31 October 2012

Rethinking Perpetual Profession as "Graduation": More on Ongoing Formation

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I had always thought of perpetual profession as a kind of graduation. Maybe that is silly but it is how I thought of it. When you write about it being analogous to an advanced degree which says one is educated enough to continue learning on their own that changes things for me. In a  way you are saying that perpetual profession is a kind of commitment to life-long formation though. Is that right? I guess I thought that after perpetual vows one was pretty free to go their own way but that is not quite true is it?]]


Exactly right. Remember that in monastic life one of the vows is conversatio morum, or the conversion of life. This vow is usually thought to include religious poverty and celibate love (chastity), so monks and nuns often make the vows of conversatio morum, obedience, and stability. Canon 603 requires the vows of poverty, chastity (celibate love), and obedience, but the life to which one is committing in either case is the same --- a life of continuing, thoroughgoing conversion which requires ongoing formation.

Perpetual Profession is not the same as graduation. Instead it is more like the end of an apprenticeship and the beginning of one's life as a journeyman. One is no longer under the watchful eye of a novice master or novice director nor even the director of the juniorate, (or in the case of a diocesan hermit, the semi-watchful eyes of Vicars for Religious, etc from the diocese) and one is free to follow the impulses of the Holy Spirit pretty much where one discerns he is calling, but this is not an absolute freedom. One still must answer to God, to the Diocese (both chancery personnel and the people of the diocese), to oneself and one's Rule, and also to one's delegate and director --- though in differing ways. But let me give you an idea of how this works out practically since there is usually no one around saying either, "You must do x" or "you may not do y."


Depending upon one's training, education, etc, over time a hermit is presented with a number of opportunities to minister in a limited way outside the hermitage. Generally one's Rule provides one with the requirements one needs to live a healthy eremitical life, but some of these opportunities can be accommodated as well without difficulty. One prays about these, determines how they do or don't fit into one's life, what is needed in terms of time, preparation, etc, and also how this will benefit the individual's eremitical life. After this one will discuss the matter with one's director and/or delegate.

Occasionally the hermit may not have done sufficient discernment on the matter and will get themselves in trouble if they are not lucky! Still, they are not in this all alone and delegates and directors do help in determining what will be helpful and what will not --- even though they rarely if ever simply say, "Yes you may or no you may not!" (My own delegate almost NEVER directs me to do x or not do y, but she is keen to hear how I have discerned matters! Thus, I remember once mentioning a project I was considering doing to her and her response was a quiet, "I will be interested in hearing your discernment on this." At that moment the response that flew into my head was, "BUSTED!" In fact, I had NOT discerned this well and we both knew it! Needless to say the proposed project was dropped and we never had much of a conversation about it either. At the same time I have not repeated such idiocy and learned from the exchange.)

I hope you heard the humor in this. I laughed when that incident happened and I still laugh at it today --- not only at my own silliness but at the marvelous way God works. What my delegate did was FAR more effective than a simple permission (or prohibition) might have been. She reminded me clearly of my own responsibility as perpetually professed, but also that I am responsible in direct ways to people who will assist me in my own decisions and growth. The freedom of the person who is perpetually professed is a freedom within limits or constraints --- a responsible freedom --- and for that reason one does not stop growing so long as one lives the life. Thus, I meet regularly with my delegate and/or director to be sure that that growth continues and that my own discernment is not allowed to slip into carelessness or complacency, nor that my decisions become the fruit of mere impulsiveness.

At the end of a year I will meet with my Bishop to let him know how things are going, what is going especially well, what difficulties I have had in the past year, and how I am working things out. He may have suggestions or concerns which he then has a chance to express. A followup visit with my delegate may or may not be be necessary in light of the meeting with the Bishop, and a meeting between my delegate and the Bishop might also be helpful. Whatever needs doing will be done.

If one were to read through the past five years of this blog I think they would see someone who has grown in her vocation because of perpetual profession (not in spite of it). It is true that I am no longer an apprentice or novice in the eremitical life, but it has taken time for me to grow into a person who is concerned not with only my own vocation and profession, but into one who is concerned with the nature and future of this vocation itself. Perpetual profession granted a kind of freedom to explore the vocation, to reflect on it more widely than I had been able to do before this. It has freed me to allow my life to be one of prayer and other limited ministry precisely because I am sure of my eremitical identity. I think that particular freedom is akin to what you were thinking of when you referred to perpetual profession as graduation.

But what perpetual profession really means is that one assumes (and is canonically entrusted with) the role of inheritor and missioner of a tradition. With perpetual profession one becomes, for instance, a Religious living out the charism and mission of a particular congregation --- including carrying within her the tradition and history of all of those who have done so before. One knows or comes to know herself in this way where before she really did not. It was a role she was preparing to be entrusted with more and more. She is part of a larger story than her own quest to become a Dominican (etc). Instead she IS a Dominican or a diocesan hermit or whatever it is and accepts a place in the living tradition of the vocation. Still, it is a living tradition --- one which others will be drawn to and live out; her life is one which, for good or ill, will be a model and inspiration for others who may desire to become part of this story and responsible for its continued telling. When considered this way thinking of perpetual profession as graduation hardly works --- not at least when we think of graduation as achieving the end of formal education, schooling, learning, and training! For the perpetually professed these things do not really end.

29 October 2012

Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles: New CD!!!



There is a hidden part of my life which may surprise some regular readers. I do a lot of singing from about 4:00am through about 10:00pm. It is something I do alone (except for the little we do at the daily parish Masses, and the Sunday Mass of course), but it is an important part of my life. This video speaks to this piece of things for me and of the rich nature of monastic life more generally.

The video marks the release of a new CD by these Benedictine nuns from the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus I hope you will check it out. The CD, "Advent at Ephesus" comes out around 20.November.2012. As a point of information, the Priory was originally sponsored by the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter and uses the 1962 Latin Mass. Still, it is when one looks at the Benedictine life they live that many differences with other Benedictines disappear completely.

Followup Question on Ongoing Formation for the Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister, is ongoing formation really necessary once one has been professed? If a person spends almost 10 or more years becoming a diocesan hermit, why should more formation be required?]]

I think too often the sense we all have of "formation" is of the initial making of the person into a nun, or priest, or monk,  or hermit. It is as though once we have reached perpetual profession or ordination then ongoing formation isn't at all necessary. But remember that a vocation, important as definitive  (perpetual or solemn vow) commitments are, is not something one answers once upon a time and then just sails along in. Instead a call is something that comes to us each day and the response we give is one which is renewed and both extended and intensified day by day as well --- at least that will be true if we are growing in this vocation. In my own life I hear this call variously but I describe it as God calling me by name to be more completely his in the state of life to which I have been called. I can't imagine God ceasing to call me by name --- and of course the Scriptures affirm that this is the case (Isaiah 43), nor can I actually imagine a time when I will not have some further response, some part of myself to give more completely or some way in which I need to grow more authentically human.

Ongoing formation is meant to allow this process to continue. It takes cognizance of the needs and deficiencies one has at various stages of life, and of course it honors the gifts and strengths which are evident at different points along the way. Diocesan hermits, like all religious at the point of perpetual profession, are admitted to definitive commitment because they have been determined to have a life vocation; they have been entrusted with a responsible role in that vocation's future with all that implies. In a sense such admission is a bit like an advanced degree; such degrees don't say the person has learned all they need to learn, but rather that they have achieved a level of education and growth which allows them to be trusted with the responsibility of securing their own continuing education and of sharing what they know in a new way. In a sense such degrees mark the person as a competent and responsible learner (rightly approached, one of the significant ways we continue to learn is through teaching others). Perpetual profession does something similar but with a tradition of prayer, spirituality, and faith; it is often only with perpetual profession that we begin to really claim as our very own a particular tradition --- especially as it is a promise to others. It certainly marks the event which makes us fully responsible for that tradition.


