[[Dear Sister, I have read what you have said about dioceses not being responsible for forming diocesan hermits but isn't it true that a diocese plays an important role in being sure that persons who approach them requesting to become diocesan hermits really are called to this vocation? Are most dioceses really ready and willing to follow candidates for profession through the stages you have listed here: lay eremitical life, temporary profession, perpetual profession? As you have described it this could take nearly a decade. How reasonable is it to expect dioceses to do this?]]
Introduction to the "Stages" I have already spoken of:
Great questions. As an introduction for those who have not read what I have written on this before, the stages I have described include 1) a period of trying out solitude for an indefinite length of time on one's own (one is not really a hermit at this point, neither lay nor consecrated and will live this period until one makes the transition from being a lone pious person to actually being a lay hermit in some essential sense and is ready to approach their diocese with a petition regarding c 603), 2) a period as a lay hermit (this is NOT a novitiate!) while one discerns initially and with one's diocese whether one is called to continue as a lay hermit or to (possibly) be consecrated under canon 603, 3) a period of temporary profession (3-5 years) if and when the diocese discerns this is appropriate, and 4) perpetual profession --- again if the diocese and the hermit discern this is what one is called to. The time frame from actually approaching the diocese (as one who is already essentially a lay hermit) to perpetual profession could well reasonably take 6-9 years. The time prior to this could also well take several years and in fact, the transition I spoke of might never occur. (Dioceses need to be aware that a person may never make this fundamental shift from lone person to hermit in an essential sense and act accordingly.) Still, generally I am speaking of a diocese working with a candidate or temporary professed hermit for anywhere from 6-9 years to discern the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them. How reasonable is it to expect this?
Reasonable and Essential:
It is not only reasonable, it is essential if a diocese is to be responsible for the solitary eremitical vocation generally as well as for an individual candidate. I would argue that if a diocese is NOT willing to follow and accompany a candidate for the requisite period of time up to (and of course beyond) perpetual profession, then they ought not implement canon 603 in their diocese; that is, they ought not profess anyone accordingly. Instead they ought to encourage folks either become or remain lay hermits and simply be clear that they will not publicly profess anyone under canon 603. At the same time that I argue this lengthy process of accompaniment and discernment is not only reasonable but essential, I recognize that it is a demanding requirement not only for the diocese's own chancery personnel but for candidates who are serious about living eremitical life and perhaps being consecrated. For this reason I also think it is helpful to provide some basic signposts along what might otherwise be an entirely trackless and therefore an unnecessarily risky and difficult journey for both hermit and diocese. (There is risk and difficulty enough in the eremitical life; it need not be added to unnecessarily.)
Discerning the Place of Solitude in the Person's Life
Because a hermit is formed only over time in solitude, a diocese (and certainly a candidate) MUST expect and allow this formation to require significant measures of both. A diocese cannot be expected to form a hermit and must not interfere with the formative place of silence and solitude. At the same time, because solitude can deform a person not really called to it beyond those occasional periods of solitude-as-transition life throws our way or makes necessary (solitude always breaks a person down!), a diocese must be very sure that 1) the hermit is well-directed or followed both by a spiritual director and by the staff of the offices of Vicar of Religious / Consecrated Life or Vocations, and 2) that the hermit gives every indication of growing in solitude emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and just generally as a whole and holy person. (For the hermit solitude not only breaks down, it edifies or builds up in the truest sense of that word; it also occasions growth in wholeness and communion with God and others. The inquirer's diocese must be keenly aware of the power of physical solitude to lead to either personal disintegration or to profound personal integration and watch for both as part of the process of discernment.)
In fact, this kind of vigilant acompanying and evaluating is really what discernment is about: namely, one attends to how the candidate is formed, deformed, or simply fails to thrive in a given life or set of circumstances and from this determines whether or not God is calling a person to this at this point in time. (Formation overlaps this by adding the dimension of supplying (or discovering and taking advantage of) resources and experiences which allow the person to grow not only to wholeness, but to wholeness as a credible and responsible representative of a lifestyle, congregation, Rule, tradition, etc. It cannot be stressed strongly enough, for both hermits who might like dioceses to "form them" or for dioceses that might desire a more structured "formation program", that for the diocesan hermit, despite the diocese's critical role in accompanying and in recommending resources for the candidate, formation is achieved mainly through the hermit's own initiative and (in cooperation with God) in the context of the silence of solitude.) Discernment of a vocation to consecrated life under canon 603 depends on a hermit candidate being able to negotiate the transitions and personal growth which occur in eremitical solitude.
Signposts: The stages of writing a Rule and discerning a vocation coincide
In what I have written previously about writing a Rule, the Bishop's/diocese's role (or non role!) in that, what it means to be ready to write a livable Rule, etc, I believe the steps to readiness I have outlined tie in well to the stages I have outlined above. I also believe the time periods required for each stage can be more or less gauged by the candidate's ability to write: 1) an experimental Rule or plan of life based on a limited but still-sufficient experience of solitude and the requirements of canon 603, 2) a Rule which will be canonically binding for a period of temporary profession, and finally, 3) a more definitive Rule which is adequate for the living of the life for the time being and can be granted a Bishop's Decree of Approval without temporal limitations.
