25 December 2016

A Contemplative Moment: Here it Begins

Here it begins in the dark before dawning.
Here, in a barn full of animal smells
The warm breath of cattle, the sounds of the morning.
Here without tinsel or tolling bells.

This is the Word Who was there at the making?
This is the pure and unbearable light?
Tiny and wrinkle-faced, squalling and shaking
Small fists at the vast implacable night?

Who can believe this impossible fable?
But He whose Love proves stronger than all our sins.
A light in the darkness, a child in the stable
Stronger than death itself, here it begins.
 For all those who read here -- whether regularly or occasionally, for those who have written with questions or comments, for all of those who help me to reflect here at Stillsong on the eremitical vocation and the Good News of a God whose eternal love makes its home in the everyday moments and moods of our lives, my sincerest thanks and best wishes for a wonderful Christmas! May you and your families have a joyful day and season!
Sister Laurel, Er Dio
Stillsong Hermitage
Diocese of Oakland

20 December 2016

The Word Made Flesh, Chanticleer and Biebl's Ave Maria

This Saturday evening a friend and I attended a Chanticleer Christmas concert in San Francisco at St Ignatius Church. The program included Biebl's Ave Maria --- something which has become expected, and would be seriously missed were Chanticleer to omit it from the program. The first year I heard this I was surprised by it and even a little disappointed; I was expecting Schubert or Bach-Gounod. We are resistant to the new sometimes. But now, I, like my friend, am ordinarily brought to tears by Chanticleer's rendition of this version of the Angelus/Ave Maria.

Some will remember my having quoted Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam, when I wrote about God shaping and sustaining us "like a singer sustains a note." I have spoken of our vocations to become true counterparts of God, language events which are expressions of the eternal and loving Word and breath of God, responses to God which bring creation to articulateness, and in the past I have spoken of human being summoned out of muteness to become canticles of joy and hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. In all of these ways and others I have tried to provide Scriptural and theological images of the ways we become our truest selves in the power and powerful presence of God, images part of what is celebrated at Christmas and especially in the stories we hear throughout this last week of Advent.

In today's Gospel we hear the story of  the angel greeting Mary and describing her as "full of grace;" it is also an account of Jesus' conception by the power of that same Spirit. In other words Mary is a woman of prayer in whom the breath of God moves freely and who, because of that, will speak her "fiat" to become pregnant with the One who will become God's counterpart in an exhaustive and definitive sense. Mary is indeed the canticle created when God is allowed to shape and sustain her as a singer does a note --- an image of Mary we celebrate especially in tomorrow's Gospel. The dialogue between Mary and God as well as our own subsequent reflection on and praise of this great mystery is captured in Biebl's marvelous rendition of the Angelus. I hope you enjoy it.

14 December 2016

On Prayer and Glorifying God

[[Dear Sister I was taught that prayer involves a number of forms including adoration, contemplation, thanksgiving and supplication. My pastor taught me the acronym ACTS to help me remember this. But I read a Catholic hermit saying the following [[ . . . Praising God is different from praying, as praising asks for nothing from God but rather gives God sole glory.]] I have no way of asking her about this statement since she has no contact information on her blog but I wondered if Catholic hermits have a different way of understanding prayer than my pastor so I am asking you.]]

Thanks for your question. Wow. To be frank, I would be surprised to hear any Catholic say such a thing, no matter their state of life or vocation. That's because the acronym you cited is often taught to elementary school kids as a way of remembering the main forms of prayer and to help them understand the way they are to give their whole selves to God in prayer. We all have heard homilies using this acronym from time to time when the readings reference the nature or the importance of prayer. I think I may have been taught this in the late sixties when I was taking instruction to become a Catholic. (By the way, I have heard it presented with "c= confession" rather than contemplation and I will speak of it that way here. I think contemplation would then fit under "Adoration".)

