08 January 2011

Writing a Rule of Life, More Questions


Dear Sister, what does a diocese expect in an eremitical Rule of Life? How brief can it be, and how individual?

This is a great set of questions. When one reads about Rules of Life in Raven's Bread, a newsletter for hermits, or in the Fredette's associated book on contemporary eremitical life, for instance, one gets the impression that a Rule of Life can be as brief as several paragraphs (or even less), or relatively lengthy. When one looks at historical examples, for instance St Francis' Rule for hermits or the VERY brief "Brief Rule" of St Romuald, one gets the same idea regarding brevity. However, canonists and dioceses do have certain legitimate expectations of a diocesan hermit's Rule of life --- certain things it should cover in order to truly 1) reflect the nature and quality of the vocation in front of the diocese, and 2) govern and inspire an authentic eremitical life. It should be remembered that diocesan hermits' Rules or Plans of Life are approved with a "Bishop's Declaration of Approval" and become legally (canonically) binding on the hermit on the day of profession. They become quasi public documents which are representative of the solitary eremitical life as the Church understands and validates it. Thus, they should not only cover the essentials of the life, but serve to inspire and guide the hermit in living it with integrity as well as creativity and legitimate flexibility. They may also do the same for others who may draw on them for insight.

There is a challenge then in making the Rule sufficiently general and also personal enough to accommodate the various ways the Holy Spirit calls us to live our lives. Still, the first thing the candidate for profession must remember is that this is a Rule for eremitical life lived under Canon 603, and it must therefore address all the requirements of the Canon. These specify a publicly vowed life of stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, lived according to a Rule approved by and under the supervision of one's Bishop all for the salvation of the world and the glory and praise of God. Consider how many elements are involved here, and how profound and integral the vision of life it describes. Consider the elements which are not specifically mentioned --- not least the charism of the diocesan hermit and how this eremitical life is a gift to Church and world! A hermit's Rule must address all these elements and more.

So, what specifically should the solitary hermit's Rule cover? (Please note these are not listed in any particular order.) 1) the elements of the Canon itself (including definitions of significant terms) and how these are lived out in this person's life (prayer, silence of solitude, penance, stricter separation from the world, Scripture, lectio, etc), 2) a brief history and theology of eremitical life, its place in the church and its importance for the world, especially at this point in the Church and World's history (the purpose here is not to demonstrate that one is an historian but rather to allow one to demonstrate she has a clear sense that she is assuming a responsible place in this living history), 3) a theology of the vows, the proposed vow formula itself, and how the vows are lived out specifically and generally, 4) provisions for study, ongoing formation, spiritual direction, retreat and desert days, 5) affiliation with monasteries, predominant spirituality, etc (as applicable), 6) the place and nature of hospitality, 7) work, how much, what type, where it will occur, etc, 8) provisions for future needs (income, burial, insurance, etc).

Besides prayer, one also needs to cover 9) any ministry undertaken and whether in or out of the hermitage, 10) relationship with parish and diocese including not only participation in the parish and the forms that will take, but some consideration of one's relationship with one's Bishop, the place (and person) of a diocesan delegate in the scheme of things, frequency and nature of contact with these, etc, and 11) a horarium which, at least generally, specifies the shape of one's day: rising, meals, prayer, lectio, work, ministry, recreation and errands, hours of rest and sleep. (If one has significant personal exigencies which bear on these (chronic illness, for instance) it is usually a good idea to state these up front and note that these occasionally demand some flexibility with regard to horarium, etc, rather than trying to minimize the demands of the life throughout the Rule. One's descriptions should be about what is generally possible and prudent for one --- not an idealization of what another hermit MIGHT live if they were able.)

I have written here before about writing one's own Rule of Life and how to begin that. It makes clear that one writes a rule based on one's own experience living the life. Therefore, even though the above elements seem numerous and perhaps overwhelming when set out this way, there is plenty of room for individuality and flexibility. No two hermits will write about poverty or obedience or chastity in precisely the same way, for instance, but the ways they live this out will still involve similarities. No two hermits will approach penance in the same way, or hospitality, or stricter separation from the world, but their Rules will reflect on these realities and describe how one honors them on a day to day basis.

So long as one includes the essential elements of the canon, remembers what kind of document one is writing, and takes care of the normal needs of a truly eremitical life, one can make the Rule as brief and individual as one needs. One is expressing one's life in this, especially the values and place of Christ in structuring and empowering that. In part a Rule is an expression of one's faith then, but it also outlines the form and essential elements which make that life a true expression of that faith lived out as a solitary diocesan hermit --- not merely as an individual doing as they like throughout the day. In other words, to some extent the Rule serves to reflect, govern, nurture, and protect the solitary eremitical vocation itself, not merely the individual's OWN vocation to this life. Stated another way we can say that the Rule makes sure the individual vocation grows as an expression of the vocation to solitary eremitical life itself. This helps explain the tension between institutional expectations and the individuality which also is reflected in such a document. Should, for instance, a person find there is actual conflict between these two dimensions they may well therefore thus be discerning they are not called to canonical profession under canon 603.