04 November 2016

On Eremitical Life and the Security of Man-Made Laws

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, A lay hermit who has chosen to remain non-canonical (not under canon law) and has sometimes written canon 603 is a distortion of eremitical life wrote recently: [[It is the animal instinct for some to want to rise above others, to rule the roost, so to speak--to take the prey from the claws of other beasts.  So, too, is often the human instinct to find a sense of security in laws made by humans.  Somehow it brings--falsely, though--a feeling that there are boundaries and structure that will provide stability and formulaic assurance for survival and success.]]

Do you find that most hermits feel the same way about canon 603 as this hermit seems to feel? You have said that the majority of hermits are not canonical so I was wondering if that is because they don't think living eremitical life under canon law is a valid way of doing this? I can see that a basic insecurity except in God could be desirable for hermits and that law and structure could provide the illusion of security and stability apart from God. I can also see that hermits need a freedom to respond to God in whatever way he comes to them so that laws and structures could be a problem. Is this what you find?]]

I think it is really important to understand that canonical hermits have not sought canonical standing in order to "rise above others" or to "rule the roost". We do so because we recognize that eremitical life is a significant vocation which the Church has recently (1983) affirmed as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and through the Church to the world at large. We recognize this vocation as part of the patrimony of the Church and believe the Church has a right and obligation to nurture and govern it. The way I tend to speak of this is in terms of the rubric "ecclesial vocation". That is, the vocation belongs to the Church before it belongs to me. Similarly it belongs to me only insofar as the Church mediates it to me and insofar as I belong to the Church and live for her --- for her Lord, her life, her People and her proclamation. Canonical hermits honor the way God works to call us to consecrated life in the Church. We know that in a vocation which can be mistaken for (or tragically devolve into!) an instance of individualism, selfishness, and isolation, this ecclesial context is absolutely critical for avoiding these antitheses to authentic eremitical life.

The insecurity of Eremitical Life:

At the same time, while canonical standing supplies an essential context for eremitical life it does not do away with the insecurity the life also involves. Remember that canonical hermits are not supported by the Church in any financial or material way. Solitary canonical hermits (those under canon 603) are self-supporting and are responsible for taking care of everything the eremitical life requires: residence, insurance, education and specialized training, formation, spiritual direction, library, appropriate work, food, clothing, transportation, retreat, etc. A diocese will make sure the hermit has all of these things in place and is capable of both living the life and supplying for her material needs before professing her, but generally speaking they will not supply these things themselves. (There are accounts of occasional instances where a diocese will include a hermit on the diocesan insurance or supply temporary housing in a vacant convent, retreat house, etc, but these accounts are clear exceptions and the hermit remains generally responsible for supporting herself.)

While this does not mean most hermits lack the essentials needed to live (food, clothing, housing) they do have the same basic insecurities as any other person in the Church or world and they do so without claims to fame, material success, family, significant profession, or any of the other ways our world marks adulthood and security. Many hermits live on government assistance due to disability or associated poverty and this mistakenly marks them as failures, layabouts, moochers, and so forth by the majority of the world. The message the hermit proclaims with her life, however, is the message of a God who considers us each infinitely and uniquely precious despite our personal fragility and poverty. This God abides with us when every prop is kicked out; (he) alone loves us without condition and is capable of completing us.

There is additional though more nuanced insecurity in the prophetic quality of the vocation. Both the Church and the hermit risk a great deal in enabling this vocation to exist with canonical standing in the heart of the Church. This is because the Church recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the hermit's life and calls her to consecration which may also lead to a life capable of criticizing the institution, the hierarchy, etc, --- precisely as a way of being faithful to vocation, the Church, and the Church's own mission. When the Church builds eremitical lives of solitude and prayer into her very heart she opens herself to conversion as well. Sometimes this leads to apparent clashes (as it did when the faithfulness of women religious to their vocations and to the documents of Vatican II led to an investigation questioning the Sisters' faithfulness). The life of the Spirit is unsettling as well as being the source of life and peace. Generally speaking the Church will respond in ways which allow the Spirit to summon her to new life and to the remaking of her heart and mind, but any time one is called to proclaim the Gospel with one's life --- especially in the name of the Church --- one is also called to live a kind of insecurity in terms of the world of power and institutional standing.

The most basic insecurity however is that one pins the entire meaning of her life on God and life with God. It is clear that most people need and are called to lives of social connection and service. While most hermits are not called to live without relationships, while those with ecclesial vocations must build in adequate relationships to nurture, guide, and supervise her life with God, and while the eremitical life is a life of service even when this looks very different than that of apostolic religious, it remains true that hermits forego more normal society and service and risk everything, including her own growth in wholeness and holiness, on the existence and nature of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and his desert existence. It is one thing to live Christian existence in the midst of society with all that entails. That is a risk and challenge, of course, with its own very real insecurity: What if I'm wrong? What if God's existence is a delusion, a fiction? What if there was no resurrection and Jesus simply "stayed good and dead"? But to pin everything including normal relationships, one's own home and family, more usual profession and avenues for service, etc., on a God whose love sustains, nurtures, completes and makes us truly human in eremitical solitude seems to me to be a very great (though justified) risk attended by significant insecurity. (My experience is that canonical standing attenuates but does not obviate this insecurity because the Church as such discerns and validates this vocation and proclaims all it witnesses to. Any well-grounded eremitical tradition works in this way in the hermit's life.)

