05 June 2015

Witnessing to God's Power Made Perfect in Human Weakness: On Chronic Illness and C 603's Requirement to Write a Rule

[[Dear Sister,  in Writing a Rule, More Questions, you said that someone who is chronically ill and trying to write a Rule should include, [[a horarium which, at least generally, specifies the shape of one's day: rising, meals, prayer, lectio, work, ministry, recreation and errands, hours of rest and sleep. (If one has significant personal exigencies which bear on these (chronic illness, for instance) it is usually a good idea to state these up front and note that these occasionally demand some flexibility with regard to horarium, etc, rather than trying to minimize the demands of the life throughout the Rule. One's descriptions should be about what is generally possible and prudent for one --- not an idealization of what another hermit MIGHT live if they were able.)]] But what if a  person is so ill that they cannot live an ordered life in the way you describe? What if the disruptions they experience are not just occasional? How do they write a Rule? Could they still live as and be professed as a canonical hermit?]]

Thanks for what are really an important set of questions. They are also quite difficult to answer except in a general way. First though, as a kind of preamble, let me say that I wrote what I did to save someone from the difficulty of endlessly trying to qualify the Rule they write. I wanted each person to write a Rule reflecting how they really do live except for situations that cropped up relatively unexpectedly or occasionally. If the situation is more constant or frequent than occasional it is best simply to deal with it by spelling out the parameters of one's illness, including the situation in question in these along with what is usually possible and necessary for one to live a faithful life. Any diocese or Bishop will understand that illness will also produce some unexpected disruptions here and there. These don't ordinarily need to be spelled out unless they are more common than not.

Regarding your actual questions, I have to say up front that the situation you describe is too vague to answer. Each case would need to be discerned individually and perhaps revisited at different points in the person's life. You see, they might not be able to live as a hermit or be professed at one point in time but later on that could well change. I do believe the person should be able to write a Rule for their own lives if they reach a point of vocational certainty and readiness.

I am personally familiar with chronic illness that can completely ruin any attempt at orderliness or regularity. At the same time during  large periods of this illness, even when it was profoundly disabling, I was still able to pray, rest, eat, medicate myself, do most chores, and, during some years, even engage in significant study --- all in an essentially solitary context. While I could not maintain a strict schedule I could do what was really essential to my life with God --- though there were limits of course. I could not do all I wanted to do and there were times when illness didn't allow much at all. Still, it always allowed (and called for) faith and a significant dependence upon God's love --- mainly in solitude. It still does. That is one side of my considerations and my ambivalence in answering your questions. Would it were the ONLY side!!

The Source of my Ambivalence:
What makes this situation difficult to address without serious ambivalence is that looking at myself at this point in time I could not have called myself a hermit, either formally or essentially. Perhaps I was a solitary person, but I had not embraced or even considered embracing eremitical life in a conscious way, and for that reason would not use the word to describe my situation. Even so, had I thought about the possibility of being a hermit at that particular time of my life (instead of beginning to do so five to ten years later) it might have been possible. I don't really know. That would have required serious discernment. What I do know is that every person that tries eremitical life must do so in a conscious way as a response to what they perceive to be God's own call while the life they propose to live must fit both them as an individual and the living eremitical tradition as well.

I am also clear that at that point (about six years before canon 603's publication) I could not have represented eremitical life either in the name of the Church or as a lay hermit unless it was very specifically as a recluse. Moreover, I could not at that time have said I thought God was calling me to this. While it might have seemed a way to give meaning to my life, that is not necessarily the same thing as a Divine call. Even more critically I believe the degree of illness I dealt with at that time did not leave me free enough to discern an eremitical call. I certainly could not have made a life commitment. Until and unless this freedom became a real part of my life --- even as illness continued to be a daily reality --- there was no way to claim I had such a vocation. No one else could have discerned such a vocation in me either.

So, I am sorry for all the autobiographical rehashing and dithering. The reasons for running through all of this are several fold. First, I want to indicate my opinions in this are not without personal experience; second, I am concerned to indicate they are neither arbitrary nor without significant reflection and even personal anguish; and third, they help explain why I believe each case should be discerned individually by the candidate and diocese with significant input from knowledgeable physicians, spiritual director and psychologists -- in other words, whoever is necessary to help the diocese really see the person before them.

Overall, unless the discernment from all of these sources argues that a life of the silence of solitude is a source of authentic freedom and human wholeness --- and thus, is truly God's own call, my inclination is to say no; if one is so sick that they cannot live a life which is regular enough to write and generally live a Rule which witnesses to their freedom in spite of illness, they ought not be professed as canonical hermits. The Rule they write does not need to look like that of other hermits (what constitutes assiduous prayer and penance may certainly differ, for instance, and illness with its correlative treatment, dependencies, and limitations will feature large here) but it does need to indicate a God-centered, profoundly peace-filled and authentically free life lived in the silence of solitude.

