26 October 2015

Basic Questions

I received an email with a number of questions, many that have been answered here before so I thought I would post them and try to include some of the links (or at least the label links) leading to appropriate answers. The questions are:

Do I need to be a Sister before entering the Eremitical life?

No, but there is no doubt that someone with formation in a religious community will often be better prepared to move into eremitical solitude with a sense of what a solitary religious life entails and with the personal qualities and functional "skills" necessary to succeed there. Somehow one must get the social and spiritual formation religious life entails.  I believe an individual can do this but it involves education in theology, spirituality and the disciplines associated with these in prayer, lectio, study, etc. This is especially true of consecrated solitary eremitical life under canon 603. At the very least such a life needs to include the central formative elements of any religious life including education in the meaning of the vows and a grounding in Scripture which will allow one to read it intelligently and live from it as a truly deep and pervasive source of life. Moreover one needs a sense of the eremitical tradition in which one is seeking a place as a living representative. Please check out some of the other posts here on the formation of the lay or diocesan hermit, etc.

Do I need to find a specific direction such as Dominican, Benedictine, etc. ahead of time?

No. However, in my experience most hermits have developed a kinship or affinity with a particular spiritual tradition well before becoming either a lay or a diocesan hermit. Still, this is not necessary. I have felt keen resonances with Franciscan, Camaldolese Benedictine, and Cistercian spiritualities. While I was a Franciscan and am now an oblate with the Camaldolese Benedictines I retain strong affinities with Franciscanism and am discovering ever greater resonances with Cistercian spirituality. At the same time my prayer resonates with the "spirit" of John of the Cross, and so, Carmelite tradition too. The bottom line here is that I am professed as a diocesan hermit, not as Camaldolese or Franciscan or Cistercian and that profession gives me the freedom to seek the wealth in any spiritual tradition, especially those with a strong love for silence and solitude. In some ways the diocesan hermit can serve as a symbol of the place where many traditions come together in the silence of solitude.

At what point do I contact the diocese for guidance?

Until you have lived as a hermit in a conscious, dedicated, and supervised way for at least a couple of years I personally believe it is premature to contact a diocese for guidance. The most they can or usually will say to a person without at least this background is, "Go and live in solitude. Model your life on canon 603 to the degree any lay hermit can, and, if you still are interested in pursuing this option and discerning a vocation to consecrated solitary eremitical life, then contact us again." The way I have summarized this in the past is by saying a person must truly be a hermit in some essential sense before contacting their diocese. You see, dioceses are not responsible for the formation of hermits. Hermits are formed in the silence of solitude, and though this takes guidance it is strongly dependent on the hermit's initiative and personal discernment.

One of the reasons I use the picture just above as a symbol of this life is because it underscores the place of the silence of solitude in the formation of the hermit, especially the diocesan hermit. If one cannot be responsible for and acquire the education and formation one needs apart from the diocese --- at least in the main --- one is unlikely to have a vocation to solitary eremitical life. Moreover, until and unless you have this background, most dioceses are unlikely to consider you a serious candidate for eventual profession. (My own diocese has, in the past at least, said they will not even consider a person for profession under canon 603 until they have lived as a hermit under direction for at least five years. I think that is very wise and believe it is the very minimum necessary even, and maybe especially, if one is coming from a religious community.) Please see the other posts on Time Frames, When to contact one's diocese, etc. Check the labels below and in the right hand panel.

I noticed that you wear a habit, which appeals to me as well. Is this something that relates to the community you associate with, or is this a separate decision you or the diocese may have made?

The habit I wear is very specifically NOT a Camaldolese habit, nor is the cowl I wear for prayer cut in the same way a Camaldolese cowl is cut. Since I am not professed as a Camaldolese nor any other religious Order or congregation, I wear a fairly generic habit which really matches none that I know of. Diocesan hermits must be given permission to wear a habit and no bishop can give permission for them to wear the habit of a specific Order or congregation. Thus, those who turn up in Franciscan habits, or Carthusian habits, for instance are really wearing garb they have no right to. Since I am not professed as a Franciscan I do NOT wear a Franciscan habit. A friend and diocesan hermit who is associated with the Carmelites does NOT wear a Carmelite habit because the habit is a symbol of one who is formally entrusted with and thus has rights and obligations in regard a specific Tradition.

Not all diocesan hermits wear habits and not all bishops grant permission for the wearing of religious garb. Please see other posts on Titles and Habits, etc. By the way, one of the things you should discern is whether you are called to lay eremitical life or c 603 eremitical life. Don't allow the appeal of wearing a habit prevent you from looking seriously at the possibility that IF God is calling you to eremitical life it may well be as a hermit in the lay state, nor, for that matter, that wearing a habit may not be the witness God is calling you to in any case.

Do you attend Mass?

Of course. I attend Sunday Mass most weeks and daily Mass usually at least once or twice during a week. Sometimes I skip the entire week of daily Mass for a period of increased silence or uninterrupted solitude and other times I may attend several days a week. My baptismal obligations are not generally abrogated by my canonical profession though my commitment to solitude may sometimes require missing Mass at my parish. Similarly, the fact that I have the right to reserve Eucharist in my hermitage makes it absolutely imperative that I get to Mass regularly so that both the reservation and any Communion service I do in the hermitage is integrally linked to the Community celebration of Mass.  Please see the post on Solitude and Sunday Obligation (follow the labels at the bottom for similar posts) and the posts on Eucharistic Spirituality and Solitude.

Do you have any reading material to suggest as I traverse this path?

There are any number of good reads out there on eremitical life today. The best I know is Cornelius Wencel's The Eremitic Life. Personally the most important books in my own journey have included Wencel's book along with Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action, his essay, "Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude" and Cashen's study of solitude in Thomas Merton's thought by the name Solitude. Also helpful was Sister Jeremy Hall's Silence, Solitude, Simplicity, A Hermit's Love Affair With a Noisy, Crowded, and Complicated World, The Hermitage Within, and LeClercq's Alone With God. There are a number of important works on solitude itself too including those by Barbour, Koch, Storr and Buchholz. An introduction to the growing phenomenon of eremitical life of all sorts today is Consider the Ravens by the Fredette's. Meanwhile, a new monograph called Seeking in Solitude by Bernadette McNary-Zak is generally quite fine and one I recommend but probably not where one would begin reading. My own suggestion is that you start with Wencel or Merton or Hall and then read the others. Also read in and about the Desert Fathers and Mothers! They are a fount of the life you are seeking to enter.

Do you go out into the community to serve or gather with others living  the Eremitic life? (Is that a silly question, lol?)

I serve at my parish in several meaningful but quite limited ways. Mostly my work as a spiritual director and as a writer (theology, spirituality) is done from the hermitage. I don't usually meet with others living eremitical lives, no (very rarely I am able to get to Incarnation monastery, etc. ), but I do stay connected to many of them via computer and the Network of Diocesan Hermits.  You will find a number of posts here on hermits and  ministry and on the meaning and requirements of living solitude right on up to complete reclusion here. Please take a look.

Do you have any suggestions for someone looking into this form of life?

At first I hesitated answering this thinking the answer would be too complex and perhaps too lengthy. Perhaps, I thought, I could tackle it in another post just for this purpose. That remains an option. However, two things I consider critical did come to mind so I will add those here.  In the first place I have to say that the single most important suggestion I can make is that one work regularly with a good and experienced director who is knowledgeable in contemplative prayer and in spiritual formation. This person does not need to be a hermit but they must be knowledgeable, experienced, and competent in the ways mentioned! This is an absolute sine qua non in eremitical life and in discerning such a vocation. Especially, it seems to me, the director must be skilled in lovingly assisting the directee to be honest with themselves and God about their own motivations, etc. They must help a directee to seek and embrace Truth in all the ways this is revealed in their lives.

