25 June 2014

What "Kind of Hermit" Does Canon 603 Envision?

[[Hello Sister, This might be a tricky question. When canon 603 says that people can be professed as hermits it doesn't say what type of hermit. What I mean is that in the Church's Tradition there seems to be many different expressions of eremitical life. For example you have the strict solitude of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and medieval anchorites, the seclusion in the midst of community like the Carthusians or the Franciscan model of long periods in hermitages interspaced by periods of intense public preaching and ministry. My question then is what type of eremitical life does canon 603 envision? Is it up to the hermit and his or her bishop to decide what an individual's eremitical witness will look like?]]

Thanks for your questions. I don't think this is a tricky matter. I say that because in the main Canon 603 is, as I have written many times here, very flexible. First of all it is up to the individual to discern 1) whether she has an eremitical vocation of any expression, and 2) what her eremitical life will look like --- though how she will live out the elements of canon 603 is an indispensable and central part of these questions. The key to canon 603 vocations consists in the fact that these will always be calls to be a solitary hermit embodying the following elements: assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and the evangelical counsels under a Rule the hermit herself writes based on lived experience. While lauras of similarly professed individuals with their own Rules, etc. are allowed, these may not rise to the level of actual communities. (Jean Beyer, Commentary on Canon 603)

Since Lauras fail more than they succeed the hermit must have her own Rule, income, job/profession, savings, delegate, etc. She must be able to live as a solitary hermit no matter what --- meaning no matter who else stays or leaves a laura -- or whether or not one ever even exists! (Most canon 603 hermits are the only ones in their dioceses and never even meet other hermits face to face.) Similarly, the elements of the canon have priority over the variations which might be linked to a particular spirituality. For instance, while St Francis wrote a Rule for hermits, some aspects of it might not be deemed compatible with the foundational elements of canon 603. For instance, while mendicancy is esteemed in Franciscanism, it is unlikely to be acceptable by a diocese looking at a potential c 603 vocation. I suspect the same would be true of extended periods of preaching and ministry; my own sense is canon 603 does not allow for this where Franciscan proper law does. In such a case one might be discerning a call to be a Secular Franciscan, for instance where one builds in significant degrees of solitude rather than a canon 603 vocation.

Still, so long as the central elements of the canon are embraced as the defining elements and charism of the life (the silence of solitude functions, I believe, as the charism of c 603 life) and lives these in a foundational way, canon 603 can accommodate a variety of emphases and variations or "spiritualities". When a person works out what expression of eremitical life is their very own then yes, the Bishop and the individual will mutually discern the appropriateness of canon 603 profession and consecration in this specific diocese. (N.B., while the discernment is mutual this does not necessarily mean the Bishop and/or Vicars for Religious will agree with the candidate petitioning for admission to profession.) In general, one does not simply ask what c 603 allows and then try to fit oneself under that in some cut and paste way. Instead one discerns the shape of one's own call under canon 603, explores the various spiritualities one feels drawn to embrace to support one in that, and, in time, thus discovers whether (and how) this spirituality can legitimately be embodied as an expression of canon 603 eremitical life. Thus, for instance, I am first of all a diocesan hermit and only secondarily Camaldolese Benedictine. While I think the Camaldolese charism best supports the diocesan eremitical vocation I could fruitfully live my vocation according to several spiritualities including Cistercian, Camaldolese, and possibly Franciscan.

While it is not necessary to embrace a specific spiritual tradition or family, canon 603 has solitary hermits in the Benedictine, Carmelite, Cistercian, Camaldolese, Camaldolese Benedictine, Carthusian (St Bruno), Franciscan, Redemptoristine, Augustinian, and other traditions or spiritualities. (I say there are others because the ones I named specifically are the ones I personally know of; I am certain I don't know all there are.) Some diocesan hermits live as anchorites with a greater degree of stability of place and may not belong to any specific tradition beyond the medieval model of anchoritism.

In other words there is a significant degree of diversity in the way diocesan hermits live the non-negotiable elements of canon 603. So, thoroughly explore your own sense of call and, so long as you discover a call to solitary eremitical life as defined according to the canon, don't worry about whether you are the "kind of hermit" that will fit under canon 603. Once you have done that your Bishop and you will determine if you are called to public profession and consecration of the non-negotiable elements of canon 603 (for this is really another question). If the decision is that you are called to at least temporary profession there is reasonable assurance that your own embodiment of the eremitical vocation fits just fine (or essentially so!) and in any case you will be able to 'tweak' that as needed; discernment continues beyond this point.