28 February 2012

Ecclesial Vocations and the importance of canonical standing --- a matter of stable relationships


Dear Sister O'Neal, what you have written about the relationship that obtains from public profession is helpful in under-standing more of what it means to have an ecclesial vocation [isn't] it? I have read what you have written on this before but I was not so clear about legal standing creating particular binding relationships which involve the Church herself. That seems to be an important distinction between public and private commitments. It also seems light years away from legalism --- and I know you have been accused of this in the past. Have some also criticized you regarding the idea of the "security" which is built into canonical standing in regard to the eremitical vocation? Thank you for saying more about this.]]


One of the really good things about blogging and answering questions is it helps clarify and expand my own understanding of various things. Sometimes it pushes my thought in directions I might not otherwise have gone. It also means that others can help me in evaluating the conclusions I reach. Had people not written me about what they perceived as legalism, I would not have explored matters in quite the same way I have. Of course, the heart of this particular exploration stems from my own lived experience of the differences between living an eremitical life apart from canon 603 and living such a life under canon 603; still, the criticisms you mention are actually very helpful to me in reflecting on and articulating what is an amazing and paradoxical reality. I should also mention that sometimes I hear far more friendly comments on all of this from Sisters and others who really can't imagine my binding myself to a code of canons in order to live what is a very free and flexible life. Of course, they know first hand and can reflect on the place of legally binding relationships in their own lives and see how these serve to free them for ministry, education, and vocation more generally as well as how they may be constraining in ways that chafe.

Yes, the accent on the stable, legal relationships which obtain from canonical standing help to understand what ecclesial vocations are all about. Diocesan eremitical vocations are ecclesial vocations, vocations which are discerned, mediated, nurtured, and governed by the church. The point I usually accent is that of mediation because such vocations are not a matter of the person alone determining they have such a call, nor can a person receive such a call ONLY in her own heart. Such vocations, as I have written before, are mutually discerned, and further, they are mediated to the individual by the Church in the person of a legitimate authority who
intends to do this in a public act of the whole Church. 

The dimension which I had not focused on particularly or adequately was the dimension of the continuing stable relationships which obtain once the call (a continuing reality) is definitively mediated to the person. (Definitive mediation occurs in the rite of perpetual or solemn profession, for instance, and includes a definitive response to this call.) Not only do these relationships (with diocese, legitimate superior, monastery, community, congregation, etc) reflect the new state and relationship that exists between the individual and God, but they ensure that God's own call is a continuing reality in her life. Likewise they provide the structure necessary to allow the person to continue and grow in her response.

At the same time, a call is not heard once, answered once, and then treated as a past reality. One does not merely live from the memory of this past and already-answered call. Instead calls are continuing realities which evolve and in ecclesial vocations the call and the person's response are mediated in a continuing way through the stable relationships set up by the definitive act of perpetual or solemn public profession and/or consecration. The voice of God comes to us anew every minute of every day and the several relationships which obtain canonically in public commitments made in the hands of a legitimate superior are one of the significant ways this occurs. In a way, I have to say not that I have answered a call mediated by God's Church, but rather that I am answering a Divine call which God's Church continues to mediate to me -- though it is also true that I have answered in a definitive way at perpetual profession. The stable public relationships are meant to allow and assist me in this. This is true whether I am speaking of my relationship with canon law, with my legitimate superior, with my delegate, my parish community, or my diocese and the universal church as a whole. Like all relationships these are demanding and constraining. But they are also freeing.

In any case, what I have written about canonical standing is not driven by legalism. A focus on law for the law's own sake is legalism; a focus on law and standing in law in order to express and look carefully at the stable relationships which obtain and which allow for ecclesial vocations being lived with seriousness, integrity, and accountability is not. I would agree that these two things are light years apart, though they do have law in common. It is because of this that when people speak of the "mere formality" of canonical profession as though this is merely an "official" stamp of "approval" on a privately discerned vocation, or something with which a hermit seeks to have some kind of privileged social "status," I think it is a clear sign they have not yet understood either the purpose or the nature and significance of canonical standing.

The criticism about the security involved in the diocesan eremitical vocation (which is actually not one I hear very much) has to be answered in light of these realities. Stable, secure relationships like those I have mentioned are part of the necessary context for exploring a life which is responsible and witnesses publicly to everyone that God alone is capable of completing and redeeming one.
For the hermit in particular, they help ensure her ability to proclaim the gospel message associated with the redemption of isolation into authentic solitude. They are a way to help ensure the continuing vitality of a vocation which is God's own gift entrusted to the Church for her own well-being. In my own experience, one enters into such relationships on behalf of God and the Gospel which one's vocation represents and reveals. In any case, as already noted, the insecurity of the diocesan eremitical life is substantial; the security which obtains is at the service of God and his own purposes and does not necessarily diminish the radical insecurities which are part and parcel of the vocation. This is part of the reason, I think, that dioceses do not support c 603 hermits throughout their lives, provide residences, etc.

Having said that it should be clear that the line between the two (radical insecurities and securities) is quite fine and at points becomes somewhat artificial. Further questions need to be raised about older diocesan hermits who are ill or frail and are publicly and perpetually professed. It may well be that the radical insecurity of their vocations can be assured and still allow greater assistance from their dioceses, etc, but this is a different topic. With regard to what you have asked about however, the security of an ecclesial vocation and the relationships which are part and parcel of that serve not so much the hermit's personal security, but rather the hermit's vocational security and that of the Church's own patrimony.

