30 April 2013

Becoming a Hermit in the silence of solitude: Living the mystery of God's Good Time and God's own Purposes

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, if a diocese is unwilling to form me as a hermit, then why should I try living in solitude on my own? I read your post about dioceses not forming hermits after I spoke with them but it seems pretty unreasonable of them to expect me to just go off on my own and live as a hermit if there is no insurance that they will profess me in a couple of years. I mean c'mon, when one enters a religious community one looks forward to becoming a novice and then to profession. That is just normal! It helps the person get through formation. No one expects someone to give up three or more years without some assurance that they will be professed. Why can't a diocese set up a similar program for those desiring to become diocesan hermits?]]

Thanks for your questions. You have managed to mention most of the troublesome issues with regard to a lack of understanding of canon 603 that I have spent time writing about here. Perhaps the only ones you didn't explicitly refer to are the ideas of having someone else write your Rule for you, the eremitical life as one of misanthropy and isolation, or planning on going off and establishing a community as soon as you are professed under c 603!!

To be very frank, let me say that it really simply does not make sense that you are contacting your diocese to ask them to form you as a hermit if you do not feel called to live in solitude on your own. You see, hermits are formed in solitude --- and ordinarily in a number of years of solitude rather than the time frame you have spoken of! If you are not already living this life, at least in some rudimentary way, and doing so in a way which attests to its place in making you whole and holy, one wonders how your diocese is supposed to discern a vocation to solitude in your life?  Despite the fact that you have read what I have written on the diocese not forming hermits I think you may not have understood me. You still have the cart before the horse and even yet misunderstand the nature of eremitical formation.

The questions any diocese will ask you (or look for signs of the answers to in you) right from the beginning are "are you a hermit in any essential sense or are you just a dilettante or merely curious about it? Do you sincerely think God is calling you to live an eremitical life (and why is that) or is this really just a way to get professed because other avenues are not open to you, for instance?" (Remember that if other avenues are closed to you this can still occasionally mature into a true call to eremitical life, but rarely.) "Most importantly, can and will you follow this call whether or not your diocese decides to profess you in the future?" If your answers to all of these (or the answers your life embodies) are positive, then perhaps your diocese will (or at least should) be open to professing you one day. However, if you answered no to any of these questions (or your life suggests this was perhaps only a stopgap way of getting professed) the chances of your having a vocation to eremitical life drop quite significantly. Again, this is because hermits hear, respond to God's call, and are thus formed in solitude; this whole process is, more than anything else, a matter of the dialogue between the hermit and God in the silence of solitude. Nothing can substitute for this or replace it as primary. For this reason  if you truly feel there is no reason to live in solitude unless there is some promise the diocese will profess you, then there is something really and seriously amiss here.

Since something about the vocation intrigued you enough to go to your diocese I can't say the chances of your having an eremitical vocation drops to zero but depending upon what intrigued you that still might be true. (For instance, if it was the garb, the title (Sister, Brother, etc), the potential right to reserve Eucharist in your own place, the idea of being a religious without the complexities, demands, and challenges of community life, or if you thought this was a cool way to watch TV (or paint or whatever) all day and not be thought a colossal layabout while people treated you with the deference given to Religious then the chances do hover at nil.)

On Stages in Religious Life and the Absence of Assurances:

Before I respond  concerning the nature of eremitical life specifically, I guess I should also note that you are mistaken in your assumptions about those entering religious life. The majority of persons today do in fact live the life in initial formation for up to three years without ever being professed and without any assurance they will be professed, much less perpetually professed. Most leave before making first vows. Formation certainly does prepare a person for vows but it remains mainly a period of discernment as does the period of temporary profession (the period of up to six years in temporary vows). A congregation or an individual may well decide such a person does not have a call to religious life at any point along these nine years.

At each stage a person petitions the community to admit her to the next step: a postulant or candidate asks to be received into the community and begin a novitiate; a canonical or second year novice petitions to be admitted to first vows; these may be renewed in several different ways (for instance, yearly or  every two or three years) and each renewal requires the Sister petition and receive the permission of the congregation; finally, after six years of temporary vows, this Sister petitions to be admitted to perpetual profession. Although as time goes on it becomes less likely a person will leave (or not be admitted to the next stage of commitment) I have known people to leave just before perpetual profession. Again, there are no assurances that if one puts in x time and jumps through y hoops one will be professed. A vocation is more than this. One risks the time and effort because one truly believes God is calling one to this. Meanwhile, in some ways formation is more akin to Michaelangelo's idea of freeing and bringing to clarity or articulateness the obscure form within the marble than it is about creating a vocation out of a shapeless lump of raw material.

