31 March 2012

On Bearing the Crosses that Come our Way (Reprise)

[[1) Are there such things as "unworthy" crosses, or "unholy" crosses? 2) Is God only able to use "holy crosses", or "worthy crosses" in our lives?? 3) Does he simply remove these ["unworthy"] crosses for us??]]

Well, it's an interesting couple of questions, but the answer to the first one is no (or potentially so), and the answer to the second question is a definite no!! The third one is a bit more nuanced, so see below. Let me start with the second question, (Can God only use Holy crosses?) which is more straightforward, and more clearly theological. It will provide the basis for answering the first and third questions as well.

To begin we must start with the central paradigm and symbol of our faith, the Cross of Christ. When we think of the Cross of Christ and Christ's passion it is critically important to remember that what was most significant about it was not the agonizing physical torture associated with it, horrific as this was, but rather the shame, offensiveness, and scandal of the cross. There was nothing holy, or worthy, or respectable about the cross Jesus assumed as his own. Quite the contrary. It was in every way the cross formed and shaped from and by human sinfulness, depravity, cruelty, inhumanity, and shamefulness --- not from human nobility, compassion, integrity, or anything similar. This cross represented the antithesis of the holy, the good, or the noble. It was understood to represent Godlessness (anti-life, anti-holiness, etc.) in as absolute a way as anything could. And of course, it is THIS shameful, unholy cross that God uses to redeem and reconcile his entire creation! (I am not going into this theology of how that happens in detail here; I have done that other places so please check the tags in the right hand column to find those articles re how the cross works, or the "Theology of the Cross".)

With this in mind, I think I can now approach the answer to your first question. There is no doubt that many of the crosses that afflict our lives are the result of unworthy choices, whether our own or another's. Not all the crosses we are called to bear are the result of an unchosen illness, for instance. People hurt one another, sometimes deeply and in ways which leave wounds which are difficult to work with or treat. Children are abused by parents and their capacities to love, trust, or live can be badly impaired. Adults sin seriously and impair their own and others' physical and emotional health in the process. In so many ways we carry the scars of these events, sometimes for years and years, sometimes our whole lives long. When you refer to unworthy or unholy crosses I think you are probably referring to these kinds of things, crosses that are the result of sin, inhumanity, cruelty, and the like. They are not unworthy in and of themselves, but they are the result of choices which are unworthy of both God and mankind, so let me go with that understanding for the moment.

So, what are we to do with such crosses? And further, can God use these for his own purposes even if he does not "send them"? Well, as with any cross we are to bear them patiently and courageously. HOWEVER, to bear them in this way does not mean simply to carry on without treatment, therapy, necessary personal work, healing and the like. To bear these kinds of crosses REQUIRES we work to allow the healing we need to live and love fully as human beings. This correlative work is actually a piece of bearing our cross patiently and courageously, ironic or contradictory as that may initially sound.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A child who is abused will grow up scarred; it is a cross she will have to bear for her whole life, though not necessarily always in the same way. However, it is a cross which will need to be borne precisely by taking on therapy and the hard work of healing. Were she to refuse this work and allowed her life to be dominated or defined completely by the past, she would not be embracing her cross or bearing it patiently, but denying and rejecting it. One does not embrace one's cross by refusing to live fully. To bear a cross patiently means to take on LIFE in its shadow, and marked by its weight and imprint, but also to do so with the grace of God which brings life out of death, wholeness out of brokenness, joy out of sorrow, and meaning out of senselessness. It does NOT mean to forego the challenges of living fully in the name of some piously-rationalized cowardice and "victimologization". For instance, the abused person would not be bearing her cross patiently if she said, "Well, God sent this cross, so I will simply accept all the consequences, dysfunction, crippled human capacities, and distortions that come with it. Don't talk to me about therapy, or moving out of this abusive relationship, or working hard to change the situation, etc. This was God's will!"

Prescinding from the idea that God sent this cross for the moment (a notion which I personally reject and explain below), what this attitude describes instead is capitulation to what Paul calls the powers of sin and death which are so active in our world. It is the refusal to allow God to redeem the situation, the refusal to be free in the Christian sense, and represents the embracing of bondage or slavery instead. It is an act of collusion with the destructive effects and process of the cross. Whether one is motivated by cowardice, hopelessness, masochism, or some other similar thing, in this case the pious sounding, "God sent this cross so I will accept it, all its consequences, dysfunction,. . ." is a refusal to live fully, to seek genuine holiness and humanity. It is a refusal of God's grace as it usually comes to us as well, for God's grace here ordinarily comes to us through things like the processes of therapy, spiritual direction, personal work, and all the relationships and changes which bring hard won healing and wholeness.

Can God use these "unworthy" crosses for his purposes? Of course. Why would he not be able to? To suggest otherwise is to say that God is incapable of redeeming certain aspects of his creation, or of making all things work for good in those who love him and let him love them. It is to suggest the Christ Event was a failure, and today's passage from Romans 8 is hyperbole at best, and a lie at worst. God may not have sent this cross, but there is no doubt that he can use it as a unique source of grace in one's life. We grow in all kinds of ways when we embrace the unavoidable difficulties life throws our way, but especially when we do so in faith and in concert with God's grace. This points up another way of refusing to carry one's cross, an unusual way I think, but one nonetheless.

It is a refusal to carry one's cross to say, "God did not send it, so let's just be rid of it (or ignore it, etc). I cannot grow in this virtue or that one in light of this cross because it is unworthy, unholy, and God did not send it." In fact, God ordinarily does NOT send the crosses that come our way. They are forged instead in the workshops of human sin, stupidity, cruelty and violence --- just as Jesus' cross was. And yet, he expects us to take them on with his grace so that he might redeem us and our world. I don't for an instant believe that God sent chronic illness, injury and pain for me to live with, however, he can use these with my cooperation to transform both me and my world. I don't for an instant believe that God sends the crosses that are the result of abuse, neglect, carelessness, cruelty and the like, but there is no doubt that he can use these to transform their sufferers and our world.

Your last question was a bit more of a surprise than the other two and you may need to say more about it for me to answer adequately. Let me take a stab at it though. Does God simply remove these crosses for us? My first answer is no, though I am sure he COULD do. My second or related response is a question, "why should he?" I suppose in some way this question stems from your other two: if a cross is unholy and unworthy and God did not send it, then why shouldn't he simply remove it? But the simple fact is that crosses become holy and worthy in the bearing of them! They are "worthy" or "holy" crosses only when the one afflicted by them bears them worthily and in holiness. These crosses become something other than the result of human sinfulness and cruelty only when they are borne with grace --- and here grace does not simply mean superficial equanimity (or something less noble like grudging resignation!); it means "with and open to the life-giving life and power of God's accompanying love."

God has chosen to redeem this world by participating in its crosses, but as with Jesus, that means that one has to take the cross on in a conscious way and walk with it. Of course we will fall under its weight from time to time. Jesus did as well. But he remained open to what God would bring out of it all. This is why Paul's summaries of Jesus' achievement focuses not on his pain but on his obedience: "Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross." In the end, it is only in this way that God can take on sin and death, enter into them exhaustively, and transform them with his presence. We take these things on as a piece of Jesus' own redemptive work; we cannot eschew such a burden and be true to our callings.

Theologically, it makes no sense to me to try and distinguish between those crosses which are sent by God and are worthy of being borne, and those which are not. Partly that is because I don't believe God sends crosses so much as he sends the means by which they may be redeemed and become redemptive. Partly it is because it is precisely the unholy and unworthy that God takes on WITH US (and in us!), in such cases, transforming them into something of real worth and holiness. Did God send Jesus the cross he took on! NO, it was entirely a human construct made with our own bloody hands and twisted, frightened hearts, but absolutely he did send Jesus into our world to TAKE IT ON! Do you hear the difference? Does he send us the crosses that come our way? No, but he sends us into the world so that we might be part of its redemption and fulfillment and that means he sends us into the world to take on the various crosses that COME OUR WAY "naturally" (and by "naturally" I mean that come our way through the human sinfulness, cruelty, and violence we meet everyday).

No cross is worthy or holy until it is borne with grace and courage. God does not send crosses per se, but he sends us into a world full of them expecting to help us in their redemption, and he certainly commissions us to carry the crosses that come our way. The only other point that needs to be reiterated is that we bear crosses patiently only when we choose to live fully in spite of them, and in taking them on with the grace of God accompanying and empowering us.

That means we take on the therapy, medical care (including appropriate medications for pain, etc), personal work of healing, and so forth that are part of these crosses. If someone has hurt us, even if they have hurt us very badly, it also means taking on the work and the PROCESS of healing we call forgiveness. This can take years and years of course; it is not simply an act of will even though it involves such acts (sometimes many of them in renewed intentions to let the past go). It requires assistance, not only of God, but physicians, psychologists, confessors, spiritual directors, and friends. The bottom line is there are many ways to refuse to carry a cross including labelling them unworthy or unholy and waiting for God to simply remove them, but to carry them means more than to simply accept the events that forged them initially; it means to accept everything necessary to transform and redeem them and ourselves as their bearers as well.

