24 January 2010

Feast of the Conversion of St Paul



Tomorrow is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and my own feastday as well. We know Paul's story well. A good Jew, indeed, a scholar of the Law who saw the early Church as a distortion and danger to orthodoxy, one who understood that a crucified person was godless and shameful and could in no way be a faithful Jew or prophet, much less God's anointed one, persecuted the Church in the name of orthodoxy and for the glory of God. In sincere faithfulness to the covenant Paul hounded men, women and children, many of whom were his own neighbors. He sent them to prison and thence to their deaths. He, at least technically And according to Luke's version of things), colluded in the stoning of Stephen and sought to wipe Christians from the face of the earth.

While on a campaign to Damascus to root out and destroy more "apostates" Paul had a dramatic vision and heard someone call out to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Paul inquired who this voice was and was told, "I am Jesus whom you persecuteth." In that moment everything Paul knew, believed, and practiced, was turned upside down. God had vindicated the One whom Paul knew to be godless acording to the Law. He was alive rather than eternally dead, risen through the power of God as the Christians had claimed. For Paul nothing would ever be the same again. So it is with conversions.


Perhaps it is a matter of faulty perception on my part, and if so, I apologize, but it seems to me that conversion is not something most Catholics regard as pertinent to their lives. Conversion is something non-Catholics do when they become Catholics (or vice versa!). It is a onetime event that those "born into the faith" don't (it is thought) need to worry about! Those "born Catholic" may think in terms of "growing in their faith" or "becoming a better Catholic" (and there is certainly nothing wrong with thinking this way!) but "conversion" seems to be a word that is simply little-used for these processes. Somehow (perhaps because of the story of Paul!) conversion is too dramatic and messy a process it seems. It disrupts and is marked by difficult and abrupt discontinuities and conflicts or tensions. It demands a spiritual praxis which sets one apart from the norm, a prayer life which is central, engagement with the Word of God which is profound and more extensive than usual -- not minimal or nominal, and a faith life which does not tolerate compartmentalization. Growth, becoming, etc, are safer words --- demanding, yes, but somehow less total and more socially acceptable than references to "conversion."

In monastic life, and especially in Benedictine monastic life the primary vow is to conversion of life. This vow includes those ordinarily made in religious life, the vows of poverty and chastity. One commits oneself to continually allow God to remake one into the image of Christ (and into one's truest self). There is a sense that such conversion is a gradual and lifelong process of growth and maturation, yes, but there is also an openness to conversion as dramatic and all-consuming. Here conversion is something which does not allow the monastic to divide their lives into sacred and profane or to compartmentalize them into the spiritual and the non-spiritual. Here the Word of God is expected and allowed to convict, challenge, transform, and empower. Here the Spirit of God is accepted as the spirit which moves within us enlivening, edifying, consolidating, and purifying --- the Spirit which humanizes and sanctifies us into the covenant reality we are most truly. It is a pattern which should be true of every Christian.

Paul's initial conversion experience was dramatic by any standards, but drama aside, it did for Paul what encounter and engagement with the Word of God is meant to do to any of us. It caused him to see his entire world and life in terms of the risen and Crucified Christ. It put law completely at the service of love and made compassion the way to accomplish justice. It made human weakness the counterpart of divine strength, mercy and forgiveness the way God's will is accomplished, and in every other way turned the values of this world on their head. May each of us open ourselves to the kind of conversion of life we celebrate today.

17 January 2010

Feast of St Anthony (or Antony) of Egypt



Lots (relatively!) of hermits in the calendar these days. Today would ordinarily be the Feast of St Anthony of Egypt (251-356 -- no, no typos in that date), one of the best known hermit Saints. It is also the feastday of the Motherhouse of the women's congregation of Benedictine Camaldolese located in Rome --- the house where, some may recall, Nazarena, an American recluse and anchoress lived out her life. It follows just two days after the feast of St Paul the Hermit, recognized as the first hermit in the Catholic Church. The following brief biography of Anthony is taken from "Saint of the Day" by St Anthony's Messenger.

The life of Anthony will remind many people of St. Francis of Assisi. At 20, Anthony was so moved by the Gospel message, “Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor” (Mark 10:21b), that he actually did just that with his large inheritance. He is different from Francis in that most of Anthony’s life was spent in solitude. He saw the world completely covered with snares, and gave the Church and the world the witness of solitary asceticism, great personal mortification and prayer. But no saint is antisocial, and Anthony drew many people to himself for spiritual healing and guidance.


