07 September 2016

Mentally Ill Priests as Hermits? Once Again on the Illegitimacy of Stopgap Vocations

[[Dear Sister,
      Our parish has a priest who has serious mental health issues. Because he does less pastoral ministry than other priests he says he is a hermit. This raises a number of questions for some of us here: 1) is hermit life a good option for the seriously mentally ill? 2) if a priest has a busy pastoral ministry how can he live as or call himself a hermit? 3) Do dioceses use canon 603 to profess and consecrate these priests? 4) How often does this happen? A number of parishioners have begun to think that hermit life is a kind of fallback "vocation" for when someone is unable to live their real commitments. I know you have written about "stopgap" and fallback vocations but also vocations to chronic illness so I wonder what you think about this. I think it detracts from the hermit vocation.]]

Thank you. Your questions are typical of those I sometimes receive from other diocesan hermits and also from priests who would like to maintain a full pastoral ministry but also live as hermits. Some are interested in building in a more substantial contemplative dimension to their pastoral and spiritual lives and (mistakenly I think) believe that eremitical life is the way to do this. Only occasionally have I heard about situations such as the one you describe where serious mental illness is involved and eremitical life really does seem to be a potential stopgap or fallback position for those who are unable to live their canonical commitments. (I say potential because in some rare instances a priest may well transition into eremitical life and do well at it when he cannot meet other obligations. Vocational paths can change and God can certainly call us to a new way which uses our very weakness as a revelation of graced strength.)

The Temptation to Misuse Canon 603

However, the accent there is on the word rare. I'm afraid the temptation to misuse canon 603 or eremitical life more generally is more common than some of us would like to think, not only because the canon (and the eremitical life it defines) is little understood but because these are not valued; the actual charism of the vocation is not appreciated. As a result some chancery officials and many faithful believe it is a kind of empty (contentless) category into which all kinds of "failures to fit in" can be poured or situated. Before discussing the different situations you named I think it is important to recognize this temptation or tendency and to make it very clear that canon 603 specifically and eremitical life more generally are defined in the Church in a very clear and definite way: it is a LIFE of assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence OF solitude, profession of the evangelical counsels lived according to a Rule of Life the hermit writes him/herself all lived under the supervision of the local bishop (and implicitly, regular and competent spiritual direction). It is not an avocation or way of validating mediocrity or simple inability. (The redemption of inability or weakness is another matter!!)

The elements of this life are important because the entire constellation comprises a life which can witness in a special way to the unique and fundamental truth that God alone is sufficient for us. In our world this particular message is a crucial one. So many are alone and alienated even as they yearn for love and completion. So many hunger to believe their lives are meaningful or of real value and have no way to do that if forced to compete merely in "worldly" terms. And of course whole cultures are built on the misguided drives to wealth and power, domination and individualism of every stripe including narcissism. The hermit reminds us that there is one basic truth that counters the anguish and anxiety associated with all of this, one foundational relationship that is the real wealth and source of power in authentic human living: viz., God alone is sufficient for us. To use canon 603 or the term "hermit" for any lone individual, especially as a way of creating a stopgap means to validate a failed or otherwise dysfunctional vocation is an essentially careless and dishonest usage of the canon and a trivialization of the term "vocation"; it is therefore also a way of denigrating the gift of the Holy Spirit solitary eremitical life represents.

I have been writing about the tendency of individuals and even some chancery officials to misuse canon 603 out of ignorance or a failure to appreciate its gift quality here for a large part of the last nine years. While I do see a lessening in the incidence of such abuse or misuse in a general sense, the temptation to use the canon to profess non-hermits or to consecrate lone individuals who sometimes actually show no knowledge of the canon much less experience of the life it defines and codifies is still alarmingly prevalent. The situations you asked about constitute some of the thornier instances that occasionally crop up. And yet we would not accept such an approach to any other form of consecrated life!