What I am thinking here is first, that if someone comes to a chancery and seems to be serious about canon 603 they may be given some guidelines on the eremitical life and asked to write an experimental Rule or Plan which reflects their own experience, meets their own current spiritual needs, and will also help the diocese gauge whether they have made the transition from lone person to being a hermit in some essential sense. Let me be clear. This is not ordinarily to be considered the Rule required by Canon 603; it is usually merely going to be part of a person's preparation for gaining the experience needed to eventually write such a Rule. Next, they can be asked to live this plan for three years or so to discern how faithfully they live it, how mature and discerning their necessary modifications and adaptations of it are, what the nature of their struggles with it are as well as how those have changed, and again, how it contributes to their growth in wholeness and holiness. (This particular period could be varied if the person already has experience living religious life according to a Rule or, on the other hand, if the diocese still has questions but not significant doubts about the person's suitability for eremitical life.)
If this goes well and the person (and diocese) believe in the wisdom of petitioning for admission to profession (they might also agree the person is called to remain a lay hermit for instance or they might decide the period of solitude has been transitional or will never really be eremitical), the candidate can then be asked to revise the Rule as needed to deal with new elements. For instance she will need to demonstrate some significant understanding of the vows she is now proposing to make, add a vow formula, include a section on ongoing supervision or accountability, and consider adding other sections regarding canon 603's defining elements she has not yet addressed adequately. In other words, candidates can be asked to write a Rule that reflects their own lived experience of eremitical life and that can be binding under law for a temporary period. If this (writing) also goes well and the Bishop agrees, they can be admitted to temporary profession and become publicly obligated for the living of this Rule. Finally, if this period of living the Rule under temporary vows goes well and the hermit continues to demonstrate fidelity, integrity, along with an intelligent and faithful flexibility with regard to the Rule, then a "final" version can be submitted some time prior to admission to perpetual profession and consecration. While I refer to this last version as "final" I have included quotation marks to indicate that the hermit may well both need and want to change pieces of it in another few years.
Evaluations at Each Stage:
Personally, I would think that one month every year or two would be really helpful and for those who have no background in religious life, essential. Similarly, to name just a few things that might come up or be helpful during these years, it might be important for the candidate to break with active ministry, or family, or friends to a greater extent than she already has; on the other hand or at another point in her formation, it might be important for her to do a limited amount of ministry under pastoral supervision, reestablish regular but limited contact with family and friends, and so forth. At given points it might be necessary for a candidate to "put her TV in storage" (some would-be hermits actually watch a lot of TV and don't realize it is both contrary and profoundly detrimental to the vocation), or become more active in her parish community (some candidates really lack a sense of the vocation's ecclesiality), or speak with a therapist, or take a series of classes in theology, monastic life, etc. Meanwhile periodic meetings (every 4-6 months) at the chancery and some at the candidate's own place would be necessary. (If this were pertinent the monastery's formation personnel could also contribute informally to any evaluation process.)
At the same time, in writing a Rule at each stage the candidate and the diocese will come to see what parts of the canon/life she is living and which she has not yet embraced, which she understands and which she does not, how she sees her life contributing to the understanding and living out of the canon and eremitical tradition more generally, how this life is a gift to the church and world, etc. The candidate moves to the next stage only when she is genuinely ready to do so and that readiness is marked by the ability to write a livable Rule for the next stage. The point is that each stage is geared towards growth and discernment rooted in the candidate's increasing experience of living the eremitical life per se and this growth is reflected in the Rule she writes at each point.
Further, while eventual profession is not guaranteed of course, the candidate should still find the process challenging and fruitful without it also feeling interminable or being onerous. Diocesan personnel would also find such a process helpful; they would neither be tempted to rush to premature profession or to simply match the time frames provided in canon law for active and contemplative cenobitical religious life, nor would they be forced to simply dismiss someone of whom they are simply uncertain as "unsuitable" without giving them an adequate "hearing" or chance to grow into the vocation to whatever extent they are capable. If, during the course of this process, a person is discerned not to have a diocesan eremitical vocation, she will still have experienced a significantly growth-oriented process enabling her to seek the vocation to which she IS called.
The Role of the Diocese is Significant:
Thus, it is true that dioceses play a significant role in discerning the nature and quality of vocations in front of them even though with hermits dioceses do not actually form them. What a diocese has to convey to a candidate or possible candidate, I think, is 1) that they value the authentic (and contemporary!) eremitical vocation and will not consecrate someone without real evidence of a life call to the silence of eremitical solitude, 2) that they value the formation that comes in the silence of solitude and expect the solitary hermit to take responsibility for this, 3) that they will follow the candidate with care and assist as they can and as appropriate, and 4) that when and as the candidate or hermit is ready, they will evaluate this readiness to proceed toward or to consecration, not only with conversations, but through the versions of a Rule she has written as reflections of where her individual vocation stands at any given moment.
As I have noted before, Canon 603 includes a marvelous mix of non-negotiable elements along with the freedom to structure and live these elements according to the will of God via one's own Rule. It is in the writing of the Rule that the hermit truly comes to understand and claim her overall life as an instance of a vital and fragile tradition; it is here that the dialogue she negotiates every day between the traditional eremitical life and the contemporary situation comes to fullest articulation and summing up. It simply makes sense for dioceses to use this tool as a key to discernment, and to do so in a way which helps the hermit or candidate to grow in both eremitical freedom AND necessary accountability in relation to canon 603. What I have suggested here is one way of doing that.