I hope this answers your questions; if I misunderstood them in some way, please get back to me and clarify.

Canonical Standing as a Vocational Trellis

[[Dear Sister, there is a hermit posting videos on You Tube and she wrote something which seemed to be directed to or at you or other canonical hermits. She said, [[. . .not all the canons laws in the world will ever form the hermit vocation to the degree and to the beauty and power that simply turning to (God's) presence will form it for you. . .]] Can you comment on this?]]

Sure. I don't hear this as directed at me particularly, but she is correct, of course. No authentic hermit whether diocesan, religious, or lay would disagree with this. God is always the source and ground of the hermit vocation, or any other vocation for that matter.

On the other hand, for disciplined and really fruitful growth plants often need trellises or stakes to support them or even to help shape what would otherwise become a shapeless impenetrable mass of growth without limits or order. Occasionally, even a good pruning is required for healthy growth and fruitfulness. Beyond this, some plants require such steps so they don't become destructive of property or sap the nutrition and space allotted to other plants. Canon law, a person's Rule or Plan of Life, "subjection" (or commitment) to spiritual direction, a delegate, and the other relationships which are established with standing in law all help the hermit to remain turned to the God who is the source of life and growth while also being sure the growth is regular, sustained, balanced, and fruitful.

As I have written very often here Canonical standing is not the only valid means to eremitical life. Lay eremitical life is equally valid and may in fact speak to certain groups of people more powerfully than canonical forms -- diocesan (solitary) or religious (semi-eremitical) --- for instance. The fact is some hermits will find they grow freely and productively without the constraints (or the specific stable relationships) established by profession in canon law; others will find that to grow freely and effectively they need canon law and the rights and obligations attached to canonical standing. In either case it is always God who is the source and ground of any authentic growth or fruitfulness. I am not aware of a hermit --- lay, diocesan, or religious --- who has said (or who would say) anything different.

29 March 2012

Renunciation and the final Idolatry: Letting Go of a God Who is Too Small

Lent is quickly coming to a close, or perhaps better, to a tremendous climax. Throughout this period we have focused on becoming people who truly listen with our whole hearts and minds. The openness such listening demands is not easy for us for there are all kinds of things which militate against it. Our own religious and theological education can be one of the main obstacles to really hearing what we are meant to hear during the Triduum --- those three days when God reveals himself exhaustively without limit or reservation as God-with-us and God-for-us; at the same time he reveals the human being as the one called to be with and for God, the one who is only human to the extent she is wholly dependent on God and committed to allowing God to be God as exhaustively as possible.

The problem is typified in Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees --- a conflict we have been hearing about in the daily readings and hear once again in tomorrow's Gospel. As tempting as it is to see the Pharisees as the villains in the black hats and Jesus as the good guy in the white hat, the situation is more complicated than that. John's Gospel has Jesus affirming that he is the I AM --- the very presence and power of God himself symbolized in the name revealed to Moses during his commissioning to go to the Children of Israel and bring them out of slavery. We tend to hear this name "I Am" (ego eimi) as the rather static Greek term which affirms that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, one in being (consubstantial) with the Father. The fact that the Pharisees accuse Jesus of blasphemy and attempt to stone him bolsters our sense of the accuracy of this reading. But in some ways, we are being prevented from hearing a huge part of what Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees was all about with this hearing of the gospel --- and what his challenge is for us as well.


The Semitic sense of God's name is much more dynamic than this static Greek version. If we read Ex 3:14 in context we see that "I am who am" is accompanied by all kinds of promises regarding the nature of this presence: I will be, I will bring, I will give, I will send, I know, I have seen, I have come, etc etc. We know too that for the Semitic mind God's being was also a doing. Wherever God was, there was speech, and hearing, and summoning, and creating, and loving, and overcoming, and redeeming, etc. God's Name referred to all of this dynamism and promise and therefore, had a sense of "uncontainability" or incomprehensibility. For these reasons, commentators on Exodus 3:14 tend to translate "ego eimi" not as I am who am, but rather as "I will be the One I will be" and they are very clear that that "being who one wills to be" includes an incontrovertible being with and for: I will be with you and for you and nothing at all will stop me from being this God --- not even the most irreligious (or religious!) among you!

When Jesus meets the Pharisees head on and, in the language of John's Gospel, claims to be I AM, he also claims to be the revelation of a God who is simply bigger than the Pharisees have imagined or can allow. This is how it will always be with the real God. Traditions that have served them and Israel well now become fetters which cripple them and constraints to their imagining a God who explodes all the boundaries of their theology. Every time Jesus has come into conflict with the Pharisees it is because of such boundary breaking: eating or healing on the Sabbath, consorting with sinners --- abject sinners --- not just those who have broken this or that halakic rule, speaking to and touching those who would render him "unclean", telling parables which apparently incite to something similar in his followers by revealing God to be more loving and generous, more forgiving, more merciful than seemed prudent or just.

In other words, if Jesus is telling the truth, he reveals a God who is bigger than Jewish tradition and thought has allowed for or could contain, and if the Pharisees affirm Jesus as the revelation of the God of Israel they also confirm the death of the Israel and religion of Israel they know, love, and have given their lives to protecting and nurturing. To let God be God, they must, to some extent, let go of or leave behind the God they have known and worshiped. Here all the readings we have heard recently about idolatry reach a stunning and paradoxical climax. Rather than allow themselves to be trapped in idolatry, the Pharisees must open themselves to a bigger God who will be the One he wills to be no matter how illogical, unreasonable, imprudent or contrary to tradition that seems. They must, to some extent, let go of true religion which can constrain in order to embrace the God of Truth. It will be a matter of letting go of a God whose name is "I Am" and instead allowing the God whose Name is, "I will be the One I will be!" to take hold of their lives. Fortunately, their tradition has actually prepared them for and summons them to this ultimate act of renunciation.

At many points during the Triduum we will be asked to do the same thing. Interpretations of the cross which minimize the horrific sinfulness human beings accomplished in betraying, torturing, and killing a genuinely God-sent man, which treat Jesus' suffering as a price God required for his wrath to be appeased or his honor to be redeemed must be relinquished as unworthy of the real God. Notions of Christ's descent into hell which restrict this event to "the just" and which place limitations on the extent of God's mercy, notions of divine sovereignty which require that mercy be balanced by justice or love by wrath must also be relinquished as unworthy of the real God revealed in the Christ event. A God who can love but cannot suffer, one who somehow allows sin and death to have the last word --- these gods too must be left behind as idolatrous and unworthy of the One Jesus reveals to us.

Jesus confronted the Pharisees with the God revealed to Moses, the one who would be who he would be --- no matter the obstacles that involved overcoming. Jesus reveals the same God to us, a God who is always bigger than we can imagine, a paradoxical God who asserts his sovereignty and does justice precisely by loving his creation exhaustively and unconditionally, a God who, with the Cross of Christ, will always explode our religious and theological categories -- along with the idols they describe -- and summon us to trust him instead. My prayer is that Holy Week will work precisely this way in our own lives.

28 March 2012

Followup to "What Do I do when my Diocese says, "No"?

[[Dear Sister,
Is it reasonable to suggest a person continue to hope that one day her diocese will say yes to professing her if they have denied her petition three times already under two different Bishops? Couldn't this be unreasonable and encourage false hope?]]

It could be both unreasonable and encouraging false hope IF the person, after talking to the diocese to determine their concerns and issues with profession finds that the diocese feels she is simply not called to this vocation. In such a case I agree that it would be wiser to live the life she has at hand, accept that she is a lay hermit, at least for the time being, and work with her director to discern if this is what she truly feels called to do and be. Then, of course, she should act on what she discerns. Note well, the spiritual director does not affirm a vocation, nor say yay or nay to approaching the diocese at any point. She merely assists in the process of discernment; the actual decision is the person's she is directing. A person who expects her director to make such decisions for her may simply be proving how unready and perhaps unsuitable she is for the eremitical vocation.

However, as noted in an earlier post, there are a number of reasons a diocese may deny admission, and a number of these can be worked with over time. Sometimes they have to do with personal growth work that still needs doing. In such cases the combination of spiritual direction and psychological therapy might be necessary and produce amazing results. Most directors I know are happy to work in conjunction with a therapist --- especially if a vocation may be at issue. Of course, sometimes this is simply not enough and the person will never be admitted to profession. Diocesan vocation personnel and Vicars for Religious may be able to give the person an idea of their own sense of this. Sometimes the issue is on the diocese's side: they may decide they need to profess someone else first and see how it goes; they may need to do greater research on the nature of eremitical life and what makes a healthy hermit in the contemporary world and what does not. Occasionally a diocese is simply not open to professing anyone; they may not believe in the validity of eremitical vocations or there will be some other reason. Generally, however, it is always helpful to talk with whoever was in charge of one's case and get an honest appraisal of where one stands and why, difficult as that might also be.

