03 August 2014

Followup to Questions about the Value vs the Utility of Eremitical Vocations

Dear Sister your last post on the diocesan eremitical vocation was very positive compared to what I wrote you about [two weeks ago]. (cf, On Maintaining the Distinction between Utility and Value) I am guessing you would disagree with this [included] take on your vocation as well. Could you comment? I believe the immediate context is that this person has petitioned her diocese for canonical status and had not received a response yet (this was written several years ago and she wrote them [her diocese] a couple of months prior to this post). S/he says the vocation need not be credible and is for "good-for-nothings".

[[The hermit vocation is a veritable non-entity in the views of most, of nearly all, even in the Church. Yes, it is written in the Catechism, there is a Canon Law that is applicable, there are saints who have hermit status, and there are a minutia of canonically approved, known hermits in the world. But the remaining souls who are called to the life are veritable non-entities in the non-entity status of their vocation. It is such a non-entity that a response to a request is long in coming, if it ever arrives in the post. An appointment to discuss the vocation, is not of much consequence or importance to the degree that it keeps being put off until "sometime". Yes, we can talk about it "sometime". Now, this may to some in the vocation seem like an insult or a negativity. It is not! It only verifies all the more the vocation for what it is: non-entity status. A hermit's life is so hidden, so undefinable, so inconsequential, so non-this and non-that as to be nothing and worthy of only good-for-nothings.]]

Certainly it is true that this vocation is little known and little understood in today's Church. That is one of the reasons some diocesan hermits have blogs. It is also true that the vocation is counter-cultural and stands in opposition to many of the ways our world measures productivity and status. Hermits, at least among those who do not know them personally, may be thought to be folks who have failed at life, dislike people, are pathologically introspective and many other similar stereotypes. However, the post you are citing from is written by someone waiting for word from her diocese on whether they will work with her to discern a vocation to diocesan eremitical life. The idea that the vocation is undefinable and inconsequential is certainly a misrepresentation which someone petitioning her diocese for admission to canonical standing should not make. Further, she seems upset that she has not gotten a fairly immediate response to her request to do so (she has gotten a response but it seems not to be permission to make vows). In any case, I don't think she is speaking about the counter cultural nature of the vocation itself; rather I think she is feeling dismissed by the diocese and may be being ironic (and perhaps hyperbolic) in this response. (In other words she may be guilty of dealing with disappointment by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.)

 I say that because it is sometimes hard to wait for a diocese's response to one's initial request to be considered in this way. However, presumably this difficulty stems from the fact that one really understands that the diocesan eremitical vocation is a significant one and genuinely believes one is called to it by God. It is awfully hard to believe someone who felt the vocation is worthy only of "good-for-nothings" would desire canonical standing or seek to live such an ecclesial vocation. For that matter it is hard to understand why the Church would esteem or VALUE such a vocation enough to recognize and govern it canonically or in this way link it to public rights and obligations as a witness to the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the difficulty in getting oneself professed is ordinarily a sign of the value and esteem with which the Church regards this vocation. Only in a handful of situations has it been tied to members of the hierarchy's denigration of the vocation. It does seem to me that this person is speaking of being treated by her diocese like a "good-for-nothing" because they are not responding to her query quickly enough to suit her or because she is "only" a lay hermit. It's a bit hard to tell from this passage if she believes canonical vocations are esteemed while lay eremitical vocations are not. For that reason I checked the post and found the following passage which clarifies a bit more what she is actually saying. She continues:

[[It is the life and work of a slave to a servant. There is no need to rise up in ire, to take offense, to counter that there is worth and value and to try to make the world, even the Catholic world see and understand and validate the vocation. There is no reason to "fight" for status, canonical or non-canonical, either one. There is no need for a support team to encourage sticking with trying to be made "credible" in the eyes of anyone on earth. What is the point? This is not part of the vocation, for the vocation itself is hidden in God through dying into nothingness. The status is thus as a non-entity which is no status at all. And this is a positive.]]

I may have answered a similar question several years ago and what I wrote just a few days ago on the distinction between utility and value and the importance of maintaining that certainly reiterated my disagreement with the exaggerated conclusions arrived at in the cited post. First, canonical standing is not about status in the common sense of prestige or social privilege. As I have written many times here, it is about standing in law as well as in the consecrated state of life, both of which are linked to public rights and obligations the Church entrusts to the person; the person assumes these in the act of professing vows and accepting consecration in the hands of her Bishop. Since it is both a new and an ancient vocation which had effectively died out in the Western Church, it is appropriate that diocesan hermits make this vocation known --- not least so it can be understood and witness in ways which are important to the Church and world. In other words, it is an important way of living and the Church recognizes that by linking it to profession and consecration. Lay eremitical vocations are also of great value; their counter-cultural nature coupled with the fact that they witness generally to the call of all the Baptized to assiduous prayer and genuine holiness is striking.

