21 March 2010

On Encouraging and/or Discouraging Canon 603 Vocations

[[Sister Laurel, do you encourage people to pursue eremitical vocations or do you discourage them? For instance, you criticized members of [name of project] for using the Canon for diocesan eremitism as a "stopgap" or "fallback" position. Shouldn't we be happy to have as many people pursuing this vocation as desire to do so? There are so few diocesan hermits, and so few religious vocations today that I am surprised to find people discouraging others from pursuing these.]]

You are correct about my "Canon 603-as-stopgap-measure" criticism and I will explain that in a bit. Surprisingly (for I was surprised by the fact), I have found that I do generally discourage people from pursuing vocations to Canon 603 eremitism; that is, of the people who contact me curious about this as a vocational path I encourage only a fraction to pursue it and tend to suggest other vocational paths for the majority. I have recently looked at my own motivations for this reticence and I think they are worthy reasons. Let me explain, for I think it is a piece of the answer to your questions.

Throughout history there have been hermits from all religious traditions. At some points in this long story there have been more hermits and at other points fewer, but always the vocation has been recognized as a relatively rare one. I don't think this is generally because of undiscovered vocations or human cowardice, resistance, etc, but because of the very nature of both the human being and of the call to eremitical solitude. Human beings are social beings; ordinarily we grow to maturity and achieve individuation only through our relationships with others. The need for community is a part of our very nature. Our hearts are "dialogical realities" as Benedict XVI reminds us, and the God we image is himself a community of love. At the same time we are constituted in dialogue with God not only directly (as the deepest dynamic of our hearts) but through the mediation of and in relationship with other people. This communal dimension of our lives is essential. It cannnot be dispensed with, even for the genuine hermit, and ordinarily its requirements militate against a call to a life of physical solitude. Authentic calls to eremitical life are exceptions to the rule, and therefore, are both relative rarities and paradoxical in that they actually foster or enhance the dialogical character of one's life in these particular cases.

In Christian eremitical life, these insights are reflected in the characterization of eremitical life as the summit of monastic life, and by the insistence of people like St Benedict that those seeking to live in solitude should be well formed in their monastic lives, and no longer in the first flush or fervour of conversion. [[The second [kind of monk] are the anchorites, hermits --- that is those who, not in the first fervour of religious life, but after long probation in the monastery, have learned by the help and experience of others to fight against the devil; and going forth well-armed from the ranks of their brethren to the single-handed combat of the desert, are now able to fight safely without the support of others, by their own strength under God's aid, against the vices of the flesh and their evil thoughts.]] (RB 1) Benedict, who had lived as a hermit understood the vocation and his cautions and qualifications are as valid today as they were when he wrote his Rule.

While the language of combat with demons may seem a bit dated and off-putting for many today, the seriousness (and genuineness) of the enterprise it underscores should not be missed or minimized. One goes into the desert in response to a call to a hard-won conversion and humanization which is accomplished in dialogue with and through the grace of God alone. There is no room for mediocrity here (though there is assuredly great temptation to this!!), no sense that eremitical solitude, for all the joy and peace it possesses (and these are indeed substantial), is merely a pleasant time apart to recharge depleted batteries or balance the activity in one's life. Neither, as I have written several times before, is it a way to indulge one's selfishness, over-developed individualism, insecurities, lack of ambition or success at life, or misanthropy. What is at stake in a call to eremitical solitude is one's very humanity, nothing less. Further, it is a humanity at the service of Church and World, or it is not eremitical life.

For the hermit this is THE WAY to more complete healing, wholeness, and holiness, the way her ability to love others is perfected, the way she is most clearly made into imago Christi in service to others. If one misses the demanding and extraordinary character of this solitariness, one has missed something essential to the eremitical vocation. Above all one should not forget that relatively very few people are called to achieve the goal of their own humanity in this way. For most, the desert as a life choice would actually hinder growth as a person and prevent individuation or the achievement of true holiness. For most, this would be a destructive choice leading to actual dehumanization and illness. For the hermit, on the other hand, it is the necessary or indispensible full-time environment and occupation which God in his mercy and compassion calls them to so that they might achieve fullness of authentic humanity.

