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.
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.