13 May 2011

Questions on When to Approach One's Diocese and Formation as a Lay Hermit

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I find it difficult to understand how this [process of becoming a diocesan hermit] works. [It is especially hard to understand since there is no process of formation spelled out and no guidelines on when to approach one's chancery, etc.] For instance, when Entering a monastery or convent, one is guided in their discernment in the period of time as a Postulant and continues with studies as a Novice. As a Canonical Diocesan Eremetic, you work by yourself for the 2 years or so then approach the Diocese. I have the fear that after 2 years and I approach the V.G. or Bishop, only to find out that I don't meet the requirements that may be in place or that I have done something all wrong, making this life as an Canonical Diocesan Eremetic unreachable. If I was younger, 2 years would not be a long time to wait. Now, time is certainly at a premium:) . . . Would it be feasible for you or myself to write my Diocese so they could implement some sort of recognition and acceptance for those who would be interested in living the life as a Canonical Diocesan Eremitic?]] (Sections marked in single brackets [] are clarifications, additions, or other redactions added for the purpose of posting here. Sister L)

I can understand your concerns and frustration. Unfortunately, living as a hermit (an eremite) is ordinarily necessary before one can effectively approach a diocese about such a thing. It is necessary so that one will be treated as a serious aspirant who has been discerning seriously already, and also so that one is not told to "simply go live in solitude; that is all that is necessary." Yes, it is risky (desert-dwelling always is) and one may indeed discover at the end of several years that 1) the diocese will not profess one no matter what at this point in time, or 2) that one has made a mistake and that eremitical life (lay and/or canonical) is not what one is called to, but living the life already is what every diocese I know of requires as a prerequisite to consideration for profession under Canon 603. Risky though it is, it makes complete sense because of the very nature of the vocation itself: individual, solitary (worked out between oneself and God), marginal, countercultural, independent though ecclesial, generally statusless, and rare. Canon 603 itself is not about making or forming hermits out of whole cloth or according to a particular mold, nor is it about creating a queue of hermit candidates, but of recognizing and consecrating those hermits that exist who require this canonical protection, structure, and responsibility for the complete and integral living out of their vocation. This particular discernment can take many years to be clear, and there is simply no formal process which can replace something which happens in its own time and in solitude. Because of this dioceses are not apt to change the way they approach the matter, and while vocations might be missed in the process, those which are recognized are far more apt to be authentic.

If one really believes she is called to canonical solitary eremitical life (under Canon 603), she will live this call out without canonical standing as a lay hermit for some time first. The only way to discern the vocation is to live it, and the only way to know whether one is called to Canon 603 profession/consecration, is to live as a lay hermit first. This, so far as I know, is the only way a person can really get her "ducks all in a row" so to speak, apart from originally entering religious or monastic life, being formed in that life, and then finding one requires greater solitude than that supplies. Even then, there is no guarantee a diocese will profess her or anyone else under canon 603. At that point the hermit may request canonical standing and be rebuffed (by this I mean one may be told the diocese is not ready to profess anyone under Canon 603, not that one does not have such a vocation). That can go on for quite some time (23 years 17, years, 10 years, etc, are all numbers that I have heard from diocesan hermits who waited a long time for consecration under Canon 603). On the other hand, the diocese might respond positively (or negatively) to one's petition right away. There is no two year period written into the canon anywhere even though that is a commonly used number to indicate the usual time to live something out before contacting the diocese. Even here it is a completely minimal guideline number, not a hard and fast rule. (In fact, Bishops I know of tend to require one live as a lay hermit for five years before revisiting the question of even temporary public profession.)

What is profoundly and historically true is that if God is calling one to eremitical life, one will embrace that life alone with God whether or not canonical approval is anywhere in one's future. She, for instance, will embrace it and risk never having such legal standing because that is what the desert Fathers and Mothers did, and what all solitary hermits before her have done. One will do it because one is called to maturity as an obedient person and, so, answers God's call to be with him in this way no matter where it leads or does not lead in terms of canonical standing. One will do it because its very anonymity and lack of standing prepares her for the paradoxical reality of eremitical life lived in terms of canonical responsibility and status. One will do it because it serves the Church and world, and because only those who have lived such service are in a position to teach the church about their vocation.

Canon 603 is designed to protect and nurture solitary eremitical life, but not really to cultivate it except in those who have already embraced the relative statuslessness of such a vocation. It is an interesting and difficult paradox: status (legal standing) for those who have discovered they do not really need status (social privilege) at all. When dioceses tell potential candidates they need to just go off and live in solitude (something that happens a lot really), or that they do not need to be professed under Canon 603 to be a hermit, etc, they can certainly be mistaken in individual cases, but at bottom of such advice or insistence is the recognition that Canon 603 will always be the rare and paradoxical way for hermits in the Catholic church to embrace eremitical statuslessness. It will always be a life formed and discerned in solitude with the initiative and discipline provided by God's own immediate call itself. Lay hermits will always be the more prevalent and normal form of the life, and lay eremitism will always the main way which precedes and illuminates one's discernment of a call to Canon 603 profession as well.

Again, my best advice is to work regularly with your director. You are not yet free to live a solitary life, but when you are, embrace it and discern whether you are called to this as more than a temporary and transitional reality. Consider making private vows with your director (or pastor) witnessing to assist you. Will your diocese accept you as a candidate for canonical eremitical profession if you do this? Not necessarily. There are no guarantees at all. However, if you are living the life, meet the requirements of the Canon (stricter separation from the world, silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance), have written a Rule of life reflecting your own lived experience of the life, demonstrate a personal understanding of the vows (from having lived their values) and the elements of the canon, and are canonically free from impediments to public profession and consecration (prior marriages with divorce sans annulment, for instance), there will be no reason for the diocese to suggest you have done something wrong, etc. They will ordinarily work with you at this point as they discern the character and reality of your vocation; they will look at your own personal maturity, the integrity demonstrated in embracing and living out this life without canonical standing, etc, and their eventual decision will be on the basis of whether you have demonstrated to them you have such a vocation and the capacity to live it out even apart from them. IF you can do this your chances of being accepted for canonical profession are very much better, but so too is your own ability to live this life for some time or the rest of your life even if the Church declines to profess and consecrate you under Canon 603.

The Guidebook on Eremitical Life from La Crosse was a good, if limited, guidebook for those who would eventually seek to become diocesan hermits (as well as for those who might profess them!). It covered the qualities needed by the person, the education (gotten by personal initiative), the requirements of the diocese (spiritual direction, self-sufficiency and maturity, temporary profession, etc.) and a number of other things. If you can get a copy of it, I would recommend it. It did not establish a postulancy, novitiate, or juniorate for hermit candidates, nor could it really have done so without giving the wrong message about the life and the wholly individual and solitary process of formation involved. Many dioceses have access to this guidebook and require SOME of the same things La Crosse did (my own borrowed from it, but not slavishly). Usually, however, dioceses turn to this guidebook only after they have a good candidate. In my experience dioceses don't usually know much about eremitical vocations (some few do) and one role of a serious candidate may well be to help educate them. Again, only one who has lived the life for some time will be able to do that.