At 54, he responded to many requests and founded a sort of monastery [Laura or Hermitage] of scattered cells. Again like Francis, he had great fear of “stately buildings and well-laden tables.”

At 60, he hoped to be a martyr in the renewed Roman persecution of 311, fearlessly exposing himself to danger while giving moral and material support to those in prison. At 88, he was fighting the Arian heresy, that massive trauma from which it took the Church centuries to recover. “The mule kicking over the altar” denied the divinity of Christ.

Anthony is associated in art with a T-shaped cross, a pig and a book. The pig and the cross are symbols of his valiant warfare with the devil—the cross his constant means of power over evil spirits, the pig a symbol of the devil himself. The book recalls his preference for “the book of nature” over the printed word. Anthony died in solitude at 105.


Those interested in knowing more about Anthony of Egypt should check out his rather "stylized" (it is typically hagiographical) biography by Saint Athanasius, The Life of Anthony. It is available in a number of editions and online as well. A book which is not about Anthony only, but which is fascinating in light of his (and others') well-known battles with demons, and which might interest some readers, is David Brakke's, Demons and the Making of the Monk, Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity. Chapter 2, however focuses on St Anthony (via St Athanasius', Life of Anthony) and references to him occur throughout. As an aside here because of recent questions and posts --- Brakke notes that the tension between solitude and community, desert and city, informs the entirety of Anthony's demonology, and less so Athanasius' work on Anthony, but it is not absent from his Life. Finally, not least for Nazarena's link to St Anthony's of Egypt (Camaldolese) monastery, readers should definitely check out Fr Thomas Matus' (OSB Cam) biography of Nazarena's life in reclusion, Nazarena, An American Anchoress.

Meanwhile, all good wishes to Camaldolese women everywhere, nuns, hermits, oblates! Prayers especially for the community at St Anthony's of Egypt in Rome.

14 January 2010

The Master Beggar by Jessica Powers

The tragedy in Haiti can leave us stunned, speechless, and inarticulate -- especially as we try to relate or mesh the glory of Christmas recently celebrated with such devastation. We find ways to help because there is where we are especially to bring Christ, and also where we find Him in a privileged way --- our God who reveals himself exhaustively in human flesh. Meanwhile, poets find ways to express the truths involved in this --- and the challenges of the Incarnation more generally. My prayer is that this awful event will trouble each and all of us for our human heart.

The Master Beggar

Worse than the poorest mendicant alive.
the pencil man, the blind man with his breath
of music shaming all who do not give,
are You to me, Jesus of Nazareth

Must you take up your post on every block
of every street? Do I have no release?
Is there no room of earth that I can lock
to Your sad face, Your pitiful whisper, "Please?"

I seek the counters of time's gleaming store
but make no purchases, for You are there.
How can I waste one coin while you implore
with tear-soiled cheeks and dark blood-matted hair?

And when I offer you in charity
pennies minted by love, still, still, You stand
fixing Your sorrowful wide eyes on me.
Must all my purse be emptied in Your hand?

Jesus, my beggar, what would You have of me?
Father and Mother? the lover I longed to know?
The child I would have cherished tenderly?
Even the blood that through my heart's valves flows?

I too would be a beggar. Long tormented,
I dream to grant You all and stand apart
with You on some bleak corner, tear-frequented,
and trouble mankind for its human heart.

Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (Jessica Powers), 1937

11 January 2010

The Silence of Solitude (#2)

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, When you write about the silence of solitude it sounds pretty grim. Do you mean to give that impression? Also, where does the term come from? I also thought Canon 603 specified silence AND solitude and was surprised to read that you thought the silence of solitude was something different.]]

Dear poster,
I suppose that the two times I have written about "the silence of solitude" it has seemed a pretty negative reality, mainly because of the contexts. However, I carefully qualified the negativity in the last post (and may have done in the other) by referring to the richness of this reality. Anyway, let me try to be a little clearer because "the silence of solitude" embraces the gamut of experiences and realities involved in everything from profound unitive experiences with God to the physical isolation and challenges one faces as one comes to terms with one's own sinfulness without distraction, or even the desolation one may feel from the relative absence of others in one's life or from the felt absence or withdrawal of God. One really cannot point to a wider range of experience.