27 February 2012

Prayer: Concerning ourselves with God's own Self and Destiny (partial reprise)

Tomorrow's Gospel includes Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. As we continue to focus on the basic themes of Lent it is only appropriate that the Church looks at what prayer is and reminds us of Jesus' own instruction in it --- what was primary and what followed naturally. In Lent one of the things we attempt to do is die to self in ways which make us more open to God's presence, God's Word, God's own hallowing of his name within us and in our world. We fast in ways which help us set aside our more superficial needs; we open ourselves to the love of God which we allow ourselves to savor so that we might be profoundly nourished and God's own will be done, God's own life be fulfilled in and with us. Our Lenten journey reminds us that genuine spirituality is forgetful of self, that it "gets out of the way" and lays aside self-consciousness. In tomorrow's gospel, Jesus (via Matt) provides a model of prayer which assists in this. It is a model of prayer in which we concern ourselves first and last with God's own needs, and with being there FOR HIM! We know it as the Lord's Prayer

In the first three petitions (and the invocation too, though that is a topic for another time!) we concern ourselves with God's very self (holiness and name refer to God's own self, not to mere characteristics or tags); we ask that he might be powerfully present in our world (because both name and the hallowing he is refer to a powerful presence which creates and recreates whatever it is allowed to touch and make holy). With the second petition especially, we open ourselves to his sovereignty, that is, to his very selfhood and life as it is shared with his creation. God assumes a position of sovereignty over that creation when his life is truly shared and that creation achieves genuine freedom in the process, but the reign or kingdom of God refers to God's own life once again --- this time as a covenantal or mutual reality. And, with the third petition in particular, we open ourselves to the will of God --- to the future and shape of a reality which is ordered by his sovereignty and fulfilled by his presence.


Now, it is true that God possesses what is called aseity. That is, he is completely self-sufficient and in need of nothing and no one. But that is only one part of the paradox that stands at the heart of our faith. The other side of the paradox is that our God is One who has determined to need us; from the beginning, indeed, from all eternity, God has chosen not to remain alone. He creates all that is outside himself and he summons it (continuing the process of creation) to greater and greater levels of complexity until from within this creation comes One who will be his true counterpart and partner in creation. At bottom this is a call to share in God's very life. In fact, it is the ground of an existence which can only be fulfilled when it shares in the Divine life and God himself becomes all in all!

All of Scripture attests to this basic dynamic, whether cast in terms of creation or covenant. All of Scripture is about God's determination to share his very life with us, and his creation's capacity in the Spirit to issue forth in, or become his own unique counterpart in the fulfillment of this plan. When God's plan is fulfilled, when his very life is shared to the extent he wills, everything he creates reaches fulfillment as well, but it is the human vocation in particular to allow this to become real in space and time. And afterall, isn't this what prayer is truly all about: allowing God's plans to be realized in his creation; cooperating with his Spirit in ways which let his own life be made PERSONALLY real here and now so that EVERYTHING acquires fullness or completion (perfection) of life in God?

Unfortunately, one of the most pernicious problems I run into, whether in myself or in my work as a spiritual director is the occasional inability of myself or of directees to "get out of the way" of the Spirit or to "forget self" in prayer. Prayer seems always to be about us, our problems, our sinfulness, our needs and concerns in ways which sometimes contribute to our own self-centeredness. While I am NOT suggesting we neglect this side of things in our prayer, I am suggesting that there are ways to pray these concerns which are NOT self-centered. (Note, the key here is in praying these concerns rather than merely praying about these concerns. Sometimes we have to silence conversation about concerns and simply live them in our prayer as we give our whole selves to God for his own sake.) I think this is part of what Jesus is getting at in tomorrow's gospel when he reminds us that God knows what we need before we ask him! It is certainly mirrored in the form of the Lord's prayer and the priority of the invocation and petitions. If we open ourselves humbly to God in prayer, the sinfulness, needs, concerns, etc will be part of that but the focus will not be on these.

Because of this, one of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves in checking in on our prayer occasionally is, "what kind of experience was this for God?" Ordinarily this puts a full stop to the sometimes problematical self-centered focus and chatter about ME in prayer which can occur, and puts the focus back where Jesus clearly lived it himself --- on God and the way in which God wills to be present to and for us. What today's Gospel gives us in this model of prayer is a sense that contrary to much popular thought and practice otherwise, prayer is really the way we give or set aside our lives for another, namely, for God and his own Selfhood and destiny. And while it is absolutely true that in the process of giving ourselves over to God's own purposes our own hearts will rightly be opened up, poured out, and our own needs met (as Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, God's Word will not return to him void!), prayer is first of all something we are empowered to do for God's own sake!

26 February 2012

First Sunday of Lent: Driven into the Desert by the "Spirit of Sonship"


I really love today's Gospel, especially at the beginning of Lent. The thing that strikes me most about it is that Jesus' 40 days in the desert are days spent coming to terms with and consolidating the identity which has just been announced and brought to be in him. (When God speaks, the things he says become events, things that really happen in space and time, and so too with the announcement that Jesus is his beloved Son in whom he is well-pleased.) Subsequently, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit of love, the Spirit of Sonship, to explore that identity, to allow it to define him in space and time more and more exhaustively, to allow it to become the whole of who he is. One of the purposes of Lent is to allow us to do the same.

A sister friend I go to coffee with on Sundays remarked on the way from Mass that she had had a conversation with her spiritual director this last week where he noted that perhaps Jesus' post-baptismal time in the desert was a time for him to savor the experience he had had at his baptism. It was a wonderful comment that took my own sense of this passage in a new and deeper direction. Because of the struggle involved in the passage I had never thought to use the word savor in the same context, but as my friend rightly pointed out, the two often go together in our spiritual lives. They certainly do so in hermitages! My own director had asked me to do something similar when we met this last week by suggesting I consider going back to all those pivotal moments of my life which have brought me to the silence of solitude as the vocation and gift of my life. Essentially she was asking me not only to consider these intellectually (though she was doing that too) but to savor them anew and in this savoring to come to an even greater consolidation of my identity in God and as diocesan hermit.

