21 November 2014

Questions on Formation of the Hermit

[[Apart from having a good spiritual director, study and of course prayer; how else can one learn the eremitic way? Do you suggest that someone discerning such a vocation put themselves under the tutelage of a professed hermit (this seemed to be the norm in the early Church and  Middle Ages. There are many stories of young anchorites being guided by holy women in their vocation) or perhaps spend time with a solid hermit community, like the Monastic Family of Bethlehem or the Carmelite Hermits in Texas, to learn this vocation?

As you've noted, Vatican 2 and the new Code of Canon Law revived this  vocation. While the hermit life is ancient, those reviving it are also pioneers in that they are at the forefront of reviving this call. My concern is that without being properly formed one could run into m[an]y (sic?) mental and spiritual difficulties. How do I learn to live this life? I'm trying to discern this and apart from reading, study and most of all prayer, frequenting the sacraments and solitude I have no idea if I'm doing any of this right. Are there support groups or something for those in discernment? What do you advise?]]

Hi there and thanks for writing again. First, the idea of being guided in this vocation by a perpetually professed hermit (largely today's equivalent of the elders and mentors of old) is a good one. It is traditionally the way most folks came to eremitical life and is ideal. However, opportunities for going to live with an eremitical community apart from seriously discerning a vocation with such a group do not really exist today. What I mean is that today a person cannot generally determine they are called to life under canon 603 (life as a solitary hermit) and also go off to live with a community like those you have mentioned. One can ordinarily do one or the other but not both (though one might, with one's diocese's help, arrange to stay occasionally for a number of weeks at a monastery or hermitage to experience certain values and realities which are a daily reality there -- not least the rhythm and balance of the life and the pervasive silence and attitudes of attentiveness that accompany everything one does; this differs from what you have described I think).

To ease this difficulty a little at least, members of the Network of Diocesan Hermits (perpetually professed diocesan hermits) will consider working with an individual if their diocese requests it. (While we may work informally with others, the fact is there are relatively few of us and none of us has the time to mentor every person who writes or contacts us about becoming a hermit; some initial discerning needs to be done by dioceses!) Ordinarily this means that someone who has lived solitude for a time, who is considered by a diocese to be, potentially at least, a candidate for canon 603 profession, and who is working with a spiritual director and meeting with diocesan personnel regularly, can also talk regularly with someone from the Network to be sure they understand what it means to be living an eremitical life (as opposed to an individualistic life of physical isolation), are able to discern whether or not they are well suited to it, and are growing in this without getting stuck on relative trivialities or superficialities, etc. The Network also has a group/website set up for aspirants which gives them a chance to share with one another -- though at the present time no one is part of that group.

Remain in your Cell and Your Cell Will teach you Everything:

Even so,  these possible pieces of assistance aside, it is important to remember that the main teacher of any hermit is going to be God in and through the silence of solitude itself. The desert Fathers' and Mothers' wisdom about dwelling or remaining in your cell and your cell teaching you everything remains essentially as true today as it was in the 4-6th centuries. Add to this the main elements of canon 603, which define a life of assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels all lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world, and you will find set before you a way of living a profoundly Christian life in solitude which you and God together will live out in your own way. As you move more and more deeply into this life with the help of your director (who, it seems to me, functions as the desert mentors of old once did), you will find either it truly resonates with you or does not; you will also find that it is a means to abundant and mature life in Christ for you or is not. If this way of living leads you to abundant life in Christ, if in fact it makes you more loving, patient, longsuffering, compassionate, honest (humble), etc, then it itself is right for you and your response to God is, at least generally, also as it should be.

