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)

28 April 2013

Feedback on Hermits and Vacations or Home Visits

Many thanks for those persons who responded to my request for feedback on the issue of hermits and vacations or home visits. I received a number of replies from both hermits and non-hermits. They pushed my thought in directions it had not gone with fresh insights and I am very grateful.

The questions I asked in Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Hermits and Vacations were "What images comes to you when you hear "a hermit takes five days away from hermitage" or some combination of the words "hermit" and "vacation" or hermit and "home visit"? Why is it such an oxymoron or such a passion-stirring thing do you think?"

Introduction to the Comments:

All of the responses I received referred in some sense to treating hermits (or Religious more generally) as different than the rest of humanity. (Stereotypes are part of this as is the notion of "higher" and lower vocations.) This difference has (as reflected in these comments) two general effects: 1) it causes people to think of Religious as living a higher life, and therefore paying a higher price for it (home visits or time with a friend is part of the price), and 2) it allows those who are not called to Religious or eremitical life to feel exempted from making the WHOLE of their own lives one of prayer and holiness. If we can compartmentalize God's calls and say that some are higher than others, we can also compartmentalize God's call in our own lives and leave some parts of those lives untouched by the demands of prayer and holiness. To put it another way, if we can put hermits and religious up on pedestals, then we (who do not live on pedestals) can live free of the higher demands associated with that life ourselves.

Thus, when a hermit says she takes vacation time or time away from the hermitage with a friend, the "boundaries" between the hermit life and normal everyday life "are breached" some. Folks used to compartmentalizing their spirituality from the rest of their lives are challenged at a very profound level; if we have to admit that the hermit needs time for some relaxation and that this too is called to be part of a life given over entirely to God in prayer, then we also will have to admit that perhaps we are more like them and we too are called to a LIFE which is prayerful or a life which is prayed no matter where or who we are. In other words we are invested in hermits being completely different than we are and when this proves untrue the demands on us for integrated lives seeking true holiness are less easy to avoid or categorize as belonging to "others."

One set of comments spoke beautifully of the difficulty human beings have in harmonizing work and relaxation and noted that many no longer see relaxation as necessary to living a fully human life. His comments drew on the Benedictine monastic life and the balance built into Benedictine lives. Another person (a lay hermit) spoke of the difficulty of lay folks relaxing or taking full vacations themselves today which can lead to resentment, etc. Two people spoke of jealousy and resentment (which again related to "having a higher vocation"), and one person spoke of hermits "having their cake and eating it too."  Here are some of those comments which have been cut because of length:

Some of the Comments Submitted

(From a hermit-monk in France) [[Firstly, some of these reactions may be explained, I think, by the incredibly "romantic" conception many people have - at least in my experience - of hermits. One of my confrères, who is also a hermit and who leads an extremely austere existence in the south of France, was more or less rebuked once by a visitor for living in a house of stone, instead of a cave! Well, at least *he* has a long beard, which I do not - thus causing disappointment to more than one person who comes to see me... It is obvious that a relaxing hermit is completely incompatible with these people's mental images of the eremitical life.

 Secondly, and more profoundly, these reactions may reflect modern man's inability to relax, to incorporate rest and recreation harmoniously into one's life. I don't know if I express myself clearly, but it seems to me that many people live their vacation periods as temporary interruptions of "ordinary" life, as a necessary concession to their weakness, perhaps, which, alas, does not permit them to be "active" and "productive" all the time. I guess not a few persons may actually feel a little guilty during a prolonged break, unable really to enjoy themselves. On the contrary, one of the things monastic life has taught me is not to separate "otium" and "negotium", but to live both as means of giving glory to God and to grow in humanity. Perhaps part of the nasty remarks you received can be explained by some people unconsciously projecting their own feelings of culpability on you? In any case, I am convinced that monastic life and eremitical life, besides being a school of the Lord's service, are also a school of genuine humanity, including the art of relaxation.  ]] 

Interestingly, both this monk and I were given similar instructions at some point in our eremitical lives by hermits or former hermits. As I was getting ready to submit my Rule to the Diocese for approval a Camaldolese monk read and commented on it first. One of the pieces of advice he gave me was to be sure to build in sufficient time for relaxation and recreation. It remains one of the best pieces of advice I was given. Fr B was told by the nun who helped him in his discernment of a call to solitude (she herself had lived a year in complete solitude) urged him to take one day "off" each week. He writes: [[ At the time I thought that was slightly exaggerated, and I could not imagine the need for such a regular break in solitary life. . .Now I know she was absolutely right! The constant effort to maintain the vigilance of heart, as well as trying to be really available to persons who come for confession and spiritual aid, is very energy consuming.]]

Aspiring Episcopalian Solitary (Hermit) United States: 

[[My guess is that [known hermits serve as icons]. Do you suppose St. Peter ever just up and went home to spend some time with his wife, go fishing to keep the family from starving, and act like a normal human being? Of course he did, but he was SAINT PETER! Imagine St. Paul's visits home! He had never married, no children, turned on the values of his parents (one assumes. It is never told whether they were among his converts!), gave up a promising career in Phariseeism, and probably brought intense shame upon his folks. Who ever thinks about SAINT PAUL as a family member?

Do the stars get tired of shining? Flowers decide not to bloom? Well, flowers sometimes take a little time off, as a matter of fact, and many fruit trees take a year off now and then, or even alternate years, and while their owners might be filled with dismay, that's just the way life is.]]

Catholic Married Woman (United States):

[[I think that people resent your having any "normal comforts" because they see you as having a "higher place" than they and thus you should have to "pay" for it. They like to think of themselves as owing less and thus being more independent and "safe" from God's demands. They don't like the idea that "all is grace." They resent their radical poverty and want to deny it. So, what they see as a higher place must cost more. They resent the generosity of God. It takes away the feeling of control and safety. They can obscure this by believing that we are in a position to negotiate with God and set boundaries and prices. If your life somehow seeps into the same arena as theirs, the safe boundaries are breached.]]

Lay Hermit (United States):

[[I think people have in mind Hollywood versions of the lives of the saints and monks in European Abbeys of the Middle Ages where the inhabitants were miserable folks doing horrible penances and did not enjoy life at all and tried desperately not to. That at least is my take on it and I could be wrong.

The perception of religious life in general is one that makes [people uneasy] because their lives [the lives of religious] are perceived to be so different and so austere that to even see a religious wearing a habit makes them [most people] nervous by calling their own state in life into question. Then too, they [non-religious] may feel as if they will be condemned when they die for having sinned so grievously as they think they have. They don't see religious as anyone who has a right to vacations or any of the pleasures that they take for granted, and that religious are supposed to be super-humans.

