31 May 2014

RC Hermits vs Episcopal Solitaries, Followup

I have written recently that I had begun to think perhaps Episcopal solitaries were not always identical to Catholic hermits because the term hermit is a richer or at least a much more specific and demanding one than solitary and implies desert living and spirituality. The Rule of an Episcopal Anchorite confirmed this for me but today in response I also received an email from an Anglican solitary living in the UK. signed, ____ ,SCL (single consecrated life) writes:

[[I am an Anglican Consecrated Woman living in the UK (Single Consecrated Life; SCL).  I am sometimes referred to as a "solitary" because I live on my own, but in reality I am more like your Roman Catholic Order of Consecrated Virgins; OCV's.  I work. . . to provide for myself. . . . I was professed in the Single Consecrated Life and I've been in life vows for over 10 years.  My spirituality is Carmelite and when I am not obliged to work or go to Mass I remain in my little "enclosure", my very ordinary house and garden. (Ellipses used to maintain privacy) 

Many of those who are "solitaries" are NOT hermits.  There are quite a few retired professionals who have become SCL's and who like to think they are hermits because they live on state pensions and no longer have to work for their living!  I would say that probably only 1 or 2 out of twenty Anglican "solitaries" are REAL hermits. [These others are] People who go driving round to religious communities, the latest conferences and get-togethers and announcing they are "hermits".........!  ]]


So, many thanks for that response. It helps clarify wonderfully not only why canon 603 spells out the normative requirements of an eremitical life but why I have often commented that a lone pious individual is not necessarily a hermit. Eremitical solitude is a different animal than the solitude of  social isolation or the solitude associated with bereavement, retirement, prison, etc. While these can be transformed or transfigured into eremitical solitude, and while that solitude certainly can build on these, they must not be mistaken for it. Moreover, as a consequence of the original question, I have now been able to read some terminologically confused blogs by Episcopal solitaries who fail to adequately distinguish between being a solitary religious and being a hermit. The Roman Catholic canon 603 does indeed serve to protect a tradition and vocation; it is not merely about professing and consecrating individuals who neither can nor perhaps desire to be part of a Religious Institute. It is about professing solitary hermits, not individuals who desire to simply "do their own thing" for instance.

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.

Sewing Hope

It is not only US women religious who adopt a courageous and often "in your face" attitude toward the problems of our world. In this video Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe shows the passion and intelligence women religious bring to the table. (Personally I laughed and laughed at this video but the story itself and the issue is very serious and deserves our attention.)

Sister's book is called Sewing for Hope and I hope you will take a look at that as well!



30 May 2014

Feast of the Visitation (Reprised)

Jump for Joy  by Eisbacher

Saturday's Gospel is wonderfully joyfilled and encouraging: Mary travels in haste to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and both women benefit from the meeting which culminates in John's leaping in his mother's womb and prophetic speech by both women. The first of these is Elizabeth's proclamation that Mary is the Mother of Elizabeth's Lord and the second is Mary's canticle, the Magnificat. Ordinarily homilists focus on Mary in this Gospel lection but I think the focus is at least as strongly on Elizabeth and also on the place the meeting of the two women has in allowing them both to negotiate the great mystery which has taken hold of their lives. Both are called on to offer God hospitality in unique ways; both are asked to participate in God's mysterious plan for his creation despite not wholly understanding this call and it is in their coming together that the trusting fiats they each made assume a greater clarity for them both.

Luke's two volumes (Luke-Acts) are actually full of instances where people come together and in their meeting or conversation with one another come to a fuller awareness of what God is doing in their lives. We see this on the road to Emmaus where disciples talk about the Scriptures in an attempt to come to terms with Jesus' scandalous death on a cross and the end of all their hopes. They are joined by another person who questions them about their conversation and grief. When they pause for a meal they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and their entire world is turned on its head. That which was senseless is on its way to making a profound sense which will ground the existence of the church. Peter is struggling with the issue of eating with the uncircumcised; he comes together with Cornelius, a Centurion with real faith in Christ. In this meeting Peter is confirmed in his sense that in light of Christ no foods are unclean and eating with Gentiles is Eucharistic. There are a number of other such meetings where partial perception and clarity are enhanced or expanded. Even the Council of Jerusalem is a more developed instance of the same phenomenon.

On Spiritual Friendship, both formal and informal:

I personally love Eisenbacher's picture above because it reminds me of one privileged expression of such spiritual friendship, namely that of spiritual direction. I can remember many meetings with my own director where there was immense surprise and joy at the sharing involved, but one time in particular stands out --- especially in light of today's Gospel. I had experienced a shift in my experience of celibacy. Where once it mainly spoke to me of dimensions of my life that would never be fulfilled (motherhood, marriage, etc), through a particular prayer experience it had come to be associated instead with espousal to Christ and my own sense of being completed and fulfilled as a woman. As I recall, when I met with my director to share about this experience, I spoke softly about it, carefully, a little bashfully --- especially at first; but I also gained strength and greater confidence in the sharing of it. (I was not uncertain as to the nature of what I had experienced, but sharing it certainly allowed it to claim me more completely and let me claim a new sense of myself in light of it; that was necessary and a central piece of sharing such things with a director, for instance.) My director listened carefully, and only then noted that she had always prayed for such a grace for all her novices (she had been novice director for her congregation); she then excused herself and left briefly. When she returned she had a CD and CD player with her. Together we sat quietly, but joyfully and even a bit tearfully celebrating what God had done for us both while we listened to John Michael Talbot's  Canticle of the Bride.

Elizabeth and Mary come together as women both touched in significant ways by the mystery of God. They have trusted God but are not yet completely clear regarding the greater mystery or how this experience fits into the larger story of Israel's redemption. They are both in need of one another and especially of the perception and wisdom the other can bring to the situation so that they can truly offer God and God's plan all the space and time these require. Hospitality, especially giving God hospitality, takes many forms, but one of the most important involves coming together to share how God is active in our lives in the hope of coming to a greater and more life giving perspective, faith, and commitment. It is in coming together in this way that we clarify, encourage, challenge and console one another. It is in coming together in this way that we become the prophetic presence in our world God calls us to be. Let us all be open to serving as friends to one another in this sense. It is an essential dimension of being Church and of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

29 May 2014

Followup Questions: God as Master Storyteller

[[Dear Sister, thank you very much for your post on God as master storyteller. [cf.,God as Master Storyteller:Picking up the pieces of a Broken World]   I have struggled with the idea of understanding how it is that bad things are the will of God. When people say it is all the will of God I just can't believe it. Children get cancer or starve to death. Genocide is something that happens all the time in our world. Recently there was a mass shooting in Santa Barbara and a couple of years ago in Newtown. How can anyone say that any of this is the will of God? As you have said yourself, what kind of God would this be? So here is my problem. My mother has a history of being misunderstood and sometimes even treated badly by others in her parish. She has begun to say it is all the will of God. I don't believe it but I don't know what to say to her about this either. She is a devout Catholic and I don't want to shake her faith in God. Your post and the quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer may help me find the words I need to explain what I believe to her but I wondered if you have any advice for me?]]