Hermitages are places which reprise the same experience of consolidation and integration of our identity in God. They are deserts in which we come not only to learn who we are in terms of God alone, but to allow that to define our entire existence really and concretely -- in what we value, how we behave, in the choices we make, and those with whom we identify, etc. In last year's "In Good Faith" podcast for
A Nun's Life, I noted that for me the choice which is fundamental to all of Lent and all of the spiritual life, "Choose Life, not death" is the choice between accepting and living my life according to the way God defines me or according to the way the "world" defines me. It means that no matter how poor, inadequate, ill, and so forth I also am, I choose to make God's announcement that in Christ  I am his beloved daughter in whom he is well-pleased the central truth of my life which colors and grounds everything else. Learning to live from that definition (and so, from the one who announces it) is the task of the hermit; the hermitage is the place to which the Spirit of love and Sonship drive us so that we can savor the truth of this incomprehensible mystery even as we struggle to allow it to become the whole of who we are.


But hermitages are, of course, not the only places which reprise these dynamics. Each of us has been baptized, and in each of our baptisms what was announced to us was the fact that we were now God's adopted beloved daughters and sons. Lent gives us the space and time where we can focus on the truth of this, claim that truth more whole-heartedly, and, as Thomas Merton once said, "get rid of any impersonation that has followed us" to the [desert]. We need to take time to identify and struggle with the falsenesses within us, but also to accept and appreciate the more profound truth of who we are and who we are called to become in savoring our experiences of God's love. As we fast in various ways, we must be sure to also taste and smell as completely as we can the nourishing Word of God's love for us. After all, the act of savoring is the truest counterpart of fasting for the Christian. The word we are called to savor is the word which defines us as valued and valuable in ways the world cannot imagine and nourishes us where the things of the world cannot. It is this Word we are called both to struggle with and to savor during these 40 days, just as Jesus himself did.

Thus, as I fast this Lent (in whatever ways that means), I am going to remember to allow myself not only to get in touch with my own deepest hungers and the hungers I share with all others (another very good reason to fast), but also to get in touch anew with the ways I have been fed and nourished throughout my life --- the experiences I need to savor as well. Perhaps then when Lent comes to an end I will be better able to claim and celebrate the one I am in God. My prayer is that each of us is able to do something similar with our own time in the desert.

Merton quotation taken from Contemplation in a World of Action, "Christian Solitude," p 244.

25 February 2012

Is your life as a diocesan hermit jeopardized by a new Bishop coming in?


[[Dear Sister Laurel,

Are the rights and obligations you accepted with public profession in jeopardy should another Bishop come in? What I am thinking is what happens if a bishop comes in who doesn't believe there should be diocesan hermits? Would you lose your vows or your relationship with the Bishop?]]

No. While the more personal dimensions of the relationship between hermit and superior might be less than ideal in such a case --- especially in the beginning before the two people know each other better or, in particular, have had a chance to meet with each other one on one to discuss the vocation and how things are going with it, the hermit's vocation or vows are not in jeopardy simply because a new Bishop is installed. In my last post I noted that one of the relationships established in public vows was established between the Bishop, his successors, and the hermit. It is the office of Bishop in this specific diocese acting in the name of the whole Church which assumes a relationship of specific rights and obligations with regard to this hermit while the hermit herself assumes specific rights and obligations in regard to the local ordinary of this diocese via public vows --- whoever he is in the future. Should this Bishop move or retire, the rights and obligations of the hermit continue and the new Bishop assumes his predecessor's place in the legal (that is, canonical) relationship.

The hermit in perpetual vows, then, is not at risk of ceasing to be a diocesan hermit each time a new Bishop is installed. This is so even if that Bishop does not believe in the vocation and so forth. The situation with temporary vows differs somewhat, so let me make a bit of an excursus here. In such a case, there is a chance that the new Bishop would choose not to renew these vows once they had expired; temporary vows are made for a certain period of time and this remains a time of discernment for all involved. Should a new Bishop decide the vocation is wrong for the diocese at this time, find the person is not really called to either renewal of temporary vows (whether now or for some time period,) or to perpetual vows, then he has the right to refuse admittance to these and, when the vows expire, the person will cease to be a diocesan hermit. They would probably choose to remain a lay hermit in such a case, difficult as this might be for them in some ways but they would need to discern this step afresh. Also, one would hope that a Bishop coming into a diocese where there are diocesan hermits in temporary canonical (public) vows would himself act out of true discernment, and not out of bias of course, but the latter does remain a possibility.

My own vows however are canonical, perpetual, and were made to God in the hands of the Bishop as representative of the Church. He was acting in her name in receiving those vows, and so, his act binds the Church and the hermit in a new legal and public relationship. (At profession besides a copy of the vows signed and witnessed during the ceremony, I received a notarized statement verifying the public and perpetual nature of these vows signed by both the Bishop and the Vicar for Religious and Ecclesiastical notary.) Only the canonical dispensation of my vows for significant valid reasons can alter the relationships, rights, and obligations which obtain in public profession. Your question is really a good one because it helps outline the relative security of the relationship per se, as well as illuminating a piece of what we mean by initiation into a state of life. The Church defines consecrated life in part as involving initiation into the consecrated state achieved in a definitive (permanent, solemn, or perpetual) act --- that is, into a stable and lasting state where one dedicates oneself, is set apart (consecrated) by God and acquires rights and obligations which do not themselves flow directly from one's Baptism. Once this occurs, all parties are obligated to respect the relationships, rights, and obligations which obtain. In regard to your question this means any future Bishop coming into the diocese as pastor.

