22 August 2009

Married Diocesan Hermits?

[[ Dear Sister, Recently I read a book on "contemporary eremitical life" and it mentioned the existence of married hermits several times. I also heard of a married couple who are seeking to become canonical or diocesan hermits according to Canon 603. Is this possible? Hermits can live in communities, so presumably they could be married.]]

There is a recent new book out on contemporary hermit life which does this, yes. I read it in July. The problem however is that the book, which is quite good in some ways and problematical in others -- especially the following -- relies mainly on anecdotal descriptions taken from a survey of many who are self-described lay hermits. It therefore does not address or really attend to the theology of either marriage or eremitical life and how these apply to the notion of married hermits per se. The book is descriptive of any number of people who consider themselves hermits, but it is not always adequately prescriptive (normative) of eremitical life or indicative of what it entails or disallows. In my estimation, it especially fails in regard to the notion of "married hermits". Thus, while some married couples may consider themselves hermits I think that serious questions about eremitical solitude in particular, not to mention those around eremitical poverty, and chastity (celibacy or continence), have to be raised and adequately answered before lay persons in such circumstances can be called lay hermits. The situation is even more dificult with the second situation you describe because here there is a couple, both of whom are seeking to become consecrated or diocesan hermits.

It is my own opinion that married couples cannot live the same kind of solitude hermits are called to live. They are one flesh and they come to God together through their marriage, not in the way a hermit actually does. This means that even if they build in a good deal of physical solitude, they remain sacramentally ONE with each other, and because of this, they simply cannot live the kind of inner solitude, much less the silence of solitude a hermit must come to live, cultivate and witness to. It is hard for me to describe this, but an example from this Summer's retreat might help you to see what I am trying to convey.

A Desert Day and a Gesture of Affection from One's Spouse

During the latter part of the week we had a desert day, just as would happen in a monastic setting. Everyone went off for more solitude during the majority of the day and returned to celebrate Vespers and dinner together in silence. As we gathered there were a number of nods and smiles to one another, but one couple took each other's hand as they approached the refectory and the wife rested her head on her husband's shoulder very briefly. No one broke the silence, but it was very clear to me that despite the fact the these two (a truly lovely couple!) had spent their day physically apart from one another and in prayer, etc, their solitude was of a different quality than mine or others there who were unmarried -- much less than that of professed hermits, monks, or nuns. No one broke silence, but the silence of solitude (more about this below) was another matter.

Now let me be clear. This is AS IT SHOULD BE, and the brief physical gesture was apropriate and lovely to see. It was touching and inspiring. I doubt anyone who attends this retreat regularly does not feel blessed by this couple's love for one another. But, were they to start calling themselves hermits because of a certain degree of physical solitude built into their lives together, I think they would be deluding themselves and forgetting the experience of solitude which is characteristic of genuine hermits and how it differs from their own, even if those hermits exist in community. Consider, for instance, the import of the brief physical gesture I mentioned. Wasn't it the reestablishment or confirmation of a profound and sacramental link that exists all the time? Isn't it likely to have mirrored the gestures offered one another as they went their separate ways on this desert day? Both persons have profound prayer lives, I have absolutely no doubt of that, but despite its depth and the existential aloneness with God they may each find in that prayer, they do not go to prayer --- or anywhere else --- truly alone really unless the marriage fails in some critical way. With whom does a solitary or religious hermit share such a bond? God alone.

Solitude is a state of Communion and for the hermit it is a state of communion with God alone. This does not mean that the hermit does not carry others (often MANY others) in her heart within her solitude, but it does mean that she approaches this relationship without the bond (or the comfort of that bond) which married persons have. If prayer is, at times, marked not only by peace but by darkness or loneliness (something which can happen despite a continuing knowledge that God is there) or longing for a physical touch or an audible word, there is simply no way such a hermit can mitigate or soften this by remembering or looking forward to her later time with her husband --- at a mutual meal or when both come together and greet and share with each other after their own prayer periods, for instance. No, this Communion is sometimes marked by such darkness, etc and it calls for even greater faith and trust, and -- paradoxically -- greater physical solitude. Further, for the hermit there is no sharing of this prayer as there might be for married persons who come together after such a period. One moves from the prayer period to (perhaps) a silent meal fixed for oneself alone and shares even the darkness and loneliness (and all else that is in one's heart) with the One whose silent presence both comforts and sometimes exacerbates that darkness and loneliness. This is part of the meaning of Canon 603's phrase, "the silence of solitude" which is foundational to the eremitical life. It is far more profound and disturbing at times than simply refraining from turning on some music or filling the silence with some other distracting noise.