First, I will send you a copy of the post you referred to. Perhaps that will help a little. I think the example of the game the parish staff played and which I wrote about in that post can be very helpful in making clear how it is that God is constantly present and always working to bring good out of even the worst circumstances, but also that God is not responsible for the sometimes inadequate way we tell our own stories or the mess we make of these sometimes.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as you noted, is also a good choice in explaining things because he witnessed the holocaust first hand and was murdered by the Nazi's at Flossenburg concentration camp near the end of the war. As you mention and others will remember it was Bonhoeffer who said, "Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably, nothing that happens happens outside the will of God." He knew full well that what the Nazi's were doing could not be considered the will of God --- not in the least stretch of the cleverest (or most distorted or pathological) imagination but he also believed profoundly in the Gospel --- namely, that with God this would not be the last word, nor the deaths of so many the final silence. In God nothing would be lost, nothing would remain ultimately senseless, etc for God is the creator God and makes all things new and eternal.

One thing I would remind you of is that sometimes people seize on the "it's all the will of God" explanation when they have nothing else to hold onto. They might be profoundly disappointed, emotionally worn out and see no purpose or meaning in anything. Some of these folks will have a very hard time admitting that the problems they have had are at least partly their fault and that they will have to change to really do the will of God in this. In these cases the persons seizing on the "It's all the will of God!" notion are fragile and desperate to affirm that their world makes sense. They also lack the resiliency necessary sometimes to change even when they are their own worst enemies. In situations where it is really not the person's fault, when they may be more amenable to a realistic perspective it may be enough to ask them "what part of the situation was really the will of God?" and then provide an analysis from your own perspective. For instance, you could ask then question and then point out, "What x said to you was certainly not the will of God as I understand it, but your courage in the face of it was." "The way that parishioner acted was unjust and certainly not something a God of love could will, but God's being with you to support you in this is!" You could do this occasionally, and gently. Subtly if possible. The point is to affirm  your own faith in God's will and power, but at the same time to allow your mom to see other "powers and principalities" as Paul puts the matter, are also still at work in our world (and sometimes within us!).


At some point it may be helpful to talk about the story of Jesus' trial, torture, and crucifixion. Ask the same question, "What part of this was clearly the will of God?" but also ask, "What part could NOT be the will of an infinitely merciful (just), and loving God?" (Though of course such a God can and will use these things and bring meaning out of them nonetheless!) When you share what you believe on this you could point out, lying witnesses was not the will of God, a cowardly Pontius Pilate was not the will of God, the rabid behavior of the crowd was not the will of God, etc etc, but look what God has brought out of all this anyway!!!" No wonder Paul says, "O happy fault!" Our own inhumanity, not to mention the chance or randomness that really does exist in the world causes things to happen which are not the will of God but God's providence encompasses these and will still bring good out of them. We often need to learn to look for that good and to be realistic without being either cynical or pollyannaish! Or, you could pick stories from the lives of those your mom loves in ways similar to the way God loves her. Do the same kind of question/analysis. Explore how she thinks (or begins to see) God might bring good out of the terrible things that happen and how, with God's grace she and you might help that to happen.

In the end you will be giving your mother a theologically sound alternative she might just adopt more and more. If she does it could also give her the courage to look at her own role in things and change to whatever degree this is needed, or simply to forgive others and not set herself up for continuing "victim" status and collusion with  the powers of sin and death at work in our world still --- which is precisely what claiming "It is all the will of God" in a naive sense actually does.

Canon 603: Normativity and the Prevention of Distortions, Abuses, Counterfeits and Frauds

[[Sister, you wrote that Bishop Remi de Roo gave several different reasons for asking the II Vatican Council to make eremitical life a state of perfection and include it in canon law. Could you please post these here? I could not copy them.]]

Sure. They are 1) The fact of a growing renewal of the life, 2) the sanctifying value of the hermit's life, 3) the hermit's contribution to the life of the church. This would include the hermit's prophetic role, a modeling of the Church's call to contemplation and the centrality of prayer, being a paradigm of the way we are each called to confront evil within our own lives and world, or allow heaven (God's own life shared with others) to interpenetrate our reality, etc 4) the ecumenical value of the hermit's life (especially re dialogue between Eastern and Western Christianity) 5) a correction of the impression that the evangelical counsels is limited to institutionalized community life known as religious life. Question continues:

[[I can see where these really are positive reasons for establishing Canon 603. Was it also a way to regulate the growth of the vocation or minimize distortions or abuses even if these weren't the reason the Canon came into existence? Thank you.]]

Yes. to point out the normative and ecclesial nature of canon 603 vocations is to say that the Church desires to respond to the Holy Spirit in authentic ways. This also therefore means that abuses, distortions, disedifying stereotypes, and destructive eccentrics or eccentricities cannot mask themselves as Catholic hermits or the stuff of canon 603 life as well as that the Church has a stake in being sure this does not occur. The big difference between noting that canon 603 ALSO helps prevent abuses and saying that it actually grew out of an attempt to deal with abuses should be clear. Since these elements are something of an informal vision of the place of the eremitical vocation in the Church, and since they are positive and ecclesially focused, they too underscore that the flip side of the positive normative nature of the canon involves the prevention of abuses.

What remains true however, is that unless the Church was (and is) faced with a true gift of the Holy Spirit  in eremitical life no canon would be necessary; nor would any exist. The Church could simply ignore (as "hermits", not as needy people!) the fraudulent or counterfeit "hermits" populating the various wildernesses (including internet sites!) of the world. The corollary then is that with this canon (i.e., this norm) the proliferation of counterfeits and frauds alongside those very few authentic vocations who consider this vocation seriously because of the canon, makes recognizing, exploring, and honoring the normative nature of the canon even more critical. While it is not meant to validate eccentricity and inauthenticity, it does pique the interest of many lone individuals who will never be professed accordingly for these same reasons (and better ones as well!).** As former detective Monk might say, in this regard Canon 603 is both a blessing and a curse.