Your question also helps illuminate the importance of canonical standing (standing in law) for those called to it. In the case of diocesan hermits, the hermit does not, at least, have the insecurity of wondering if she will continue to be able to live her vocation freely or explore the frontiers of solitude in God as she has covenanted to do on behalf of others and in the name of the Church simply because the diocese is going to experience a change in personnel. There is plenty of insecurity in the diocesan eremitical life just as there is in any eremitical life, but this one particular bit is not an issue. The Church itself is bound to assist the hermit in this and bound in specific legal ways. Standing in law is not a bit of mere formality or icing on the eremitical cake; it sets up stable and lasting relationships which all involved are bound to observe for the good of the vocation generally, the person called to this vocation specifically, and the church herself.

What we must remember is that law is meant to serve love; it is also meant to provide freedom, because constraints can serve genuine freedom. In other words, canon law sets up a number of constraints for the diocesan hermit, but these tend to serve her well in freeing her to live a life of solitude without being concerned with explaining herself to those around her, or being threatened with the fear that perhaps she has mistaken how she is to participate either in the world around her or the life of the church. Law's obligations assist the hermit in living her life, not just moving through day by day wondering if she has yet discovered what that life is actually meant to be. It outlines and binds the hermit to a life of the evangelical counsels, to a Rule she herself writes and a Bishop officially decrees is acceptable for living this life, and to a number of other canons which apply to anyone with public vows, but the realm it sets up in doing so is one of life in God. While the parameters may function as constraints in one way, they are precisely the things which help the hermit to go deeper and to explore this particular country as freely and exhaustively as possible.

In a sense this is an outline of what monastic stability means. Monastics relinquish the right to simply go wherever the grass seems greener at the time in order to live as fully as possible with the grace of God right here in this place. Married persons do something of the same. They bind themselves to the constraints of a commitment to this other, this family, these specific needs, the potential and limitations of this series of relationships at this time and in this place so that they can live out this love as fully and exhaustively as possible in the way they feel called to by God --- something which must often be distinguished from what a person merely WANTS to do. It is the role of civil and canon law to protect this possibility. It is ironic that this freedom comes with the imposition of constraints, but that is always the way of true achievement and true freedom. Writers are bound to the constraints of language to produce something which is truly transcendent. Musicians are bound to the constraints and capacities of instruments, music notation, physical abilities of musicians, etc in order to do likewise. Canonical hermits have their call and response mediated by the Church and that mediation includes the establishment of parameters and constraints which free for genuine transcendence.

In any case, the answer to your question is no, diocesan hermits' vocations/vows are not in jeopardy merely because of changes in episcopal personnel precisely because the vows are public. The related canonical relationships are established with the Church as a whole but through the office of Bishop within a specific diocese. (Should the hermit desire to leave the diocese, she must receive approval from her own Bishop and the Bishop in the diocese she proposes to move to. The new Bishop must specifically agree and act to take on the rights and responsibilities of legitimate superior to the diocesan hermit and do so on behalf of his successors as well. He must agree to receive vows in his hands --- or the canonical or functional equivalent.) If a Bishop refused to do so and the hermit moved to this diocese anyway, the new Bishop would indeed be her Bishop, but he would not be her legitimate superior and she would not be a diocesan hermit (her vows would cease to be binding due to the substantial change in circumstances and could be formally dispensed by her former diocese). The two relationships (pastor vs legitimate superior) obviously differ in significant ways. 

To summarize then, the act of making vows in the hands of her Bishop binds both the hermit and the Church as a whole in a constellation of mutual rights and obligations which differ from those which obtain at Baptism. Together, serving one another in a legitimate (that is, legal) relationship, they free the hermit to live the life she is called to and help ensure the eremitical life itself continues to be a vital and integral part of the church's patrimony.

23 February 2012

Reception vs Witnessing of Vows: Is there a Difference?

[[Sister Laurel,
What is the difference between private vows that are witnessed by a priest or even a Bishop, and vows that are received in the name of the Church by a priest or Bishop? I have heard someone with private vows say her vows were received by a priest. But were they?. . .]]

There are two ways of thinking and speaking about this. The first (and I would argue, the mistaken way) says all vows which are made to God in the presence of someone in the Church, usually a priest but sometimes a spiritual director, etc, are received but do not necessarily set up a legitimate relationship between the one receiving the vows and the one making them.  In such a case they may be private vows marking a private act of commitment or dedication and the person 'receiving' the vows does not become responsible in any way for the continued living out of these vows. The second and correct way of speaking reserves the use of the term received for those vows which are public, are received by a legitimate superior in the name of the Church, and result in public rights and obligations as well as establishing a legitimate relationship between the one making the vows and the one receiving them. For private vows which do not do this, the term witnessed is used instead.  Speaking in this second way distinguishes between receiving vows as a person acting in his/her own name because s/he does not have the intention or the authority to receive public vows in the name of the Church (which it calls witnessing these vows) and the act of one who has both the authority and the intent to receive these vows publicly in the name of the Church. In either case the real distinction is between private dedication and public profession and the shift in usage to the second way of speaking is meant to underscore this.

