12 October 2012

Solutions to using Canon 603 as a Stopgap Way to Profession

  [[Dear Sister,   Does the situation in the Archdiocese of Boston happen a lot? Is there a real problem with eremitical vocations that are not genuine?Is this one of the reasons there are so few of them? Is it  one of the reasons that dioceses don't always want to profess diocesan Hermits? What is the solution to this?]]

I can't say that situations like the one in the Archdiocese of Boston (cf Notes from Stillsong Hermitage: Abuses of Canon 603)  happens often. In some ways I think this was pretty unique. Remember that there are fewer than 60 or so diocesan hermits in the United States so in an absolute sense diocesan hermits aren't professed or consecrated very often. A few countries have more, most have far fewer. This is partly a function of the fact that the vocation itself is really a rare one.

As I have written before, it is unusual for a person to be called to achieve fullness of humanity and genuine holiness apart from the more usual relationships and activities in which integrity and holiness are formed. While hermits live at the heart of the Church and while we have friends, directors, pastors, and delegates who help support us in our growth, we truly are formed in the silence of solitude. That is the milieu in which we are most at home, where we are healed and challenged beyond what the world outside the hermitage affords. We are CALLED by God to achieve fullness of humanity in this way and to witness to the place of the silence of solitude in every life. Significantly, as I have said many times, this is not a life of individualism, selfishness, narcissism, or misanthropy, but instead is the way in which we come to love most fully and effectively. The problem of course is that it takes a significant period of time to determine which is the case for a particular petitioner for admission to profession under Canon 603 and yes, mistakes are made and we see these in folks who are no more hermits than I am a professional violinist! (I play at the violin but I am no where near being a professional player.)

You ask about the reasons dioceses don't always want to profess individuals under canon 603. While there are a number of reasons, I think it is true that they boil down to concerns over the authenticity of a call to the silence of solitude, yes. I was reminded today of something I had been told several years ago, namely, that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (and possibly the entire province including the Archdiocese --- implied in all further references to the Archdiocese)) decided a number of years ago (perhaps 20) that they would not profess anyone as a diocesan hermit under c 603 nor would they consecrate any women as CV's under canon 604. The reason given had to do with the perception that these were "fallback" vocations --- vocations chosen by those who had failed at religious life or life in general. A related reason given was the lack of adequate formation of these persons. Of course this kind of blanket generalization, especially in such a cynical form, is nonsense and fails to take the history of these vocations into account, but there is a real danger and a nugget of truth behind it; it is one I have written about many times here, namely, the tendency to use Canon 603 as a stopgap option by individuals to seek profession or by chanceries to profess individuals that do not have a true eremitical vocation. (A related danger is the tendency to use Canon 603 as a means to form a community. With Canon 604 there is the danger of consecrating those who really do want to be nuns and reject the secular  -- "in the world" -- nature of the C 604 vocation. Canon 604 is not about creating "diocesan Sisters".)

While I disagree with the Archdiocese/province of Los Angeles's conclusions and the reason given for them in this regard (I think it is cynical and completely inaccurate in some cases), I also have to say that I respect their clear sense that solitary eremitical vocations are truly rare and that great caution should be exercised in admitting anyone to profession or consecration under canon 603. Still, like every other diocese, Los Angeles and the Archbishop and Bishops of the Archdiocese, indeed the entire province, are charged with DISCERNING the reality of such vocations and, under canon 605, with being open to new forms of consecrated life. It is not right to make a blanket decision to refuse to profess or consecrate ANY vocations under these canons. It could be considered a rejection of the wisdom of the Church as a whole and the movement of the Spirit at work among the Baptized more specifically. It certainly shows an unawareness or lack of appreciation for the history of Canons 603 and 604. One would hope that this policy has changed in the past years and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (etc)  has dealt more sympathetically, prayerfully, and carefully with possible vocations. Doing so does not need to mean they have professed anyone beyond temporary vows --- if candidates for c 603 profession have even gotten that far, for instance, but it does mean they need to have worked to implement canons 603 and 604 in intelligent, informed,  and  Spirit-driven ways.

What is the Solution to the problem of Stopgap Professions?