At the same time I argue the relative rarity of this vocation then, I recognize that among some groups of people there may be more vocations to diocesan or to lay eremitism than has been appreciated heretofore. The chronically ill constitute one of these groups, as do the bereaved and isolated elderly. So too, as I wrote just recently, may some prisoners in the unnatural solitudes of our nations's prisons. In each of these cases diocesan or lay eremitical life may be ways of redeeming the isolation, bondage, and brokenness of these situations and transfiguring them into genuine solitude thus making them occasions of essential wholeness and freedom. So, while I am convinced vocations to solitary (diocesan) eremitical life are rare, I am more than open to encouraging exploration of this call by those whose life experiences may suit them to such a call apart from monastic formation and life. For those who are younger and can enter a congregation which is eremitical or semi-eremitical to get the formation and challenge which life in community allows, I recommend this option rather than Canon 603.

Contrary to the way your questions are framed, this is not about numbers. It is especially not about finding a canonical alternative to an individual's inability to be professed in some other way to get the number of vocations to the consecrated life up, nor is it a fallback position for those seeking to enter religious life or to found a community only to find either that they are unable or that no one else joins them in their project! My criticism of the project you mentioned was rooted in these two concerns. When Canon 603 (which is meant to address and foster SOLITARY eremitical life, not communal or religious eremitical vocations) is used in this way the person doing so apparently demonstrates little or no sense of the nature or significance of this specific vocation, little or no respect for the unique charism it represents especially for our church and world, no real sense of what it truly means to discern a LIFE VOCATION, and a lack of respect for the actual divine vocations the persons being funneled into Canon 603 life are really called to. Add to this an overriding concern with trappings and externals, and other forms of fundamental dishonesty on the part of the head of the project (the specific topic of a previous post) and you have a more complete picture of the basis for my criticism.

While it is common to hear people bemoaning the dropping numbers of religious vocations today, what we should be hearing more of is an accent on authenticity. In the wake of Vatican II we recognize the universal call to holiness and have come to esteem the lay vocation and the vocation to marriage in ways we had not done adequately. Our ecclesiology (i.e, our theology of church) is much improved with decreased clericalization (including no longer treating religious as a semi-clerical caste which can do things lay persons cannot!). Further, we are coming to be increasingly aware that many in religious life prior to Vatican II may not have had genuine vocations, but also had no way to fulfill their needs to minister, etc apart from religious life. The lower numbers of religious vocations today may simply indicate that these remaining and contemporary vocations are mainly authentic and that the desire to serve or minister (an important but secondary concern) is now better met for most persons in other ways. Canon 603 eremitical life is a significant (that is, meaningful and important) vocation with the capacity to witness to aspects of the Gospel in ways other vocations may not do as vividly. It serves (and should serve) the church and world in redeeming unnatural solitudes and in humanizing and sanctifying a rare number of people --- and in witnessing to many many more. We cannot empty it of this significance or witness value by turning discernment into a piece of a numbers game (which is always more apt to be of men than of God) or refusing to wait for genuine (relatively mature, life-tested, and divinely inspired) vocations to walk through the chancery door.

I hope this answers your questions. You might want to check past posts on the unique charism of the diocesan hermit, as well as those on abuse of Canon 603 or the "Lemons and Lemonade" series of posts, for a more expanded discussion of some of the issues that fueled my criticism of the use of Canon 603 as a stopgap measure or fallback position. Articles on the time frames for becoming a diocesan hermit (also cf the "Lemons and Lemonade" series) might explain better the idea that this is generally a vocation for the second half of life. As always, if this raises more questions for you or is unclear in some way, I hope you will get back to me.