There are depths in any vocation which open to the person only over time. There are aspects of the history of eremitical life which may not have seemed too interesting or pertinent the first time one read or heard about them; and yet as the hermit claims this vocation and becomes responsible both for the eremitical Tradition and for the contemporary world's redemption these aspects may assume a new prominence for her.  Note well that this is not merely an academic matter but one which demands the hermit be sensitive to the needs of the world around her and become more and more capable of addressing these by applying some piece or dimension of the charisma (gift) eremitical life is meant to be to the contemporary world. The more deeply she comes to live the charism of diocesan eremitical life, and the more attentive she is to the needs of those around her, the more fruitful her life will be.

I hope this is helpful. If it confuses or raises more questions, please get back to me.

26 October 2012

Ongoing Formation of the Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister Laurel, What does ongoing formation for the diocesan hermit consist of? How would a diocese ensure that the hermit is achieving the level of ongoing formation she or he requires?]]

Wow, brand new question for me! Excellent as well! In some ways I think this is uncharted territory, at least in the formal sense. Let me suggest some of the things I do to continue my formation as a diocesan hermit and also some things which might be especially helpful to the diocese and hermit together in what is a mutual or collaborative responsibility. It is this latter area where I think we are mainly in uncharted territory and in a general sense could do better for diocesan hermits and their Bishops and delegates.

Things the Hermit does to Ensure Ongoing Formation:

The first thing necessary is anything coming under the rubric, "custody of the cell." What I mean by this is anything necessary to living the silence of solitude in the hermitage. For the most part this means living one's Rule of Life (including every spiritual and other regular practice), reflecting on this in light of one's prayer and journaling (inner work), spiritual direction, and further, in light of one's reading and reflection on the eremitical tradition and the contemporary world. Over some time one will reflect on one's life in the hermitage, one's life and role in the parish, the place of friendships and other relationships in one's life, one's physical, intellectual, and emotional needs, and the demands on one's gifts which all of these make. One then makes whatever changes are necessary to ensure continuing growth in the eremitical life and the essential elements of canon 603. At the same time one will make decisions about needed education (usually online but not always), reading trajectories (if this is applicable to personal work or one's professional competencies), writing projects (or whatever form of work one does), greater reclusion, periods of retreat beyond an annual retreat, and so forth.

Parts of all this will include then, regular spiritual direction and meetings with one's delegate, regular reflection on one's Rule and vows, regular desert days, at least occasional periods of reclusion, and annual retreat. It may require time away from the hermitage at a monastery beyond what is required for retreat itself. In general all of these things are parts of the hermit's own Rule because, after all, the life itself is formative and living it with integrity is the major piece of actual formation --- no matter whether that is initial or ongoing. Still, the evaluative part of things is usually not treated in one's Rule and it may well be that this should be worked out in the section on ongoing formation. For instance, one might well determine that once a year (or less frequently) a meeting with one's delegate which is dedicated simply to looking at one's needs for ongoing formation for the following year (or several years) will occur. While very little of the hermit's day-to-day life might change as a result and while one might simply continue on as one has, such a meeting could still be invaluable.

Others' Roles in Ensuring Ongoing Formation:

While responsibility for ongoing formation is mainly the hermit's own, her Spiritual Director and diocesan delegate play major roles in helping her grow in holiness and assisting her to articulate regularly how she has grown, where she sees God taking her in terms of eremitical life, how it is the parish and diocese assist (or could well assist) her in this and how that may be improved upon. The delegate might well discuss some of these things with the Bishop if they seem to be something the diocese should assist with. That is especially true if she and the hermit meet for a regular meeting dedicated to ongoing formation needs mentioned above.

This, of course, suggests that the Bishop also has a part to play in ensuring the hermit's ongoing formation in this life. While this role should not be surprising it is an underdeveloped and under-appreciated aspect of the situation set up by Canon 603. Canon 603 outlines a solitary eremitical life of the silence of solitude, stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, the evangelical counsels, all lived according to a Rule the hermit herself writes and is faithful to under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop. While the hermit does not receive any financial assistance or remuneration from the diocese, there is no reason to believe the Bishop cannot or should not assist her in locating or helping make available selected and occasional diocesan or other resources which contribute to ongoing formation in her vocation. Hermits tend to meet with their Bishops once a year. That meeting usually serves to fill the Bishop in on how things are going, how the hermit lives her life, what is most important to her in all of this, and what needs she has run into and how she has managed to meet these. Occasionally (every three to five years or so), an important part of such a meeting might  be a discussion of the ways in which the hermit has revised or proposes to revise her Rule before submitting it to the Bishop for formal approval.

With regard to ongoing formation what I would like to suggest is that if necessary and if the Bishop is willing (and I have to say my sense is most would be very willing given their concern with the issue of eremitical formation), an additional meeting with the hermit's delegate might also take place for the specific purpose of discussing specific needs and concerns. With the Bishop's permission, this could free the delegate up to line up (or help the hermit to line up) the resources necessary here or formulate a plan for meeting those needs and concerns. For instance, if the hermit truly needs additional time away in a monastery, or could benefit significantly from a workshop on Scripture or prayer or spiritual direction (etc), a Bishop (or the delegate acting in his stead) might be able to arrange for something which meets the limited resources the hermit has available and at little or no expense for the diocese.

The point is that the hermit vocation is fragile and vital; for this reason the diocese, especially in the persons of the Bishop (legitimate superior) and delegate (quasi-superior), should work with the hermit in helping ensure her needs for ongoing formation are met. At this point the hermit's relationship with her Bishop is a little-addressed and less-understood element of the canon. Hermits and Bishops work to find their way in this matter, sometimes with little sense of what is actually being accomplished (or is meant to be accomplished) by their meetings. A focus or partial focus on ongoing formation and a collaborative relationship with the hermit's delegate in meeting the hermit's needs here might be just what is needed periodically. (For the most part meetings with one's Bishop are not agenda-driven. They are a chance for both persons to get to know one another and to learn about eremitical life lived out in a contemporary context; they are typically fairly relaxed and informative and should be allowed to be this unless there is something specific either party needs to discuss).

The hermit's pastor may also fill a role in the hermit's ongoing formation. It is certainly true for me that my own pastor plays a very large if informal role here and I think that is both fortunate and a very great gift. For instance he affords me opportunities to use my own gifts in the parish --- always with an accepting eye towards my own fidelity to my contemplative and eremitical vocation. As a result, however, my own regular grappling with Scripture has become more central and fruitful. My pastor has given me opportunities to do Communion Services (Services of the Word with Communion) on days when the parish has no priest available, to write written reflections on the Scriptures or on theological themes, to give or assist with occasional workshops to the parish (Advent, Lenten, Anniversary of Vatican II), to speak to the school children or teen faith formation once in a while (once a semester or year) about prayer, living as a hermit, religious life, etc, and he has made it possible for me to attend a continuing education workshop several times in the area of Scripture.

One of the most helpful features of this relationship with my pastor and parish has been my own discernment of how to negotiate the demands of my vocation to the silence of solitude while sharing the fruits of that vocation and my own gifts. It isn't always easy nor is it always neat, but it is a dynamic which is an integral part of the eremitical (and especially the Camaldolese eremitical) tradition so it is a dynamic which, in all likelihood, is not going to go away. My pastor's respect and concern for my eremitical vocation (not to mention his patience with my own sometimes-awkward efforts to negotiate things) are as helpful as the opportunities he affords me. While this situation may not be typical, I think most diocesan hermits could work out at least a similar situation with their pastors and parishes.