In either case it is important to remember that all prayer or worship is always the work of God within us. The corollary is that we are made and yearn for this to be more and more real in our lives so that we may become our truest selves! Our hearts are theological realities first of all; "heart" is defined in the TDNT,** for instance, as the place within us where God bears witness to Godself. Once we are aware that as we come to God and allow God to work in us in our minds and hearts and as we allow God to transform us in times of need,  joy,  reflectiveness, and love, we also come to be our truest selves, we begin to understand the deepest truth of prayer, namely that prayer is less something we do than it is something we are called to become by allowing God to witness to Godself in the whole of our lives.

The term we use for allowing God to dwell in us and witness to Godself is "glorifying" God. We glorify God when we reveal him to the world. And here it is critical to remember that reveal means not only to make known, but also to make real in space and time. We glorify God when we allow God to become incarnate in us, when we let him transform us into the imago Christi (image of Christ) we are made to become, when, in other words we pray and allow ourselves to become prayer. We are grateful in this way and it is an act of adoration and confession as well. To put this in theological terms we could say that when we allow God to be God in this way we become speech ACTS, language events whose essential nature is divinely motivated and shaped.

Hermits are contemplatives not only because it is a primary form of prayer for us, but because it reflects the way of life we have embraced and cultivated.  In truth hermits have embraced a way of life which involves a number of types of prayer every day precisely because it is contemplative; thus, it is a life of gratitude and praise, a life where we try to be essentially attentive and open ourselves so that the God who dwells deep within, may "come to us", "dwell within us" more fully (more extensively and effectively) to complete us as the covenant persons we are meant to be. As this happens we become instances of praise --- instances of profound prayer. In my eremitical life I don't ask God for much in the sense of plying him with lists of things I need or desire. That is not to say I do not have such things, I definitely do. But in the main my single prayer is ordinarily a prayer that is an opening of self to the One who would be with and dwell more fully within me to empower, encourage, and celebrate with me. When I am feeling particularly needy the form that prayer takes is, "O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me." But at other times the form that prayer takes is simply, "Thanks be to God." In my best moments then, prayer is a single act of praise which involves all of the things referred to in the acronym A.C.T.S. but above all it is an act of praise, an act in which God is most truly glorified.

Should I not call this prayer --- as the source you cited seems to imply? Of course I should. Again, at bottom prayer is the work of God attended to and embraced in the various modes and moods of human existence: adoration (the times we simply love God and all that is precious to God); confession (the times and ways we, empowered by the God of truth, say who we really are and what values we embody whether this is verbal or non-verbal and whether it represents us in our strength and integrity or our weakness, brokenness, and falseness); thanksgiving (all the times and ways we act by the grace of God with wonder, attentiveness and gratitude for the gifts of life and the Source and Ground of Life); and supplication (all of those times we especially turn to God in need, in our poverty, in our incompleteness and our desire for union). In each of these we turn to the God who is already present and active within us seeking him to become even more present and active and we do so only by the grace (or powerful presence) of God. In each of these ways and moments we PRAY and become prayer. In each of these ways and moments we glorify God.

** TDNT = Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, The TDNT is a ten volume work including the significant words of the New Testament; it provides detailed presentations of the different linguistic, theological, and cultural contexts of each word by looking at OT, intertestamental, and extratestmental literature as well as at the Greek and other important literature bearing on the meaning of these words. The definition of heart provided above is from the article on καρδια (kardia).

10 December 2016

Wait For the Lord

09 December 2016

Advent Reflection: Trusting the Process

Over the past six months a phrase which was invitation, challenge, conundrum (unfortunately, it was all-too-frequently that), solace, and promise was something I heard often, namely, "Trust the Process".  Over time I wrote a lot (of course), began to draw some (an old joy I had long ago left behind), and watched as numerous meetings with my director (who lives her integrity in Christ by "trusting the process") produced piece after piece of a tapestry of healing and growth whose overall  design I could never have imagined. In the picture above I see a child completely committed to and absorbed in her work. Like any born-contemplative she focuses on a small area of a very much larger picture, colors it in a way which allows what she is working on to blend with the next section over. She invests each moment with as much attention, love, and creativity as she can. She makes each piece of each drawing an instance of intense care and beauty. Bit by bit she discovers that she is creating an entire universe in this way, a universe marked by a massive rainbow of refracted light --- symbol of her covenant existence with a God she knows intimately but whose face she has not seen and whose name she has not yet learned.