I am not entirely sure about the idea that the canon was meant to regulate the growth of such vocations if by that you mean it was meant to prevent there from being lots and lots of them, for instance. The Church knows this is a relatively rare vocation and that few are called to human wholeness in this way. However, the specific non-negotiable  or defining elements of the canon do prevent just any lone pious person from thinking of themselves (much less portraying themselves publicly) as a hermit just as it prevents some of the practices which would surely proliferate without it: e.g., solitary apostolic religious for whom being a hermit is a "metaphor" for their lives, misanthropes, and others seeking to validate their strangeness or their failures at charity and relationships by applying the word "hermit" to their lives, Saturday-only contemplatives, married hermits, and any number of other examples I have mentioned in the past 7 years.

You may have noticed that I posted an answer to the question as to whether the Episcopal solitary was the same as the RC Hermit. In fact, it turns out that the Episcopalians use a canon which is sort of a catchall for unusual cases --- cases in which a person is not professed as part of a recognized Order or Community, for instance. While the solitaries I know personally in the Episcopal Church live lives which resemble my own in all the elements Canon 603 requires of the hermit, the Canon under which they are professed does NOT spell out these elements in the same way Canon 603 does. Thus, while I don't know if the Episcopal Church has problems with Bishops professing individuals as "solitaries" even if they do not live a desert spirituality, this too makes it clear that Canon 603 does limit the growth of the vocation to those persons who DO live its central and non-negotiable elements.

** Should anyone doubt that Canon 603 (and those professed under it) has subsequently led to MANY people seeking to be professed accordingly one story might help here. I was speaking to a Vicar for Consecrated Life about his diocese's experience with hermits, hermit candidates for profession, etc. This diocese has professed one diocesan hermit in the history of the canon, and that was only within the past decade. However, he said that every month (he may have said every week, I can't recall exactly now) people approach the diocese seeking to be admitted to profession as diocesan hermits. None of them has gotten as far as this one diocesan hermit in regard to the process of discernment and admission to public profession. (Note well that this is a diocese open to having diocesan hermits.)

If we take the lowest average possible while omitting periods of holidays and possibly the Summer months (and my sense is this is a fairly conservative number) that means that of at least 100 or so persons seeking admission to profession as a diocesan hermit in the past decade only 1 has been professed under canon 603 in this one diocese. Many dioceses of course have professed none and some have actually determined they will profess none in the foreseeable future. (There are significant pros and cons to this decision.) A few have professed several (we sort of laughingly call them "hotbeds" of eremitical life!). I think this too indicates that Canon 603 does naturally limit the growth of this vocation --- and rightly so. It also indicates, I think, why it is important to write publicly about this canon and the meaning of its central or defining elements. Some of these people will  actually one day become diocesan hermits if they can only come to understand and embrace the life it defines. Others never will, while a number of others probably never should.

28 May 2014

A Contemplative Moment: The Silence of Solitude


Solitude

The truest solitude is not something outside you, not an absence of men or of sound around you; it is an abyss opening up in the center of your own soul.
And this abyss of solitude is created by a hunger that will never be satisfied by any created thing.
The only way to find solitude is by hunger and thirst and sorrow and poverty and desire, and the man who has found solitude is empty, as if he had been emptied by death.
He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions left in which to travel. And this is a country whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. You do not find it by travelling but by standing still.
Yet it is in this loneliness that the deepest activities begin. It is here that you discover act without motion, labor that is profound repose, vision in obscurity, and, beyond all desire, a fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity.

Thomas Merton, OCSO, Seeds of Contemplation

27 May 2014

Will Canon 603 disappear due to the many Abuses it has Suffered in its short life?

[[One lay hermit has said that because of "all the abuses" of canon 603 by canonical hermits and Bishops, the church will one day go back to having only one pathway of hermit life. She says that Bishop's (sic) leniency and lack of knowledge about the lives of eremitical saints or rules of life have allowed dissident nuns to be professed in some dioceses when others [bishops] like her own would never allow them because they are too visible, read books by heterodox nuns, etc. . . . even while orthodox candidates are prohibited from being canonically professed because they must work in hospitals. She forecasts the situation will continue to require more and more laws because of such abuses. It seems like she believes one day the Church will just get rid of c 603 which only came to be to prevent abuses anyway but she didn't [specify] this. How accurate is this perception and how reasonable this opinion?]]

Hmmm, this hermit's version of the situation sort of makes me want to check to see what books I have either mentioned reading or recommended here!

But seriously, I think that first of all it must be granted that canon 603 is a new (31 year old), demanding, and at the same time, flexible canon governing a little-known and less-well understood vocation which, as I have mentioned just recently, combines non-negotiable elements with the requirement that a hermit write her own Rule. Some problems associated with the common requirement that a hermit be self-supporting in some way have occurred for instance; this requirement does mean that Bishops differ on things like the amount of active ministry or other work outside the hermitage a hermit may do --- though all tend to prohibit full time work, especially outside the hermitage. Others problems have occurred because the central elements of the canon must be read from within the desert and hesychastic traditions if they are to be understood, and Bishops and would-be hermits have not always done so. When I spoke of some Bishops needing to learn that "the silence of solitude" was a Carthusian term this was part of what I mean here. Have there been abuses or at least misuses? Yes, and I would call one or two of these doozies! However, I would not call the number high. In fact, to suggest the canon has been fraught with abuses to the extent that it will simply go by the wayside is alarmist nonsense I think.

What is more the case is that there have been occasional mistakes made as Bishops and chanceries continue to determine what authentic contemporary vocations which embody traditional essential elements look like on the ground. These mistakes, however, are more like growing pains than actual abuses and because there are so few hermits in an absolute sense, they are of greater import for the faithful and the vocation itself than they might be otherwise. As the canon gets older, however, and examples of authentic contemporary solitary eremitical life become more numerous, more prevalent, as well as better established and known, and as the problematical issues involved in practical implementation of the canon which have not and cannot really be specifically dealt with by the canon itself are explored by those living the life,  or by theologians, canonists, and historians, the misuses of the canon as well as simple misjudgments or mistakes will diminish and outright abuses (which are truly rare) will cease. I should note that it is precisely because the Church has not multiplied laws that ambiguities and unclarities continue or remain.