I should also mention the role of friends and other religious in the hermit's ongoing formation. Though more casual there is no doubt that friends, especially when they are Religious, play a significant part here in my own ongoing formation. In the latter case we discuss prayer, reading, Scripture, the Church, spiritual direction, daily struggles and joys, the requirements of  personal ongoing formation, and just generally do what friends do for one another in encouraging faithfulness to God's call. I have coffee with one Sister every Sunday I can and we go out very occasionally at other times as well (e.g., once a movie and dinner, once a museum exhibit, etc). Beyond that I have spent a week the last two Spring breaks with her at her congregation's vacation house in what is a fairly relaxed period of shared solitude. Because of this relationship and others I have grown as a human bring and as a hermit. I am also more tuned into the Church, to trends in religious life, and have met other contemplatives I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise. I have been challenged, empowered, and consoled by this and other friendships (especially those I enjoy with a handful of parishioners), for instance, and have to consider these an asset to ongoing formation.

Assessing Ongoing Formation:

If the silence of solitude is the charism of the diocesan hermit's life and the single element which can be used to mea-sure the quality of all other parts of the hermit's life (and I argue strongly that it is), then the degree to which the hermit is growing in living this reality is the key to assessing the quality of her ongoing formation, or her needs for the same. If it seems that she is distracted or unhappy in solitude, if the opportunities that come her way through the parish detract from her ability to easily step back into the hermitage, or if they are not natural spillovers of her life there, then they are probably not helpful to ongoing formation as a hermit. If her life begins to be disorderly or unfaithful in small and bigger things, then something needs to be addressed. If solitude begins to devolve into mere isolation, then problems requiring a solution exist. The "silence of solitude" is the key here just as it is in initial discernment and formation. Only the hermit, her director, her delegate, and to a lesser degree her Bishop can really discern or determine how well she is progressing in her ongoing response to God's call, but they definitely need to collaborate to ensure this is as God wills and the Church needs.

Appreciating the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, I can see why Bishops might choose to profess an individual who is not really a hermit and ask questions like, "Besides, who will it hurt?" Isn't it more important to deal pastorally with the individual than to be concerned with an abstract idea of a vocation? If a person wants to serve God and do it as a "hermit", why shouldn't he be allowed to do this? I really don't see who it would hurt. After all hermits don't minister to people and are shut away from contact. Isn't this up to Bishops to decide?]]

Thanks for your questions. I am linking this post to another one on the charism of the diocesan hermit and the relation of the life to the exaggerated individualism and narcissism of our culture. I don't want to repeat everything I have already said there so please click on the title of this post to be taken to that one for further reading.

The Charism of Solitary Eremitical Life

In attempting to clarify why I am not speaking about a mere abstraction but rather concrete circumstances where the eremitical vocation is particularly effective and redemptive perhaps I should restate what the charism or gift quality of the solitary diocesan hermit is to her parish, diocese, and the church and world at large. I tend to point to the canon 603 essential element, "the silence of solitude" as that unique gift. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, we in the first world live in a culture of exaggerated individualism and narcissism. While people living in community combat this problem by their accent on community life and its importance in authentic humanity, hermits participate in this "battle" in their own way, namely by living a life of "the silence of solitude." Eremitical solitude is not about living alone, but living alone WITH God and FOR others. It emphasizes and reveals that human beings are not made to live individualistic or narcissistic lives but instead are completed by God and called to give their lives FOR others. Eremitical solitude is a paradoxical reality and a gift to a world disintegrating under the influence of individualism, narcissism, and a notion of freedom which really means the license to do anything one wants without regard to (or for) others.

Secondly, we live in a world where people live longer, where consumerism and productivity are the major markers of the supposed meaningfulness and value of one's life. Often then people in such a culture have lost (or never had) a sense of the meaningfulness of their lives apart from work, family, etc. Some are bereaved, some are chronically ill, some are isolated elderly, some are prisoners, etc. Hermits do not buy into the consumerist, productivity-as-measure-of value perspectives. At the same time they are physically as isolated as any of the people mentioned above. What is different is that they say with their lives that meaningfulness is a function of one's relation to God and that they are infinitely precious because God holds them to be precious. Through the grace of God the hermit's life takes physical isolation and transforms it into solitude ---- a communal or dialogical reality measured in terms of relationship with God. The experience of eremitical solitude is the experience of meaning, completion, and authentic humanity which is capable of giving to others. Not least, hermits say to people that the redemption of isolation is possible and that even those who cannot compete as consumers or "producers" can live incredibly meaningful and generous lives which contribute to the well-being of society.

Thirdly we live in a world of unrelenting, ubiquitous noise. People not only don't know what silence is, they fear it, think it unnatural, and avoid it at all costs. Most people believe that silence means turning off the TV while listening to an iPod or something similar. Businesses deal with noise by overlaying it with another layer of noise; office buildings pipe in music meant to soothe and distract from silence but also to distract from the constant noise. The problem with this, however, is that unless we have silence in our lives we never learn to truly listen --- especially to the voice of God in our hearts. Articulate speech requires silence, music requires silence if it is not to be mere noise, and human beings require silence if they are to come to the full articulation of selfhood. Hermits attest to the fullness of silence and the silence of solitude.

As I have written before, [[As a hermit I am not silent (or solitary) for instance, because woundedness and pain have rendered me mute and cut off from others, but because silence and solitude are the accompaniment and context for profound speech and articulateness. Silence is part of the music of being loved completely by God; it is a piece of allowing the separate notes of one's life to sound fully, but also to be connected to one another so that noise is transformed into a composition worthy of being heard and powerful and true enough to be inspiring to others. It is an empowered silence and solitude, the silence of solitude, which finds its source in God's love and reflects relatedness to God and others at its very core. Something similar could be said of all of the elements which comprise the life described in Canon 603. The eremitical life, especially in its freedom, is one of relatedness and love in all of its dimensions.]]

Hermits know all of this because, by the grace of God, they live it daily. They live the physical solitude of eremitical life without significant  distraction. They live the silence of others' absence, for instance, and discover it leads to a world of amazing presence --- the presence of God in the ordinary and in their own hearts. They say with their own lives that each person is infinitely valuable, that life is hopeful, no matter the stage or conditions which mark or mar it. Thus, hermits commit to living their vowed lives of stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop and those he appoints as delegates precisely as a significant gift (charisma) God has given to his Church and world. Unless one sees the gift this life is, they will not appreciate it or live it with integrity.

Professing Individuals Who are not Hermits and Will not live Eremitical Life

However, if one DOES understand the gift this life is, they will not profess those who  are not called to live this precise gift. Everyone can learn to tolerate and many even to love silence, but very few are called on to live the gift of eremitical "silence of solitude." To profess those who are not called to this is to short-circuit their own true vocations --- the paths they are summoned to embrace to become fully and authentically human. Eremitical solitude is especially dangerous here since so few are called to authentic humanity in this way.  Those who may be newly bereaved, or yet significantly psychologically wounded, or chronically ill and still needing to deal effectively with this reality will find that eremitical solitude demands more than they are capable of giving at this particular time. Solitude is often needed in all of these situations but ordinarily it is solitude as transitional reality, solitude preparing the way for a reinvigorated or reinvented way of relating to others in more ordinary community. Again, to profess such persons prematurely and with inadequate time and discernment will not serve them well and could be damaging. In any case, I would dispute that there is anything truly pastoral about doing so.