At some point perhaps, after she has drawn and drawn, colored and colored some more, imagined, thought about, and poured herself into these pictures moment by moment day in and day out, she may assemble the pieces and be awed by what she and God together have brought to be. This is the nature of "trusting the process". It is also the nature of contemplative living and contemplative prayer. It is a matter of saying yes to the moment and the piece of work or life which stands right in front of us, even when we do not see a larger picture emerging or even imagine its possibility. It is a matter of saying yes to the one accompanying each and both of us and the God who dwells within us both -- seeking fullness of life for us and to be fully revealed (him)self. It reminds me of the sacred space and time Advent provides for allowing the work of bringing God-in-us to birth; so too, it gives me a glimpse of what Advent both gives to and asks of us.

Without any clear sense of what would come Mary said yes to being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. I have no doubt she was awed, hopeful, and excited but also, that she was terrified by the potential consequences of that yes and troubled by an inability to see what it would entail. When she pondered things in her heart I can see her considering the emerging picture piece by tiny piece, focusing her heart there and adding whatever yesses needed to be for the larger reality to gradually emerge and be realized in space and time. It is not hard for me to imagine Mary in the place of the child in the drawing above, drawing and drawing, coloring and coloring some more, pondering and pouring herself into these pictures, these moments of life and prayer, "trusting the process" until one day the pieces are stitched together and she is able to behold the child, and perhaps in time, will begin to glimpse the entirely new universe she will help God bring to birth in and through this child.

So I trust the process. One day Christ will be brought to full stature --- as Ephesians puts the matter -- as I too am being brought to full stature. One day God will not only be more truly incarnate in me but ultimately will be all in all. I have no idea what that new heaven and new earth will look like; nor do I need to. For now there remain all the smaller and larger yesses that still need to be said, the small and large investments of self that can only be made moment by moment, day by day, year by year, the focused commitment to draw and pour out my life in covenant with God, stroke by graced stroke until the living light standing at the heart of my being shines forth, fully illuminated, visibly ablaze with all the colors of love -- and in my own small but hardly insignificant way, I contribute to Christ's coming to full stature. This is Advent's contemplative challenge and call.

Trusting the Process Now

Chosen to Clap and Cheer: Embracing the Future With Advent Gratitude (Reprise)

Last week in Advent: Shaping our Lives in Light of the Future I wrote that Advent is about embracing and preparing to embrace the future, and especially the future revelation of God rather than hanging onto the past as an adequate model of what will one day be. I reminded readers that our cosmos is an unfinished reality and that we are on the way to the day when Christ will "come to full stature" and God will be all in all. I also noted that theologians and exegetes today read the Genesis creation and fall narratives very differently than they once did --- not as pointing to a completed and perfected universe which then, through human disobedience or sin, fell from perfection, but instead to a perfected universe still coming to be.

Such a new reading does not leave human sinfulness out of the picture nor does it even change our definition of it much. It is still very much about an ungratefulness we link with disobedience and "falling short" of the reality God calls us to be and embrace in our loving, our stewardship of life in all of its forms and stages, and our worship of the One Creator God. Sin is still about substituting our own versions of God for the real One based on partial and fragmentary revelations and being "satisfied" with a religion whose focus is too much on the now-dead past while we resist (fail to entrust everything in faith to) the ever-surprising God who wills to make everything definitively new. Sin is about enmeshment in this passing world and its fragmentary vision; it shows itself in resistance to the coming Kingdom (the sovereignty and realm) of God which is already in our midst in a proleptic way and seeks to pervade and transfigure all we are and know. Sin is about a resistance or lack of openness to the qualitatively new and surprising (kainotes), the reality we know as eternal or absolute future; when we embrace or otherwise become enmeshed in that lack of openness we are left only with the world of transience and death. After all, sin and death, in all of their forms and degrees are precisely about a lack of future.