Canon 603 and the Seriously Mentally Ill:

In general I don't support eremitical life for the seriously mentally ill. In an earlier post I wrote the following which I still hold: [[My general answer to the first part of your question is yes, some mentally ill persons COULD be hermits, but not all and not most. Regarding the second portion of the question, those that COULD be hermits are those whose illness is well-controlled with medication and whose  physical solitude definitely contributes to their vocations to wholeness and emotional/mental well-being. There should be no doubt about this, and it should be clear to all who meet them. It should assist them in loving themselves, God, and others rather than detracting from this basic responsibility. In other words, solitude should be the context for these persons becoming more authentically human and maturing in that fundamental or foundational vocation for the whole of their lives. With this in mind I am thinking too that some forms of mental illness do not lend themselves to eremitical vocations: illnesses with thought disorders, delusions, hallucinations, fanatical or distorted religious ideation, and the like are probably not amenable to life as a hermit.

On the other hand, some forms of mental illness would (or rather, could) do quite well in an eremitical setting so long as the anachoresis (that is, the healthy withdrawal) required by the vocation is clearly different from that caused by the illness and does not contribute to it but instead even serves to heal it. Certain mood disorders, for instance, cause a defensive or reactive and unhealthy withdrawal, but it is not the same as the responsive anachoresis of the hermit. The person suffering from clinical depression who also wishes to be a hermit should be able to discern the difference between these two things and this requires a lot of insight and personal work. However, if a person suffers from clinical depression (or has done in the past) I would say it should be pretty well-controlled medically, and no longer debilitating or disabling before the person is allowed to make even temporary profession as a diocesan hermit. At the same time, provisions for adequate ongoing and emergent care and treatment should be written into this hermit's Rule of Life.

In any case, I think the decision to become a hermit when mental illness is a factor is something which requires the candidate and her spiritual director, her psychiatrist or psychologist, along with the diocesan staff to work together to discern the wisdom of. Mental illness per se should not always automatically preclude this vocational option, but there is no doubt that eremitical silence, solitude, prayer and penance can exacerbate rather than help with some forms of mental illness. Even in the completely healthy person eremitical solitude can lead to mental problems. Ordinarily we are made for a more normal type of communion or social interaction with others, and this is a particularly significant area for caution when dealing with mental illness.]]  Eremitical Life and Mental Illness

Canon 603 as a Stopgap solution:

But let me be very clear here. A diocese or individual must discern a vocation to eremitical life FIRST of all; they must be aware of how it is mental illness works against this discernment and vocation, how the vocation to the silence of solitude assists in personal healing and the special care required to deal with an illness which could otherwise thwart such a genuine eremitical vocation. WHAT THEY CANNOT AND MUST NOT DO is treat this canon on eremitical life as a way of disposing of a troublesome priest or situation, a way of isolating a difficult personality, or in any other way treating eremitical life as a stopgap solution which minimizes demands on the diocese or its presbyterate to truly care for this priest and find ways to allow him to minister as normally as possible. In this situation as in any other a hermit is NOT JUST A LONE individual much less an isolated one who doesn't fit in anywhere else! If a diocese must relieve a seriously ill priest of his pastoral role and/or faculties and allow him to live on his own, then let them do that BUT they MUST NOT facilely attempt to validate this by calling the man a "hermit." He is not. Instead he is a mentally ill priest separated from active priestly ministry and made to live alone.

What is important to understand I think is that a hermit dealing with some form of mental illness is not the same thing as a mentally ill person separated off from social contact and active ministry either by their illness or by their superiors. That is true even when the mentally ill person is asked to continue a life of prayer --- though in such a case an eremitical call might eventually be revealed. Eremitical life is defined in terms of the character and quality of one's life with God in the silence of solitude. The question which must be asked is, "If someone (a non-priest or lay person) came to the chancery seeking to live as a hermit under canon 603 because they have bi-polar disorder or a form of psychosis, for instance, and cannot function well, would the diocese profess and consecrate them as a canonical hermit on these grounds?"

