05 June 2013

On Variety and Unity in the Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister,
[I am writing a provisional Rule of Life and the variety of hermit lives and Rules raise some questions for me. For instance] if someone is a true Christian, and who can judge that?, and says she is a hermit, lives alone sincerely giving herself to prayer, to the heart of the world and by extension and above all, to God, what makes her less a hermit? Less "worthy" (and I know how you hate that distinction) of being called a hermit?]]

Dear Poster, Thanks for your questions! If you take a look at the content of your conditional sentence above you will see that you have laid down some very stringent requirements for recognizing someone as a hermit (although I personally would switch God and world in your sentence so that the heart of God comes first and then the heart of the world by extension). Essentially you have described what I refer to as the distinction between a person merely living alone (implicit in your post) and a desert dweller or hermit (which you actually describe explicitly):

IF someone is a true Christian
IF she consciously claims the life of a hermit (desert dweller) and lets that define her (desert spirituality)
IF she lives alone (or, in cases of real need, with a caregiver who does not get in the way of her Rule and actually allows her to live it as fully as she feels called)
IF she sincerely gives herself (not just a bit of time here or there) to prayer, (add penance, silence, solitude and the silence OF solitude).
IF she lives in the heart of God (or is genuinely committed to doing so) and by extension gives herself to the world in this way. . . (all of this I refer to especially as the silence of solitude)

The devil is in the details. What does each of these mean? What does it look like? IF a person does all these things or is committed full time to doing all these things and being defined in this sense by her relationship with God, with  the Church and the world, then I would agree she is a hermit. If not, well ---  perhaps she is fooling herself, or perhaps she is just a relatively pious person living alone, or perhaps she is not sure what the term hermit means. In any case if she is not living these and other essential elements she is probably not a hermit --- badly as she might desire to be one. Meanwhile, if these (and other) essential elements are in place, a great deal of flexibility can be accommodated by a solitary hermit or variety by a number or group of hermits.

Directors, delegates, and Bishops read the Rules hermits write for themselves, talk to them about the presence of these (or other) essential elements, and CAN make an assessment about the authenticity of the vocation in front of them; in fact, it is their job and obligation to make assessments on an ongoing basis, it is because people cannot judge the heart that there are externally verifiable non-negotiables like canon 603. It specifies a life of the silence OF solitude (which is NOT the same as silence AND solitude though it includes these), assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world (both of these have inner meanings which can be assessed), evangelical counsels, all lived under the supervision of one's Bishop in accordance with a Rule the hermit herself writes. I would argue all of these are elements which protect, nurture, and express the very conditions you yourself laid down in your conditional sentence.

Merton (his "Philosophy of Solitude," which you have mentioned as speaking to you, is one of my favorite works by the way) was fairly exceptional and in some ways had the heart of a hermit while living in the midst of his monastery. Folks like Saints Peter Damian and Romuald were also exceptional. Still, they had the hearts of hermits and as much as they could lived the silence of solitude and wrote or worked in ways which allowed others to share that or live it in their own lives. Busyness per se (another thing you mention in your email) is not the question so long as the other elements are demonstrable and defining in the person's life. Even so, some would not call any of them hermits. (Having the true heart of a hermit is significant but few start here;  even so, whether one's heart has been shaped in this way or not one must also live the life itself; the alternative is to have folks thumping themselves in the chest and proclaiming themselves hermits while feeling free to do anything they really want; that way lies canon 603 as a stopgap, not to mention serious hypocrisy and betrayal of those for whom this vocation is meant to be truly pastoral.) (cf, Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Appreciating the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life .)

By the way, your Rule will include in some way or other the very conditions or values you yourself have set down and the ways in which you yourself guard, nurture, and live them out. That is its purpose really. In mentioning these you have set out a vision of the eremitical life as you know it. Your Rule will guide you in living these out with integrity.