Today's readings from Isaiah and Matthew fit very well in underscoring these dynamics, both those of Advent and the futurity it inaugurates and celebrates, as well as of sin and its resistance to newness and future. Isaiah's language is classic for us. He reminds us that so long as we are disobedient to the Commandments of God we have no future; we will not prosper. I think today we need to hear the term "Commandments" as referring to those imperatives of gratefully loving, stewarding life, and worshiping God which are the keys to any futurity. Obedience is a matter of hearkening to these, that is, being open and attentive to them in all of the ways and places they come to us as we embrace whatever they call us to. Obedience is the responsive behavior of those who are grateful.

The Gospel lection tells a wonderful story of prophetic and messianic gifts of God (symbolized most fully by John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth) given freely to God's People --- only to be met with narrow minded criticism and hardhearted ingratitude. God is trying to do something new, trying to bring creation to fulfillment in a "New Creation" of freedom, holiness, and eternal life and human beings representing God's chosen people are resistant. Now John the Baptist himself had come to wonder if Jesus was really the Messiah John had prepared people for; things were looking bad for both John and Jesus and Jesus did seem to be pretty different than the One John had been proclaiming.

Jesus responded to John's questions by pointing to the things God was doing through him to give the blind and crippled a new and full future --- just as Isaiah had promised. Then Jesus uses the image of children engaged in petty bickering as they play games mimicking weddings and funerals. It is important to note that these are ordinarily the most joyful and poignant celebrations of life, love and the hope of a future grounded in God we know. Similarly funerals are those moments marking the terrible sadness and grief of sin and death in separation from God --- though they too may be transformed into celebrations of an eternal hope and future. Jesus reminds the adults listening to him that --- in something that was deadly serious --- God played them a dirge (called them to serious repentance and conversion) culminating in the prophet John and a wedding hymn in Jesus his Anointed One, but they resisted and rejected both. Instead, they criticized John as a crazy person, and called Jesus a drunkard and glutton. Theological arrogance, religious complacency (lukewarmness) or superiority, outright cynicism or hardheartedness --- whatever the roots of this ingratitude it gave no room at all to a faith (trust) that allowed God to do something new in and with our world.

Because Christmas and the exhaustive incarnation of God is, in some ways, not yet complete; because we look forward to the day when Christ will finally come to full stature (Paul to the Ephesians), both Isaiah and Matthew are urging us to adopt an attitude of gratitude and joyful openness to the God of Newness and the future we know as life in God. It is an attitude that contrasts radically with that of the children playing their games in today's gospel or of those rejecting Jesus and John and the Kingdom they inaugurate. Harold Buetow tells the following story which captures the childlike humility, excitement, gratitude, and openness we are to have in relation to the awesome Christmas drama of New Creation God is authoring right now in our lives and world.

[[Little Jimmie was trying out for a part in the school [Christmas] play. He'd set his heart on being in it though his mother feared he wouldn't be chosen. On the day when the parts were awarded, with some trepidation his mother went to collect him after school. Jimmie rushed up to her, eyes shining with pride and excitement: "Guess what, Mom," he shouted, and said, "I've been chosen to clap and cheer!"]]

I am especially struck by how really involved and aware, how truly attentive to and appreciative of the work occurring right in front of one one must be to "clap and cheer" (or to be raptly silent!) in ways which support and move the drama of God's will forward. Isn't this the attitude of praise and gratitude evident in God's followers all throughout the centuries? Isn't this the attitude merited by an unfinished universe moving mysteriously but inexorably toward the day when its Creator God will be all in all?  And isn't this the attitude of obedient anticipation Advent asks each of us to cultivate?