A second thing I should say here is that anyone looking into this life must understand that there are many kinds of solitude and most are not eremitical. If one is called to various degrees of silence AND solitude one still may not be called to live the silence OF solitude in the eremitical life. If one is called to eremitical life there are several options: 1) eremitical life in the lay state (the majority of hermits are lay hermits I think), 2) consecrated life as a hermit in a religious congregation, and 3) consecrated life as a solitary hermit under canon 603. One might be called to any of these. A lot of discernment is involved and one must be prepared to give oneself over to the process. (Hence the importance of a competent spiritual director!)

Many times folks write and seem to have concluded their vocation is a foregone conclusion. Sometimes this simply means they are intrigued by the idea. But interest or even attraction does not necessarily mean a vocation. Often (though not in the case of the person asking these particular questions) they believe because they live alone they are truly called to be a hermit or are actually already hermits. Yet, the truth is quite often that they are still merely lone individuals primarily interested in "getting consecrated", wearing a habit, reserving Eucharist in their own place, or are persons who are simply interested in validating their own aloneness and individualism. Mainly these folks have very little sense of what being a hermit actually means and they are not really interested in the radical conversion of their living situations or their hearts and minds in the way eremitical life requires.

The actual process of discernment has not really happened here nor can it until and unless the candidate commits to a process of formation, conversion and mutual discernment. Discernment is, in some ways, an evaluation of the way this formation in the silence of solitude either causes one to grow and thrive or to be diminished and stifled. This is why I wrote recently of being able to discern whether one is called to eremitical life only when one is striving to live the life, not while preparing to live it. (cf. Should We Just Ease into Eremitical Life to Discern a Vocation to Eremitism?) So, again, my suggestion is to remember that what you are called to is God's will for what is most loving for others as well as yourself!  If you believe you have a vocation then give yourself over wholeheartedly to a genuine discernment and formation process and be patient with however long it takes. If you are called to be a hermit your life will be more about the journey than a particular destination (e.g., consecration) anyway. Trust God; trust the process or journey; trust the Church, and look to what is most loving and edifying for everyone involved.

Meanwhile, I'll think a bit more about what else I might suggest. I have written about this a lot in various ways over the years so perhaps I do need to pull that all together in a single post.

24 October 2015

Reflections from Friday's Readings

One of the fundamental keys for self-help groups and 12 step programs is the recognition that the person needing help "hits bottom" and comes to a profound sense of their own powerlessness to change things. Though we think of this as a contemporary bit of wisdom it is quite ancient and something Paul has been writing about in his Letter to the Romans for the last two weeks. From the portrait we find in Paul we are apt to recognize clearly that the dynamics of sin and of addiction are almost identical, especially as he describes things today: [["For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members."!]]

The "law of (the) mind" is the law (the inner drive and foundational dynamism) of the inner self, the good will and seat of the desire to do good, to know, embrace, and be truth. It is the fundamental law of the self, the God-given source of vocation and all creativity. It is the law which is at war with the law of sin. The whole self under the power of sin (the flesh) is at war with the whole self under the power of the Spirit (the spirit). What Paul knows with absolute certainty is that the attempt to keep the Law on his own power (flesh) only leads more deeply into sin. After all, to attempt to take what can only be received as gift is to betray both the giver and ourselves who are meant to be receivers. It is to increase the distance between ourselves and God.  Our inner self desires to do good and avoid evil but has no power of itself. Paul knew human beings to be locked in a situation of sin, a bondage of the will, and heart. In such a situation of bondage God's greatest gifts, the Law and the call to pray (to worship God in truth and purity of heart) become traps to idolatry and they occasion an even more extreme situation of estrangement and alienation (sin).

It is, as I described earlier in the week, a bit like jumping off a cliff in an attempt to fly and then trying to arrest the inevitable fall (much less believing we can somehow then launch ourselves into flight!) by pulling on the tops of our shoes! Thus, Paul follows his depressing and realistic analysis with a cry of abject helplessness: [[Who will save me from this body of death?]] But Paul's "hitting bottom" was also the moment of his being "exalted" to his original dignity and freedom. Judgment came in his meeting with God in Christ, but so did redemption and so, Paul's cry of abjection is followed by one of exultation, [[Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!]] The realization that he could do nothing to save himself and was thus in bondage to sin was turned on its head as he came to realize he need do nothing but embrace his powerlessness; in that moment he became open (obedient) and Absolute Power (in the weakness of the Crucified Christ) embraced him. Love-in-Act grasped, shook him, and freed him of "the law of sin" so that he might live instead from the grace of God.

Incapacity to Keep the Law or to be People of Prayer apart from God:

One of the striking pieces of Paul's insight here, an insight rooted in his experience of powerlessness is the way two things become complicit in our sin. The first is Law and the second is prayer. I have written recently about Paul's position on the Law. With Prayer what we need to see is that to truly pray we must admit our powerlessness so that God might then work within us. Paul said it this way, "The Spirit helps us in our infirmities. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit, with groanings too deep for words intercedes for us." My sense is the Church works very hard to make sure we model this in all of our prayer, all of our liturgy. Just as in addiction, so too in any spiritual life: everything hinges on our deep and dual confession of powerlessness and trust in God.

We begin every prayer with the sign of the cross and the words, "In the Name (that is, in the the dynamic, powerful, and empowering presence), of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." In other words, we open ourselves to being moved and empowered by God's own presence. We complete our prayers in the same way, but this time, like Paul's dual confession in Friday's first reading, it is an expression of gratitude and hope rooted again in the powerful presence of the Triune God within and around us. In monastic life and the Liturgy of the Hours we begin the very first prayer of the day with the hopeful plea, "Lord Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise." Again, we know we are powerless to say a single word in prayer much less praise God with our lives unless God empowers us in this way. We trust that God will do so but we are equally clear that he must. At every subsequent hour we begin by intoning, O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me!" This is a prayer I personally pray many times a day in all kinds of situations. At these moments I am reminded of my own powerlessness, but also the power I have in Christ, and the covenant relation with God I truly am.

Paying Attention to the Weather?

Luke's Gospel reminds us how urgent this all is, and how attentive we must be at all times to the smallest sign of God's presence and our own powerlessness apart from that presence. Jesus begins by noting how clearly the people see and understand the signs of coming rain or hot winds. There is nothing trivial in this knowledge. In the Middle East of Jesus' day drought or famine led to social unrest and dislocation, loss of unity and death. Just recently we read that the war in Syria was caused in part by a terrible drought followed by the movement of 1.5M people to urban areas. The economy was destabilized, social unrest occurred and then war. Analysts note that because no one really paid attention to the drought as a factor in the county's situation they deemed Syria to be stable even the day before war broke out; this critical inattentiveness to what should have never been overlooked contributed to or (some opine) even caused the catastrophe in which many nations are now embroiled in one way and another. In California, where we are experiencing a serious drought people have begun to pay keen attention to clouds, water tables, fire conditions, El Nino, Hurricane Patricia, and so forth. We know how fragile the situation in which we find ourselves and we watch carefully lest we face disaster down the line. And yet, how many of us look so assiduously for the signs of God's presence --- or at the signs of our own critical need for God's presence?

As in these situations, and exactly like someone in a twelve step program who begins (and continues every step of) their journey into a hope-filled future by admitting the situation from which they cannot extricate themselves as they also open themselves to a "higher power," we are called to make our own Paul's dual confession of bondage to sin and the grateful celebration of freedom (being empowered by grace) in Christ.  At every moment and mood, with every prayer or attempt to be our true selves we are called to remember and claim our powerlessness so that God may simultaneously empower, free, and exalt  us to true dignity and humility. Embracing our personal poverty is the occasion for the triumph of God's great love. As Paul also reminds us, "(God's) grace is sufficient for (us). (God's) power is made perfect in weakness" --- both that of Christ and our own! We know how to do this:  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we make our prayers and live our lives. In the Name of God our lives are made God's own prayers. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

23 October 2015

Halleluia Chorus: Foodcourt Flashmob

I suppose I "should" save this for Christmas but I happened to see it tonight and was moved to tears. I loved that the choir is all ages and I especially loved the rapt expression on so many of the children's faces as well as the joy on the faces of most of the adults. I remembered my first experience of orchestra (6th or 7th grade) --- the most profound experience of community I had known to that point. I think the choristers know that sense when they make music together; they show it in their attentiveness to one another and their own wonder and joy at what is being wrought here with and for others --- all beyond any individual's capacities. I was also struck by how hungry we are for this kind of freedom of expression, this ability to powerfully draw others into the world of our own witness; imagine trying to proclaim the Sovereignty of Christ otherwise in a food court.