The point is that if one lives as a lay hermit for a significant period, does the personal work one may still need to do, focuses on growth and maturation both spiritually and psychologically and is happy in genuine solitude (not isolation and not in narcissistic gratification!), one may be able to petition once again, and a diocese can change it's mind. It is not guaranteed and one does not live one's life expecting or pinning one's hopes on this; one simply lives as a lay hermit because eremitical life is one's calling whether or not canon 603 profession is ever in the frame. But once one works through whatever issues and concerns existed she may well see clearly that canonical standing is a necessary part of her own vocation and be able to make a much better case to the diocese. What is critical is that one not assume any of this but rather personally work hard to discern what it is to which one is truly called. A piece of that is really listening to the church in all of this and, unless there is a good reason to doubt it, trusting that they are acting in the best interest of the vocation which is, after all, an ecclesial one.

On the other hand, a longer period of time as a lay hermit may allow a person to discern if solitude is a transitional period for them; if they actually work through the things which prevented them from being admitted more immediately to profession (it always takes several years) they may be able to discern that what they have been living is isolation, not genuine solitude, for instance, and with consecration out of the picture for the time being they may actually discern their petition had more to do with being enamored of the trappings that are associated with public profession/consecration. Finally, they may discover the significance and value of the lay eremitical vocation and decide to embrace it for the rest of their lives.

Hermits are formed in solitude, but it is a solitude which is usually continually supported and assisted by several significant relationships. When this is a person's true vocation they come to what canon 603 and the Carthusians refer to as, "the silence of solitude." Without a genuine call the person may live in physical silence and relative social isolation, but never come to "the silence of solitude" which is the quies which results from life in silent dialogue with God. This is one of the reasons I tend to argue that directors, diocesan personnel and Bishops must understand and discern the difference between merely living a pious life alone and this central element of canon 603. It is a key to discerning authentic vocations to eremitical solitude, whether consecrated or lay. Still, it may take some time and considerable personal work to give solitude a sufficient chance and see if it will bring forth the fruit of hesychasm, quies, or the silence of solitude canon 603 rightly regards as a non-negotiable element of the eremitical life.

Finally, I should note that dioceses cannot always (and usually do not) accompany a person during the whole of this time, but ordinarily they will be open to revisiting a person's situation to assess it afresh when significant personal work has been done and pertinent evaluations and recommendations are available which can shed a new light on the matter. This is especially true when the person has continued to live in genuine solitude, have come to the quies or silence of solitude the canon affirms as central, and can articulate good reasons as to why it is they still feel called to public profession rather than life as a lay hermit.

27 March 2012

A Suggested Lenten/Easter Praxis


Perhaps it is rather late in Lent to be suggesting Lenten practices which might be helpful to people, but I just became aware of a particular bit of praxis and wanted to share it. It is especially helpful because it ties in with the post I put up on the first Sunday of Lent which dealt with the idea of savoring those times in our lives when God has been powerfully present and experienced in clear ways. In my own parish I spoke about this notion of savoring as the corollary to fasting so it has been a theme throughout Lent for me this year. Using both together can offset the somewhat individualistic or self-preoccupied stance that CAN come from focusing on our own sinfulness.


Little did I know my pastor was moving in a related direction and it is from him that this suggested praxis comes (though I understand he borrowed it himself). The idea is to list 40 people who have been significant in your life and faith journey. (If one has a smaller circle of friends and family, then one would list how ever many that really is, but don't forget anyone.) Each of the 40 days of Lent one writes one of these people a note thanking them for who they are and what they have meant or do mean to you. (If your list is more modest, you could break the 40 days up and write notes at regular intervals.) During that day (or that period), you also pray for that person especially.

I would suggest -- especially since it is rather late in Lent to start this --- that this might work well for the season of Easter as well. We Fast during Lent in a variety of ways, but Easter is a time of feasting, and certainly more specifically of savoring! One could take something of the same practice then and write the people who have given us life in all of the ways that occurs. I consider this a clearly Eucharistic practice because it is one of gratitude (eucharistein), but also because it embodies that gratitude in ways which can transform the world. It does so by allowing us to live from hearts that are more fully remade by our savoring of the love others have shown us and allowed us to give as well. To savor such love, to reflect on it and allow ourselves to be further nourished by it is surely Eucharistic at its roots.

My thanks to my pastor for such a wonderful idea. How ever you decide to adapt the practice, I hope you will give it a try yourselves!

God Alone is Enough


[[Hi Sister! What does it mean to say that God alone is enough? I need my family and friends and I wouldn't be the person I am without them. Does saying God Alone is Enough mean that we don't need others? Does it mean something different for you as a hermit than for me as a single teacher?]]

Wonderful questions! The phrase God Alone is Enough is an ambiguous one, meaning it has different and overlapping meanings which can also be misunderstood. So, for instance, the word "enough" can either basically mean we don't need anyone or anything else in our lives, or it can mean that God is the one reality which answers every fundamental or foundational need and completes us as persons. For most persons, the truth is that in adulthood we do not come to human wholeness apart from our relationships with other people and so it is ordinarily the case that the affirmation God alone is enough refers to the second sense: only God is sufficient to truly complete us, to empower us to the transcendence of genuine humanity, to serve as the source and ground of being and meaning in our lives.

This is especially true when one asks what the word "alone" means. Does it mean the person needs no one and nothing else besides God? Does it mean one can go one's own way motivated merely by individualism (what monastic life critically refers to as
singularitas) and even a form of narcissism? Does it mean that one can dismiss the world around them as unworthy of their spirituality and live a kind of falsely "spiritualized" isolation? Or does it mean that only God can answer every human need and complete us as persons? In every case, that is, for every person it means the latter. For most people their reliance on God as the foundation of their lives will actually lead to more -- and more healthy -- personal relationships, not to fewer or less healthy ones. Only in the case of hermits or anchorites does it mean that the hermit relies on God alone to the significant and lifelong limitation or relative exclusion of human relationships. We do this not only because we are called to do it for ourselves and for God who desires and wills our love, but again because it witnesses in a rather vivid way to that foundational relationship which stands at the core of every person.

So yes, my sense of the meaning of this phrase may be different than yours in some ways. The two senses I have spoken of also overlap to a significant degree though. By the way, as we approach Holy Week it is important to note that the church will be looking at a related way in which "God alone is enough." What we will hear proclaimed is the fact that only God can overcome sin and death: only God is that love which is stronger than death, only God is generous enough to empty himself completely and become subject to the powers and principalities of our world so that they might also be defeated. I will write about that a bit more though in the next weeks.
I hope this helps.

23 March 2012

May a Hermit Live in Reclusion?


[[Hi Sister Laurel,If a hermit wanted to live in complete reclusion, could they do that? Are there reasons a diocese would not want to encourage this? How often would one see one's family in such a case?]]

Hi there. The simple answer is yes, reclusion is one of the legitimate variations of eremitical life, but it is also a rare variation. In the church today, my understanding is that only three congregations MAY (are permitted to) allow recluses. The first is the Carthusian and the second and third are the Camaldolese (Monte Corona and Benedictine both). These congregations have a long and solid eremitical history and have had recluses at many points in the past 11 centuries or so. Provisions and safeguards for recluses or reclusion are written into their constitutions. Even so, it is a rare vocation even within this context. If you are asking about a solitary or diocesan hermit then I think the answer is still yes, however, there would need to be significant discernment by those who know the hermit best and are involved in her spiritual development (including Directors, delegates, Bishop, hermit, et al); psychological screening might also be required before allowing it --- though this is less likely when the hermit is very well known and the solidity of her emotional and spiritual life well-established. Additionally, it would be much less likely to be allowed before one has lived a vowed life in solitude for a significant period, nor if one was very young as a hermit. In such instances a hermit would be much more likely to mix periods of reclusion with periods where she was more accessible and participated more integrally in the sacramental life of the parish, diocese, and so forth.

Because diocesan hermits do not have the daily physical and communal support religious hermits do, reclusion would be more difficult for them. Not only does the diocesan hermit have to provide for physical needs (food, etc), but she also needs to have regular access to sacraments. Few diocesan hermits can have a priest come in very often to say Mass --- though I suspect a number of pastors would do it occasionally for them, and so might any religious priests they know well. It would depend upon the part of the country in which the hermit is located since some areas have a greater dearth of priests than others. Spiritual directors often will accommodate hermits by coming to the hermitage for appointments, but otherwise, the recluse is going to need to leave the hermitage occasionally unless they have arranged with people in their parish, etc, to provide for them regularly. This is certainly possible, however.

