31 May 2014

On Dissatisfaction with my Treatment of Lay Hermits Here

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have a (fairly slight) dissatisfaction with your coverage of lay hermits:  you state outright that they are worth just as much to the church as canonical hermits, but not exactly in what ways.  You do allude in a few places to the fact that non-eremitical Christians could be edified by knowing the hermit is among them.  Yet there is at least one article on the subject of the church’s lack of attention to the lay hermit, and the difficulty, psychological if nothing else, to the hermit. You said in a post on 7 October 2012 perhaps the best thing of all, that is, that a lay hermit may be able to carry the message of God’s love and total acceptance to those pushed to the margins of society by illness, disability, age, prison, or any other factor better than a canonical hermit.  “You WOULD say that, wouldn’t you!”  

On the other hand, the fact that the lay hermit doesn’t have a badge or certificate in our credential-ridden society may tend to make them seem less credible to the marginalized or outcast.  That comes up in a few questions to you.  How much weight do most Catholics in the pews give to the reassurance that, by virtue of their baptism, they have a magnificent vocation really as powerful as any?  I know, and I believe you do, too, that most people believe they are still “less-than.”  Here I have read all your articles on the subject, and still feel (this will sound negative, and I don’t mean it to) that you are on a pedestal and it’s easy for you to say I am (potentially) as good as you.  Leaving aside that I am not Catholic!  My baptism is recognized in the Catholic Church - I did belong for a few years. ]]

Thanks for your questions and comments. I would suggest that perhaps what you are recognizing here is a way that lay hermits can EMPOWER the marginalized who will never have a badge or certificate, etc beyond their baptism and sealing with chrism in the sign of the cross (if they are fortunate enough to have these!). As I think you know, without these even canonical standing would be meaningless and empty. The world you describe is credential-ridden but that does not always translate into genuine expertise of course. In the realm of the spiritual life (that is, in the realm of prayer) it is largely meaningless. Canonical standing DOES imply some degree of credibility because it says the Church trusts this person to live the terms of the canon with integrity but just as profession is not akin to graduation neither is canonical standing akin to a certificate of expertise. Besides,  the hermit has always been a countercultural sign, a sign of contradiction as some put it.  In the world you describe perhaps it is precisely the lay hermit who has the power to do more for the marginalized than the canonical hermit -- as you have noted I have argued this before.

 If you can help lay hermits appreciate this and assist in the empowerment of the laity in this way then perhaps you can help me as well. You see, I have tried to climb down off any pedestal and I honestly don't think it is entirely my fault that folks tend to put me back up there. (Folks in my parish or others who really know me do not do this so much!) The same is true for most contemporary religious women today. We do not want to be placed on pedestals. (This is one of the reasons many  have relinquished religious garb; it is a step in empowering the laity as a whole to embrace the insights of Vatican II.) Frankly, it is arduous work trying to get folks to stop doing that and really, all I can do is be myself and hope that folks realize I really do not exist nor desire to exist on a pedestal! (I am a hermit but I am NOT a stylite!!!) In any case you will notice that the only lay hermits I have ever criticized or ever do criticize are the ones who pretend to be something other than they are --- those who pretend to credentials they do not have and reject those that they actually do have!

Those lay hermits who live a genuine eremitical life without canonical standing and more importantly, without pretense,  have my utmost respect. I cannot say that more forthrightly or sincerely. (Certainly if I did not believe it it would be easy enough to misapply the explanation about the "objective superiority" of the vocation to the consecrated state and make my stand on the way that has most often been (mis)understood, wouldn't it?** And yet, as you are likely aware, I do not do this. So no, it is not that I WOULD say this simply because to do otherwise would make my posts particularly unpalatable to lay hermits.) Unfortunately, there are still precious few of these witnessing to what they live so that we may all let go of the notion that they are “not-as-good-as” canonical hermits and take complete hold of Vatican's teaching on the universal call to holiness.

You also write: [[The more I ponder this question, the less it seems as if there is much you can do to make this believable.  The one exception, as I said above, is that people who may not even be Christians could relate better to someone “like them.”  There may be a way to create a means to give recognition to lay hermits, if they want it, in order to allow them to speak to these people 'in the name of Christ.']]