Story of Jimmie's call is from Harold Buetow's, Walk in the Light of the Lord, A Thought a Day for Advent and Christmastide, Alba House, 2004. (Friday, 2nd Week of Advent, p 40.)

06 December 2016

On the Hiddenness of Eremitical Life

 [[Hi Sister, I wondered if you find the idea of the hiddenness of your vocation difficult. I was especially wondering if there is some part of "remaining hidden" that is particularly challenging to you? Have you chosen to blog in response to this or maybe in spite of this?]]

Really terrific questions! Yes, there is a dimension of eremitical hiddenness that has been difficult for me, namely, it has been challenging to come to a really adequate or more complete understanding of what I am being asked to witness to or how my life proclaims the Gospel if it is hidden in the sense most folks understand the term. When I considered eremitical life originally I thought it was supremely selfish and in one way and another I have been dealing with residual bits of that conviction throughout my own struggle with the vocation's hiddenness. After all, we have texts like Jesus' clear teaching that one ought not put one's light under a bushel basket but instead place it on a lampstand so that all may see (by) it, and of course there is the clear commandment that we love one another as God loves us. Eremitical solitude and hiddenness seem to fly in the face of these and similar central bits of the Gospel Tradition.

Trusting the Light Mediated by Hiddenness:

If you notice the way I amended the text above regarding putting one's light on a lampstand you will see one of the ways I have come to deal with the apparent conflict between the importance of eremitical hiddenness and also the imperative to share with others. You see, I came to see more clearly the basic truth that it is not so much that we see light itself but rather that we see by virtue of the light. In thinking about eremitical hiddenness I came to see there is a difference between putting one's light on a lampstand so that others might see it and putting the light there so that others may see by virtue of it. The second "translation" allowed me to see that a hermit's hiddenness might prevent folks from looking directly at "the light" (to whatever degree this particular life really is a source of light) but that the light of the hermit's life could still (and in fact MUST still) illuminate the world around her and be a source of light to those within in. In many ways eremitical life is the most radical expression of the truth that we must grow less so that God's glory lives more fully in and shines more fully through us or that it must be Christ in us that is the most critical reality we witness to.

What I must trust is that, in ways I am mainly unaware of, the light of Christ DOES shine through me --- especially through the fact that life in eremitical solitude is something which completes and makes me genuinely happy --- and that it is the real purpose or calling of my life, in the main it is the way I truly DO love others. When I write about the redemptive reality which MUST exist in the life of any hermit and the fact that this must come to the hermit in the silence of solitude I am writing about the same thing Merton wrote about when he said that "the first duty of the hermit is to be happy without affectation in (her) solitude".  The whole quote says, [[The . . .hermit has as his first duty, to live happily without affectation in his solitude. He owes this not only to himself but to his community [by extension diocesan hermits would say parish, diocese, or Church] that has gone so far as to give him a chance to live it out. . . . this is the chief obligation of the . . .hermit because, as I said above, it can restore to others their faith in certain latent possibilities of nature and of grace.]] (Emphasis added,  Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 242)

In a world where there is such an emphasis on active ministry (and rightly so) and such a need for concrete acts of love it is simply hard to see that it is the very hiddenness of the hermit that is actually a very significant act of love which witnesses to the grace of God that has redeemed the hermit's life. So often activism is not a reflection of a contemplative or prayerful core; so often it is an expression of insecurity, the need to achieve for one's own sake more than for the sake of the other. So often active ministry is undertaken in an approach that is more symptomatic than systemic --- it deals with symptoms more than the underlying disease (though the best priests, religious, and laity I know manage an active ministry aimed at the core problem as well and even primarily.) The hermit serves to remind us all that before we reach out to others we must be able to point to God's love and redemption with the wholeness and capacity to remain in solitude, secure even in our hiddenness.

