10 June 2013

Writing a Rule of Life: When Should a Diocese Request One Write a Rule?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, when should one write a Rule of Life? You have written that a Rule can only be written on the basis of lived experience. If a diocese asks one to do so right away what should one do?]]

You have put your finger on one of the most problematical elements of Canon 603 and of diocese's approach to its requirements, namely, the request that someone write a Rule of Life before they are really ready to do so, that is before someone has the lived experience and education (in things like the vows, etc) to do so. As I have written here before, the actual preparation for and writing of a Rule is one of the most formative experiences a hermit will have; it is also something one can only do on the basis of ample reading, reflection, and lived experience. This is because it is not simply a list of do's and don't's but a document which codifies the vision and values of the hermit's life in their interplay with eremitical tradition and the world in which the hermit lives (cf Negotiating the Tensions between Tradition and the Contemporary Situation); a Rule is the way she ensures the environment needed for God to love her (and vice versa) in the silence of solitude as well as achieving the goal of her life which IS the silence of solitude (eremitical communion with God in service to those precious to him). Thus, it should inspire before it legislates and it should legislate only as it inspires.

At the same time the Rule is the single concrete element of canon 603 which lends itself to a diocese's directives; for this reason there is a tendency for chancery personnel to ask candidates to go and write one whether there has been time to discern whether the person has the experience to do so or not. Meanwhile, the Rule that is eventually written by a candidate will help allow the diocese to discern the quality of vocation in front of them. All of this argues that, tempting as it is to do otherwise, the directive to write a Rule should not, and in fact must not, be given prematurely. Still, the hermit candidate needs some sort of provisional Rule or set of guidelines to help her live her life, and her diocese may be seriously tempted to ask her to write A single "finished" Rule before she is really ready, so what is the solution? Part of what follows is meant for dioceses; some will apply to you more directly. I hope that all of it will help you to understand what actually goes into the writing of a Rule.

1) begin with a set of guidelines. Here I merely mean a list of those things the diocese or church more generally expects to see in the life of an authentic hermit. These may come from the diocese or from the hermit herself as a result of her own study --- whichever is more comprehensive. Obviously the elements of canon 603 will be part of this (I will not go into those here), but, for instance, the single element of assiduous prayer will imply various kinds of prayer: Liturgy of the Hours, quiet prayer, meditation, lectio divina, rosary, Mass or Communion service, adoration, chant, Taize, etc.

(N.B., Any one hermit may not use all of these forms of prayer all the time, but she should be acquainted with them and have worked with her director to determine which ones are best for her at this point in time as well, for instance, as which ones work well when she is ill, on vacation or otherwise away from the hermitage, etc). Similarly, elements included in these guidelines will likely include study, recreation, work, contact with others, retreat, desert days, parish involvement, finances, horarium, meals, hospitality, home visits or visits with friends, vacation, spiritual direction, meetings with one's delegate, ongoing education or formation, etc. These should be related to the content of the vows one proposes  eventually to make and the central elements of canon 603 so they reflect the hermit's appreciation of the values and charism (gift quality) of the life.

Over time the hermit will try a variety of forms and combinations of these elements and, with the help of her director and delegate, discover what works best for her. Each experimental version or "configuration" of these elements should be balanced and include prayer, work, study, recreation, etc. Each one should show a real understanding and living out of the elements of the canon and thus, the values and charism of solitary eremitical life. (cf. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Appreciating the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life) Only when she has done this and discovered which configuration best allows for her own growth in wholeness and holiness in the silence of solitude is she actually ready to write a workable Rule of Life which can be submitted to the diocese.

2) At the end of a period of 2-3 years or so  of supervised experimentation (it could take longer; is is very unlikely to take less time unless the person has already lived vowed life for some period of time) and prior to admission to temporary vows, the diocese can ask the hermit (or the hermit may decide it is time) to write a provisional Rule which will bind her legally during her period of temporary vows. It should probably be understood that with the help of the hermit's director and delegate some elements may be changed in response to changes in her life or greater discernment or clarity, but these changes must be approved or otherwise made under diocesan supervision.

Part of the process of  both discernment and formation however involves learning whether one can as well as how to really live a Rule of Life which is considered and restrictive as well as life-giving and freeing. A Rule cannot include merely what one finds amenable at this point in time; it must be capable of challenging one to grow in the discipline and spirit of the eremitical life. Though it must not do so slavishly or apart from significant dialogue with the contemporary situation, it must reflect the eremitical tradition with real integrity or it is unworthy of the name. Patience and perseverance are part of the eremitical life and one must know one is able to live these elements on a day to day basis over a period of years in a way which leads to genuine wholeness BEFORE one is admitted to vows.

3) Six-eight months before perpetual or solemn vows are anticipated, the hermit should begin writing a definitive Rule which becomes canonically binding on the day of solemn/perpetual profession and will be approved first by canonists and then with a Bishop's Decree of Approval. (This period of time is chosen to allow sufficient time for writing and also to allow the diocese time for consultation with canonists, etc, which may lead to a need for re-writing and re-consultation. The fact that one has already written a Rule prior to temporary vows should be a big help here.) Despite the definitive nature of this Rule, a diocese (or the hermit!) should not be surprised to find that in several years she wishes to revise it in some significant way -- whether that is because she has embraced new prayer forms, must accommodate illness (or health!)  in new ways, has grown in her understanding of some element of canon 603 or the charism of her life, etc.

A Rule is a working document, a text for reflection and inspiration as well as being a legislative document. Like the Sabbath it is there for the sake of the hermit's life, not the other way around. Even so, at this point, my personal experience is that the changes that are needed will tend to be less substantive than earlier and ordinarily these will reflect significant growth in one's understanding of the vocation or significantly changed circumstances like illness, etc. One is no longer finding her way with the vocation in the same way she was before temporary vows or even just before perpetual profession. In other words, the changes needed at this point are usually the result of greater maturity in the life rather than immaturity and experimentation.

Regarding your specific question, if your diocese asks you to write a Rule before you feel you are ready, discuss this with them. If you like, discuss this article or others you have read on writing a Rule. Most of the time a diocese merely wants to be sure you are living an ordered life given over to the elements of canon 603. Often the people making the request have never written a Rule themselves and do not know what is required --- again, this is the single element of the canon they can point to for a concrete result. Even so, they are usually more than willing to give you the time this project truly requires. (I have never heard of a diocese hurrying a person in this. Though prematurity in requesting a Rule is a problem, any perceived  urgency is more often of the candidate's own making.) Writing up a set of guidelines or even a provisional Rule which you do not mean to be vetted by canonists or yet shown to your Bishop for approval should be acceptable to whomever is assisting you at the diocesan level. Let them know you are growing in this and that you anticipate writing another Rule in a couple of years when you are more experienced. Personally I think they will see this as a sign that you know what you are doing (and also as an admission of awareness of your own limitations!) --- both positive signs for a diocese.