31 March 2009

On Titles and Habits for the Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister,
When does a hermit get the title Brother or Sister? How about the habit?]]

When I speak in various posts about the rights and obligations included with public profession, title is included. Ordinarily the hermit is not called Sister or Brother until they are professed, although I would think a Bishop could permit the usage for the serious candidate approaching certain profession. This is a different situation than in community life where a novice is given the title and (sometimes) a new name as soon as they are received into the community. Since for the hermit there really is no formal novitiate involved, and no reception into a community as a new sister or brother needing to be marked as truly belonging (a matter of increased legal rights and obligations as well as canonical relationships), either the hermit waits until profession or until her Bishop gives permission once the diocese is certain there WILL be a profession. From my experience, this latter situation is less frequently allowed than not. Again this is because the title is a sign of a commitment made publicly with public rights and obligations and rooted in new relationships the person has accepted canonically.

The same is true of the wearing of the habit. When the hermit's Bishop agrees it is appropriate, the wearing of the habit is associated with specific rights and obligations like the title itself, and these come with PUBLIC profession. The right to wear a habit is granted to one by the CHURCH as a sign of a specifically ecclesial vocation and identity; it is not assumed by the individual on her own. For the diocesan hermit candidate the Bishop may grant permission prior to profession to wear a habit around the hermitage but usually not in public, for instance; but even this is an exceptional practice.

All this is true because both titles and garb have significance in the church and beyond. They are associated with a particular witness to the way God is working in his Church and world through this individual, to a call which has been mediated by the Church, a vocation which has been carefully discerned and an identity and ministry which have been effectively consecrated and commissioned respectively. Both title and garb therefore come with a number of public expectations people have a right to hold with regard to the one styling herself as Sister (etc) or affecting a habit. (See labels on the unique charism of the diocesan hermit for posts on these expectations.) For these reasons they are not generally adopted by the diocesan hermit prior to or apart from her eremitical profession. Instead they are part of the "insigniae" formally given during liturgy after the public profession of vows. Beyond the habit itself is the use of the cowl by the hermit. The right to wear this garment is associated with solemn or perpetual profession in both monastic and eremitical life, not apart from this, not even with temporary profession.

29 March 2009

Rule: Law or Gospel? On Writing A Rule of Life

[[Sister Laurel, how do I write a Rule of Life? I would like to copy from other hermits, but how do I do that? Is there some place one can write to get copies of the Rules of Life written by diocesan hermits? Have you published yours here in your blog? Can you help me?]]

I admit to cringing a bit as I read and copied your question. It touches a sore point (or several) for me because of the way it is worded, namely, it refers to copying from others, so let me answer a somewhat different question: "How is it hermit candidates write their own Rules?" A related question might be, "How can I look at other Rules to see what others do in order to get an idea of what I should write myself?" I suspect this latter question is really what you were meaning with your own question, true? Also, perhaps I can make some comments about Rules in general which will help you until you get access to others --- and even if you cannot get access since writing your own with all of the muddling through that requires is really the best way to go..

Rule of Life as Fruit of Personal Experience

Because I personally believe the writing of a Rule of Life is one of the most significant formative processes or experiences a person can engage in or have, I am emphatic that they should not copy anyone else's. I DO think that it is helpful to read those submitted by and governing the lives of other hermits, not only to see the great variety characterizing eremitical life today and through history, but so one can begin to put one's own "story" into words as one does so. I read several different Rules before and as I wrote my own (actually, my second version), and I found myself saying to myself quite often,"Yes, well said, but I would write it THIS way," or "Not nearly enough here about the CONTENT of the vows," or "I never thought of it that way; what a great insight!" Even so, once I sat down to write my Rule, the idea of copying anyone on anything never occurred to me. This, after all, was MY Rule, and it was based on my own life and the way God had worked and continues to work in it. This Rule was meant to govern my life, be a source (a mediator) of grace and inspiration in the living of my own life, and while I certainly learned from others, what I composed and submitted to my diocese was all my own. (Yes, I cited references both theological and spiritual, inspiring Scriptures, sections of the Rule of St Benedict, etc, but I had internalized these and they served mainly as illustrations of my own story.) I believe the same should be true of your own, and that of any hermit candidate's Rule.

What a Rule is and is Not: Law vs Gospel

One other reason it is important to read others' Rules is simply to learn WHAT a Rule is and is not. I think that one of the most difficult things about approaching the writing of a Rule comes from not being clear in one's mind what a Rule is and how it is meant to function. Most beginners write a Rule which simply says things like: "The hermit will not do x" or "The hermit is allowed to do y only on z occasions," etc. Great attention is placed on the horarium, what hours of the LOH one will and will not say, how much lectio one will do each day, how often one will attend Mass, when visitors are allowed, how often one leaves one's cell and for what reasons, etc. Everything is quantified and specified in terms of "will" and "will not." Overall, such a "Rule" or "Plan of Life" is cast in terms of law, not gospel! I think that besides being the error of a beginner who may not yet be ready to write a livable Rule, these kinds of documents are simply unclear on what a Rule is and how it ought to function in the life of the hermit herself.

Now let me be clear. Some degree of spelling things out in this way is necessary, especially for the hermit who will not have a book of constitutions and/or statutes as communities do, but it is necessary as part of a larger reality, a Rule which is gospel-based and which uses law only to serve that. When I look at my own Rule then, law is not the primary category that comes to mind. Evangelical (that is, an expression of the Gospel) is one category that I think of, and inspirational is another closely related category or term describing the way the Rule reads and functions. Yes, I have stated what hours of the LOH I pray, what my horarium looks like, and other things like this, but generally I was more concerned with what values and realities they SERVED and protected, what goals or characteristics I wished my life to embody and be an expression of, what inspired and empowered me, what practices were lifegiving or challenging in significant ways and why, etc. THAT I think, is what a Rule ought to be, a document which reflects one's own experience in a way that reminds one of who one is in light of God's grace and inspires them to continue in this way until God calls them to something new or different. A Rule is certainly regulatory, but it is regulatory only after it is inspirational. Law without Gospel is not a Rule in the sense a hermit needs a Rule. The idea here is that one needs a handrail for safety while one climbs or descends stairs, but one needs even more than that something to inspire the journey. The word regula or Rule has both senses but I am convinced the second sense is far more important.

Rule of Life as Handrail

Unless one approaches things from this direction one is apt to take something like the renunciations involved in eremitical life for instance, and make them appear to be the heart or even the whole of the life itself. While it is true that eremitical life is one of renunciation on a number of levels, one's Rule should make it clear that such renunciations are themselves undertaken for the sake of a uniquely shaped and GRACED life which is rich and fulfilling, and further, one which has a tremendously significant POSITIVE witness to offer our world. If the hermit does not convey this, the Rule will not only not serve the hermit herself adequately, but neither will it serve her church or world as it should. Especially, the Rule will not be able to inspire her to persevere in the life, much less to grow in it, nor will it be able to inspire others to adopt dimensions or elements of it themselves.

Renunciations, for instance, are the flip side of the more primary reality, graced existence RECEIVED AS GIFT and committed to with the whole of one's heart, and it is up to the hermit (candidate) to make this clear in her Rule. Just as authentic candidates to the eremitical life will witness to a life which is profoundly graced by God in spite of what (if anything) life has done to break or wound them, so too will a Rule of Life they write and live by reflect this same reality and priorities. Renunciation (for instance) has its significant place, but only as the servant of the grace of God and commitment to that Life it creates. Penance and asceticism have their place, but only in the way pruning, weeding, and cultivating have a place in the growing of a garden. What should have priority is always the grace of God, the beauty, fullness, and diversity of life in the garden. What supports that, though absolutely critical, is really secondary.

Writing a Rule of Life: Suggestions on Beginning

Now as to your questions per se: How do you write a Rule? Begin with (for this is only a suggestion on how to get started) some version of how God is active and effective in your life. Write about solitude, silence, prayer, penance, and their places in this story and how they serve the grace of God. Write about discipleship and how you perceive the vows as examples of discipleship. Write about what you understand eremitical life to be about, and especially how it functions as lifegiving to you. This should get you started, but please be clear, it is your own experience, your own life story, which is the basis for any Rule you write. After this you can begin to look at the praxis which flows from and supports this inspired story; what things keep you alive to the grace of God, how it is you live out your discipleship in concrete ways, what practices are essential to being who you are, etc. The "law" portions of your Rule will reflect these things. They will not be arbitrary practices you impose on yourself because you think a hermit should do them. You are really writing about a vision of the life, its values, significance, and capacity to mediate the grace of God and serve as a light to the world which you yourself have experienced and which God gives the church and world through you. Your living out of your Rule will be a living out of this vision, a continuing exploration of its depths and limits. The concrete praxis which will be a part of your Rule will be there because it serves this exploration and vision, and you will persevere in this praxis only because of the vision it supports.

