07 February 2016

On the Validity of Conversations Regarding the Vocations of Catholic Hermits

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
       Is there a lot of squabbling about who should be a canonical hermit and who should not? One consecrated Catholic Hermit (?) says there is a lot of judging going on regarding who should and who should not be, what is and what is not eremitical life. Apparently some have also said that Bishops who have consecrated some hermits ought not to have done so and should withdraw these people from their vocations. I think she is talking about you in some of this and also a canonist who is a friend of yours.  She writes: [[What are the judges accomplishing in taking it upon themselves to be authorities--not just writing out conditions and specifications which can be a good exercise if done for their own consecrated life reminders, but in doing so with the intent and purpose of determining who is valid or not, who should be withdrawn from the vocation by his or her bishop, who is or is not credible or living the life of a consecrated Catholic hermit according to these very persons' own judgments--based a whole lot on personal opinions, not fact.]]

Ah, yes, some of that is familiar but it was written about a year ago when a friend of mine who is a canonist wrote a blog piece about full-time work, especially outside the hermitage being contrary to the nature of eremitical life and to the canon which governs  it for solitary hermits (c 603). I don't recall what part of the blog you are citing was actually asked about then or whether someone asked about Therese Iver's article on full-time work itself, but I have written about the legitimacy of canonists opining about what is a contradiction of canon law at the time. (cf, On the Deadly Sin of Individualism in Eremitical Life)

I have also written about 1) how it is that anecdotal wisdom based on lived-experience of the eremitical life provided by canon 603 hermits is something bishops hear regularly, and 2) that the Church as a whole either benefits or suffers and is disedified by those hermits claiming to live eremitical life in the name of the Church.  This will naturally mean that in some ways the Church approving such lives as instances of genuine and well-discerned eremitical vocation becomes disedifying or even scandalous to others as well. When that happens the credibility of both eremitical life, the Church, and the Gospel itself are impugned. That is what we are concerned does not occur. Stated more positively, we hope that through our eremitical lives and our reflection on them (and on counterfeits or distortions of them), the Church has what she needs that God may be glorified and the good news of God's Christ be powerfully proclaimed by all hermits, both consecrated, lay, and ordained.

Canon 603 is both relatively new (October 1983) and used relatively infrequently.  Partly this infrequent use is rooted in  1) the absolute rarity of the vocation itself, 2)  heightened cautiousness due to the episcopacy's general lack of familiarity with authentic eremitical vocations, 3) stories about dioceses' bad experiences with hermits in their purview, 4) the practical problems accompanying the implementation of the canon in a diocese (formation, discernment, material needs, role of Bishop, etc), and 5) from a misreading of canon 603 (or candidates knocking on the chancery door) which seems to support vocations to heightened individualism and a spirituality of selfishness.

Since the very word hermit comes freighted with associated stereotypes and problematical connotations (misanthropy, eccentricity, narcissism, isolation --- including from the Church herself), and since the canon itself must be read from within the desert eremitical tradition (it cannot be read merely by looking up the words used in an ordinary dictionary in the vernacular), the only solution to all of these difficulties requires dialogues between the episcopacy, canonists, canonical hermits living the life defined in canon 603, and others who are expert (or have relative expertise) in the eremitical tradition. 

So, no, there is not a lot of squabbling going on about who should be a canonical hermit or not. So long as the general intentions and specifi-cations of c 603 are honored by dioceses whenever they implement the canon, the discernment is entirely their's. However. in these early years of the canon's history there is also no doubt that dioceses have used the canon for a number of persons who showed no sign of having or sincerely discerning an eremitical vocation and they did so because they neither understood the life nor appreciated the charism it described, or because they didn't care about or believe in the specific vocation being described therein. (Personally I believe the failure to understand the specific gift represented by eremitical life is the key to inadequate discernment and formation or the tendency to use canon 603 as a stopgap means of professing individuals apart from religious congregations. If bishops and candidates understood the silence of solitude as charism of this vocation, indeed, if they understood the vocation IS a charismatic reality in this way, many of the difficulties in implementing the canon would simply disappear.)

The simple truth is Canon 603 is different than its Episcopalian counterpart. It does not merely outline characteristics of a solitary religious life vowed to discipleship through profession of the evangelical counsels lived outside of community --- much less merely allude to such vocations as Canon 14 does. (In the Episcopal Church only about 5% of those professed under their canon for solitary religious are thought by some to be living a truly eremitical life.) Instead it defines a specifically eremitical life, a desert spirituality of stricter separation from "the world", assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude (a rich phrase which represents not only the external context of the life, but its goal and charism as well) lived for the sake and indeed, the salvation, of others.  In other words, c 603, unlike its Episcopal counterpart is not meant to be used as a stopgap means to profess individuals who either cannot or desire not to be professed as part of a religious community but who at the same time, are not called to true eremitical life. And this makes c 603 more demanding, not only in the lives of hermits living its vision, but in its implementation by dioceses.

