08 January 2010

Followup on the Institutionalization of Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what I hear you saying is that hermits and their superiors are leading the way in the increased institutionalization of eremitical life and are doing so cautiously and only because lived experience leads to this. You said that love is prior to law. Is that right? Doesn't increased institutionalization endanger the hermit vocation? Is it really necessary to have public vows, rituals, religious and special garb, rings, initials after one's name, etc? Isn't all this elitist and doesn't it conflict with the individualism, simplicity, and hiddenness of the vocation? Also, is it the case that female hermits are forming clubs or groups which maybe they will allow male hermits to join? What is this all about?]]

Thanks for writing again. Yes, you heard me correctly regarding institutionalization (although I don't agree there is really much "increased institutionalization" going on). What there always is is reflection and dialogue about the nature of the vocation and how best to protect, and encourage its authentic growth. What I would stress again in regard to the issue of institutionalization though, increased or otherwise, is the need to maintain a balance between codification and individuality, etc. Generally Canon 603 does this by setting forth the essential characteristics of the life: silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lived under the supervision of the local Bishop --- as well as mandating a Personal Rule or Plan of Life written by the hermit herself, and all of this for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. (Note therefore that the Canon itself protects the individuality and freedom of the vocation!)

Beyond this, as already mentioned then, individual hermits'(or their Bishops' and dioceses') lived experience continues to inform the contemporary approach to Canon 603, problems will arise, particularly helpful practices or guidelines will be developed, and other things will need to be addressed with norms or precedents (discernment, initial formation and its length, ongoing formation, ministry, etc). Most of these things are simply reflections of what is generally necessary for any person wanting to live healthily and fruitfully as a hermit. The solution to the tension between institutionalization and individual freedom continues to be the interplay between Canon 603, and the individual's own Rule as these are supervised by Bishop, and worked out with one's delegate, spiritual director, etc.

What we are speaking about on a deeper level in these questions is balancing the profoundly ecclesial or communal nature (koinonia) of the eremitical vocation with individual gifts, sensibilities, practices, weaknesses, and desires, or better stated perhaps, finding appropriate and effective ways a very individual vocation's ecclesial nature is best protected and expressed. In turn, this will help the individual and it will assist others in discerning such vocations. Additionally of course, it will ensure that an individual is living a vocation which truly contributes to the salvation of the world --- which is the very heart and reason for the eremitical vocation as it is for any other authentic vocation.

Throughout the history of eremitical life some degree of institutionalization has been necessary to prevent this vocation from becoming merely a refuge for excessive individualism and personal eccentricity, and to ensure that it retains the ecclesial dimension any truly human life or vocation always has. It is further necessary to ensure adequate formation, both initial and ongoing, and to make sure that vocational discernment is seriously undertaken by both the individual and the church. To mention a tiny part of eremitical history which I have noted before, the founder of the congregation I am associated with as an Oblate, St Romuald, was known as a reformer who went around sometimes gathering individual hermits into Lauras, generally giving them the Rule of Benedict to live under, and otherwise making sure they were living genuine eremitical lives and not eccentric, overly-individualistic ones.

Later (again to repeat history I have noted before) other Camaldolese like Peter-Damian continued reforming and reflecting on the ecclesial dimension of all hermit vocations. Sensitivity to koinonia was at the heart of their efforts. Even later, Paul Giustiniani determined that since the establishment of the Church's requirements that all faithful have regular access to the sacraments and so forth, solitary hermits living essentially cut off from these were now invalid. He saw the formation of Lauras as the best solution. Though Giustiniani's concern seems legalistic, it represents increased reflection on the ecclesial underpinnings of any vocation, but in particular, the eremitical call. Bl Paul saw the formation of Lauras as the best solution because Lauras could be established far from inhabited centers protecting solitude and at the same time these would serve to curb all the dangers that beset solitary eremitical life. They provided the mix of community and solitude so essential to even the vocation of the recluse. Throughout the history of the Church the tension between institutionalization and individual freedom has existed. At many points institutionalization served to protect the vocation itself, especially in its communal or lived-within-the-church and for-others dimensions. Once again koinonia is at the core of these hermits' concerns and sensitivities.

Canon 603 is an option which allows hermits the same standing as others with public vows, etc, but without demanding they give up their solitary hermit existence. It seeks to balance both dimensions precisely so hiddenness is eremitical hiddenness and not something else. It consecrates lives marked by the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, etc while it ensures they are instances of authentic and ecclesial vocations. Further, with some of the symbols you mentioned (ring, garb, ritual), it makes it clear that such vocations are lived in the heart of the church today witnessing to others. Of course it also makes clear that such calls come out of the church's own life, that they are mediated to the individual through God's church and not otherwise.

Certainly there are other options for living the eremitical life in the church today. Religious hermits (Camaldolese, Carthusians, Brothers and Sisters of Bethlehem, some Carmelite foundations, etc) are wonderful examples of one option. And of course, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, lay eremitical life is always an option, and one which is less institutionalized than diocesan eremitism. For those who believe that "institutionalization" taints the purity or simplicity of the eremitical life, rather than protecting and enhancing it, this is certainly one way to go. From my own perspective such a path is at times more difficult than diocesan eremitism (especially in terms of perseverence and the freedom fostered by obedience), and in other ways (especially in terms of accountability on many levels), far less demanding. However, both are valid and significant ways to live an eremitical life today.

As for your last question, I really don't know what this refers to. Hermits don't have "clubs" nor are they generally or as a group given to gender bias. If you can clarify the reference for me it would help. Regarding elitism linked to rings, initials, rituals, etc please see other posts I have put up here on these. If these are inadequate, feel free to get back to me.