07 July 2016

Public vs Private vows: Questions on the Nature and Breadth of Eremitical Commitment

Dear Sister, When a person commits to being a Consecrated Hermit/Hermit Sister, are they also making a commitment to being attached to a particular Church, to the Church in general, etc.? In other words, does it go beyond a marriage to God? I do realize that formally being under the obedience of a bishop would create that sort of tie. So, is the difference between being a private hermit and not “official” according to the Church mainly that those ties do not exist in the same way? This could be a deciding factor, down the road, with whether I might make private vs public vows. ]]

Good question. yes, diocesan hermits or other canonical hermits are embracing an ecclesial vocation in which they are granted certain rights while taking on specific obligations and expectations on the part of both the local and universal Church. The ties, however, are not simply those of obedience to one's bishop; obedience to one's bishop symbolizes deeper or more extensive ties within the Body of Christ.

You see, while one’s vows and espousal to God are very significant they are necessarily and profoundly embedded within a specific ecclesial context, namely that of the diocesan church (on behalf of the universal church), which both mediates and structures the vocation itself. This contextualization makes a very specific and profound kind of sense of the vocation. When one is consecrated in the RC Church, for instance,  one is initiated into a stable state of life. Stability here indicates more than the permanence and nature of one's relationship with God or the essential irrevocability of being set apart as a sacred person by God; it indicates all of the elements which help mediate and structure the divine vocation to this state: Rule, superiors (bishop and delegate), stability within the diocesan church (meaning one may not simply move to another diocese and remain a diocesan hermit without both Bishops' permissions), parish membership as a consecrated person (which gives other members the right to certain appropriate expectations), being subject to canon law re religious life or vows in ways lay persons are not, etc --- all of these and more are involved in what we call a “stable state of life” under canon 603.

One way of thinking of all of this is to understand that the vocation to consecrated eremitical life belongs more fundamentally to the Church than to the individual. The consecrated hermit lives eremitical life “in the name of the Church” who mediates God's consecration and thus she becomes a “Catholic hermit”. The Church discerns with but also admits to profession and consecration those she determines may have truly been graced with this call; she then mediates God's own call to the person in the Rite of Profession and she does so as an instance of the way the Holy Spirit is working in the life of the Church through this individual's vocation. The call is divine in origin but it is fundamentally ecclesial in nature. In other words, espousal to God (or consecration for that matter) is never an individualistic reality but ALWAYS shares in and reflects or images the more foundational and primary bridal identity and nature of the Church.

Personal espousal is thus always “derivative” in the way being a daughter or son of God in Christ is derivative. Christ is the only begotten Son and we are given a part or share of that identity in him within the Church. For instance, I and other c 603 hermits are espoused to Christ under c 603 (cf Rite of Religious Profession) and thus given a unique share and place in the Church's own espousal which we image in some way for the whole People of God. (That espousal, while real is ordinarily less explicit in terms of mission and charism than, for instance, the vocation of the consecrated virgin living in the world. Instead the hermit's charism is the silence of solitude and, while the two are profoundly bound together in her life, she is, I believe, called to witness to the silence of solitude more primarily than to espousal with Christ. In other words her espousal is revealed primarily in an ecclesial life of the silence of solitude while this eremitical charism is the gift she embraces on behalf of the Church whose espousal she thus shares and reflects.) If one wants to live eremitical life apart from specific ecclesial commitments and requirements then seeking consecration under canon 603 would not be the way to go.

It is true that a person with private vows is not initiated into the consecrated state of life. This means they are not espoused nor admitted to a stable state of life in the senses described above. Their commitment is entirely private and, while of course the person might never desire or decide to do so, they may walk away from their commitment at any time without in any way modifying or otherwise affecting their standing or various relationships in the Church; this is so precisely because there are no attendant ecclesial rights, obligations or expectations, no canonical standing --- beyond that associated with baptism itself --- neither is there ecclesial discernment or validation of eremitism as a vocation nor does one represent or live the eremitical vocation “in the name of the Church.” All of this is part of what we mean when we say one's vows are private.

Some hermits, however, in imitation of the  desert Fathers and Mothers (who were lay persons), want to live eremitical life with a private vow or vows as an expression of the traditional and profound prophetic character of the eremitical vocation. Their reasons are good ones, their decision to live eremitical life via a private commitment can be inspiringly courageous, and their vocation can make real sense in these terms. Some of us choose (and are chosen) instead to live the traditional  prophetic character of the eremitical vocation in a public ecclesial vocation as part of the Church's own gift and call to witness to the radically countercultural Gospel --- not only for the Church's  own sake but for the sake of a needy world. There are significant pros and cons to both.

I hope this is helpful. If it raises more questions or failed to answer your own please get back to me.