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.