And of course professing those without an authentic call to eremitical solitude means professing those whose lives will not be able to witness effectively to the gift which the silence of solitude really is to the isolated and marginalized of our world. There are such inauthentic vocations today: "hermits" who watch hours of TV in order to distract themselves from illness and isolation; "hermits" who really want to be living in community and ministering full time and whose "solitude" and life of "assiduous prayer and penance" is lived out mainly with a desert day per week; and so forth. To whom do these lives effectively speak? Certainly not to the persons mentioned in the section above this one. It is arrogance and presumption to think that such lives can be called "eremitical". Professing inauthentic vocations may well involve the person professed in a life of hypocrisy, failure, and even therefore, significant sin. More, far from serving God, it is a disservice to God, to the vocation itself, and to those who need the gift of the "silence of solitude" because they live full time lives of isolation to call such vocations "eremitical." In an individualistic and narcissistic world such professions only extend and intensify the reign of individualism and narcissism within the very vocation meant to stand clearly against them. In short it is a betrayal of God, of God's own gift to Church and world and, at least potentially, hurts many people! This is hardly a pastoral approach to the matter nor to the person seeking to be admitted to profession.

The Ministry of the Hermit

While it is true that diocesan hermits do only some limited ministry outside the hermitage (if they do any at all), their lives are a ministry. Eremitical ministry is not so much about what one does as who one is in and with and through God in the silence of solitude. It is not true to suggest that professing people without an authentic vocation will not matter much because hermits are shut away. To the degree they are separated from others their lives MUST still speak to others effectively and faithfully --- especially to those who are themselves isolated in some way. This is an integral part of a vocation: God calls, we answer with our profession and lives, and God through his Church commissions us to minister in his name and the name of the Church.

Are Bishops the ones who ultimately determine the matter of who is professed in their dioceses? Yes, but they do so within the constraints of the Canon (603), and the eremitical tradition --- which includes the life experience of contemporary hermits who truly help clarify the nature and establish the limits of the vocation in the contemporary world. Bishops are required to listen carefully to these, to discern carefully with regard to an individual seeking profession under canon 603, to have a clear sense of the gift or charisma this vocation is and to whom, and only then to make decisions which respect all of these elements. Bishops especially cannot disregard any of these elements and simply use the canon as a stopgap means to profess an individual who cannot be professed in any other way, who simply desires it for inadequate reasons (wearing a habit, being a Religious, using a title, validating a failed or merely isolated life, etc), or who wishes to use this profession as an entrance into consecrated life so s/he can then do something else with that life (like founding a community, gaining access to ministries she might not have had access to otherwise, etc). Allowing such professions would actually be a betrayal of the Bishop's own commission to seek out, protect, and nurture new forms of consecrated life --- at least if new means something more than novel, transitory, and disedifying.

I  hope this helps.

 [permanent link to this post: Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Appreciating the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life]

20 October 2012

Look, those who have eyes to see!

Amidst all the doom and gloom we hear over religious life as a declining numbers game come the voices and faces of newer members from several different congregations and communities who reflect the excitement most of us feel when we think about the adventure we have been called to share. Religious who are in this for their lives and the lives of those they minister to do not focus on what we are not but rather on what we are called to; we hope that others will share this perspective and be amazed at what God is doing in and with our lives! Jesus' admonition to "look, those who have eyes to see" is especially significant today.

16 October 2012

Short Discernment Periods for Canon 603 Profession are imprudent and Uncharitable

[[Dear Sister, when you wrote the following recently, what did you mean by disrespecting the vocation and lacking charity for the candidate? It seems to me that long periods of discernment are meant to put the candidate off. So you disagree?? How is it loving to make things longer and harder? (Sorry I could not copy the whole passage). . .]]

The referenced passage is the following:

 [[(The diocese) must have a sense of the normally extended time frame for moving through a discernment process and not be tempted to ignore it --- an act which disrespects the vocation and fails to act with charity towards the candidate. Finally they must understand the central elements of Canon 603, especially the silence of solitude and its function as charism of the eremitical life. Bishops are called and canonically required to be aware of and foster new forms of consecrated life. While it is a serious commitment in time given the rarity of these vocations, chancery personnel (Bishops, Vicars for Religious or Consecrated Life, Vocations directors, etc) must foster a readiness to patiently discern and assist such vocations instead of simply rejecting their possibility out of hand.]]

Again, thanks for your questions. As noted, I have substituted the actual passage you could not copy for your own shortened version so I hope that is helpful. Also I have written some in the past about dioceses who merely put people off by telling them things like, "Just go off and live in solitude; that is sufficient" or actually prolonging the discernment process simply to discourage people, so please check the labels regarding time frames for becoming a diocesan hermit and persistence in dealing with dioceses, for instance.

Longer Discernment is not necessarily Unloving

It is true that dioceses can put people off by drawing out a discernment process. My own sense is that this is much less common than simply cutting off the discernment process prematurely and saying "no" to admission to profession or simply never allowing a person a chance to participate in a process of mutual discernment with the diocese so let me speak to that first. One small but essential piece of dioceses really understanding the vocation is being clear that eremitical solitude is different than other forms of solitude in our world, and that the need or experience of transitional solitude (usually unchosen), for instance, or other chosen forms of solitude comes in every life for many different reasons. Because this is so discerning a vocation to eremitical life is more complicated; beyond this initial discernment, distinguishing between a call to lay eremitical life and consecrated eremitical life is another necessary step in things. Thus, discerning eremitical vocations of whatever sort takes time and care.

It is not unloving to be honest about this with a candidate for canon 603 life. As I have noted before, so long as the diocese is dealing with the candidate in good faith and not simply stringing them along this really will serve them well in the long run. It also will serve the c 603 eremitical vocation well --- something a diocesan Bishop, chancery and all hermits themselves are responsible for.  A diocesan hermit does experience a new grace and freedom with consecration, but even so, the time leading to these are important for growth and can be very fruitful so long as the diocese is dealing in good faith. After all, for one seeking profession under canon 603, whether before eremitical consecration or even apart from it, the person is living the eremitical life and not merely setting other plans aside temporarily. One does not approach a diocese in this way just "to see" about eremitical life, or "to experiment" with it. One approaches a diocese with a petition for profession under canon 603 because over some time one has come to believe that God is calling her to consecration to a LIFE of the silence of solitude. While one can  and should certainly spend some time as a lay hermit to experiment, c 603 life is really not a vocation one tries out on the way to something else or uses in order to comparison shop.

Meanwhile, longer periods of discernment will serve the vocation itself well because it will  1) cut down on incidences of non-eremitical solitary lives which are merely called "eremitical", (e.g., transitional solitude or the physical solitude from bereavement, etc which is not yet and may never be eremitical), 2) cut down on incidences where canon 603 is used as a stopgap to profession (e.g., folks who want to found a community or who treat c 603 as a preliminary to something else or those who want the privilege of being religious without the obligations of community life --- especially problematical in this day and age of individualism), 3) diminish uses of canon 603 as  merely a fallback option (e.g., those who have lived consecrated life and left for various reasons but still wish to live consecrated life; most of these will never rise to the level of eremitical vocations and some will be escapist because the person is unwilling to make the transition back to lay (secular) life, but it needs be noted well that SOME eventually can and, given time, WILL do so) 4) help prevent professions which contribute to disedifying stereotypes of the eremitical life and vocation including especially using the canon to profess individualistic and narcissistic persons --- again, a serious temptation and truly an imminent danger given today's culture. The eremitical vocation today is significant and edifying but it cannot be either if it is used to profess anyone just living alone, no matter how pious they are, or those seeking to be recognized as religious without the obligations or checks and balances of religious life. More positively, c 603 is meant to be used for rare LIFE vocations which clearly attest to the counter-cultural working of the Holy Spirit in our overly competitive, consumerist, individualistic and narcissistic times.