It seems to me that Jesus' own life was one which, despite the activity and contact with others, was consistently marked by the silence of solitude --- whether we are speaking of the times he was off alone praying, ministering in crowds, talking or disputing with Jewish officials, teaching his ordinarily obtuse disciples, standing before Pilate (a particularly poignant moment revealing the silence of solitude), or facing betrayal by his followers and "abandonment" by God in the passion. All of these moments and his whole life was lived for God alone and with a sense that God alone was enough. Similarly every moment was lived with a profound sense of God's presence and power within and without him. (The single exception was, I would suggest, the experience of abandonment on the cross.) Even while this united him with all of humanity it separated or marginalized him as well. Jesus' grounding in and relationship with God related him intimately with everyone God loved, and at the same time set him apart as a complete and unique individual --- in many ways incommunicable to them. To the degree he was embodied Word he, modelled "the (paradoxical reality we call) silence of solitude." (Another dimension of this I have to wonder about here is Jesus's ability to share with others. He gave of himself completely, and it is clear he had those who loved him especially and whom he loved as friends, but generally, I wonder how much sharing of his own deepest self he could do. That inability is a piece of the silence of solitude I think.)

The term, "the silence of solitude," so far as I know, is a Carthusian one, coined by Carthusian hermit monks to describe a reality which includes both silence and solitude and yet goes beyond both of them. (Sorry, despite having read a number of books by and about Carthusians, I cannot refer you to the text where this phrase occurs, nor can I explain what the author himself meant by it therefore with the following exception. Apparently "the silence of solitude" was meant to distinguish it from the physical silence of cenobitism, and was to be ensured through physical isolation.) However, Fr Jean Beyer, sj, a canonist, writes, "It unites these values. . . referring not merely to the external [physical] silence of the desert but to a profound inner solitude found in communion with God, who is the fullness of life and of love. It implies a lifetime striving towards union with God, a state which causes the one who becomes silent in this divine solitude to be alone with God alone. Such silence of solitude requires other silences --- of place, of surroundings, of action --- all that furthers the solitude and distances one from anything which could disturb it, from all which does not enhance the solitary mode of life." (Beyer, The Law of Consecrated Life: Commentary on the Canons 573-606)

Note that because solitude is defined in terms of communion with God both as goal and reality, Beyer affirms that other silences are required which support and flow from this communion. The other silences are usually what we are thinking of when we suggest the Canon is speaking of silence and solitude. Really though, Canon 603 spells out the goal and essence of eremitical life in this phrase, whereas silence and external or physical solitude are means to achieving this. Genuine solitude is always a communal reality because true individuality is always such a reality. We are constituted as human beings by our relatedness with God (and so with those he loves --- especially as we come to know them in him). We are not unrelated or isolated monads, but instead are "dialogical" at the very core of our being. Physical silence serves the realization of this nature. So does physical or external solitude. But they are not to be mistaken for it. For this reason among others I suggested in my earlier post (Prisoner Hermits) that the "silence of solitude" was a reality even when in the midst of a noisy crowd. This is somewhat different than Beyer describes, and it differs from the narrower Carthusian sense, but I think it is in line with these as well.

The heart of "the silence of solitude" is communion with God. Nothing grim about that! At the same time, while this communion is wonderful and sustaining (even when we don't experience ecstasy or some remarkable prayer experience), and while it unites us to those God loves in mysterious and real ways, it establishes us more fully as individuals and wraps our lives in silence at many levels. Consider how it fosters one's need for environments most people shun. Consider how it sets one's life apart from the normal rhythms, values, and activities of most lives. Consider how incommunicable it truly is, and how truly incommunicable it makes our authentic individuality --- our solitude. So, no "the silence of solitude" is not a grim reality; is a wonderfully, ineffably, positive experience, but it carries with it dimensions of suffering and marginalization as well.

I only just began really thinking about this element of Canon 603 in a conscious way this Summer so I doubt this is really clear yet.(Until then I spent more time thinking about silence AND solitude.) However if it raises questions for you, do get back to me. The questions help me think through what I often know on a more intuitive level. Thanks.

09 January 2010

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

Until I can write a separate reflection for today's feast I am reposting this one from a couple of years ago. Sorry for the inconvenience! I hope everyone's Christmastide has been wonderful!



Of all the feasts we celebrate, the baptism of Jesus is the most difficult for us to understand. We are used to thinking of Baptism as a solution to original sin instead of the means of our initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus, or our adoption as daughters and sons of God and heirs to his Kingdom, or again, as a consecration to God's very life and service. When viewed this way, and especially when we recall that John's baptism was one of repentance for sin, how do we make sense of a sinless Jesus submitting to it?