While my own ability to seriously  consider and then discern a vocation to eremitical life was partly influenced by chronic illness, even more fundamentally it was made possible by the freedom to envision my life and act in ways which were not merely determined by illness, but by gifts and talents as well --- not least the ability to lead a genuinely contemplative life in solitude, with all that generally requires. I have always believed both dimensions were essential for my own identity and for becoming a hermit. Especially, I have known from 1983 (when I first considered eremitical life) onwards that illness could not be the only or even the defining characteristic of such a life. Had this been the case, had illness been more than an important but definite subtext to a life with God, I could not have written a Rule or considered eremitical life as a vocation no matter how isolated illness caused me to be. In those early years I was certainly an isolated individual with profound gifts and yearnings (as well as very significant deficits) but I was not a hermit, nor again, until changes occurred, was I ready to become one much less make a life commitment to live eremitical life in the name of the Church.

The Requirements of Canon 603:

As I have written here many times Canon 603 is both demanding and very flexible. It requires a life of stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, the silence of solitude, and the evangelical counsels lived under the supervision of one's Bishop and according to a Rule one writes oneself. The foundational life being described here is a contemplative one of pervasive and persistent prayer and penance entirely dependent upon the grace of God and ordered to union with Him. There are no more details given than this --- but how rich and profound are each of these terms! Of course "the silence of solitude' is a tremendously positive element which refers to the quies that results from living in the love of God. It indicates a sense of relatedness and psychological well being,  a sense of being relatively comfortable with oneself despite human weakness and sin, and capacity for creative engagement with the world despite embracing "stricter separation from the world". The evangelical counsels are our commitment to live out a life marked by a fundamental simplicity and richness in God even as we forego some of the legitimate 'richnesses' associated with a more ordinary life.

Through profession of these we promise to be open to the truly new, the future God summons us into moment by moment, and to close ourselves to the merely novel and distracting, to listen for the voice of God in all the moments and moods of our lives, and to love as only God can empower us to love. Stricter separation from the world is equally positive because it involves a commitment to be truly attached to that which is of Christ and detached from that which is not. It is a valuing of loving engagement without self-centered enmeshment as well as to really seeing the sacramental nature and potential of all reality. Because eremitism is not about escapism but about the disciplined and courageous commitment to a profound inner journey where God is hidden in everything including illness, it can certainly be made by someone suffering from serious chronic illness; it cannot, however, be made by someone whose whole life IS illness or who has ceased to believe in anything beyond the limitations and negativities of illness.

Growing in our capacity to transcend illness:

My own experience says it takes time to reach a point where illness is merely a subtext in what is a wonderfully personal and cosmic divine narrative. That narrative was summed up for me by Saint Paul who wrote to the Church in Corinth, "God's power is made perfect in weakness." It takes time to really know the victory faith can bring over illness so that while it remains problematical perhaps, it no longer defines who one is. It takes time, personal work, and discipline to embrace a life which is essentially affirmative and engaged with God's world in the silence of solitude rather than being negative and enmeshed in the isolation of illness and its prison of disappointment, disillusionment, self-pity, and fear. It takes time to move from God and faith as either opiates or facile justifications for the disorder caused by a state of sin (the state of reality's estrangement from God of which illness and suffering are signs and symptoms) to the God of Jesus Christ who does not explain away (much less cause!) the tragedies of our lives but instead redeems them --- if only we will trust in Him and the present and future he will weave with our collaboration.

The eremitical journey requires discipline, courage, love and the generous vision all of these give one. Though these two forms of "ordering" exist together in any life, the meaning and vitality which a creator God's love and mercy bring to chaos and emptiness is far more important than that imposed by external code, clock, and calendar. If the hermit is chronically ill she must show with her life that God is the true center of things, not her pain, not the disorder, inconstancy, and especially not the isolation illness occasions. Unless a person who desires to be a hermit can do this effectively and convincingly (and one piece of doing so which is required by Canon 603 is by writing of a Rule reflecting this), I would have to argue they have not yet discerned a call to eremitical life.


Each situation is unique and each vocation must be discerned individually. What a genuine eremitical life looks like for those dealing with chronic illnesses can be seen today by looking at many of the lives of diocesan hermits who are pioneering this vocation for the Church. A number of c 603 hermits have been professed not despite their illness, but because God had redeemed their lives in ways which allowed illness to become transparent to a life giving grace which is much greater and stronger than the power of illness to disrupt, derail, and destroy.

Of course, it is also possible to find examples of isolated individuals who claim or aspire to be hermits, but whose lives are truly rooted in and centered not on God but on illness, pain, personal suffering and the limitations associated with these. It is actually not very difficult to discern the difference between these two if one gives just a bit of time and a listening ear to them. The first group is generally characterized by freedom and a kind of spiritual expansiveness even when chronic illness is seriously problematical because this person's life and attitudes toward reality breathe with the compassionate freedom and vitality of the Spirit. The second group is characterized by bondage and relative blindness to the lives, needs, and suffering of those around them, as well lacking insight into their own selves because these are precisely what the self-centeredness, disappointment, and self-pity associated with serious illness often occasion.

One day, with the grace of God, some of these latter individuals may make the critical transition from being the lone scream of anguish they are now to being the complex Magnificat which the grace of God's mercy and love makes possible. Often I think this suffering-tinged Song of joy and praise is what the Carthusians and c 603 call "the silence of solitude." In any case, I believe when this critical transition occurs and one reflects on it one will be able to see, articulate, and finally, codify what was essential to its realization in terms of asceticism, prayer, lectio, direction, therapy, rest, recreation, contact with others, etc. These "channels of grace" revealed in weakness along with the vision of reality they make possible will become the nuts and bolts of one's Rule.