. . . There should be nothing strange about a religious having a vacation. But from my reading, Americans will forego a full vacation for fear of losing their jobs or displeasing the corporation they work for, and they probably think that a religious or a hermit in particular are not in the same category and are not entitled to or allowed a vacation or family visit.]]


Conclusion:

Again, my thanks to those who contributed their thoughts on this. I was totally unaware that some are afraid to take vacations for fear of losing their jobs, but the inability to actually relax or to live the balanced life of a monastic is something our workaholic world reflects all the time (as does a world where the poor cannot take time for vacations and lack the money to do so; too many of the working poor have several jobs and have neither time nor money for adequate relaxation on a daily or weekly basis).

One of the real benefits of contem-plative life, one of the values it models, as Fr B made very clear, is the balance of recreation or relaxation (leisure --- often called holy leisure) and work. We need both to be completely human and the balance of these is a sign of authentically human life. I suspect that many of the times Jesus went apart to be with his Father or partied with others were exactly these kinds of times. We don't reflect often enough that Jesus' life showed a dynamic balance between ministry, prayer, friendships, and recreation (or that his own prayer was recreative in a more immediate sense than our own sometimes is) but my sense is it did manifest this as a piece of what it means to be authentically human in communion with God.

By the way, this helps clarify for me why some folks believe hermits taking a vacation is a kind of oxymoron. Fr B above spoke of it as being seen as a temporary interruption of "ordinary" life. If that is the way folks see vacations, rather than as a normal part of ordinary life, and if they have the sense that contemplative life is, by its very nature, a balanced life of work and leisure, then time off and away from the regular horarium, etc might well seems like adding leisure to leisure. One solution is to point to the intensity of the contemplative life as well as to the tedium of aspects of the monastic or eremitical horarium , etc, and I have referred to things in this way in the past. Another, however, is to point to the need for time away, time for new and recreative relationships and activities in every life (including prayer in new contexts and forms), whether contemplative or apostolic/active, cenobitical or eremitical. I have done this in the past in writing about the need for friendships in the eremitical life but the comments others sent in have underscored this for me as has renewed reflection on the multi-faceted nature of Jesus' own life.

26 April 2013

Benedict, Scholastica and "Home Visits"

A friend and I were talking about the importance of home visits for hermits in light of my recent posts and she urged me to post the story of Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica. I am sure you have heard it.

At the time of this story Benedict and Scholastica lived nearer one another than they had in the past and were able to visit one another fairly regularly (Benedict would come to Scholastica's monastery)

Scholastica had been ill and Benedict recommended she relax some of the strictures of her life so she could get stronger. She did so and was looking much better on this trip. However, as night began to fall she and her brother sang evening office together, ate an austere supper, and then talked until fairly late. When it came time to leave (Benedict's Rule strictly forbade staying away from the monastery in this way overnight) Scholastica said to her brother: [[Please do not leave me tonight. . .Your presence brings me such comfort, and I hate to let you go. Stay with me, talking about the joys of heaven, until the sun rises in the morning.]]

Benedict was surprised she would ask him to break the Rule and told her that her request was completely impossible. Scholastica broke into tears and while weeping prayed about the matter. Immediately a storm began with rain so hard that Benedict and his companion monk could not even step outside. Benedict was angry at first and using the language of Adam to Eve in Genesis, demanded, "Woman, what have you done?" --- as though she had caused serious temptation to sin as Eve had done.

Scholastica answered her brother, " When I appealed to you you would not listen to me. So I turned to my God and he heard my prayer. You see, you cannot leave me now even if you still wanted to!" Benedict realized he must have made a mistake and then spent some time wondering why God would will he honor Scholastica's whim over his own greater duty. When he reflected on all of this he realized that staying truly was God's will and that his own heart was cramped by duty in comparison with her heart moved by love. They stayed together that night, kept vigil, and Benedict's own heart was changed by all they shared. Scholastica died just a few days later.

We can draw a number of lessons from this story, but the primacy of love over duty is one of the more important ones. Meanwhile I have received a number of responses to my request for feedback on the question of hermits and home visits and will be posting those in the next day or so. The responses are wonderful and freshly insightful!

25 April 2013

"All My Dear Falsehoods" (Rachel Srubas)

The following poem is taken from the book Oblation, Meditations on St Benedict's Rule (Paraclete Press) by Rachel Srubas. I have used some of Rachel's stuff before here and highly recommend this book of poetry. Published in 2007 it is available on Amazon for as little as $1.27. Don't let that fool you regarding its quality! Rachel is both a Benedictine Oblate and a Presbyterian clergywoman. The poem is a reflection on the passage from St Benedict's Rule that reminds the monk:  The second step of humility is not to love having our own way nor to delight in our own desires. (RB, Chapter 7)

I am the road that will guide you to God.
I unravel lies that seduced you.
I am the life you still try to elude.
When you abandon me, 
I wait for you. When you return,
I embrace you.

Some days I prefer
to ignore your assurances,
pave my own path, lose my own way,
cross quicksand if I have to ---
anything but
relinquish my will.

Remember the blistering, narcissistic desert,
the devil who taunted you there?
You know it well --- the desire, the drive
to conceive and control, predict and prevail.
You, too, have wrestled the egoistic impulse,
the credit-hoarding greed of spirit
that flares within and keeps me,
on some days, from offering praise,
stops me from seeking your face
or following your excellent way.

I'm left to my own echoing solitude,
murmuring my own name.

Jesus, teach me to pray. Lend me your hand.
Talk to me of forgiveness until
all my dear falsehoods fall away.
Mend the cracked compass of my mind,
and guide me to my true desire.

23 April 2013

Request for Input on "Hermits" and "Vacations"

I have to say that I am really surprised by the reactions I have received about a couple of topics in particular, namely, vacation time and home visits. I do receive what one person referred to as "snarky" emails occasionally on various topics and I have received a number of emails quoting others who have made nasty (angry and judgmental) comments about the hiddenness of hermits, the arrogance of those who seek canonical standing as opposed to the humility of those who do not, accusations of legalism as opposed to being concerned with Christ and the mystical life, and so forth, but none of these have surprised me as much as the comments and questions regarding vacations and home visits.

So, although I have responded to these emails already I am trying to understand where these folks are coming from; I have been thinking a lot about that. What is it about hermits taking time for a visit with their family or, as I have done twice in the past several years, taking a week away from the hermitage for time with a friend --- time spent mainly in shared solitude, prayer, shared meals, and recreation? Why do people react so strongly to this idea and what needs to be clarified about the eremitical life to help resolve this?