Yes, it's wonderful music and there is no doubt this  music moves us with the power of the Transcendent, but here the lyrics are key for this IS proclamation. Given today's first reading, Handel's celebration of "the Kingdom of God and of his Christ" is precisely what Paul was proclaiming as the solution to the human predicament we call sin and it echoes the power of Paul's own text! "Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Lay Hermits and the Difficulty of Terminology

Last month I posted a response to a question about terminology on the blog  Lay Hermit Intercessor. Since then a number of questions have been posed about the terminology "lay hermit" as well as about the incidence of stereotypes and frauds living as Catholic Hermits --- some prompted by recent posts by another blogger on A Catholic Hermit.  As a result I am going to repost the last part of  last month's article --- specifically that having to do with the basic division of hermits into privately vowed and those who are publicly professed.

Meanwhile let me take one more opportunity to say that Michael Miller's blog Lay Hermit Intercessor is growing into a significant example of a lay hermit's life, work, and struggles. Some of the recent reflections which Mr Miller has posted are incredibly poignant and beautiful in their love, simplicity, and humanity. I believe Mr Miller's life is a service to the Church and  a maturing witness to eremitical life lived in the lay state. Especially, he is a hermit persevering in a little-understood and even less-appreciated form of life sans the support and validation afforded by public profession and consecration. I think that is really admirable and an important reason to distinguish between lay and consecrated.

Related Questions:

[[Sister Laurel, would you agree or disagree that the important distinction in hermits is between those who are privately professed and those who are publicly professed?]]

I agree that this can be seen as the most basic distinction, but it is also the case that one needs to be using the words "private" and "public" in the way the Church herself uses them.

Namely, public vows are those which, 1) are associated with public rights and obligations [and corresponding graces] beyond those that come with baptism, 2) with the exceptions ** mentioned below, are the necessary way one is established in a new and stable state of life, namely, the consecrated and/or religious state, 3) are necessarily associated with religious life and are essential for one claiming to be a professed religious, 4) are associated with vocations lived in the name of the Church (one becomes a Catholic Religious, Catholic hermit, etc.), and 5) involve canonical relationships (legitimate superiors, an approved Rule and the legal and moral obligation to live one's Rule, etc.) which are meant to ensure the integrity of the vocation itself and one's vocational response. If one speaks of public vows ALL of these things are necessarily implied.

(**The exceptions referred to in #2 above are consecrated virginity and c 603: CV's make no vows but do make a significant commitment; c 603 hermits may use a form of commitment using "other sacred bonds". Both involve God's consecration of the person mediated through the ministry of the Church. It is in this way these persons enter the consecrated state.)

Meanwhile, private vows are those which 1) are not associated with public or canonical rights and obligations beyond baptism or whatever state the person is already in, 2) do not initiate or establish one in a new and stable state of life, 3) are not religious vows which, by definition, are public, 4) are not associated with public vocations lived in the name of the Church (one does not become a Catholic Hermit with private vows), and 5) are not associated with the establishment of canonical relationships meant to ensure the integrity of one's vocational response. (That is, they do not involve legitimate superiors, or legal obligations to live one's Rule, but they do involve the moral obligation to live one's Rule or Plan of Life.) If one identifies oneself as privately vowed ALL of these limitations or exclusions are necessarily implied.

So, in summary, yes, one can certainly assert that the one distinction that "matters" for a hermit is that between public and private vows so long as one is not trying to reduce or even trivialize the meaning of these terms to their more common senses of known and unknown to others . . .. In other words, if one asserts this is the only distinction that matters then one needs to explain why they are such significant terms in the life of the Church. [One needs to unpack them and demonstrate how distinct from one another they are while doing justice to the ways they are identical.] Most of my efforts in speaking about this in the past has involved  "unpacking" the way the Church uses these terms to speak of non-canonical and canonical eremitical vocations and the significant but differing commitments and obligations associated with these.

Addendum, 10/24/2015: [[Sister Laurel, you are recommending this blog as an example of a lay [hermit's life and work] but Michael Miller identifies himself as "Brother Michael of the Cross." I didn't think that was allowed.]]

It is sometimes profoundly difficult to make the decision to remain a lay hermit rather than becoming a religious and every hermit has had to struggle with those deep desires to be accepted as a religious as opposed to embracing eremitical life in the lay state --- especially since the Church has tended to devalue lay life for such a long time. That only began to change in a substantive way with Vatican II. Despite living their callings "in the heart of the Church", Hermits are already marginalized by their very vocation. When the Church herself treats lay vocations as less meaningful than those to the consecrated or ordained states, for instance, that marginalization can be compounded and rendered very painful indeed.

Mr Miller's blog, as is the case for all blogs, is a work in progress and one of the signs that this is so is the evidence it gives of this exact struggle in his own life. Over time Mr Miller has embraced the eremitical life and done so as a lay person; moreover, as noted earlier, he has done so without the support or validation a public vocation necessarily has. This is part of the hiddenness of the vocation in Mr Miller's specific case as it may well be in the case of all lay hermits today. As with all aspects of the eremitical vocation defined by the Church, this one is not always an easy one to negotiate.

Personally, I believe vestiges of the struggle will drop away in time. I think one of the reasons for blogs is to help us find our true and unique voices; it seems to me Michael's blog shows evidence of his doing just that. It is a sacred and challenging process. What is important is the identity Mr Miller has embraced and is expressing more and more characteristically in his posts. All of these are signed Michael Miller and it is my sense that in these articles he speaks honestly from his heart (and from the heart of the Church!) as one intimately familiar with prayer, suffering, eremitical solitude, and the love and joy of faith in Christ. 

21 October 2015

Congratulations to Sister Chela Gonzalez, OP

Insignia of Grand Rapids Dominican Sister Chela's Perpetual Profession: Profession Ring and Dominican Cross. The profession itself was really lovely and I just want to mark it here.

One of the things that has happened in contemporary religious life is the establishment of and growing unity among women religious of all congregations. Once we were marked by our differences: charism, dress, apostolates, etc, but not so much anymore and what is coming to be is a powerful reality I think. The internet has assisted with this and so have groups like the LCWR, the need to combine or merge congregations, and so forth. At Chela's Profession there were folks from all over the country attending, some of us by video streaming. A number were Dominicans from other congregations but not all! What was striking to me was that many of us already knew each other and our thumbnail videos (each was labeled with the person's full name) allowed folks to see and wave to one another while chat allowed us to type greetings.

There was real participation in the liturgy even from our remote locations. Some sang the Litany of the Saints along with the choir at Marywood as Chela stood with her head slightly bowed and her open hands gently outstretched in a gesture of receptiveness and humility. It was very powerful. The presence of many of us from around the country added to the sense that the entire Church in heaven and on earth was joined together at this moment to make this Sister's dedication to God and God's consecration of her real in space and time. Once Sister Chela made her Final Profession those in the Marywood Chapel burst into applause but so did those watching via video! It was a spontaneous and wonderful addition to the experience.

I am very grateful to Chela and her Grand Rapids Sisters for investing both time and money in the technology that allows greater unity and shared celebrations at such distances. I have seen a similar use of technology with the San Rafael Dominicans who regularly stream professions, funerals, speakers' presentations, and other events to their Sisters in the infirmary. And of course there are the Sisters and associates at Nun's Life Ministries who make speakers, Q and A blogs, podcasts and all kinds of things possible with their own investment in technology!

