06 May 2010

Regarding Diocesan Hermits: Hoods Up or Down? And what about Apostolic Activity?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I was just reading your posts on the cowl because I have been viewing a number of videos in which monks are wearing or not wearing their hoods up. I am wondering what dictates when the hood is up or down. Also, would you comment on the apostolic activity in the life of a hermit. I think that most of us have a picture of hermits as people (usually venerable old men who live in the desert in an isolated hut) who, other than offering spiritual direction to those who come to them, have little other contact with the "outside" world. I am so drawn to your posts and I thank you for them. They are so informative and inspirational to this closet contemplative.]]


Good questions! Regarding the cowl and whether one wears the hood up or down there are no real hard and fast rules for diocesan hermits, despite the fact that the right to wear this garment publicly is granted to diocesan hermits at profession. (After all, not all of us are asked or choose to wear a cowl as our prayer garment, and when we are or do, we do so as individuals in our parish/diocesan community, not as monks or nuns in a monastery or congregation!) Generally if I am praying at Eucharist with the rest of the parish community I always have my hood down simply because I don't want to be or feel cut off from the rest of the assembly. This includes the penitential rite right on up to the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass (where, for instance, Bishops will remove their "skull caps" (zuchettos, zuchetti) and go bareheaded). However, that general rule aside, I wear my hood up on Good Friday during parts of that day's liturgy, particularly the reading of the passion and veneration of the cross, and during parts of communal penance celebrations at Advent and Lent --- in this latter situation, I do so not only to ensure my own privacy, but to ensure that of others moving up to the stations where priests will hear their confessions.

At Mass I celebrate while others receive Communion and I love to watch fellow parishioners go up to receive; I pray for and rejoice with them, but penance services with the move to the confession stations is a different matter. I also wear my hood up during the periods of the Easter Vigil done outside, processing into the church, or where we sit in darkness hearing the Word of God while waiting for the announcement of the resurrection. At the point where the lights comes on, bells are rung, Alleluia's sound, etc, my hood comes down. At daily or Sunday Mass (before these actually) I may have my hood up if I have not yet finished quiet prayer because it tends to signal others not to approach me yet, or to keep things quieter for a little longer. However, this is not something I prolong and it is a rare occurence. (Remember that the hood is meant to serve as an extension of the cell.)

In the hermitage itself I tend to wear the hood up during periods of quiet prayer and some times of reading or study (especially if I am doing this outside in the evenings or night during the Summer), but not at other times (unless it is chilly and then the hood helps a bit!). Since I don't need to wear the cowl to or from chapel (or signal to others we are still in the period of great silence) there is no need to wear the hood up moving around the hermitage. Note that in communities where cowls are worn routinely there are customs which are followed, and so their practices are far more extensive and spelled out than mine; however it is a different thing when everyone wears a cowl, and not nearly so isolating or elitist-making as it might be in a parish setting where one is the only one wearing such garb. You would need to ask someone in such a religious community what their practices or customs are regarding hoods-up or hoods-down! In a parish setting it might be that some diocesan hermits signal some degree of separation from even the rest of the assembly at parish Mass by wearing their hood up most or all of the time, but, despite understanding why someone might wish to do this, I find that personally, liturgically, and theologically unacceptable.


Regarding ministerial activity outside the hermitage (I prefer ministerial rather than apostolic), the fact is every hermit has to determine to what degree she will undertake this for herself in conjunction with her director, delegate, Bishop and pastor. I have written about this in other posts so I will not repeat much of it here, but generally such activity must flow from and be an expression of a solitary contemplative life, and lead one back to the silence of solitude and contemplation. This is not a matter merely of balancing the contemplative aspects of a life with the non-contemplative aspects, or balancing "hermitting" kinds of things (whatever those really are!) with "worldly" things and activities (again, whatever those really are!). It is a matter of approaching whatever one does as a hermit for whom the silence of solitude and contemplative prayer informs and dictates whatever one does.

One of the truths of genuine contemplative life is that such life spills over into life for the church and world in concrete ways. When one experiences love in the way contemplative prayer allows for, one does not merely pray, but becomes God's own prayer and for this reason, one's contemplation necessarily spills over and outward. When this happens, the activity undertaken becomes part of authentic contemplative life --- it itself is contemplative in the best sense of the word. Should it become seductive on its own behalf and lead one away from the more strictly silent and solitary, or disrupt one's ability to center in and quiet oneself more deeply for solitary contemplative prayer, then something needs attention.

As for having little contact with the "outside world", it is true that hermits have a good deal less of it than most people, and maintain such contact as they do have with a care and attentiveness which many today do not exercise, but the Canon governing diocesan eremitical life speaks of "stricter separation from the world" where "world" has a very particular meaning, namely and primarily, that which is closed and resistant to Christ. (Holland, Handbook on Canons 573-746: definition provided by Ellen O'Hara in "Norms Common to All Institutes of Consecrated Life")) We need to remember that in this sense, the "world" may mean much of what lies outside the hermitage, but also, that it applies to much within our own hearts, and so, is something closing the door of the hermitage will not shut out but rather will shut in!

For the most part I remain within my hermitage so that I can spend time with God alone, and also so he may occasion the healing and sanctification of those parts of my heart which are truly "worldly" in this primary and limited sense. This necessarily means limiting or even avoiding aspects of God's good creation as well (another Johannine meaning of the term "world"), but, I am not a recluse, nor am I a stereotype --- venerable, bearded, or otherwise! --- and so, in limited and judicious ways I participate in activities and relationships which are both an expression of, and assist me in growing as a person AND THERFORE AS A HERMIT (and vice versa)! Again, each hermit will discern what is right in these regards for herself and for the vocation to eremitical life generally. Should, she find that she is called outside the hermitage too much, or that she is engaged in apostolic activity for much more than a very limited amount of her time, or even that this activity --- how ever limited (and beneficial) it may be --- is an obstacle to settling back into the solitude of the cell or hermitage, then, as already noted, something has gone awry and she needs to discern seriously what that is and where she is truly called.

On the other hand, a "hermit" who refuses to become involved in some limited degree of ministerial activity outside the hermitage because a stereotypical idea of eremitical life does not allow for it, or because of selfishness, misanthropy, lack of generosity, or a failure to discern what eremitical life needs to be in today's church and world in order to be a prophetic and contemplative presence there, may have failed her vocation every bit as much as the hermit who cannot stay in her cell appropriately (that is, as one who cannot maintain an appropriate "custody of the cell."). Clearly discernment does not cease once one has been professed and consecrated!

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if it raises more questions or is unclear in any way.