Inner Work and the Witness of the Hermit:

Recently I wrote about inner work I was undertaking with my director. At one point we had a discussion of why this work was personally imperative for me and how it was that it was consonant with my vocation --- especially because the work meant a frequent and regular contact with my director and some significant temporary changes in my Rule. I explained that my own sense was that since the Church had consecrated and commissioned me to live this vocation in her name she had also commissioned me to undertake anything essential to living an abundant life in union with God more and more fully. That meant, I explained, that not only had the Church given me permission to do this work but that insofar as it was essential to my own healing and growth it was something that was an essential part of this vocation the Church had publicly called me to.

Also, despite the intense interaction with my director --- an interaction in which the Grace of God was consistently mediated --- it was done mainly in solitude and would enhance my solitude --- especially since solitude differs so radically from isolation and the brokenness associated with isolation. All of this was done so that I could truly be a hermit living out the primary obligation of the eremitical life as Merton had defined it and as I had come to know it to be. All of it witnessed to what the hermit knows most acutely in solitude, namely that there are incredible, awesome latent possibilities or potentialities marking the place within us where nature and grace meet --- where, in fact, God bears and is allowed to bear witness within us. It can be essential for the health of every minister to be reminded of these deep potentialities and the terrible hunger every person may know to have them realized in relation to God. Thus, hermits serve the Church --- sometimes by remaining completely hidden and sometimes by maintaining an essential hiddenness despite a very limited active ministry --- as I do in my parish and with this blog.

On Blogging:

Thus, the answer to your second question is that blogging is not something I have chosen to do in spite of a call to eremitical hiddenness but rather, something I have chosen to do because of it. I am convinced there needs to be a way of sharing the incredibly positive reasons hermits choose the silence of solitude, why their hiddenness is an antidote to the epidemic need for notoriety so prevalent today, and why solitude is not necessarily a selfish choice but can be one which is made for the sake of others. My own choice to blog also has to do with the need for reflection on hermits' lived experience of canon 603 and the way it is implemented and needs to be implemented for the good of the Church and solitary hermits. Eremitical life per se is so little understood in chanceries throughout the world and so often understood in terms of "being a lone person" or isolation rather than eremitical solitude by so many others. We have to allow the love which drives this vocation to illumine the world --- both in its hiddenness and in the limited access we give others to that hiddenness.

What I have come to understand over the  past decade especially is that the vocation is not selfish and that, paradoxically, hiddenness in the eremitical life is a dimension of one's love for God, for oneself, and for others because it reveals the God who loves us simply for ourselves; similarly it reminds us that allowing this to really be the foundation of our lives is the one thing necessary and the deepest potential of our humanity.

04 December 2016

Canon 603: Lauras vs Communities of Hermits

[[Sister, could individuals who wish to be religious be professed under Canon 603 and then come together in a laura? What is the difference between a community or religious institute and a laura? I ask because of a post I read recently here on using Canon 603 as a stopgap means to profession. (I don't mean it was a recent post, just that I read it recently.)]]

That's a good question. Canon 603 allows for lauras but of it does not do so explicitly; instead it does so implicitly within the context of support for the solitary eremitical vocation and CICLSAL has approved the idea of lauras. Commentators too have opined on the appropriateness of lauras so long as they do not rise to the level of a community. This means that a laura exists to support solitary hermits in their solitude, and that it does not change the thrust or the requirements of the Canon in other specifications. (The name, laura, is instructive here because as I noted before, it comes from the Latin word for paths which link individual hermitages with one another, and with the chapel and common areas. The emphasis remains on the solitary hermitages and the life within them.) So, how does this differ from a religious institute?

First, community is secondary rather than primary; it is meant to support solitary eremitical life not create communities of cenobites with significant solitude. While Mass may be celebrated daily, and while some of the Divine offices may be chanted or prayed in common, and while during a week a few meals may be taken in common, recreation shared, etc, the emphasis and primary reason for the laura is the solitary vocation. This means too that a hermit continues to be responsible for writing her own Rule (more about this below) --- even though some adaptations may be made so the Laura functions well and responsibility to one another is honored. (This is important not only for the formation of the individual hermit, but also should the laura cease to be sustainable at some point. More about this in a moment.)

