11 September 2009

Questions on Writing a Rule of Life: Can I Write One Before I live as a Hermit?

[[Dear Sister, I would like to become a diocesan hermit in the future, but am not living alone presently and have not been able to do so yet. I would like to write a Rule of Life for that future time. I dream about it a lot. For example, I imagine what the life must be like and think I could do a good job of describing it and writing a Rule to reflect that. What do you think?]]

Hi there! This is a really important question. It is, surprisingly, also actually the third time this month I have been presented with a similar problem or scenario. One person, for instance, wrote a Rule of life a couple of months ago and only then started living as a solitary person according to this Rule; she wanted to know if it was time to approach her diocese at this point to petition for admission to profession. Another person began writing a rule of life as though he was already set up in a hermitage as a lay hermit (he does not have a hermitage, is not a solitary person, and will not be for some time); he wrote about what the ambience of the place would feel like and how he would feel walking in the door and into the silence and solitude, etc. And now you have written a question about the same kind of thing. The reason these scenarios and the questions which they ask are important is because they fail to understand how a Rule functions, how much life experience must exist before one can write one effectively, and finally, they are actually contrary to the very nature of contemplative life itself -- not least eremitical life!

It is true that Canon 603 says nothing about all this stuff and so is not clearly helpful. It simply lists a series of qualifications for admission to Canon 603 profession. Still, what is implicit in Canon 603 is the required experience of living a "Rule" to some significant if completely informal extent before one wrestles with it consciously and attempts to codify it in writing. It is easy to look at Canon 603 and think: what parts of this can I get out of the way so I can approach a diocese with my petition? The answer which comes, unfortunately all-too-easily is, "I can write a Rule of Life. That sounds the easiest!" (The same is a temptation for diocesan officials who look to the one concrete requirement in the Canon, and who then tell a person they need to write a Rule or Plan of Life; it is easiest to deal with this dimension of things whether a person is ready to write such a thing or not!) And then one looks to others and the Rules they have written, one copies from them (or is strongly tempted to!), borrows their ideas and theology, mimics their content and horarium, and passes it off as the fruit of one's own experience when one's diocese requires one submit a Rule that will pass canonical muster. The problem is that this is not based on lived experience and for that reason it does not indicate one's own hard-won wisdom (for one's Rule must reflect this even when it is consistent with the Rules of others). It is, to put it bluntly, fraudulent and hypocritical. If it occured in some other way, we would recognize immediately why such a thing would not work.

Let's say for instance that I decided I wanted to write a Rule of Life for married persons. I imagined myself as married, I imagined the way the house would be set up; I imagined the way it would feel when my husband came in through the door at the end of his work day. I imagined the love that would fill the house, the sounds that would and would not be there, the way we would pray together, our schedules and how we would live out our lives together, the problems we would have and how we worked through them, the strengths and weaknesses in the relationship and how we addressed and expressed those, etc. And then I wrote a description of all of that as though it reflected my own lived experience and described what was necessary for this to be true. Let's say I then submitted this to my diocese as a plan or guide to how married people (especially I and my "someday-husband") should live their vows. What is wrong with this picture?

Another example. Assume I have wanted to be a parish priest for as long as I can remember (this is actually NOT the case -- emphatically not!!--- but it's a good illustration). I imagine how I will deal with parishioners, how I will celebrate the Sacraments for them, how I will balance ministry with prayer, what training I will need and what reading I will have to do for continuing education, what I will wear and when, etc. I spend a lot of time dreaming and reading about what I think this vocation is about and I decide I had better write a Rule of Life for myself for when this becomes a reality. I address all the issues mentioned and many more. I describe what I imagine the problems and concerns a parish priest meets daily to be; I contruct a daily schedule which I believe will work for me in such a life. I even go so far as to describe the character of the priest's residence, what it will feel like to enter the door after being out, how this prayer or that devotional will comfort and soothe or strengthen and challenge me in given circumstances, how often I meet with a support group of other priests or spiritual directors and why it needs to be this way rather than another. I then submit this to the church as a guide or Rule for myself and for parish priests more generally. Should the church listen to me? Should they give the guide to diocesan priests as something they might use effectively or even normatively? Should they ordain me on the basis of this Rule? Again, what is wrong with this picture?

