13 November 2010

Diocesan Hermits and Full-time Work

[[Dear Sister Laurel, in writing about the former Hermit Intercessors of the Lamb you gave an example of a woman who was professed as a diocesan hermit who works full-time and uses Saturdays for quiet and contemplative prayer. You said she was admirable as a woman and Sister but was not a hermit. Yet diocesan hermits have to support themselves so what happens to someone who must work full time? Do dioceses ordinarily profess such persons? Should they?]]

This is an important and very neuralgic complex of questions for diocesan hermits, not only because the question of self-support in the contemporary world introduces a lot of tension into each life that desires full-time solitude, but because we don't all agree on the answer. It is one of the general areas of question that comes up most often in the contributions from readers: What forms of work are allowed a hermit? What is too much? What happens if a person has to work more than their Bishop will allow in order to still profess them? Do they have an eremitical vocation or not? How about the related question, if a person really desires a life of solitude but must work full time to support themselves, especially outside the hermitage, should they be professed as a diocesan hermit? This last question echoes your own so I want to focus on this in particular. The next couple of paragraphs explains the background of my conclusion on whether such people should be professed as diocesan hermits or not.

There is no doubt there is an inescapable tension between an eremitical contemplative life lived in "the silence of solitude," and the requirement that hermits support themselves. My own sense is that some resolutions of this tension are legitimate and some are not. Some are consistent with the vocation itself and some simply are not. Some will even mean more persons are professed, but perhaps live and model less authentic eremitical lives as a result, while other solutions will mean just the opposite, namely, fewer professions and more authentic eremitical lives generally. These last two assertions are true because all of these solutions have implications for the solitary eremitical vocation itself and especially will either reflect respect for the general good and credibility of the vocation or fail to do so.

I have written in the past about the flexibility of this vocation. At the same time I have written about versions of "eremitical" life which I do not think are valid and which empty certain central or essential elements of meaning. For instance, I believe the vocation requires an openness to the possibility that God is calling (or might well call) one to complete reclusion. "The silence of solitude" allows for this and may demand it. For this reason among others I have rejected the idea of married hermits, especially professed under Canon 603. Even if the person is never called to reclusion they ARE called to the silence of solitude and union with God which is the heart of this element and of the solitary vocation itself. They cultivate this relationship primarily. Marriage simply seems incompatible with this essential element of the canon (and of course, with a vow of chastity or celibate love).

I have also written critically about the notion of part time "hermits" --- people who build in a bit of solitude on the weekend, for instance, but engage in full-time active ministry or work the rest of their week, and concluded this was not eremitical life and made a mockery of hermits living full-time eremitism with all that means in terms of struggles, growth in solitude, etc, just as it did for those persons who are caught up in the unnatural solitudes of this world and cannot escape their chronic illness, bereavement, prison cells, age, etc for even a weekend here and there. Theirs are not eremitical lives, but it is only full-time eremitical lives which will speak to them about the redemption of their isolation and the ability to live with very little except God. It is authentic eremitical lives which will give hope where "part-time" and pseudo-eremitical lives or the lives of those who are simply dilettantes will not.

Remember that Canon 603 defines a full-time eremitical LIFE which is lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. It it is therefore a gift to and from God to his world only insofar as it is lived with integrity and fidelity. The canon spells out the essential or foundational elements of the life. They are not negotiable, not suggestions regarding things which should be included to this degree or that. They are the defining elements of the whole of one's existence, meaning that when one hears a person is a diocesan hermit they should see a life characterized by these foundational elements, namely, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the evangelical counsels, and one's OWN Rule of life lived under the supervision of one's Bishop and those he delegates to assist in this.

Most dioceses recognize that Canon 603, flexible though it is, is not infinitely so. Certain practices empty the canon of meaning including those I mentioned above (part time "eremitical life", married "eremitical" life) and the need to work (whether outside or inside the hermitage) on a full-time basis to support oneself. While those who work inside the hermitage (art, writing, spiritual direction, writing icons, etc, etc) may be able to sustain more work than someone working outside the hermitage, the vocation is still a contemplative one lived in the silence of solitude and it seems to me that full time work is simply incompatible with this. For instance, my own schedule allows for several hours each afternoon which can be used for work or errands, the occasional nap, or any combination of these. I can also use about an hour and a half some evenings for clients if that is really necessary, but the simple fact is the normal activities of an eremitical life do not allow for a full-time work schedule: liturgical prayer (Office, Mass, etc), personal prayer (Silent prayer or meditation, etc), Lectio Divina, study, and writing (personal) take up the majority of the day --- and so they should!

To answer your questions more directly, most dioceses I know of do not allow the profession of persons needing to work full-time in order to support themselves. They recognize that the two things are wholly incompatible. Canon 603 is not about people who desire silence or solitude but either cannot or do not live it --- whatever the reasons for this inability or failure. It is about those who actually feel called to AND embrace a LIFE of the silence of solitude. Some dioceses refuse to profess people who must work at all outside the hermitage and wait until this situation has changed. While I think these cases should be reviewed and perhaps very cautiously allowed on a case by case basis, I also think the Bishops involved in them have a better sense of the meaning of Canon 603 than those who profess persons who must work full-time. They also show a genuine concern for the vocation itself, its integrity and meaning, and they seek to preserve that as the gift it is. It is this concern with the vocation itself even if this should mean fewer actual professions which should be taken seriously by every diocese and Bishop.

There are reasons the solitary eremitical vocation is rare and the fact that most people need to work full time to live is simply one of them. I sincerely believe we really do need to accept the fact that eremitical life is a full-time enterprise and that those persons who must work full-time to support themselves simply are not called to it -- at least not at this point in time in their lives. Again, this is my opinion and not all diocesan hermits agree. However, I think if we take seriously the gift which the eremitical life is to the Church and world, a gift or charism which is specifically defined, I would argue, in terms of the silence of solitude, then it makes it much easier to see why full-time work (and especially that undertaken outside the hermitage) is simply incompatible with Canon 603 life and profession.