When one makes public vows one does so literally in the hands of a legitimate superior (a superior in law). This is reminiscent of the more ancient feudal oaths of fealty sworn by the subjects of Kings and other nobles in the hands of their superiors. The Lord/King received such an act of fealty and was bound himself by it. Such an act set up a mutual relations

In terms of public vows of religious/consecrated life, the act of profession/consecration sets up a similar relationship between the church in the person and office of a legitimate superior and the one making vows/being consecrated. Thus, for instance, the diocesan hermit has a right to certain expectations of her Bishop in assisting her to live out her vocation in the name of the Church, and the Bishop representing the Church as a whole has similar rights and expectations of the hermit. He commissions her to live out her vocation in the name of the Church. The reception of vows means that they are in this together: hermit and Bishop (and his successors) each with their own rights and obligations --- unless the relationship is substantially changed by the expiration, cessation (due to material changes in the situation) or the dispensation of vows. There is a mutuality of rights and obligations involved in reception of vows. In religious congregations individuals making public vows in the hands of a legitimate superior have the right to expect the superior (and his/her legitimate successors) to act in ways which nurture and protect the person/vocation, while the one making vows acquires rights and responsibilities she did not have before profession.

When vows are witnessed by priests, directors, or even Bishops, none of this occurs. One has committed a private act which is personally significant, but there is no explicit and mutual relationship set up in which both parties are responsible for the vocation being mediated, ratified, and lived out. Witnesses do not receive vows. Neither is there a correlative commissioning of the person to act in the name of the church. We see this kind of situation all the time in the execution of legal documents, etc. For instance, a person witnesses a will. In doing so they do not become part of a mutual relationship with regard to this will. They are not responsible in any way for the carrying out of the terms of the will because while they witness to the FACT of the will they are not a party to the actual legal arrangement being made. If the person executing the will never sees the witness again it is inconsequential to the nature of the document or the legal obligations which obtain. When a person makes public vows witnesses also sign the profession formula, but they do so as witnesses to the relationship and the rights and responsibilities entered into by individual and church in the act of profession. They do not themselves become part of the relationship or complex of mutual rights and obligations extended to or accepted by the one making her profession and the one in whose hands the profession was made.

By the way, it really does not matter if the witness is the Pope himself so long as he is not acting specifically and intentionally to receive these vows in the name of the Church and to enter into a relationship which both extends public rights and responsibilities to this person and accepts a legitimate place in the carrying out of these. But if the vows are private, then this intention (and often, the actual authority to act in this way) is absent. Conversely, if the intention and/or the authority to act in this way are absent, the vows are private. (An ordinary parish priest cannot receive public vows except when authorized to do so by a legitimate superior who may delegate this authority.) If the vows are public then this intention (and the authority to act in this way) are a part of the public nature of the vows themselves --- that is, these are part of what makes these vows public as opposed to private. Since the person you describe self-reported she made private vows, i.e., vows which were personally significant but issued in no legal rights or obligations beyond those already embraced in and mediated through Baptism and no differing legal relationship with her Bishop the second way of speaking would hold these vows were not received, but witnessed.
 
I hope this helps.

21 February 2012

Choose Life, Only that and Always. . . (Reprised)




When I was a very young sister (actually, a postulant), I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then. It is the clarion call of Lent and we hear it tomorrow as the heart of our first reading:



Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister Helen Kelly)

The readings from today both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accomodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."

The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]

I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are called to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.

God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.

The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us pare down all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.

It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose death instead.

Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!

20 February 2012

Feast of St Peter Damian, Reprised

Tomorrow is the feast of the Camaldolese Saint, Cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, St Peter Damian. Peter Damian is generally best known for his role in the Gregorian Reform. He fought Simony and worked tirelessly for the welfare of the church as a whole. Hermits know him best for a few of his letters, but especially #28, "Dominus Vobiscum". Written to Leo of Sitria, letter #28 explores the relation of the hermit to the whole church and speaks of a solitary as an ecclesiola, or little church. Damian had been asked if it was proper to recite lines like "The Lord Be With you" when the hermit was the only one present at liturgy. The result was this letter which explains how the church is wholly present in all of her members, both together and individually. He writes:

[[The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love, so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church. . . .From all the aforementioned it is clear that, because the whole Church canbe found in one individual person and the Church itself is called a virgin, Holy Church is both one in all its members and complete in each of them. It is truly simple among many through the unity of faith and multiple in each individual through the bond of love and various charismatic gifts, because all are from one and all are one.]]

Because of this unity Damian notes that he sees no harm in a hermit alone in cell saying things which are said by the gathered Church. In this reflection Damian establishes the communal nature of the solitary vocation and forever condemns the notion that hermits are isolated persons. In the latter part of the letter Damian praises the eremitical life and writes an extended encomium on the nature of the cell. The images he uses are numerous and diverse; they clearly reflect extended time spent in solitude and his own awareness of all the ways the hermitage or cell have functioned in his own life and those of other hermits. Furnace, kiln, battlefield, storehouse, workshop, arena of spiritual combat, fort and defensive edifice, [place assisting the] death of vices and kindling of virtues, Jacob's ladder, golden road, etc --- all are touched on here.

19 February 2012

Rule of Life Questions; 24 year old Hermits?


[[Sister Laurel,
I am 24 yo and have lived in solitude for less than a year although I work outside several days a week to support myself. I would like to write a Rule of life for my diocese who might be open to professing me. What should I include?]]

Thanks for your questions. To answer your direct question, I would suggest you look for posts here under the labels related to a Rule of Life. You will find a couple of posts which treat the kinds of things any Rule should contain if a diocese is 1) to discern clearly that you are called to this life, 2) to see that you have the requisite experience which will admit you to public vows, and 3) to be able to pass on (approve) what you have written canonically (by far the easiest of the three)! The posts list not only the areas a Rule should usually include to be complete, but point to the kinds of knowledge and experience one must have to write a livable Rule and be faithful to it. They should help you to achieve a balance between a Rule that is overly detailed and does not inspire, and one which is insufficiently detailed and idealistic but for that very reason not really helpful in concrete ways when one is struggling with the day to day living of the vocation. Even so, the real key to such balance is experience of actually living full time in solitude.