I think two points need to be made here. First, Jesus grew into his vocation. His Sonship was real and completely unique but not completely developed or historically embodied from the moment of his conception; rather it was something he embraced more and more fully over his lifetime. Secondly, his Sonship was the expression of solidarity with us and his fulfillment of the will of his Father to be God-with-us. Jesus will incarnate the Logos of God definitively in space and time, but this event we call the incarnation encompasses and is only realized fully in his life, death, and resurrection -- not in his nativity. Only in allowing himself to be completely transparent to this Word, only in "dying to self," and definitively setting aside all other possible destinies does Jesus come to fully embody and express the Logos of God in a way which expresses his solidarity with us as well.

It is probably the image of Baptism-as-consecration then which is most helpful to us in understanding Jesus' submission to John's baptism. Here the man Jesus is set apart as the one in whom God will truly "hallow his name". Here, in an act of manifest commitment, Jesus' humanity is placed completely at the service of the living God and of those to whom God is committed. Here his experience as one set apart for God establishes him as completely united with us and our human condition. And here too Jesus anticipates the death and resurrection he will suffer for the sake of both human and Divine destinies which, in him, will be reconciled and inextricably wed to one another. His baptism establishes the pattern not only of HIS humanity, but that of all authentic humanity. So too does it reveal the nature of true divinity, for our's is a God who becomes completely subject to our sinful reality in order to free us for his own entirely holy one.

I suspect that even at the end of the Christmas season we are still scandalized by the incarnation. We still stumble over the intelligibility of this baptism, and the propriety of it especially. Our inability to fathom Jesus' baptism, and our tendency to be shocked by it, just as JohnBp was probably shocked, says we are not comfortable, even now, with a God who enters exhaustively into our reality. We remain uncomfortable with a Jesus who is tempted like us in ALL THINGS, and matures into his identity as God's only begotten Son. We are puzzled by one who is holy as God is holy and, as the creed affirms, "true God of true God" and who, evenso, is consecrated to the one he calls Abba and to the service of his Kingdom and people. A God who comes to us in smallness, weakness, submission, and self-emptying is really not a God we are comfortable with --- despite three weeks of Christmas celebrations and reflections, and a prior four weeks of preparation -- is it? And perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the scandal attached signals to us we are getting this right theologically.

Afterall, today's feast tells us that Jesus' public ministry begins with a consecration. His public life begins with an event that prefigures his end as well. There is a real dying to self involved here, not because Jesus has a false self which must die -- as each of us has --- but because his life is placed completely and publicly at the disposal of his God, his Abba. Loving another, affirming the being of another in a way which subordinates one's own being to theirs --- putting one's own life at their disposal always entails a death of sorts -- and a kind of rising to new life as well. The dynamics present on the cross are present here too -- complete and obedient (that is open and responsive) submission to the will of God, and an unfathomable subjection to that which sin makes necessary so that God's love may conquer precisely here as well.

Prisoners as Hermits: Another look at the Redemption of Unnatural Solitudes (#1)


[[Dear Sister, I am sorry to keep bothering you because of an article or two on the internet, but I also read there about the idea of "criminals" being hermits, and the suggestion that perhaps they were "better hermits" than the professed and consecrated ones. What do you think about this idea?]]

Hi again! As for whether convicts can live as hermits, I actually think this is a great idea, and very edifying in many ways. I have noted before a number of times that urban hermits live in what Thomas Merton called the unnatural solitudes of the city -- that is, in situations that really isolate, alienate, and fragment --- situations that militate against community and wholeness. The job of the urban hermit is to allow and witness to the redemption of these "unnatural solitudes." They are called to allow the grace of God to transform that which isolates and fragments into a place of genuine solitude where the individual grows to wholeness and holiness, and the crowd of the city is, in whatever mysterious way this can occur, drawn into or permeated by the reality of God's Reign.

Until now, I have written about bereavement, chronic illness, and isolated old age as possible instances of "unnatural solitudes" which lead people to discover eremitical calls, but there is no doubt that one of the most radical and intense solitudes that exists today --- and one of the most clearly unnatural --- is the world of the supermax prison. Prisoners in these prisons or in segregated cellblocks of less secure prisons spend 23 hours a day in their cells, often with little to distract or entertain them, much less enrich or challenge them to grow as human beings. Even recreation is a completely isolated activity. On the few programs I have seen about these institutions, the incidence of serious mental illness is terribly high, and all of it is exacerbated (when it is not caused) by the terrible toll this unnatural solitude takes.