Thus, mistakes have been made --- most often in complete good faith, but sometimes in what seems a serious disregard for the nature and requirements of the canon itself. Without experience of successful and genuinely edifying solitary eremitical vocations, the Church will not be able to avoid significant mistakes in the future. These will mainly be of two types: 1) dioceses will refrain out of a surplus of caution from professing and consecrating anyone as a solitary hermit, (we already have seen this in a number of dioceses) which means genuine vocations will be denied and missed. Alternately, 2) they will continue to profess and consecrate some authentic hermits and more individuals who are not truly called to an eremitical life of the silence of solitude. When this happens it is really startling is the degree of disedification associated with these latter lives. 

When one tries to live a truly human life in full-time silence and solitude despite not being called to this, the result is often and understandably tragic. Not only will one be missing the vocation to which God actually does call them, but they may well decompensate to pathological degrees. Destructive stereotypes will be underscored and distortions of both one's humanity and the vocation itself will occur; meanwhile, the spiritualities and implicit theologies which can and do result from such situations are at least equally pathological and dangerous. While every person needs some degree of silence and solitude, and while in some senses solitude is the most universal of vocations,  we are social beings who, for the most part, come to genuine humanity only in society and communion with others; it requires a Divine and relatively exceptional vocation to come to fullness of humanity and communion with God and all that is grounded in God while living one's life full time in the silence of solitude.

The conversations going on on various levels in the Church today regarding canon 603, as I have noted before, are meant to nurture and protect the eremitical tradition which stands as part of the Church's great heritage. They are meant more immediately to assist dioceses to discern and accommodate genuine solitary eremitical vocations which themselves are instances of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the redemption the Christ Event brings through the mediation of the Church. From my perspective they are meant to explore canon 603, to see how it can best be understood and implemented in the 21st Century so that that Gospel is proclaimed with integrity and relevance by those truly called to this profoundly compassionate and ecclesial life of the silence of solitude.

For instance, it is not unusual for canonists to draw on the work of hermits and the history of eremitical life to come to a fuller understanding of dimensions of canon 603 and to ensure better implementation. The canonist criticized by the blogger you cite is doing a dissertation for her doctorate in Canon Law on a central element of the canon (viz., the silence of solitude as reflected in the Rules of diocesan hermits) and she is drawing on some of the Rules produced by diocesan hermits as well as work done on the nature of the canon and life itself (including, I suspect, some of the occasional writings found in this blog) to complete this project.  All of this will become part of the ongoing conversations ultimately protecting the proclamation of the Gospel by those seeking to live solitary eremitical lives which truly glorify God.

Meanwhile, let me note that those claiming publicly to be a consecrated Catholic Hermit, whether they are doing so legitimately or not, are apt to find themselves drawn either directly or indirectly into the Church's own conversation about this vocation. This will especially be so if they write or speak publicly about canonical eremitical life, the significance, wisdom, and prudence of c. 603, if they approach parishes as Catholic Hermits or otherwise represent themselves in this way on social media, etc. Still, through the observations of bishops, delegates, and others who know and supervise legitimate vocations and keep something of an eye on those which are not, even hermits living relatively hidden lives will be part of the conversation to the degree their lives witness or fail to witness effectively to the redemption mediated by Christ in solitude.  

To claim a public vocation (and the use of the designa-tions Catholic Hermit, consecrated hermit, professed religious eremite, etc, represents such an act) is to claim the rights and obligations of such a vocation as well. If one does not want to become part of the examination of such vocations done by chanceries, canonists, bishops, theologians, other hermits reflecting on the life, and the faithful more generally, one should not embrace, much less illegitimately claim an identity which will naturally (as part of its very nature) be scrutinized and reflected on by the whole Church. To sharpen this point even further, those claiming to be Catholic Hermits or a hermit in the consecrated state of life within the Church, should be aware that their lives are likely to be looked at to see whether they are representative and edifying examples of contemporary eremitical life or not.

If one illegitimately or illicitly claims to have embraced a public vocation (even if one claims to have done so in a private ceremony) one cannot then complain that what is really a private matter is being examined and discussed by those in the Church with an established stake in the vocation itself. While none of us who are publicly professed and consecrated live this life perfectly, and while neither the Church or our  brother and sister hermits expect this of us, we each know that the witness and mission of our lives can generally become part of a completely valid ecclesial conversation regarding such vocations occurring at various levels in the Church.  To complain that such general attention to our lives is invalid or even somehow nefarious is to have missed part of the import of really being a Catholic Hermit.