I definitely think I understand SOME of this, but only SOME. I would really like to hear from readers regarding what they think about this if they have ideas or have run into something similar. What images comes to you when you hear "a hermit takes five days away from hermitage" or some combination of the words "hermit" and "vacation" or hermit and "home visit"? Why is it such an oxymoron or such a passion-stirring thing do you think? Please let me hear from you and please be honest. Just email me with something recognizable in the subject line. Thanks!

Followup on Hermits and Home Visits (Critical questions)

[[Dear Sr,  How can it be edifying to your family if they are not Catholic if you are unfaithful to your Rule during home visits?? Its not that I think you shouldn't see your  family sometimes but I don't think the Carthusians get to go home for visits. They are the real deal. Can't your family visit you where you are?. . . I guess I wonder why do hermits need to go away to visit family and friends anyway?. . . You are vowed to a life of constant prayer and penance like the Carthusians.. . . And what about stricter separation from the world??]]

Wow, where to begin? I am not going to answer every specific question but I will give you enough to draw sound conclusions about where I stand on these things. Thus, I guess the place to start is with a post I put up about hermits and "vacations." That can be found here: Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Hermits and Vacations but what is most important about it is probably a text taken from Cassian's Conferences which demonstrates both that there is nothing new in your own objections nor anything novel in my own need for (or practice of) time away from the hermitage and its stricter rhythms. As I cited there:

[[IT is said that the blessed John, while he was gently stroking a partridge with his hands suddenly saw a philosopher approaching him in the garb of a hunter, who was astonished that a man of so great fame and reputation should demean himself to such paltry and trivial amusements, and said: "Can you be that John, whose great and famous reputation attracted me also with the greatest desire for your acquaintance? Why then do you occupy yourself with such poor amusements?" To whom the blessed John replied: "What is it," said he, "that you are carrying in your hand?" The other replied: "a bow. "And why," said he, "do you not always carry it everywhere bent?" To whom the other replied: "It would not do, for the force of its stiffness would be relaxed by its being continually bent, and it would be lessened and destroyed, and when the time came for it to send stouter arrows after some beast, its stiffness would be lost by the excessive and continuous strain. and it would be impossible for the more powerful bolts to be shot." "And, my lad," said the blessed John, "do not let this slight and short relaxation of my mind disturb you, as unless it sometimes relieved and relaxed the rigour of its purpose by some recreation, the spirit would lose its spring owing to the unbroken strain, and would be unable when need required, implicitly to follow what was right."]] John Cassian, Conferences. Conference of Abbot Abraham, chapter XXI, but cf. chapter XX of the same book which is also very helpful in this matter.

While it is true that John was speaking of a very brief time away from his eremitical discipline (if, indeed, this was even considered time away; he seems simply to have been taking a quiet moment like I might with my cat) he raises the question of a hermit determining what is necessary for her to remain in good shape in terms of this very discipline. (The story would be equally effective if used to illustrate the principle of judging from exterior appearances.) Remember that eremitical life is intense and focused on growing in authentic holiness. Much of a day is spent in prayer and penance and that often means in doing battle with the demons of one's own heart. In other words personal growth work is demanding and tiring. One cannot keep focused on it without these kinds of breaks or changes in one's focus. Beyond this, eremitical life demands hospitality and often this ministry to others takes a form in which they are loved as they need to be loved. In my own life this ordinarily takes the form of spiritual direction. This too is intense --- though it is usually as nourishing as it is challenging. Still, every truly spiritual life demands what is often called "holy leisure"  or it really will cease to be capable of perceiving or responding adequately to its source.

After all, we are each called to discern what the Holy Spirit calls us to in changing circumstances and fresh situations. A Rule is immensely helpful in this,  but in my opinion, it really cannot spell everything out. Instead it often serves a person more like a banister on a stairway ---  helpful when the climb gets tiring or too steep, protecting us and keeping us from stepping off the treads or falling, and giving us something to hold onto as we move forward in the darkness of night, but it is not the stairway itself.  I do continue to live my Rule, or more accurately maybe, the eremitical life it defines on home visits or on visits with friends but the usual horarium is suspended.

What is Edifying to my Family and Friends?

To be very blunt, I don't think it would be at all "edifying" or upbuilding for members of my family to see me as a self-righteous prig who was incapable of loving, taking delight in them and time with them, or who is prevented from being able to be truly being present to them on a home visit. (Better one forego any visits than play the hermit during one.) For that matter I don't think my delegate, my pastor, other parishioners, the Vicar for Religious or my Bishop would find that particularly edifying either. I'm pretty sure God wouldn't care much for that arrangement! In a word, I find it offensive and pretentious. What you seem to me to be missing is that a home visit doesn't mean simply blowing off one's vocation or one's commitment to it. It means living it in different ways so the usual framework (banister or trellis) doesn't get in the way of those who want some significant share in the person WITH the vocation. In some ways I see my more usual schedule and eremitical praxis as preparing me for and being tested for its soundness by these moments, not preventing them.

Also, it is here the distinction between playing a role as a hermit and living an eremitical life becomes sharpest and most important. It is in these moments that I (and others) see most clearly the hermit I have become --- not because I do a lot of stereotypically "hermit things" or keep a detailed hermit schedule, but because at these times when the banister is removed  I live these days with the heart of a hermit for whom communion with God is an everyday reality and the silence of solitude brings something new and unexpected to my family and friends as well -- someone joyful, more whole and more loving, someone they could not have experienced in this way so clearly apart from her life as a hermit. To use another image, when a plant is given a trellis to help it grow straight and strong, removing the trellis --- at least temporarily --- can show us how strong the plant is becoming. More, it can subject the plant to new and necessary stresses and pressures which allow it to grow even stronger and more independent. Plants need this time just as they need the trellis. But most importantly these times can show us who the hermit really is and allow us each and all to take delight in one another and who God has made us.

I think it is THIS that will be edifying and even inspiring to my family (and friends) and this which will speak powerfully to them about the God I want them to know as I know him. (I accept that they know him in their own ways as well, by the way). I hope this makes some sense to you. You see, I am not trying to sell my family on eremitical life or even on the Catholic faith (though I would love for them to discover it as a way to Christ and abundant life for themselves); I want them to know the God who makes all things new and heals us of all brokenness and inhumanity. The only way that happens is by knowing the person I become in light of that God. THAT is what will be really edifying to them or to anyone.

On Carthusians, Camaldolese, and Stricter Separation from the World:


Carthusians are not the only species of the genus "hermit" to exist and I am not a Carthusian. I am Camaldolese in my spirituality and for that reason my life reflects (and I hope will do so more and more) the threefold good of Camaldolese life: solitude, community, and evangelization or martyrdom (witness). Each of these is a dimension of what is sometimes called "The Privilege of Love." All hermits who live the silence of solitude on a daily basis are the "real deal" and I would suggest that is something you need to get your mind and heart around despite your preferences for the form of eremitical life lived by the Carthusians.