At the same time I think we must be careful to not identify legitimate diversity or variation as "abuses." Hermits have always differed from one another: some are scholars, some are not; some are very conservative in various ways while others are less so. Some are completely reclusive or anchorites while others are more peripatetic or at least more involved in their parishes; some are writers and spiritual directors while others, of course, are not. Some strike us as eminently sane and others strike us as complete nutcases. They may all be authentic hermits.  We must realize that canon 603 allows for genuine diversity even as it remains normative of eremitical life in the Catholic Church. What we must let go of is the notion that canonical standing is necessarily related to legalism or that admission to canonical standing under canon 603 is equivalent to a diocese's or bishop's imprimatur or even a nihil obstat on a book --- only applied to a person. It is not.

"Canonical Standing" is not really "Canonical Approval"

You see, as my response to an email last week noted, the use of the term "approval" in the phrase "canonical approval" is misleading and more than a little superficial when it leads to these kinds of notions. It should probably be used only very cautiously to indicate "approval for admittance to profession and canonical standing". Otherwise, "canonical standing" is the better phrase. After all, what the church does in extending or admitting to canonical standing is not precisely the same as "approving" the person's theological preferences, taste in reading material, or even their orthodoxy (though we can of course presume they are faithful Catholics!). Instead the church has discerned the presence of a Divine vocation and is admitting the person to the constellation of stable relationships which will continue to mediate this very call to the person and, hopefully, allow her to respond with fidelity, integrity, and grace. What approval exists does so for the sake of admitting the person to a place of  ecclesial trust and commensurate obligations with regard to this specific vocation in the life of the Church.

Neither does the church thereby say that THIS person has status in the church whereas, for instance, the lay hermit has either a lesser status or none at all. They both have status in the church (meaning they each have standing in law and are (or, in the case of a lay hermit, are already) initiated into a state of life; as I have said a number of times, status in this case is not a matter of social priority or different positions in a merely social hierarchy); in one hermit this occurs by virtue of the sacrament of baptism alone, and in the other hermit by virtue of baptism and a new consecration which involves the acceptance of the rights and obligations linked to additional canon laws and the relationships these imply.

It is true that bishops, like anyone charged in the Church with nurturing, protecting and discerning the existence and quality of a vocation, exercise some subjectivity in professing and consecrating hermits, but my own (admittedly limited) experience is that generally they move beyond their own personal biases or theological preferences and look to the good of the vocation itself. Neither, again, can we identify legitimate mistakes or missteps as abuses. For instance, occasionally some bishops will profess very young adults as solitary hermits only to find when s/he seeks a dispensation from her vows and/or desires to start or enter a community that the c 603 or solitary eremitical vocation tends to be a second-half of life vocation and that the young person usually does better entering an eremitical community. At worst this is simply a mistake --- if in fact, it even qualifies as that.

Abuses, on the other hand, occur when the non-negotiable elements of the canon are  actually disregarded or treated as optional or merely "metaphorical." (By the way if one cannot live these elements one's supposed orthodoxy hardly matters.) As we discussed recently, one of the reason for blogs like mine is to discuss the nature of canon 603 and of profession and consecration under this canon from the perspective of lived experience. What I write comes out of my reflection on my own vocation and how the Holy Spirit is working in the Church and world today with regard to this form of eremitism. Other diocesan hermits are also contributing by sharing their own experience with their bishops.

Proliferation of Laws and the Disappearance of C 603??
 
I honestly don't have a clue what the hermit you are referring to is talking about when s/he suggests there is or has been some proliferation of rules to combat abuses. That simply is not happening --- nor is it the way the Church deals with difficulties on such a small scale. At most what we see with regard to canon 603 are anecdotes about experiments (or trials) with the canon in specific dioceses which resulted in problems along with calls for informal guidelines on specific topics (age, formation, work, insurance, ministry, etc). These guidelines will again come from lived experience gained through dialogue between Bishops, canonists and hermits in their dioceses. Still, I don't foresee a proliferation of rules --- not with regard to eremitical life under canon 603 --- and certainly I don't foresee a proliferation of canons per se. With history and lived experience will come wisdom, and with wisdom, resources (commentaries, dissertations, guidebooks, articles, even blogs (!) etc) that dioceses may draw on and which can guide further prudent and inspired (discerning) usage of canon 603. Even so, ordinarily Bishops and those that assist them in their discernment will have the final word here --- not another law or laws. They will use or refrain from using both these resources and canon 603 as they deem wise in each individual case and they and their curia will grow in their own ability to determine appropriate usage and evaluate the candidates that come before them.

More specifically, I don't see canon 603 going anywhere or disappearing from the Code of Canon Law. It will continue to be used more and more wisely and prudently across the board --- which will free some who have hesitated to use it at all to go ahead when authentic vocations come their way. What is unquestionable is that it is an important piece of legislation which stops the gap in universal law regarding one of the most ancient, rare, and significant forms of Christian existence in the life of the church. It helps protect a gift of the Holy Spirit; any other way of seeing it is inadequate at best. Further, by the way, it is not the second of two pathways to eremitical life; it is the third of three main avenues, lay (non-canonical), semi-eremitical (usually canonical and associated with congregations), and diocesan eremitical life (canonical and solitary) --- each admitting some variation or personal diversity.

Neither, as I have now written several times, is establishment in law really merely a Johnny-come-lately idea whose birth was due to abuses or the desire for social status by some unhappy lay hermits. Eremitical life since at least the @ 5th C. has often been lived under the supervision of diocesan Bishops, or other local ordinaries (e.g., Abbots, Priors, Abbesses, etc). Correspondingly, dioceses and regions had canons and statutes regulating these vocations on the local level. To suggest otherwise is historically (and ecclesiastically) naive. Canon 603 differs because it is a universal law and a precedent-setting one at that. For these reasons I have to say I think the hermit you referred to is mistaken in her conclusions, more than a little overly-cynical in her analysis, and inaccurate in her perceptions and predictions.

Catholic Hermits vs Episcopal Solitaries: the Same Thing?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, are the Catholic Hermit and the Episcopal Solitary the same things?]]