As for Rules you might look at: there are Rules which have been published (The Hermits of Bethlehem come to mind here, A Way of desert Spirituality, The Rule of Life of the Hermits of Bethlehem), and there are any number of larger Rules available (those of Benedict, Augustine, Francis, etc). Regarding Rules written by individual diocesan hermits, despite the fact that they are accepted with an official "Bishop's Decree of Approval", most of them are not published, and are typically part of the private file of the hermit. One would need to borrow them from the hermit herself, not even from her diocese. Yes, I once published my rule here, but I removed it for a couple of reasons. The more important one here is that I found people were copying parts of it, and I began to think it might be less helpful ultimately than it was harmful. You see, I really believe that a diocese depends in part on the Rule of Life itself to discern the quality and nature of the vocation in front of them. With solitary eremitical life this is simply one of the primary ways a diocese has of discerning this matter; dioceses do not have all the ways available to them in this matter that a community of hermits has, for instance.  If the person herself has not written it and it does not reflect her lived experience, then it is misleading and can become a serious problem for all concerned. The witness value of the Rule, the hermit's life, the discernment process, and perhaps the professions themselves become disedifying at best. Better a vocation take a little longer to mature than that it be a hypocritical or false one!

I don't know how else to assist you right now. I can certainly post what kinds of things my Rule included once again (some posts still available include this), and if you have more specific questions as you get to working on yours I can try to answer them, but for now, this is all I have to offer. Let me know what seems most helpful to you if you can, what further you need, and I will give it a shot.

Even More followup Questions on Becoming a Diocesan Hermit.

[[Sister, thank you for your posts on the time frame, and other matters regarding becoming a diocesan hermit. What I found surprising was the distinction you drew between solitary persons and hermits. I always thought the two things were the same. I also hadn't thought much before about genuine eremitical calls and illegitimate "calls". So, my questions: Can you define hermit for me as you use the word? Also, can you say more about the distinction between genuine and not-so-genuine eremitical vocations? Finally, if a person believes they are really called to be a hermit (not just "solitary persons") how do they go about getting the kind of formation they need if the diocese itself does not provide that?]]

The literal definition of hermit is "one who dwells in the desert ("desert dweller")" but, given all I have said up until now, perhaps that should be revised slightly to read, "one who lives primarily from the grace of God in the desert silence OF solitude." Physical solitude is important, essential in fact to the hermit, but more, it is the genuine communal solitude of the heart which defines her. It is the solitude of the heart (the silence OF solitude) where isolation has been transformed and transfigured at the service of love that is the defining characteristic of the hermit. Saying this reprises a number of themes I have touched on in the past couple of years here: the notion that the eremitical life is always motivated by love and not by selfishness, the idea that solitude itself is an inner reality more perhaps than it is an outer one -- as important as physical solitude remains, the notion that "stricter separation from the world" is as much or more about one's own openness to and communion with the sovereignty or reign of God than it is about closing one's door to the rest of his good creation, the notion that desert can be defined in terms of any environment or situation of relative "barrenness" which separates a person from others and not merely a physical wilderness, etc.

I am not sure what more can be said (or at least what more I can say!) about illegitimate and legitimate calls to eremitical life except that legitimate calls represent calls to wholeness, to humanity which is generous and other-centered, to lives which are marked by love (of God, oneself, and others) and reconciliation, to a life of the freedom of one who lives from the grace of God and not from illness, compulsion, or any other form of bondage. I think it is often clear when someone approaches a diocese because life has broken them in some sense and their very brokenness is the dominant reality in their lives. In such cases the person MAY ALSO (at some point) be called to eremitical life, but they have not yet heard or responded to that call; they have not yet allowed God to heal them or to define their lives in terms of wholeness, mercy, grace, or freedom. And in some cases, the essential wholeness, the foundational freedom I am talking about never becomes visible much less dominant. When that is the case, one is not (yet) dealing with a genuine call to eremitical life, and may not ever be.

In such cases, cases where brokenness is the dominant reality (whether temporarily or not), solitude is more about physical solitude and not a matter of the heart's own communion with God and all he cherishes. In such a case, physical solitude is really simply isolation, and this serves to protect one from others (or vice versa), from the demands of life and love, and sometimes, even the growth work one needs to do oneself simply to be well. But for the legitimate call to eremitical life, while brokenness may indeed always remain a subtext, a sort of drone or pedal tone beneath the music giving it a special timbre and depth, what stands out are these other characteristics I have spoken of: wholeness, freedom, love, the capacity to relate to others and to be compassionate in their regard, the sense that one is like others not different than they, the capacity for deep joy and gratitude --- characteristics which should be present in ways which define the hermit as profoundly touched by the mercy and grace of God, more profoundly and extensively than brokenness ever touched her. Further, her brokenness will now be the basis of a deep compassion with others, not something which effectively separates her as different from them. Her solitude will not be mainly about physical separation, though this will always exist, but about a Communion with God which then empowers an eremitical compassion, love for, and service of others. For those dealing with chronic illness which itself isolates and establishes one as "different" than most others, this sense that one is really the same as others, etc, is a central piece of growth I would be looking for in determining whether a vocation is authentic or not. I hope this is helpful, but if your question is more specific than this, please get back to me and clarify it for me.

Finally, your question about formation since dioceses are not about providing this: While I think that every case will be somewhat different in their needs for formation (both initial and ongoing, by the way), there are certain broad brush strokes one can suggest as necessary for most candidates for eremitical life:

1) ongoing and regular spiritual direction with a trained or gifted spiritual director who understands contemplative life. Such a person need not be A contemplative (in the sense of cloistered nun, etc), and certainly need not be a hermit, but she should be familiar with contemplative prayer and have an understanding of the basic elements of the eremitical life (the silence OF solitude, stricter separation from the world (rightly understood!), prayer and penance. It helps if this person is open to the surprising ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives --- and of course any good director is! Regular work with such a person for several years at least is necessary as a piece of eremitical discernment and initial formation; ongoing direction is simply a requirement for ongoing formation in the eremitical life.

2) Study. Here I mean primarily the study of theology and spirituality, but other disciplines as well may be helpful too (psychology, art , music, sciences, sociology). One of the greatest lacks I see in some who would like to be hermits is a lack of sound theological and spiritual training or education. Recently I wrote a couple of pieces about the specious division of reality into the temporal and mystical Catholic worlds. One needs enough theology to prevent such blatant errors, enough contact with models of good spirituality (including contemporary spirituality!!) that one reads classic works with an educated eye and heart, enough so that one can read Scripture (and first rate commentaries) with real intelligence and sophistication. This category would also include study on the nature of the vows, monastic and eremitical life per se, the history of the church, etc.

3) Personal growth work to supplement that of spiritual direction as necessary. This might include therapy to help work through and heal past hurts, or simply to understand oneself fully and profoundly in psychological as well as spiritual terms, etc.

4) formation in prayer and spiritual disciplines. One will, over time, come to learn to pray the Office, do lectio divina, journal, pray contemplatively (etc), live in silence and solitude (and the silence of solitude) effectively and faithfully and more, allow all these to assume their proper place in a genuinely contemplative life. Also, one will learn what penance is lifegiving and motivated by gratitude as opposed to that which is actually an expression of self-hatred, and one will build these into her life. Included here too are all the values and practices associated with the evangelical counsels. One may not be preparing for vows, but one still needs to live the values central to Christian discipleship. Finally one's spiritual life includes others. It is lived FOR others, so over time one needs to determine valid and lifegiving ways to relate to one's parish and other communities despite one's solitude. Learning to be sensitive to, as well as to balance the demands of solitude and community effectively are a piece of formation I think even if one continues to learn this the whole of one's eremitical life.

In order to get this kind of formation one really needs to seek out resources for it. It should be clear that dioceses would not provide this stuff, but every diocese will have resources available, and the internet opens up the world to hermits for all of this as well. One just needs to seek these out and do so in discernment with one's director re what one really needs to be a whole and well-developed person, as well as spiritually well-rounded and theologically sophisticated. (One need not have advanced degrees in theology to be well-rounded here, by the way.) In any case, if I were looking at candidates for profession and consecration, those are the basic areas I would be looking for evidence of strength in. Because of that I think formation needs to include these in one way and another depending on the individual involved.

Again, I hope this helps. If it does not, or raises more questions, please do get back to me.

26 March 2009

If You Have Nothing, by Jessica Powers (Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD)

The gesture of a gift is adequate.
If you have nothing: laurel leaf or bay,
no flower, no seed, no apple gathered late,
do not in desperation lay
the beauty of your tears upon the clay.

No gift is proper to a Deity;
no fruit is worthy for such power to bless.
If you have nothing, gather back your sigh,
and with your hands held high, your heart held high,
lift up your emptiness!