One important distinction here I think is that of speaking/living in the name of Christ and speaking/living in the name of the Church. These are not the same thing. Not all hermits live eremitical life in the name of the Church but so long as they are baptized they all speak (or, more accurately, live) in the name of Christ. A Lay person in living a lay life does so in the name of the Church. They are free (have the right and the commensurate obligations), for instance, to call themselves Catholic laity and in fact, to call themselves lay hermits. They may, it seems to me, be blessed and commissioned in their ministry by their pastors --- especially as those pastors come to know them and value this form of eremitical life.

Certainly it seems to me that some of the older rites of blessing of hermitages could be used by lay hermits’ pastors to indicate a commissioning to live this life as an instance of the lay vocation. (This might resolve some of the problem you noted above.) Such persons would thus live it by virtue of their Baptismal consecrations; there is no additional consecration, no initiation into the consecrated state that is, as there is for those commissioned to live the eremitical life in the name of the Church per se, but many hermits desire nothing of the sort anyway. Some see that this additional standing in law (for Baptism itself initiates one into a form of standing in law or "status") may even distance them from those who most need their witness --- namely those who will never seek (or be given) additional canonical standing, those whom not only the world but the Church too has marginalized, those who need to know and witness to the fact that their own vocations are every bit as important as those with additional canonical standing.

[[ What I've  felt lacking sometimes in your writing has been specific vocational differences that did not leave the non-canonical hermit feeling left off to the side.  And some are there because their dioceses won’t accept their applications - are they not in some cases just not very good candidates for the life?  Yet, who knows, maybe they still have something special to offer! I doubt seriously that the Church is going to create an Office for the Elevation of the Status of Lay Hermits, but maybe that’s what’s needed, in some form! You said somewhere (more than one somewhere) that it is up to the lay hermits themselves to do something about it.  It is already up to us to form ourselves - and let me say that people like you make that easier.  I even think dimly that maybe I could put some YouTube entries up, although I’d have to ask my daughter how to do it! ]]

Yes, and I continue to believe this is the only real solution. But before I address that let me say something about your lament or plaint (that is the way I heard it anyway) that lay hermits must "already form ourselves.” I have to remind you that canonical hermits are formed over time in the silence of solitude. While some have backgrounds in religious life (usually limited!), more and more they do not. While I have a background in religious life and in academic or systematic theology and spiritual direction, I was truly responsible for my own formation in eremitical life. No one in the diocese could or did assist in this; even the first Vicar/vocations director with whom I worked for five years had to be educated on the vocation. She went to the Camaldolese in Big Sur (I never knew this until @ 2005) to ask the prior there what it would take to live a healthy hermit life. Even the Bishop who professed me perpetually commented after our first face to face meeting (a meeting that occurred only after the Vicars for Religious had finally recommended me for profession) that he needed to educate himself on this vocation which would take some time.

From the time I first spoke to someone at the diocese to the time I was admitted to perpetual profession and consecrated as a diocesan hermit 23, almost 24 years elapsed! What was formative for me in this time period? My work with my director, my own reading and prayer, lectio divina and theological study, conversations with a few hermits around the world, and any personal work I needed to do to heal past trauma or woundedness (including that caused by chronic illness) --- and all of this lived in an environment of the silence of solitude. No one validated this work or my call during this time. Yes, Sister Susan (whose five year journey with me on behalf of the diocese helped keep me on track by making me accountable to the diocese!) was ready to recommend me to the Bishop for admission to public profession around 1989 or 1990, but it turned out then that the diocese was not going to implement Canon 603 for anyone at this point; Sister Susan, though no longer working in the chancery and no longer living in the diocese, could not submit her recommendation until 2006 for a new Bishop she did not know! (The Diocese of Oakland requested her evaluation and recommendation as part of their later discernment and preparation for admitting me to perpetual profession.) The point remains, the formation I have had as a hermit is formation I have “gotten” for myself.  I honestly say to you that lay and canonical hermits do not really differ substantially in this regard. It is one of the reasons when I write about formation I am foreseeing a process that will work for any solitary hermit, whether lay or canonical --- just as I believe it will give lay hermits a better chance to be heard by dioceses which have resisted admitting them (or others) to profession under canon 603.