I have read, fairly recently in fact, of some prisoners thinking of themselves (and living their lives) as part of a new monasticism. My sense is many could find themselves challenged and fulfilled if they were able to similarly approach each day as part of the eremitical life. Remember that there are distinct external similarities between life in prison and the routinized, often tedious horarium of monks and nuns. Further, they are all lives of hiddenness, and too, lives which society may discount as fruitless or non-productive. In many ways they are penitential and poor lives without access to luxuries, varieties of food which do more than simply nourish, and their cells are often much more austere than the cell of almost any monk or nun. On a more profound level, perhaps, hermits are called to live on the margins as countercultural realities and witnesses, and especially they are called to live a life of esential freedom in spite of limitations and constraints. This is the very nature of authentic Freedom, and certainly therefore, the nature of the freedom Christ brings. How clearly prisoner hermits would represent such a vocation both to their fellow prisoners and to the rest of society!

In considering this possibility it reminds me that Canon 603 binds a diocesan hermit to, "the silence of solitude" --- not as I once misread, "silence and solitude." It seems to me that while physical silence is an important aspect of eremitical life (and contemplative life in general), the reality of the "silence of solitude" is often quite different. This, though also quite rich and marked (in fact, defined) by communion with God and others, is the silence of loneliness (or at least of aloneness even in the midst of a crowd), the silence of the celibate who lives without community, the sometimes painful and difficult silence of life within and from one's own heart from which one seeks not to be distracted. It includes physical silence, yes, but it is more than this, and sometimes exists even without it. It is marked more by one's confrontation with oneself, and by the prayer which accompanies it and in which one brings all this before God. Prisoners often live in the midst of continuing noise, sometimes deafening, but in many (maybe all) prison situations, they can also still live in the silence of solitude. Usually in a prison environment this is clearly unaccompanied by external silence, and this is unfortunate because such silence is ordinarily so necessary, but the challenge of the reality remains (or could remain) as it does for any hermit.

Whether such men and women would be "better" hermits than those canonically professed and consecrated is a relatively meaningless question, I think. Certainly it does not advance the discussion in any subtantive or edifying way. It is true that the witness of these person's lives could speak to some better than other hermits might be able. The contrary is also true. Hermits come in all shapes and sizes and all forms of eremitical life (lay, religious, diocesan) are significant and should be esteemed. So long as each hermit lives the foundational elements of the life and in the particular shape s/he is called to, s/he is as good a hermit as any other. The roles each plays may differ but it does little good to suggest that the diocesan hermit is a "better" hermit than the lay hermit in the next state, or that the prisoner is a better hermit than one who is consecrated according to Canon 603. What IS true is that each hermit will challenge and support others to a truer living out of their individual call, no matter the state of life or the shape of the eremitism involved. Casting the whole matter in terms of better or worse tends to shortcircuit that whole far more healthy dynamic.

I think this whole notion of prisoner hermits needs to be explored in more depth. I also think that looking at what prisoners live daily can assist hermits in clarifying the meaning of the terms and foundational elements of their lives. For instance, looking at the question today has helped me move a little farther along an understanding of the term "silence of solitude" just as did a brief gesture by a married couple at the end of a desert day during my last retreat. The original casting of the idea in qualitative terms is not particularly helpful, but the idea that prisoners might, even temporarily, well be called to be hermits in the midst of one of the world's most difficult and radically unnatural solitudes is a terrific one. Thanks for posing the question!

Postscript. Recently a hermit friend noted that some are called to eremitical life, and others are "only" called to practice an eremitical spirituality. I have not thought enough about the distinction of these two; at times I think the distinction is completely valid and significant, and other times I just don't see it clearly. However, it would be good to see more reflection on the latter (eremitical spirituality) since prisoners in particular could be introduced to this without the onus of labels. At the same time, I think that some very few of those prisoners who are truly going to be in prison for the rest of their lives, for instance, might well represent instances of the hermit vocation which the church would eventually wish to recognize and even celebrate under Canon 603. The majority (however small a number this would be) would remain lay hermits (and still be cause for ecclesial celebration)! Again, hermits are made from the combination of the exigencies of life and the grace of God. A free choice, formation, and commitment would be required --- and I think very great care in discernment necessary, but prison does not exclude this any more than it excludes the grace of God.