Shorter Discernment May be Unloving to Candidates and Destructive of the Vocation

It is not loving to allow someone to make vows to live a vocation they do not have. It is not loving to bind someone (or allow them to bind themselves) to the obligations of a life-vocation to which they are not called. It is not loving to them or to those to whom they will (attempt to) minister. I think that goes without saying --- at least is SHOULD do. Most folks think of the rights associated with eremitical life, habit, title, and so forth as cool things they would like to be allowed -- signs of religious privilege and prestige, not as symbols of responsible lives they are called to live on the behalf of God and others. They may also envision the life as one of "peace and quiet" or "rest and relaxation" which really affects no one else. But someone with that notion of the life demonstrates complete ignorance of it. These folks certainly MIGHT have the stamina and grit to live out real eremitical life, but they are not yet ready to make a profession to do so much less be consecrated to the state of life this involves. The simple fact is there are real sacrifices involved in committing to eremitical life and one must have already come to understand these in some intimate way if one is to discern they are sacrifices God and his Church calls one to make.

I know that some dioceses have gotten older candidates and perpetually professed them fairly quickly --- after a year or two. There  may be real exceptions with great backgrounds, life experience, and sufficient spiritual maturity, etc, for this to work, but generally I am certain it is not sufficient time to discern such a vocation. This is especially true when the person is still dealing with bereavement, has really desired to live in community which did not work out, is newly diagnosed with chronic illness, etc. While chancery personnel might want to be "pastoral" to the person's own situation, I am convinced that besides this they are often asking themselves, "Besides, what harm will it do?" or "Well, the vocation is isolated and of no real benefit, so who can it hurt?" or "One more person in a habit! That's a good thing." The problem with professions which are premature in such situations is that people are hurt, the vocation itself is harmed by being trivialized and rendered incredible, and the habit is turned into a bit of pious costuming rather than a symbol of genuine sacrifice and witness (again, all matters of disrespecting the vocation). Put more positively, perhaps, we have to say that because the gift (charisma) the solitary eremitical vocation is to the Church and World is neither understood nor valued, dioceses admit persons who will never live the gift or bring it to those who need it so very badly. Establishing such precedents only help to ensure this fragile but vital vocation will be suppressed or rendered incredible and the Divine gift associated with lives of the "silence of solitude" will be lost once again.

Two Final Clarifications: 

Let me be clear. We ought not extend periods of discernment interminably. Even so, a period of 2-3 years in solitude as a lay hermit (not merely a lone person) while participating in spiritual direction, followed by 2-4 years of mutual discernment prior to admission to temporary profession and then a period of temporary profession for 3-5 years is entirely reasonable in approaching perpetual profession under canon 603! During the latter 9 years (discernment through temporary profession) the diocese HAS to be willing to follow the candidate carefully (including visits to the person's home/hermitage for interviews). If, after the initial period of mutual discernment the diocese is seriously doubtful about the vocation they should be honest about their doubts and concerns and end the discernment unless everyone involved agrees to extending this for another year or two. If the diocese still has serious doubts and concerns then the process should be discontinued. If the individual is truly called to eremitical life --- if eremitical solitude really is the environment and goal of her life --- she will remain a lay hermit, continue working on the issues that were raised, and in a few years might be able to petition the diocese to revisit the matter.

Also, it IS the case that in time some few of those putative vocations which looked initially to be merely stopgap or fallback "vocations" WILL MATURE into authentic eremitical vocations. It takes time for this, however, and the person who will eventually come to be professed with such a history needs to be very clear that God has redeemed the initial situation in this way. A niggling sense that perhaps one was ONLY using canon 603 as a stopgap solution to personal desires, deficiencies, etc, or that perhaps a diocese admitted one to profession out of pity or because they didn't understand the vocation well enough cannot be allowed to cloud one's profession under canon 603. Dioceses need to understand clearly that one may leave religious life BECAUSE one is truly called to eremitical solitude; they need to know that eremitical solitude represents the redemption of  isolation and that hermits thus live something that is a gift to a church and world marked and marred by individuals' isolation. But validating isolation and redeeming it are different things. Thus SOME especially authentic and edifying vocations will necessarily come FROM such isolation (chronic illness, life failures, etc) and become strong witnesses to the redeeming power of God. Again though, teasing apart the various motivations, deficiencies, and potentialities takes time which makes long discernment both prudent and charitable, especially in such instances.

15 October 2012

Rejecting Eremitical Vocations vs Creating Readiness for Eremitical Vocations

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
      it seems to me that if Dioceses don't agree that Diocesan Hermit candidates have adequate formation then they should just not profess them until they HAVE adequate formation.  I mean that doesn't seem like rocket science to me! Also how can they simply make a blanket judgment against the vocation itself? So what is the diocesan responsibility in forming diocesan hermits? Is it really possible for solitary hermits to get sufficient formation themselves with a bit of help from a spiritual director? Thank you.]]

Well, I think you have hit the nail on the head here. Reaching the conclusion you have is not rocket science, is it? First, a diocese is not actually responsible for forming a hermit; they are primarily about discerning the nature and quality of the vocation present before them. However, if a diocese believes the person requires more formation before being admitted to profession, they do need to work with resources available to the hermit to help her determine a plan so that she can get this formation. Thus, a diocese needs to be specific with the individual involved with regard to what areas in which she is deficient , what kinds of things would help with these, and so forth. The reference to needed formation cannot be vague nor can it replace actual discernment on the reality of the vocation itself. For instance, it is not okay to make an aspirant for profession jump through a number of formative hoops if the diocese has already determined she is not called to be a diocesan hermit and will not be admitted to profession. The only way this could work is if the diocese is honest with the person, says they are truly open to seeing things in a new way once the formation issues are taken care of, and then follows through with that.

It is true that sometimes elements in formation can clarify areas of the candidate's life which have caused questions about the reality or nature of a vocation, but in such cases the candidate must know that admission to profession is in serious doubt and that while further formation may assist in clarifying matters and even help take care of areas which lead to doubt, at the same time they may not change the doubtfulness. Honesty and good faith communication is imperative in such instances. Dioceses have not always been good at achieving this kind of openness in communication.  A candidate must agree to get the formation they need --- especially since they bear the brunt of any expense or time commitment required.

How can dioceses make such blanket judgments against vocations per se? Excellent question but not one for which there is a single answer. Some Vicars for Religious (few I hope!), for instance, do not value the contemplative life; if this is so, eremitical life will seem even less valuable. Some Vicars and even Bishops may have seen abuses of canon 603 and have been put off by these. Some dioceses realize that, despite the fact that dioceses do not form hermits, working with hermit candidates involves a long-term commitment to the person as well as a kind of patience and expertise their usual work may not require. They may not be up to that for a single vocation which is rare and seemingly not very fruitful or contemporary. Also, the process of discernment here involves a life with which few Vicars or even Bishops are really familiar in any meaningful sense at all. It is not uncommon for the same stereotypes which plague the world at large in regard to hermits to also plague chancery staff. Some dioceses may indeed have had several poor candidates show up at the chancery door looking for a sinecure, or may even have professed someone and had it turn into a nightmare for everyone involved. Communities have ways of socializing (forming) and supervising members at least partly simply by living with them and also may ask them to leave before perpetual vows. With hermits and consecrated virgins the same safeguards do not exist so the diocese itself needs to be patient and careful over a longer period of discernment.