But let me take this in a different direction as well --- because I don't want to encourage you unduly in this venture and even less in the notion that a diocese will admit you to profession if you simply write a Rule, I have to say upfront that I do not know a diocese that would profess as a diocesan hermit someone of your age or degree of life-experience. As I have noted recently, some
commentators reflecting on canon 603 vocations suggest that 30 years of age is the absolute minimum age for profession (temporary) under canon 603. This is not a canonical requirement but is one of the things which needs to be determined prudentially. Most regard this vocation as a "second half of life" vocation, and I completely agree except in cases with serious extenuating circumstances. (Examples would be situations where the person is somehow isolated by circumstances, have NO control over those and, a la Jung, have achieved a rare maturity because of them. Chronic illness is the one situation that can work this way that is best known to me.) The related problem you face is one I suggested in the last paragraph: namely, your own experience of solitude may not yet allow you the experience or knowledge (both of self and of the eremitical life) to write a livable Rule of Life much less keep it faithfully or grow in it. Bishops I know believe that 5 years living in solitude prior to temporary profession is also an absolute minimum for a diocesan hermit and this means that one must live the life for some time before being experienced enough to write a Rule which is livable. I tend to agree with this as well.

Consider what would happen if a person entered a community of religious women, were given the congregation's constitutions, a Bible, a brochure of the life these Sisters live, and then was left to her own devices for the next six months. Then, with that limited contact with the congregation's life behind them, the congregation asks her to write a Rule of life which reflected her experience of religious life, of the charism of this congregation, the place of prayer, work, ministry, etc. The person being asked to do this would be at a serious disadvantage, wouldn't she? Consider another analogy: you enter a community and live the life for a year. They ask you to write a Rule and suggest that when that is complete they might be open to professing you as a Sister of ___ for the rest of your life. Is it a prudent decision on their part? Is any part of the way they are treating you prudent? Loving? Careful or full of care for you, for the life of the congregation, or the vocation you MAY one day represent? I would say it is not.

While the axiom "remain in your cell and your cell will teach you everything" is profoundly true in the eremitical life, even the earliest Christian hermits had mentors with whom they lived and from whom they learned. We don't have many resources to provide such mentoring and our culture is vastly different from that of the desert Fathers and Mothers. This means that the diocesan or, better, the solitary eremitical life is even rarer now than it ever was --- and rightly so. Instead, as I have written here before, young persons desiring to explore an eremitical vocation do better to enter a community which stresses solitude, allows for the formation (personal, social, and spiritual) which can usually be gained only in community (or society), and allows one to truly discern with others whether one is called to be a hermit or not.

The one question I must ask you (and I suspect anyone in formation work with your diocese will feel similarly compelled) is "Why?" Why do you want to be a hermit, and why a diocesan hermit at your age? Why are you not exploring congregations if you are interested in solitude and a vowed life? Why do you feel solitude is the right context for living your life? What causes you to say this despite recognizing that solitude is a very uncommon way to human wholeness and holiness? Please don't get me wrong; I love solitude and the life I am called to, but I would never have even considered it at your age! There was too much to learn, and explore, and do at that point --- and too much growing to do in all kinds of ways, even if I didn't always realize that clearly. Of course this doesn't make you wrong and me right, but it does indicate the kinds of questions ANY person with experience in vocation work will want to hear the answers to from you if you approach them about this. You see, not only is solitude ordinarily not the way we come to human wholeness, it is also usually a transitional state --- one which indicates limitations and unfulfilled potentials as well but does so on the way to something else. Anyone looking at you as a candidate will wonder why you feel particularly called to this and will recognize the importance of community in helping form you for solitude as well as in discerning such a vocation.

Since eremitical life is associated with a number of stereotypes (hermits as escapists, social failures, misanthropists, selfish and self-centered persons, eccentrics and lunatics, among others) vocation personnel must be sure they are not professing any one of these --- or anyone with strong strands of these running through them! Further, stereotypes notwithstanding, life in solitude is simply not a "normal" life and, as already noted, eremitism is a very rare vocation. Dioceses with no experience of professing hermits will rightly look for the best qualifications they can find, the strongest and most healthy candidates in order to explore the vocation in their dioceses --- and they may put off people (and rightly so) until they are sure they are not acting precipitously in professing them even temporarily. Those with experience might well be open to professing a somewhat broader range of candidates, but they will also know what age and experience requirements MUST be adhered to generally. Especially, it will need to be clear that they are not doing you (or the vocation of the solitary hermit itself) an injustice in professing you to a life vocation which is rarely the way to human wholeness or holiness.

So, a few more questions I would want to ask you --- not because I expect answers to them, but which I hope you will seriously consider and work through with your director perhaps: If someone else your age came to you and said they wanted to become a diocesan hermit, what questions would you want answered? Realizing the answer may well be "no", are you willing to live as a lay hermit for the next 7-10+ years (that is until you are 31-34+ years old and have lived as a solitary for some time) until your diocese is clear that they should or should not profess you? If not, why not? What deficiencies in your own formation for any form of consecrated life are you aware of and how will you remedy these? (Here I am thinking of the demands in human maturation which anyone your age needs to negotiate to live a disciplined, productive, compassionate, and gospel-centered life.) What deficiencies have you already worked to remedy and how did you become aware of them? How about deficiencies which make waiting for 7-10+ years without a certain answer very difficult or impossible?