Still, let me remind you, Carthusians, who are bound by cloister in ways diocesan hermits are not, have guest houses as part of their monastery and families may come there to stay to see their son/daughter or brother/sister (etc) 2 days per year. I don't have that kind of  accommodations available. Neither, unfortunately, do I see my family that often (though it would be entirely permitted). The real point however is that home visits or visits by one's family are allowed and universally seen as an important part of healthy eremitical life; they are important for the family as well. As noted above, hermitage life is not one of  "peace and quiet"  if by that one means a life where one simply kicks back and does nothing or is completely taken up with rest and recreational activities (again in the common sense of those terms).

Finally, regarding stricter separation from the world I would ask that you check the labels both below and to the right. I have written a good bit about this in the past and I am not going to repeat it here. The posts you are asking about also touched on this. I will point out that when I suggest a hermit (or anyone else) can structure home visits in a way which is best and most lifegiving for everyone that can be considered a form of "stricter separation" --- especially when "world" is seen in terms of that which is destructive, resistant to life and truth, etc. It is not its usual meaning but it comports with this nonetheless.

20 April 2013

Visiting Family and Friends: Followup Question

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, thank you for your piece on visiting family and friends. One online hermit writes of a home visit that was very difficult because she had to stifle spiritual conversation, skip Mass for two days, which "took its toll" and generally communicate with people that had been "acclimated to the world." She missed the life of the hermitage with its silence and stillness and was anxious and unable to relax. But she also spoke of needing her family to accept her and being unable to fit in or be the person her family wanted her to be. By the end of the trip she sort of had an emotional meltdown. Is this typical for hermits? ]]

Perhaps these things are typical for her because of unique circumstances. They are not typical for me or for other hermits I know --- though families may very well neither understand nor accept a hermit's life. More about this below because this set of questions raises serious issues and difficulties for those responding to this rare and oft-misunderstood vocation --- though to be honest I don't think they are any more serious than many religious face with their own families.  We don't only discuss spiritual matters anyway --- at least not explicitly, and such discussions with family are actually pretty rare I think. That can certainly be bittersweet and even cause serious pain on some levels but by itself it should not prevent profound sharing or cause excessive anxiety.

Of course, leaving the hermitage for any extended period of time causes some stress. I personally miss my hermitage, my own prayer space, prayer bench (sometimes I bring this along!), and the horarium I follow; I also miss Mass to some extent, but I don't attend Mass daily anyway and sometimes may not get to the parish Church or chapel for a couple of weeks at a time --- particularly if I am unwell. Spending time with others in another place over the course of several days is demanding for me, not only because I am a hermit and happy in solitude, but because I am an introvert and not really comfortable with much small talk. However,  none of this changes anything I wrote in the previous post. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Family Visits.

Not my blood family but. . .
During those visits I am generally with people I love, doing things I also enjoy doing (and often getting to do or see things I have always wanted to do or see), talking about things I enjoy talking (and hearing!) about --- and sometimes, talking and hearing about things I do not enjoy at all. God is present in all of this and certainly in these people. Grace is present therefore along with a whole host of challenging, consoling, and nurturing experiences. I have certainly had difficult visits with my family in the past but to be anxious, unable to relax or to have an emotional meltdown because of a few days away from the hermitage seems pretty extreme to me.  As noted, I also reject the unnuanced or dichotomous thinking that says "they are the world" and I am not or, in this case, "they are acclimated to the world" and "I am not so acclimated".  As much as I might like to think my hermitage is not an outpost of "the world" (and it is true that it is less this than it might easily be) and despite the fact that I have lived as a hermit for a number of years (@28) I find this kind of dichotomous characterization to be untrue and destructive.

I think a lot of unnecessary tension can result from such a perspective. One tends to see oneself as constantly assaulted by "the world" and must stand in a resistant and defensive mode. Now, it is true too that a hermit will not always participate in every activity some families choose to engage in. Some conversations will not be edifying to anyone and a hermit might well decide she cannot support them, much less participate. Other times she merely needs to shift the perspective or refocus things a bit. But generally one will be able to participate in the visit and benefit from it while others do as well. However, if one is about "playing a role" this too is a source of unnecessary and destructive tension. You see, if one truly IS a hermit without pretense and remains a hermit in ANY situation, that is if one is simply oneself in this way, the stress level is much lower. One is oneself and while one may need to avoid certain situations or conversations, one is not in a defensive mode nor is one constantly needing to calculate "what would a hermit do?" One might well ask oneself, "What am I to do in this situation?" or "Does my Rule help me in any way in this situation?" but these questions are not asked about some abstract entity called "hermits" and do not involve merely playing a role.

One other element might well be important here and that is the distinction between "fitting in" and belonging. I would be wary of "trying to fit in" and rest in one's belonging. This is, I think, a variation on "being oneself." What I mean is that one is part of a family; one belongs to this family in ways that might be wholly unconscious as well as the ways one can readily articulate. Belonging to a family is a deep and ineradicable reality even when  not everyone wants or is able to admit it; fitting in is, in some ways, more superficial and based on similarities, acts of accommodation which may not be rooted in love, etc. It may even involve compromising one's integrity. Meanwhile, we can see from other situations that one may work "to fit in" while one will never really "belong". On the other hand, one who truly belongs and rests in that may subsequently be able to fit in a bit better without straining to do so; they will be able to relax more than if they are struggling to fit in. In any case, when one is secure in the fact that one belongs one can communicate with the group to which one truly belongs; one can be truly present to them and love them even if one is also very different in significant ways.

But what happens when a family does not understand or accept one's vocation? What happens when there is actual antipathy for the vocation, one's faith, or even for oneself? First of all this is usually a good reason not to insist on keeping one's horarium on a home visit, referring to oneself as a hermit, playing a role (including that of non-hermit), etc but, as implied above, it may well be that simply being oneself is not enough to disarm antipathy and difficulties on a home visit. In such cases, a hermit can certainly decide to forego home visits, limit them significantly in length, visit with individual family members as seems to work out best, etc. One is not required to make home visits if they are really destructive for everyone involved.

15 April 2013

On Family Visits and Visits with Friends

[[Dear Sister,
      When you visit your family or stay with friends do you keep the same horarium you do in the hermitage? Do you only talk about spiritual things? I am trying to live as a hermit but I am finding it very difficult to keep my mind on God when I go out with friends or visit my family. I think maybe I should cut off relationships as part of separating myself from the world or when I am with friends I should either be silent or only talk about spiritual things. What do you think? What would you do?. . .(Some questions held for later)]]

Thanks for your questions. (I have held the questions about the frequency of home visits or visits with friends until later.) That said, I am not sure where to begin really. Probably many of the things I have written about in the past years are indirect answers to your questions so I would urge you to look through the list of labels and see what strikes you as related. Meanwhile, the first answer that comes to mind is, "You must be yourself." Wherever you are and with whomever, you MUST be yourself, not someone playing hermit, but whoever you are with whatever spirituality is central to your life without affectation or pretense. You must be genuinely loving, truly available,  and attuned to the needs, desires, and boundaries of those you are with. Let me try to explain what I mean.