The primary reason to discourage such a project is that the hermit is not really called to such a life. There might be any number of reasons to conclude this including problems with any of the arrangements listed above. If a parish could not serve the hermit in this way, if provisions for Eucharist could not be arranged with sufficient frequency and regularity, if the hermit gave those discerning the vocation sufficient reasons to doubt such a call because of psychological issues, inadequate life experience, poor spiritual discipline, and immaturity in any form, etc, then these are all reasons to discourage such a course of life. It should go without saying that there should be significant reasons to believe God is calling this person to an intensely solitary contemplative prayer life which is rooted in generosity, compassion, and love; it should also very clearly lead to human wholeness and holiness with the hermit living a rich and joyfilled reclusion which is a gift and inspiration to everyone in the local community/parish. Reclusion should never be identical to an isolation forged in social failure or misanthropy.

The frequency of visits with or from family, or other periodic contacts with them and others are determined by the hermit herself after serious and confirmed discernment which is then written into her Rule. Once all of the arrangements which allow her to live as a recluse are set, these too will be included in the hermit's Rule in a general way. Provisions for doctor's appointments or other exceptions to the general rule of reclusion will also be included and the rule will be approved by Bishop's decree. Significant changes in one's Rule and praxis will need to be approved by the hermit's Bishop in consultation with her delegate and SD but continuing discernment summons the hermit to pay attention to the possible need for such. I would note that the eremitical life per se does not mandate absolute separation from friends and family so a piece of what one must discern has to do with how one will express love and gratitude for these persons. Of themselves, they are not "the world" which hermits more strictly separate themselves so care must be taken in determining limits which are going to be a source of real suffering for these persons and may or may not be the will of God.

I hope this helps.

22 March 2012

Oakland Civic Orchestra Concert


This Sunday OCO will be playing another concert at 4:00pm at the United Methodist Church on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland. The concert is free though donations are always welcome since they are a large part of how we support ourselves.


The program will include,
Beethoven's Overture, the Consecration of the House
Schubert's Symphony #8 (The "Unfinished"), and
Haydn's Symphony #104 (The London)


21 March 2012

Fundamental Questions re Canon 603

[[Dear Sister, is it true that canon 603 does not mention consecration explicitly? Also, is it true that c 603 does not mention the need for a Rule?]]

Canon 603 begins with the phrase, "Besides institutes of consecrated life the church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life. . ." Canon 603 is therefore speaking of a consecrated form of life besides the community life of religious. Remember that prior to canon 603 the only forms of consecrated life were religious or communal, that is, institutes (Orders, congregations, etc). So, while the word consecration is not used, the notion of consecration is hardly absent. This is especially true since in 603.2 the canon reads, "A hermit is recognized in law. . ." which can only refer to canonical standing and therefore to consecrated life which is normally entered into by (public) profession of the three evangelical counsels. In fact, while canon 603 is edifying to both lay and consecrated forms of eremitical life, it does NOT refer to both consecrated and lay eremitical life. It refers only to the consecrated form.

Regarding a Rule, it is true the word regula does not occur in the Latin version of the canon. Instead the phrase used is vivendi rationem, which is translated variously as "plan of life," "rule of life," or "program of life." While some argue there is a significant difference between a Rule and a Plan, this tends to be less true of hermits and dioceses regularly translate this as plan of life or Rule. Meanwhile the canon is very clear that this is the person's OWN Rule or Plan lived under the direction of the diocesan Bishop. This means the hermit herself writes the Rule based on her own experience and it is something clearly required as a part of consecration under canon 603.

[[Is there a 30 year minimum age requirement for canonical hermits written into canon law? Also, if a Bishop professes a very young person, can another Bishop come along and tell her she is too young to live the life?]]

With regard to age, the answer is, No. The only age requirements in canon law which would apply absolutely (as they do in religious life itself) have to do with minimum ages for novitiate (with hermits this might be acceptance for discernment since there is no formal novitiate) and temporary vows. In these cases the required minimum ages are: novitiate, 17 years (one "must have completed their 17th year"), temporary profession, 18 years (she must have have completed her 18th year), and perpetual profession 21 years of age (one must have completed one's 21st year). (In case this all seems confusing remember that you had your first birthday (anniversary) only on the completion of your first year of life!)

It is true that with the diocesan or solitary eremitical life, however, as I have written recently most hermits and Bishops agree that this is a second half of life vocation. Still, younger candidates do occasionally approach dioceses requesting profession under c 603 and in such cases the general opinion is that 30 years of age is the minimum age for temporary profession as a solitary hermit. This is simply due to the fact that solitude is a vocation which requires greater life experience and formation in community (how ever that is acquired). However, an individual Bishop may allow an exception from this general opinion and profess a younger person, especially in cases with significant maturity and unusual life experience. In such cases the canonical age requirements listed above would still apply. Otherwise, however, it is probably better for a very young candidate to go to a community with a strong eremitical element to carefully discern such a vocation and to get the requisite formation in community so necessary to healthy solitude.

With regard to your second question, the answer is, "it depends upon whether the person is temporary or perpetual professed." As I wrote recently in response to a similar question, if one is perpetually professed a new Bishop assumes the role of legitimate superior but cannot simply decline to recognize one as a diocesan hermit. Canonical standing, that is, standing in law via definitive profession confers a kind of security with regard to the vocation itself in the rights it grants. One has given oneself for the whole of one's life and the Church has officially received this gift and commissioned one to live out this vocation in her name. For this reason she marks the day of perpetual or definitive profession with a signed and notarized document testifying to the fact that x_____ is a hermit of the Diocese of y______ and made perpetual profession on a given date in a given church. In my experience anyone claiming to be a perpetually professed diocesan hermit will have such a document (and/or a copy will be included in their file at the chancery).

The situation is different if one is only temporary professed. In such a case, even though one intends this commitment for the rest of one's life one is still in a process of discernment with one's diocese. The new Bishop could indeed then decline to allow one to renew vows with additional temporary vows, or allow a new profession with admission to perpetual vows. A Bishop would need to recognize the vows for as long as they were in force however. Only for very good reason could he dispense these vows. Here the length of time it takes to discern authentic vocations to solitude works in the hermit's favor because often (though not always!) dioceses call for temporary profession for a period of 3-5 years before admitting to renewal of these vows or to perpetual profession. During such a period the hermit is apt to meet at least several times with her (new) Bishop and, if she lives her life well and is involved on some level with exploring its significance for others, she could change his mind about the vocation itself.


I hope this helps.

17 March 2012

St Patrick's Day Greetings (Reprise of Phyllis McGinley on St Patrick)


All good wishes on this "high holy day" (well, High Irish Holy Day, anyway)! Of course, it does seem that everyone is Irish on this day, so I guess that makes it a universal high holy day! Tonight is our parish's annual St Paddy's day dinner with corned beef and cabbage, carrots, potatoes, etc and I am off to that following the vigil Mass. It is a great thing to be Irish --- even if it is Scots-Irish!

It also seemed to me that McGinley's poem captured the fun as well as the seriousness of this Saint and his day so I am reprising it from last year. Enjoy.

St Patrick the Missioner, by Phyllis McGinley


Saint Patrick was a preacher
With honey in his throat.
They say he could charm away
A miser's dearest pence;
Could coax a feathered creature
To leave her nesting note
And fly from many a farm away
To hear his eloquence.

No Irishman was Patrick
According to the story.
The speech of Britain clung to him
(Or maybe it was Wales).
But, ah, for curving rhet'ric,
Angelic oratory,
What man could match a tongue to him
Among the clashing Gaels!

Let Patrick meet a Pagan
In Antrim or Wicklow,
He'd talk to him so reachingly,
So vehement would pray,
That Cul or Neall or Reagan
Would fling aside his bow
And beg the saint beseechingly
To christen him that day.

He won the Necromancers,
The Bards, the country herds.
Chief Aengus rose and went with him
To bear his staff and bowl.
For such were all his answers
To disputatious words,
Who'd parry argument with him
Would end a shriven soul.

The angry Druids muttered
A curse upon his prayers.
The sought a spell for shattering
The marvels he had done.
But Patrick merely uttered
A better spell than theirs
And sent the Druids scattering
Like mist before the sun.

They vanished like the haze on
The plume of the fountain.
But still their scaly votaries
Were venomous at hand.
So three nights and days on
Tara's stony mountain
He thundered till those coteries
Of serpents fled the land.

Grown old but little meeker
At length he took his rest,
And centuries have listened, dumb,
To tales of his renown.
For Ireland loves a speaker
So loves Saint Patrick best:
The only man in Christendom
Has talked the Irish down.

