13 November 2008

On the Importance of Lay Hermits and the Lay Hermit Vocation

I know I have written a lot in this blog about the significance of the call to diocesan eremitism and about the theology of the vocation to the consecrated state, the importance of canonical status, etc. Thus, while I believe strongly in the importance of the lay vocation, it is not always one which I can convincingly argue for as a diocesan hermit myself. However, the truth is that in our church and world, the majority of hermits will always be lay or "non-canonical" hermits, not those called to consecrated life (i.e., the consecrated STATE of life), but called to a dedication of self rooted in their baptismal consecration and every bit as real and demanding.

Because I belong to a listserve of those interested in becoming hermits, or in aspects of the life for other reasons, the whole question of approaching dioceses for admision to canonical profession and consecration comes up often. In the last few days however I received letters from 1) a priest who had decided NOT to seek canonical "recognition" because of something I had written (I put the word recognition in quotes because it needs to be seriously qualified to be used), and 2) a woman living as a hermit who had found some of what I had said on this matter helpful; she may seek canonical approval and standing, but then again, she may not. Both reminded me that the lay hermit has really significant witnesss and encouragement to give to this world, and to our church as well. Because of this, I wanted to post some of what I wrote recently in response about the lay hermit vocation. It is similar to a post I put up recently on the notion of becoming living temples of the Holy Spirit/God. The letter I am responding to is included in italics and emboldened. I have not included the entire text here.

[[May God Bless you for your wonderful replies. I can not tell you how much you have helped me in this understanding of different, yes, but yet not. How often I have read this law, and so often lost some part, an important part of its beauty and grace and open call to us all so inclined to give our lives in holy consecration and celebration of God with us in the ordinary of life now.
In my own part of the country there is little understanding of Canon Law 603. I have been living my life as one of the "non"s for some time, several years - ten years with spiritual direction and a rule of life, waiting on the Lord for the "recognition" from the church ( I have not made "final vows, in the wake of scandals and finance problems and illnesses we have gone through a few Bishops in our post in very recent years and those who have come are not as familiar with this calling as it would be in your country.

Well, don't be too sure there is a huge familiarity in the US either! There is some, certainly, but Bishops remain hesitant and some are suspicious. My own journey to perpetual eremitical profession (I was already finally professed otherwise) took almost 25 years precisely because my (former) Bishop had reasons to back off from professing ANYONE under Canon 603. Thus, Vicars accepted candidates -- only later (several years down the line) to learn there would be no professions. Others on this list have similar stories in terms of length of time (17 years, etc.) to perpetual profession. There remain dioceses that either have never had strong candidates or who continue to have no experience of the Canon for other reasons -- including a refusal to use the canon at all.

It is quite common to hear stories from persons approaching dioceses wishing to be professed as diocesan hermits who are told, "just go off and live in solitude; that is all you need" or who run up against Vicars who neither understand nor see the importance of the life. I think it is a huge responsibility for a Bishop to take on a person in the way Canon 603 envisions (not that it is an onerous one though!), and many seem resistant to this for one reason and another as well. Anyway, what some of us have found is that dioceses across the board need education, resources, and assistance in understanding the vocation and how Canon 603 plays out on the ground. It is more unusual to find a Bishop open to Canon 603 and willing to accept responsibility for diocesan hermits than not.

[[However, I have a very close relative who is "recognized" and this has been a great support to me and my own journey. I know too my own efforts to authentically live this call and service has encouraged her too...she often considers herself an urban hermit - one who lives in an urban area ( there really is no official title as such is there?) where as, I live in a very rural and secluded area. There have been times I have felt real persecution by those who were "really consecrated". I have been told that I was a "pseudo-hermit" and "not real", or not deserving of the same benefits and graces of this special call.]]

One of the things hermits generally know is that whether canonical or non-canonical, consecrated or lay, the eremitical life is a significant one which speaks in different ways to different segments of the church and world. The Church wants so much to truly esteem the lay vocation today and eremitical life lived apart from Canon 603 is one of the really significant ways the Holy Spirit is working in our church today. The notion that someone who is not Canon 603 is not a ""real hermit" or is "pseudo" is plain nonsense and must be combatted. One of the ways that will happen is if people get on with living eremitical lives without worrying about consecration and profession or the legal rights and responsibilities which come from these things. Some will discover they actually require the canonical standing and structure -- and are called to take on the added responsibilities of this state, but others --- MOST others --- will begin to discover the mission and vocation to lay eremitical life which is capable of speaking so poignantly to a world in need of this witness. Whether canonical or non-canonical the call is real and significant. I personally think it is important to know that experientially BEFORE one approaches a diocese for admission to public profession, and that requires time.