When I visit with my family I am a hermit visiting with her family. I am there so we have (an unfortunately rare) time with each other and really quality time as much as that is possible. My family (and most friends for that matter) do not know what being a hermit means in day to day terms and of course, if there are questions, curiosity, concerns, we will talk about these. But I am there as Laurel, not as Sister Laurel (though my sister, who is not Catholic, affectionately calls me "Sis") and though we will talk about work and daily life (my sister's AND my own for instance) I do not impose my own religious practices on the visit. However, that does not mean the visit is not profoundly spiritual in significant ways. It does not mean I cease (as best I can) to pray the visit or that the time we spend together is not holy time. It is all of these things no matter what we do together. Meals are special (for instance, my sister --- who, unlike myself, is a good cook --- tends to cook the things she remembers me loving growing up as well as things she loves herself and loves to make). We talk about the past and the present because of these things and the sharing can be wide-ranging.

I think of Eucharist a lot when I visit my Sister and the words eucharistein (thanks-giving, gratitude) and anamnesis (recalling to living presence) predominate for me. Do we talk about God? Not by name usually, but we talk about life and love and wholeness and brokenness and hope and disappointment and a host of other things which are part of life in and in search of God. The wisdom of Benedictinism is, in part, that it focuses us on seeking God, and doing so in ordinary life. One does not have to use the word God to be dealing with spirituality and the Divine. In fact, it is often more revealing of the authenticity of one's spirituality if one does not need to.

Regarding my horarium, I generally count the strict obligation to that suspended, but of course I tend to wake at the same time I usually do (even when I have gone to bed late!) and will often pray in the early morning hours, journal, etc. At the same time, if I sleep in, that is fine too. Again, I am there visiting my family and for that reason I do what serves my well-being and that of my family. When I visit with friends all of this holds true there too. With some we talk about theology and God more explicitly. With some we regularly say grace or attend Mass together or pray evening prayer, for instance. With others we do not do any of these things. If I have a need for some time alone whether for rest or some prayer I take that (and so do they!). The same is true when I visit my sister, for instance.


Bearing in mind what I said about Benedict-inism and also calling to mind the sacra-mentality of all of creation, I should note that my family and friends are not "the world" and I do not cut myself off from them because of a requirement of "stricter separation from the world." I limit contacts with others because I am called to the silence of solitude. Dimensions of their lives and hearts are worldly just as dimensions of my own are also more or less "worldly," but more generally they reveal God to me --- if only I have eyes to see!

Here is where drawing a black and white line between hermitage and "world" can also be particularly damaging. What would be worldly in the situations you have asked about however are selfishness or rigidity or inaccessibility or affectation for instance. Insisting we only talk about God or "spiritual things" would, paradoxically, be "worldly" and destructive (or at least disedifying) as would any inability to discern God's presence in the genuinely human relationships and interactions we are called to as family. Remaining silent and letting others talk as a general principle simply because "one is a hermit" seems to me to be particularly pretentious and self-centered --- particularly "worldly" and to be eschewed. Assuming these people are genuinely friends who care about us as much as we do about them, refusing to go out to dinner when it is something our friends love to do (and something we would truly enjoy as well), not allowing them to show us the world they love and delight in (and failing to take appropriate delight in it too), spending hours apart in prayer (unless this was time everyone desired) and generally refusing to really enter into and contribute to a special time together --- all because one is "a hermit" --- could be particularly unloving and ungracious.

At the same time I am not suggesting one be dishonest about one's faith --- merely that one be low key about it unless others are clearly comfortable relating in the same terms and "language". In other words, be yourself and use the "language" folks are comfortable speaking. If they want this kind of "language lesson" no problem. But don't insist on speaking "Religious" in such a situation if the language the others are comfortable with is "Secular."  God talk "translates" very well into meaning and beauty and struggle and love and life, etc; if we are not comfortable with this, we may find we are not truly comfortable with the self-emptying, incarnate God of Jesus Christ. I think this notion that the real God can be spoken of in many different ways which are still truly Christocentric is the idea behind Paul speaking of being all things to all persons. It is certainly part of the reason St Francis said to "proclaim the Gospel; use words if necessary".

For me the bottom line is that we be ourselves and the things which really make a hermit who she is as a person are always with her motivating, enlivening, and empowering her. I would encourage you to let, or better, trust that those things which make us who we are do that even if it is in a different language or a different key than you usually "sing" yourself in. Your family and friends should not be seeing, much less have to be relating to someone playing a role but instead to the PERSON you are. One hopes that is a loving, patient, warm person with a good sense of humor and some of the deep wisdom that comes from faith and a contemplative life, but whoever it is with whatever gifts or foibles, that is who you are being called to be WITH and FOR them.

I hope this is helpful.

13 April 2013

Canon 603 as a Way to Correct Abuses?


Dear Sister, are you aware that there are different versions of the origins of canon 603 out there on the internet? One version I read recently said, [[The Canon lawyer discussed Canon 603, of 1983 and explained it was a revision of the 1917 Canon regarding eremitic life. He said that laws are created due to abuses and also because of desire by some to have "official stamp" of approval. Perhaps there have been those, he pointed out, who said they were going to live a life of stricter separation from the world or in prayer and fasting, but did not. The law provides for the Bishop to step in and correct the abuses, if the hermit has been publicly avowed, and those vows received by the Bishop. 


He said it is a legality, of publicly approving the hermit in the name of the Church, of it being of public record, regardless of how many were actually at the profession of vows. He said that may be just the hermit and the Bishop. But it is done in the name of the Church, with the Bishop saying he receives the vows on behalf of the Church. As for vows being made publicly but not received by the Bishop, that could not be in the name of the Church. This is what must be made clear, for this was the stumbling point. In St. Colette's time, she made vows publicly, and she was generally known as the anchorite, and her life exemplified this. Now, a person would not be seen as a hermit in the name of the Church. The public aspect today is that of the law, of the Bishop receiving the vows in the name of the Church, on behalf of the Church.]] So, who's right, you or the canonist?

Hi there,
      yes, I am very much aware of some of the misinformation available out there on the internet. I have actually responded to questions about this very passage in the past. You can find it here: canon-603-misunderstandings-of-origins-and-nature.html. Because your own question is repetitive, I am answering it again here partly because I am trying to learn to do internal links (and I especially apologize to regular readers for the repetition if this experiment fails!).