The question about "doing it right" for the hermit is at its heart, always really a question about what God is calling us to in solitude and how integral and generous our response to this call has been or is coming more and more to be. For instance, as part of praying my life I pray in several different ways each day; these forms of prayer allow me to respond to God with all parts of myself (heart, mind, body, etc). Over the years I have dropped certain ways of praying or adopted others, always in response to God's own call to be fully alive and fully myself in and as a response to God's summons and love. No one says I must pray in this way or that. Assiduous prayer and penance is the goal and means to living this life but no one spells out what this means in detail. Over a period of several years you will try all the forms of prayer which are central to a life of prayer and determine which of these are best for you at this time. Over a period of more years you will discern which ones are important for you during times of illness, which ones are especially helpful in getting you through periods of stress or tedium, which ones almost invariably speak to your heart or kindle the fires of your mind, or are most difficult for you or console you in loss and grief. Even more importantly you will come to know the ways God calls you to wholeness and in responding you will become God's own prayer in the world.

The same is true of penance and the other central elements of the canon. There are certain building blocks for a life of assiduous prayer and penance. One explores these and, in response to God's call to, life, truth, beauty, integrity, wholeness, holiness, justice, love, compassion, etc, discerns which of these building blocks lead one more and more to become an expression of these dimensions of God's own life. Of course, it is not merely a matter of learning to be a hermit but rather of discerning whether or not one is CALLED to be one. If one is, then the central elements of canon 603 will lead to greater and greater personal wholeness and holiness with all these entail. If not, then no amount of teaching can help a person embrace this life or move from external silence and physical solitude to the silence of solitude which is a matter of the heart. As I have written before while citing Thomas Merton, Solitude herself must open the door to the hermit. If she does not, then no degree of teaching, tutoring, direction, or supervision, etc, will help.

On the other hand, if one is truly called to this life (whether as a lay hermit or a consecrated hermit), then provided one has a good spiritual director with whom one meets regularly and is assiduous in keeping her vows and other commitments (including to the personal work which stems from direction), the chance of making serious mistakes is truly minimal. There WILL be difficulties to negotiate; that is part and parcel of any vocation leading to true growth in authenticity. Formation is an ongoing reality and for the hermit, unless she enters a community of hermits, even "initial" formation takes a period of many years (and certainly more than canon law calls for for those in formation with a community). The point is, however, the heart of this vocation is a solitary relationship with God in which one responds to God's love and mercy in all that one is and does. There is no cookie cutter pattern of what this looks like nor of what formation entails but to the extent it is authentic it all goes by the name "the silence of solitude" and one knows it when one sees it. (What I mean here is that the fruits of such growth in authenticity will be plain for all to see.) Neither does one reach a point at which one can say "I'm done with formation!" Instead the fundamental Rule, again, is to remain in one's cell and one's cell will teach one everything. (By the way, among other things, this can mean for one called to solitude that the cell will become a place in which new life is fostered and incredible growth nurtured; for one not called to solitude, life in cell will torment the unfortunate aspirant and leave them in misery, personal disintegration, and pain. God is not absent in such circumstances but he calls the aspirant to fullness of life elsewhere.)

Committing to a Spirituality of Discernment:

Because this is true all one can really do is commit to a spirituality of discernment which requires spiritual direction and regular frank discussion with others who accompany one in one way and another. (One's pastor, confessor, Vicar or Bishop --- if one is working with a diocese --- good friends who are honest with us, etc.) At every point one attends to the way life in solitude affects one and acts accordingly. Is one growing? Is one profoundly happy in Christ? Is suffering --- to whatever degree it is real, a subtext of one's life, not the main theme? Is one able to use the gifts God gives them and does one love better and more deeply in real concrete situations with real persons? Is the call of solitude herself something one experiences or does it seem that one has embraced an ascetical discipline which is merely external to oneself? I should note here, one's goal must not be to become a diocesan hermit but rather to be a hermit (a desert dweller) living the silence of solitude day in and day out. I cannot stress this enough. Over time one MAY find that one is called to be a diocesan hermit professed and consecrated under canon 603, but even if one does not find this to be the case, one has lived each day well as God called one to do. That is and always will be the measure of "success" for any hermit, whether lay or consecrated; for that matter it is similarly the measure of success of any Christian and any human being. In approaching questions of success and failure, or fears regarding serious mistakes, this is far and away the most important thing.

It occurs to me that perhaps you have questions about specific mistakes which I might address more particularly. If that is the case, please let me know what kinds of things you are thinking of; that would be helpful to me as well. In the meantime, all good wishes.