More, what personal strengths does solitary life allow you to live well and how have you come to that conclusion? Are there better contexts for living these gifts? Do any of the stereotypes I mentioned earlier apply to you in ANY way whatsoever? How will you remedy this? Is there any reason to think that solitude for you is something which is (or should be) transitional? How do any of these questions tie in to writing a Rule of Life? If you are unsure about how to write a Rule or what should be included, why do you think that is? If you have read the posts I put up which refer to areas which should be included, are there any which you feel unequal to writing about? How will you remedy the situation and how long do you think it might reasonably take?

I expect you found many of these questions, especially when taken as a group, overwhelming and impossible to answer. The reason is many of them take age and experience to be able to answer and clarity about all of them certainly does. Most of them require working with a spiritual director for some time to discover or work out the answers to. Many can only be answered by extended time in solitude, reflection, and serious prayer. While I don't mean to discourage you unduly, I do want you and others to understand why this vocation is often a second half of life vocation and why younger persons approaching eremitical life via eremitical communities is a better approach for everyone involved. I do wish you well and hope you will write occasionally to let me know how things are going. All my best.

11 February 2012

How does the Silence of Solitude involve God?



[[Hi Sister Laurel,

I am glad to see you posting. I missed your posts. Probably you have said this already, but when I read that the silence of solitude is the charism of diocesan eremitical life I don't see God in it. Can you explain this to me?]]

Sure, let me try and let me be really brief. Ordinarily solitude is thought of as being alone, being physically alone, and little more. That is one legitimate meaning of the term and it applies to hermits, but it also stops short of being the solitude to which a hermit is called. One of the reasons I refer often to eremitical solitude is because it is not a matter of just being physically alone, but rather being alone with and in God. This means as well that one is profoundly related to all else that is related to God, and in fact, that one lives her life for them as well. But this kind of solitude is not automatic. It requires a continuing practice of prayer, silence, physical solitude, kenosis (self-emptying), and commitment to that foundational relationship with love-in-act which makes us each human. It also implies commitments to community (for instance to the parish community which is one's primary community, or to the handful of good friends with whom one really shares her daily life) because it is a reality stemming from and leading to love. At bottom, eremitical solitude is communal or "dialogical" because it always means communion or dialogue with God who is the source, ground, and very paradigm of solitude.

Similarly, silence is ordinarily thought to be the absence of sound --- and today, merely a relative absence of noise since our culture's way of covering or distracting us from noise is to add more sound to the mix! But silence is multidimensional and more than just the absence of sound. If you have ever sat in church next to someone who is making no sound but is jiggling their legs, you know this. If you have ever walked into a quiet room of people waiting for you to speak and felt terrified or anxious, you know it. If you have ever been lying in the dark before sleep and felt driven to the kitchen by a desire for chocolate, compelled by thoughts which are obsessive, or struck with a terrible feeling of emptiness or failure, you know that silence is not merely the absence of sound. Instead it has to do with being at peace, with being comfortable with who one is in God, with not having to prove oneself and with letting what comes come in its own time. (I have to remind everyone including myself that this is a goal of eremitical life and its realization only comes over time, even when it is present in degrees throughout that life.)

So, the silence of solitude is the silence, and better, the quies which results from being alone in and with God. It refers to the life of one who knows how profoundly loved she is and who is able to live within and from that for the sake of others. It involves physical silence, of course, but it is much more and richer than that. What is at its root is God and one's relationship with God and all those whom God holds as precious. It does not exist otherwise.

I hope this helps.

05 February 2012

Jesus Raises me up to service in and for "the silence of solitude"


I was struck differently today by the healing of Peter's Mother-in-Law than I have been in the past. In the past I was probably a little put out that Peter's MIL was healed only to immediately be raised up to serve. But today the story was a terrific joy to me for I understand the two movements of this Mother in Law's story differently than I once might have. After all, the ability to serve one's God, one's church, other people in the community, and one's family is a joy --- especially after a time of not being able to do so due to illness. There is no doubt that for one who has suffered the oppression of illness, whether chronic or acute and knows the apparent inability to be the person they have been gifted to be because of it that the simple image of Jesus taking Peter's MIL by the hand, raising her up to a new life where she is free to give back, to share, to participate in communal life again is a powerful symbol.

In the past two months I have been struggling to write (actually writing is always a struggle for me!). Not only do I have a book I have been working on slowly for some time now, but I have a couple of articles which I need to get published due to some urgency. These articles focus on the "silence of solitude" as the interpretive key to canon 603 --- and that means it is the key to the discernment of a diocesan eremitical vocation, to living the life well in dialogue with the modern world and the desert and hesychastic traditions, as well for Chancery personnel at every level who assist in the discernment process, and supervise those living the vocation in their dioceses. These people need to understand the difference between pious lone individuals and hermits; they also need something which anchors canon 603 in the desert and hesychastic traditions, and can signal when it is appropriate to expect a hermit candidate to be able to write a livable Rule of life --- as well as what to look for in such a Rule which signals an authentic vocation. The silence of solitude is the single element of the canon which serves in these ways. Finally, and most importantly, I think, it is the interpretive Key to the canon because it is the charism or gift which this vocation is to church and world and as such, serves as the depth dimension of the other elements in the canon which establishes them as essentially eremitical --- including the often-neglected central and non-negotiable element: "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world."

While only some of this is truly new to me the project is important to me because I came to it through my own long struggle with chronic illness which involved my move from attempts to validate my isolation to the actual redemption of that and its transfiguration into genuine solitude. It came to me through an experience of solitude which allowed me to understand the peace, the hesychia or quies which it involves when my own life was transformed from a scream of anguish into a song of silent joy. It came to me through a prayer experience in which celibacy was transformed from a negative experience (I would never be a mother, never be a wife, etc) into a form of love where I was completed as a woman by Christ's own love for me. It was that same experience in which solitude was transformed from a synonym for separation and apartness to a symbol of belonging at the heart of reality in dialogue with God. When I reflected on all of those who were isolated in our world and anguished that their lives were meaningless, it was genuine solitude in and with God that was the word of hope I concluded they needed to hear. Moreover, it came to me as I examined the occasional instances of the misapplication and failure to adequately esteem the gift/charism of canon 603 by a few Bishops and others over the past 28 years which trivialized the vocation and allowed professions which made it incredible. All of these events and others, especially perpetual profession as a diocesan hermit more than 4 years ago now and all that has involved, led me to understand first hand what canon 603 calls, "the silence of solitude."

