24 November 2010

The Individual Hermit and the Tradition of the Eremitical Life

{{Dear Sister, I hear you saying that hermits take on the entire tradition of the eremitical life. Is that true? Can one be a hermit without doing so? Does this change the seriousness with which one lives the life? I am guessing it does so my question is more like how does this change the seriousness with which one lives the life?]]

In answer to the first couple of questions, First, yes and second, no. Whether one does so as a lay hermit or a canonical hermit one enters into a process of allowing God to mold one's life into one which embodies the foundational elements which have ALWAYS been a part of this life: the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world --- and if one is to accept the public obligations and responsibilities of this life, public profession and consecration and a Rule of Life lived under the supervision of the Bishop of one's Diocese. Again, whether non-canonical or canonical, one does this for the praise of God and the salvation of the world so another obligation of either the lay or the consecrated eremitical life is that one gives one's life in response to God for the salvation of the world. In accepting these foundational elements and making them one's own one enters into a long tradition of eremitical life. For many this entrance may not be conscious (or at least not completely conscious), and that may be truer of lay hermits than canonical ones because canonical hermits often take on (or consciously decide not to take on) the garb and other trappings of this history where lay hermits do not. But this is not necessarily so since lay hermits commonly identify closely with the lay status of the early desert Fathers and Mothers too.

Even so, I would wager that as one grows in the life, she will become more and more interested in the history of others who have lived the life of desert solitude. She will learn about the ways the vocation has grown, varied, and often failed to be lived as some failed to embody it with fidelity. She will learn how the life grew (or was even deformed) at certain times in the church and disappeared (including being suppressed) in others. She will comes to know that it speaks to the life-situations of some in ways which are immensely fruitful and she will thus become responsible for this charism herself. She will learn how rigorous a life it is, and how free despite the constraints and discipline which mark it. She will come to learn how mediocrity has always endangered the vocation, and how its freedom and communal nature counters the libertinism and hyper-individualism of the 21st century (for instance). She will come to regard the wisdom of Canon 603 and its history --- even if she modifies parts of it, and she will begin to see herself more and more as a representative of this vital stream of tradition or at the very least as one in serious dialog with it.

For the person who seeks and is admitted to canonical profession the sense of becoming part of a living and fragile tradition is even stronger --- at least I find that to be true. Again, the use of the habit, the cowl in "choir" or at Mass, encourages the sense that one is publicly responsible for the life of this tradition in one's own world, space, and time. So do things like rings, titles, and of course the Rule of life which becomes a normative document with a Bishop's Decree of Approval. This means that while it is a Rule which guides one and which one is publicly both morally and legally responsible to live out, it is also one which may be used by others in situations of isolation who are looking for ways to transform those into genuine solitude. (I note this because I have had this happen.) One may be living a form of life that works well for oneself and which is essentially hidden, but in doing so one does so for others too and reminds them of a strand of tradition in the Church which is 1800 years old and may speak directly to them in unexpected ways.

Regarding your last question, again, I think the answer is yes. Remember that in saying this I am not comparing lay vs consecrated or canonical vs non-canonical eremitical life; I am saying that if one takes on a conscious place in a long, storied, and fragile but resilient history, whether one does so as a lay or consecrated hermit, one will live the life with greater seriousness. One becomes part of something that is far bigger than oneself or one's own individual vocation. One becomes responsible for both fidelity and creativity --movements which prevent and contrast with the individualism or "anything goes" mentality which is so very prominent in our world today. One becomes responsible for the faithful living out of something that is a gift of the Holy Spirit to Church and World and which therefore does not leave one free to do anything at all and call it eremitism.

One of the stereotypes of eremitical life is the curmudgeonly, misanthropic character who is only out for himself. (Remember the post I put up a month ago or so regarding Mr Leppard.) Another, however is that of the dilettante, the dabbler, the person who believes she can live in silence and solitude one day a week no matter the activity, apostolic work, etc of the rest of the week, and consider herself a hermit. Both of these do a disservice to the men and women though all the Church's history who have given all to witness to the world of the promise that "God Alone is Enough!" And here of course is the heart of the eremitical life: hermits witness day in and day out, in the brokennesses and wholenesses, the lightnesses and the darknesses, the poverty and richness of life that God alone IS enough and that THEREFORE solitary life is a fully human, essentially selfless, loving, fruitful life that does not leave our world unchanged. So yes, in one way and another, hermits take on the eremitical tradition in becoming hermits. At the very least anyone who calls herself a hermit lives her life in dialogue with this tradition --- even if she is wholly unaware of the gravity of the step she has taken in characterizing herself this way, or the complete contradiction to it she sometimes represents. Ideally, of course, true hermits (whether lay or consecrated) take on this tradition in a more positive way. Anyone using the title "Catholic (or Diocesan) hermit" and assuming public standing under Canon 603 is certainly accountable for doing so.

I hope this is helpful.