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 and conversion. 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.