19 May 2016

Followup Questions on Forming the Heart of a Hermit

[[Dear Sister, when you write about the making of the hermit heart I begin to understand more why it is some people become hermits. I had not realized that a hermit was meant to witness to an experience of redemption. I agree with you that the formation of hermits really cannot be done by a diocese. A diocese cannot engineer such an experience of redemption! Yet you argue that significant discernment and formation is necessary. What does this really mean and how can someone make sure they get the formation they need? Does formation ensure an experience of redemption or how does that work?]]

Your question and observation are important because the hermit must bring something to the formation process beyond a desire to make vows or dedicate herself to God. What I mean by saying this is that a person might want to dedicate themselves to God very sincerely but the silence of solitude is neither the context,  the content, nor the charism they are called to in making this dedication. It is simply not the way they experience God's redemptive grace in their life, nor, therefore, can it be the unique way they witness to God's redemption. And yet, a hermit must say with her life that silence and eremitical solitude (which implies a life of penance and prayer in communion with God) lead to that redemptive quies or hesychasm canon 603 refers to as the silence of solitude.  Moreover,  the hermit must be able to say with her life that the grace of God is sufficient for us. She must be recognizable as a loving, generous, humble person who has been made truly human and truly happy in her eremitical solitude.

What may not have been clear in what I have written until now is that formation and redemption overlap. To the degree one is formed in the silence of solitude (again, in the solitary quies of communion with God) as a hermit so too will the person experience conversion and thus, redemption. When I describe the kind of person the hermit must be and the witness she must live I am also describing who she becomes by the grace of God in the silence of solitude. That means I am describing the person who is formed in the conditions laid down in canon 603.

Dioceses that are discerning canon 603 vocations have a right to expect that over the period of five years or so a person will come not only to be comfortable in silence and solitude but that they will grow as persons of prayer in the same context. This means the person will thrive as a loving human being, a human being in whom the Incarnation is clearly imaged. Formation is an ongoing reality in the life of any hermit and/or religious; so is conversion of heart and redemption. We grow more and more deeply united with God in Christ throughout our lives. Still, several years of eremitical solitude will produce unmistakable signs of an experience which is healing and sanctifying or one will need to discern this is not the vocation to which they are called.

You are correct that dioceses cannot engineer such experiences of redemption. All they can really do is supervise how a person is living the terms of canon 603 and discern whether or not the person is truly thriving in this context, whether or not they are growing in holiness and wholeness and becoming the kind of person I have already mentioned. There are ways of assisting the person in both discernment and formation --- not least by requiring the candidate to write and revise Rules of Life which, over time, reflect where they are in terms of living the canon and their own personal growth. Occasional meetings with vocation personnel, regular spiritual direction, therapy to assist with unexpected or traumatic life circumstances, etc are all helpful or even indispensable in the process of formation and discernment. A diocese can thus also ensure that sufficient time is given to discernment and formation without drawing it out inordinately. Vocation personnel can decide more easily than the candidate might be able to do, either when more time is needed or, for that matter, when the candidate is mistaken in thinking she has an ecclesial (or canonical) eremitical vocation.

What Will Formation Entail?

That said, the responsibility for formation falls to the hermit in canon 603 vocations. These are vocations to solitary eremitical life and that means there is no community, no novitiate, no formation director, etc. (Hermits formed in lauras need to be clear that c 603 requires they live as solitary hermits should the laura fail or be suppressed; thus, formation for c 603 is generally entirely dependent on the hermit's own initiative in cooperation with the grace of God alone.) The spiritual director can be extremely helpful here but she does not assume the role of formation director or some sort of superior; the hermit herself must take the initiative. She must be sure she reads about eremitic life, especially contemporary eremitical life, but also the desert Fathers and Mothers, Urban anchorites in the Middle Ages and later, and communities of hermits like the Camaldolese and Carthusians.

This will allow her to begin to see what she is living that is consistent with the tradition and what she is not. (If something seems inconsistent with the tradition she will work to discern its place in her life and the life of the Church; she will discern whether such modifications can and should be made for herself personally, but she will also do so as part of determining whether or not this represents a legitimate adaptation of a tradition which is Divinely inspired and a gift to the Church. What is discerned to be necessary for her may not be a legitimate adaptation of eremitical life.) Knowledge of the eremitical tradition and the history and nature of canon 603 is indispensable because this is the vocation she must negotiate as a solitary hermit living her call in the name of the Church.

Thus, she will reflect on Canon 603 and the terms of that. She will read and otherwise learn about the vows she proposes to make one day, especially from authors living those vows today and specializing in contemporary religious life. And of course she will pray, not just the Liturgy of the Hours (which will require some instruction from others), but quiet or contemplative prayer, lectio divina, journaling (which can be prayer and will support prayer and spiritual direction). She will learn to maintain Formative relationships in a life committed to the silence of solitude, and she will learn to love and serve others similarly. She will assure she lives a healthy and balanced life which includes appropriate recreation and exercise. Learning all of this and coming to the conclusion that she truly thrives in such a life is necessary as part of the candidate's formation. So is writing a livable Rule (a Rule which can be binding morally and canonically) --- something that cannot begin to happen until the hermit has learned how all of these pieces actually work in her own eremitical life.

The Rule: 

Writing a Livable Rule that one proposes to be both morally and legally (canonically) bound to observe is a demanding and complex project. It requires several steps because it has to combine experience in eremitical life  (including several years of learning and trying various prayer forms, etc), experience of living the values of the vows, experience in working with one's director to truly reflect the eremitical tradition and to grow in one's life with God --- with the canonical or normative requirements of c 603 and one's diocese. Thus one will have 1) an initial Rule which allows for considered experimentation in cooperation with spiritual direction, 2) a Rule which is less experimental but which still allows for necessary changes as one builds in all the elements of eremitical life and comes to see what one needs personally (e.g., more sleep, more quiet prayer, less study, time outside the hermitage for walks, attendance at parish Mass, etc), 3) a Rule which include the vows and can bind one in a temporary commitment, and finally, 4) a Rule which fulfills the requirement of c 603, has been lived for a significant period of time (1 year or more) and which will bind one after perpetual profession.

As I experienced the task of writing (and rewriting) a Rule it is an essential part of the hermit's formation. In some ways I see it as the most formative experience a canon 603 hermit can have precisely because in order to write one, one must reflect on every part of one's life and see how God is working in them. One then has to make decisions about what will allow for God to work as effectively as possible and in a way which corresponds to the canon's definition of eremitical life. Finally one must articulate all of this in a way which inspires one to live accordingly. It is for this reason I see the need for a hermit to write several Rules over time each of which corresponds to her level of knowledge, experience and need at any given point. Approaching the writing of a Rule in this way allows for discernment with the diocese as well as formation. In all of this though, I contend the person should be growing in wholeness and holiness and this growth should be recognizable. All of this means forming the heart of a hermit whose life witnesses to God's redemption.

I am not sure I have answered your questions. Most of these things I have written about before so please check the labels to see related articles. If I have missed answering something effectively please let me know and I will give it another shot.