What a terrific question!  Until recently I have thought they were because the couple of Episcopal solitaries I know use the term hermit in an interchangeable way to indicate the similarity of our lives. More, they live in the same kind of situations most diocesan hermits do with a focus on the silence of solitude, prayer, penance, etc. However, I am not really certain that the two things are identical, partly because I don't know the canon which governs the life, and partly because, despite similarities, the word "solitary" and the word "hermit" are different in some ways.

You see, the term hermit means a "desert dweller" and while this implies (or in canon 603 explicitly requires) a solitary life, it also implies much more besides. It is not enough to simply live alone and do as one pleases. That is why canon 603 spells out the requirements of this way of life in terms of stricter withdrawal, assiduous prayer and penance, the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels, Rule, supervision of Bishop, etc. Neither does canon 603 govern the life of a religious who simply doesn't live in or belong to a religious community but may also live a ministerial or apostolic life. Such a religious might be a "solitary religious" but she would be no hermit. Perhaps it is the case in the Episcopal church that solitary refers more to "solitary religious" and means a religious without a religious congregation than it does to one living "the silence of solitude." I really don't know and until recently had not even considered this might be the case.

One thing this underscores for me is the wisdom of canon 603 and the importance of the non-negotiable elements which qualify and define the solitary life it calls for. Similarly the choice of "the silence of solitude" as the central and (I would argue) charismatic element of the canon rather than simply "silence and solitude" or even just "solitude" becomes much clearer as I consider your question. In any case, again, I don't know the answer to your question and will try to find out for you.

Postscript: I was reading the Rule of Rev Susan Creighton yesterday and discovered that she was professed in the early 2000's as a solitary (anchorite) in the Episcopal Church under a canon (Canon 14) which does indeed cover "exceptional cases" and so, religious or priests who are not part of a community. Thus, she was professed under a canon which does NOT specifically describe an eremitical life. Instead the canon is much more general and allows a Bishop to profess someone who really does not fit the usual canonical categories. While Rev Creighton's life closely resembles that of a canon 603 hermit in the Roman Catholic Church (in fact, I believe she has used canon 603 as a guide for her own life in some ways), and while some Episcopal Bishops may require that those they profess also embrace such a desert life, there seems to be no specific canon defining the solitary eremitical life as such within the Episcopal Church. In other words, this canon is used for solitary religious or consecrated persons, but not necessarily for desert dwellers. It is not normative of eremitical life in the same way canon 603 is.

25 May 2014

After the End by John Shea, STD

Last Saturday I had the great joy of spending some time with the Franciscan Sister who met with me regularly for five years as a representative of the Diocese of Oakland  (Vocations Office/Vicar for Religious) when I was seeking initially to become a diocesan hermit. But over the years, and especially recently, we have become friends. Sister Susan was in the Bay area giving a day of retreat to the associates of her community in the Sacramento area. Afterwards she drove the hour and a half here and we reconnected. (I had last seen her in August when I was on retreat at the Old Mission Santa Barbara and otherwise only once since she had left the Diocese of Oakland.)

Fortunately for Sr Susan (not to mention for me!!), my pastor was more than happy to let her to spend the night in a guest room at the parish so she didn't need to drive all the way home afterward nor find a room at a retreat house in the diocese. After talking for a while, going over to the parish to get her settled, introducing her briefly to Father John, etc, we went for dinner and talked. I haven't laughed quite as much since a friend in the parish couldn't get the automatic book drop to work at the library and frantically (and miraculously) sailed the book frisbee-style through a narrow slot in the almost-fully-closed window as we drove away! (My sides ache just remembering THAT occasion. We drove and laughed uncontrollably for MILES.) Hopefully I can share a couple of Susan's stories another time!

Anyway, after dinner, and after we had talked there for at least two hours (well, maybe only an hour and a half), we went for a walk and talked some more! We talked about Christ and the resurrection and ascension and the thin places between heaven and earth and religious life and while we walked back along the trail toward my hermitage Susan recited a wonderful poem by John Shea called, "After the End." (She also told the story of meeting John Shea once and surprising him with the fact that she had memorized it!) She sent me a copy and it is that I really want to share here. The poem is the three-stanza story of what happens after Jesus' crucifixion in three of the post resurrection appearances. Stanza one is about Mary Magdalene's experience, stanza two is about Peter's, and stanza three is about the encounter with the two young men on the road to Emmaus. I hope you find it as wonderful as I did and do!

After the End by John Shea, STD

Like her friend
she would curse the barren tree
and glory in the lilies of the field.
She lived in noons and midnights
in those mounting moments
of high dance
when blood is wisdom and flesh love.
But now, before the violated cave
on the third day of her tears
she is a black pool of grief
spent upon the earth.
They have taken her dead Jesus,
unoiled and unkissed
to where desert flies and worms
more quickly work.
She suffers wounds that will not heal
and enters into the pain of God
where lives the gardener
who once exalted in her perfume
knew the extravagance of her hair
and now asks whom she seeks.

In Peter's dreams, the cock still crowed.
He returned to Galilee to throw nets into
the sea and watch them sink

like memories into darkness.
He did not curse the sun
that rolled down his back
or the wind that drove the fish
beyond his nets.
He only waited for the morning 
when the shore mist would lift
and from his boat he would see him.
Then after naked and impetuous swim
with the sea running from his eyes,
he would find a cook with holes in his hands
and stooped over dawn coals
who would offer him the Kingdom of God
for breakfast.

On the road that escapes Jerusalem
and winds along the ridge to Emmaus
two disillusioned youths
dragged home their crucified dream.
They had smelled "messiah" in the air
and rose to that scarred and ancient hope
only to mourn what might have been.
And now a sudden stranger
falls upon their loss
with excited words about mustard seeds
and surprises hidden at the heart of death
and that evil must be kissed upon the lips
and that every scream is redeemed for
it echoes in the ear of God,
and do you not understand:
what died upon the cross was fear.
They protested their right to despair,
but he said, "My Father's laughter fills
the silence of the tomb."
Because they did not understand,
they offered him food,
and in the breaking of the bread
they knew the imposter for who he was:
the arsonist of the heart.

After the end comes the conspiracy
of gardeners, cooks and strangers.