      Generally, what I discuss in that post is that I think the canonist is correct about the way some canons generally come to be as a response to abuses, but in this case (assuming the lay hermit quoting him has done so accurately) he is simply wrong. Not only is he mistaken about the history of the vocation by speaking as though canon 603 is a revision of an already-existing canon and by omitting any mention of Bp Remi De Roo or Vatican II (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Visibility and Betrayal of the c 603 Vocation under section, "The Heart of the Matter) but he has not thought out this notion of bringing hermits under control by granting them canonical standing.  You see, this latter makes no sense for hermits who are privately dedicated; why give them standing in law when leaving them without standing actually significantly limits the impact of any abuses they may have embraced? (The positive affects of such a life are a different matter!) Such hermits are relatively few and far between. The contemporary Church is not overrun with them or with hermits of ANY stripe! Were this the case then indeed, the Church might want to create a canon regulating them. However, we still have to ask, if they are not canonically consecrated, what kinds of abuses could they possibly be committing? They have not accepted the public/canonical rights and obligations of the life (including a detailed Rule of Life and responsibility to superiors and community) so what could they be abusing?

      After all, without canonical standing the person is living a private vocation as hermit; they are not Catholic Hermits, and nothing they do as a hermit per se is done in the name of the church. A lay hermit might be eccentric or an adherent of a strange theology and spirituality. As baptized Catholics some of this might become a matter of concern to Church authorities who have the right to act appropriately in their regard, but this would occur because this person is a baptized Catholic, not because they are a lay hermit.  Of course one would hope that such hermits live their lives well in an edifying way, but their commitments are private matters and to be frank, they can be as eccentric or strange in their spiritualities as they like without significant impact on the ecclesial eremitical life itself. Let me give you an example. Recently another diocesan hermit sent me a story from his own area about a "hermit" (a person who lived in solitude) who stole regularly to allow himself to live. We both agreed that this guy gives hermits a bad name. However, at the same time this person in no way reflects on the eremitical vocation in the Church and diocesan hermits do not feel he reflects on their calls. He DOES represent part of a host of stereotypes diocesan hermits have to combat with their lives though.


      Of course it is hard to imagine the contemporary Church giving such a person canonical standing to correct his abuses!!! However, were the Church to do so by professing him publicly as a Catholic hermit, then indeed, everything he does would reflect on the vocation and his diocese. Moreover had this been a diocesan hermit the church would need to take action to correct his abuses --- and in serious circumstances like this she would most likely do so by dispensing him from his vows and removing his canonical standing as a hermit. So again, my answer to your question is that assuming this canonist was correctly quoted, he is incorrect. The Church does not give canonical standing only to immediately remove it again as a censure. She does not extend canonical rights and obligations to a small group of persons to gain control over miscreants. Canonical standing is a gift to the individual and to the Church insofar as it helps nurture and protect authentic eremitical vocations; that is the real bottom line here. The history of Canon 603 attests to this gift-quality as the origin of this vocation.

I hope this is helpful to you!

10 April 2013

Eremitical Life: Ecclesiality vs Individualistic Devotional Acts

[[Dear Sister Laurel, in your post on reservation of Eucharist you used the term "ecclesial" with regard to an "ecclesial vocation" differently than I have heard you do in the past. You therefore also seemed to me to be saying that the reservation of Eucharist functioned ecclesially for canonical hermits and CV's and anti-ecclesially for anyone taking Eucharist home as part of an individualistic devotional act. Can you say more about these two aspects of your post? Thank you.]]

Really excellent points and question! I think you must be referring first of all to my comment that the Eucharist must never become detached or separated off from the communal event which gives it meaning and that CV's and canonical hermits are generally sufficiently cognizant of the "ecclesiality" of their vocation to be aware of this danger. Please see Reservation of Eucharist by Hermits. (In the rest of this post I will speak only of canonical hermits, not CV's.) I think you are correct that I have not spoken of "ecclesial vocations" in quite this sense before although I believe it has been implicit in what I have said in the past. It has also been more explicitly approached in posts on the increased institutionalization of the eremitical vocation, the theology of Peter Damian and the nature of the hermit as "ecclesiola", and so forth. It is probably St Peter Damian's theology that most influences me here. As I wrote before while quoting him:

[[. . . Hermits know him best for a few of his letters, but especially #28, "Dominus Vobiscum". Written to Leo of Sitria, letter #28 explores the relation of the hermit to the whole church and speaks of a solitary as an ecclesiola, or little church. Damian had been asked if it was proper to recite lines like "The Lord Be With you" when the hermit was the only one present at liturgy. The result was this letter which explains how the church is wholly present in all of her members, both together and individually. He writes:

The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love, so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church. . . .From all the aforementioned it is clear that, because the whole Church can be found in one individual person and the Church itself is called a virgin, Holy Church is both one in all its members and complete in each of them. It is truly simple among many through the unity of faith and multiple in each individual through the bond of love and various charismatic gifts, because all are from one and all are one.

 . . . Because of this unity Damian notes that he sees no harm in a hermit alone in cell saying things which are said by the gathered Church. In this reflection Damian establishes the communal nature of the solitary vocation and forever condemns the notion that hermits are isolated persons.. . .]]

What this leads to is the notion that the hermit's hermitage or cell is an extension of the gathered Church and that whatever the hermit does there is meant to be this as well whether that is prayer or penance or work or even recreation. Mealtimes are meant to be reminders of Eucharist and are eaten prayerfully and with God and all those grounded in God. Everything that one does is meant to be prayed and that means it is meant to be empowered by God and undertaken mindfully in God's presence and for God's purposes.

It is a very challenging vocation in this sense and this is one of the reasons I wrote that mediocrity is the greatest danger to the hermit. In this context mediocrity means more specifically compartmentalizing one's life so that SOME things are prayed and other things are not; some things are specifically ecclesial (extensions of the reality of the gathered church) and other things are not and sometimes are, regrettably, even meant to be a respite from ecclesiality.  When I think about my vocation in this sense, a sense that corresponds to "praying always" or "being God's own prayer" I am also aware of how short of this goal and call I routinely fall. When I wrote that mediocrity is the greatest danger to the hermit or spoke of that in the podcast I did for A Nun's Life I was approaching this idea but hadn't really arrived yet. What I knew deep down was there was an all or nothing quality about eremitical life and for that reason mediocrity or "half-heartedness" (and here I mean the giving of only part of myself and praying only parts of my life) was an ever-present danger.