16 March 2012

Common reasons dioceses decline to profess individuals under c 603



[[Dear Sister, I don't think you took into consider-ation the very real possibility that those "discerning" a person's vocation may have let personal prejudice creep into their ultimate decision. If a lay person who has lived their vocation as a lay hermit as long as the writer has, is rejected, I have to question whether they really ever wanted to conclude in favor of the petitioner in the first place. Sometimes it is not the person's deficiency; sometimes it is a problem with people disliking the person under scrutiny. Your advice could be very healing for such a terrible moment in a person's life.]]

Many thanks for your comments. I admit I have not run into such a situation myself, and though I agree it is possible, I honestly don't think it is all that common. However, let me discuss it directly after I mention some of the more common reasons lay hermits (or those calling themselves lay hermits) are denied admittance to canonical profession/consecration. I think this will help demonstrate what in most cases is far more often apt to be at work than simple prejudice. (Let me be very clear, none of these examples should be assumed to apply to the original poster's situation!! Neither do any of these necessarily make the very real difficulty of diocesan denial of one's petition any easier to bear.)

The Problem of Self-Identification

First of all, generally speaking, the problem with lay hermit vocations is the IF in your conditional sentence, "If a lay hermit has lived this vocation. . .for such a length of time. . .". This is, unfortunately, a VERY big IF. One problem with self-designations is that one can call oneself a lay hermit without any checks or balances and be something other than what the church recognizes as a hermit, lay or otherwise. Obviously this can come from many causes -- including a simple lack of adequate spiritual direction or other challenging feedback, or access to others who can educate one regarding the meaning of terms like "silence", "solitude", "the silence of solitude", "the world", "stricter separation from the world", etc. But whatever the reason, self-identification is a problematical practice and may or may not represent the truth of the situation. One of the reasons I have written recently about the hyperindividualism and even narcicissism of our culture is to indicate that this is a real danger. One of the reasons I have distinguished between just living a pious life alone and living eremitical solitude is because this is true. Not everything that goes by the name "hermit" is authentic. (Remember the story I posted here re Tom Leppard?) Sometimes the application of the term "hermit" is a way of trying to validate isolationism, misanthropy, narcissism, social failure, as well as a piety which is more than nominal Christians live, but which falls far short of the eremitical life required and marked by canon 603. Unfortunately such reasons are not uncommon.

In such cases these people are not truly hermits. The designation "hermit" is self-assumed and neither the church nor society approves nor monitors the way they live their lives nor calls them directly to do a better job of it! Private vows are significant personal commitments but they are private in every way. Neither the church nor the persons witnessing such vows have a role in supervising these commitments to see how well the person is living them. Thus, there is simply no way to easily verify 1) if the person lives what canon 603 describes as essential to the eremitical life, nor 2) what the designation "hermit" really means on a daily, year in -- year out, basis. While some have contempt for the legal aspects of canonical standing, accountability is a big piece of standing in law and the church tends to make publicly accountable those who demonstrate they have been faithful to and accountable for a genuinely generous eremitical vocation without canonical standing. Sometimes the diocese in question simply cannot establish this to their own satisfaction when dealing with lay hermits.

Making the Transition to Hermit Life

Others not only do not live, but do not even want to live an eremitical life; they simply want to be able to wear religious garb and be called "Sister" or "Brother"; canon 603 seem the easiest way to do that as a lone person. (For every person who genuinely wants to live a canonical eremitical life, there are dozens who approach canon 603 as a stopgap measure only.) Such persons typically never make the kinds of breaks with their former way of life which are necessary to eremitical life. When I speak of people living pious lives alone rather than living an eremitical silence of solitude I sometimes am referring to these kinds of people. Some watch several hours of TV a day (or participate similarly in some other personal activity or hobby (even those with significantly more value than TV) in ways which make these the defining activities of their lives) while they add in an hour of prayer here of there, and so forth; the basic approach here means that the radical break with the world (especially as it is represented in their very selves and living space) is not made. Such persons may even be fine writers, artists, etc, but this does not of itself make them hermits in the church's sense of that term.

Tweaking one's prayer and penitential life here or there is not what is called for. Stricter separation from the world (that which is resistant to Christ and not yet under his sovereignty), as I have said a number of times, does not mean merely closing the hermitage door on the world outside oneself while one continues the life one lived before. I recall my former Bishop in his homily at my perpetual profession referring to my giving over of my living space to this call. At the time I had not thought of what I was doing in these terms, but he was exactly right. The giving over he was speaking of represents part of the "stricter separation from the world" the canon calls for. While such persons are perhaps learning to live as lay hermits they are not, or at least are not YET, good candidates for canon 603 profession. If the motivation and effort to move beyond such lives into real eremitical silence and solitude, assiduous prayer and penance is not evident, then a diocese may simply be dealing with a person who wants a diocese to rubber stamp a lone, perhaps pious, but non-eremitical life and give them the permission they desire to dress and style themselves as religious. In such cases dioceses will rightly decline admission to profession/consecration.

Simply not Called to Public Profession

Beyond this, there are people who MAY indeed have lived faithfully as lay hermits for some period of time who are simply not equipped to represent the eremitical tradition in some public or normative way. While one would never want to deprive them of the designation lay hermit (something they are free to explore and live or at least try to live by virtue of their baptism -- and which itself is a source of our eremitical tradition), neither would one be able in good conscience to admit them to public vows. In one case I am aware of, for instance, a lay hermit regularly and publicly expresses contempt for canon 603 and all he mistakenly feels it stands for. While he is willing to "turn in (his) paper work" occasionally to see if his Bishop "desires to have (him) professed", it is his stated feeling that canon 603 is actually a betrayal of the church's eremitical tradition. This person has been denied admittance to public profession once or twice in the past and, it seems very likely to me, this had nothing to do with simple personal prejudice on the part of those discerning these vocations for the diocese.

Some are not good candidates for consecration and public vows for different reasons: Perhaps they are seriously mentally ill or significantly personality disordered; perhaps their theology is so off-the-wall, or the "rule" by which they live so inadequate and eccentric that canonical standing (which makes of the Rule a quasi-public document via Bishop's decree) would set a precedent which is detrimental to the vocation generally and may cause problems for other dioceses dealing with similar situations and persons. Some lay hermits have notions of obedience which are far from those more healthy ones used today in the contemporary church with regard to public vows; they require permission for even the smallest decision or change in daily living, and show a concerning lack of autonomy in their capacity for discerning and implementing God's will. One person has joked that they suspect these persons would put their Bishops on speed dial if they allowed it! For such persons, admission to vows and the legitimate superior-subject relationship with one's Bishop and/or delegate which this establishes can be truly detrimental for the person and for the c 603 vocation. At the very least it does not represent the mature obedience of vowed life.

Physical Incapacity

In the absence of such difficulties there are persons who are simply physically incapable of living the life outlined in canon 603. Certainly one does not have to be completely well and one could well be a hermit with chronic illness and conceivably even a caregiver, but one does need to be able to live a disciplined life of assiduous prayer, penance and eremitical solitude without turning, for instance, to hours of various distractions from the symptoms of one's illness.

While it is personally difficult for me to suggest that some persons' illnesses apparently prevent them from living an eremitical life, it does happen. In my experience, sometimes physical illness can be a dominating reality to such an extent that one is unable to live an eremitical life effectively. This can certainly change, but what I am suggesting is that so long as illness is the defining (not just an important and influential) reality in one's life, one may not be ready to live canon 603 life. In such a case it would be important to clarify with the diocese that they will look at one's petition down the line should the nature of illness change. (Note well, I am not suggesting that the illness itself needs to change or be healed but that the way one lives with this illness has to do so if that is possible. In some way God and all of the fruits which life with God produces --- including the silence of solitude and the other-centered, generosity and compassion that result from it --- must become the defining realities of one's life, not one's illness. Ordinarily this occurs in some essential way during the period of lay eremitism one lives before petitioning the diocese for admission to profession but there must be signs of it happening before one is admitted to vows and it should be very clearly established by the time of perpetual vows.)

Steps usually taken in the process of discernment of canon 603 vocations which help insure the wisdom and objectivity of the process.

To be honest I think these cases are far more prevalent than instances of unfounded or merely personal bias on the part of diocesan personnel. With regard to the way discernment of eremitical vocations is carried out in dioceses I am familiar with, here are some of the steps usually involved: 1) a more or less loosely supervised period as a lay hermit with regular spiritual direction, involvement in a parish, and (later on in this period) regular meetings (including home visits) with the Vicar for Religious or Consecrated Life; 2) psychological screening when this seems prudent or helpful (occasionally dioceses do this routinely for c 603 aspirants, just as congregations do for their own aspirants), 3) time for the writing of a Plan of Life or Rule based on lived experience of eremitical life and preparation for living the vows, 4) submission of the Rule to canonists (usually third parties outside the diocese, especially those who specialize in c 603 or consecrated life) who will critique and make suggestions for such a document, 5) assembling of various recommendations (pastors, spiritual directors, physicians, psychologists, former Vicars of Religious, or others who have dealt with the individual), 6) usually concurrent assembling documents of Sacramental history in the Church including the Sacrament of matrimony and decrees of nullity, 7) a period of discernment beyond all of these perhaps leading to a recommendation to the Bishop to admit to profession, 8) a personal meeting with the Bishop who (in my own experience) only then reads all that has been submitted, whether by the petitioner or others, meets with the aspirant several more times, and does his own separate and final discernment in the matter.