If a hermit is admitted too soon to perpetual or even temporary profession, especially if the diocese doing so has not confirmed the adequacy of formation (or don't even know how to do so), if the diocese has insufficient knowledge of the eremitical tradition and life,  or if they are unwilling to invest (and demand) the appropriate time for the formation of a solitary eremitical vocation (which the hermit herself must secure), then the eremitical vocation itself is endangered. In such cases I would say better there be NO professions than bad ones. Even so, a blanket refusal to profess anyone is obviously not optimal or even acceptable in the face of canon 605 (which requires Bishops be attentive to new forms of consecrated life) and the movement of the Holy Spirit with regard to true vocations. There are sound solitary eremitical vocations in a number of countries; dioceses must become aware of that and learn from them. Meanwhile, solitary hermits have gotten the formation they have needed to live this life --- and most have done it "on their own" with assistance and mentoring they themselves have acted to include in their lives. Most of the time diocesan hermits are partly formed in religious life and only late discovered a call to solitary life. Still, while it is a longer and more difficult process for those who have no background in religious life, it is generally possible for individuals to come to all that is necessary to live this life by themselves with the assistance of a director and an openness to doing what is necessary to learn and grow theologically, spiritually, and humanly.

What is at least equally essential however, is that dioceses themselves become educated in regard to the eremitical life (especially the solitary eremitical life). They must, for instance, know the difference between a hermit and a pious person who lives alone; they must have done some work in jettisoning the common stereotypes associated with the term "hermit" --- but also be proficient in spotting those same stereotypes when they show up in a candidate who has just arrived on the chancery doorstep. They must have a sense that hermits are created by time as well as by and for  the  silence of solitude and be able to allow those to do their work in a candidate's life. They must have a sense of the normally extended time frame for moving through a discernment process and not be tempted to ignore it --- an act which disrespects the vocation and fails to act with charity towards the candidate. Finally they must understand the central elements of Canon 603, especially the silence of solitude and its function as charism of the eremitical life. As already noted, bishops are called and canonically required to be aware of and foster new forms of consecrated life. While it is a serious commitment in time given the rarity of these vocations, chancery personnel (Bishops, Vicars for Religious or Consecrated Life, Vocations directors, etc) must foster a readiness to patiently discern and assist such vocations instead of simply rejecting their possibility out of hand.

13 October 2012

Empty Houses are Vulnerable Houses

The pericope of the house exorcised of a single demon from yesterday's Gospel passage by Luke provides some real spiritual wisdom. It also serves to illustrate Paul's own concern in what he is is writing to the Church in Galatia and is especially meaningful when read within the context provided by Paul's letter to the Galatians. Remember, the passage from Luke speaks of clearing a single demon from a house; the demon then wanders around arid spaces looking for a place to inhabit. Eventually it returns to the original dwelling and finds it all swept clean and in order, but yet uninhabited. The demon thus  goes out to find seven more demons and they all move into the now clean and orderly but empty house.

The first part of the context for hearing this Gospel passage is provided by Paul's own theology and is summarized by the first lection: namely, the Law, a Divine gift,  functions as a curse apart from Christ. It provides rules on the way we are required to be and persist in being but it cannot empower us to do what it requires. The law instructs us regarding what is truly human, it can convict us of sin and point clearly to the demons which occupy our own divided hearts  but it cannot actually bring about Communion with God. The Law is important, especially as a schoolmaster preparing us for adult life in faith, but it cannot be thought to replace faith.

The second part of the context is provided by Luke's theology itself. A major theme of the Gospel is hospitality. Luke is concerned not only with our call to provide hospitality to strangers of whom we make neighbors, but with providing hospitality for God in our world, and further, with becoming ourselves God's own guests dwelling within the Kingdom of God's own sovereignty. In  the stories we heard this week from Luke's Gospel hospitality figures largely, and so does law to some extent. On Monday we heard the story of Mary and Martha, both offering hospitality to Jesus. Martha adopts a kind of legal maximization and busies herself going beyond the strict requirements of the Law (to provide a single dish for the guest) and  in the process, avoids actually providing the guest what he most desires --- her own hearkening (obedient) company. Mary, on the other hand, sits down at Jesus' feet and "hearkens" to him. What Martha seems to do is something Paul associates with the "curse of the law,"  namely she assumes that if x is required, 5 times x will be even better.

On Wednesday we heard the Lord's Prayer, which itself is about being taught to pray and thus 1) coming to allow God a place where he may be powerfully present in our world, and 2) becoming participants in the Kingdom of Divine Sovereignty where all dwell in communion with God and one another. What the pericope makes clear is that Law has NOT taught the disciples how to pray. Only Jesus (God's own empowering presence) can do this. On Thursday, there was the story of the importuning guest banging on his neighbor's door for bread to feed an unexpected guest. It is unclear whether or not all in this story eventually act as the Law requires them to act (the entire village is responsible for hospitality) but one can hardly praise the attitude of heart or spirit of hospitality demonstrated by (or lacking in!) the man who was sought out to supply the bread, for instance! And yesterday we heard the story of Jewish leaders who are concerned with the Law and presumably keep it faithfully as God's gift, but refuse to receive Jesus as God's own presence in their lives and world. They even accuse Jesus of acting by the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons. Jesus confronts them with their inconsistency by asking what power it is by which they themselves exorcise demons; he then tells today's parable of the demon exorcised from the house with the house then being left uninhabited and vulnerable.

Probably very few of us are legalists in the strict sense, but how many of us tidy up our own hearts in a kind of spiritual housekeeping and fail to give those same hearts over to God to fully occupy? How many of us are intrigued by techniques and tools, workshops, etc, but resist actual prayer, that is, the giving of our lives over to God? I suspect this is a far more common problem in Christian living than legalism per se. Law of all sorts assists us in dealing with the demons which inhabit our own hearts: those of covetousness, greed, dishonor, dishonesty, anger, and so forth, but we have to go further and allow God to be powerfully present in whatever way he wishes. We have to allow our hearts to truly become Temples of the Holy Spirit. After all we are not called merely to be respectable (neat, clean, orderly, well looked after, with the right structure, facade, and all the right appointments), but to be Holy --- a new Creation, in fact. That means not merely being occupied WITH God or the concerns of his Law, but being occupied BY God in a way which transforms our hearts into God's own home.


Despite the humor involved in Luke's image of the returning demons, the image is serious. We have all seen houses that were abandoned, and especially we have seen houses owners fixed up but left unoccupied; they become  dens for animals, nests for squatters of all sorts, dump sites for lazy neighbors, sources for scavengers and thieves  drug houses, and so forth. In short, they are made unfit for human (or Divine) habitation. So too with our own hearts. Law helps us clean them of all those things mentioned above, and more. But Luke's Gospel also reminds us that God in Christ stands at the door and knocks. If we don't REALLY allow him to make himself fully at home, if we allow our hearts to be less than wholly hospitable to a God who desires an exhaustive Communion with us, then other and worse demons will replace the demons already exorcised: those of ingratitude, self-righteousness, complacency, fear, works-righteousness, pride, and so forth. Houses are made to be inhabited and so is the human heart; an empty house is dangerous and vulnerable and so is an empty human heart ---no matter how orderly and respectable. Law helps us ready our hearts for Communion with God, but at some point we really do have to allow God to move in as fully as He desires and take complete "ownership".

12 October 2012

Why is it Diocesan Hermits can Wear Habits?

Sisters of Bethlehem (Not Canon 603)
[[Dear Sister Laurel, why is it consecrated hermits can wear habits?]]