08 January 2010

The Role of the Diocesan Delegate: Just another Layer of Bureaucracy?

[[Dear Sister, can you say more about the [role of a] "diocesan delegate"? Not only have I never heard of it, but it seems to me this adds another layer of bureaucracy to something that is really defined much more simply in terms of Canon 603 or the Catechism. The person I quoted before cautioned about allowing this kind of thing to happen. What is it? How does it work?]]

Now this is a great question because although the "requirement" of a "diocesan delegate" (if one's diocese goes this direction) does add another level of bureaucracy, it is bureaucracy at the service of the individual hermit, her freedom, individuality, and simplicity --- the characteristics of eremitical life mentioned in your other post.

In my situation the diocesan delegate serves both the diocese and myself to foster the living out of my vocation with integrity and with attentiveness to both individual and ecclesial needs/requirements. The delegate is a superior or quasi-superior who, at the behest of the diocese, assumes this role in a way which allows me regular contact, discussion, discernment, sharing, etc, and which frees the Bishop up for less frequent meetings, consultation in more significant matters only, and so forth. It should go without saying that while Canon 603 specifies the "supervision of the local Bishop" it is a rare Bishop who is able to meet formally more than once or twice a year with a hermit, much less spend regular time hearing how life is going on a day to day basis.

A delegate on the other hand can meet with the hermit regularly, (approximately every couple of months or so depending on schedules), deal with regular issues of discernment or problems which arise, communicate with the diocese in case of need for consultation (in either direction!), and just generally be a more immediate presence whom the hermit can turn to between meetings with the Bishop, et al.

Canon 603 has non-negotiable elements (silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, evangelical counsels, Rule of Life lived under the supervision of the Bishop) but how all these work in the life of an individual hermit (including the shape they assume in her Rule) must be discerned on an ongoing basis which is quite individual. Major changes in the Rule may require the Bishop's authorization (the Bp publishes a decree of approval for the Rule as such), but working all this out over time, dealing with issues of ongoing formation and education, determining what needs to go to the Bishop, and just sharing the joys and struggles of everyday life in solitude in a way which enhances one's accountability for all these is something (at least in my life) one needs and turns to a delegate for. (I suppose in some delegate-hermit relationships the hermit might turn to the delegate for more routine "permissions," for instance, but this particular way of approaching matters is probably very uncommon today and not particularly desirable except by way of exception). So, yes, from one perspective the diocesan delegate is another layer of bureaucracy, but it is a layer which allows for effective interplay between the non-negotiable and more individual elements of the hermit's life. It does not hamper this but encourages it.

By the way, cautions are well and good, but it helps to understand that Canons and Catechism provide the essentials (the legal nuts and bolts) in the Case of CL, or a kind of summary of a situation (or of a teaching, for instance) in the case of a Catechism definition or paragraph. Life is probably never so simple as law codifies, nor a catechism definition or description summarizes.

Followup on the Institutionalization of Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what I hear you saying is that hermits and their superiors are leading the way in the increased institutionalization of eremitical life and are doing so cautiously and only because lived experience leads to this. You said that love is prior to law. Is that right? Doesn't increased institutionalization endanger the hermit vocation? Is it really necessary to have public vows, rituals, religious and special garb, rings, initials after one's name, etc? Isn't all this elitist and doesn't it conflict with the individualism, simplicity, and hiddenness of the vocation? Also, is it the case that female hermits are forming clubs or groups which maybe they will allow male hermits to join? What is this all about?]]

Thanks for writing again. Yes, you heard me correctly regarding institutionalization (although I don't agree there is really much "increased institutionalization" going on). What there always is is reflection and dialogue about the nature of the vocation and how best to protect, and encourage its authentic growth. What I would stress again in regard to the issue of institutionalization though, increased or otherwise, is the need to maintain a balance between codification and individuality, etc. Generally Canon 603 does this by setting forth the essential characteristics of the life: silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lived under the supervision of the local Bishop --- as well as mandating a Personal Rule or Plan of Life written by the hermit herself, and all of this for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. (Note therefore that the Canon itself protects the individuality and freedom of the vocation!)