I should note that a person's admission to temporary profession is actually a continuation of the discernment process, though this occurs in a different way. Still, temporary vows are made for a certain period of time and during this time the hermit will meet with her Bishop, regularly with her delegate, and regularly with her spiritual director; she will petition for renewal of vows or admission to perpetual profession near the end of this period and another process of decision making rooted in discernment will occur at the diocesan level. Changes in the Rule may be needed, and this again may be submitted to canonists for approval. Another period of temporary profession may be requested of the hermit by her diocese. Discernment --- so far as the diocese is concerned --- ceases only with perpetual profession.

What Should a Person do if they are still convinced they are the victim of prejudice in the diocese's decision?

But what should a person do if they are convinced that they cannot get a fair hearing from diocesan personnel? This is a tough question actually. The first thing, however, is to ask to speak to whoever has been dealing with one's petition directly. Ask the same kinds of questions I have already noted in earlier posts. See if there is anything which could cause a change in one's opinion in this matter. Ask if there is any single document or recommendation which is the sticking point and speak again to that person --- open to having them be honest with you --- hard as that might be. If the Bishop has not yet received the case (or has not received a positive recommendation) write him a direct letter and lay your concerns and perception of the situation before him. If the Bishop is the source of the negative evaluation then still try to see him for a clarifying conversation. This could be one of those rare situations where someone should consider moving to a new diocese and trying again --- but one should contact the new diocese beforehand to see if they would look over your documents and consider ANY petition to be professed under canon 603.

Another reader made an additional suggestion which could be helpful for both the individual and diocese. They suggested that a "come and see" period at a contemplative house or monastery might be helpful in clarifying issues and concerns. This could provide a more objective source of discernment for either the diocese or the individual. I don't know how common are houses which would participate in such a project, and certainly some individuals would not be able to leave their homes to try such an extended (say, a month  or two long) period, but for those able to do so, this could really be helpful. The community would need to be willing not only to welcome the candidate into their daily lives, but also assist in their acclimation and (in the person of their superior or formation director) meet with both the candidate and the diocese to frankly assess the experience. This could either be affirming for the individual and reassuring for the diocese in ways which allow it to adjust its thinking, or it could confirm all of the reservations the diocese has already.

I have personally suggested such periods are important for candidates for canon 603 profession given our culture which shuns solitude and is allergic to silence. We have candidates who think that silence is turning off one's iPod while leaving the TV on (an exaggeration in most cases, but a good illustration of the general problem nonetheless)! In such cases an extended period in a monastic community where one meets true silence --- as well as the solidarity of love in solitude and what canon 603 calls the silence of solitude --- lived by a number of healthy people is extremely helpful. However, I had not thought about these other aspects before. I am grateful to the reader who wrote me about this.

My experience is that generally diocesan personnel work very hard at discerning such vocations. They serve the church and those in positions dealing with discernment are usually pretty savvy in their regard. They are ordinarily good enough at their jobs and their people skills not to fall into the trap of rejecting an individual vocation out of mere prejudice (rejecting the eremitical vocation itself is a little more common unfortunately). Of course this does not mean it cannot and does not happen --- only that in my estimation is it far less prevalent than other common causes of refusal of admission to public profession and consecration.

15 March 2012

What Do I do when my Diocese Says "No"?


[[Dear Sister, I believe I am called to be a diocesan hermit. I have lived as a lay hermit for some time, about 8 or 9 years, and have petitioned to be allowed to make vows under canon 603 three times under two different Bishops. However, it seems that my diocese is unwilling to profess me now. They suggest I continue living as a lay hermit. I am terribly disappointed and maybe a little angry too. I know in my heart God is calling me to live as a hermit, and I have consecrated (sic) myself to him, so what do I do now? I have thought about moving to another diocese or waiting for yet another new Bishop but what does God want for me? What you wrote about ecclesial vocations was new to me. I hadn't realized some vocations were discerned by both the person and the church; I thought they were all just approved in some formal way. How can I feel called in my heart but not have the church discern in the same way? If [as your posts say] the church also has a place in "mediating" God's own call to me does this mean I do not have a call to be a diocesan hermit? What if the church is just making a mistake and is not open to having hermits in this diocese? I had better stop here. I want to go on and on but I don't know what to do.]] (redacted slightly)



I understand the disappointment, confusion, and even the anger you are feeling, but also the frustration and flood of questions. What you are experiencing is common in religious life, preparation for priesthood, and with regard to consecrated virginity --- all ecclesial vocations where one's own sense of what God is calling one to may not comport with the sense of those whose task it is to mutually discern and assist the candidate for entrance, profession and/or consecration, and/or ordination. The clash between what one yearns for and what the institutional church discerns is not the will of God can produce terrible anguish and even trauma --- though these days the honesty which obtains between the participants usually minimizes this to some degree. Still, it is never easy to be denied admission to something one badly desires and has come to believe is God's own intention and call. Speaking mainly of c 603 here, it is easy to move in a couple of directions when facing a diocese's refusal to admit one to profession. Both are reactions more than responses and the task before you or anyone in your situation is to move from reaction to response.

First, one may become bitter and reject the church or at least aspects of her theology of consecrated life. One may especially reject the whole notion of ecclesial vocations, that is, the theology that affirms some vocations cannot be discerned by the individual alone, nor may such vocations be self-assumed. We see this sometimes with persons who insist they are consecrated or Roman Catholic hermits when in fact, they are dedicated lay hermits --- in itself a significant vocation when taken with absolute seriousness. In a variation of such an approach one may denigrate the whole idea of canonical standing as a matter of unnecessary and even destructive legal formality, attack canonical hermits generally as arrogant, desiring only "status", reject the place of law in establishing stable relationships to support such vocations, etc. One may say to oneself and others that one never really desired this at all or one may simply distance oneself from one's parish or diocese, for instance. But in such cases it is important to recognize one is really suffering from a serious case of "sour grapes", deal with one's disappointment, embarrassment (because it is embarrassing to be "rejected" or dismissed), and with one's anger more positively in order to truly move on. I don't hear any of this from you, of course, but I want to alert you to the possibility and temptation for it is something that I have seen and heard happen.

A second reaction one may have or way one may go is the immediate rejection of any call to eremitical life at all. This alternative is a little different than the first one, because this conclusion might prove to be valid in time. However, this is not a conclusion one can simply jump to in one's disappointment, frustration, and anger. Instead one would need to discern with a good director whether one has gotten wrong not only the form of eremitical life one is called to at this point in time, but also whether one is perhaps called to something else entirely. In coming to a radical conclusion like this it would also be helpful to speak with diocesan personnel for a more detailed report on their own discernment of your vocation. What were their concerns? Why did they decline to admit you to profession? Did they do so because of personal deficiencies they saw in you, deficiencies in formation and preparation which could be overcome with time, or was their refusal even less personally based? (For instance, if your old and new Bishops were/are closed to diocesan hermits generally that is a very different situation than one where either of them have consecrated diocesan hermits in the past and remain open to doing so again.) These are not necessarily easy questions to ask or to hear the answers to, but they can be indispensable in further discernment.

Your diocese has suggested you continue living as you are so this suggests they do envision you living as a lay hermit. (This is not a form of official discernment or approval of this vocation in your regard, but it is suggestive nonetheless. Had they suggested you get out more, socialize, become more involved in parish activities, etc, it would be a different matter. In such cases the message is that solitude, at least at this point in time, is not particularly healthy for you or that your diocese doubts you have the life experience to live fruitfully in solitude.) Your third option, once you have garnered all the details your diocese can provide, therefore, is to trust your diocese's decision and move forward from here. Assuming they are not simply closed to the canonical vocation generally, they are saying to you that God is not calling you to be a diocesan hermit, however they are also saying that otherwise you are free to live as you feel called to do in your heart.