(1940, 1946, 1984)

24 March 2009

Life and the Grace of God: The Making of the Hermit

[[Dear Sister Laurel, why do you say that life and the grace of God creates hermits? Can't life alone make hermits? How about the grace of God alone? Thanks.]]

Well, first, yes, the grace of God alone can certainly create hermits. However, I have to say I am not sure I know anyone that falls into that category. I recently read about a Camaldolese monk or two, and know several others that make me think they might be hermits of this sort, but I really don't know enough about their situations to say much more than yes, it is possible. In the history of eremitical life, I can point to a number of hermits whose stories seem to be wholly the stories of the grace of God without the negativities of life being significant formative factors as well, so again, yes, it is possible, but I think it is especially rare today (and was likely always so despite the way hagiographies were written). My concern in these recent posts is with discerning eremitical vocations in those with more "mixed" or complicated vocations, and especially stressing that diocesan eremitical vocations are generally not formed by dioceses, etc.

However, as to the case of life alone creating hermits, I would have to say no, never, not as I am using the word hermit anyway. We have lots of examples of "hermits" in other senses however. The socially inept misanthrope, or wounded and embittered recluse are the more common versions of this notion of the term "hermit." Ted Kasczynski is one I mentioned a few weeks ago. All of us know people who are maladapted, unable to cope with the real world, unhappy loners who hate themselves and everyone else. Life has made them loners, solitary persons, incomplete, broken, and unfulfilled, and this is true of many living with families as well, by the way. Loners, etc, are not hermits in the true sense of the word. Some people who have been buffeted by life are not nearly so broken as this, but the circum-stances of life have isolated them, shifted the rhythms of their lives so they no longer match that of most others, and so forth: chronic illness, bereavement, other forms of loss or trauma, have caused this kind of dislocation. Of itself life tends to break us. It is the grace of God that brings wholeness out of such brokenness, authentic life out of death, meaning out of senselessness, and the like. Hemmingway once wrote that "The World breaks all of us, then some become strong in the broken places." What he probably should have said is, "The World breaks all of us, and the grace of God makes us strong in the broken places." For some, a relatively very few in fact, this grace may be the call to become a hermit whether lay or consecrated. For most it will not.

Above all then, the life of the hermit is the life of the grace of God, a life of essential and clearly recognizable wholeness. Brokenness may be an important subtext (as it is in all Christian life!), but it cannot be the primary message. Paul's more theologically nuanced version of Hemmingway's quotation is this: "God's power is perfected in weakness." As I have noted before it is a theological and christological statement first of all for Paul, but it is also autobiographical, and it is biographical of many (other) hermits as well. Many hermits find that they were prepared for this vocation to some extent by situations in life that wounded and even broke them -- leaving them profoundly hungry and thirsty and their lives relatively barren in one way and another.

However, it is without question the grace of God that allows eremitical life to grow even out of THIS desert. It is only the grace of the eternal and living God that can transfigure such isolation into genuine solitude and cause the dislocations of life to become the points of deeper connection and community. And, as we must always remind ourselves, the grace of God, "especially" when given as a call to eremitical life, is always a gift. The reason I quoted Merton's comment on the door to Solitude only opening from the inside was to underscore this whole dynamic. This is also the reason in the last several posts on becoming a diocesan hermit, especially on the time frame involved, I distinguished between being a solitary person and becoming/being a hermit in some essential way. Life creates solitary persons. Only life AND the grace of God creates HERMITS!

Hope this helps. Feel free to get back to me if it does not, or if it raises more questions.

The Diocese of Oakland Has a New Bishop!

Congratulations to Bishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, newly appointed Bishop of Oakland! An auxiliary Bishop in San Diego currently, he will be installed as Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland on May 5th, 2009. A biography of the new Bishop can be found on the USCCB website.

A bit of an addition (April 8. 2009). I was able to meet Bishop Cordileone briefly after the Chrism Mass last Thursday evening, and also, of course, heard him preach, watched him preside at Mass, etc. He is personable, speaks to people fairly directly and preaches with an ease which was notable. He referred to Vatican II several times (and not as an apparent Code word for a pre-Vatican II agenda!), focused on the whole people of God as a priestly anointed people while also honoring the ordained priesthood appropriately, is committed to the health of our local church, speaks Spanish fluently and with a "perfect" accent (so I am told since my own Spanish is just okay!), and was reverent without being stiff or overly formal. He will be celebrating the Easter liturgies at Christ the Light this week, so there will be more chances for others in the diocese to see him in action.

The coming of new leadership is always a time for anxiety, and we are all holding our breath to see what kind of leadership Bishop Cordileone will provide. Fortunately it sounds like Archbishop Vigneron left things in good shape in terms of a pastoral plan, etc --- no surprise there. In any case I will probably not have a chance to actually meet with Bp Cordileone until sometime after his installation and the dust settles from his move --- perhaps a couple of months from now. I do look forward to that however. So, while I still don't know my new Bishop really, there is excitement as well as anxiety, and that is good I think.

Do you want to be Well? John 5:1-16

I am posting this here temporarily simply because it was written for today's readings last year and was posted then. Since I have written nothing specifically for today, I am repeating this post. (Hey! It's not a BAD piece! Well worth another look!)

Today's Gospel is one of those intensely intriguing ones where the reader plays a huge part in determining what actually happens in the story (because the story is not a matter merely of the past; the Gospel writer very much WANTS it to draw us in as well). I once remarked in an earlier blog entry that some of Jesus' parables are rather like Thematic Aperception Tests, and today's Gospel strikes me very much that way --- there is much left undefined or ambiguous, lots of room for projection, for implicating ourselves in the story and interpreting the questions, responses, followup behavior, etc. For those unfamiliar with the TAT, this is a psychological test often given to candidates for religious life, priestly ordination, etc. During the test the client is shown a series of pen and ink drawings, ordinarily a series of ambiguous pictures, and asked to tell the stories of the characters and scenes depicted there. S/he is asked to characterize the situation in each drawing, narrate how it came to be, and also give the story some sort of an ending. It is quite an enjoyable test UNTIL one realizes that the ONLY thing exposed for the tester is the inner and psychological life of the client!!! THAT is laid bare with incredible clarity! Well, today's gospel reading can function that way for us today, and would be wonderful for lectio.

Several things struck me right away. First, the reference to multitudes of sick, crippled, etc, in the temple area, but somehow also separated from the very life of the Temple. Second, Jesus' question to the one man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (a whole generation is signified here): "Do you want to be well?" --- certainly an intimate question which also retains complete respect for the man's freedom and innate dignity. Thirdly, the man's not-so-direct answer: "I have no one to put me in the water, and before I can get there, someone else has already entered." Fourthly, there is the exchange between Temple officials and the healed man who is walking and carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Both sides of this exchange are interesting: the officials' for their blindness and lack of priorities, and then for their focused hostility, and the response of the healed man who says he does not know who healed him or commanded him to take up his mat. And fifthly, after meeting Jesus again later on, and being challenged by him to not fall into sin so that something worse than paralysis befalls him, the now-healed man runs back to Temple officials to inform them that it was Jesus who healed him on the Sabbath!

The reference to multitudes of sick and crippled underscored for me a sense I already had, namely, that this gospel addressed all of us as sick or crippled in some way. When coupled with Jesus' very direct question, "Do you want to be well?" I think only a person who has never realized how it is we each come to terms with our various forms of unwellness, how we collude with them, struggle against them, accommodate them, and eventually accept them as more or less natural, would think Jesus' question a strange or completely obvious one. Afterall, after 38 years of illness most of us would have built our lives around the illness in some way which allows us a more or less comfortable accommodation to its limitations and demands --- even if this process is never perfect! To get well after 38 years of illness is no less a dramatic change than becoming seriously ill in the first place. Physical ailments are one thing, and they typify all the various ways a person can come to terms with something that is not natural or fully human --- and accommodate these things we certainly do!! But during Lent, the focus is more on our spiritual illness or lack of wellbeing, and there is nothing obvious about the answer to the question, "Do you want to be well?" Indeed oftentimes we have ignored the illness and have no awareness healing is necessary, much less at hand! Furthermore, when we ARE aware of the illness, we may not want to be healed really, just improved on a little! We don't want to commit ourselves to REAL spiritual healing. That, afterall, goes by the name of holiness, and who in the world REALLY seeks to be holy today???

I was struck by the paralyzed man's response. He does not say, "Yes, I have been waiting here for almost 4 decades. I want to be healed more than anything in the world!" Neither does he recognize that Jesus is actually the true living water and source of his healing as others have already done. His response COULD be a kind of blaming of others, or it COULD be an indictment of the religious system of his day which isolates those who are ill or crippled from the life of the Temple. It COULD be the cautious answer of one who is just now considering the idea that PERHAPS he COULD be healed and is beginning to get his mind (and heart!) around the fact that today might be the day. It COULD be the resigned response of one who has given up and knows that he will never be the first in the pool, and probably would not be healed there even if he were first! It could even be the response of a person who would like Jesus to be a little more realistic and see what the paralyzed man is really up against! (See what I mean about projecting ourselves into the story? It's terrific for uncovering our OWN hidden and not-so hidden motives and attitudes toward healing!)

