24 July 2008

Can Canonical Eremitical Profession Be Kept completely Secret?

[[I was told recently that a hermit was anticipating accepting canonical profession and consecration but that if s/he did so, it would have to be completely secret. By this s/he meant unknown to parish, family, etc. (As far as I could tell, it was the hermit who insisted this needed to be the case, not the Bishop.) Can you explain how this can be so? Thanks.]]

I am afraid I cannot explain what s/he means by this. It simply makes no sense except possibly in countries where there is pronounced and widespread religious persecution which might mean that consecrated life must grow underground. By definition canonical profession and consecration is a particular and public gift or charisma of and for the church and world. It establishes a person as a public person therein and, as I have noted before, entails certain rights and responsibilities as s/he acts (lives, prays, ministers) in the name of the church. It involves public promises and therefore, it is meant to be a public witness (not least to the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church) even though the majority of the hermit's life is hidden. Even so, people are to KNOW there is a consecrated hermit in their midst, look to them as a source of prayer and a kind of spiritual presence or even center in the parish and diocese, and also be able to turn to them within established limits to meet spiritual or other legitimate needs.

A Gift With Necessary Expectations:

Beyond this, the parish and diocese are allowed certain necessary expectations of the diocesan hermit, not least that they publicly witness to the fact that a life of  the silence of solitude, prayer, and penance lived in God's grace is possible and says certain things about the human capacity for God AND for authentic humanity; this means it says certain things about the relationship of nature and grace, and that the meaningless human isolation, estrangement, or alienation so often experienced today can be redeemed and transfigured into the almost infinitely meaningful reality of true solitude by the grace of God. The same is true of lives lived ensnared by what Thomas Merton calls the myths and fixations of a consumeristic, secularized society.

Other expectations which necessarily attach to public profession and consecration, as I have written here before, involve personal integrity, spiritual and personal (that is moral, emotional, and psychological) health, adequate and ongoing spiritual formation, the quality of the Rule of Life which is officially approved as part of the process of canonical approval and admission to profession, adequate education and training to carry on in this life and minister in the occasional ways legitimately open to the hermit, and above all, that the person accepted for profession, called forth publicly and professed and consecrated publicly, is motivated by love of God and others and is responding to a Divine call the church herself has also discerned.

On the Vocation's Essential Hiddenness:

The eremitical life is one of essential hiddenness, but that does not mean it is secret, and it certainly does not mean that a public commitment (canonical profession and consecration) can or should ordinarily be kept secret. The fact is that though my own life involves the free and public commitment to a life of eremitical hiddenness and people are apt not really to know what that looks like, etc, they still know who and what I am, and that I am in their midst. No, a secret canonical profession and life is not simply a contradiction in terms, it is completely wrongheaded and shows one has not thought sufficiently about the reasons for seeking (or being granted) canonical status. Additionally, in a church where vocations to the consecrated or religious states are suffering, and some wonder if God is working in his church in this way any longer, it hardly makes sense to admit someone to the public rights and obligations of canonical status and then allow them to keep the whole thing secret. Again, hiddenness and secrecy in this whole area are different and, in some significant ways, contradictory realities.

I personally can't imagine a Bishop going along with such an arrangement (except in the condition first mentioned re religious persecution). It seems far more likely he would simply ask the person to remain non-canonical if s/he had such "conditions." But again, Canonical profession and consecration are, by definition, public commitments. While this does not entail notoriety, and may well involve relative or absolute reclusion for the hermit, these persons ARE known to exist and to have been professed.

On Recluses: Hiddenness Without Secrecy

In the Camaldolese Benedictines there have been recluses (there are none right now as far as I know)**. These hermits never see the public, are free from the obligations of attending community liturgies, meals and the like. The community supports them in their reclusion as a special instance of the eremitical vocation. However, this kind of reclusion is not secret. Everyone knows the monks exist and that their vocation is a special gift to the community, church, and world.

We note or mark all of this in a number of ways. Publicly professed/consecrated hermits' participation in public liturgy is marked by the wearing of a prayer garment or cowl and ring, for instance, and everyday life by the wearing of a habit (though this latter is not essential). Even if the hermit never attended public (parish) liturgy (and I admit I don't know how this would be possible unless the hermit is also a priest), the parish has a right to know who and what s/he is for s/he is "theirs" and serves them precisely as hermit. As mentioned above, one of the things which allows us each to be faithful to our own calls are the expectations the church as a whole, and the people in our parishes and dioceses in particular are allowed to have of us. We serve them, and their expectations serve our vocation as well. Public profession means a public life of service EVEN IF that life is mainly hidden in a hermitage.

** Excursus. A fellow Oblate informed me that there are apparently two recluses associated with the Monte Corona Camaldolese (Er Cam) living at this time. One, Fr John Mary, lives outside Padua, Italy. The second, Fr Nicolas lives at the hermitage in Ohio. In the Roman Catholic Church only the Camaldolese (OSB Cam and Er. Cam) and the Carthusians are permitted to have canonical recluses or anchorites; thus, as rare as canonical hermits are, canonical recluses or anchorites are far far rarer. It is true, however that the OSB Camaldolese have no recluses at the present time. Until just recently New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California did have two canonical anchorite (recluses), however both died relatively recently. The most recent to die (April 8, 2005) after years of reclusion was Fr. Joseph Diemer, OSB Cam. So, are such lives hidden? Absolutely, but CERTAINLY NOT secret!!