02 July 2015

Hermits, The Antithesis of the Rugged Individualist or the One Who is a Law unto Herself!

[[Dear Sister, I have two different questions. 1) You once wrote a piece about hermits, canon law, and herding cats. I remember you both agreed and disagreed with the person who said legislating for hermits was impossible and like herding cats. Recently you said in another piece that hermits were like fingerprints, each unique but with recognizable patterns, whorls, loops, etc. I know you think highly of canon 603 but I wondered if you thought it was sufficient to legislate the life of solitary hermits. Does there need to be canon  law on the formation of hermits, on time frames prior to profession and final profession?  2) Also, why do you see individualism as so completely antithetical to eremitical life?  Aren't hermits the consummate individualists? If each is an 'ecclesiola' as Peter Damian (and you too) say, then doesn't this make each hermit a kind of law to him or herself?]]

Is Canon 603 Sufficient to Govern and Nurture Solitary Eremitical Life?

First of all I do believe canon 603 is sufficient, generally speaking. I think there need to be some guidelines about formation, time frames, minimum ages and experience required for admission to discernment and profession, as well as regarding the distinction between being a lone individual and being a hermit in some essential sense, and also some significant cautions on what canon 603 is NOT meant for. However, at this point in time I don't see any reason these things would need to be codified in canon law or through an actual papal motu proprio for instance.

Bishops  and Vicars for Religious need to be able to discern with each candidate while doing justice to the flexibility of canon 603 and the diversity which is part of the history of eremitical life itself, but they also need additional help understanding the Church's desert tradition and the very challenging history of this canon so that not just anything is called eremitism. Especially they must recognize that not just any form of aloneness is called "eremitical solitude" nor can just any form of living and working alone be called eremitical life. The misuse of canon 603 as a stopgap to profess individuals who wish to be religious while merely desiring or needing to live alone is a significant problem that must be avoided. The vocation must be a truly eremitical one. At this point it seems sufficient that in addition to the canon and the expertise of canonists and theologians (especially ecclesiologists), hermits contribute their own experience in these matters and dioceses do the same. One of the reasons for this blog as well as for something like the Network of Diocesan Hermits is to allow for this kind of reflection in a way which is available to anyone looking for assistance in implementing canon 603.

Solitary Hermits and Individualism:

Some critics of this blog have been very critical of diocesan hermits providing insights from their own living and reflecting on canon 603, the life it governs and nurtures, and therefore, their reflection on the kinds of life it absolutely should not be mistaken for. Whenever I have fielded questions or objections or even quotations from these folks I have the sense that they are most upset by my position that not just anything goes, not just anything can be called eremitical life in line with the Church's own understanding and eremitical tradition. Canon 603 is not meant to profess those who simply could not be professed any other way (though there will be a handful who could not be professed in community and who discover a genuine call to eremitical life). It is not meant to govern a nominally pious life without meaningful theological education and formation in spirituality --- especially in desert spirituality. Neither is it meant for those who want to live some silence and some solitude (even significant amounts of these) or desire mainly to separate themselves from others or from the post-conciliar Church, but who do not really hunger to live a LIFE of the silence of solitude.

It is the notion that "the silence of solitude" is the charism of the diocesan hermit, the gift the Holy Spirit creates in her life and the gift she herself brings to the Church and world that might help me answer your questions about individualism. A lot of people think of a hermit's work as praying for people and while I agree that is an important piece of our lives, I don't think it is the main work we do. Rather, our main work is to allow God to work in us, that is to become God's own prayer --- a prayer that witnesses to the fact that the grace of God is truly sufficient for us and God's power is made all-embracing (i.e., is perfected) in weakness. There is nothing individualistic in this. Instead there is a real dying to self so that one might be fully transparent to God, fully human in God, and witness to all of this so that others might also allow themselves to become who and what they were made to be in God. The hermit is a person in communion; they live in communion with God, with themselves, and in the heart of the Church for the sake of others. There is no room for individualism nor selfishness here.

Like a local Church the hermit is an ecclesiola, a little Church. But this means she represents the whole and is intimately related to the larger Church, first every other ecclesiola (Christian person), then the parish, then the diocesan Church, and then finally the universal Church. Each person, but especially the hermit is a microcosm of what it means to be called, to live the response in a way which is always transparent to the God who calls, and to do so for the sake of others. The hermit lives a life in which she is free to plumb the depths of communion with God. She is free to be herself in the fullest way possible in an intense and all-encompassing relatedness. She is not, however free to do just anything she wants. That is not freedom after all; it is license and it is similarly the hallmark of individualism. Thus I say the eremitical vocation is actually antithetical to individualism. To represent the Church (as any Christian is ecclesiola) and to live this vocation in the name of the Church is to be a person-in-relationship more than it is to be an individual in some senses of that term.

Hermits, A Law Unto Themselves?

The canon 603 hermit is never a law unto him or herself. Her life is given over to the will of God and to the law which that God writes on her heart. She lives a life whose parameters are defined by Canon and proper law (Rule or Plan of Life) as well as by the living eremitical tradition of the Church. It is a life nurtured by the Sacraments, fed by the Word of God and lived under the various forms of supervision of Bishop, delegate, spiritual director, and pastor as well as by an oblate chaplain or other similar figure in cases of oblature or associateship with an institute of consecrated life. She is vowed to God through profession of the evangelical counsels and thus she is bound to obedience to God in the hands of a legitimate superior; she is bound, in other words, both morally and in law. The "hermit" who is not so bound (and who thus mistakes license for genuine freedom) has been a perennial thorn in the side of eremitical leaders and reformers throughout the history of the Church. St Benedict castigated these, St Peter Damian did likewise as did Paul Giustiniani and many many others.

Certainly the notion of hermit as rugged individualist and law to him or herself is common as a stereotype. A few years ago I blogged about a journalist's t stupid identification (sorry but it's true!) of Tom Leppard and one other person as living classic and somehow edifying lives of eremitical solitude. I would suggest you check out those posts with labels like "stereotypes," "Tom Leppard," etc. In contemporary theology (Paul Tillich, 20 C.) we would recognize the autonomous person as antithetical to the theonomous person; that is, we would find the person who was a law unto herself as antithetical to the one who has God as her law (that is, the Lord and driving dynamic of her heart). The hermit is almost a pure paradigm of theonomous life. Certainly this alone is what s/he aspires to and represents when s/he says that by her life s/he witnesses to the fact that God alone is sufficient or that in God we are called and fulfilled as human beings who live for one another. And isn't this also the definition of Church, namely the community of the called who find their fulfillment and missionary purpose in the God of Love who is both their nomos (law) and telos (goal)?

I sincerely hope this is helpful. Your questions are important ones and ones I am keenly interested in so thanks for those!