Following his healing (an act of God which still requires trust and courage by the formerly paralyzed man; he still MUST pick up his mat and walk, afterall!), there is the rather chilling encounter with the temple officials. How many of us identify with their inability to see what is REALLY right in front of them, their lack of perspective, their legalistic attitudes, or their focused hostility at Jesus? And yet, how many of us have approached liturgy, for instance, with the very same mindset and condemned some breach of the rubrics when what was far more important was the healing of a fellow Christian in some major way, shape, or form we failed even to see? None of us like to see ourselves as scribes or pharisees, but all of us have a bit of closet temple-official locked inside our hearts, I am afraid! For some, it has become the primary attitude with which they approach their parish liturgy: what can I find wrong today? What breach of the Sabbath (e.g., Mass rubrics) can I point out today? How many unorthodoxies can I locate in Father's homily?" And of course, liturgy is not the only area in which such an attitude can be operative. How often do we notice someone did not follow the rules or "draw inside the lines", so to speak, in our daily lives --- while completely neglecting the fact that the person has ACHIEVED something they had been unable to perform until this point? If one walks away from this story without seeing something of themselves in this exchange between temple officials and healed paralytic, or fails to be challenged, I would be amazed!

Then there is the encounter with Jesus later in the story, after the man has been challenged by the Temple officials for carrying his mat. Jesus affirms his new condition "See, you are well!" and challenges him not to sin, lest something worse result. Does Jesus buy into some naive linkage between sin and illness? Is he asking us to do so? If so, how so? What IS the linkage REALLY? Is Jesus saying that sin can lead to worse things than physical illness? Is he reminding the man that he must commit himself to something besides his illness or his heart will be filled with something unworthy? And then there is the man's response: he runs back to the Temple officials to tell them the healer's name! Is he consciously betraying Jesus (we have been told in this and earlier readings that Jesus is staying away from crowds which are now dangerous to him)? Is he merely trying to tell the officials the simple answer to what they asked, naive of any awareness that this constitutes a betrayal of his healer (afteralll, he has been on the margins of what has been happening due to his illness)? Is he trying to fit into the Temple from whence he has been ostracized for so long? Is he trying to curry favor, in other words, or simply trying to show how responsible he can be now that he is well? What illnesses still afflict him? Blindness? Insecurity? And what kind of blindness then? Ingratitude? What is it that motivates this man? Once again, we can read critically, exegetically, of course, but to some extent, I think we will have to project ourselves onto or into the text to answer many of these questions, and to really HEAR the text. So long as we are clear this is what we are doing, in this way we will learn more about ourselves than we will ever learn about the man in the story!!

For me, healing stories are always difficult, but this Lent, where the focus is not on chronic physical illness, but rather on all the failures in humanity which regularly plague me, Jesus' question, "Do you want to be well?" hits hard. It hits hard because it presupposes an awareness of being unwell in fundamental ways which require a healer, a messiah of Jesus' caliber and character. It presupposes the ability to say, "Yes" not only because I am unwell, but because I have colluded with the dominant culture so much that I often have remained unaware of my basic unwellness and suppose I am essentially fine --- just a "bit of a sinner" you know! And of course, it commits me to picking up my mat and walking on with it, right in the midst of all those who will be offended by the act! For a monastic and a hermit, this picking up my mat and walking with it will look differently than it will for some, but in this day and age, the call to an exhaustive holiness is no more acceptable for hermits than it is for businessmen or housewives, parents, professionals, etc. Do I want to be well? All of my focus on humility this Lent had led to this one reading, and this one question. And I think the answer really must be, "Yes, no matter how much admitting and accepting my own brokennness and embracing genuine holiness scares me!" For many different reasons I may be more comfortable with a divine king than a divine physician, but this is Jesus' own question to me in this season of my life --- it is not projection on my part!! Of that I have no doubt at all. So, then, how is he speaking to you?

More followup Questions on Becoming a Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister, if one wants to become a diocesan hermit then you are saying the diocese will not make one a hermit. I get that I think. Are you saying that a diocese just rubber stamps what is already the case? Why should one want that?? Also, what if someone wants to become a hermit, but is not one? What then? Oh, and what if ones does everything as you suggest and the church still refuses to let the person be a diocesan hermit? What then? Seems this could waste an awful lot of a person's time!]] (redacted from original)

First, let me respond to the question about "rubber stamping." It is a bit bluntly put, but a good question. No, a diocese does not simply rubber stamp what is already there, and I apologize if that is the impression I gave. A diocese really and truly engages in a process of discernment and also, if one is admitted to profession and consecration as a diocesan hermit, the church herself mediates God's own call to the person. The vocation is an ecclesial one and while one may think one is called to this, until the church herself agrees, admits to profession, calls the person forth from the assembly, receives their vows and prays the prayer of consecration over them, the call itself is AT BEST incompletely given or received. Once these things occur the hermit will more and more grow into THIS SPECIFIC vocation, not just a hermit, but a diocesan hermit, not just vowed privately, but publicly so, not just responsible to live a life of  the silence of solitude, prayer and penance, but to do so in the church's own name. A whole new set of rights, obligations, and responsibilities come with this profession and consecration, and while some things will change little, some things will change a great deal and everything will be seen in a new way.

So, no the church does not merely rubber stamp something that already exists, but she does work with something that is extant, even if that is not yet well-developed. She recognizes a vocation that is there essentially, the vocation to be a hermit, and she then discerns whether there is also a call to public profession and the consecrated state of life, or whether the person should, at this point in time at least, remain a lay hermit. It is true that in this process of discernment the church therefore rightly considers the quality of the vocation, whether the person is really suited for it, whether it is healthy, whether the reasons for the solitude are valid, and so forth, but it remains true that she is still working with something that is already there in one way or another. Remember, of course, that the church also recognizes the existence of lay hermits and esteems the lay vocation. Remember too that the majority of hermits will always be lay hermits, not diocesan or religious hermits. A vocation to lay eremitical life is a significant vocation --- and also a relatively rare one. Still, it is the case that when the discernment concludes someone is called to diocesan eremitical life the church must, to some extent, be working with a person who has already essentially become a genuine hermit some years before she is admitted to profession and consecration.

Your last questions about being refused by the diocese, etc are good ones too and given the rarity of genuine eremitical vocations, there is no doubt that the church says "no" more often than she says yes to petitions regarding Canon 603 (though my impression is there are relatively few petitions regarding Canon 603 in any case). However, one of the reasons I personally insist that the diocese is not about forming hermits but instead about discerning the vocation before them is not only because that really is what happens, but precisely so the person already knows who s/he is in terms of eremitical life in some form before s/he petitions. S/he MUST do this to succeed in her petition, not least because the eremitical vocation is little understood generally, and the negative stereotypes and bad reasons for embracing solitude or petitioning for canonical status are unfortunately quite prevalent. As I have noted, eremitical life draws nutcases, and Canon 603 is apparently general and simple enough to make it seem an easy berth to accommodate simple (or not-so-simple) solitary eccentricity which does not constitute eremitical life. If a lay hermit really knows who s/he is before approaching the diocese, it will be easier to make it clear immediately that her reasons for embracing solitude are sound ones, and s/he is a serious candidate for Canon 603 consideration. By the way, I think s/he also MUST do this if s/he is to continue living the life should the diocese refuse to profess and consecrate her. More about that below.

As I have already said, it takes time and the grace of God to make a hermit, and again, as Thomas Merton reminds us: "the door to solitude only opens from the inside." (Disputed Questions, "Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude") One cannot succeed in solitude by sheer acts of will. Solitude will chew one up and spit one out unless one is truly called, unless Solitude herself opens the door to the person. Neither is there a college, seminary, or graduate school which teaches one how to be a hermit. But if one has been lead by life and the grace of God to become a hermit, and the diocese then refuses to profess her under Canon 603, the person has lost nothing of her essential vocation. She is still called to solitude, still is a hermit, etc. The time spent in the diocesan discernment process will not be wasted, and she will grow in her vocation, especially perhaps, in the perception of the place and importance of the lay vocation to eremitical life. I firmly believe this is true even if the diocese errs in their decision or makes it for inadequate reasons (for instance, because the diocese has decided not to profess ANYONE under canon 603 --- something that is still the case today in some places.)

