newspaper article --- apparently being a diocesan hermit is a bit of an unusual thing, and people are interested in it (no, this is not REALLY a surprise to me, at least not entirely). One whole area of interest is the question of canonical status versus non-canonical status, though raised in a new way. For instance, the reporter wondered why one would want to become a diocesan hermit if the diocese has no financial obligations toward the hermit. Why, afterall, would one want to become perpetually obligated with a vow of obedience, become "locked into" (not her actual words) the diocesan structure with delegates, Vicars, Bishop, etc, to whom one is answerable, if the diocese does not assume financial responsibility, provide a hermitage, insurance, etc?

I answered the question in terms of freedom and integrity, and I want to try to reprise and elaborate on some of that here --- if only because it is a common question, and one asked by others, including those who are or who desire to be noncanonical hermits. The simple fact is that as a diocesan hermit one acts in the name of the church. One prays in the name of the church, and if one does other ministry, she does so in the name of the church; in a society where contemplative life is a rare commodity anyway, and where there are constant pulls on the hermit of whatever status to join the rest of society in their quest for "success," having the commission to BE A HERMIT in the name of the Church is a freeing and empowering thing.

In my Rule, I described eremitism as an eccentric way of life, and one which I personally found impossible without canonical status. What I did not describe particularly well was the constant pull from society and even the church and religious life to engage in active ministry, to use one's gifts in more usual ways to benefit one's sisters and brothers, to help bring the Kingdom/Reign of God in fact. Of course other Christians are prayerful (no doubt as prayerful as hermits are); and of course contemplative prayer itself is esteemed and understood to some extent. But eremitic life is generally not, and it is a fragile thing, easily compromised, easily lost in activity and other things which are -- of themselves --- also quite positive. Acting in the name of the Church, remaining in one's hermitage when "cabin fever" hits, turning to prayer instead of to some other way of being a Christian in the world, trusting that one lives at the heart of the church and the heart of others' lives even when they are not aware of that, is part of what is empowered by canonical status.

For one given canonical status, and especially for one admitted to perpetual profession, the Church says, you are a hermit: "With the help of Almighty God we confirm you in this charism and choose you for this consecration as a diocesan hermitess." (Allen H Vigneron, Perpetual Profession Liturgy, Sept 2, 2007) All of the theoretical justifications of the eremitical life, all of the talk of the hermit's marginality, the reflections of the benefits and justification of the eremitical contemplative life, the confirmation and mediation of this as a Divine call, and all of the reasons for persevering in it come together in this one sentence. The canonical or diocesan hermit has been confirmed in this vocation from God and given the permission and freedom to live this life in whatever way GOD calls her to do, nevermind what society says or understands to be legitimate, nevermind even what other Christians say or understand to be legitimate. One has been given a context in which this can be accomplished, a context which frees and empowers --- and of course which challenges to consistency and integrity on a continuing basis.

Interestingly, there are actually arguments against canonical status put forward by those who choose not to pursue it. For instance, in the earliest history of the eremitical life hermits were marginalized even from the institutional church. One of the reasons for leaving for the deserts (remember eremites are desert dwellers, from eremos, Gk for desert) was the fact that the Church's own integrity was compromised to some extent by the surrounding culture, and the struggle to be a Christian in the world was no longer as it once was. Not only were Christians not persecuted for their faith, but over time Christianity had become a state religion. Martyrdom simply was not the everyday vocation it had once been, and as a result, everyday faith suffered as well. So, some went off to the deserts to lead a more penitential and integral Christianity. They did so as lay people without the benefit of canonical or other official status --- though they also became highly esteemed, and the vocation sought after. For those who argue that eremitic life should be lived with this particular kind of purity, the idea of canonical status can seem a kind of betrayal.

At the same time, there are those among the institutional church who do not encourage or foster vocations to diocesan eremitism. It is hard to know the number of times I have heard stories from those who either want to try, or believe they are called, to be diocesan hermits who were told by their local Vicar, Bishop, Spiritual Director, or Vicar General, "just go live in solitude; that is all that is necessary." Of course, I understand that in the initial (or other) stages of discernment, a person SHOULD be able to go off and live in solitude --- and in fact, this period of time might last for years! I also understand that simply because one approaches a diocese regarding canonical status and eremitical consecration, this does not mean one should be encouraged in this, much less actually professed and consecrated; the capacity to "just go and live in solitude" is an important one and needs to be gauged. Evenso, the eremitic vocation (and I am thinking especially now of canonical forms of this life) is essentially an ECCLESIAL vocation, and it makes sense that the hermit should ask, "Just going off and living in solitude is all that is necessary for WHAT?" If one wants to live an eremitic life in the heart of the Church, and in service to the church, then the Church should be open to it ---- careful and assiduously discerning, of course, but open to it.

Let me be clear, the ability to go off and live in physical solitude itself is NOT enough for a person to live as a Christian hermit, much less be professed and consecrated as a diocesan hermit, and telling a person that this is all that is required indicates a failure to understand (or at least to communicate!) the essence of the vocation itself. Living in physical solitude is only one aspect of the ecclesial vocation we call eremitism, and the misanthrope or otherwise psychologically wounded can manage this as well as (and sometimes with a good deal less struggle than) the genuine Christian hermit. One must also relate well to the community of the church, manage to balance the demands of the community and those of solitary life (this is true even in reclusion), be genuinely prayerful, hopeful, faithful, and loving (not only of God, but of oneself, one's sisters and brothers, and the whole of creation), and in one's life witness to the triumph of Grace that God manages when the truly humble and poor are empowered by and made to be truly rich in Him! The question, "Just going off alone and living in (physical) solitude is enough for WHAT?" has to be asked of diocesan representatives by hermit candidates precisely because the diocesan hermit represents an ecclesial vocation which is far richer than this flawed advice sometimes given by Vicars for Religious and Consecrated Life, or Vocation Directors itself reflects. The same is true of the non-canonical Christian eremitic vocation, though in somewhat different ways. Evenso, as critical an element of discerning an eremitic vocation as it may be, just going off and living in solitude is especially NOT enough for the diocesan hermit.

There is nothing demeaning in admitting that one cannot live this vocation without the assistance of the church. No, the church does NOT offer financial support or assistance, and this opens a whole other set of questions which some diocesan hermits are legitimately raising at the present time, but the Church DOES validate and mediate God's call to the individual, and she does offer the context which frees the hermit to live her life with integrity and consistency. In a world which seems to have less and less time or inclination for reflection, silence or solitude, prayer or penance, or even a personal orientation to reality which is other-centered, this is a tremendous gift, for it means being given a place to stand where the meaning of life can be discovered and lived out without reference to what one spends, or produces, or exploits, or consumes.

The reporter asked me what success meant in terms of this life. What would success at the end of the day mean? I answered in terms of integrity: A successful day would be one I lived with real integrity. I probably should have spelled that out more directly, and I am sorry I did not. For instance, I should have said that integrity means living a life of prayer, penance, silence and solitude where one's love for God and one's fellow human beings, as well as one's ability to suffer with and for them (compassion) grows, where communion and reconciliation are central values, where one can say at the end of the day, "With the grace of God, I did the best I could do and I was obedient to the will of God in my life today." I know this is not an unusual goal for most Christians (at least I think it is not!), but for the diocesan hermit it is a goal which canonical status makes easier or more approachable --- something that is good not only for the individual hermit, but for the Church herself and the world she touches -- sometimes secretly, and always mysteriously --- as leaven at every point.