25 July 2009

Eremitical Poverty and the Diocesan Hermit

I was recently asked how the eremitical vow of poverty worked for a diocesan hermit. Specifically, the question ran as follows:

[[I was wondering if you would blog about how hermits live out their vow of poverty, particularly with regard to their cession of the administration of property and how the hermit handles immediate financial needs and other requirements of life. This situation appears to be an oxymoron. I would greatly appreciate your insight.]]

The issue of cession of administration is not a central one in the grand scheme of eremitical poverty because not every diocese requires this of her diocesan hermits. On the other hand every hermit DOES vow religious or evangelical poverty and writes a Rule of Life which covers that. Unfortunately, while I can say a little about cession of admininstration, I cannot do so from a first hand perspective (at least not as a hermit) since my diocese did NOT require this of me.

Let me say up front that I don't understand how cession of administration works for individual or solitary hermits and I have asked a canonist for additional information on this. Generally it works better (as far as I can see) for hermits who are part of an Order/Congregation and who are in simple vows preparing for Solemn profession when they will give up all rights to ownership or acquiring of property. These hermits do not have the same requirements or responsibilities as diocesan hermits do re support of self, financial independence, etc, so the cession of administration while in simple vows makes more sense. It frees up the hermit for a life of contemplation, in a way which is optimal even while it allows for the possibility of leaving the congregation before solemn or definitive vows and makes sure the hermit will have property to return to to allow life outside the congregation should that be necessary.

However, for those really wishing more information on this than I can provide, I would suggest they contact the Vicar for Religious (or Consecrated Life) of Diocese of La Crosse (for instance), which I believe DOES require a document formalizing the cession of administration/usufruct of goods and property of its diocesan hermits. If you are a candidate for Canon 603 profession and are being asked to do this by your own diocese, contact the canonist there for more information and discuss the matter. When I have more information myself I will add that here or in a new post.

That said, I believe the questioner has put her finger on a practice which seems to me like a bit of a legal (and spiritual) shell-game when applied to diocesan hermits with perpetual vows. I personally see a conflict between requiring cession of administration and the requirement that the diocesan hermit be self-supporting and financially independent of the diocese. Neither do I personally understand how ceding the administration of property and yet retaining the use of it (again assuming one is a perpetually professed hermit) actually assists one to live out poverty in a responsible way. One has not really divested oneself of the property (it is really still one's own as far as I understand the situation) and one can fool oneself into thinking one is living poverty simply because one is merely "using" this property, etc.

On the other hand (trying to be evenhanded here), I can see how this could conceivably inhibit a hermit from acquiring more property and contribute to a careful use of what is at her disposal, and if it does this as well as remind the hermit that she is, in some ways, merely using or even "borrowing" what she needs and nothing more, such a practice could well contribute to her genuine practice of poverty.

The larger question posed by the questioner is how a diocesan hermit lives eremitical poverty despite being responsible for immediate financial needs and so forth. The answer is, I believe, that poverty must be understood in a way which makes trust in and dependence upon God primary and a correlative simplicity of life and relative financial poverty (NOT destitution!) a constant goal and context for who one is. I think that is true with regard to cession of administration of property for it MAY invite a person to depend upon and trust in God alone. What is most basic to eremitical poverty is always openness to and dependence upon God as the sole source of life and meaning. Any acquisitiveness which detracts from this is something the hermit deals with as it comes up.

However, acquisitiveness aside, the diocesan hermit is responsible for her own income, rent, insurance (including medical insurance), transportation expenses, food, utilities, annual or bi-annual retreat, library and media, education (ongoing formation including professional and other continuing education is indispensable), spiritual direction, religious goods and supplies, clothes, computer and internet hookup (if she requires these), taxes, and burial expenses, etc. The diocese is responsible for NONE of these (some dioceses will include a hermit under their diocesan insurance I have heard, but it is not usual and not something one can count on), so religious poverty for the diocesan hermit means being very clear regarding what is essential in light of the above constraints and requirements. Remember that there are many expressions of religious poverty (Franciscan differs from Benedictine differs from Carmelite, etc). The hermit is responsible for deciding which of these best fits her circumstances, writing that into her Rule (which is then approved by her Bishop) and then living it out ever more fully and responsibly.

I begin (and end!) my own approach to and vow of poverty with humble (truthful and loving) dependence on God because I think it is the heart of religious poverty. For me the whole attitude and reality of this kind of poverty is summed up in Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is perfected in weakness." Religious and human poverty is the counterpart of divine grace. After all, one may live frugally or even in financially impoverished circumstances and not be living religious poverty because one is not essentially dependent upon God as the sole source of life, meaning, and validation. One does (or at least may) not allow one's innate poverty and weakness to be the counterpart of divine grace. When one begins with material poverty, this may or may not lead one to the necessary poverty of spirit the evangelical counsel requires.

I also find that once one begins to pay attention first of all to dependence upon God, and to being honest and transparent regarding our own essential and undeniable human weakness and poverty, the financial/material part of things falls into place and one simply needs less and less. (When expenses start to increase for some reason, for instance, it is a good time to look at the poverty of spirit side of things as well because the material part of eremitical poverty is affected directly by the existential or poverty of spirit part -- often more than economic inflation and other factors bring about!) Many hermits also make a yearly accounting of expenses for their Bishop and this too assists them to be careful and responsible in such matters. The two prongs of the vow of poverty, and of the life of poverty (poverty of spirit and economic and material poverty and simplicity) mutually influence one another so one needs to take care of both of them.

I realize this is a very general answer, and that perhaps the questioner had more specific things in mind. If so, I hope she will get back to me on this.