I also am an urban hermit. It is a term I first heard used by Thomas Merton when he reflected on the need for hermits in the unnatural solitudes of the cities. However, there were a kind of hermits in the Medieval Church in Italy known as urbani, so the term is not novel with Merton. It is an historical term, not merely a neologism, therefore, a designation which contrasted with hermits living in other situations. Evenso, the idea of urban hermits is one which some hermits reject because the idea of wilderness is being defined so differently than they are used to. However, I cannot tell you the number of ill and elderly who live lives of what could well become eremitical silence and solitude in these places (eremitical, that is, instead of isolated) --- eremitical vocations we have only just begun to recognize and understand.

For these people in particular, people who have no choice about physical solitude or leaving it for weekends, etc, the witness we hermits each give is that such unnatural physical and emotional solitudes can be redeemed and become true oases in the desert. That is, what is physical and emotional isolation can be transformed into genuine eremitical solitude. And, while I am consecrated under Canon 603 and very glad of it, I realize that it is the lay hermit who would witness more powerfully for these people. Yes, I have things to say with my life to such people because of my own circumstances, but in some ways my consecration ALSO distances me from the witness I could give them, for they know they will never seek such standing in Law (they do not FEEL CALLED TO THIS) even while they yearn to know that the lay vocation they are living right now is ultimately meaningful. A cloud of lay hermits in the church could do that and I pray that it happens in the 21st century as it did in the 3rd and 4th (etc), or the 10th and 11th C.!!

We need laity living eremitical solitude faithfully to speak in the ways only they can. It is SO very important, and actually not something I realized I would be definitively distancing myself from in various ways until after it had happened. In any case, hermits are hermits, and whether consecrated (made part of the consecrated state by God through his Church) or lay, both are real, both are significant and inspired, both speak to our world and church in their own ways. Part of the problem is that we really still are suffering from the failure to esteem the lay vocation. We misunderstand the notion of states of perfection and refer to some vocations per se as higher than others --- again misunderstanding and misconstruing what SHOULD REALLY be meant by such feeble and dangerous language. The Church has not completely managed to free herself from this tendency, or from associating the notion of status with higher and lower levels of contribution to the life of the Body of Christ and to the world. If we do manage to free ourselves from these things I predict it will be non-canonical or lay hermits who are pivotal in the achievement. But that means, at the very least, refusing to buy into the notion that Canon 603 eremiticism is better or more genuine than non-canon 603 eremiticism. It is different in its responsibilities and witness, but not better.

[[I thought it was a strange mentality to have towards others, it was wounding and hurtful to me and for a number of years I considered not living this call on my heart for fear of their words being true and I was not worthy to be mimicking others in such a way or worse, that I was offending in some way Our Holy Mother Church by my actions!. Your words are surely Spirit led, especially in these times of changes and concerns, where there sometimes seems to be more church closings than vocations.]]

There seem to be more church closings than new RELIGIOUS vocations, which is what I know you meant, but vocations per se? Not at all. Again, as I posted a few days ago, we are so used to associating the term vocation with religious vocations or vocations to the priesthood that we do not adequately esteem what it means to be called to LAY life. And again, apart from Vatican II, the Church hierarchy has not always been helpful in correcting or rectifying this lack. Instead she has underscored it and we are reaping the harvest of that as we speak. She has also contributed to the mistaken idea that only religious with vows of celibacy, etc., REALLY live lives of prayer, of wholehearted generosity and self-gift. Most of us are called to lay vocations, and that means most hermits as well. It would be wonderful to see the widespread recognition that this is a HUGELY significant vocation and to watch it flourish.

Many thanks for your kind words. They mean a lot to me. Continue to take hold of your eremitical vocation and see where the Holy Spirit leads. The need for hermits in our contemporary world cannot be overstated but only a few of these will be called to the consecrated state of life. After all, that is not really where the need is most outstanding, I think. Wherever the Spirit leads it is to a REAL vocation and REAL eremitism. There is no doubt about that.

Sister Laurel, Er Dio
Stillsong Hermitage