At Christmas time when we were hearing all the stories of women in the OT and NT who had come from barrenness to fruitfulness, sometimes through the birth of a child, sometimes through a word only they could speak, I had reason to identify with those women because I looked at years of a life marked and marred by chronic illness which were relatively barren and I had come to a place where I understood this dimension of canon 603 life clearly. I therefore also had been given a word of grace to speak from out of my own relative barrenness, and more, from out of its redemption when indeed Jesus extended a hand to me and lifted me up to a wholeness and to the word which made sense out of my entire life. That word is, "the silence of solitude." This word points to that place in each of us where human brokenness and Divine holiness and healing come together and we become truly whole and still. It is the state of union which stands irrevocably at the root of our being and which we are called to allow to pervade every moment and mood of our lives. For hermits, it is the loving reality they wish above all to allow their lives to witness to.

We are blessed when our lives comes together in a way which allows them to be summed up in such a simple but rich symbol. We are even more blessed when that symbol can serve to lift up others and transform their lives as well. So, while the writing has been difficult despite all I have blogged about this topic in the past several years, I recognize that the term "the silence of solitude" reflects the hand Jesus reached out to me to lift me up and the spirit with which he healed me precisely so that I could serve my church and world as a whole and contemplative individual --- indeed, as an authentic hermit. After all, it is so very painful not to be able to give back, not to be able to share what is deepest in oneself, and certainly, not to have a unique word of your own to speak to those in similar situations.

So, yes, I heard today's Gospel rather differently than I have in the past and I am grateful for Jesus' tenderness in "lifting me up" to new and incredibly meaningful life. But I am also grateful to Peter's MIL who reminds us all of the joy of service which flows from being lifted up in such a way. After all, as we also are reminded, "My word shall not return to me void!" My own life is one of learning to trust that promise --- just as the pre-Christmas stories and today's Gospel also invite us all to.

04 February 2012

Followup to "Eremitical Life sans Monastic Formation?"


[[Thank you very much for your response. . . .You are right when you say that it would be dishonest to join a community in order to someday leave it to be a diocesan hermit; that being said there are now communities that are open to the hermit vocation (i.e. Trappists and some Benedictine communities). Do you feel that there is a difference between the eremitical life lived by say a Trappist on the grounds of his/her community and that of a diocesan hermit? If so, what do you think would be the difference? I'm thinking there would be a huge convergance between the two ways of life, but perhaps the need to support oneself for the diocesan hermit would put a different spin on the life. I would also imagine that a hermit who belongs to a religious order would also be deeply influenced by the charism of their community more than a diocesan hermit who would unattached to a particular contemplative charism.]]

Great questions! While I believe there are great similarities between any authentic form of eremitical life I do think there are some significant differences between the diocesan or c 603 vocation and that of someone living as a hermit though part of a congregation like the Carmelites or Carthusians or Cistercians.

I have written about this a fair bit here so let me just outline some of the differences at this point. The fact that a c 603 hermit is self-supporting and part of a parish definitely changes the nature of the vocation and allows it to be a gift to people who find themselves isolated and questioning the meaning of their lives. It allows eremitical life to speak to such persons in ways someone living within a monastic base with its inherent security, regularity, freedom from many everyday chores and concerns, and its well-established regard will never do. C 603 hermits living solitude in urban and suburban contexts witness to the possibility of the transfiguration of isolation into true and meaningful solitude, and they do so without withdrawing into a monastery but rather with the same support provided any person by a parish community. They achieve human individuation which contrasts vividly with the individualism of the world which actually discounts their lives --- and they say that others living in the midst of the world can do the same with the grace of God. I think this is the real charism of diocesan eremitical life; in the canon it is best described as "the silence of solitude" lived "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world" and is therefore something our world desperately needs.

Another huge difference of course is that the diocesan hermit has, as her primary community, her parish. I mentioned this implicitly just above. The hermit lives and prays in its midst. She worships there and serves in whatever ways suits her life. She allows her life to touch those of others in the parish as would rarely happen with a monastery or hermitage of a number of hermits, and of course those others touch her life as well --- sometimes quite profoundly. For me personally this tends to lead to an emphasis on the dialogical or communal dimension of solitude which has its origin in the relationship with God a person actually is. This exists for every hermit, but I think it is drawn out in sharper relief for the diocesan hermit.

As for the spirituality attached to particular congregations, most (or at least many!) diocesan hermits do affiliate in some way with a particular form of this even if it is not official. They are still professed as diocesan and may not (i.e., are not allowed to) make vows in another way but they may affiliate more casually with a particular tradition. I am an oblate with the Camaldolese, for instance, and thus, this imparts a particular flavor and set of values to my own embodiment of the eremitical life which differs from that of another diocesan hermit --- someone with a Franciscan spirit for instance. On the other hand diocesan hermits are free to try on various spiritualities to find which serves them and both their charism and mission best. For me Trappist also seems to fit my life very well as does a lot of Eastern (Christian) spirituality. The difference is that I am diocesan and therefore primarily live the charism of that life even if I do so with the assistance of the Camaldolese triple good (community, solitude, evangelism or witness), for instance.

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.