Especially this means you are free to make private vows (if indeed you personally feel these are truly necessary after spending time reflecting on your baptismal commitment) and dedicate yourself to God in this way. (Only God consecrates and this occurs through the mediation of the Church in perpetual public profession, etc, so this is a dedication of self which is meant to specify your baptismal commitment.) You are free to explore the vocation of the lay hermit and to discover and embrace the value of such a vocation generally, as well as for your own life and community more specifically. You are free, that is, to take the lay vocation in places few take it in the contemporary church or era and to be a pioneer of the same order of the desert Fathers and Mothers in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Even if your diocese is still open to professing (consecrating) you down the line you might want to consider the importance of taking advantage of the various freedoms you have here while discerning what directions you can take them! To the extent you are able, consider your diocese's decision a God given opportunity, not an occasion of deprivation.

Also consider what the diocese's appraisal of your own deficiencies or limitations require of you and find ways to work through these. Once you begin doing this, you are participating in active and creative discernment with God. As I have said here very often, assuming your discernment leads you to affirm an eremitical call, the church and world desperately needs dedicated lay hermits who live their baptismal consecration and identity without pretense, ambiguity, or equivocation. It is true, you will not be a "consecrated Roman Catholic hermit" in such a case, but your life will witness to the redemption that solitude can be for very many struggling and isolated persons in our society and world; further, you will be at liberty to take this in any direction God calls you to do. It seems to me that only after you have taken these steps and lived in this way for some time will you be able to say whether you personally need to approach the diocese once again down the line. Generally, the only time I suggest that moving to a new diocese is a prudent or viable option is when the current diocese is not open to professing anyone as a diocesan hermit. If your diocese has diocesan hermits (or even a single one) --- especially if your new Bishop was responsible for professing them --- then this is probably not the case where you are. You would need to ask to be certain, however.

11 March 2012

Married Hermits?

Nicolas of Flue
[[Dear Sister, can there be married hermits? I was told it was possible if the spouse agreed and if the married couple decided to forgo marital relations. The hermit who said this is a consecrated Roman Catholic Hermit and referred to Nicolas of Floo (sic) as an illustration.]]

The simple answer is no --- at least if one means by hermit, one who has ecclesial or canonical standing and lives the central elements of canon 603 -- the normative canon of the Latin Church on what constitutes eremitical life. There are a number of reasons I say this and I would ask you to look at the labels which address the issue of married hermits for other articles on this. (cf Urban and Married Hermits? and Married Diocesan Hermits?) Briefly, married persons are not, by definition, solitaries. They are given wholly to one another and are called upon to live a life of married or sexual love in which both persons bring one another to God, create families, and celebrate the sanctity of human sexuality in a very explicit way. In the sacrament of marriage two people become one flesh. This is their vocation, not solitude, and especially not solitude which is also vowed to consecrated celibacy.

Once upon a time the Church treated marriage as almost a necessary evil which was meant to save individuals from mortal sin due to sexual urges and lust. (Some suggested the sex act remained a venial sin within the context of marriage!) Marriage was, for 12 centuries, not even recognized as a Sacrament. Sex, in particular, was not seen as sacred and a commitment to married or sexual love was not esteemed. During this period of Church history it was possible to find individuals living "as brother and sister" --- meaning in celibacy, and it was also possible to find couples who went off to convents and monasteries or even separated from one another with one going off to live as a hermit. Nicolas of Flue was one of these. In fact this piece of the tradition has hung on into the modern period, but as marriage is more appropriately understood and esteemed, as the sacredness of sexual love is more commonly recognized, and as the universal call to holiness becomes more profoundly appreciated, the church has moved away from approving such "brother and sister" arrangements as well as from the idea of married hermits. Today, the normative definition of the eremitical life is found in canon 603 and this necessarily includes a commitment to consecrated celibacy.

Again, please check other posts on this. They will expand on the reasons given above. Meanwhile, you might contact the hermit you mentioned and let her know she is mistaken in this information. If she is a consecrated (i.e., publicly professed and consecrated) hermit who is therefore a Catholic hermit, then she should know first hand that c 603 cannot be used for married persons (meaning currently married or divorced sans declaration of nullity) and I would also hope she has enough theology to be aware of the theological inconsistency between solitary life and married life. In solitary or eremitical life one says with the whole of one's life that God alone is enough; in married life one explicitly witnesses to the fact that we come to God through the love of others --- especially through our complete mutual self gift and reception of the gift of another's life. In other words, these two vocations to holiness accent very different aspects of the truth of the human being's relationship with God and with others; both aspects are true, but as vocations they are mutually exclusive; that is, one person cannot simultaneously live them out exhaustively nor simultaneously witness to the truth they each proclaim.

09 March 2012

Canon 603, a Break With the Eremitical Tradition?


[[Dear Sister,
how big a break with the traditional form of hermit life is canon 603 hermit life? Is the focus on law and rules a distortion of the simplicity of the hermit life as found throughout the history of the church until the last century? Why would the church move in this direction? One lay hermit says that the Church had canons on eremitical life in the 1917 Code of Canon Law and that the addition of c 603 in the 1983 Code was designed to curb abuses.]]

Thanks for your questions. I am not sure what you mean by "the traditional form" of hermit life unless you are referring to the most original (Christian) forms established and typified by the Desert Fathers and Mothers (they had more than one). Throughout the history of the church there have been a variety of forms of eremitical life: solitary, laura-based, religious or communal (sometimes called semi-eremitic), anchoritic, urban, reclusive, and so forth. Appropriately, all of them see themselves as carrying on the tradition and spirituality of the Desert -- the spirituality of John the Baptist, Jesus (especially in the desert), and the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Today we recognize three main forms of, or avenues for living, the hermit life: 1) religious or semi-eremitical hermit life which does NOT use Canon 603 as the basis of their public profession (Carthusians, Camaldolese, etc), 2) solitary consecrated or diocesan (canon 603) life, and 3) lay (dedicated or non-canonical) eremitical life. While the desert Fathers and Mothers are the original instance of Christian eremitical life, they lived both solitary and laura-based lives as well as reclusion. So, there has always been significant diversity within several major forms, not just one or (in light of canon 603) two forms or avenues.

I think your question about canon 603 as a break with tradition though, is a question about canonical standing or the place of law in all of this, no? Your next sentence focuses on law and rules and I read it as an elaboration of this first question. Some people do assert that law in any form is not consonant with the eremitical vocation, but these generally mistake license for genuine freedom and forget that freedom is exercised in spite of or at least in relation to life's constraints. They also exaggerate the desert Fathers' and Mothers' freedom from custom, precedents, and the like and minimize the degree of communal responsibility every hermit had. Moreover, they seem to treat post-desert Father/Mother hermit life as entirely independent of the supervision of the Church and her hierarchy, laws, and customs. While there were always folks doing the equivalent of whatever they wanted and calling themselves hermits, and while there have also been true hermits who had no formalized relationship to the institutional church, the general truth is that authentic hermits have often lived in a formal, legalized relationship with the Church and even sometimes with the secular society. This has been true for the majority of the church's history. In any case then, the answer is no, canon 603 eremitical life is not a significant departure from, much less a break with, what has existed for at least the last 14-15 centuries in the Church.

The Customs of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

It is true that the desert Fathers and Mothers were part of a movement to protest the Church's linkage with the State, and substitute in some way for the loss of red martyrdom as well --- the loss of which made living one's faith a less risky or demanding business. These two changes, while certainly desirable, also made living merely as a nominal Christian very much easier. Additionally it is certainly true that the desert Fathers' and Mothers' move away from "the institutional" church led them into an area of recognizably greater freedom and individuality, but not to one of individualism or complete freedom from constraints of any kind. They were prophetic in this move, but they would have ceased to be prophetic had they not also been related to the Church and her Gospel at the same time.

As noted, there were, for instance, customs that these original hermits observed in learning their vocation; novices lived with an elder who mentored them and taught them what they needed to know. Such elders also served to help discern the genuineness of the novice's call to the desert. They taught the Scriptures, assisted the novices to learn to pray assiduously, to fight demons, to fast, to live the evangelical counsels, etc. Additionally among these thousands of hermits there were customs regarding the giving or taking away of the habit (they could not be donned on one's own authority and would be taken away if the person lived the life badly), the way one lived in one's cell, the ways one exercised hospitality, requirements for work, manual labor, time out of cell, etc. but beyond the desert Fathers and Mothers and their customs, eremitical life has always been supervised (often by Bishops) and subject to forms of legislation (established Rules, monastic constitutions, decretals, diocesan ordine, etc).