What is the solution to problems of using canon 603 as a stopgap access to profession or what Los Angeles/province termed a "fallback" solution to failures in living life generally or religious life specifically? It seems to me there are several pieces to such a solution but all are functions of time and experience: 1) adequate knowledge of the vocation itself provided by the eremitical tradition and by hermits around the world who are living TRUE eremitical lives of the silence of solitude and by their Bishops; this would include  a clear understanding on the part of both the diocese and the hermit of the charisma or gift this vocation is to the Church and world, especially to those who are isolated in some way, 2) a discernment process which is adequate to shake out experiences of solitude which are transitional, rooted in deficiencies rather than potentials, are not yet mature or eremitical, etc, 3) a set of initial formation requirements which an individual may meet with the normal assistance of her SD, and a few others over a period of 5-7 years; 4) the demand that the candidate write her own Rule based in her own lived experience of the solitary eremitical vocation and that this be assessed not merely by canonists but by those in formation work and/or spiritual direction in their congregations, 5) interviews by Vicars, Bishop, psychologists (if it seems necessary or especially helpful) along with recommendations by spiritual directors who have worked with the person for a period of years, pastors, etc.

One piece of this last element might be assessment by formation personnel from a monastery the hermit candidate might visit for extended periods (say a month or two) once a year for 2-3 years if this is at all possible. (I consider it desirable in any case for urban hermit candidates to spend at least a month in the silence and regularity of a monastery not least to see how they do with this kind and degree of silence but also to educate themselves on what they are to foster in their own hermitages in spite of its urban context.) Finally, since inauthentic vocations seem almost always linked to a desire to wear a habit, be clothed in the cowl, etc, and since the habit is a sign of public commitments, rights and obligations, I would suggest that dioceses forbid or refrain from giving permission for the wearing of the habit (even in the hermitage) until the person has reached temporary profession (the cowl or other prayer garment is given only at perpetual profession anyway). There is really no reason for someone to be wearing a habit apart from the actual profession with its assumption of public rights and obligations. The requirements of poverty are easily met otherwise.

No solution is infallible and discernment is an art rather than a science but it seems to me we ought not be professing anyone who does not show a real aptitude for lifelong eremitical solitude or who is without a clear understanding of the significance of this vocation for the church and world. Again these are both functions of time and experience in eremitical solitude. The desert Fathers and Mothers have written famously that a hermit must dwell in her cell and her cell would teach her everything. That bit of wisdom is entirely true. It does not imply complete reclusion but it does imply that  the silence of solitude  is the charism of the diocesan hermit which she must understand intimately, esteem, and appreciate sufficiently to commit to it for life. It is true that we cannot make persons wait forever for admission to profession (or decisions on whether that will occur) but solitary eremitical life is a different matter than vocations to life in community. By definition it takes time to develop and differentiate from other forms of solitude and solitary life.

Thus, again, I recommend that a person who already has some experience of living in solitude before approaching her diocese be required to live as a lay hermit under consistent and skilled supervision for five years or so for mutual discernment. (I would suggest a religious be given this role and that s/he meet with the hermit regularly including in the hermitage itself.) I suggest that if all of the above interviews and pieces of discernment go well, that the person be admitted to temporary profession for a period of 3 years. (At this point she should have written a Rule she will live out and reflect on for those three years.) If this too goes well, and the person and those she speaks with are clear that she is maturing in this vocation, then I recommend either renewal of these vows or admission to perpetual profession. (At this point the hermit may need and be encouraged to make some changes to the Rule which reflect a greater understanding of the vocation and what she personally needs to do to live it faithfully.) This equates to a process which takes at least 8 years to reach perpetual profession --- though all of it demands the person live as a solitary hermit. At the end of the process we might then see a more-mature hermit professed for life.

If at any point this process seems to point in a different direction the person can decide 1) to live as a lay hermit, or 2) decide to leave eremitical life altogether. None of this will be a waste of time so long as everyone is honest and deals compassionately and in complete good faith with one another. After all, the hermit life itself is about the journey more than the destination; it is about being comfortable with and trusting God in the desert sojourn. A period of growth in solitude, so long as it is not unduly prolonged without true supervision and discernment, will be helpful in whatever vocation the individual eventually pursues. Besides, being too anxious about the destination (e.g., perpetual profession, wearing a habit, being given the cowl, etc) and being unable to come to terms with the journey itself in a church learning what this vocation really means in the contemporary world, is not a good sign in a solitary eremitical vocation.