Thanks for your question. There are several reasons which make it appropriate to allow publicly professed hermits to wear habits.  First, in light of canon 603 solitary canonical hermits are now seen as religious. In the Handbook on Canons 573-746 in the section on norms common to Institutes of Consecrated Life, canonist Ellen O'Hara, CSJ writes regarding canon 603 specifically, "The term "religious" now applies to individuals with no obligation to common or community life and no relation to an institute." Thus, the same canonical obligations regarding garb witnessing to consecration and religious poverty can be applied to diocesan hermits. (Note well that in all of this I am referring to canon 603 and those who make public vows under that canon. Privately dedicated hermits are not included in Sister Ellen O'Hara's characterization above.)

Secondly, the eremitical life is traditionally associated with an eremitical or monastic habit. Ordinarily an elder hermit granted the habit to the novice and monitored the wearing of it as a piece of mentoring the novice in the eremitical life. If the novice lived the life well the habit stayed; if the novice did not live the life well permission to wear the habit was withdrawn and the habit was taken away. This use of specific religious garb is older than any other in the history of Christian religious or monastic  life. Since, along with congregations of hermits like the Carthusians and Camaldolese, c 603 represents a public, ecclesial continuation of this tradition the granting of the habit is entirely appropriate to diocesan hermits despite the fact that they are solitary hermits. The Bishop replaces an elder hermit or mentor however, in granting permission for and clothing with the habit.

Thirdly, the habit today especially marks the person wearing it as somehow "separated" from the world, not only in the sense of that which is resistant to Christ, but also to some extent from the world of social relationships and some related obligations. For instance, as I have noted before vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience significantly qualify the ways in which the professed person relates to the world of commerce, relationships, and power. For hermits who are, in fact and by definition, more strictly separated from these than apostolic or ministerial religious, the habit can serve to remind her of this dimension of her vocation even when she is out and about. While it should not make her in any way remote or distant from those with whom she comes in contact, it signals a distinction which is not always appropriate in ministerial religious.

Permission to wear the habit, as noted above, is granted by the diocesan Bishop. Beyond this it is customary (though not strictly required) that the hermit is clothed in a cowl or other prayer garment at perpetual profession. My own diocese required the latter (cowl or other prayer garment) and desired or were open to (but did not require) my wearing a habit. Still, some hermits may choose not to adopt these forms of garb and some dioceses may not require (or even be open to) either habit or prayer garment. Reasons vary. Some Bishops dislike allowing individuals who are not members of an institute of consecrated life to wear a habit (especially if the habit is typically Franciscan or Dominican or something similar) --- though sometimes this is a piece of discerning an authentic eremitical vocation (sometimes folks who live alone merely want to wear a habit and are not really interested in the vocation itself or in living an authentic eremitical solitude). Some hermits accent the hiddeness of the life and see a habit as clashing with this dimension of the eremitical life. Others feel that wearing such garb is contrived or unnatural outside a monastic setting and are simply uncomfortable with it. When these things are true, the hermit's Rule (her own "proper law") will not support the wearing of a habit.

Still, hermits professed and consecrated under canon 603 are generally allowed to wear habits if and when their Bishops agree. (Such permission is usually not granted apart from profession, especially if the hermit is out in public because, as I have noted before (something which could be called a fourth reason), habits are associated with the assumption of public rights and obligations. A habit is unnecessary and superfluous apart from the assumption of such rights and obligations; it is also misleading and dishonest. People rightly associate habits with the assumption of public rights and obligations and tailor their expectations accordingly, It is for this reason habits are not usually approved apart from admission to vows. The cowl, when given, is always linked to perpetual profession and not to temporary profession.)

Patient Trust

In light of the posts I have put up regarding the time and patience it takes to discern an eremitical vocation as well as on the impatience we often show with the newness that comes from God, I wanted to post the following poem by Teihard de Chardin, SJ.

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
          to reach the end without delay.
We should all like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
          unknown, something new.
And yet, that is the law of all progress
          that it is made by passing through
          some stages of instability
          and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you,
          your ideas mature gradually --- let them grow
          let them shape themselves, without undue
          haste.

Don't try to force them on.
         as though you could be today what time
         (that is to say, grace and circumstances
         acting on your good will)
         will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
         gradually forming within you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
        that his hand is leading you.
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
        in suspense and incomplete.

Solutions to using Canon 603 as a Stopgap Way to Profession

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Solution to the problem of Stopgap Professions?

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

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

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

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

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

09 October 2012

The Importance of the Lay Eremitical Vocation, Followup Questions

[[Sister Laurel, 
      is there some way to live as a lay hermit and ALSO do so, as you put it, 'in the name of the Church'? One of the problems I have is that the Church does not seem to know lay hermits exist. I don't think it is a vocation that is regarded by the Church. I guess I am asking if there is a way to avoid all the institutional red tape and requirements of canon 603 and also have the Church really CARE about lay hermits! It seems to me if the Church  herself really esteemed lay hermits it would be a lot easier for people to accept that maybe this is what they are called to.]]


I think these are really excellent questions! My response to the first one is, unfortunately, no, I don't think there is any way to live this "in the name of the Church" in the sense of a special commissioning and consecration. But one still lives it by virtue of one's baptism and that particular commissioning  ---  that is, one lives it in light of the rights and obligations granted by baptism and so, one will be a part of exploring a contemporary form of life in the tradition of the desert Fathers and Mothers. 

If one really wants to live the eremitical vocation per se "in the name of the Church" then one should pursue Canon 603 profession and consecration. I personally chose to do so especially because I thought the way God had worked in my own life added something special to the witness to the silence of solitude, namely, the redemption of the isolation related to chronic illness, and other similar situations. This was something I felt needed to be witnessed to in the Church in a more official way. Without public vows I felt somewhat "unfree" in this regard. I also chose to do so because I had lived vowed life and desired to continue living vows I had come to love but to do so now in a solitary
eremitical context. Without these two reasons I could have lived as a lay hermit without any substantive difference between that life and the one I live now. The presence of these two particular reasons suggested to me that God was calling me to pursue Canon 603 profession and consecration for  reasons that had nothing to do with status nor with believing it was a "higher vocation," or something similar.

Your desire to avoid all the red tape of Canon 603 is understandable. Many lay hermits object to the various requirements, time frames, discernment processes, supervision, and other things that seem to them to constrict the degree of freedom they need within their lives. Although I don't agree with them in this I can understand their point of view. What seems to be important in your questions and desires is for the Church to really esteem the lay eremitical vocation. The question is how does one achieve this? The problem is that there is a bit of a vicious circle here, namely, lay persons won't generally embrace eremitical life unless the Church esteems it and at the same time the Church will not esteem it in more than principle if folks are not living it in exemplary ways. So who breaks the stalemate? It has to be lay hermits --- just as was the case for those desiring the eventual promulgation of canon 603. After all, the Church officially esteems both lay life and the eremitical life; she stresses the freedom and responsibility of lay persons to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit in living out their vocations. She is open to seeing how lay vocational experiments really work and has learned important lessons from the desert Fathers and Mothers, so what more encouragement do lay hermits need?

A lay hermit could well live an eremitical life in the midst of her parish. She could reflect on the life, its significance, nature, etc and write about that. She could contribute on the parish or diocesan levels or she could begin a blog and write about the eremitical life, the importance of its counter-cultural witness and the ways she personally lives it out. And of course, she could be an encouraging and even inspiring presence to those in their parishes that had to live some forms of isolated existence due to illness, age, or other problematical circumstances. This could include modeling significant ways to live the evangelical counsels as all baptized are called to do even though the person does not have public vows and it might even include demonstrating the importance of a Rule of Life for any person attempting to live a truly Gospel life. All of this and more could be done better than a canonical hermit might well be able to do because the diocesan hermit is (or is often perceived to be) distanced to some extent by virtue of her canonical standing. What is important is that this be a true lay life lived from the graces of baptism in ways which speak profoundly and powerfully to every segment of the Church. it would be a vocation which had listened attentively to Vatican II's teaching on the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) and on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) and addressed the necessary contemplative dimension of implementing these documents in the contemporary church and world.

