18 May 2015

Jumping Through Needless Hoops? More on Writing a Rule of Life

[[Hi Sister, maybe you have already answered this, but isn't it unreasonable to expect a person to write several different Rules over a period of 6-9 years? It does seem like a lot of needless hoops to make someone jump through. I can't believe that a first Rule would differ from a third or fourth Rule so much as all that. I mean it covers the basics or fundamentals of one's life. These don't change so dramatically in the life of a hermit do they? Isn't this really just busy work to give the diocese something to look at? So what do they look at if nothing really changes from one Rule to another? And what do they do if the hermit is not a writer? I am certainly not one so the whole prospect of my diocese asking me to do this would completely turn me off from pursuing profession under c 603!]]

Thanks for your questions. For those who are relatively new to this blog, and because I have not written about this recently, let me say that they refer to a suggestion I have made which allows a diocese and a hermit to engage in a process of formation and mutual discernment which 1) protects the freedom and solitude of the hermit, 2) provides a meaningful way the diocese can gauge the growth of the individual vocation before them and discern the suitability for and timing of eremitical profession and consecration, and 3) allows the hermit to take the initiative in working at both discernment and formation but in a significantly accountable way. Specifcally, over a period of about 6-9 years a candidate for consecration under c 603 will move through various natural stages in her formation and discernment as a hermit; as she does this she will mark --- as well as signal to those discerning with her --- her readiness to enter the next stage of the process by writing a Rule which, depending on the stage involved, will serve either relatively casually or more strictly and even canonically to structure and govern her life. The posts introducing this idea can mainly be found at Why Several Rules over a Period of Time? and under the labels, "Formation Programs?" and "Discernment" as well as, "Writing a Rule of Life".

Do Rules Change Much in the Life of a Hermit? 

Yes and no. The central elements of the Rule are unlikely to change significantly but the person's understanding of and relation to these elements will change significantly over time. The Rule this person writes at different points in her formation will reflect these changes especially as the person's life comes to embody them in more and more integral ways. Similarly then the elements of the Rule will cease to be merely external constraints as the person comes to explore and understand the depths of the realities to which they point. So, for instance, a Rule might speak of the silence of solitude in the beginning of a person's formative process and reflect a sense of external silence and solitude. While this sense will always remain, always be presupposed in any maturation in the silence of solitude, it will become less important than the deeper reality it expresses. Later on in her formation then, her Rule will reflect a sense that this element (the silence of solitude) is the goal of her life; for the hermit it will involve an essential quies which results from union with God and reflect a sense of being comfortable in her own skin and a wholeness without noisy striving or self-centeredness. In other words, the Rule's central elements begin more and more to define not only what the hermit does but who she is!

Similarly one might begin their approach to 'stricter separation from the world' by focusing on the things and people she cannot do or see but in time this element of the canon will reflect more the remaking of the hermit's heart into one that loves with a singleness and purity of focus. The physical separation remains and is presupposed in all else that happens in this solitary life, but it is the vision of the Kingdom and the claim the God of Jesus Christ has on her heart that will come to drive her understanding of this element or aspect of her eremitical life. The same kinds of changes tend to occur with the other non-negotiable elements of canon 603: poverty, chastity, obedience; there will be a deepening and broadening of experience and understanding which will be reflected in the subsequent Rule one writes.

As this process of internalization and integration occurs, the way the hermit comes to envision these elements changes and the emphasis in the Rule itself will also change to reflect this. In some cases an emphasis that was entirely absent will emerge as will a vision of eremitical life that was not present in one's first and/or second Rule. In this process the Rule's central or defining elements cease to be disparate requirements governing different parts of the hermit's life and instead come to express related emphases in a life reflecting the Gospel of God lived in solitude with God. A Rule written just prior to perpetual profession, for instance, is more likely to represent a vision of eremitical life lived in the 21st century with specific essential emphases than it is to be simply a list of things one contracts to do. Again, the Rule will often shift to define who the hermit is and her sense of mission and charism than it is merely a list of things she covenants to observe.