As a diocesan hermit with limited contact with most of these people and things, technology has been a real gift to me. Again, my congratulations and very best wishes to Sister Chela on the occasion of her Final Profession and my thanks to her and to her congregation for extending invitations to the Profession and for streaming the event for those of us who could not attend physically. Religious life is a tremendous adventure and we are participating in a new and vital chapter in its history under the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Thank God for those who have responded as they have!

Private Vows, the Normative Way to Become a Consecrated Hermit?

[[ Dear Sister, you said, [[As I have written many times here the unique thing about canon 603 is that for the very first time in universal law the solitary eremitical vocation is recognized in law as a "state of perfection"  and those consecrated in this way are recognized as religious in the RCC.  In other words, there were no solitary consecrated hermits prior to canon 603. Nor are there solitary consecrated hermits in the Western Church apart from canon 603. Canon 603 was created for the very purpose of admitting solitary hermits to consecration. Today the term lay hermit is used to distinguish those non-clerical solitary hermits who have not been admitted to the consecrated state under canon 603.]] (cf., Notes From Stillsong: Replying to Objections) Does this mean I cannot use private vows to become a consecrated hermit? I am asking because I read on A Catholic Hermit that I can just make private vows and this is the normative way to become a consecrated hermit.]]

Yes, that is precisely what it means. The author of the blog you mentioned is mistaken in her positions in this matter. In modern times and before canon 603 there were no solitary consecrated hermits. Apart from canon 603 there are currently no solitary consecrated hermits. There both were and are hermits who are consecrated as part of canonical communities (institutes or societies) according to the usual canons governing religious life, but canon 603 represents an entirely new possibility for solitary hermits who wish to discern and be admitted to the consecrated state of life in the Church. If you yourself wish to pursue consecration as a solitary hermit it will HAVE to be under canon 603; as I have noted here a number of times, there is no other option.

The creation of this option is the very reason canon 603 was promulgated. It is the reason Bishop Remi De Roo urged the Fathers of Vatican II Council to recognize solitary eremitical life as a state of perfection when seasoned monks desiring to live the silence of solitude were required to have solemn vows dispensed and be secularized themselves in order to embrace God's will that they be hermits. It is the reason dioceses struggle to discern such vocations and celebrate the occasion of these professions and consecrations. It is consistent with the fact that consecrated life (a public state in the Church) is never entered into with private vows or private commitments. Finally, the creation of Canon 603 is consistent with the Church's treatment of consecrated life generally and with all "stable (or permanent) states of life" which are marked by legal (canonical and public) rights and obligations. Thus it says specifically: "Hermits are recognised by law as dedicated to God in consecrated life if, in the hands of the diocesan Bishop, they publicly profess the evangelical counsels and live their Plan of Life under his direction" (Can 603.2) This is what is normative for solitary consecrated hermits in the Western (Latin) Church.

N.B., Private vows are never normative  in this way (meaning they are never held as a norm by/for the life of the Church per se any more than private revelations can be held as normative for that life); Nor can they be made normative precisely because they are entirely private. This is so because no one but the individual him or herself decides when private vows are to be used nor does nor can anyone oversee the meaning of their content or govern faithfulness to such commitments besides the individual him/herself; again, this is true precisely because such commitments are entirely private in every sense --- canonically or legally, ecclesially, and personally.

Were the Church (or perhaps a diocesan bishop) to say, for instance, "To be a hermit one MUST make "private" vows of the evangelical counsels (meaning, as the Church understands these Counsels)" this would be engaging in an incoherent act and/or changing the meaning of the term "private." In the latter instance such vows would cease to be entirely private (in fact they would need to become public) because they would involve mutual expectations, and obligations which would need to be supervised and appropriately governed. Were private vows truly private in every way and were it also held as possible to enter consecrated life in this way, it would be impossible for the Universal Church to write as she does in Lumen Gentium,  [[It is the duty of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to regulate the practice of the evangelical counsels by law, since it is the duty of the same hierarchy to care for the People of God and to lead them to most fruitful pastures.]] LG 44.4  Private commitments as private are ungovernable; neither can they ever represent a public or ecclesial witness within the People of God. It is critically important to see the fundamental incoherence of the position that one enters a public (canonical) state of life via a private act.


If you have any questions about what you have read here or on the other blog mentioned, I would urge you to contact your chancery (Vicar for Religious or of Consecrated Life) or a canonist elsewhere. (There are canonists accessible here online like Therese Ivers who specializes in the law of consecrated life and is doing a doctoral thesis focusing on canon 603. You can find her at Do I Have a Vocation?) I have no doubt  whomever you contact will explain c.603 is the normative way to enter the consecrated state as a solitary hermit, that they will affirm that private vows (which do not constitute one in a stable or permanent state of life, are not received by the Church nor celebrated within the Eucharist) never initiate one into the consecrated state of life, and that they will affirm the new and unique place of canon 603 in creating the option of solitary consecrated eremitical life in the contemporary Church.

Besides, should you decide you wish to pursue a process of discernment leading to consecration as a Catholic hermit living his life in the name of the Church, canonists or Vicars for Religious in your chancery especially will be able to assist you in looking into this as well.

20 October 2015

A Contemplative Moment: On Distractions

Prayer and Love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.
If you have never had any distractions you don't know how to pray. For the secret of prayer is a hunger for God and for the vision of God, a hunger that lies far deeper than the level of language or affection. And a [person] whose memory and imagination are persecuting [her] with a crowd of useless or even evil thoughts and images may sometimes be forced to pray far better in the depths of [her] murdered heart, than one whose mind is swimming with clear concepts and brilliant purposes and easy acts of love.
. . . But in all these things it is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God and to see Him and to love Him is the one thing that matters. If you have desired to know Him and love Him you have already done what was expected of you, and it is much better to desire God without being able to think clearly of Him, than to have marvelous thoughts about Him without desiring to enter into union with His will.
"Distractions" Seeds of Contemplation
by Thomas Merton, OSCO

19 October 2015

Who Will Save me from this Body of Death? (Reprise)

I received a question yesterday regarding someone (a Catholic) who felt he was such a terrible sinner that he could not be forgiven by God. He felt abandoned by God. . .. The person who sent me this email had suggested the person offer up his sufferings and this person replied that they were the result of his sin; he could not offer them to God. He is entirely correct in this --- at least if this offering was meant to make the situation better in some propitiatory way. Such an offering could only make things worse. The ONLY solution to such a situation, and indeed to any of our situations of sinfulness is the mercy of God freely given and humbly received as wholly undeserved. I had already been writing a reflection on the first reading from Friday (Paul's letter to the Romans) so I decided to combine the two here.  Bearing in mind Paul's anguished and jubilant cry from [this Friday's readings]: "Who can save me from this body of death? Praise be to Jesus Christ!" my own response was as follows:

 If there is anything the Scriptures tell us again and again it is that God does not abandon ANYONE. (Even his abandonment of Christ was unique and more complex than simple much less absolute abandonment. Still, it was an expression of the abandonment we each deserve but which God in Christ also redeems.) In Christ, and especially in Christ's passion, God embraced the complete scope of sin and death so that we might be redeemed from these; in Christ he journeyed to the depths of hell to rescue those who were there. Israel failed again and again, committed idolatry, apostasy, etc etc, and NEVER did God abandon her.

It is prideful [or arrogant] to believe the sins we commit are too big for God to forgive or the state of sin from which these come is too great for God to reconcile and heal. The only thing more dangerous is to refuse that forgiveness when it is offered; THAT is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the sin against the power of the Spirit working in us that says, "Let me forgive you and change your life." Your correspondent has not committed that sin, nor does he need to. The Holy Spirit will continue to prompt him to repent and to allow God to heal him. Even at the moment of death he will be asked to make a decision for or against God. In part this is what death is, the moment when we make a final choice which ratifies or denies the choices of our life.

