24 March 2009

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.