What WOULD be a waste of time is if one spent a couple of years as a solitary person pretending (or simply trying) to be a hermit, approached a diocese expecting them to FORM him/her into a "real" hermit with "automatic" profession and consecration at the end of the process. Consider what would happen if five years down the line, and with no real formation being given by the diocese, the chancery officials simply say, "Sorry, it's not going to happen!" or "You don't have this vocation!" (I am assuming they would be more tactful, but the news would still feel this blunt.) Can they really mean one is not called to be a hermit in ANY substantial sense? Has one been living a lie for 5 and more years? What is one to do then? Continue living as one has and/or go off and do something else? How is she to reconcile herself to the judgment of the church in this matter --- because in some way, she must do this? If, on the other hand one is clear that the diocese is not about MAKING or FORMING one into a hermit, etc, the time spent in this process CAN be fruitful despite the disappointment of not being admitted to profession or called to be a diocesan hermit or chosen for the consecration it involves. The decision then is more apt to relate to profession and consecration and not to eremitical life per se. One can more easily continue living as one feels called, explore the meaning and consequences of the lay eremitical vocation, and grow from the experience while STILL reconciling themselves to the diocese's decision (or trying sincerely to do so).

Anyway, good questions. Thanks for sending them on. As always, if my responses raises other questions or didn't adequately answer something, please get back to me.

Sorry, I was reminded I did not answer the questions about what if one is not a hermit already. My only response here is that if one is not already a hermit in some essential sense (not in a formal sense necessarily), that is, if life and the grace of God have not already done their essential or fundamental work in this regard, one ought not to try and approach a diocese with regard to Canon 603. Canon 603 works for some people, and some vocations but not for all. If one is not a hermit in some essential sense already but feels drawn to solitude then they should either: 1) enter a community which DOES form people into hermits (Carthusians, Camaldolese, some Cistercian communities allow for this, Carmelite, etc), or 2) live the life of a lay person drawn to significant silence, solitude and prayer and see what eventuates (it COULD be Canon 603). Again, Canon 603 is not the only route one can take to be a hermit and for someone who is really drawn to the life, especially if they are younger, etc, entering a community may be the very best option besides lay eremitism.

23 March 2009

1(a by ee cummings

It is spring (or almost so!) and Lent as well: a bittersweet and holy time of preparation for new growth and new life even as older things die away or fall by the wayside. This morning I found myself thinking of a poem by ee cummings, one of the most perfect poems I have ever read or seen. I wanted to share it here because in just four words (give or take!) it captures the bittersweetness of this time so very well, and, in its own way it captures the nature of the eremitical vocation too. Like a single raindrop, or a diamond culled from the earth it encapsulates the story of the cosmos. I would ask you to pay attention to every nuance in the orthography, the ambiguities in meaning, what cummings manages to suggest visually by his division and spacing of letters, what happens within and without the parentheses, etc. Remember too that in the original font the lower case L looked like a 1 -- something I tried to duplicate but which is unclear in the published version.






So, when I read this poem I see two interrelated portions. Outside the parentheses there is: 1 (. . .) oneliness and this can also be read as loneliness. The section within the parentheses captures the fall of a leaf: "a leaf falls" with the visual zig-zagging or to-ing and fro-ing that might occur during such an event. The fall of the leaf points to an entire life cycle --- a cycle we each reprise as individuals. For ee cummings I think that "oneliness" or being "1" also points to integrity and integrity is a challenging and lonely business sometimes. It involves dying -- and for the hermit dying to self as well as living and dying "alone". Ultimately, however, every life is essentially solitary. For e.e. cummings a leaf is completely itself --- and so too are we each meant to be. This essential integrity as value, especially as it linked to love and the capacity for love (including love of God) seems to me to run throughout cummings' poetry. The beauty and simplicity of such a life is certainly captured amazingly well in this poem-as-snapshot.

22 March 2009

Followup Questions on the time frame for becoming a diocesan hermit

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, you said that dioceses discern vocations, but don't form them. If a person is interested in becoming a diocesan hermit under their Bishop's supervision, what should they do? Also, what is the difference between living as a solitary person and living as a hermit in a conscious way? Can you say more about what you meant?]]

Yes, I would be happy to since I occasionally have people contact me wanting to be consecrated hermits and expecting their dioceses to put them through or provide them with some sort of formation program; at the very least some expect their dioceses to supervise their own formation, and they expect the time they put in on this to "count towards" profession or be an official process granting status in some way like novitiate or juniorates in religious life. While there may be a lone diocese out there that does things this way (I am certainly not betting on it!), generally that is not how Canon 603 works on the diocesan level. Canon 603 allows for the profession and consecration of diocesan hermits. It says nothing about forming them, etc, although other canons do apply to the life, just as they apply to religious life.

What tends to be true is that diocesan personnel, whether Vocation Directors or Vicars of Religious, do not concern themselves with the actual formation of hermits. As already noted, they are there to discern the nature and quality of the vocation that presents itself at their door. They will evaluate the person, their Rule of Life, their background, their psychological, spiritual, and other qualifications, and determine 1) whether the person has what it takes to live a healthy eremitical life, and 2) whether they are ALSO called to public profession, and are either ready for profession or can be so within a reasonable period of time. They may certainly ask the person to get more formation in one way and another, and they can suggest ways as well as assist in arranging for opportunities if the resources exist in the diocese, but that is not ordinarily their responsibility.

Therefore one really has to make the transition to lay hermit mainly apart from the diocese. (I am only going to refer to lay hermits here since religious who become hermits complicate the issue a bit); one needs to do so with one's own resources, the aid of one's spiritual director, pastor, and whomever else one knows who might assist in this. I need to think about this a bit more before I write much about it here, but this may be a large part of the actual formation to solitude a diocesan hermit ordinarily undergoes, a variation on the notion that if you persevere in your cell, your cell will teach you everything. In this case, however, the hermit will need to seek out appropriate education, information on and links to monastic or other eremitical traditions and representatives, regular spiritual direction, and they will need to come to really be lay hermits to some significant degree before they walk in the door of the nearest chancery with a petition re Canon 603 profession and consecration.

By the way, I do happen to believe that there should be resources available to dioceses so that strong candidates can get mentoring, etc, just as there once was with the desert Fathers and Mothers, and for this reason some of us Canon 603 hermits are trying to develop something that will serve these official candidates and their dioceses more directly, but for the most part one should not expect one's chancery (much less one's Bishop!) to oversee one's formation as a hermit. Not only do most diocese's chanceries not have the expertise for this, but they do not have the time. One will be disappointed if one does expect it, and yet, at the same time, one will find that if she approaches a diocese without sufficient background, neither will she be likely to be taken seriously as a candidate for Canon 603 profession in any case. This is the point when one is likely to rightly hear: "Just go off and live in solitude; it is all you need." As wrong as this advice CAN be, there are times when it is exactly correct too.

Living a Solitary Life vs Living as a Hermit:

Regarding the difference between living as a solitary person and living as a hermit in a conscious way, well, I can try to explain what I mean. For many people life itself will lead to solitary existence. In fact, for every hermit life will have led them to solitary existence in one way and another. This can be the result of chronic illness, bereavement, or other significant factors often only associated with the second half of life though they can, of course, happen any time at all. However, simply living alone does not make one a hermit, though one may be intrigued with the idea of it, and it might seem a perfect way to make sense of an otherwise absurd (meaningless) situation. Evenso, one has to transition to being a hermit in a more formal way, and eventually, to thinking of oneself as a lay hermit and committing oneself to live and serve the church and world in this way consciously.

Only then will one's identity and life be defined in terms of this vocation, and not the other way around. Only then will chronic illness, bereavement, or whatever the circumstances of one's life that brought one to this place cease to be the defining realities of one's life. They do not go away, but they assume a new place in terms of God's grace. Only when, and to the extent that they allow one to love in new ways rather than isolating one from others has one ceased to be a solitary person and become a hermit per se. The key here is certainly the place of Christ in one's life, but what this really implies in concrete ways must be evident before one can honestly say to anyone, much less in a public profession and consecration, "I am a hermit!"

One must not merely be solitary and slightly (or even very) pious. Silence must be the basic environment for one's life. Solitude itself must be a lifegiving context without which one is not nearly so human or loving (and it must be a communal reality spilling over in the love of others). Prayer must become central and definitive of who one is, and whatever negative life circumstances that initially brought one to solitary existence will be relativized and transformed by these. Everything one is and does must be dictated by one's sense of and commitment to this identity and call, and it takes time for this kind of conscious claiming to occur. It takes time for this to become more than playacting, and to feel like more than mere pretence. It does not happen with a single step, or the putting on of a particular kind of dress. But at some point, possibly long before the church herself does anything official in one's regard, one will look around, recognize and affirm to both herself and her God, "This is a hermitage, not an apartment, and I am a hermit, not merely a solitary person brought here by circumstances."