A Summary of the Relationship between Solitary Hermits and the Hierarchy in the post-desert Fathers Church

Thomas McMahon, O Carm, writes a brief general summary of some of this history and notes; [[While the early lay hermit movement [speaking of non-religious, non-ordained hermits] was very charismatic, the hierarchical Church demanded some measure of accountability. Lay hermits enjoyed certain canonical rights and protections both in ecclesiastical and civil law. Consequently one was not free to simply go off on one’s own and become a hermit. Because they often did some spontaneous preaching and often depended on the alms of the faithful for support, the bishops claimed some rights over them. While anyone was free to live a life of retirement and prayer, a man needed to seek the blessing of the local prelate before he could assume the habit of a hermit. Hermits, like canonical pilgrims, wore a tunic that fell somewhat below the knees but was not as long as a clerical gown. They belted this with a leather belt, and wore a short hooded cape. Pilgrims, in addition to this basic habit, added a purse slung from their belts in which to keep food or alms given them for their journey, and they also wore the badge of their pilgrimage such as a scallop shell for those going to the shrine of Saint James at Compostella or a palm for those going to Jerusalem. The pilgrim, like the hermit, had a right to appeal for alms.]] Emphasis added.

In a work including more detailed inventories of the legal rights and obligations of hermits (anchorites) in various countries @ 1000 AD (one essay deals with hermits @ 400 AD onwards), Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe has several essays by various authors, two of which especially make it clear that anchorites during this period were generally scrutinized by and lived eremitical (anchoritic) life under the supervision of their Bishops. While the Bishop's primary (and lengthiest) duty was to see to the spiritual well-being and maturation of the anchoress, there were established rites of enclosure, sometimes with a Mass, sometimes not, requirements regarding financial well-being, suitability of the anchorhold, etc. Some dioceses had detailed lists of statutes ("ordine") applying to anchorites and extending certain benefits to those who were their benefactors. Civil laws also were promulgated which protected the anchorites. Their lives and presence were highly valued so these statutes or ordines established formal relationships between anchorite and the society at large which protected all involved and are reminiscent of the way canon 603 functions today. (cf, McEvoy, Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe.)

Canon 603 as Break with Tradition: A Serious Misconstrual of Eremitical History

All of these things and more point to the fact that it would be a serious misconstrual of the history of eremitical life to suggest there was one form in the main which existed until canon 603, and which was free of canonical or civil legal constraints and permissions. While there have always been those who went off to live lives of prayer (or those who went off to do their own thing!), those who were recognized as hermits or anchorites and wished to minister in the church through or in light of their solitude have generally been licensed (yes, actually licensed!) or "approved" by their Bishops and thus bound by a variety statutes or lists of statues and canons established diocese by diocese. Canon 603 is unique because for the first time ever it provides for hermits to assume standing in universal law and for that reason, and to some extent, it cuts through all of the varying diocesan regulations which governed this life through the centuries.

By its establishment Canon 603 continues and renews a tradition of dialogue between  church and hermits where the church accommodates the authentic call to solitude in various ways while the hermit herself accepts the relationships and commitments established in law to assist her in this. Hermits have always been dependent in some way on those around them, whether it is their town, their community, their parish, diocese, or the church at large. Even the largest numbers of the desert Fathers and Mothers lived on the edge of the desert rather than alone in the deep desert and were accessible to those in the nearby towns and villages. In later centuries it was expected that some situation like this would exist for the mutual benefit of all concerned; total solitude was not only impossible, but undesirable. (cf Mari Hughes-Edwards, "Anchoritism: The English Tradition", p146, op cit.)

What law does, and, apart from heavy-handed abuses or mere attempts at control, what it has always done, is establish stable ways this dependence can be worked out for the benefit of the whole church. Canon 603, for instance, does away with some of the instability which can obtain from diocese to diocese, parish to parish and village to village by establishing this vocation in universal law and locates the hermit in the heart of both the local and universal church. (Calling the hermit forth from the parish or cathedral community and publicly professing her in the parish or cathedral church underscores this traditional understanding of the mutual relationship between hermit, community, and Bishop. Yet, each hermit, et. al. will work this out individually as best suits her vocation.) What it also does is provide for a vocation which requirements for participation in the sacraments and an essential ecclesiality once made illegitimate. Paul Giustiniani (Camaldolese) called for laura-based eremitical life and an end to solitary eremitical life when these requirements were codified. Now, once again, because of canon 603, the church is recovering the solitary eremitical vocation and providing norms which remind us these vocations are 1) ecclesial rather than individualistic, and 2) despite a rich diversity, marked by specific non-negotiable elements.

Reasons Canon 603 was Promulgated (yet again!)

As for the reason canon 603 was established then, it is much more positive than an attempt to deal with abuses. I have told this story at least twice before so please do check labels on the history of canon 603 (cf canon 603 --- history) for a more complete account. As you can see from the terribly abbreviated snapshot of historical conditions above, while law did prevent abuses its more important raison d'etre was the protection and nurturing of a very unusual or uncommon, fragile, and significant vocation. Candidates needed to be checked out (not everyone can live this life!), they had to be provided for, whether by their town, by other benefactors, or --- when these failed --- by the anchorite's own Bishop. Without the protection of law the existence of hermits becomes a very iffy thing, which means that without the protection and requirements of law and the relationships legal standing helps establish and regulate, a Divine vocation can be lost.

Canon 603 serves to replace, or at least subordinate to universal law, any diocesan schema used to legislate hermits from diocese to diocese. It calls all dioceses and all Bishops to reflect on the essential nature and value of the eremitical life and be sure that candidates for this life live these central elements with fidelity and even prophetic power. It allows for collaboration and learning from one another regarding successful and unsuccessful examples of this vocation in our own day and age and helps the entire Western Church to be on the same page in approaching such vocations. At the same time it does not level out or destroy legitimate individuality. It allows for and, in fact, requires the hermit's own Rule or Plan of Life which she writes herself and which reflects her own individual lived expression of the essential elements of canon 603 in dialogue with both the eremitical tradition more generally and the contemporary world. If a country has 100 diocesan hermits, it also has 100 individual expressions of this life. At the same time all of these hermits are publicly covenanted (vowed) to live the same essential elements. This is the pattern of all authentic eremitical life --- a pattern of individual creativity and faithfulness to the central elements and values of a given tradition in conjunction with the hermit's own world, and in response to the Holy Spirit. Canon 603 helps ensure this authentic pattern.

Finally, though I have said this in this article and many times in this blog over the past several years, let me reiterate: Canon 603 is absolutely new in universal law. There has never been such a canon affecting the universal Church before in the Western Church. The 1917 Code had nothing in it addressing eremitical life. (As I understand it, a 1911 draft version of such a canon did not ultimately find its way into the 1917 Code.) This was left up to the proper law of religious congregations --- that is, to the constitutions of religious congregations (many of which had no provision for such a call to solitude!). Neither was c 603 developed primarily because of abuses. This had been necessary in the past when hermits were numerous, but in the modern era Religious hermits were governed by proper law and solitary lay hermits (of which there were few beyond the middle ages and almost none in the contemporary period) lived privately committed lives and most people did not know of their existence.

Neither did canon 603 come to be because hermits wanted some kind of social privilege or status. It came to be because religious who discovered a call to solitude late in their vowed lives were often required to leave their communities and vows and become secularized to try and live out such a call. (Again, often the congregation's proper law had no provision for hermit life and there was none in universal law -- i.e., the 1917 Code of Canon Law.) Meanwhile eremitical life --- at least as an institution --- was called upon to exercise a place in a more public dialogue with and prophetic or countercultural witness to the contemporary world --- even if the individual lives of hermits were essentially hidden. Bishops recognized the gap in law here based on the significant pastoral inadequacies of the situation, and pressed for the Church to recognize the eremitical life as a state of perfection. In any case, "canonical status" does not refer to this kind of status (that of social privilege) but to standing in law as well as to initiation into what the church refers to as a (stable) status or "state of life." After all, as I have also noted before, one does not correct a badly lived lay eremitical life by granting the hermit admission to public vows and canonical standing. While such standing emphatically does not mean the canonical hermit has a higher vocation nor necessarily is a better hermit than her lay counterparts, it does mean she accepts public responsibility for the eremitical vocation generally and her own call specifically. It makes little sense to extend such responsibilities or the rights that go with them to one who has shown they live the life badly, especially when their existence is hardly known.

Summary: Canon 603 a Continuation and Renewal of Tradition

The bottom line in all of this is that canon 603 is entirely consistent with the history of the way eremitical life has been lived in the Western Church throughout the centuries. It is not a break with that tradition despite the fact that it is also new in some significant ways. Instead it recovers something that was lost in the Western Church, especially after the Middle Ages --- namely, solitary eremitical life lived in dialogue with the Church especially in the person of the diocesan Bishop. In response to the needs of the church and world, it also makes of diocesan eremitical life a "state of perfection" and allows for public vows (or other publicly embraced sacred bonds). This means that the "religious state" is no longer only associated with public vows made within the context of a religious community. (Cf, Holland, Sharon, IHM, Handbook of Canons 573-746 especially p 55, O'Hara, Ellen, CSJ, Norms Common to all Institutes of Consecrated Life,), but again, these new elements are lived out by virtue of the traditional dialogue/relationship between individual hermit and the local Bishop common throughout the history of the life.

I hope this helps.