My sense is in the vast majority of such cases a diocese would refuse --- and rightly so. In that remaining small fraction of cases it is possible the person will discover he is really called to a desert life of the silence of solitude, but this discovery takes significant time, discernment, and formation. The Church recognizes the eremitical life as a significant gift of the Holy Spirit, one which is capable of producing profound fruit at every level of the Church and in the world. To thumb one's nose at this truth while treating eremitical life as though it were the ecclesiastical equivalent of a back ward of a psychiatric hospital into which one might shunt all manner of difficult or problematical characters is not merely an injustice or abuse on every level (not least for the individual suffering from mental illness!) but, in its dishonesty and lack of genuine charity, a blasphemous one as well.

Priests and the eremitical Life More Generally:

I do get emails relatively regularly from priests with very full pastoral lives who would like to become hermits. In general they seem to use the term hermit to describe a contemplative or at least more contemplative life than the one they are managing to live now. What they must remember is that while all hermits are contemplatives, not all contemplatives are (nor are they called to be) hermits! It is very rare for dioceses to allow diocesan priests to become consecrated hermits and generally speaking these cases require a significant degree of additional discernment before a chancery would allow them to do so. Remember that priests undergo a significant degree of training and discernment prior to ordination. Dioceses are pretty clear that someone they are admitting to Orders has a call both to priesthood and to active ministry. Psychological testing and interviews are part and parcel of the discernment process and while some kinds of disorders might be missed, serious mental illness ordinarily would not. Even for situations in which the diagnosis is missed prior to ordination medical management and appropriate trials of psychotropic meds combined with therapy would be a first line of treatment long before considering perhaps someone has a vocation as a hermit. (And notice I am speaking of discerning a VOCATION as a hermit, not to shunting someone off into an isolated residence and "calling it" a hermitage!)

Occasionally newly ordained and entirely healthy priests have difficulty adjusting to the demands of parish vs seminary life, for instance. This does not mean they are called to become hermits though any more than it means a graduate student who has difficulty  transitioning from years of more solitary research and dissertation writing to a full-time teaching position is really called to be a hermit. The newly-ordained priest certainly needs to find assistance to manage his time and provide for adequate prayer, study, and recreation; he may also need the support of other priests and perhaps even therapy or counseling to assist him make the transition, but generally the seminary personnel will have discerned carefully with the seminarian and finding he is really called to be a hermit within a few years of ordination is unlikely in the extreme. What is true for the healthy newly ordained is actually even truer for the mentally ill priest.


The bottom line in all of this is the same as I have written before and as you yourself have concluded. Eremitical life in the Church is a divine vocation with a character and value which are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it is a radical, demanding, and dangerous vocation for those not called to it. It is not a "stopgap" or "fallback" vocation for those unfit or unsuited to vocations in which they have been ordained or professed, nor is it a label given to those MERELY living prayerful lives alone --- especially if they are also mainly active or apostolic. Eremitical vocations are desert vocations, calls to the silence OF solitude. Such vocations must be discerned and formed with all the care and dedication given to any other ecclesial vocation. A number of us with chronic physical illnesses, for instance, have discovered and embraced a vocation to eremitical life but this discovery and the discernment it required was genuine; it was not a way of validating our inability to undertake lives of active ministry (or a way of dignifying our illness-rooted isolation!) but instead a way of fully or radically revealing the truth that "God's power is perfected in weakness" as well as that "God alone is sufficient for us" and embodying these in our Church and world.

In a world which needs especially to hear the latter truth ("God Alone is Enough") and which thus needs to see that hermits live and are called to live radically full, whole, and holy lives in the power of God, it would be a disservice to all involved and an offense against the Holy Spirit to misuse eremitical life as a stopgap. Better solutions must be found for cases like the one you mentioned --- more honest solutions which do justice to the persons and to the vocations involved and which witness unequivocally to God and the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. Either we believe in eremitical vocations or we do not (and some chancery personnel do not). If we do believe God calls people in this radical way then we do not betray the reality or our own belief by trivialization and destructive compromise. If we do not believe in eremitical vocations then we certainly must not trivialize the lives of the ill or relatively incapable by facile equivocations. To do either in the name of the Holy Spirit strikes me as immoral.