But, as important as this moment of realization is, it is still a long way from being prepared for profession as a diocesan hermit --- if, in fact, one should discern this is even what one is called to. However, it is a step which is necessary before one approaches their diocese to petition for admission to such profession, before one writes a Rule of life which others might also live by or read and be inspired by in regard to eremitical life, and it is a critical step which can signal readiness or approaching readiness for these. One does not make vows (private OR public) because one WANTS to be a hermit, nor does one write a Rule of Life they think they can live and live by. They do these things to reflect who they are, what actually inspires their day to day living as a hermit, and with an awareness on some level that these things mark their gift quality to the church and world. That is, the Rule is written not only to mark they way they DO live, and the values, spirituality, and theology that informs that life, but as an expression of the gift their own vocation is to the church and world. While this may not actually happen (Rules are not always read by others outside the chancery, etc), it SHOULD be sufficient to inspire others in various ways to allow their own solitudes, especially the unnatural ones, to be transformed into lifegiving realities by God's grace. It should be the Rule of Life of a hermit, not someone playing at being one, not one merely hoping one day to be one, but the Rule of Life of one who knows who she really IS. The same is true of the vows, whether private or public; they must be expressions of identity, not merely signals of aspirations.

Dioceses do not Form Hermits:

As your question indicates perhaps, the main thing that is likely to be unclear to people approaching dioceses in regard to Canon 603 is the whole notion that dioceses do not make or form hermits, they DISCERN the presence of a vocation and the appropriateness of and readiness for public profession and admission to the consecrated state. Every other vocation has a formal preparation and formation program; Canon 603 however, does not, and I would argue, probably cannot. (In fact, despite experiencing the whole diocesan process re C 603, I hadn't actually considered it myself in these terms before receiving a question recently asking how someone was to become a hermit under her Bishop's supervision if the diocese told her to come back after finding resources for them about this very thing!) This does NOT mean there is not a need for serious formation however!! The truth of course, is that one does not become a diocesan hermit in the way she supposed; one lives out the vocation one has already discerned herself and claimed in a fundamental way as her own, but now (especially if one is to be admitted to profession, etc) in mutual discernment with and direct obedience to one's own Bishop and with the substantial added ecclesial dimensions, rights, and responsibilites of the consecrated, publicly vowed state.

There is a wisdom in this if it is done right, and doing it right is a tricky business. One could say that one is not ready for genuine obedience or an ecclesial eremitical vocation until one has made this journey "alone" in a way which enables both authentic independence and lifegiving dependence in the process of listening to one's heart. I guess it is another interesting (and difficult) paradox: this particular journey requires assistance (regular spiritual direction, parish community support, the more remote supervision and discernment of the chancery in the secondary and later stages, and accountability at every point), but mostly it is an instance of eremitical life, and so must be essentially negotiated with God's grace alone. As Thomas Merton once said, "the door to solitude only opens from the inside." That is, solitude herself must open the  door to the would-be hermit. As Merton also said though, "Difficult mothers make hermits," and again he is correct: life itself in one way and another creates hermits. What I am saying is that life (including one's attentive and prayerful responses to difficulties and obstacles) and the grace of God creates diocesan hermits; while the diocesan discernment process gives added time for this to occur, and for the person to come to greater clarity and articulateness on the nature of her vocation, what remains fundamentally true is that the church discerns and mediates God's own call to consecrated life once this essential creation is already achieved.

This may not have adequately answered your questions, but I hope it is a start. What I have not described much here is 1) the need for formation and 2) how it is one "gets" what one needs in this regard. Some of this is hard to describe, significant as it is, because it deals with foundational inner experiences. In any case, as always, please get back to me if this raises more questions or fails to assist you adequately. Additional questions are helpful to me and, I hope, to other readers.

Questions on the Time Frame for Becoming a Diocesan Hermit.

[[Sister, I would like to become a diocesan hermit, but everything I have heard says it takes up to 10 years to make solemn or perpetual vows. One website says it can take much longer even. Do you think that is reasonable? If not, why not?]]

This is a timely question (really, no pun intended!), not least because I have received three different inquiries this last week alone about becoming a diocesan hermit, and a couple of them seemed a bit dismayed by the time frames which might be involved. Somewhere here I may once have said one should wait a year or two before approaching a diocese with their petition, and I want to clarify that as well lest anyone take it as carved in stone (or canon law!). Further, my own journey to perpetual eremitical profession took a very long time (23 years) and I have had time to reflect on that and both the benefits and drawbacks of such an inordinately long process. So, let me say that I think 9-10 years to reach perpetual profession is completely reasonable and that I would not generally support a process of less than 9 years. Why do I say that, even after my own long wait to reach such a position?

First of all, when one approaches a diocese it is not really with a request to BECOME a hermit, it is with a request to be professed as a diocesan hermit and admitted to the consecrated state of life. Dioceses are involved in discerning the vocation but generally not in forming one, and this will be true even if they decide a serious candidate needs more formation and refer them to various resources. One really needs to BE a hermit (not just a solitary person living alone) to some significant extent before approaching a diocese. This is especially true because at the point one approaches a diocese with such a petition, or very shortly thereafter, one will need to submit a Rule or Plan of Life, and such a Rule can only be written on the basis of experience of the life. All of this makes me suggest that one should live as a lay hermit for at least 2-3 years because that is the minimum most dioceses I know of demand before they will take a candidate seriously; my own belief is that one should do so for 3-5 years. I say this because only after such a period would someone generally be able to write the required Rule of Life in a way which allows the diocese to approve it and use it to discern the nature of the vocation in front of them. Also, I would therefore add that one needs to do all of this in a conscious and committed way under the regular direction of a spiritual director who knows one well.

I also am strong on or insistent about this idea of doing things consciously and in a committed way. There is simply a vast difference between "sliding" into a solitary life because the circumstances of life led one that way, and consciously living one's whole life as a hermit, whether lay or consecrated. If life has led one to solitary existence, one does need to make the transition to embracing eremitical life in a conscious way. Nothing is the same once this occurs, and I cannot stress this enough. The church recognizes both lay and consecrated hermits, and most people will move to consecrated eremitical life only after a period as a lay hermit (or, after a period in religious life). If we live this consciously, perhaps with private vows, perhaps not, we will also be in a position to decide down the line whether we are actually called to continue living as a lay hermit (the majority of hermits will always be lay) or move on to diocesan status and the charism that is associated with Canon 603 eremitical life specifically. This, because of the unique charism AND public vows involved, is an added bit of discernment which the candidate for C 603 profession should be clear on.

Next then, come the initial contact with the diocese, and assuming one is not immediately turned away but seems a viable candidate, the writing of the Rule of Life, the assessment of this (canonically, spiritually, etc), and the process of discernment that follows this. Again, this is likely to take at least 2-3 years, at which point (presuming they see no need for further initial formation or other special steps) the Vicars for Religious or Vocations personnel will make a recommendation to the Bishop. If their recommendation is positive, he will read everything, meet with the candidate several times over the following year or so, consider the needs of the diocese, the practical needs and provisions required for such a profession and the precedents it sets, etc. Once he has done all these things and more, he will make a decision about admission to profession under Canon 603. If the decision is positive, then there are canonical and practical requirements to be met by the candidate prior to profession. This whole process, from the point of actual contact with the diocese then through the Bishop's decision (if the process gets this far) can easily take 4 or more years; often it takes a good deal longer.

Ordinarily the penultimate step is the profession of temporary vows, and these are normally made for a period of three years. Discernment and continuing formation obviously proceeds even during this period, and at the end of this time, the hermit may ask to be admitted to perpetual vows and consecration or not. Personally, I think she may also decide to rewrite portions of her Plan or Rule of Life at this point, because she will find there are things she never addressed, dimensions of the life she understands in ways she never did before, etc. It is a good time to do this rewriting, partly because such writing helps one to consolidate the gains or growth they have achieved and claim more fully the vocation to diocesan eremitism. Even at this point perpetual profession is not assured of course, though it would take serious reasons to refuse it, I think. Still, as in all consecrated life, temporary profession remains a period of discernment for all involved.

The process I have outlined here takes anywhere from 9-12 years without serious delays, and I do not see ways of changing that significantly. As I look back on the shifts and changes my own vocation involved, I think 9-10 years to reach perpetual profession, and 6 or so years to reach temporary eremitical profession is a completely reasonable period, especially for a lay person who begins to live as a hermit just a couple of years prior to contacting the diocese. No, nothing should be prolonged unduly, nor should a person be left without support, regular contact, a sense that things are proceeding as they ought under diocesan supervision and so forth; dioceses themselves should have some flexibility and leeway to deal with exceptional candidates or circumstances appropriately, but generally, eremitical vocations are a function of time as well as circumstance and one cannot change this arbitrarily. If the person has already been a religious, has been through initial formation and prepared for or lived temporary vows already, then absolutely, the time frame (and sometimes, the stages) can be modified to accommodate this, but ordinarily the stages themselves will remain as outlined: 1) lay or other specifically eremitical experience, 2) petition and discernment by diocese and Bishop, 3) temporary profession, and 4) perpetual profession.

