27 January 2014

Considering becoming a Hermit: Can Anyone Apply?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, How are you? I have been thinking about hermit life lately. Can anyone apply? Or is it only open to former nuns or those with an education in theology? I wonder how many monasteries there are nationwide that offer private apartments. I prefer more private residence than community residence. ]]

Hi there. Most of what I say here is written about in other posts as well so I suggest you look up some of the pertinent posts using the labels to the right.

While anyone can speak to their chancery personnel (Vicar for Religious, Vocations Director, Delegate for Consecrated Life, etc.) about becoming a diocesan hermit, it remains true that a person has almost no chance of serious consideration unless they have secured in some way the experience and formation in eremitical solitude along with the education or training which supports this life in terms of Scripture, prayer, and theology. These need not necessarily be gotten in a convent or monastery, nor do they require advanced degrees, but they are still necessary nonetheless. The ability to read commentaries and Scripture is especially important, I think, and some degree of solid theology is also critical. One will be reading and studying Scripture one's whole life so one needs tools to do that with. Similarly, one will be reading spirituality and related theology one's whole life so a basic education in theology will be essential. Some dioceses require their candidates for canon 603 profession to acquire a Master Catechist's certification to cover this need.

Monasteries generally do not have diocesan hermits living on their property nor do they have private apartments except, for instance, for visiting priests or others in leadership within the Order who are visiting the community. They do have guest houses for retreatants and diocesan hermits may go regularly (once or twice a year) on retreat to one community. Remember that monasteries are generally autonomous houses, not part of the diocesan system of institutions; a Bishop does not assign a hermit to live in a parish, etc, but were he to do so, a monastery would not be somewhere he could assign anyone. He might try to arrange temporary living space for a hermit with said monastery but this is not at all the way dioceses usually handle things with diocesan hermits (cf below). Occasionally a hermit may develop a relationship with a community of nuns or monks herself and be welcomed to live in a hermitage on the property, but she is not a formal part of the community and this arrangement is rare. In such a case the hermit would be responsible for her room and any board allowed her as well as her general upkeep just as she would if she were living in an urban parish (cf below). She could be asked to vacate her housing at any time should the monastic community require that.

Diocesan or solitary hermits professed under canon 603 generally live alone and are usually part of a parish. They are not part of a community otherwise (even a religious community of hermits) and are specifically called to solitary eremitical life.  (Lauras of diocesan hermits are possible but these are not communities in the strict sense.) Some are fortunate enough to be able to live in rural areas or in the mountains and deserts, but most today are urban hermits.  Thus, most hermits live in single family dwellings, apartments, condos, or something similar. Some few may have caregivers on the premises but the arrangement must not impede a life of the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance. In all cases (wherever the hermit finds a home to make into a hermitage) they are responsible for their own upkeep, insurance, living arrangements, education, retreats, spiritual direction, Rule of Life, provision for active  ministry --- if any, burial expenses, food, clothing, transportation, etc.

My suggestion to you is to read all you can about this vocation, speak to your spiritual director about what you are thinking about, and, even more importantly, begin experimentally to live a life embodying the central elements of canon 603 as a beginning lay hermit. It may take you a year or more to get these elements in place, but after you have lived all the central elements for some time, write yourself an experimental Rule which reflects your experience and your needs as well as an understanding of what eremitical solitude is all about. You can then live this Rule for a further period and see how well this kind of commitment works for you. Proposed changes in the Rule could be discussed with your director and implemented if good reasons are discerned. I would suggest continuing in this way for a couple of years BEFORE you approach your diocese.

During these first years, if in fact, you continue in this experimental living situation, you should begin to develop an initial sense of what the eremitical Tradition is about, its varied expressions, and the values it embodies and brings to the Church and world. As implied, you would meet regularly with your director and allow her to help you discern why you feel called to this as well as what other vocations you might also be called to with similar values. If your interest in this vocation continues more strongly and it seems the way God is calling you to human wholeness and a life of generous love lived for others, then it might be time to contact your diocese to have an initial discussion on the possibility of being professed as a diocesan hermit under canon 603.

Dioceses will not generally accept someone as a serious candidate for profession unless they demonstrate real experience living in eremitical solitude. My suggestions above are meant to assist you to gain the experience necessary to approach your diocese initially. Most will not (and in fact cannot) even enter into a serious process of discernment with someone without such experience. (Remember, dioceses do not form hermits; though they may point the hermit to needed resources they discern the quality of the vocation in front of them.) Being a lone pious person is not the same thing as eremitical solitude either. More, living in eremitical solitude for a couple of years is not the same thing as being either called or ready to commit to this for the whole of one's life. Instead it could represent a needed transitional period in one's life or, unfortunately, it could also be a way of escaping one's responsibilities within society and the Church as well. It takes time to determine this and only one's continued growth in human wholeness and the capacity to love God, oneself, and others in the silence of solitude can show us whether this is a Divine call. Thus, one has a much better chance of getting a serious hearing at the chancery if one can demonstrate both experience in living as a hermit as well as the fact that one has taken the whole matter seriously, thoughtfully, and proceeded with genuine discernment even before one landed on the chancery doorstep.

By the way, I have only spoken of living a couple of years in an intentional way as a lay hermit before contacting the diocese. The discernment process after this usually takes several more years at least. This is especially true if the person has no formation in Religious life. If everyone decides the candidate is called to canonical profession rather than life as a lay hermit, for instance, then temporary public vows for a period of several (3-5) years usually follows. Discernment continues and one may or may not be admitted to perpetual profession at the end of this time. It is not unusual for the period extending from the day one first knocks on the chancery door to the day one is admitted to perpetual profession to take up to 10 years or so, As I have noted before, some cases have taken much longer.

One other thing should again be noted here. Dioceses ordinarily consider solitary eremitical life as a second half of life vocation. For those younger persons who have less life experience and may never have been formed in religious life, the better option is often to enter a community of hermits which allows for a structured formation and a formal balance between solitude and community.