This person need not offer his sufferings but he does need to trust in Christ's, especially in his obedience [responsiveness] in his suffering and the sufficiency of these things together. There, Paul tells us, is nothing he can do on his own but get farther and farther from God. That [is] the point of [this] Friday's first reading from Romans. If you recall Paul calls out, "Who will save me from this body of death (meaning this whole self under the sway of sin). Law can't do it, good works cannot do it, offering up our own puny sufferings cannot do it (even those which are not the fruit of our own sin!). Only God in Christ can do it. While you say you pray that God might act on this person's behalf, there is no might about Jesus or God doing so or acting to free him from his sin. God has already done so in Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. The Church mediates that to us in innumerable ways. But this person must allow that to be true in his own life. Again, as the reading from Friday [. . .] makes clear, there is simply NOTHING we can do on our own. We are enslaved by sin Unless and Until we allow grace to work in us. Grace is unmerited always and everywhere. God offers us the grace of the victory already achieved by Christ time after time every day of our lives. We have to admit, with Paul, that the only answer to our enslavement is to accept that forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, etc on God's own terms, that is, without ANY sense that we have merited or earned it.

 The temptation to do something religious (including offering up our sufferings) to earn God's forgiveness is the most pernicious and dangerous temptation people face. I would argue it is far more dangerous than the temptation to sexual sins people ordinarily place at the top of lists, etc precisely because we mistakenly believe it (doing something religious) is unequivocally good at all times. Paul knew this well. He knew that the Law acted as temptation in peoples' lives and so, as I noted last week, he came to see it as a school master --- not to teach us what was good, but to instruct us about our weakness and incapacity to do anything salvific -- or even anything good --- on our own. In fact, Paul actually says that God gave us the Law for this very purpose and even so that our own state of sin might be intensified in such a way as to make us ready to cry out for a redeemer. That redeemer has been given to us. His death, resurrection and ascension have accomplished that redemption. We simply have to receive him and the new life he offers us as Paul himself did --- with cries of both abject helplessness and gratitude. 

Paul teaches emphatically: [[You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.]] While we were entirely powerless, while we were godless sinners estranged from God, from our deepest selves, and from the whole of creation, while, that is, we were wholly incapable of acting in a way which would resolve the situation but instead made things ever worse, God acted out of an unfathomable love to reconcile us to our truest selves, to Godself, others and to creation.  This is the GOOD NEWS from which we live and which we proclaim --- nothing other and nothing less.

I hope this is helpful.

A note on translations. Some versions of [this] Friday's first lection read "Who will save me from this mortal body?" I prefer, "Who will save me from this body of death?" because it more clearly connotes a self enslaved by the powers of sin and death. "Mortal body" is too easy to hear as simply referring to a material body which is finite and will die. Body of death refers more powerfully to a self in whom death is actively at work, not only in ourselves but in the world around us, a body (self) which makes death present as a sort of awful and active "contagion". In Paul's theology human beings find themselves to be either a whole self under the sway (enslavement) of sin (for which Paul uses the terms, "flesh body", "flesh" or "body of death") or under the sway (enslavement) of grace (for which he uses the term "Spiritual body", etc.).

16 October 2015

Faith built on Grace versus a Religion of Hypocrisy and Fear

Today's readings are from Romans and the Gospel of Luke (Rom. 4:1-8 and Luke 12:1-7). In the first lection Paul refers to Abraham and David, two pillars of the Jewish faith and notes that both of them call for a faith which rests on the faithfulness and love of God, not on good works. Both of them affirm that covenant existence (righteousness) is rooted in the free grace of God --- even without works! It is a startling conclusion for this scholar of the Law-turned-Apostle of the Gospel, but Paul cites both the example of Abraham who "believed God" and only boasted in God's faithfulness, as well as the writings of the psalmist where he says, [[Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not record.]] We can never overstate the earth shattering reversal this priority of Grace over works and God's faithfulness over our own achievements (and failures) represented in Paul's day and yet represents today.

Especially Paul saw that obedience to the Law produces a terrible trap when this is the ground of one's religion and has priority over faith in grace. One commentator (Buetow) on the readings from this week characterized it as producing an experience which is something like a dog chasing its own tail. We try to keep the law only to find that we cannot do so, and we turn to the law to empower us to be truly human and keep the law thus falling even further into sin, and so it goes, on and on, around and around in an inescapable circular trap.

Our attempts to escape condemnation (i.e., to escape the consequences of our actions) lead to greater estrangement from God, to greater enmeshment in sin, to greater reliance on law, and so on. I like Harold Buetow's metaphor but in some ways I prefer another image. Once we have put our faith (trust) in the law and thus too, in our own ability to keep the law it will be rather like finding we have jumped from a cliff expecting we will be able to fly or change the course of things by our own efforts. You can imagine how much good it will do to tug hard at the tops of one's shoes in an attempt to slow down or stop one's fall --- much less launch ourselves upwards in the freedom of flight! We simply do not have the power to do that (heck, some of us can't even reach the tops of our shoes!), and if we try, if we put our trust in our own abilities and achievements, we will add presumption, fatal foolishness, and despair to our undoubted and ever-accelerating helplessness. We may even lead others to fall along with us!

In today's Gospel Luke paints a picture of the trap the Pharisees have fallen into in this way; he is also concerned with the consequences for themselves and others of the rapidly accelerating freefall they are still (ignorantly) in the midst of. In particular Luke is writing about two related forms of religion which are rooted in trust in works of the law rather than in faith in God's unmerited grace. The first form, represented mainly by the Pharisees, is a religion built on hypocrisy; the second and interrelated form, represented mainly by those ordinary Jews who cannot ordinarily keep the Law at all, is a religion which is built on fear.

The extended warning about secrets being revealed and all things being brought into the light of day or shouted from the housetops serves two purposes: the first is to remind the disciples and the Pharisees that all of the latter's plotting and planning, the secret judgments and betrayals will one day be fully revealed, first in the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, and later in the destruction of the Temple when their hypocritical and essentially empty personal religion will be fully manifested and come to judgment in such consequences. The second purpose is to remind the ordinary folks, Jew and Gentile alike, that their own small (or large) betrayals, infidelities, secret judgments, plottings, etc will be known by God, but even more, that they will have consequences which make them manifest to the world around them. At first this would increase everyone's fear of judgment --- just as the Law increases one's sense of and actual sin --- and it would temporarily sharpen the desperation that has the crowds trampling one another underfoot in their attempts to approach the One who incarnates the very mercy of God. (The trampling others underfoot is itself a great symbol of graceless religion and the trap it creates!)

But the solution to the trap, the ultimate resolution of any religion of either fear or hypocrisy, as Paul says clearly in the first reading, lies in the faithfulness of God and our own trust in the God revealed in Jesus --- just as the crowds in Luke's gospel lection have come on some level to know. At some point we have to stop chasing our own tails; we must stop grasping at our own "boot straps" and believe instead in God who holds us securely in the palm of his hand --- who, in fact holds the entirety of creation in the palm of his hand and proclaims it good. We must, as Luke's Gospel passage today affirms, believe God when he tells us he has numbered the hairs on our heads --- so precious does he consider us!

Once we do that, once we allow God's love to fill us with a mercy that justifies, we will be empowered to do truly good works. There will be no discrepancy between the inner and the outer person as there was for so many of the Pharisees, no conflict between the Law and the law of our hearts. While we live the law written on our hearts more purely and exhaustively, we will fulfill the Law itself --- and we will do both in Christ. Neither will we create a message of terrifying judgment or foster a religion of fear in others. Instead we will proclaim a Gospel of Divine mercy doing justice. But as Paul and Luke both knew this means "believing God" and letting go of any tendencies to trust ourselves alone. Both knew that life in Communion with God (righteousness) was a free gift, something we had to allow to take hold of us, not something we could ever achieve or grasp for ourselves.

My prayer today then is that each and all of us may be able to risk "believing God" and relinquish of any vestiges of a religion of either hypocrisy or fear. As in the Gospel antiphon today, we cry out to God, [[May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us;who have put our hope in you.]] With our whole hearts and lives may we each trust that it will be so according to God's own promises of mercy. After all, that is the very meaning of every Amen we say.