Followup Questions on Ecclesial Vocations, Canon 603, Freedom, Constraints, and Commitment

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I am so profoundly grateful for the article in which you tackle some of the differences between lay and canonical eremitism.  One thought that struck me was, when a person opts to remain a lay hermit (or solitary as in the Episcopal Church), might that imply that the words, the obligations, of Canon 603 could be modified?  Well, now, I mean, what if my understanding of solitary life is different in some ways? ]]

Of course one can remain a lay hermit in either Church community and act with the same Christian freedom but with greater liberty in some ways as well. While I think that canon 603 is remarkably adaptable (witness the fact that no two diocesan hermits write the same Rule, follow the same horarium, or approach the question of active ministry in exactly the same way), and while I have never found the relationship with superiors to be onerous, it is true that in accepting the rights and obligations associated with a public commitment to and under canon 603, I am not able to simply explore anything that captures my imagination or shape my life in any way at all. While I think the non-negotiable elements of canon 603 apply to any form of eremitical life worthy of the name (and here I mean stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance as well as some form of the evangelical counsels and the notion that this is lived according to a Rule the hermit herself writes --- all for the praise of God and the salvation of the world --- I can't really imagine or recall a meaningful or authentic eremitical life that wasn't an expression of these in one way and another) the other elements are not strictly necessary and certainly not in the same way for lay hermits.

You clarify your question when you write: [[I do not feel that my vocation is an ecclesial one.  It would exist if there were no institutional religion on the face of the earth.  Ideally, the church and its structures should be supports for spiritual life, not members of the church living to support the church qua institution, and a top-heavy one at that. Yes, Jesus described us as part of himself, himself and the father as one, so that we are all members one of another.  But where does he say that law should be multiplied and that each personal spiritual expression must be defined by a hierarchical structures of men? I take advantage of the church for my prayer.  I go on retreat at RC retreat houses.  But any manifestation of institutionalism just doesn’t work for me.  I feel as if, were I much younger and went through the steps to become a professed Hermit, I would probably then run away to have more freedom.  And I know the freedom of life in Christ.  It’s just that that is not quite the same as any hypothetical freedom of life in the Church.]]

The Church seems pretty present in your life:

 Well, first of all let me point out that in "taking advantage" of the Church as you describe, or even in considering canon 603 as a guide for your life in some way, reading about hermits (much less articles BY hermits!), considering writing for your church publication or newsletter, seeking spiritual direction, etc, etc, you are indeed dealing with expressions of the institutional church. While an institution, organization, or even an organism can become deformed or dysfunctional the simple fact is that even the simplest grouping of people will have institutional elements, rules, customs, standards, values, common beliefs and practices (rituals, etc), boundaries, and so forth. In your own home I know for a fact that you have instituted (note that word!) some of these in order to protect and nurture the quality of your eremitical (solitary) life. Because of this you also know, I think, that the constraints applied here have led to a real freedom to pursue your vocation as you perceive and receive it from God.

I think what you are concerned with is not the institution of the Church which is a living reality manifest in even the least among us (which is one reason Peter Damian referred to hermits as eccesiolae -- little churches) but, as you say, institutionalism, which is a rather different animal. To that end I would caution you not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Similarly, I think you are confusing freedom with license to some degree. The same caveat applies here. When I chose to seek admission to vows, whether as a Sister in community or as a solitary hermit under canon 603 it was my experience that I was choosing among goods and that though there were significant constraints in the choices I had made, these served a deeper freedom.

No place we go or choice we make in this world is free from constraints --- even when those are the constraints of age or heath or intelligence, etc. The task is always to choose that set of constraints (or embrace them in a way) which allows God to do the very best within and with these. To do otherwise is indeed to choose a merely hypothetical freedom and to mistake mere license for genuine freedom. So long as we are not choosing sin vs faithfulness or indulging our falsely autonomous self I think our choice is always not so much freedom versus unfreedom as it is the choice between one expression of freedom and another one, one set of constraints and another one. If the constraints associated with the expression of freedom you choose do not serve you well or are impossible to bear, then by all means, you should select a different expression of freedom (by which I do not mean a different version of freedom) with a different set of constraints insofar as that is possible or prudent --- for sometimes, as you well know, our inability to bear constraints points to our own need for growth, faith (trust), and conversion. That is one of the key lessons of monastic (and eremitical) stability.

On Constraints and Commitment

One point here, of course, is that we cannot do away with constraints. That is simply impossible. Constraints help define our truest freedom. They are the result and the way of genuine commitment! Commitment always entails both constraints and freedom; in fact the language of commitment is that of responsibility and obligation. Both curtail our liberty while they lead to a more profound freedom. Another is that the constraints  themselves are not the point; the reality (or true freedom) they serve is. You also write: [[If it comes right down to the truth of the matter, I feel very deeply and definitely Christian, and called at the same depth to a life of liberty in solitude, with no one and no rules or expectations of how I’m going to live.  I trust myself, I trust in Jesus to lead me.  Because I’ve begged for this opportunity for so many years, studied about it, lived bits and pieces up until the past few years when I’ve been able to “grow” it, I feel pretty clear that the openings which have come my way, in bunches and with the feel of God all over them, this is what I’m called to. ]]

You may recall that  at one point when you wrote me before you said, [[I am writing a provisional Rule of Life and the variety of hermit lives and Rules raise some questions for me. For instance] if someone is a true Christian, and who can judge that?, and says she is a hermit, lives alone sincerely giving herself to prayer, to the heart of the world and by extension and above all, to God, what makes her less a hermit? Less "worthy" (and I know how you hate that distinction) of being called a hermit?]] I responded: [[Dear Poster, Thanks for your questions! If you take a look at the content of your conditional sentence above you will see that you have laid down some very stringent requirements for recognizing someone as a hermit (although I personally would switch God and world in your sentence so that the heart of God comes first and then the heart of the [next] world by extension). Essentially you have described what I refer to as the distinction between a person merely living alone (implicit in your post) and a desert dweller or hermit (which you actually describe explicitly):

IF someone is a true Christian
IF she consciously claims the life of a hermit (desert dweller) and lets that define her (desert spirituality)
IF she lives alone (or, in cases of real need, with a caregiver who does not get in the way of her Rule and actually allows her to live it as fully as she feels called)
IF she sincerely gives herself (not just a bit of time here or there) to prayer, (add penance, silence, solitude and the silence OF solitude).
IF she lives in the heart of God (or is genuinely committed to doing so) and by extension gives herself to the world in this way. . . (all of this I refer to especially as the silence of solitude). The devil is in the details.]]

