22 March 2009

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.