 In any case I also wrote here once that Abp Vigneron commented during the homily for my perpetual eremitical profession that I was "giving my home over to" this call and that it was only later that I realized how exactly right that was. The hermitage is literally an extension of my parish and diocesan (and universal!) church, as Peter Damian would have put it, an ecclesiola or "little church." It is not a place to be individualistic (though it IS a place to be truly individual with and in God) and when individualism creeps into things both the hermitage and my life ceases to be what it is meant to be. For this reason the reservation of the Eucharist here is undertaken  as a commissioned and ecclesial act and it is one that symbolizes (and challenges me to realize in every action and moment) the difference between a private home and a hermitage. It calls for a constant meditation on what it means to live in the Eucharistic presence but especially NOT as an instance of privatistic or individualistic devotion.  For this reason also you are exactly right when you say that reservation of Eucharist here is an ecclesial act rather than an anti-ecclesial act where one takes Eucharist home with them without being commissioned or even permitted to do so.

I have only just begun to explore this sense of ecclesiality in a conscious way, but I can see that it defines my sense of ecclesial vocation in ways I had not even imagined.  I have written a lot here in the past about ecclesial vocations partly because my first experience of appreciation for that concept changed everything for me. It was one of those earth-shaking insights I finally "got". When I write about canonical rights and obligations, canonical standing, or the relationships which obtain from these, I am trying (and not entirely succeeding myself) to go beyond what some perceive as legalism and point to this deeper reality of "ecclesiality". This is so because canon law points to this deeper ecclesial reality and is meant to protect and nurture it. Probably this is also a piece of why I get so irritated when some lay hermits disparage the place of canonical standing or law as one of merely "formal approval," "technicalities",  or even outright "legalism". They seem not to have a clue how it is canons (which are related to the Latin regula or Rule and serve as norms or measures of actions) actually function here or the way canon law serves to foster ecclesiality. Given the tension between individuality and individualism in eremitical life today (and in society as a whole!) I am freshly convinced of the providential nature of canon 603 and the role of Bp Remi De Roo in intervening at Vatican II as he did.

I do hope that this response is sort of helpful. I suspect (not least because of all the tangents I have been tempted to pursue in answering your question) that I will be writing about this topic in one way and another for a long time to come.

09 April 2013

Is Faith opposed to Charity?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I shall be thankful if you can clarify the following. Does dogmatic faith in any way promote Christian charity? Reading Luke's parable of the good Samaritan I get a feeling that Jesus was primarily concerned with charity and less with faith. 

In the parable we find two persons who are given credentials of faith-- one is a priest and the other a Levite. Both however are personifications of inhuman callousness and exclusiveness.The Samaritan on the other hand has neither faith nor dogma(Jesus does not even mention whether he is a believer or not).Samaritan however has a human element and conscience that is responsive to the sufferings of others. I am inclined to believe that the more one thinks of faith , the more exclusive one becomes. Moreover the more emphasis church gives to dogmatic faith, the more it thinks of organisational cohesiveness, organisational uniformity,preservation of hierarchy and less about Jesus Christ who always thought of the human element.From what I have read about church history ,I feel that whenever the Church was concerned with dogma and faith there were instances of excesses at times lapsing into drastic inhuman measures like forced conversions ,inquisition and burning at the stakes.


So the question is , don't you think that the terms faith and charity pull in opposite directions making a Christian feel rather uncomfortable - faith pulls towards exclusiveness, rigidity,blind loyalty to the dogma and organisation hampering concern for individuals; and charity pulls towards inclusiveness ,concern for the feelings of others and universal philanthropy that transcends organisations and beliefs. I had asked a few questions in the past and received very convincing replies from you. Hence this question.]]

Interesting question. Thanks for sending it on to me. You use the term "dogmatic faith" by which I think you mean faith in doctrine or dogma and you contrast that with charity. You then conclude that Jesus was about charity but not faith when in fact I think you mean Jesus fostered love and was unconcerned with dogma or doctrine. You also link concern with doctrine or dogma with inhuman abuses (which you call faith) and note that charity seems to pull in the opposite direction. My problem here is that the way you are using the term "faith" is neither Biblical nor theologically rich enough; it is far too narrow a notion to call "faith" and might better be called belief. (Thus, though this is both necessarily and unfortunately a bit too simplistic, you might consider that we believe in content --- which doctrines and dogmas are ---  while we have faith in persons or living realities like God, or friends.)

It seems to me that narrowing the term in the way you have so that it refers only to adherence to or concern with doctrine is precisely the problem you want to avoid, and precisely the reason there have been problems in the history of faith like those you mention. Instead you need to recover a broader, richer, and more Scriptural sense of the term faith --- a sense which includes appropriate honoring of content (which we call doctrine and dogma) while not making that the be all and end all of the reality of faith. (Doctrine and dogma have a place in mature faith, but dogmatism and all that goes with that does not!)

The most fundamental meaning of the term faith is a responsive (or obedient) trust. (cf Rom 10:11, Phil 1:29, Gal 2:16) To have faith means to entrust oneself to another. Once one has done that a number of things will happen. If the person (or God) is worthy of that trust we will find that we become more fully human, that we grow in our capacity to love others without condition, that we become holier people (another way of saying the previous two things), etc. We become persons of confidence, courage and hope, marked by that person's affect on us in light of our having entrusted ourselves to them. Remember all the times in the Gospels that we hear Jesus saying to someone who trusted him, "Go, your faith has made you whole, " or something similar. Thus, far from being antithetical to charity, faith leads directly TO charity. It empowers love as the other person's love moves us beyond ourselves and out to others (or back to community which illness, etc may have deprived us of). In other words faith creates the capacity for community; it does not, when genuine, lead to exclusivism. Similarly it leads to the capacity for compassion precisely because when faith is well-founded it leads to the situation of being loved and loving; compassion is never exclusionary.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan those who fail in compassion are not seen as men of genuine faith --- though they hold fast to the letter of the law; the Good Samaritan, who falls outside the Law and is despised by men of the law, is one who fulfills the law more fully than either of the others. He is a man who trusts God and acts out of that trust. He is capable of real compassion and freedom to do other (and more) than the letter of the law calls for because of his relationship with God (I argue this is implicit in the parable). In some ways authentic faith means putting people before principles and that is what we hear in this parable. It is a classic law vs gospel text.

Finally, faith (and here I mean faith in God, faith in its most proper sense) will have other dimensions including the doctrinal because faith has a content. (If I trust and love God I am going to believe certain things about God.) It is a complex reality which rightly affects and involves every part of the human being (heart, mind, will, etc) at the same time in what Tillich calls "a centered act" of the whole person. It is for that reason we have seen problems in the history of the Church whenever one dimension of this reality is cut off from or given a mistaken priority over other dimensions --- something which is inappropriate both to faith itself and to the one called to have faith. Still, the bottom line, it seems to me, is that we are called to have faith IN God as well as believing all kinds of things ABOUT God. This faith (responsive trust) IN God is more foundational than beliefs ABOUT God --- even when the doctrinal part of things comes first in our experience. (That is, we are usually taught things ABOUT God before we are introduced to the idea of entrusting ourselves TO this God and  this is often done in order to induce us to or otherwise justify such trust --- but entrusting ourselves is more foundational for a life of authentic humanity or faith.