Definitions as Constraints that Free Words to Have Meaning

I might also have noted in that post that your very description implies a set of constraints which allow you to see or establish the reality of someone and the genuineness of their commitments. Definitions are nothing more than constraints which allow (i.e., free) a word to be meaningful in a particular way. If you look carefully at your own life you will finds rules and other constraints galore. There is simply no meaningful or truthful life without them, and there is certainly no way to be the persons God calls us to be without them. Freedom, after all, is the power to be the persons God calls us to be and that also means not being the persons so much of reality (including our own super egos) tells us we can or cannot, must or must not, should or should not be.  The whole question is full of constraints --- those we must embrace to be true to ourselves and those we must eschew at the same time if we are to reject or at least refuse to collude with our false selves. Sin is a reality; false selves are realities; the presence of cultural voices and norms which militate against truthful or authentic humanity not only exist, they are rampant.

In my own life I also trust myself and I certainly trust Christ to guide me. He has never failed in that. But I also know myself as sinful and I know that the Rule I follow, the Canon which governs my life, the Word of God I focus my life on and in, the Sacraments that only come through the institutional Church, and  the superiors I am obligated by vow to listen carefully to in obedience, are some of the privileged and necessary ways I hear Jesus speak to me daily, sometimes even moment by moment. That is especially true not only with regard to Scripture and prayer, but with regard to my delegate, to those friends who know me well and challenge me to transcend and leave behind the false self who so often is too much a dominant voice in my life. Even so, I do not always listen well or respond generously or lovingly. These bits of "institutional life" are part of the way Christ speaks to me, but for that very reason I also need them to help mediate the grace which transforms my mind and heart. To be frank, I believe anyone who says they can hear Christ adequately apart from the institutional Church is probably kidding themselves. Calling the ecclesial the body of Christ is not merely some touching bit of poetry; it is also literally true.

You see, I could not say with you that my vocation would exist "if there was no institutional religion on the face of the planet". If Christ's church did not exist neither would my vocation; that is true because it is profoundly Christian in every way, not simply because it is a formally ecclesial vocation. I need Christ --- not least to call me to authenticity in the desert. I need Christ to show me the difference between isolation and solitude, between real independence in God (what Tillich called theonomy) and individualism, between the eremitism of the Tom Leppards of this world and his own. And that means I need the mediation provided by the Body of Christ. There is no resurrected Christ unless there is also still an embodied Christ and that implies a Church. By the way, while I am sure you meant no offense, let me point out there is absolutely nothing hypothetical in the freedom to which Christ has called me through and within his Church. I sincerely wonder if you and I are really all that different.

Discerning one is not Called to an Ecclesial Vocation:

The bottom line, however is that you have clearly identified that for the time being at least you are NOT called to embrace an ecclesial vocation. There is a thread of anti-institutionalism running through your heart and mind which, in some ways mirrors the concerns and lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The difference is that the Desert Fathers and Mothers truly loved the Church and worked at their lives as an important part of being and encouraging the existence of what they perceived to be the TRUE Body of Christ and its Gospel. You see, they were committed to that and that made their vocations ecclesial in yet another and profound sense. While I don't think you are entirely different than they are they did have rules, customs, mentoring, etc to prevent them from simply going their own way on a whim (or in the clutches of the noonday devil!). I believe that is also true of you but some of what you have said makes me wonder. In any case, your desire to be entirely free of rules, etc means you will spend a lot of energy and time re-inventing the wheel. In some ways it will mean you will fail unnecessarily. In some ways it means that bias will keep your heart closed to some of the central ways Christ's presence comes to us and challenges us to commit ourselves and be remade. But it also means that to the extent you are truly committed to and in Christ you may discover a way to be a prophetic presence in the world which I will not.


As to your original question none of the essential terms of the canon can be modified in any significant way if one wants to live the vision of the eremitical life Christ's own Church sets forth as consistent with her tradition. Remember that the central elements of this canon were also lived by the Desert Fathers and Mothers who ALSO were engaged in a profound and extensive criticism of the worldliness of the Church. Indeed, they are part of these elements' very source as normative.

How you or anyone else chooses to embody these elements is actually part of the flexibility of the canon --- within limits of course (remember words can be emptied of meaning). Part of the canon need never apply to you, namely section 2 which reads, [[A hermit is recognized in law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.]] You need never embrace any part of this section of the canon. You, like many other lay people will live as a hermit or solitary in exemplary ways perhaps, but you will simply not do so in the same way as one publicly professed/consecrated in an ecclesial vocation.

Fraudulent "Catholic Hermits": Is it a Big Problem?

[[[Hi Sister Laurel, is the problem of fraudulent hermits a big one? Do many people claim to be Catholic hermits when they are not? I am asking because you have written recently about the normative character of c 603 vocations and some who pretend to be Catholic hermits. Was the Church concerned with frauds and people like that when they decided to create this canon?]] (redacted)

No, on the whole this is not really a huge problem, or at least it was not a problem when I first started the process of becoming a diocesan hermit. I don't think it is that much of a problem even now though I do hear (or know firsthand) of cases here and there of folks who pull on a habit (or the gaunt visage and behavior of a  supposed "mystic"), don the title "Catholic hermit" and then turn up on the doorstep of a parish expecting to be recognized and known in this way. There was also a website a couple of years ago using the names of legitimate (canonical) diocesan hermits to get money through paypal without the knowledge of these same diocesan hermits. Part of the problem is that the authentic vocation is so rare and little-understood in absolute terms that a handful of counterfeits or frauds can have a greater impact relatively speaking. Those disedifying and fraudulent cases aside, however, the origins of the canon are actually pretty inspiring and  had nothing to do with frauds or counterfeits. To reprise that here:

A number of monks, long solemnly professed, had grown in their vocations to a call to solitude (traditionally this is considered the summit of monastic life); unfortunately, their monasteries did not have anything in their own proper law that accommodated such a calling. Their constitutions and Rule were geared to community life and though this also meant a significant degree of solitude, it did NOT mean eremitical solitude. Consequently these monks had to either give up their sense that they were called to eremitical life or they had to leave their monastic vows, be secularized, and try to live as hermits apart from their monastic lives and vows. Eventually, about a dozen of these hermits came together under the leadership of Dom Jacques Winandy and the aegis of Bishop Remi De Roo in British Columbia (he became their "Bishop Protector"); this gave him time to come to know the  contemporary eremitical vocation and to esteem it and these hermits rather highly.

