11 June 2014

On the Prayer Lives of Hermits

[[Dear Sister, I have a question regarding the prayer life of a hermit. Do all hermits pray the Liturgy of the Hours? And if so, do they say the Roman Office or do they pick an Office that reflects their spirituality (ie. a Benedictine arrangement)?  Since hermits make a formal commitment to the Church, I'm sure saying the public prayer of the Church is essential to their vocation.  Finally, are hermits required to say all the Offices of the day and when not saying those fill their day with other devotions?

When I look at the horarium of hermit religious communities they seem full of private devotions on top of the full breviary. For example:  Carmelite Hermits. I'm wondering how a hermit develops his or her prayer rule and how a hermit discerns a balance between laxity and following one's personal tastes in prayer on the one hand a rigorous that is so difficult as to be impossible to fulfil. ]]

Several really good questions, thank you! Regarding the Liturgy of the Hours the simple answer is no, strictly speaking these are not required by canon 603 nor any other canon unless the hermit is also a priest. I know at least one diocesan hermit who does not pray them at all. I know of another diocesan hermit, now deceased, who did not pray the LOH (Liturgy of the Hours) or even have some sort of general horarium. (I cannot tell you how much I advise against this and find it a terribly imprudent practice for an eremitical life! Besides, it is contrary to the requirements of canon 603 itself.) That said I don't know any other hermits who do not pray some portion of the LOH each day. I also suspect that most Bishops would require the hermit who did not pray them to have a pretty convincing reason for not doing so; I am pretty certain the majority of Bishops would be unlikely to profess someone for whom the LOH was not at least a significant part of their prayer. After all, they are the prayer of the Church and my vocation, as you note, is an ecclesial one.

Still, the hermit is required to live a life of assiduous prayer and penance. Nothing in that phrase specifies what that means. Thus, what that looks like in each life will likely differ. It is part of the freedom of the hermit to listen and respond to the Spirit as she will. In my own Rule and life I only include 3 or 4 of the hours of the LOH. I also use the Camaldolese Office book because it is singable with musically interesting but simple psalm tones;  I also complement it with the Roman LOH, especially at times when I cannot sing or if I am going to do the Office of Readings, etc. Any hermit is free to do something similar.

While I need the structure these provide as well as the content itself and the tone the major hours set for the time of day or week or season, I find praying the little hours fragments my day and generally speaking, doing so actually detracts from my prayer. Again, as I have said before, as I understand this vocation, hermits generally are about praying, and more, about becoming incarnations of God's own prayer in this world, not simply about saying prayers. That is the way I understand "pray always." Clearly that differs from some conceptions. That said, I do find some devotions helpful, especially when things in my life make prayer difficult. During times of illness I use rote prayers or Taize chants to assist me. I  may also use the little hours as well as shortened versions of the major ones in the LOH. When traveling I use a bead bracelet and pray the Jesus prayer for the people around me. I may also read a single psalm very slowly and meditatively at such times. During walks I may do something similar for the people in my life or pray a rosary.

Otherwise, however, my own prayer tends to quiet prayer outside of Mass and the LOH (though I allow for periods of contemplation during the LOH as well as after it and also during Communion services). Similarly the practice of vigil replaces the saying of vigils (Office of Readings) for me so that the period from 4:00-8:00 or 3:00-8:00 am is ordinarily a period of vigil. While I sing Lauds during this time I also spend at least an hour in quiet prayer and another in writing --- usually journaling but also blogging on something like the daily readings or a topic I have been thinking and praying about.

Recently, for instance (during the Easter season), that included work on the Ascension and the Bridal imagery of the Scriptures which is tied to our understanding of the dynamic of divine descent and ascent --- so this topical approach tends to reflect an ongoing focus in my meditation and theological work. About 8:10 am I leave for Mass if I am going there and that is usually the end of a period of quiet for me until I return to the hermitage for Scripture, lectio, quiet prayer and then dinner (lunch). You see, for me personally, filling the day with devotions is a real distraction. This is not so much a matter of personal "taste" in prayer as it is a matter of discerning the kind of prayer God is calling me to at this stage in my life. I work out what forms of prayer are lifegiving to me and what forms really contribute to the silence of solitude which is the environment and goal of my life.

One of the reasons a hermit petitioning for profession under canon 603 requires years of living as a lay hermit before doing so is precisely so they can have a sense of what prayer is best for them and when. My own sense is that filling the day with devotions is a beginner's strategy. It may be fine before a person really develops a contemplative life and matures into quiet prayer, etc but at some point the person really does have to stop, sit in silence, and confront the voice of God in her own heart. While I know they want a balance in each hermit's life between prayer, work and leisure, I suspect that some communities use devotions as ways of being sure a hermit in cell is never plagued by empty time. But for the contemplative "empty time" is precisely where one turns to God in silent faith. It may also be a way for communities to cut back on the diversity hermits may enjoy in their time in cell and to increase the uniformity of the life.

The Camaldolese as a group, for instance, do not structure their lives in such a way as the link you provided though of course they are free to do so individually. Though they come together regularly for liturgical prayer and for sitting in silence as well, the hermit is free in cell to pray as he is called to and this can certainly mean additional devotions as well as periods of rest and recreation not only so that God may speak differently to the hermit, but so "the bow is not always kept taut." Cf Hermits and Vacations for the Desert Father story taken from John Cassian's Conferences. I recall that one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was after Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam read the Rule I proposed to submit to my diocese prior to solemn eremitical profession. He was complimentary but also said he hoped I would not forget to build in sufficient time for rest and recreation. In some ways that has made a huge difference in the quality of my contemplative life, and mainly for the better.

How does one determine all this? Well, one certainly learns (becomes familiar with) all the prayer forms one can and tries them to see which are lifegiving and in what ways and at what times. One journals and talks with her director to see if she might be using one form of prayer to avoid something else --- that profound listening that requires one be in touch with her deepest heart, for instance, or monastic leisure and letting go of the need to "produce" or do rather than be. These latter difficulties are or can be reflections of the worldliness that follows us into the hermitage so we must not simply slap a pious practice over it and think we have "left the world" or begun to truly pray as a hermit in so doing. (It is the case that even certain practices in prayer, certain affectations or attachments may be more worldly than not.) In any case, one pays attention to how prayer affects one. Has it ceased nourishing one as it once did? Does it not seem to fit new circumstances? Is it irritating or disquieting and why? Does it reinforce worldly attitudes and values -- doing over being, experience and superficial emotion over self-emptying (which will involve more profound emotions) and a commitment to love God for God's own sake? (Depending on the answer to these latter questions one may discover one is called to jettison the practice or to continue and deepen it.) One goes slowly and listens carefully. One moves step by step over a period of time and with the assistance of her director and others.
I hope this is helpful.