08 August 2013

Follow-up Questions on Formation of Hermits

[[I was wondering, if Jesus is calling persons to either be lay hermits or diocesan hermits without the significant formation you describe, what happens to Canon 603 or the hermit life? This is a significant question because I think many people are thinking that the Church should relax many requirements for instance to shorten the training period for the priesthood, or for people called to religious life because the state of the Church is in somewhat of an emergency situation? There are so many ways people today are trying to answer the call to live some sort of religious life, and they are not being formed in any way. Are they receiving enough if they even receive the Catechetical teaching of the Church? Some do not receive even that. It could lead to a lot of disillusioned and embittered people which would not help the Church. I hope you understand what I'm driving at. I do not want to cause people to enter into errors, but I think many well intended people are "setting up their pulpit" to answer the call of Jesus to draw all men to Himself through their efforts.]]

All hermits require formation:

Thanks for your questions. Whether we are talking about lay or diocesan hermits my answer to being called without this formation has to be no, the vocation per se requires the significant (meaningful and substantive) formation I have referred to --- how ever one gets or achieves that! My point has been that the canon (which describes ALL eremitical life, not just consecrated eremitical life) came out of an experience of significant formation, it requires significant formation if its non-negotiable elements are to be understood and respected, and it requires significant formation if it is to be the gift to the church and world it is meant to be. (It's gift quality or charism also has to be understood and respected if this is to be so.) We are not speaking of a vocation where we are trying to encourage great numbers of people to pursue it, nor are we speaking of a vocation which can mean any form of aloneness at all and still be eremitical life, much less (for diocesan hermits) eremitical life lived in the name of the church. We are not speaking of a vocation which is meant to solve the emergency you speak of and I wonder if a relaxation of standards for formation, education, and training --- so long as one recognizes genuine formation can be gotten more than one way --- is ever a real solution to what you describe. (More about this below.)

The History and very Structure of Canon 603 Requires Formation:

Again, we are speaking of a vocation (not a career and not an avocation) which is both rare and profoundly counter cultural and always has been; it requires formation to actually be equipped to respond to such a call with integrity. It ALWAYS has, whether we are referring to the desert Fathers and Mothers (lay hermits), medieval anchorites, to hermits in monastic communities or, today, diocesan hermits. After all, it is hardly effective to actually cave into a culture while trying to embrace a countercultural vocation. My point most recently, however, has been that canon 603 grew out of a situation where individuals had significant formation and the canon reflected those lives with its combination of structure, non-negotiable elements, and eremitical flexibility. Therefore, understanding its terms and structure and then living these presupposes real formation as well.

Let me give you an couple of examples of what I mean here. One can read in the canon the term "assiduous prayer and penance"  and interpret it simply as contrasting to the usual prayer lives of nominal Christians --- in which case we might merely be speaking about praying regularly before meals, praying before bed, and abstinence on Fridays --- or we can read it the way a HERMIT reads it. We can read "the silence of solitude" as "turning the TV off while one listens to one's iPOD" or "spending Saturdays alone without talking to anyone" OR we can read this phrase as Carthusian hermits do (for it is originally a Carthusian term). One can read the reference to "one's own Rule or Plan of Life" as a description of something one slaps or cobbles together on the basis of what others have written and perhaps hopes one day to live OR we can read this requirement as demanding something which is rooted in one's own lived experience and, through concrete sacrifice and commitment, charts a way to continued growth in Christ and the solitary life. It requires formation to do the latter in each of these cases. When I say that the structure of the canon requires formation of candidates this is what I mean. This life of non-negotiable elements, the authentic eremitical freedom these elements are associated with all of which are reflected and codified in the writing of one's own Rule, cannot be lived without formation.

What Happens without Formation?

You ask what happens to canon 603 or to eremitical life without the formation (both initial and ongoing) I have spoken of. My answer has to be that in that case and while some VERY few exceptional individuals will probably persevere and respond to the Holy Spirit in ways which allows eremitical life to continue (or at least to not die out completely), in the main, eremitical life will dissolve in eccentricity, individualism, selfishness or outright narcissism, infidelity, etc, and be swallowed up by the culture. Moreover, as a result of this loss people living isolated lives will lose a source of hope that mere isolation can be transformed and redeemed. Over the past six years on this blog I have written time and again about the dangers to eremitical life posed by slapping the label "hermit" on any form of aloneness or part-time physical solitude at all. I have written about stereotypes of hermits which endanger understanding of the real article, and of movements in our own societies which militate against understanding or embracing this vocation and each time I have done so because I believe that genuine eremitical life is a gift of the Spirit which provides genuine hope to people in our day. However, I also believe that without significant (meaningful) formation the vocation will simply become completely dissipated into just another form of individualism and isolation within a culture already well marked by alienation and marred by self-centeredness.

Formation is a Gift to the hermit and to those to whom she Witnesses:

You see, as I understand it, formation itself is a gift not only to the hermit but to those her life witnesses to. But let me be clear. When I speak of the formation of hermits I am not speaking of an extra burden laid on top of folks who would be hermits just as well without this. I am referring to a period and/or dimension of dedicated and disciplined education, training and shaping or molding of mind and heart where one really acquires (or sharpens and renews) the tools needed to become the person who CAN live an eremitical life rather than a merely individualistic or lone one. The absence of such formation merely ensures the culture will win out and that God's still, small voice will be heard and responded to erratically, perhaps as one desires rather than as God desires and as one is called to do.