When Vatican II was in session Bishop de Roo, one of the youngest Bishops present, gave a written intervention asking that the hermit life be recognized in law as a state of perfection and the possibility of public profession and consecration for contemporary hermits made a reality. The grounds provided in Bishop Remi's intervention were all positive and reflect today part of the informal vision the Church has of this vocation. (You will find them listed in this post, Followup on the Visibility of the c 603 Vocation.) Nothing happened directly at the Council (even Perfectae Caritatis did not mention hermits), but VII did require the revision of the Code of Canon Law in order to accommodate the spirit embraced by the Council as well as other substantive changes it made necessary; when this revised code eventually came out in October of 1983 it included c. 603 which defined the Church's vision of eremitical life generally and, for the first time ever in universal law, provided a legal framework for the public profession and consecration of those hermits who desired and felt called to live an ecclesial eremitical vocation.

So you see, the Church was asked at the highest level by a Bishop with significant experience with about a dozen hermits living in a laura in BC to codify this life so that it: 1) was formally recognized as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and 2) so that others seeking to live such a life would not have the significant difficulties that these original dozen hermits did because there was no provision in either Canon Law nor in their congregations' proper laws.

The majority of diocesan hermits (i.e., hermits professed in the hands of a diocesan Bishop) have tended to have a background in religious life; it is only in the past years that more individuals without such formation and background have sought to become diocesan hermits. This has left a bit of a hole in terms of writing about the vocation; it has meant not only that the nuts and bolts issues of writing a Rule of life, understanding the vows, and learning to pray in all the ways religious routinely pray have needed to be discussed somewhere publicly, but that the problems of the meaning and significance of the terms, "ecclesial vocation", "Catholic hermit," etc. as well as basic approaches to formation, the central elements of the canon, and so forth have needed to be clarified for lay persons, some diocesan hermits, and even for those chanceries without much experience of this vocation.

My Own Interest in the Ecclesiality of the C 603 vocation:

I have been interested in all of these issues since I decided to pursue admittance to canon 603 profession --- now about 30 years ago ---  and as I grow in this vocation, in my appreciation of it and of the wisdom and beauty of the canon which governs it, my interest remains --- but for rather different reasons. It took me 23 years to work out for myself many of the issues mentioned in the above paragraph; now I am able to give back to the larger Church community in ways that I sincerely hope allow others to more fully understand and esteem this vocation. Most important is what I have said over the past few days (and the past several years!!): this vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and world. In particular it can witness to the fact that the isolation and marginality so many experience today can be redeemed by one's relationship with God, just as it stands as a prophetic witness against the individualism, narcissism, and addictions (especially to media and to remote, packaged, and soundbite-approaches to reality and relationships) which almost define the world around us today. However, frauds, counterfeits and curmudgeons can get in the way of or detract from this witness --- not least because, unless they are simply ignorant, they are generally mired in pretense and self-centeredness which makes the vocation incredible.

One of the least spoken of non-negotiable elements of canon 603 is that this is a life lived for the praise of God and the sake and indeed, the salvation of others. The usual focus in most discussions and in discernment as well tends to be on the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, and stricter separation from the world, as well as on the content of the vows, but I have not heard many talking about or centering attention on the phrase, "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." However, this element very clearly signals that this vocation is not a selfish one and is not meant only for the well-being of the hermit. It also, I believe, is integral to the notion that this is an ecclesial vocation with defined rights and obligations lived in dialogue with the contemporary situation.  

To say this vocation has a normative shape and definition is also to say that not everything called eremitism in human history glorifies God. Further, calling attention to the fact that this is a normative or ecclesial vocation is just the flip side of pointing out that this is a gift of the Holy Spirit meant for the well-being of all who come to know it (as well as those who do not). I am keen that diocesan hermits embrace this element of their lives fully --- and certainly I also desire that chanceries understand that the discernment of vocations cannot occur adequately unless the charism of the vocation is truly understood and esteemed. The ecclesial nature of the vocation is part of this charism as is the prophetic witness I spoke of earlier. By far this is the larger issue driving my writing about the normative and ecclesial nature of this vocation or continuing to point out the significance of canonical standing than the existence of a few counterfeit "Catholic hermits".

 Letting Go of Impersonation: the Real Issue for all of us

As I consider this then, I suppose the problem of frauds (or counterfeits) is certainly more real than when I first sought admission to profession under canon 603 (the canon was brand new then and few knew about it), but for most of us diocesan hermits the real issue is our own integrity in living this life and allowing the Church to discern and celebrate other instances of it rather than dealing with the sorry pretense and insecurity which seems to drive some to claim titles to which they have no right. What serious debate takes place does so on this level, not on more trivial ones. The question of fraud is an important one for the hermit both personally and ecclesially because as Thomas Merton reminds us all: [[The . . .hermit has as his first duty, to live happily without affectation in his solitude. He owes this not only to himself but to his community [by extension diocesan hermits would say parish, diocese, or Church] that has gone so far as to give him a chance to live it out. . . . this is the chief obligation of the . . .hermit because, as I said above, it can restore to others their faith in certain latent possibilities of nature and of grace.]] (Emphasis added,  Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 242)

In any case, as Thomas Merton also knew very well, some of those who are frauds (and I am emphatically NOT speaking here of lay hermits who identify themselves as such) might well embrace true solitude in  the midst of their pretense; if they do, if they find they have a true eremitical vocation, it will only be by discovering themselves getting rid of any pretense or impersonation as well as finding their craziness or eccentricity dropping away. After all, as Merton also noted, one cannot ultimately remain crazy in the desert (that is, in the absence of others and presence of God in solitude) for it takes other people to make and allow us to be crazy. He writes: [[To be really mad you need other people. When you are by yourself you soon get tired of your craziness. It is too exhausting. It does not fit in with the eminent sanity of trees, birds, water, sky. You have to shut up and go about the business of living. The silence of the woods forces you to make a decision which the tensions and artificialities of society help you to evade forever. Do you want to be yourself or don't you?]] (Idem, 245, emphasis added)

You see, the simple truth which makes the existence of fraudulent hermits not only intriguing but also tremendously sad and ironic -- and which is also the universal truth we all must discover for ourselves -- is that alone with God we find and embrace our true selves. If we must continue in our pretense or various forms of impersonation then something is seriously askew with our solitude and therefore too, with our relationship with God (and vice versa).