The Eremitical Vocation is Truly Heard and Responded to in Solitude

With hermits the situation is even more complicated or hard to reduce to a single program or time frame. Solitude itself can be temporary, transitional, maladaptive, or even dysfunctional and situations where any of these are the case do not equate to a call to live one's life as a hermit. Being a lone individual and somewhat pious, or even very pious, is also not the same as being a hermit or being called to be one. (cf. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Hermits as Desert Dwellers) Nor is merely needing some peace and quiet to do one's own intellectual or artistic work --- though true hermits tend to do both as part of their vocations. All of this takes varying amounts of time to discern. Presuming a true call to a life of solitude (what I qualify as "eremitical solitude"), even if a diocese sets up guidelines for all of its own diocesan hermits the individual hermit  in this local church will live out her vocation with reasonable flexibility and creativity.

She responds to a call which is altogether individual and the Rule she writes, even when taking account of diocesan guidelines, will reflect this. Because the eremitical vocation is so truly individual I don't think any "program" of formation can be set up which specifies exact time frames or stages. Once a person has become a hermit in some essential or fundamental sense rather than being merely a lone or isolated individual (and, again, this happens in solitude), a diocese might well determine a general set of parameters for temporary profession  prior to perpetual profession (3-5 years is not unusual, and this is often preceded by another period of at least five years without public vows), but otherwise, set periods really don't work too well.

The Eremitical Paradox: Only in God's Good Time and at God's Pleasure

Additionally, the eremitical vocation, especially the solitary eremitical vocation lived under canon 603, requires the individual's ability to respond to God on a day by day basis. She really must have a strong sense of initiative and be able to act, grow, and mature in all the ways anyone must, but with much less supervision or ability to check in with folks for immediate feedback, etc. Beyond this she must have a sense of the gift-quality of her life whether or not the Church ever admits to canonical standing or not.

It is only in light of such a sense of the value of her life to God and a world that is largely oblivious to her that she will be able to persevere in solitude. (That the world is largely oblivious, and that the church too may be oblivious in this case or that, is part of the essential hiddenness of the eremitical vocation.) It is true that canonical standing affirms this value and that it is helpful in this task of persevering, but my own experience says that the proven capacity to persevere in the silence of solitude apart from and prior to admission to public vows is essential to the vocation. (And here an aspect of the silence of  solitude is the absence of external verification or affirmation of value.) The somewhat difficult paradox operating here is that one must demonstrate to the diocese that one is committed and able to live this vocation without canonical standing and the relationships that come with this before one can show them one actually requires canonical standing and the relationships which are part of such standing.

 This last piece of things is one of the more important reasons a diocese cannot set up a formation program for diocesan hermits. The competence, available time, resources, willingness, etc of the diocesan personnel notwithstanding, a diocese can only recognize a vocation that stands in front of them; such vocations are formed in solitude and will persevere in solitude even without canonical standing or they are likely not authentic eremitical vocations. Once the vocation is truly discerned --- and this means once a person has responded to God's call in and to the silence of solitude and established a life characterized by this same charisma (gift) --- she (and the church as a whole) may find there are good reasons for public profession and canonical standing (not least that this gift c 603 calls "the silence of solitude" needs to be brought more consciously and mutually into the heart of the church). However, in my opinion this direction cannot really be reversed. The Church (meaning here a diocese's chancery and formation personnel) does not form hermits. Only God in solitude does that and this only in God's good time and according to God's own purposes and pleasure. This is an essential part of the vocation and  a central piece of what the hermit witnesses to with her life.

Looking at the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard from a new Perspective:

This asks that we see the parable of the laborers in the vineyard from a different perspective than usual -- from the perspective of those who were only hired quite late in the day. We hermits usually come to this vocation late in life or at least in the latter half of life. Sometimes we come to this vocation via years of chronic illness and often we have to wait long years for the Church to admit us to public profession (if that happens at all). There can be a sense that time is being wasted, that a life is being lost and opportunities for formation and ministry are tragically being missed; it may even seem that we are hanging about town waiting for an opportunity to be put to good use and that in the end our lives will return void to the God who created and sent us into the world. But the truth is quite different and is symbolized by the fact that in the parable all laborers are given the same wage (are valued the same).

At the same time we find that the laborers who came late to work in the vineyards had learned to wait on the Lord. Their own sense of poverty was profoundly honed during this time of waiting and they are open to God calling them and gifting them in whatever way God proposes. They are a countercultural witness because they have become someone very different in all of this than they might have been otherwise. But one comes to find it has all been done according to God's own time and purposes, that God has brought great good out of all this seeming emptiness and waste and the result is God's own gift to Church and World. Those proposing they be admitted to public profession as diocesan hermits need to have acquired a sense of all of this apart from canonical profession. I think it is the way to the essential formation of the hermit heart and can only come in the silence of solitude where one learns to wait on the Lord in radical poverty and dependence.

(Also cf: Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Hermits as Desert Wanderers and Dwellers)