Would you credit (that is, treat as credible) a user's guide written by someone who had never used the product? Would you adopt a guide to spiritual direction or marriage, or brain surgery by persons who have never done spiritual direction, never been married, never been to medical school (much less through all the specialty training in neurosurgery)? Would you discern that someone has a calling to live these or an eremitical life if they write a completely fictional account about what these vocations or life in the hermitage will be like? I doubt it. The problem with all these examples of course is that they are built on complete fiction; they are based on imagination and dreams, not reality and lived experience.

When a hermit writes about the silence of solitude it is about living the reality of that --- not some abstract notion of what it WILL be like and mean. The same is true of the other foundational elements of the life, poverty, consecrated celibacy, stricter separation from the world (what IS that and what is it emphatically NOT!?) assiduous prayer and penance, the relation between solitude and ministry or evangelization, the shape of hospitality, the degree of reclusion one needs for healthy solitary life, etc. How do these take shape in THIS person's life? How do they differ from stereotypes? How do they challenge a person, foster growth, create problems? How must classic formulations within Eremitical Rules change in THIS individual's life and in today's church and world? The questions one must consider are raised by the life itself and by the individual's embodiment of the correspondence (and conflict) between an ideal (or traditional) version of that life and the concrete circumstances in which she attempts to live it. One cannot simply imagine all this and write a cogent Rule; to do so in this way is a self-contradiction, an oxymoron in fact.

Rules of Life are not, as I have mentioned before, just lists of what one does or does not do. They do indeed list what practices are essential to the life one lives, but they include sections on theology, reflection on the nature of the essential elements of the life, sections on the nature and content of the vows, Scriptures that are especially inspirational to one personally and which may have been fulfilled in unique ways in coming to live this vocation. They serve to remind a person what they should be doing and why (and in fact, what they are bound to in obedience), but more than that they function to convey a vision of the vocation which continues to inspire not only the hermit's perseverence, but the church herself because this document was born in the conjunction of the Holy Spirit and the person's lived experience. Especially they are not documents reflecting romanticized versions of eremitical life or of the practices and promise which are part and parcel of it. A document with vision and a romanticized fictional version of a reality are not at all the same thing!

All of this implies that the writing of a Rule of life takes some years of experience, research (on all the elements of the canon, on eremitical and monastic life, on spituality, and lots else), reflection, and then the hard work of putting it all in words --- writing and re-writing, and re-writing again --- expressing the way God really works in solitude, silence, poverty, etc, and what is necessary to allow him to work thusly in YOUR own life. And of course, this is as it should be for a contemplative committed to attentive life in the present moment. Such a life is a reflective life rooted in the reality of the present flavored always by hope which itself is not a matter of wishfulness or fantasy but rather of certainty and promise functioning in the present moment.

What I would suggest you do with regard to this Rule of Life you propose to write is to write it on the basis of who you are right now. What is necessary for you to be healthy? What vision inspires you today? How do you pray now and how does that affect your own maturation and growth in holiness? What does holiness look like to you right here and right now? How do you embody the essential values of the eremitical life? How do they challenge you? What do you sense you NEED to live all these even more fully and why? Don't touch on the things you know nothing about yet. Make notes about needing to reflect on them, read about them, find ways to live them, but especially do not make a Rule of Life into a fictional account of someone who has not yet drawn breath!

In time you will revise this. Perhaps you will do so several times as you continue to read, reflect, pray and LIVE the life. As you grow in your vocation it too may become the document the church envisions in Canon 603, both completely personal and capable of guiding and inspiring you and others in the real living of the life. Only then will it be a document the Church can look to for her own edification and guidance. Only then will it be a Rule of Life which the Church can use to help her discern the nature and reality of true eremitical vocations --- first your own, if that is the case, and then those who follow you seeking admission to Canon 603 profession. This Rule of course will be yours, but it will also become the Church's and part of the tradition of eremitical life in the church. For all these reasons it is imperative it be based on lived experience and not a hermit candidate's imagination or romanticized ideas of what it will all be like.