08 January 2010

On the Growing Institutionalization of Eremitical Life

Well, Christmastide is almost over (marked by the Baptism of Jesus) and it is time to get back to some of the more regular things I need to do. Writing here is one of those (writing generally is one of those!), and responding to questions is a piece of that. One person writes as follows,

[[Sister Laurel, I read the following online . . . and wonder if you would comment on the growing institutionalization of eremitical life.]]

[[. . . has noted from internet blogs, articles and updates, that there is a growing trend among some hermits, mostly the canonical approved variety, that some through much wordage and repetition, based upon assumed authority, or even stated expertise, have begun to make regulations by setting precedence. What can evolve are rules, laws, set ways of how this or that must be done, called Precedent Law. Noticed a few Dioceses have bought into it, adopted the regulations and are imposing them. Perhaps without even knowing from whence they came. . . . is reminded of childhood. Something innate in little girls to want to organize, set up and play house, make a club. Sometimes they can find a little boy or two to come and play with them. Tell him what to do, and some do it. He is the daddy or baby brother to the little girls' house roles. Lots of rules. Do this. Do that. I'm the mommy. Do as I say.]]

My first response is this is a pretty cynical and simplistic (not to mention offensive) way of looking at what is happening in terms of eremitical life, and in particular, diocesan eremitical life. It reflects a rather common notion of the way law is related to life which should NOT be carelessly generalized. So, is there growing institutionalization? Yes, perhaps, but it is neither extensive nor particularly intensive at this point. If it exists it is also quite slow-growing, which I consider a good thing in the main. Canon 603 and the life it describes is an instance of this. Bishops have been, and continue to be, cautious with this vocation and that is generally a good thing. Do hermits themselves contribute to it to some extent? Yes, but usually with gritted teeth, ample cautions regarding the freedom and diversity of eremitical life, and with heels dug in to prevent these from being seriously transgressed against by over-legalizations and codifications. Most hermits will completely resonate with Dom Jean LeClercq's definition of the hermit life, "the hermit is the person who, in the church, is united to God with a minimum of structure." With canon 603's creation and implementation the trick was and still is to allow for sufficient institutionalization (which helps ensure a genuinely ecclesial vocation) while allowing for the simplicity and essential freedom of the life itself; everyone I know (of) is aware of and careful of this. So where does this move towards "greater institutionalization" currently come from --- at least as far as I am aware?

It seems to me the Church is beginning to have a larger number of canonical hermits with lived experience of Canon 603, its strengths, weaknesses, and essential values as lived out in the contemporary church and world. Because of this lived experience hermits inform their Bishops (or, if they have other ways of communicating, others who are concerned with consecrated life in the Church) of what is working, what is not and how things can be improved upon, what is absolutely necessary for the life, what variations are legitimate, which variations seem to be illegitimate in a general sense, what is prudent or not, etc. For the most part all of this comes from what the hermits themselves have found to be the case, what they are actually living on the ground, and particularly what they are living with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the Church's own monastic and eremitical traditions in dialogue with the 20 and 21st centuries. It does not, on the other hand, tend to come from Rome, or from the hierarchy more generally as an imposition from above or outside the life itself. It certainly does not come from women hermits needing to be "Mom" or to fulfill "house roles", etc!

One area that comes to mind which seems to call for greater institutionalization or formalization (though cautiously, VERY cautiously), and one I have written on before is that of formation of hermits. I have said that hermits are made out of the exigencies of life and the grace of God (remember Merton said hermits are made by difficult Mothers and the grace of God). However, a part of both of these is the personal formation an individual is responsible for getting or participating in on a lifetime basis. What I have noted about this in the past is that dioceses do NOT form hermits. They recognize and evaluate (discern) vocations when they come through the door of the Office of the Vicar for Religious, et al. They may also assist a person in getting further formation by referring them to communities who have agreed to help, seminaries who provide such, spiritual directors, etc, but in no case that I know of do dioceses take a complete novice to eremitical life and "form them" as hermits. Again, what dioceses tend to find (and something I have written about from my own experience) is that in some essential sense the person must be a hermit when she walks through the chancery door to petition for admission to vows under Canon 603.