Eremitical Loneliness is the Loneliness of  Communion

It is also really important to realize that I am not describing some terrible or malignant loneliness here. Instead I am describing an aspect of communion and eremitical solitude itself, a dimension of the relationship with a transcendent God for one who still lives apart from him in many ways and gradually grows closer and closer even in and through such periods. Eremitical solitude includes darkness and loneliness not only because of yearnings for touch or audible communication, but because there is a longing for greater communion with God as well. Since God is the one the hermit is vowed to love as she would someone in marriage, and because she does indeed love others only THROUGH this love, even moments of darkness and loneliness are expressions of a call to ever greater Communion with God and ever greater solitude (and the silence of same) --- sometimes to the point of actual reclusion. Though their love and commitment are wonderful things which open a world of life and family to one another, a married couple are constrained by their commitment to one another and the demands of sexual/marital love from responding to or realizing this natural and inner dynamism of the solitary eremitical life.

Mission Impossible: A Couple Seeking Profession Under Canon 603

Regarding your second question, and the couple who were each seeking to become diocesan hermits, one must take all that I have just said and add to that the obstacles existing because Canon 603 eremitical life is an ecclesial vocation which must be carefully discerned by both individual and church over a relatively long period of time. Significantly it also involves public profession of the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity or consecrated celibacy, obedience) BECAUSE it is one way of achieving admission to the consecrated state.

Let's start with this last element: admission to the consecrated state. The consecrated state is, by definition, characterized by consecrated celibacy. It celebrates a life of celibate love, NOT a life of sexual love and, as just mentioned, married love is ALWAYS a celebration of sexual love, even if the couple no longer has sexual intercourse; married love recalls this ultimate expression of total self-gift, is always an extension of it, always tends towards and anticipates it. While in the not-so recent past some persons were allowed to live as sister and brother (or to leave a marriage for religious life of some sort), this generally occurred during a period when the nature of married love was simply not so highly esteemed as it is today. Married life is a consecration of a life of this kind of love. In terms of church teaching and theology, it is mutually exclusive with admission to the consecrated state marked by celibate love. Today the Church does not encourage married couples to forego the highest gift and expression of the married state to live together as sister and brother; similarly, she does not admit married persons to profession and consecration under canon 603. Instead marriage --- even one marked by divorce but not annulled --- is ordinarily considered an impediment to such consecration just as it would ordinarily be an impediment to another marriage.

But this aside for the moment (and the vows of poverty and obedience as well!), consider the difficulties of a married couple trying to both become diocesan hermits. The discernment process is individual AND ECCLESIAL meaning the individual him/herself alone does not discern such a vocation. There is simply no way the Church can automatically admit both (or either) to profession and consecration on the basis of them announcing what is in their hearts. It is not, after all, a package deal. How would the church even begin to openly discern one spouse's vocation while the other spouse goes through a separate and equally honest (and often lengthy) discernment process --- either of which may end in the individual's determination as unsuited to or simply not called to this vocation? Does one spouse (or both) say to their diocese -- even implicitly -- "Don't consider professing me unless you agree to profess my spouse"? And yet, in coming to a diocese as they have, this is actually one message they probably DO give. Or, could a diocese admit one to temporary or even perpetual vows while making the other wait another several years or even eventually finding the other unsuited to such vows? No, it is a completely unworkable situation and I admit I don't see how any diocese would even begin to consider it precisely because neither person is truly solitary or free to discern the matter alone (individually) with the Church. Once we add back in the definition of the consecrated state or the content of the vows themselves and consider the church's responsibility with regard to sacramental marriages the whole notion becomes completely impossible.

I personally wonder what motivates the couple you mention or why they would seek such profession and consecration. They have their marriage vows and consecration. They are already called to this by God and it is a critically important and worthy vocation. Married people need to realize this and also realize that they are called to come to God together in the married state, through married love. If this means building in more physical solitude at some point, then they should do this, but not because they are called to be hermits. While every couple is called to prayer and penance, they are NOT called to the silence of solitude in an eremitical sense, or to celibacy, etc. And yet, these things DEFINE the hermit, whether lay or consecrated and whether the hermit is a solitary one or lives in community.