15 October 2015

Common Questions re the Hermit and Canon Law

The readings throughout this week are focused on the relationship of law and faith, works and grace. The essential point of Paul's arguments is that we are justified (made part of a covenant relationship with God) through faith (i.e., through trust in God who is both the gift and gift giver) rather than through works, especially works of the law. That is the point of today's lection and of tomorrow's where Abraham is said to have believed God (note it does not say Abraham believed in God!) and this was credited to him as righteousness (that is, as right standing in a covenant relationship with God).

The corollary to this fundamental truth is that only God can bring us into right relationship with himself and that once this occurs, we are made capable of truly good works. Justification precedes good works, but at the same time, once we are justified, once we exist in a covenant relationship with God, we WILL do good works --- not least because we ourselves will be an expression of what it means to be truly human; we will truly be God's good creation.

Common Questions about the Hermit and Law:

Regular readers will know that one question (and variations thereof) which I have been asked a number of times in various ways over the years is, Sister Laurel, how can you live with such dependence on canon law or on what you call "proper" law? If living as a hermit means depending entirely on God, then why do you need law at all? Isn't this contrary to the Gospel and Paul's teaching on Faith? Isn't this a typical Catholic error? Isn't dependence on law a source of sin or doesn't it inevitably lead to sin? I received such an email a couple of days ago which was ostensibly triggered by the week's readings from Romans.

Thus, it seems like a good time to reiterate Paul's arguments on the relation of law to grace not only in relation to any life at all, but particularly in the life of a canonical hermit. First of all a hermit believes God (as tomorrow's reading from Romans puts the matter of Abraham). That always comes first and last. It is the critical and foundational thing, the very reason for her vocation and the thing such a life alone with God witnesses to. Imagine a life given over to prayer and to becoming God's own prayer in our world if one does not first and last "believe God" and thus, trust in God's promises, will, plans, and future.

Imagine giving up one's dreams of service (in the Academy, the Church, the world at large) as well as the promise of worldly success, wealth, prestige, influence, and so forth, even to the extent of giving up friends, family, career, and the potential for marriage, childbearing and parenting, etc, if one was not first and foremost "believing God" and proclaiming the absolute sufficiency of the grace of God with one's solitary life. When confronted with the choice for eremitical solitude we must figure that one who does these things is either crazy or rightly trusts the God who brings life out of death and meaning out of meaninglessness with the whole of her life. Either she has betrayed her humanity with all its gifts and potentials, or she has trusted God and realized that same humanity in the most radical and paradoxical way. The first word in any authentic hermit's life is grace! The second is faith and the two are inextricably wed in a fulfilling relationship.

Only thereafter comes law whether that be civil, ecclesiastical and canon law, or the hermit's own proper law. Moreover law serves love, it does not replace it. When Paul spoke about the Law he spoke of it as a taskmaster and more importantly, a teacher. It was the job of the Law to show us what it looked like to live a covenant relationship with God. It served to some limited extent to protect people from influences which would destroy that covenant relationship or draw them into loving something more than God or in God's place. It codified what a reverent life looked like, what a life which recognized the presence of God in ordinary life demanded of us. The written Law pointed beyond itself to the law written on the heart, the law which was really supposed to be the norm and dynamic of our lives. And finally, the Law taught individuals the impossibility of "keeping the law" on one's own. Not only did it instruct us in the ways sin appeared in our lives, but it impelled us to recognize we could do nothing apart from or without the grace of God --- especially keeping the Law or living the Law written on our own hearts (the will, spirit, and call of Godself which resides there). In other words, the Law witnesses to the foundational place of the grace of God. It presupposes that grace and serves to invite us to be open to it when and in whatever way it comes to us.

Canon Law and Proper Law and the Consecrated Catholic Hermit:

The Catholic Church recognizes that canonical or consecrated hermits live from the grace of God first and foremost, just as any authentic hermit does. She recognizes that the call to be a hermit is an extraordinary grace in and of itself. She understands it, in part, as a mediated grace which comes to the individual not only directly but through the life (Word, Sacrament, People and Tradition) of the Church and speaks to her heart. She sees it as a gift which God gives not only to the individual called, but to the entire faith community. Moreover, as a gift entrusted to the Church this calling is understood as an expression of the Gospel she is called upon to proclaim to the entire world. For all of this to be true the Church has to discern such vocations along with the hermit; beyond discerning such vocations (something that requires a clear and normative understanding of what they are and how they are characterized), the Church has to provide ways of maintaining, nurturing, and governing them. She is responsible for this, for discerning their soundness, and for keeping the pulse of the spirituality characterizing them. Especially she is responsible for being sure some of the common "isms" of our modern world like individualism, narcissism, cocooning, isolationism, and antinomianism, etc are not allowed to replace or pretend at being authentic eremitical life.

In all of this the Church knows that law can serve grace. Law can serve love just as the Ten Commandments can serve the more primary love of God. Structure can define, govern, nurture and protect a vocation. More importantly, in a world where grace is mediated through temporal realities, law can establish stable relationships that help nurture and protect the hermit's life with God alone. Canon law serves in all of these ways. It defines a consecrated form of life which represents a normative vision of the eremitical calling. It defines the way such vocations are to be discerned, nurtured and governed. It makes sure that the freedom of eremitical life with God alone is not replaced by pretense or distortion. It provides for ongoing supervision and assistance, spiritual direction, and accountability. (There is no love without accountability nor authentic freedom either!) It helps make clear that the hermit within the Church, and especially the canonical hermit, is an important part of a living tradition which cannot be allowed to be lost sight of --- whether by the hermit or by her legitimate superiors!

In addition to accepting the place of canon law in her life the consecrated hermit reflects on and expresses the place of the Grace of God in her life by writing a Rule of life. In that Rule she incorporates her vision of the life, especially as her own individual life with God belongs to the greater vision of the Church; she builds in allowance for the various forms of prayer, silence, solitude, Scripture, study, lectio, recreation, sacrifice or penance, and (limited) ministry through which God is truly allowed to be sovereign in her life. The Rule will reflect her vows and the relationships which are central in assisting her to being truly accountable. It will mark the times she requires for retreat or other time away from the hermitage and in its own way it will codify all the external constraints which mark a life of inner freedom, a life where Grace is the primary gift and the thing to which the hermit witnesses in everything she is and does.

I am sure that objections about the place of law in my life (or in the life of any canonical hermit, and also, perhaps, in the life of the Church itself) will be raised again from time to time, whether we are reading through Romans at that point or not. What needs to be made clear is that the canonical hermit does not embrace law, nor write about law because she is a legalist. She does so because she recognizes that God has gifted her with a unique calling, one which is so precious, so vital, and also so fragile that it requires the assistance of others and the establishment of stable structures and relationships to be lived in a genuinely responsive and accountable way. She does so because to go it alone is to risk mistaking some other voice for that of God and thus, ensuring that the witness of her life is either lost entirely or rendered destructive, "disedifying". In this, as in the entire history of Law and Gospel, Law is presupposed by and anticipates Grace for its fulfillment. It serves Love-in-act and allows that love to be mediated to others in service.

Question and Variations:

Clearly I don't believe governing eremitical vocations with canon (universal Church) and proper law (the hermit's own Rule) is contrary to Paul's own teaching on Law and Gospel. I believe instead it reflects the wisdom of Paul's understanding and theology. Can it be misused? Of course. But when the hermit, her diocese, bishop, director, and delegate, are all dealing from a place where they are prayerfully seeking to hear the call and will of God, when, that is, they are attentive to the grace of God, law will serve love as it is meant to do. The alternative is to jettison law and allow a fragile vocation to succumb to the powers, and ideologies of a world fraught with caricatures and fraudulent versions of genuine individuality and freedom. Please see the labels below for other posts treating various versions of the questions raised here, especially for those stressing the way consecrated states of life require legitimate relationships which foster both stability and accountability.

