04 February 2012

Eremitical Life sans Monastic Formation?

[[Dear Sister,
I had a quick question regarding the hermit vocation and discernment. From what I have read, the monastic tradition often sees the hermit vocation as the ultimate expression of monastic life. In his Rule, St. Benedict holds the hermit life in the highest regard. However, he was very clear that such a vocation should be under taken only after years of formation and testing in the monastic community. This seems to be very prudent advice as the hermit life can be very difficult.

As such, isn’t it imprudent that many people today are interested in becoming diocesan hermits without the formation and testing that a proper monastic formation affords? I am having great difficulty understanding how one could discern a calling to the hermit life without being properly formed in the basics of monasticism. I would welcome your insights on how one discerns a vocation to the solitary life without the benefit of living the monastic life in the midst of a monastic community. Even under the guidance of a good priest and the support of a bishop, few in a diocese would understand the monastic life in its deepest sense. As such, few would be able to guide a person living as a hermit.

Could it not be argued that people who want to live the hermit life without the proper formation and testing are at great risk for spiritual self-deception? Could it not be argued that there is real risk of “throwing someone into the deep end of the pool” before they are prepared? Would be fair to say that someone who wants to skip living in a monastery MIGHT be displaying a type of pridefullness and individualism that is contrary to the monastic vocation? Would it not be better for one to join a contemplative order first (even one with hermits…like the Carmelite Hermits in Texas or Carthusians) so that they can be properly supported in their calling? I would appreciate your insights. Thank you.]]

Hi there,
your questions are good ones and essentially right on. Yes, it is dangerous in the ways you say and others as well. Still, while it is important that individuals have all the formation they can get before entering into solitude, and while it is important that we generally treat diocesan eremitical life as a second-half-of-life vocation, there are cases where the solitary eremitical life is a good one for individuals who are younger (one document on c 603 suggests 30 years of age is the very bottom limit for admission even to temporary vows) or have not had the benefit of a monastic formation. However, these are very rare, and so, one thing chanceries need to keep in mind is the rarity of the vocation, both relatively and absolutely.

Evenso, it remains true that such persons must somehow get solid foundations in prayer, theology, spirituality, etc, and be good at self-discipline and taking initiative before they are accepted for even temporary profession as a diocesan hermit. Extended stays in a monastery during the period of initial discernment could be VERY helpful here and I personally suggest it should be required of aspirants to diocesan eremitical life without a background in religious or monastic life. This is true because most people today have very little sense of living in silence or solitude (much less the silence OF solitude demanded by canon 603), and they also need an extended period of living a daily horarium which is balanced between prayer, work, study, and lectio. All of this assists discernment and formation both.

One of the things I have written about recently is the fact that our culture is highly individualistic, even narcissistic, and the upsurge in interest in eremitical life is often an expression of this rather than a true call to the generous and other-centered life which is authentically eremitical. There are good spiritual directors who may not be monastics but can wisely direct individuals moving towards eremitical life, and equally, there are directors who are not well-equipped. It is not usually a matter of whether they are monastic but instead whether they are competent directors or not. A director (one skilled at listening) familiar with contemplative prayer and a balanced approach to life, along with a sense that God is found in the ordinary activities of life, and indeed, in the heart of one's own being, is far more important than that the director be a priest or monastic, I think.

Also problematical is the fact that relatively few Bishops, Vicars, or vocation directors really understand the eremitical life and therefore sometimes treat it as merely equivalent to a pious person who lives alone. It is, you can imagine, a good deal more and other than this. (cf post from Dec 9, 2011) While there are many stereotypes of the eremitical life which influence chanceries, this particular misunderstanding is more prevalent and widespread. It is a main contributor to the failure of aspirants who mistakenly think they are called to eremitical solitude. Unfortunately, in such cases, it is not quite the same as "being thrown into the deep end" because in such cases such aspirants never actually reach the deep end. They paddle about in the shallows and think this is eremitical life. The result is an implicit disparagement of this life which makes it both trivial and incredible.

I regularly recommend that younger persons who think they may be interested in eremitical life enter a community which is semi-eremitical not only for proper formation, but for the needed life experience and mutual discernment necessary. It seems completely unfair and imprudent to me to do otherwise. The life is simply too difficult for someone who has little life experience, training, education, etc. However, I do not recommend that anyone do this with the idea that one day they will become a diocesan hermit. The two vocations are different from one another and one does not make vows (especially that of monastic stability) within a community with the idea that one day one will leave it. That would make the vow invalid and be a betrayal of its very meaning.

I hope this is helpful.