05 September 2009

Question on the Education of a Diocesan Hermit

I have written that diocesan hermits are expected by dioceses to acquire a certain degree of education and formation if they are ever to be professed as a Canon 603 hermit, and that most of this will be expected to happen before a candidate approaches a diocese with their petition. This is a position I agree with. The Diocese of La Crosse has a rather clear list of expectations in this area which includes (but is not limited to) the nature and content of the vows, the nature and history of eremitical life, theology, Vatican II, spirituality, etc. The idea that dioceses expect hermits to have much of this formation/education under their belts before they petition for admission to profession (which usually means before they approach the diocese in re to C 603 at all) raises questions for some. I received the following recently:

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, How would you compare [what you say about hermits educating themselves as part of preparation for profession] to a person entering a monastery? For example, one feels a call...visits a few places....then finds one that is "home." And then visits a few more times before entering. But, they don't enter with full knowledge of theology and monastic history, for example. For a much better term, they learn "on the job." So, just wondering your explanation on the difference.]]

As I have noted before, it is important to remember that dioceses do not form diocesan hermits. They discern the nature and quality of vocations that stand before them, and also evaluate the readiness of the person involved to take on the rights and responsibilities of public profession and consecration. There is no FORMAL entrance, novitiate, juniorate or scholasticate as part of Canon 603 even though one will move through various stages of discernment and formation before making a formal commitment of any kind, and, if candidates are admitted to vows at all, they will generally make temporary profession for three years prior to perpetual profession. Because of this the individual needs to take responsibility for a lot of the education and formation which would be part and parcel of communal formation and education. No one else will do it for a hermit candidate (though the diocese MAY point to some resources one may avail oneself of on their own once one is recognized as a strong candidate) and the Church (rightfully I suggest) expects it of those who would be professed as Canon 603 hermits.

Beyond this, there are many reasons solitude may call to one. The rarest and most radical involves a call to a life of eremitical solitude, but every Christian life and vocation involves some requirement for solitude. Unless an individual takes the time to understand themselves, the vocation to eremitical life, the nature of monastic and vowed or consecrated life more generally, and uses that time to experiment with eremitical life and explore the various ways solitude may and does call one and why, one may make a serious mistake in concluding one has a call to hermit life. For instance, one may be comfortable or "at home" with solitude at various points of one's life and not actually have a call to a life vocation as a hermit. These points in one's life may be transitional, the result of grief or loss, or even represent less legitimate desires for disengagement with others and one's ordinary world. They may stem from health or unhealth and it is only through time and serious learning, reflection, and discernment that one can come to clarity on these things. This is one of the reasons dioceses expect C 603 candidates to live for several years as a lay hermit before approaching a diocese re profession. Only in this way can one determine that eremitical solitude (not any other form or either legitimate or illegitimate need for solitude or withdrawal) is really the essential call one has experienced.

Education in the areas mentioned earlier can assist one in understanding and discerning the nature of her own call as she comes to appreciate the variations, challenges, responsibilities, and nature of eremitical life. If one spends time living as a lay hermit and educating oneself in theology, spirituality, church history, Vatican II and its challenges to the contemporary church and the modern world, as well as the nature and history of monastic and eremitical life (etc), one will learn much of the theology one needs to 1) write a Rule of Life, 2) understand the nature, content, significance, and challenge of the vows within a post-Vatican II church, 3) embody the eremitical life (lay or consecrated) in a way which speaks clearly to the contemporary church while it is consonant with the history of monastic and eremitical life through history, 4) engage in the limited ministry one MAY be called to do as either a lay or diocesan hermit, and (if called to consecrated eremitical life) 5) prepare for a future representing as fully as possible a rare and wonderful ecclesial vocation. Alternately, if they determine they are NOT called to life as either a lay or diocesan hermit they will still be better-prepared for ecclesial life in active ministry whether as lay persons or as religious.

There is a certain amount of learning "on the job" in every vocation, and eremitical life is no different. This learning never ceases and one never has a "full knowledge" as you put it; but unless one enters religious life to accomplish the basic education and initial formation required --- as well as undertake in a supervised and disciplined way the discernment they require --- then one has to provide for all this for oneself. There are no shortcuts, no alternatives with Canon 603 for those who do not come to it through monastic or religious life. Consider that all of this independent learning is a kind of variation on the old saying, "dwell in the cell and the cell will teach you everything." The eremitical life will involve independent study, lectio, solitary liturgical prayer, quiet or contemplative prayer every single day year in and year out, and in all these things it will also involve an initiative and capacity for independent work and direction. In some ways this is all part of the ongoing formation of a hermit; (this is the reason I suggest it is a variation on the more central meaning of the desert saying about dwelling in the cell). Dioceses rightfully expect to see that a person has developed such a capacity and has the initiative and independence which are so characteristic of diocesan hermits before they seriously consider admitting that person to profession.