Because this is the case, lots of questions are raised. Some include: what formation is necessary? Can anyone be a hermit even without formation? How does an individual achieve the necessary formation? (Must they be part of a religious community for some time, for instance?) What is required? Where is it best achieved? Who pays for it (the answer is ALWAYS the hermit herself unless she is part of a congregation for some of this time)? What happens if a person has no resources available to them? What is adequate formation for eremitical life and what is not? What happens to needs for therapy (if this is an individual need), direction, etc and how do these figure into the discernment of a vocation? To discernment about the quality of continuing in this vocation? How about ministry in the limited ways hermits may undertake ministry apart from their life of prayer: what constitutes adequate formation here and how is it undertaken? Who oversees all this: before profession? After perpetual profession? What is the Bishop's or diocese's role in all of this? What role does a "diocesan delegate" serve and is it a necessary role in assisting both hermit and diocese in fulfilling the demands of Canon 603 and this vocation?

Note well though, again, all of these questions are imposed or raised in the living of the life itself. They are not imposed or raised from the outside as though they are not intrinsic to the living of the life, or as though they reflect some legalistic or disciplinary mindset which merely likes to multiply requirements, for instance. Further, no diocesan hermits themselves are imposing such "regulations" on anyone. Hermits and their Bishops find that given certain prudential practices the hermit vocations they have experience with are good (exemplary, joyful, etc), and that without taking the time to be certain of these prudential practices or requirements, the vocations that have resulted can be a greater cause of scandal and disappointment.

Another area that comes to mind is length of time required before first profession or until perpetual profession. What is really generally necessary because of the nature of the vocation itself? How will this differ from person to person and why? The Canon does not spell this out and the canons for religious life do not fit eremitical vocations as neatly as one might wish --- though they are important considerations. Therefore, in general, what is a reasonable period of time for 1) living as a lay hermit before petitioning for profession? 2) temporary profession, 3) preparing in a conscious and discerning way for perpetual profession? Lived experience says that some dioceses have not allowed enough time in this entire process and so, have been imprudent, while others, for various reasons, have extended the time frames inordinately and perhaps harmed or at least endangered vocations in the process. Because of this it is true that hermits inform their Bishops (et al) regarding their own experience in this, while dioceses assess their own experience, and the result may be a precedent being set as a general guideline. Again though, the precedent stems from lived experience; it is not merely imposed from outside by someone with a bent for control, etc.

A third area that raises questions and calls for Bishops and Hermits both to answer on the basis of lived experience is ministry (or work) outside the hermitage (or apart from the strictly legislated elements of the vocation). Everyone needs to know that eremitical life involves a spectrum from complete reclusion to limited ministry and even work outside the hermitage. However, what is really legitimate and what is not if a person is to truly be and remain a hermit? Precedents are set here on the basis of a lived experience of hermits who grow in their appropriation of their vocation, or who caution against certain things because it really does seem to hinder or prevent such growth. Precedents are not set arbitrarily by lawyers or hermits with a penchant for legalism or control.

For instance, the Canon (603) defines the vocation in terms of "stricter separation from the world." It does not say absolute reclusion. It does not say, "no outside ministry." At the same time, it does recognize that the silence of solitude is primary and that this along with stricter separation from the world and assiduous prayer and penance demands one actually be open to being called to greater and greater degrees of reclusion, if God wills that at any point. Because of this a diocese might adopt the precedent that all outside ministry should be evaluated regularly to be sure the hermit's life is truly one where the silence of solitude and stricter separation from the world (etc) are foundational and not secondary to ministry. It is lived experience which serves as the basis for such a precedent.

Finally, it should be noted again that hermits also make sure their Bishops hear what is necessary to ensure the flexibility and freedom of the hermit life. What should NOT be legislated? What cannot be effectively legislated except in the hermit's own Rule or Plan of Life? Where should rules (as opposed to a Rule or Regula) give way to lived experience in a way which leads to exceptions being made? What are common instances of this? Again, as I have written before, ordinarily in the Church law serves love ---- or is certainly meant to serve love. This means love of God, love (in this case) of the eremitical vocation and tradition, love of the Church as People of God, love of consecrated life and the vows that serve freedom in this life. It is generally up to diocesan hermits and their superiors to determine law which works in this way and no other. At least with regard to Canon 603 the precedents I have seen and heard hermits speak and write about tend to be guided by this concern and this priority --- which translates into a concern for the integrity and charism of the vocation. In any case, control (or, as your poster noted, "an innate [desire] to organize," etc) is usually pretty far from the hermit's heart and mind.

I hope this helps. If it raises more questions or is unclear I hope you will get back to me.