If one were to look at the various Rules a hermit writes over time this is the pattern one is likely to find. Even when the Rule itself does not explicitly reflect such changes through various versions, conversations with the hermit or hermit candidate is apt to elicit a clear sense of such change and growth. (If these conversations do not reflect such changes one has good reason to suspect either, 1) there is no eremitical vocation here, 2) the candidate is not living her Rule well (faithfully or wholeheartedly), or 3) something else is going on that is stunting or short-circuiting the formation process --- whether that centers on the failure of her (relationship with her) director, medical problems of one sort or another, or other difficulties. In such instances there needs to be conversations with the candidate, her delegate, et al, to ascertain and resolve the problem.)

Jumping Through Needless Hoops?

As you can tell, I believe this process is not mere "busy work". It is important for discernment (both the hermit's AND the diocese's) and for formation. Likewise it assures accountability on both the hermit's part and on the diocese's while it provides an objective focus for evaluating a life lived in solitary hiddenness. I have already discussed the major aspects of these things so I won't repeat them here. It is important that dioceses give hermits sufficient time to discern suitability and, when determined, achieve readiness for profession. It is  similarly important that candidates allow themselves sufficient time while negotiating a process that is not marked by somewhat arbitrary time frames like those associated in canon law with postulancy and novitiate. The writing of appropriate Rules to focus and mark the hermit's personal stages of formation can substitute in a vocation that does not lend itself so well to such arbitrary time frames --- 9 mos for candidacy and 1-2 years novitiate, etc; while these work well for communal vocations, they work less well for the solitary eremitical call. At the same time the process I have outlined does not allow the process to go on forever and especially not without accountability on both sides, diocese and candidate.

Further, while it is true that the use of this process does give the diocese something to "look at" this is not objectionable; it is part of what they require as part of their own call to discern, encourage, assist in the formation of, and protect ecclesial vocations. The process I have outlined eliminates some of the guesswork and complete subjectivity from the entire discernment and formation process, and I believe it does so while protecting the hermit's freedom to respond to God as she hears God in solitude.

What if the Hermit/Candidate is not a Writer?

I don't think this is really an insurmountable problem. After all, I am not speaking of writing a dissertation or book or something similar on eremitical life. I am talking about writing a Rule of life which is actually required by the Canon itself. It is a document which reflect the hermit's experience and codifies her own wisdom about how God calls her to live her life. On the whole it is less about writing per se than it is about attending to and reflecting on the vocation one is called to live. The Rule codifies what is necessary for a person to do that. In my own experience, in writing the Rule I submitted to my diocese prior to perpetual profession, I spent about one full month writing (at least a few hours a day) but months and even years were given to reflecting on canon 603 itself and how its elements related to the way God was working in my own life.  It seems to me that one needs far less to be a writer than one needs to truly be a contemplative who has come to know herself in light of God through an experiential knowledge of the constitutive elements of canon 603. I think that is by far the harder task, and probably the real obstacle to being able to write a Rule.

At the same time writing is an important way of becoming clear about who one is and why one is doing something. It is one of the ways we come to be articulate about what is most life giving for us and what is indispensable and normative in our lives. We shouldn't really expect to be able to write a liveable Rule unless and until we have spent time writing really unlivable and inadequate Rules or at least practice Rules we are comfortable using to "walk around in" for a time in order to learn more about ourselves and the way God is working in our lives. In the beginning hermit candidates ordinarily write Rules which are really little more than lists of "Thou shalts" and "Thou shalt nots".  In time they come to see these are wholly insufficient to describe or govern lives marked by the power of the Holy Spirit,  much less to challenge and even to inspire them adequately. That is why I say over time one will come to write a Rule which is more a vision of eremitical life as God inspires one to see and live it than it is a list of do's and don'ts --- even when it includes these, as it inevitably must. In any case, one comes to learn what being a hermit is by living the life; likewise one comes to learn to write a Rule which serves as c. 603 requires and envisions by writing several of them over time.

In a genuine eremitical life, none of this time and effort will be wasted. One is, after all, growing in, exploring, and learning to articulate who one is in light of one's solitary relationship with God. If one is never professed as a canon 603 hermit one has still benefited by the canon's requirement that one write a Rule because it has been a formative experience, not merely a sterile requirement to "get professed". Meanwhile, if one's diocese admits one to profession and then consecration as a diocesan hermit one will only be grateful for all the work it took to get there and will benefit from it in a more direct way every day for the rest of her life. In either case it is something like last Friday's Gospel passage: when the labor is accomplished and the child born, one forgets the pain it all took and feels only joy at the new life which has been brought forth.