Secondly, while I agree that perseverance and patience are both necessary, one must recognize that canonical standing IS part of the vocation of the solitary consecrated hermit and is not extraneous to it. When one enters the consecrated state of life that state of life is constituted by the rights and obligations one embraces and is entrusted with. Thus, as I have noted before, while one can never change the fact that one has been consecrated, while consecration per se can never be dispensed, one can leave the consecrated state of life. Unless one decides one is not truly called to this one petitions for admission to vows and participates in a mutual discernment process because one feels called by God to embrace an ecclesial vocation. It is true that if a diocese has never professed a diocesan hermit before, or if they have not had suitable candidates they will seek to be very sure the person petitioning has clear signs of maturity and sufficient experience of eremitical solitude to be professed. The process can be a long one and, again, requires perseverance but generally people (candidate and diocesan curia) work together in a way which is relatively transparent even as it tests the candidate and her patience, her sense of eremitical call whether or not canonical standing is in her future, her ability to deal with uncertainty in solitude, etc.

It is also true, however, that diocesan personnel can certainly receive a petition from someone they almost immediately and clearly feel is not suited to this life and does not have such a vocation. In such cases the diocese may seek to find a pastoral and sensitive way to share their conclusion; this too can take time and give the impression that they are not being completely transparent or are dragging their feet. Sometimes a diocese will say, "Continue living as you are living now" in order that the fruits of that way of living can become more evident in time. In such cases they are usually open to reconsidering a petition in several years. Sometimes they will say pretty immediately, "We believe you should be more involved in your parish," or, "this does not seem to us to be the best way of using your God-given gifts," or even, "eremitical solitude seems to be unhealthy for you!" I suppose one way of rationalizing such rejections is to tell oneself the diocese does not understand or value the eremitical vocation but generally my experience is that dioceses DO value this vocation and seek to profess those with clear vocations who are both healthy, genuinely happy, and show signs that eremitical solitude is the context in which they have most clearly matured spiritually and personally.

Thirdly, while the vocation is one of essential "hiddenness from the eyes of men"  neither Canon 603 nor the CCC speak of dying into nothingness. Of course there is a significant dimension of dying to self (meaning the false or ego self!) but one does NOT become a non-entity in the process; one embraces anew the incredibly significant status of daughter or son of God in Christ (and brother or sister to all others) just as one did in Baptism and therefore comes to represent a vocation which has significant value for men and women living in the 21 C! Not least hermits proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the life and meaning which he brings to even the least and most lonely of us. It is a rich life, a joy filled one of profound (and incredibly paradoxical) relatedness to all of creation which would be meaningful simply because God calls one to it! Even so, it is significant to others and MUST be credible to others (no matter how paradoxical or counter cultural such credibility is)  because it is a proclamation of the Gospel and the redemption connected with that. The God it witnesses to must be the God of Jesus Christ who redeems the most death-dealing or isolating circumstances human beings know.

I have known (usually -- though not only -- through their writing) several so-called hermits that were either no such thing or, at best, were pretty disedifying examples of the vocation. While all of us struggle at times to live our lives well and with integrity, and while none of us are likely paragons (Merton warns about believing hermits should be perfect examples of their vocation), there are those who justify isolation or an inability (or refusal!) to take part in normal society because of mental illness, spiritual and personal eccentricity (or outright weirdness!), misanthropy, judgmentalism, individualism, self-centeredness, etc, by applying the term "hermit." But in some of these cases the impression they give in adopting the term is that solitude is really nothing more than isolation, that the only real joy found in the eremitical life is that of suffering and struggle, that the spirituality appropriate to such a vocation is some sort of pseudo-mystical misery willed by a sadistic God who may reward such pain with occasional "consolations", and that attempts to find or worship God in the ordinary world of time and space is "unspiritual". As far as I can see there is nothing of the good news of Jesus Christ in any of this and nothing credible much less exemplary therefore in such lives.

I am sorry when persons are not admitted to profession as a diocesan hermit or even to an extended period of discern-ment with their diocese; I know the pain it occasions. But at the same time I am sorrier still when those with no true vocation call themselves hermits (much less Catholic Hermits) and give scandal by living a life which is far from healthy and thus, even farther from being Christian or genuinely eremitical. Because diocesan eremitical life is an ecclesial vocation this means it must witness to the Gospel of God in Christ in the name of the Church. Standing in law, credibility, even "approval" by the hierarchy of the Church and those who benefit from the witness given are a necessary part of this vocation and its accountability to God and God's Church --- essential hiddenness notwithstanding. After all, credibility is part of ANY Christian vocation; we live our lives in response to this call so that others "may believe in Him whom you have sent." (John 6:30) If our lives and vocations lack credibility in the profound sense of imaging God's redemption, especially in the midst of suffering, then they are not Christian; they are not of God.  It seems to me, that the pious language of "being nothing" aside, only one who fails to understand the true nature, value, and responsibility of such calls could suggest otherwise.