If persons in the lay state of life could do this and effectively accent the generosity and love which compelled them to live this vocation, they would also go a long way to free the notion of eremitical life from stereotypes and distortions. Their lives would also underscore the notion that religious are not called to a higher form of holiness than the laity, and that contemplative life and some degree of the silence of solitude is important, indeed, foundational to all states of Christian life. Finally, if lay persons could do this they would go a long way towards assisting the whole Church to realize the goals and values of Vatican II. The hierarchy would come to appreciate the vocation and, more to the point perhaps, pastors would begin encouraging the (at least experimental) living of it in those they felt or even suspected were called to it. 

07 October 2012

On the Significance of the Lay Eremitical Vocation --- Revisiting the Question

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have returned to thinking I am a lay hermit, and nothing more, and though God can work miracles in our lives and does marvelous things we could not foresee, at this moment I don't see anything so grandiose [as being admitted to profession as a canon 603 hermit] happening in my life. My life is marvelous in itself, and I try in all humility to bury myself in His will, not thinking anything of myself as being in the least special at all. I feel that God has consecrated me, but any consecration the Church would do would have to be as a consecrated lay man, and I still don’t see any provision in Canon Law for such a state; perhaps you can clarify what other options may exist of which I am unaware.]]


Hi there,
      By way of introduction and since you have read this blog for a while let me suggest you and newer visitors reread some of the pieces on the importance and nature of the lay vocation and the lay eremitical vocation. I don't want to repeat everything I have said in those but I feel a need to reiterate some of it as in a partial response. 

First though,  let me say that I understand the pain you feel at desiring eremitical consecration and the difficulties of waiting on a diocese to respond to your request. You are new at living eremitical life (just two years or less) with no background in religious life; it ordinarily takes much more time to discern this vocation, much less to be allowed to live it in the name of the church. I also went through the hassle of long waiting periods,a sometimes unresponsive diocese, occasional fearful and controlling chancery personnel, lost files, mislaid letters, and so forth. It was not always easy and I almost found other ways to live my gifts from time to time, but in patient prayer and reflection I also came to see that lay eremitical life was an immensely valuable vocation and if that was what God was calling me to, then perhaps I was meant to learn to appreciate this more than I had come to already.

I will take issue with some of what you said and applaud some other things. First, any sentences referring to being a lay hermit and using words like "just" or "only" or "nothing more" to describe this are dead wrong and may well indicate you have not yet come to completely see how truly wonderful is the vocation to be a lay hermit or the way in which your life can speak to those right around you and the Church as a whole. You ARE consecrated. That happened for you at Baptism. I think you need to consider that part of what you are feeling is the reality of your baptismal CONSECRATION. There is no need for a separate vocation to be a "consecrated lay person" since lay persons ARE, by definition, consecrated or they would not be part of the laos, the laity, or People of God. I strongly suggest that part of what God may be calling you to is a stronger, clearer sense of the dignity and significance of an eremitical vocation lived in the lay state.

It is true this is not the same as being called to the consecrated state of life, but because there is nothing higher or more sacred than baptism which makes of us a new creation and calls us to an exhaustive holiness, neither therefore can we say that the consecrated state of life is a higher calling nor that the lay state is some sort of merely entrance-level vocation. As I have said many times here, these two states of life are different in their canonical rights and obligations, but neither is higher than the other. The language of objective superiority which Aquinas used does NOT translate in this way and Aquinas seemed to assiduously avoid implications of vocational inferiority or a lower vocation. I would urge you to drop any qualifying language which diminishes the dignity of the lay state or the significance of lay eremitical life. Whether or not this stage of your life leads to diocesan eremitical life it is an infinitely significant vocation and the model you are currently given to live out for all those persons living around you, many of whom are isolated elderly or chronically ill, etc, and need to be reassured of the significant value of their lives.

This week we begin the 50 year anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II and one of the most important pieces of theology it fostered was on the dignity of the lay vocation and the universal call to holiness. One of the challenges the Church still must accomplish is a move to implement this dimension of the Second Vatican Council consistently, completely. Ironically, that achievement falls MAINLY to lay persons to claim and make real! You can do this right now, without waiting for the Church to admit you to profession under canon 603. You write: [[Nor can I really speak with any authority, never having been a novice, professed monk, or anything more than just a layman. I do not want to be an "outlaw" or rebel of any kind, but the existence of people like myself means God is anything but done with moving among men to bring redemption to them by any means possible.]]

But the truth is while you do not have the training provided by religious life you do have authority. You are a baptized lay person living (and learning to live) an eremitical life and coming more and more to understand what doing so means for those living in the world you inhabit all the time. You can speak to THIS vocation and this world with a particular authority and credibility I might myself have relinquished in accepting canonical standing. What I mean by this is that my own life is separated from those around me, not merely by eremitical life, but by my canonical standing. While I am very keen on witnessing to isolated elderly, chronically ill persons who are isolated by their illness, and others who may discover that eremitical life could redeem their isolation, In the past few years I have come to realize that lay hermits might well be able to speak with greater credibility to these people than someone with different standing in canon law. I suspect this may be a special charism which lay hermits have especially; that is, I think this may be a gift of the Holy Spirit which lay hermits bring to both the Church and the world in ways canonical hermits may not be as effective in bringing.

But doing this means taking the fact and dignity of one's baptismal consecration with complete seriousness. Of course God is not done bringing people to redemption in Christ by any means possible; you are absolutely correct in this, but the primary, essential, or foundational way God does this is through baptism. Bringing the charism mentioned above  to the Church and world also means reflecting on the place eremitical solitude occupies in your own life. When you can speak clearly to yourself about what these mean you will come to appreciate what they mean or could mean in the lives of others around you. You could begin blogging about this perhaps, or finding ways at your own parish to speak about it. You have begun this process already. In what you wrote above you said, [[My life is marvelous in itself, and I try in all humility to bury myself in His will, not thinking anything of myself as being in the least special at all.]] I applaud the first part of this sentence  --- for your life is indeed marvelous in itself. But you are entirely special and so is your call. All of us, by virtue of our birth and then again by virtue of our baptism and rebirth in Christ are infinitely significant and ultimately special. Genuine humility actually recognizes this and genuine spirituality is a grateful response to it. 

I ask that you try to imagine how many people who were once catechized and inculturated to believe that vocations to the lay state were second or third class vocations and yearn to really serve God in a "special" way would welcome hearing from a lay hermit that they simply have to recognize the truth of their lives as they stand right now! During this year of Faith where we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II and renew our commitments to its achievements this could be quite a gift for you to bring to the Church and world in your own unique way! In fact, in a Church where we once again have a growing clericalism and similar forms of hardening elitism it may be a critical mission God has given you. At this point in time you are a lay hermit and nothing less!! It is a crucial vocation. Whatever the future holds for you in regard to canon 603, the only thing which can diminish this lay eremitical vocation is appreciating it inadequately and living it badly. I urge you to embrace it as an infinitely significant vocation and really make it your own.

I will respond to other parts of your email as time allows, especially to those parts which make observations based on the situation outlined in my post on the diocesan hermit in the Archdiocese of Boston. In the meantime I ask that you look again at earlier posts reiterating the significance of baptismal consecration.