An Ordered and Disciplined Vocation:

While there is a necessary and desirable insecurity at the heart of every eremitical vocation which tends to "prove" the vocation and its dependence on God, there is also the undeniable fact that this remains an ordered and disciplined form of life. Remember that one of the essential elements defining the life is "stricter separation from the world" and this means boundaries are required. For that matter "the silence of solitude" requires very real limitations and boundaries which MUST be articulated clearly and written into the hermit's Rule if they are to be lived meaningfully and with integrity. The lay hermit you cited may believe man-made laws and structures have no place, create illusions of stability and so forth, but the simple fact is that without these kinds of things sinful human beings create chaos, slide into slackness and laxness and ease into a state of general deafness to the work and call of the Holy Spirit. The person who honors the presence of the Holy Spirit, for instance, and who wishes to remain open and responsive to her presence will do so through an ordered and disciplined life. I wrote about this before once when I said:

[[ I think that suggesting commitments and structure will get in the Holy Spirit's way (which, right or wrong, is what I do hear you saying) is analogous to someone saying, "Oh I don't need to practice the violin to play it, I'll just let the Holy Spirit teach me where my fingers should go (or any of the billion other things involved in playing this instrument)." "Maybe I'll play scales if the HS calls me to; maybe I'll tune the violin if the HS calls me to. You mean I can't do vibrato without practicing it slowly? Well, maybe I will just conclude it doesn't need to be part of MY playing and the HS is not calling me to it." What I am trying to say is that if someone wants to play the violin they must commit to certain fundamental praxis and the development of foundational skills; only in so far as they are accomplished at the instrument technically will they come to know how integral this discipline and these skills are to making music freely and passionately as the Holy Spirit impels. Otherwise the music will not soar. In fact there may be no music at all --- just a few notes strung together to the best of one's ability; the capacity for making music will be crippled by the lack of skill and technique. In other words, the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with and through  the discipline I am speaking of, not apart from it.]]

Why Most Hermits are Non-canonical:

I am not entirely sure why most hermits are not canonical hermits. However, it is my impression that only a very small minority percentage of non-Canonical hermits actually reject canonical standing because they believe they will not have the freedom to live authentic eremitical lives under canonical standing or because they would like to imitate the Desert Abbas and Ammas. I have only run into one hermit (and Roman Catholic) who presents canon 603 as a distortion of authentic eremitical life; she had petitioned for admission to profession under canon 603 and was refused --- twice.  This led to what appeared to be a kind of "sour grapes" attitude toward the canon and those representing it. One credible example of the kind of rejection you ask about is that which turns up in the Episcopal Church and is well-represented by a canonical hermit like Maggie Ross. While personally I don't agree precisely with Ms Ross in this matter, she cogently argues the importance of standing outside the institutional reality so that one can be a truly prophetic presence. (I agree completely with her insistence on being a prophetic presence and I emphatically agree on the marginality of the hermit but I disagree that one can stand either essentially or completely outside the institution or be free of all legal and structural bonds.)

I will tell you what I have seen in a number of non-canonical hermits, however. First, most of these are self-described "hermits" and tend not to embody or otherwise meet the requirements of canon 603 in what they live. They may not live the silence of solitude nor lives of assiduous prayer and penance. They may not have embraced a desert spirituality but may merely be lone individuals --- sometimes misanthropic, sometimes not --- but generally still, they are not really hermits as the Church understands the term.  Some are married; some treat eremitical life as a part time avocation; some live with their parents or others and have never known real solitude, much less "the silence of solitude". Many desire to be religious men or women but have not been able to be professed or consecrated in community. Today the term "hermit" is far more popular than the authentic lifestyle! This means that all kinds of things are being justified by the term hermit and many of them are actually antithetical to this vocation: individualism, narcissism, active or apostolic life live by a solitary, etc. Some non-Canonical hermits have petitioned for canonical standing and been rejected; sometimes this is a personal matter, a determination they are not called to this life or are otherwise unsuitable while other times it is because the diocese they are petitioning is still hesitant to try or unclear on how to implement the canon in an effective and successful way. For instance, appropriate discernment, formation, etc are questions they take seriously and are still unclear about.


The bottom line in all of this is that because the eremitical life centered on the relationship of the hermit and God alone is, paradoxically, not merely about the hermit and God alone, because, that is, it is a gift to the Church which can proclaim the Gospel and speak in a special way to the isolated, the alienated, and those from whom "all the props have been kicked out", because it is lived in the heart of the Church in a way which allows the Church to nurture, govern, and mediate it, because, that is, it is an ecclesial vocation which belongs to the Church before it belongs to any hermit, the vocation requires some church laws and structures including mediatory relationships (Bishop, delegate, Vicars) to assure it is what it is meant to be. If one believes one can support the idea of a vocation without law or structure by turning to Paul's writing on Law versus Gospel one has simply not understood Paul's theology or his esteem for both law and the Gospel. At the same time the person you cited seems not to have understood the importance of discerning, embracing, or representing ecclesial vocations if s/he truly believes the Church professes those who seek to " rise above others" or to "rule the roost." This is simply not the reason canonical hermits have chosen (or are admitted to) hidden lives lived in the heart of the Church or lives of marginality and essential insecurity in worldly terms.