19 March 2009

Solemnity of Saint Joseph: "To Live With the Spirit," by Jessica Powers

I used the blog space this was in to post a poem by Phyllis McGinley for St Patrick's day and am moving this here. It seems particularly appropriate to mark this Solemnity of St Joseph who did indeed quietly and unobtrusively listen to and live with the Holy Spirit, despite the risk and cost. (Icon by Nancy Oliphant)

To live with the Spirit of God is to be a listener.
It is to keep the vigil of mystery,
earthless and still.
One leans to catch the stirring of the Spirit,
strange as the wind's will.

The soul that walks where the wind of the Spirit blows
turns like a wandering weather-vane toward love.
It may lament like Job or Jeremiah,
echo the wounded hart, the mateless dove.
It may rejoice in the spaciousness of meadow
that emulates the freedom of the sky.
Always it walks in waylessness, unknowing;
it has cast down forever from its hand
the compass of the whither and the why.

To live with the Spirit of God is to be a lover.
It is becoming love, and like to Him
toward whom we strain with metaphors of creatures:
fire-sweep and water-rush and the wind's whim.
The soul is all activity, all silence;
and though it surges Godward to its goal,
it holds, as moving earth holds sleeping noonday,
the peace that is the listening of the soul.

(1949;1984, Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD)

17 March 2009

Happy St Patrick's Day!

Patrick the Missioner, by Phyllis McGinley

Saint Patrick was a preacher
With honey in his throat.
They say he could charm away
A miser's dearest pence;
Could coax a feathered creature
To leave her nesting note
And fly from many a farm away
To hear his eloquence.

No Irishman was Patrick
According to the story.
The speech of Britain clung to him
(Or maybe it was Wales).
But, ah, for curving rhet'ric,
Angelic oratory,
What man could match a tongue to him
Among the clashing Gaels!

Let Patrick meet a Pagan
In Antrim or Wicklow,
He'd talk to him so reachingly,
So vehement would pray,
That Cul or Neall or Reagan
Would fling aside his bow
And beg the saint beseechingly
To christen himthat day.

He won the Necromancers,
The Bards, the country herds.
Chief Aengus rose and went with him
To bear his staff and bowl.
For such were all his answers
To disputatious words,
Who'd parry argument with him
Would end a shriven soul.

The angry Druids muttered
A curse upon his prayers.
The sought a spell for shattering
The marvels he had done.
But Patrick merely uttered
A better spell than theirs
And sent the Druids scattering
Like mist before the sun.

They vanished like the haze on
The plume of the fountain.
But still their scaly votaries
Were venomous at hand.
So three nights and days on
Tara's stony mountain
He thundered till those coteries
Of serpents fled the land.

Grown old but little meeker
At length he took his rest,
And centuries have listened, dumb,
To tales of his reknown.
For Ireland loves a speaker
So loves Saint Patrick best:
The only man in Christendom
Has talked the Irish down.

Everyone is Irish Today (even Saint Patrick)!

It does seem to be the case that everyone is Irish on St Patrick's day --- yes, even St Patrick who "converted Ireland to Christianity," and was originally from elsewhere in the British Isles. I admit to being mystified by the popularity of this holiday, by the "wearing of the green" by everyone, etc. But it is a holiday I myself love, and if it takes becoming Irish for a day to allow people to drop their differences, then that alone makes it a great holiday! I thought the above picture was terrific. Same with the dog and ducks, and Phyllis McGinley's poem. Enjoy!

10 March 2009

Another Look at Humility from the Perspective of Matthew 23:1-12

Today's Gospel presents us with an analysis of the nature of humility and a reminder about its importance. This lection is concerned with the image of authentic humanity seen in contrast with the inauthentic humanity of the pharisees. Three things in particular struck me about humility as a result of today's gospel passage.

First, while most of us would say the antithesis of humility is pride, and today's gospel certainly portrays pride as a symptom of the lack of humility --- the pharisees love their special seating at the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets as well as their titles and elaborate religious garb --- pride is an aspect of a deeper reality. That deeper reality is the real opposite of humility; it is HYPOCRISY which means play-acting, pretending or dissembling. What the pharisees show us is that there is a kind of forgetfulness in this hypocrisy, a willingness to ignore some aspect of the truth about themselves and others and to play up (or deprecate) other aspects, or the persons as a whole. The pharisees are indeed guilty of pride, but it is a symptom of this deeper problem, this need to pretend and live a lie.

One thing today's Gospel makes clear (and we will hear the same thing in tomorrow's) is that this kind of pretense is always at someone else's expense. If we cannot be truthful about ourselves and accept the whole of ourselves in light of God's love for us, in light of the infinite dignity we possess as his own, neither will we be able to be truthful about others. Because we feel ashamed and threatened on some level, we will need to put others down or oppress them in some way. For the pharisees, treating religion as a means to status for themselves also means making sure others are seen as less religious or even irreligious. The burdens they tie up and impose on others which they then do not lift a finger to help them bear is the burden of religious law. As a result of some of these laws some people cannot worship with their brethren, some are by definition unclean, etc. Their very livelihoods prevent them from being Jews in good standing, so to speak. For them, religion is oppressive and a means of disempowerment. It denigrates rather then exalting and empowering.

It follows then that one of the central signs of a lack of humility (hypocrisy, pretence, dissembling, etc) is seeing others as competitors or rivals. For this reason Jesus directly opposes this with the notion that those who really follow him are brothers and sisters to one another, and have a vocation to serve, that is, a call to ease the burdens of our neighbors. We do that in many ways, but one of the most important is by giving these neighbors access to the life of Christ and his gospel, a life which supports them in their preciousness and allows them to live up to their potential and dignity as human beings. Ironically, the biggest bit of forgetfulness the pharisees are guilty of is how TRULY gifted they were --- they and everyone else. That is, they forgot that where God was concerned they were truly beggars; their whole selves are gifts of God, given at every moment, inspired by his breath, sustained with his mercy and love, and given every good gift from beyond themselves. To say one is gifted requires a giver of gifts, and to acknowledge true giftedness is also to admit one's dependence on the giver.

Secondly then, it is from an examination of its opposite, and also from looking to Jesus that we come to see humility as a loving truthfulness about ourselves, especially vis-a-vis God and others. To be humble requires an awareness and acceptance of who we really are, not just in terms of limitations, brokenness, sinfulness, and the like, but our strengths, talents, and gifts as well. This is true not only because simple awareness is important in the spiritual life and pretense is disastrous, but because this kind of awareness and acceptance allows us to really live for others. For the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of our brothers and sisters and with the knowledge that we are essentially no better nor worse than anyone else, we are free to work on our limitations, whether that be with therapy, spiritual direction, education, etc. And for the sake of our brothers and sisters and the building up of the kingdom we will be free to develop and use our gifts, talents, and strengths --- but not if we remain either reticent or embarrassed about admitting them, or if we claim them as our own possessions and the means to self-aggrandizement.

Thirdly then, we have to renounce the notion that humility is about self-denigration or self-deprecation. It is not about putting ourselves down, and particularly not in hypocritical or insincere ways. Humilty is not about a lack of self-esteem or feeling and operating out of a lack of personal dignity. Instead, humility is about being exalted in the truest sense, that is accepting our identities, our preciousness and dignity in God, letting him lift us up from the dust of the earth and breath into us a spirit which sets us apart from the rest of creation making us uniquely gifted for the sake of the whole of his creation. Humility allows our greatest truth to be the fact that God is continually merciful to us, continually regards us as and makes us precious, continually loves us beyond and in spite of anything unworthy of his love in a way which makes us the very result of that love.

Genuine humilty recognizes and accepts both dimensions of our lives, the limitations and sinfulness, AND the giftedness and strengths, particularly since the latter do not come from us, but from the giver of all gifts. It is for this reason that other signs or symptoms of a lack of humility besides pride, competitiveness, and rivalry include false modesty, perfectionism (a lack of honesty about our own giftedness and its imperfection), a lack of self-esteem and all the actions that come with these. Embracing the whole truth of ourselves is both freeing and empowering. Not least it opens us to accept and use God's gifts (for which we need no longer be ashamed or self-conscious) on an ongoing basis. (After all, it is not easy to be rescued or saved, but for the humble person, it is the simple fact of who they are and who they will continue to be.) Further, it allows us to accept others for who they are as well, neither threatened by their gifts nor repulsed by their limitations and weakness. This empowers us to really be brothers and sisters to one another, and to serve as best we can.

We should always bear in mind that the word humility comes from the Latin, humus, which means earth or ground or soil. Humility reflects several senses of this word: 1) it recalls that we are creatures made from the dust of the earth, but also spirit-breathed, inspired beings with an innate dignity which is incomparable to any other creatures we yet know. 2) humility is the soil out of which all other virtues grow. It is akin to the good soil in the parable of the soils which allows the Word of God to take root and grow deeply and lastingly without being stunted or distorted while we proclaim it boldly with our very lives, and 3) it is indeed the ground of our salvation in the sense that it is the precondition, the loving truthfulness necessary for receiving fully the gift of salvation.

