11 February 2011

On Widowhood and Silence

[[Sr. Laurel - I was unable to be there for the whole of the interview you did with Sisters Julie and Maxine recently, but I have now obtained the recording from iTunes. I have a question which I would have liked to have asked at the time. Before you took your vows with your Bishop, was there a period of formation for you? Was it formal or informal? Was there anything that paralleled the temporary vows that other religious take during their first years in a religious order?

I am a widow and I'm too old for a formal religious vocation (I'm 73), but I have been looking for whatever my life should be for the time I have left. I was so impressed with all you said and with your blog which I've read rather extensively since the interview. I know I am not a hermit, but I am trying to learn to live creatively and with integrity in the unfamiliar quiet of my new single life. I would like to think that someday I could really live in solitude with God without trying to escape the silence. Anyhow, thanks so much for sharing with us of the Nuns Life community! It was a blessing to listen!]]

Hi there,
Many thanks for your comments! I am glad you were able to join us, and also grateful for your questions.

While Canon 603 does not specify either formation or temporary vows, it is usual to require both because both are ordinarily necessary. (In particular exceptional cases, especially where someone has been vowed and also lived as a hermit for some time, a diocese may decide it is prudent to forego temporary profession, but this is rare, and also generally risky for all involved.) When dioceses require temporary vows of someone (the normal pattern), they usually do so for a period of from three to five years. Some use a period of two years, but none less than this as far as I know. Dioceses could and do also extend the period of temporary vows, of course, because this period is still one of discernment for all involved.

Formation is a tricky question. As I have written here before, no diocese "forms" their hermits. They expect them to find ways to get this formation on their own. Often they expect the person to have this formation before they contact the chancery with their petition to become a diocesan hermit. They may suggest resources to a candidate if they have and know of them, but usually that is all. Generally diocesan personnel have neither the time nor the expertise to undertake the formation of a hermit --- nor is it really their "job"! Also, sometimes there is the basic wisdom of the desert at play in their thinking: "remain in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." Dioceses expect hermits to "learn" their "hermiting" and be formed by living in solitude and coming to know the silence of solitude. However, at the same time, they require a diocesan hermit to have some theology, knowledge of the vocation and its history, to understand and be prepared for making and living the vows, etc. So, I would have to say formation is generally informal but also an imperative which is both demanding and mainly rooted in dependence on the initiative of the one called to solitude.

There are some attempts to help with this. Network of Diocesan Hermits, for instance, though fledgling still, provides some mentoring for verified candidates for diocesan hermit profession. This can help fill the formation gap though especially here the initiative and impetus falls on the candidate's shoulders. Online courses are available on monastic life, history, and theology for very little money. More important is probably the work one does with a Spiritual Director, and I would encourage you to find someone for ongoing SD who can assist you in making the transition you described, and just generally developing your spiritual life (something we all need to do) within the new context of widowhood.

One vocation that is not canonical (yet), but has been mentioned by Pope John Paul II and others is that of consecrated widow. I would suggest you look into this for yourself as well (because you may decide you are not a lay hermit or called to be such). If, after considering this and learning what you can about it, you decide this might be a way to go, you can get an appointment with someone in vocations at your chancery, or (perhaps) with your Bishop to discuss options. It may be that he would be open to exploring this vocation with you. (Because of Canon 605 Bishops are obliged to be open to new forms of consecrated life; this could be one of those.) What you are dealing with is what widows all over the world deal with and finding a way to explore the meaning of your life as widow would be very helpful to many. There is a blog that has stuff about this vocation --- I think by a Cistercian nun, but I may be wrong about that. I will send you the link if I can locate the blog and you can contact the author. Anyway, definitely do some research online about it and see if it captures your imagination!

The problem of learning to live with and within silence is difficult for many people --- maybe even most. One thing you might consider doing is journaling when things get tough and the urge strikes to turn on the TV, run out shopping, call someone on the phone --- all to merely fill or distract from the silence. Another thing you might try is to make a cup of tea or coffee, and simply sit in the silence being attentive to what is actually going on all around AND WITHIN you. Let yourself smell the drink, feel the warmth, taste it, etc and while doing this call upon God to be with you and let the silence work on you in a different way. It will happen because you are choosing to allow it instead of fighting it. You might set up a table somewhere where you can work on a jigsaw puzzle (or a regular space for some other hobby you enjoy and can turn to) when things get difficult or cabin fever hits, but where you can attend to the silence in a new way as well.

At this point in your life it may well be that silence is a symbol only of physical solitude, and so too, of absence and emptiness, but in time, and with practice, it can become one of presence and fullness. If you choose any of these (or other) tactics they need to be part of a strategy as well as a time where and when you also consciously turn to God --- not to change things in some abrupt way, but simply because he is there and wants to share what is happening with you. Allow him this space and time and do it while you are especially attentive to the pain, loss, and other sensations you are experiencing. Lengthen these periods as you are able. None of this is easy, but over time such praxis will change the character of the silence you know now and help you to live with and within it. You may well even come to live from it as you discover what Canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude" and Eastern Christianity refers to as hesychasm!