One of the reasons dioceses sometimes say to those desiring to live as a hermit, “just go live in solitude, it is all you need” is precisely because dioceses cannot form hermits. Hermits are formed in solitude and, more importantly, in the silence of solitude. Another reason is that very few hermits are really called to canonical standing while far more will be called to lay eremitical life. It is important to become a hermit in some essential sense before one can actually know the difference. Further, it is important for a diocese to see that a hermit can provide for her own needs --- and these especially  include those of ongoing formation --- before they admit them to public vows and canonical standing. The Church does NOT become responsible for the hermit's ongoing formation. Instead she becomes canonically responsible for supervising a hermit's own journey in  responding to the Spirit and the inner dynamism of her life to cooperate in and accomplish her own ongoing formation. The responsibility for securing one's own spiritual needs never passes out of the hermit's own hands. She can (must) consult, read, study, pray, and so forth; she can (must) seek resources which will aid in her growth as a hermit and monastic for instance. But no one either can or will form her any more than they can or will form lay hermits.

Writing from Within Our Own Vocations

Now, about the idea that lay hermits are the only ones that can write sufficiently about their own vocations, or the only ones who can really do justice to it. Consider how non-canonical or lay hermits sometimes tend to write about canonical standing from outside it. You are certainly familiar with this yourself and have seen or read a lot of it online. It is mistakenly treated as the hermit's penchant for legalism, as the symptoms of a hermit who is not spiritual enough, who is too intellectual,  too much “of the temporal world”, who cannot “think with her heart” and knows nothing of real mystical prayer, who desires status and the approval of human beings rather than simply resting in the love of God. While not all lay hermits hold all or even most of these views, I think it is not a stretch to suggest that many do hold some or others of them --- though perhaps not as aggressively or vehemently. And yet, recently you read what I wrote about the pastoral importance and the ecclesial nature of the c 603 vocation and commented on how grateful you were for my making these things clear. Could a lay hermit have written these things? I don't think so.

I write from within my vocation and when I write about canon 603 I write from the way it has shaped my life and sensibilities. Had it not been for canon 603 for instance, I would never (or perhaps not as urgently!) have learned to distinguish between silence and solitude and the silence OF solitude.  I would never have learned that law really does serve love and establishes stable relationships which define a state of life. I would never have come to reflect on the ecclesial nature of my vocation in quite the same way nor with the same urgency. Nor would I have come to appreciate the incredible way eremitical life comes to balance non-negotiable elements with the flexibility and supreme freedom of the Christian.

I would not have come to know in the same way I now know that obedience serves freedom, that constraints likewise serve authentic freedom (though lessons in this latter also came to me through chronic illness of course). Certainly I would not have built some of the elements of  a true eremitism into my own life in the way I believe the canon calls for and had I not lived within its constraints and sacred space; I wonder how authentic or fruitful such a life would have been for me.  All of these things and many more besides are gifts which have come to me mainly through canon 603 and canonical standing; I believe these aspects of my life and understanding have a different character than they might for someone approaching them from outside canonical standing under c 603. But that also leads to certain deficiencies in my experience and writing.

You see I cannot write entirely convincingly about the importance, significance, or even the nature of the lay (or maybe it would be better to say the non-canonical) eremitical vocation because it is not MINE any more than you can write or speak convincingly of a call to life under c 603 because it does not define and shape your own vocation.  Oh, of course I can and do write about silence, solitude, prayer, penance, Scripture, etc just as ANY hermit can and might. Still, if anyone is going to witness adequately to a vocation they must be living that vocation and write from within it. They must (and can only truly) write according to the way their own hearts and sensibilities have been formed and shaped. More, if the Church is EVER to truly value the lay vocation as fully as it claims to do officially and theologically, it will only be as lay persons live, write about, and otherwise witness to its significance in ways which completely reject and repudiate any traces of the notion that some vocations are better or higher than others!!** It will only be as they insist on the place and significance of the laity in the life of the Church Vatican II, for instance, asserted and paved the way for. I cannot do this for you. I have done all I can do on this blog, I think ---though I will not cease trying and learning in this matter; I can continue to explore the theology Vatican II and post Vatican II theologians have put forth in this matter, but otherwise, I cannot do this for you.

[[When I talk of freedom, don’t take me seriously.  I believe that every human person has the same freedom as every other.  That is philosophical and theological and I won’t go into it now! :)  ]]

I don’t believe we have the same freedom since I believe freedom is a graced reality that comes only as we become and are the people God calls us to be.  But I do believe that God calls each of us and that authentic freedom is therefore possible for everyone --- whatever constraints shape their lives.

** Again, the objective superiority of a vocation does not, so far as I can see, translate to "higher" vocation, etc.