07 April 2015

Are Older and Infirm Hermits Dispensed From their Vows?

[[Dear Sister, Though I have not been impressed with a lot of posts on the blog you referred people to a while ago, I thought the author did raise some good questions about what happens to consecrated hermits when they get older and can no longer live silence or solitude to the degree they once did, or maybe to the degree their Rule calls for. Do these hermits then cease to be consecrated hermits? If it is true that a younger hermit who was not living the terms of the canon could not be validly professed, then what does happen to an aging hermit who needs assistance with everyday needs? Also, I was wondering what happens to you when you get too old or too infirm to live on your own?]]

Yes, there were a couple of good questions embedded in the blog you mentioned. First of all, a hermit revises her Rule with the assistance or input of her director and her Bishop whenever there are significant changes in her life situation or circumstances. However, she continues to be responsible for living the non-negotiable elements of the Canon --- even when this does not look like what it did when she was younger. In some ways an aging hermit's solitude may actually be greater despite the presence of caregivers because she will be dealing more full time with illness and, of course, with separation from others who 1) cannot accommodate the rhythm of illness when added to eremitical solitude, or 2) who themselves will be dealing with illness and aging and may no longer be able to visit or call occasionally as they once did. One lives what one can and, in whatever way is possible, one gives her life to Christ and his People in an eremitical life --- even when there is a greater degree of contact with caregivers, doctors, etc. What we are describing here is not a highly social life but instead, a more isolated one which may also be made more difficult or even more significantly penitential because of a lack of sufficient physical silence.

Understanding the Silence of Solitude is Critical Here

What becomes critical here is that one understands the Canon calls for "the silence of solitude" and while this ordinarily requires significant physical silence and solitude, it remains the life's defining value even when one cannot secure for oneself the degree of physical silence or solitude one once could have and, indeed, needed daily. Here "the silence of solitude" especially means the quies or rest one finds in God alone, no matter the chaos that surrounds one or the pain one suffers daily. Here it is a matter of the quality of one's heart more than a matter of external conditions. A life given over to the silence of solitude in the midst of significant physical silence and solitude is essential to achieving this particular form of quies I think. It is the hermit's life of these realities along with assiduous prayer and penance which allows her to be a hermit even in the midst of a more populated and busy world --- including that more populated and busy world she may need to rejoin to a limited extent when she grows too old and infirm to care for herself in all the ways she is used to doing.

But let me be very clear. I am not speaking of pretense here or semantic sleight of hand. One cannot simply exchange a merely nominal "silence of solitude" for genuine and significant physical silence and solitude at the beginning (or at any other point) of one's eremitical life. One cannot, for instance, work full time outside the hermitage in a highly social job and then claim, "Well, the canon literally says, "the silence of solitude" NOT physical silence and solitude! I am living the canon just as it is written, Profess me!!" That would be a lie and destructive of the vocation. One is sufficiently formed in or comes to the silence of solitude as understood by hermits and monastics throughout the centuries only through diligent living of the other requirements of canon 603, namely, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world (that is, from that which is resistant to Christ or which promises fulfillment apart from him or God), the evangelical counsels, and observation of a Rule all under the supervision of one's Bishop, one's delegate, and the direction of one's spiritual director. I have written before that the silence of solitude is not only the environment of the hermit's life, but that it is also the goal of her life and the unique gift or charism she brings to the Church and the world. For most solitary hermits there will come a time when in some ways at least, the silence of solitude is less clearly the environment of her daily life but perhaps all the more striking for that, more vividly the goal and gift of her life.

No hermit who has given her life to Christ and his Church in eremitical solitude for 25 to 35 or more years of her life and who then becomes infirm and elderly to the point of needing caregivers or assisted living will cease being a consecrated hermit. There is no diocese, I sincerely believe, who would then dispense this hermit's vows or thus "secularize her" because "she is no longer living the terms of the canon." Should her mental faculties fail, she will continue to be what she lived --- a hermit consecrated by God through the Church's mediation, and she will die as that as well, as impaired as her human poverty may have left her in her final years. What will not leave her, what will not cease to be true and a vital part of her continuing identity is her covenant with God who loves her in her poverty and sustains her in this as he has done in all other things in which she has given herself to him. This covenant and the rest it leads to has shaped her life. So too will it shape her elder years and death.

What Happens to Me?

So, what happens to me when I get too old or infirm to live alone? I honestly don't know. This is one of the difficulties facing diocesan hermits who are not, therefore, part of a community, and who must be self-supporting with a vow of poverty. Here in the diocese of Oakland there is a large residence connected with the Sisters of Mercy. A lot of retired priests and religious needing assisted living go there. Perhaps I will be able to take advantage of that myself. I really don't know. Here you have put your finger on one of the more neuralgic questions facing diocesan hermits and at this point in time there is simply no real answer for many of us --- especially if we are very poor and need an environment where we can continue to live our solitude with God as best as we are able. I am afraid most nursing homes would simply not accommodate such needs.