One final word on the last line of today's Gospel. We might be tempted to read this line as punitive (or alternately implying reward): if we lift ourselves up, God will knock us down, whereas if we denigrate ourselves, God will exalt that and us as a reward. I think this is a serious misreading of the line. What Jesus (via Matthew) is giving us here is the PARADOX of humility: if you are honest about yourself and who you really are, God's work to gift you will bear incredible fruit. His Word within you will be ABLE to exalt you further and further and make you even more who you are called to be. You will truly be God-breathed or inspired dust of the earth, and your inheritance will be eternal. If, on the other hand, you are unable to admit or accept the truth of yourself God's loving mercy will not be able to find a place to grow in you and will not bear fruit in abundance. If, and to whatever extent you cannot be gifted by and dependent upon God, then life and death will eventually take whatever status you have enjoyed away from you, and you will return to the dust of the earth as nothing more lasting than that.

06 March 2009

Followup Questions on the usefulness of the division into "TCW" and "MCW"

Sister, I wanted to ask a followup question on the division between "Temporal Catholic World" and "Mystical Catholic World". The person writing about these things suggests that MCW is less suited to canonical status, and other ties with the Temporal Catholic World and more suited to mystical prayer, Communion with God, non-canonical status, etc. Now some of this makes sense to me. Maybe a hermit does not want to be linked to a public vocation, nor to deal with the hierarchical church, or wear a habit, recognizable liturgical clothes, etc. Maybe she feels called to a more hidden life, or to mystical prayer that cuts her off from community or parish life. In such a case wouldn't it be true that she is called more to the "MCW"?]]

In a word, not least because there is no such thing as a mystical Catholic world which is separate from and in conflict with the "temporal Catholic world," no. First, EVERY hermit is called to live her vocation in the temporal world. The Church has categories which fully allow for the different configurations of the eremitical life a person may be called to live. For instance, there is the basic distinction between lay and consecrated eremitical life which takes care of most of the issues you raise in your question. At the most basic level, over time a hermit needs to discern whether she is called to live a private lay eremitical life, or a public vocation to the consecrated state. Ordinarily every hermit who does not belong to a religious congregation begins as a lay hermit and lives that life for several to a number of years before being able to petition to be admitted to public profession and consecration under C 603. The discernment undergone here is the discernment to remain within the lay state or to seek something else. However, none of this has to do with whether one is called to mystical or contemplative prayer and communion with God, etc. EVERY hermit, whether lay or consecrated, is called to these to some extent and they are called to them within the temporal Catholic world.

If the hermit does not desire to deal with the hierarchical church then it is pretty likely she is not called to consecrated life. However, not all diocesan hermits wear habits or cowls; these matters are worked out with the hermit's Bishop and diocese. My own encouraged (or at least highly esteemed the choice to wear) the habit though it was my choice, but they required the cowl or other prayer garment along with a profession ring. While I usually wear a habit I do not always do so, nor am I required to. Sometimes I use jeans with a Benedictine (black) or Camaldolese (white) work tunic and sometimes without (the tunic also works with the habit, either with or without the veil, so is quite versatile and tremendously practical). The point is that even those who wish not to wear a habit CAN be diocesan so long as the Bishop agrees with the arrangement. (The cowl or other prayer garment is more and more a required matter though.)

One problem your own question points out is the notion that if one is called to contemplative union with God or to mystical prayer, then they are less likely to be called to canonical status. Now, I think that would be an amazing thing if it were true, for it implies that those relatively rare individuals professed under canon 603 cannot adequately live out a vocation to communion with God, intense contemplative or even mystical prayer. Simply because a vocation is public does not mean it is notorious, nor does public in this context conflict with hiddenness. A public vocation can be every bit as hidden as a private vocation. On the other hand, a private vocation itself can become quite notorious if the person is unstable, eccentric in the common sense of that term, etc. Here public and private do not mean notoriety or lack thereof; they mean, as I have noted before, a public identity, a vocation officially lived in the name of the Church, as opposed to a private one lived in one's own name. Do we really want to say that canonical hermits are less called to contemplative or mystical prayer, union with God, etc, simply because their vocations are canonically public ones, or because they may even imply some degree of ministry outside the hermitage? I certainly don't think so.

The Church's own categories are far more adequate for the question you raised. One may become a lay hermit, or one may become a canonical hermit. The first is an essentially private vocation and would certainly be appropriate for one who did not want to deal with the hierchical church. It would, however, also witness to lay persons in the abnormal solitudes they find themselves as the result of society, loss, grief, bereavement, chronic illness, and the like. The second involves accepting a public identity in the Church, and a commission to live out one's vocation for the rest of her life with integrity and fidelity. It involves vows of poverty, consecrated celibacy, and obedience, and yes, it implies superiors, a clear relationship with the institutional church and a special relationship with one's Bishop and those he delegates to serve as superiors for the hermit. One is bound legally and morally to live out the Rule of Life one has composed, to embody the elements constitutive of the eremitical life according to canon 603 and one's Rule, all in the name of the Church and in direct responsibility to one's parish and diocese. While the canonical or diocesan hermit also witnesses to those in unnatural solitudes and reminds them of the redemption possible, she may or may not find that the lay hermit can actually do this better in a given situation.

I understand the idea of mystical prayer "cutting a hermit off from community or parish life" (more about that in the next paragraph below) so let me speak to that last portion of your question. Every hermit must obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit and it may well be that for a time the call to mystical prayer requires greater reclusion than at other times. My own experience tells me that these times are temporary and further, that they spill over into times when one must return to her parish community and serve them in a more direct way. However, canonical status does not prevent greater degrees of reclusion to accommodate mystical or contemplative prayer. What it does do is make sure the individual hermit is properly directed, and remains aware of the ecclesial context of her vocation (which includes community even in reclusion). If a hermit feels called to complete reclusion for the sake of such prayer, Canon 603 allows for this, so long as the person can support and care for herself still. However, let's be clear that Canon 603 status will also make sure that responsible parties (including the hermit herself) make sure the prayer is genuine, that the person is not running from social responsibilities, or suffering from some sort of psychological or emotional problem related to her solitude and silence, etc. Beyond this, canon 603 status will ensure that a call to mystical prayer and relative reclusion is verified and carefully nutured. Far from being a hinderance to such a vocation, Canon 603 status would assist the hermit here.

One very important point must be made here: it is not a matter of contemplative or mystical prayer cutting a person off from community, but of embedding them within and relating them to the community in a different way than is ordinarily recognized. As I have written before, communion with God implies communion with those who are also grounded in Him. Communion with him implies communion with all he cherishes. Further, mystical prayer is always an act of love and it involves not just the pray-er and her God, but all those whom (or that) God loves as well. In actual mystical prayer experiences one is also aware that even while one is alone dancing with God (or whatever images or experiences are involved), all those he loves are being perfectly cared for at the same time; one is glad and grateful for it, and it is part of what one celebrates with him. This experience exists simultaneously with the sense that God loves you as though no one else existed and that you have his complete and undivided attention. It is a fantastic paradox, and an awesome experience -- characteristic, in my experience, of true mystical prayer.

I recently read a quote by a Cistercian monk, Armand Veilleaux, OCSO, which says pretty much the very same thing: "...An authentic contemplative life does not consist in withdrawing from reality to live in an artificial or purely spiritual world. It consists in withdrawing to the center, to the heart of all reality. A healthy community life helps us to evaluate with serenity the varied information that we receive, the different events through which we live."

On a less universal level, in my own hermitage I keep a basket next to the tabernacle and in that basket go all the intentions I am asked to pray for. People know that I am praying for them and their intentions, and they feel linked to my prayer. My very reclusion (or at least my solitude) marks me as deeply involved in their lives and the lives of those they love and are concerned for. I do not retire to the hermitage to get away from my community, but to live for them in a different way. It is thus a solitude they sometimes share in consciously even while my activities are completely hidden from them. Because of these and other reasons I have already mentioned in the previous post, I would definitely reject the notion that authentic contemplative or mystical prayer cuts one off from the community, and I would affirm instead that when it is genuine it does just the opposite.

So, the bottom line as far as I am concerned? The division into temporal and mystical Catholic worlds in specious and creates problems --- both practical, spiritual, and theological. The Church already divides eremitical vocations into lay and consecrated (I am prescinding from referring to clerical hermits deliberately just for this post), and that is completely adequate, even while it avoids the problems associated with the other division into TCW and MCW. I think if you use the church's own division as you reflect on the things which caused your question you will find it is a completely adequate division for you too.

As always, if this raises further questions, or is inadequate in some way, please get back to me. Thanks.