I hope this is helpful.

08 April 2013

On the Reservation of Eucharist by Hermits

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I saw a "privately professed and consecrated" hermit's video on YouTube. Is it true that non-canonical hermits can have tabernacles and reserve the Eucharist in their own places and that Bishops have allowed it? . . . Can I get permission as a lay hermit or can I move where it is allowed? ]] (Redacted: often-asked questions were omitted)

I would be VERY surprised to hear that ANY Bishops have allowed non-canonical hermits to do this so, to be perfectly frank, I think this person may have some (or all) of her facts wrong or even be simply making something up to justify (or obscure) what the Church would consider a seriously illicit matter. It is unusual in the extreme to allow any individual to reserve Eucharist in his/her own home; when this happens it is done as an extension of canon 934  for canonical hermits and consecrated virgins ONLY because of the nature of their vocations and standing in law.

Even so, it is not done automatically. One's own Bishop MUST give permission according to the requirements of canon law and with appropriate supervision. In the situations you refer to I think one would have to ask why a Bishop would allow this for a lay person if he is also unwilling to admit them to profession as a canon 603 hermit where they assume the necessary legal and moral rights and obligations associated with such permission. (By the way, if the person has freely chosen not to become a canonical hermit, then they have also chosen to forego the rights and obligations or responsibilities associated with this standing in law, and this will include the possibility of reservation of Eucharist in their own hermitage.) Once again we are faced with the reality that canonical standing under canon 603 is associated with rights AND obligations which hermits and Bishops honor. In light of this I have to say that for me this lay hermit's assertions simply do not compute.

Further, in such practice there is tension between the Church's theology of the reserved Eucharist and the necessary connection with the ACT of consecration which must be adequately preserved or honored. What I mean by this is that we are aware of Christ becoming present in the proclaimed Word, in the praying assembly (who also give themselves to God and are in turn consecrated by God to be freely broken and poured out for others) and in the presiding priest, as well as in the consecration of bread and wine during Mass. The Presence of Christ is always a living, dynamic reality realized in relationship and in the community's celebration of the Gospel. With the disciples on the road to Emmaus we recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread because he becomes truly present in the breaking of the bread and all that implies. Reservation of Eucharist (which is primarily meant to nourish the sick and isolated who cannot attend physically with the fruits of communal worship and belonging) is never to become detached from an integral connection with this communal event; there is some danger that it will, especially when individuals are allowed to have tabernacles in their own places. (Actually this is a significant danger wherever the reserved Eucharist is seen as somehow separated from the Eucharistic celebration.) Canonical hermits and consecrated Virgins are usually aware of this danger and are generally significantly attuned to the ecclesiality of their vocations. However it becomes especially acute and may cross the line into actual sacrilege particularly when the reservation is undertaken without permission or oversight as an individualistic or privatistic act.

Certain cautions are taken by the church  to be sure this does not happen when the extensions (to CV's and Canonical hermits) mentioned above are made: 1) Mass is ordinarily said at least occasionally at the place of reservation (Canon law prefers twice monthly), or 2) when this is not possible (and it is often not) reserved hosts are regularly refreshed after a Eucharistic celebration with the parish community so that the integral connection to Mass itself and the local community of faith is maintained. (We speak of the Real Presence remaining so long as the elements retain the "sensible qualities" of bread and wine and are unadulterated; in a similar way perhaps we have to think of the Real Presence remaining only so long as there is a living or vital connection with the celebrated Mass itself); this practice also helps maintain the hermit's connection with the specific commission given at the end of Mass, 3) only those who are answerable in law to ecclesiastical superiors (those who have responded to the call to ecclesial vocations) are allowed to reserve the Eucharist, and are required to do so according to the requirements of canon law (cc 934-941). Otherwise it is simply too easy for people to slip into superstitious, individualistic devotional, or otherwise irreverent practices, not to mention bad or distorted theologies of the Eucharist and Eucharistic spirituality.

Personally I would discourage you from even thinking about looking for a Bishop who allows such things as a lay hermit reserving Eucharist in her own home --- not least because I honestly doubt they exist any more than Bishops exist who allow lay persons generally to take Eucharist home with them for reservation no matter how personally reverent or pious these persons are. (Remember that even for EEMs bringing Eucharist to those who are sick, guidelines generally prohibit or discourage stops between the Mass and the home being visited as well as they discourage taking the Eucharist home with one, Unless one is doing so for a sick family member this would ordinarily be a violation of the trust placed in one when one was commissioned and could itself rise to the level of sacrilege. Such actions tend to break or trivialize the integral connection with the communal celebration of the Eucharist and the commission to go forth which concludes the Mass.)

Moving to another diocese seems an even worse idea to me and is certainly something I would discourage. You would do far better developing a strong and sound Eucharistic spirituality within the limits which apply to you in the Church. Remember too that lay hermits generally are self-described and there is nothing preventing any person living alone from calling themselves a lay hermit. While I do not necessarily mean that you fall into the following category, you must realize that there is nothing at all which assures the Church of the nature and quality of  the eremitical life, the silence of solitude which is characteristic of an eremitical life, the soundness of the spirituality, theology, prayer life, etc of a privately dedicated self-described hermit.

This might well be problematical sometimes even with diocesan hermits but at least with canonical hermits there is a Rule of Life they are legally as well as morally responsible for honoring and regular meetings with directors and delegates as well as their Bishop. The canonical hermit is publicly responsible for living out her canonical commitments and the tensions between physical solitude and community which are part of the life; her canonical commitments reflect, specify, and nurture her ecclesiality. While no one can see into the hermitage (that is, Religious in community are more aware of the lives of those living with them than friends and neighbors of hermits), regular contact with those helping supervise her life serves to help ensure she is responsive or obedient to these commitments with a care which is edifying to the whole church. More importantly, unless one has in some way been publicly commissioned by the Church in a way which makes (or seeks to make) reservation of the Eucharist in one's own hermitage a true extension of the Church's worship one will, by definition, be abusing matters and betraying the very nature of Eucharist. The bottom line is that Eucharist, including Eucharist reserved in tabernacles, is not an individualistic devotional but always and everywhere a communal reality --- even (or especially!) in the solitude of a hermit's cell. Canon Law and various guidelines are meant to ensure this is maintained and honored.