13 October 2015

Questions on "Diocese-Shopping"

[[Hello sister ! First, thank you for your blog, I'm learning a lot. I have a question. I read your tag "diocese-shopping", and while I understand it, I have a question. Let's imagine someone who grow up in a diocese (diocese A.), loves it very much, etc... Later, for work, he have no other choice than to move to another city, and another diocese (diocese B.). He's invested in diocese B. life, but when he began to discern an hermit life, he moves to diocese A. because he wants to be an hermit on his native diocese. Is it okay ? Basically, is it okay to change of diocese to discern (and live) an hermit life because you love this diocese dearly, want to be close to the people of this diocese, etc... ? ]]

Thanks for your question. If the situation is as you describe it I can't see anything wrong with doing this. I suspect diocese A would want to be clear about your motives and they would determine you had not been denied admission to profession in diocese B, but if they accepted you for a process of discernment it would be up to them.  I do admit to having a bit of an immediate sense that your language about dearly loving the diocese and its people seems a bit over the top to me. Still, I can completely understand feeling at home in a diocese, especially due to differing dominant languages and culture and wanting to serve the Church as part of that diocese; I think the chancery involved can also see that. (By the way, before you move you should probably ask someone in the chancery if this diocese is open to professing canon 603 vocations at all. Some are not while some have professed people in the past and then become more cautious in professing others.)

After relocating and before contacting the chancery to make an actual request of them in your own regard you would need time to establish yourself as a lay hermit, reestablish yourself in a parish, get a regular director (or continue with the one you are already working with), and find a way to support yourself. If you live as a lay hermit for at least two years then you might contact the chancery with your request to be considered for profession under canon 603. Even though you would be returning to the diocese you would still be looking at living in this way for five years or so before being seriously considered for admission to profession as a diocesan hermit.

I say this first because from my experience you will need to live eremitical solitude for at least this long before you can actually: 1) determine this is not a form of transitional solitude you are living, 2) discern the proper balance between solitude and life and ministry in (parish) community, 3) discern whether it would be better for you and for the Church at large that you live this vocation as a lay hermit, and 4) begin to prepare for canonical profession if you and your diocese eventually discern you are called to that. I also say this because dioceses I know have made 5 years the minimum number of years one must live a directed and supervised eremitical life before they will admit one to even temporary canonical vows. Note of course that even then there is no assurance you will be accepted for public profession, particularly perpetual profession at the end of process that can extend from 5-10 years. (It is true that if the diocese does not consider a person suitable they will not extend the process beyond several years and sometimes they will not admit to a process of serious mutual discernment at all.) I just want you to know there are no certainties in this, especially as you are considering moving.

However, your original question is about "diocese shopping" and as you have described the situation I don't think that would be an issue. My posts on this topic, as I think you gathered, have been in regard to folks who propose to move wherever a diocese has diocesan hermits once they have been denied either serious discernment with the diocese or admission to public profession. Sometimes one hears of folks who have traveled abroad to attempt to get an Abbot to profess them when they have been denied admission in their home dioceses. I think what has to be the bottom line is that one feels called to eremitical life, will live it either as a lay person or one consecrated to do so --- whatever the Church deems best --- and that, generally speaking, they only shift dioceses if the one they are now living in is not consecrating anyone as a diocesan hermit. Gyrovagues and Sarabaites have always been a problem in monastic life and they remain one in terms of canon 603 and eremitical life in the Church today.

12 October 2015

It is Only With the Heart that One Sees Rightly

Recently a parishioner sent a postcard to the daily Mass folks. Buzz and his wife, Diana, are doing The Way (El Camino de Santiago) and are on their way to St James de Compostela. The postcard quoted St Exupery's Little Prince: "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." Certainly on such a pilgrimage we come to see people in more profound ways than we do when we look at them superficially. In the best cases pilgrims begin to see one another in ways which make them more whole and takes delight in them --- warts and all. It reminded me of a reflection I did one Friday just two or three weeks ago regarding the beam in one person's eye and the splinter in another!

Also recently I read the story of someone who, as a result of some sort of 'private revelation', apparently "fled Mass in horror" because she had supposedly seen "through the masks" of people attending Mass, perhaps most especially the priest presiding there. She wrote of seeing various persons' flaws, seeing raw, unfiltered truth, and she is trying to make sense of this way of seeing that happens to her at Mass. In light of this deeply disturbing experience (for the person writing about it has written about also being profoundly troubled by it in the past) there is some monastic wisdom which is critical to keep in mind, namely, we only see a person truly when we see them as God sees them. Keeping this in mind will help us hear what is being said again and again in the Gospel readings throughout this whole week.

It is one thing to see a person's flaws. That is certainly part of the truth of who we each are. But it is not the deepest truth and it is the deepest truth which the grace of God empowers us to see and work towards.  The less profound "truth" we may also see can become literally diabolical, that is, it can divide, throw, or tear apart (diabolos comes from the Greek, dia for apart and balein, to throw). It divides the see-er from her own heart, it tears apart the one seen in this way by treating a part of them as the whole or most important truth, and it can result in ripping apart the community in which such things occur. Such truth is meant to be filtered, filtered through hearts that see as God sees, that love as God loves --- with a mercy that does justice, a love that makes whole. Otherwise, the result is true misery for all involved. In light of all this I wanted to repost this piece I put up several years ago:

It is Only With the Heart that We See Rightly.

In one of the best selling books of all time, The Little Prince, there is a dialogue between a fox and the Little Prince. It occurs over a period of time. The Fox begins by explaining about what it means to be "tamed,"  and he notes that it involves forming ties with others. He begs the Prince to "tame him" and over time (the prince agrees to "waste time" in this way!) the Little Prince does so while the Fox allows himself to be tamed; in other words the Prince works to become the Fox's friend and the Fox becomes his. As a result the most mundane parts of reality are also transformed. Golden fields of wheat which hold no interest for the Fox ordinarily (he eats only chickens!) now remind the Fox of his friend's golden hair and occasion joy. When the time comes for the Little Prince to leave the Fox is sad, and then he gives the Little Prince his most precious secret, a secret he says most men have forgotten: [[It is only with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.]]

In last Friday's Gospel story Jesus knows that there is more than one way of "seeing" and he equates one of these with a destructive blindness which will lead everyone into the pit together. He warns that an untrained person is apt to harm someone and needs to get proper training before trying to act as a teacher. And he reminds us via this story that we ourselves are often afflicted with a beam in our own eye but that we are equally often one who blindly criticizes and offers to extract a splinter from another's eye. We hear one of Jesus' most damning judgments as he says: "You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from in your brother's eye!"

Jesus clearly understands several things; he knows what the fox reminds us most "men have forgotten": First, that seeing rightly (compassion) is something we do with our hearts and this requires a kind of training. It is the kind of training one does when, over time, one helps (trains) a child to grow in a certain way. It takes years to "train" a child's ability to stand upright, to help them become persons who love themselves and others, who are capable of giving themselves to the world in a way which makes it better, richer, more holy. It takes years to help a child become responsible for their own hearts as we ourselves are called to be responsible for our own hearts Our hearts are, as I have said here a number of times, the places where we meet and respond to God, but they are also those places within us where obstacles to this meeting reside; for this reason they need to be "trained"  (formed, healed, nurtured, strengthened, aided) to see rightly. The responsibility for forming our hearts, for taming them (what Christians call growing in holiness), is a lifelong process of being made capable of compassionate seeing by living with and from Christ.

Secondly then, he knew that the way our attention is avidly drawn to the splinter in another's eye SHOULD lead us to suspect the beam in our own; that is, we should suspect the real obstacles to accurate vision, to compassion, exist in our own hearts. They represent ways of seeing we have made our own whether they have come from our culture, from peer pressure, from our own needs, successes or failures, from the hurts of childhood, or wherever. Because of this I think Jesus understood very well that we ordinarily operate from habitual ways of seeing and behaving which are less than Christian; we operate from characteristic attitudes of the false self that serve as lenses which distort our own vision and prevent us from seeing rightly or compassionately with the heart. In terms of the Gospel, and the story of the Little Prince, they are the lenses which prevent us from making neighbors of those we meet or know, the lenses which prevent us from loving others, from letting others "tame us," and therefore from becoming friends.

