11 February 2016

Questions on the Charism of the Diocesan Hermit

[[ Hi Sister, you write about the charism of the diocesan hermit. I understand part of that is that you are diocesan and part of that is that you live the silence of solitude (or at least are committed to living it). It seems to me like these are different charisms. Can you explain how they fit together? Also is it true that every hermit is his or her own charism? I read that a few years ago and I wondered what it meant.]]

Thanks for writing. I suppose that when I first began thinking about the charism of the diocesan hermit I wrote about their standing as diocesan as a main piece of the gift their lives were to both Church and world. Over time I began to work out more fully the place of the silence of solitude in all of this and it is certain that today, while I believe one's diocesan standing is important, it is the silence of solitude I point to as not only the environment and the goal of eremitical life, but also the gift quality or charism of such a life. So important do I consider this that when I rewrote my Rule a few years ago I extended the section on the silence of solitude from these three vantage points. However, I don't think the two things conflict.

Instead, I think the diocesan context of canon 603 hermits underscores the importance, possibility, and necessity of the silence of solitude whether one lives in an urban hermitage or in a hermitage in the mountains or desert. It especially underscores the possibility of achieving this eremitical goal and making a gift of it within the context of the local diocesan and even the parish Church instead of within a religious order or other institute devoted to eremitical life. Thus, while I wouldn't say diocesan standing and responsibility within the local Church is incidental to the charism of the diocesan hermit's life, neither, do I think, it constitutes the heart of the charism of her vocation. Still, one of the places I believe the diocesan character of an eremitical vocation under c 603 most clearly benefits the Church and especially protects the charism of solitary eremitical lives is in regard to urban hermits.

You see, I firmly believe that urban life militates against what canon 603 calls the silence of solitude. It is geared to alienation and isolation, and certainly it is geared to layer of noise piled on layer of noise, but not to the covenant relatedness Christians identify with real individuality, nor to the silent union with God which constitutes that covenant relatedness and makes all other authentic relatedness possible. There is a reason Thomas Merton referred to the unnatural solitudes of slums and I extend that term to urban settings more generally. There is a reason monastic communities tend to build and establish themselves far from city centers. It is not that God and communion with God in the silence of solitude cannot be found here. These certainly can, but at the same time there is a constant pull and pressure from urban reality which really does militate against these.

When canon 603 was first promulgated bishops in various places forbade hermits from living in urban hermitages. Meanwhile already-established hermits criticized "urban hermitages" as oxymorons. However, our God is the God of Presence in the ordinary, the God of sacramental reality who transfigures the profane into living symbols (mediators) of his holiness; "he" transforms the muteness and isolation of urban life into a Magnificat of God's grace. What better witness to this amazing transformation could there be than a solitary hermit in an urban hermitage? The diocesan hermit living in a mainly urban or suburban diocese is called precisely to this specific witness. It is the presence of the hermit in the local Church --- whatever the nature of that local Church --- which is a charismatic presence and reminder of the sacramental character of our faith and the transfiguring power of the God who is met in silence and solitude.

Are hermits their own Charism? 

The idea that every hermit is his or her own charism is a little strange to me  (it seems too individualistic!) --- especially since c 603 hermits live according to a specific definition of eremitical life which embodies certain values without fail. It seems to me that it is the vocation as such that is the charism, and especially as defined under canon 603. I do accept that each solitary hermit will live this out in her own way, with the flexibility the Spirit requires and inspires. Even so, as I wrote sometime a number of months ago, even when every fingerprint is unique they share commonalities, whorls and loops, ridges and valleys which make them fingerprints and not something else. Thus, I believe every hermit will represent the charism called "the silence of solitude," in a Church and world which cries out for such a gift of God.

At the same time, those with chronic illness will give a slightly (or even a very) different shape or color to this reality than the hermit who is young and healthy, for instance. The individual's own personal characteristics and life circumstances will shape the way the charism is embodied. The life and prayer of the hermit who once was married and may have raised a family will color this gift in a different way with her life than will the hermit who once belonged to a religious congregation and moved to solitude from there, for instance. The lay or clerical hermit who is not consecrated under canon 603 will witness to this charism in somewhat different ways than the consecrated hermit. The vocation's charism remains the silence of solitude (the quies and resulting capacity for parrhesia --- bold and even prophetic speech --- which comes from life in communion with God) but this amazing gem will have a variety of facets and each hermit will emphasize or articulate one or another of these more and differently than other hermits will.

One of the reasons I argue in this way is because charisms are the result of a combination or intersection of the Holy Spirit's movement and inspiration with the world's need. A charism is larger than an individual's life and greater than the individual's own gifts and talents. In a world fraught with covenant and relationship-destroying individualism it hardly makes sense that the Holy Spirit would inspire a kind of paradigmatic individualism by making each hermit a kind of law unto him/herself. So, yes, I do agree each hermit, to the extent his/her life evidences God's redemption in Christ, is a gift to the Church and world and a sharer in the incredibly significant and prophetic character of the desert tradition, but it is the vocation as such or something characteristic of the vocation, not the individual's eccentricities, which is dignified with the term "charism". Instead the charism is shared and uniquely embodied by all who are called to eremitical life in the Church.

It is not unusual to hear people claim that every hermit is different, every hermit is absolutely unique and that legislating for hermits is a futile (or necessarily distorting) exercise similar to herding cats. Anglican solitaries argue this way, the author of the very fine blog City Desert has written about dimensions of this in The Hermit in Roman Catholic Canon Law. Of course every hermit is a unique embodiment of the charism of eremitical life. But when one maintains a radical distinction and uniqueness to the exclusion of identity, continuity, and an essential sameness one has also eviserated any charism or even the possibility of charism by ensuring the Holy Spirit's inspiration does not intersect in any meaningful way with the deep needs of the rest of the Church and world. Instead one ensures what might be profoundly prophetic is merely novel and tangential --- and therefore incapable of addressing others, much less of summoning them to greater authenticity in Christ.

There is a paradox here (isn't there always?!), namely, the unique and prophetic charism of the hermit is lost the moment she ceases to be an integral member of the Church. Just as an answer must be integrally related to the question that calls for and needs it to really BE an answer, a statement that ceases to be related to a question in any meaningful way ceases to be an answer, and especially it ceases to be an answer that drives the question beyond itself to even greater and deeper questions. When the only thing we hold in common is our uniqueness (or our solitariness), we will cease to be able to relate to one another, much less embody and be a gift of the Holy Spirit to others!

For these reasons it is interesting to me that your question refers to a hermit being "her own" charism. That is, it seems to me, the one thing a hermit must never be. She is meant to be a gift to others and more, a gift of Holy Spirit to and from the Church to others. She is meant to embody a charism which is never merely "her own" even while it reflects the deepest truth of her life and self. When Peter Damian speaks of the hermit as "ecclesiola" he is referring both to her individual identity and to her profound relatedness to the Body of Christ. Remove either element and you have lost any notion of charism, much less the charism of eremitical life.