Beyond this, as already mentioned then, individual hermits'(or their Bishops' and dioceses') lived experience continues to inform the contemporary approach to Canon 603, problems will arise, particularly helpful practices or guidelines will be developed, and other things will need to be addressed with norms or precedents (discernment, initial formation and its length, ongoing formation, ministry, etc). Most of these things are simply reflections of what is generally necessary for any person wanting to live healthily and fruitfully as a hermit. The solution to the tension between institutionalization and individual freedom continues to be the interplay between Canon 603, and the individual's own Rule as these are supervised by Bishop, and worked out with one's delegate, spiritual director, etc.

What we are speaking about on a deeper level in these questions is balancing the profoundly ecclesial or communal nature (koinonia) of the eremitical vocation with individual gifts, sensibilities, practices, weaknesses, and desires, or better stated perhaps, finding appropriate and effective ways a very individual vocation's ecclesial nature is best protected and expressed. In turn, this will help the individual and it will assist others in discerning such vocations. Additionally of course, it will ensure that an individual is living a vocation which truly contributes to the salvation of the world --- which is the very heart and reason for the eremitical vocation as it is for any other authentic vocation.

Throughout the history of eremitical life some degree of institutionalization has been necessary to prevent this vocation from becoming merely a refuge for excessive individualism and personal eccentricity, and to ensure that it retains the ecclesial dimension any truly human life or vocation always has. It is further necessary to ensure adequate formation, both initial and ongoing, and to make sure that vocational discernment is seriously undertaken by both the individual and the church. To mention a tiny part of eremitical history which I have noted before, the founder of the congregation I am associated with as an Oblate, St Romuald, was known as a reformer who went around sometimes gathering individual hermits into Lauras, generally giving them the Rule of Benedict to live under, and otherwise making sure they were living genuine eremitical lives and not eccentric, overly-individualistic ones.

Later (again to repeat history I have noted before) other Camaldolese like Peter-Damian continued reforming and reflecting on the ecclesial dimension of all hermit vocations. Sensitivity to koinonia was at the heart of their efforts. Even later, Paul Giustiniani determined that since the establishment of the Church's requirements that all faithful have regular access to the sacraments and so forth, solitary hermits living essentially cut off from these were now invalid. He saw the formation of Lauras as the best solution. Though Giustiniani's concern seems legalistic, it represents increased reflection on the ecclesial underpinnings of any vocation, but in particular, the eremitical call. Bl Paul saw the formation of Lauras as the best solution because Lauras could be established far from inhabited centers protecting solitude and at the same time these would serve to curb all the dangers that beset solitary eremitical life. They provided the mix of community and solitude so essential to even the vocation of the recluse. Throughout the history of the Church the tension between institutionalization and individual freedom has existed. At many points institutionalization served to protect the vocation itself, especially in its communal or lived-within-the-church and for-others dimensions. Once again koinonia is at the core of these hermits' concerns and sensitivities.

Canon 603 is an option which allows hermits the same standing as others with public vows, etc, but without demanding they give up their solitary hermit existence. It seeks to balance both dimensions precisely so hiddenness is eremitical hiddenness and not something else. It consecrates lives marked by the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, etc while it ensures they are instances of authentic and ecclesial vocations. Further, with some of the symbols you mentioned (ring, garb, ritual), it makes it clear that such vocations are lived in the heart of the church today witnessing to others. Of course it also makes clear that such calls come out of the church's own life, that they are mediated to the individual through God's church and not otherwise.

Certainly there are other options for living the eremitical life in the church today. Religious hermits (Camaldolese, Carthusians, Brothers and Sisters of Bethlehem, some Carmelite foundations, etc) are wonderful examples of one option. And of course, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, lay eremitical life is always an option, and one which is less institutionalized than diocesan eremitism. For those who believe that "institutionalization" taints the purity or simplicity of the eremitical life, rather than protecting and enhancing it, this is certainly one way to go. From my own perspective such a path is at times more difficult than diocesan eremitism (especially in terms of perseverence and the freedom fostered by obedience), and in other ways (especially in terms of accountability on many levels), far less demanding. However, both are valid and significant ways to live an eremitical life today.

As for your last question, I really don't know what this refers to. Hermits don't have "clubs" nor are they generally or as a group given to gender bias. If you can clarify the reference for me it would help. Regarding elitism linked to rings, initials, rituals, etc please see other posts I have put up here on these. If these are inadequate, feel free to get back to me.

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, but it is neither extensive nor particularly intensive at this point. It is also quite slow-growing, which I consider a good thing in the main. 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." The trick 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 come from --- at least as far as I am aware?

What is actually happening with regard to eremitical life is 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.