One of the reasons I have written about an inquirer or hermit candidate writing several Rules over a period of from 6-10 years is precisely so these persons and their dioceses can find a way to achieve an initial formation in the silence of solitude which is individually tailored but at the same time is sufficient for allowing the person to truly become and make a life commitment as a hermit. If it is adequate as initial formation it will also help empower the person to negotiate the demands of ongoing formation as well. Certain elements will be generally helpful, even necessary, and I have mentioned those. In the main these have been mentioned because they help a person really experience and understand the silence of solitude and develop the disciplined independence necessary to live this charism as a hermit. For the exceptions who cannot take advantage of these specific usual elements, other things will take their place. The details are individual but what is absolutely necessary is formation which makes one capable not of living a bit of silence and a bit of solitude, but instead, the silence OF solitude as a life commitment --- again, how ever one achieves that.

For instance, chronic illness will itself often occasion some of the kinds of changes time apart in a monastery will occasion. (Among other things it will set apart, change the way one relates to time and friends, force a degree of leisure greater than one might have embraced before, demand that one truly experience and confront one's own personal poverty and, as a result, call for a definitive and contemplative turn to the grace of God.) Even so, one still needs to have various elements of the monastic/eremitical and instruction in these explicitly added which in time will help transform illness into a subtext rather than remaining the defining reality. The addition of and faithfulness to these elements within the context created by unavoidable and chronic illness is formative and this can all become the significant formation of a hermit which I have been referring to. Still, it takes discipline and the assistance of knowledgeable people as well. Without real assistance in this, solitude, as I have noted, can be damaging to a person so I am concerned that people understand the difference between the isolation and alienation occasioned by chronic illness and eremitical solitude. Especially I want them to understand the place of formation here. What is true in this case and what is always true is that formation is the means with which the combination of grace and disciplined response can transform everyday circumstances. NONE of us gets by without it if we live a fruitful life. That is true of parents, children, students, and professionals of every sort. Maturity in life requires formation and this is especially true if that life is to be a gift to others.

Aspirations to Live a Religious Life

I want to be sure we are speaking of the same thing when referring to "religious life". If by this you mean lay Catholics desiring to live out their discipleship to Christ more faithfully and convincingly then I prefer and will use either the term "Christian life" that of  "discipleship" to refer to this. For me, and for the Church, religious life refers to the publicly vowed life whether in community or (now) as a diocesan hermit. Assuming then that you mean a lay life of  authentic discipleship and not vowed religious life, then I do believe parishes should be doing more to offer opportunities for growth and formation. However, at the same time, Lay Catholics who are called to an exhaustive holiness and discipleship just as vowed Religious and priests are called to, need to take some responsibility for demanding and acquiring or achieving what they need.

Vatican II changed forever the way lay Catholics were to see themselves. But the respon-sibility for making this change also falls to the laity themselves. Pastors and their staff, can only do so much without the laity taking real responsibility in this. I have seen myself the programs offered by parishes in an attempt to provide faith formation but without response by parishioners. Eventually the number of programs offered also diminishes. It is a catch 22 situation. Still, I wonder if you or others from your parish (as a group, for instance) have ever gone to your pastor or to your Bishop and said specifically, "We have the following resources in our parish but we need more opportunities for faith formation! Help us get (and help us create!) those"?? Additionally, it doesn't help at all to have lay people pretending to vocations of religious life because they really have not received the theology and spirituality of Vatican II as exhaustively as they are called to.

In any case, what I don't buy at all is the notion that we should decrease the requirements for religious life or priesthood simply because there is (or seems to be, in the case of religious life) a crisis in numbers. One response to the problem of the diminishing number of priests has been the permanent diaconate --- with VERY uneven results. Some dioceses minimize the education and experience truly necessary to minister effectively and the result is predictable: Gifted individuals aside, it has often led to deacons whose theology is wholly inadequate, whose preaching is weak or actually destructive, and whose pastoral experience is similarly deficient. My own sense is that the lowering of standards creates more problems than it solves. After all, we would hardly argue for decreasing requirements if there was a shortage of physicians or police, etc. ("Oh, just give her a set of scalpels, a Grey's Anatomy, and a Merke Manual, or a gun and night stick (this might be essentially the same difference without real formation); I am sure she will do the best she can!")

Formation, training the Mind, Heart, and Body (beginning a response):

That last bit of irony on my part does point to the nature of formation. Here we are speaking not only about educating the mind, but training the person in various ways so that they are a hermit (or a physician or a police officer, etc) with their whole being, body, soul, mind, and heart. It does no good to have a technically well-trained physician with the heart and mind (and thus, the ethos) of a sadist or an individualist or narcissist. Medical education does not merely create technically sophisticated persons; it creates persons who have been formed in the ethos of medicine. Formation as a police officer is meant to do the same with its candidates so that the control they are trained to exercise or even the violence they are trained to do (for instance) can always be at the service of the people for whom they work. In other words, it forms these persons in a "protect and serve ethos" which requires various levels of response, often reflexively, up to and including lethal violence. Without formation, without the inculcation of this ethos in one's whole self, these folks may become ticking time bombs, but at some point they become people who will do great damage and leave chaos in their wake. With hermits, the deficiencies in formation which affect others (or the hermit herself) don't show up as dramatically but they exist nonetheless.

I will leave this here for now. Be sure and get back to me with objections or more questions. Thanks again, for your questions.