 Two pieces of monastic truth:

Monastic life encapsulated Jesus' teaching in a number of ways, but there are two pieces which are especially important here. The first is the monastic teaching on what are called "the passions."  The passions are obstacles to humility, that is, they are barriers to recognizing and celebrating the truth about who we are in regard to God and others. Thus they are also obstacles to compassion, to seeing others with the same kind of loving truthfulness. They are most often the beams in our own eyes and hearts which cause us to overreact to the splinters in our brother's or sister's eyes. They are the symptoms of woundedness and disease in our own hearts which cause us to project onto others and fail to love them as we ought and as they deserve. As Roberta Bondi reminds us, "a passion has as its chief characteristics perversion of vision and the destruction of love." (To Love as God Loves)

Common passions we are all too familiar with include perfectionism, a kind of habitual irritation with someone or some situation, anger, envy, depression, apathy or sloth, gluttony (which often has more to do, Bondi points out, with requiring novelty than it does with eating), irritable or anxious restlessness, impatience, selfishness, etc. In each, if we consider their effects, we will notice these habitual ways of relating to ourselves and our world cause us to see reality in a distorted way (this is one of the reasons we think of seeing reality through the green haze of envy, the red film of anger, or the black wall of depression, and so forth). Further, they get in the way of being open to or nurturing the truth of others --- that is, they are obstacles to love.

Similarly they are destructive of sight and love because they cause us to transfer onto others our own flawed expectations, values, failings and woundedness.  We know this by its psychological term: projection. It is a serious disordering of our hearts and minds that Jesus apparently understood well; it is a result of our own brokenness and sinfulness, and it assures not only that the person being projected onto CANNOT be heard or seen for who they are, but also that the one doing the projecting becomes more and more locked into their own blindness and inability to love the other as neighbor. The wisdom of Jesus' admonition, "Remove the beam from your own eye before you attempt to remove the splinter from your brother's," as well as the appropriateness of his anger in calling others on their hypocrisy is profound.

The second piece of monastic wisdom here we should remember, and one which is closely related to the importance of dealing with these passions has to do with the nature of really seeing another truly. In our own time we are very used to acting as though we only know someone really well when we see their flaws. We approach people and things "critically," searching out their failings and weaknesses and when we have discovered them, we believe we have discovered their deepest truth. How often have we heard someone say something like: "I thought I knew him, but the other day, he acted to betray me. Now I really know who he is!"

But monastic wisdom is just the opposite of this notion of knowing. It is strikingly countercultural and counterintuitive. In monastic life we only really know someone when we see them as God sees them: precious, sacred, whole, and beautiful. We only see them rightly when we look past the flaws **to the deep or true person at the core. We only see them truly when we see them with the eyes and humility of love. As we were reminded by Saint-Exupery and as tomorrow's Gospel implies strongly, "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly," --- and only once we have removed those distorting lenses monks call passions, that is, only once we have removed the beams from our own eyes will we be able to do this!

** N.B., I do not mean looking past these flaws in the sense of ignoring them completely (it may or may not be loving to do so) but rather looking past them so they may be seen within the context of the deeper truth and relatedness to God as ground and source. These flaws are tragic but they are tragic precisely because of the deeper truth of every person. Secondly, we must see the deeper truth not only as reality but as the person's profoundest potential. Looking past the flaws means loving the person in a way which summons them to realize their potential by healing and transcending the flaws. Only seeing with the eyes of the heart make this possible.

11 October 2015

On Stricter Separation From the World

[[Dear Sister Laurel, does the phrase "stricter separation from the world" mean something stricter than the Gospel counsel to be in the world but not of it? You write that it means separation from those things which are resistant to Christ but aren't all Christians called to this? Is the key word in this phrase, "stricter"?  To me the phrase sounds negative and kind of "world hating"; is the purpose a negative one --- like to keep one away from things that might contaminate one?]]

Thanks for the questions. I have written about some of this before under the label "Stricter Separation from the Word" but especially in the pieces on "spiritualizing stricter separation from the world" (cf On Spiritualizing Stricter Separation and More on Stricter Separation and The Purpose of Stricter Separation.  In each of those I think I make clear that the withdrawal or separation that hermits are called to differs from that of other Christians and also other Religious. The term stricter is therefore a key word, yes but perhaps not the key word. Still it does indicate a true withdrawal, not a merely spiritualized one like that incumbent on all Christians called to secular vocations (vocations in the ordinary world of economics, politics, power or influence, and relationships). It involves not just withdrawal from the things which are resistant to Christ, but also withdrawal even from many of the very good things of creation (both Divine and human)  most Christians find inspiring or sacramental.

There are negative reasons for stricter separation, yes, but in general it allows for a focused commitment to the search or quest for God and all that comes from such a quest. A second positive reason is that it allows us to see the larger world of creation with new eyes, eyes that can recognize the truly sacred and hearts that can honor that. A third is that it allows us to see ourselves apart from all the hype, all the definitions and props supplied by the world around us. The separation that seems so negative serves more positive goals. So, while it is important to draw away from the perspectives which distort a truly Christian view of reality, and while it is especially important to draw away from those things which eventually affect our commitment to Christ and may lead to outright sin --- which I guess might be spoken of in terms of keeping away from things that contaminate --- the more important reason is entirely positive: namely, to seek God and to find our truest selves at the same time. Again, please check the articles linked above.

[[Are diocesan hermits considered cloistered? ]]

Great question. I don't think I have been asked this before. I have referred to the diocesan hermit living a kind of functional enclosure; by this I meant that even the hermit who allows clients or occasional visitors in the hermitage tend to have a private prayer space which is not really open to others. I also meant, however, that there is a wider sense of being separated from others, from certain activities, kinds of media, and so forth which create an enclosed space that functions like the material enclosure of a monastery with its wall, grills or signs marking cloister or saying, "private" along with the restrictions written into the community's statutes. Some speak of cloister in terms of papal cloister or other forms of formal cloister marked and governed by canon and proper law, etc. In these senses diocesan hermit have not ordinarily been considered to be cloistered.

However, at this point I think we have to say that diocesan hermits are called, by the very terms of canon 603, to a form of cloister or enclosure. I say this because both stricter separation from the world and the physical silence of the life mark off very real dimensions of enclosure. Silence, for instance, has always been seen as the more personal level of enclosure within the physical (material) cloister marked by walls and grills. Similarly, I am reminded of a comment by Dom Jean LeClercq ** which noted that enclosure could be ensured not only by wall and grill, but by a simple row of stones used by someone like Charles de Foucauld or "even by a simple agreement". There is no doubt that canon 603 calls for stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude all lived according to an approved Rule under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop. This certainly sounds like a form of enclosure or cloister to me, especially given the fact that it is governed by approved proper law (the hermit's Rule) and overseen by legitimate superiors.

Of course this is not strict or papal enclosure. As in institutes of religious life who, according to c 667.1, are required to adopt cloister to the character and mission of the institute, a canonical hermit is both obliged to enclosure and free to discern the degree of time and activity outside the hermitage which is required by daily needs (doctor's appointments, shopping, Mass, etc.), though one does so within the limits and values codified in one's Rule and sometimes in collaboration with one's director or delegate. One does not usually need specific permission to leave the hermitage nor to have occasional visitors as guests. Still, the pattern of these mitigations or exceptions will be examined and discussed with one's delegate, and perhaps one's bishop, to see how well they contribute to or detract from the hermit's need for and commitment to silence, solitude, privacy, etc., as well as providing for necessary community and hospitality. I think we have to think of the diocesan hermit as bound by a form of cloister or enclosure whether we call it "functional", "eremitical," and so forth. Whatever we choose to call it we need to see it is both recognizable and real; it is also, to the degree specified in the hermit's proper law and c. 667, a juridical matter.

** LeClercq, Jean, Contemplative Life, "Separation From the World" Cistercian Studies 19, p 35