Secondly, formation and profession would need in large part to be done apart from the laura itself. That is, one is formed as a hermit in a process which is largely independent and individual. Ongoing formation is provided for in the hermit's Rule. The laura would not responsible for determining what is necessary or for providing for this. Of course, members of the laura might serve other hermits as mentors or elders in the mode of the desert Fathers and Mothers, but such service will not rise to the level of formation director, etc as one would find in a community. Individual hermits might require some degree of socialization to the Laura life specifically, but generally their formation has a different purpose. They are to be formed as solitary diocesan hermits, that is as diocesan hermits whose vocations may take them outside the Laura for any number of reasons and at any time. Formation of new hermits or candidates is not the responsibility of laura members. Instead the laura is open to already professed diocesan hermits. Meanwhile, profession is made in the hands of the diocesan Bishop, not in the hands of community superiors.

Thus, if the laura should be disbanded at some point in the future or a hermit decide to leave (for instance because hermits leave, die, require full time care, decide to live a more completely solitary life with their parish as main community, etc) a remaining hermit (who is not a cenobite) cannot transfer to an eremitical community (like the Camaldolese or Carthusians); instead she remains professed as a diocesan hermit and responsible for her own vocation within the diocese. She must therefore be prepared to live as a solitary hermit like most others --- without the advantages afforded by a Laura and with a sensitivity to her place within the parish community and larger (diocesan and universal) church community.

Thirdly, a solitary hermit must be or have been able to write her own rule of life based on her lived experience and wisdom. I have read an argument that allows for a diocese to write guidelines and the Laura (meaning one person who serves as superior here) to write the Rule. While this might be canonically acceptable (I believe the canon indicates writing the Rule is the hermit's responsibility) it lacks real wisdom and prudence, I think, and it confuses the laura with a religious community. This arrangement cuts away one of the most significant elements assisting the hermit and the diocese in discerning the soundness of the eremitical vocation in front of them; more, it robs the hermit of one of the most integrative and growthful experiences she will have during her first years living this vocation in a truly conscious way. (Please see articles on writing the Rule for more on this topic).

Fourthly, just as the hermit writes her own Rule she must be able to keep her own accounts, determine her own work or limited ministry, and, for the most part (except for common prayer and meals), establish her own horarium (schedule) and choose her own delegate. Again, this is part of recognizing her vocation as a solitary hermit who remains a solitary hermit even should a laura dissolve be suppressed, or otherwise fail. Lauras can accommodate all of these requirements but life in community cannot. Poverty in community requires a common purse and a common interpretation and praxis of poverty; this is not true of solitary eremitical life. Similarly, life in a community requires common leadership --- a single superior; a delegate from outside the community is not workable. In a laura, while one person may serve as leader of the laura, each hermit's vocation is best served by their own delegate.

Fifthly, in a laura, except for worship where each hermit may wear a similar prayer garment, individual hermits wear the garb they have chosen and their bishop has approved according to their Rule of life. Something similar holds regarding access to internet, use of media and computers and other tools a hermit may need. Each of these and other individual needs will be worked out in the hermit's own Rule with the assistance of her delegate and/or spiritual director.

03 December 2016

On Delegates and the Adequacy of Canon 603 Provisions for Formation and Governance

Hi Sister Laurel, when you wrote about the role of your delegate were you aware that some hermits like Sister Petra Clare are critical of the way governance of hermits work out on the ground? She wrote:

[[ Although it was a big move for the hierarchy to recognise these ancient solitary ways of life and re-insert them into the life of the Church during Vatican II, I doubt whether the fathers of the Council had foreseen the pastoral and religious gaps which would be exposed by re-introducing a fourth century way of life into the late twentieth century milieu! This gap has its roots in the formal separation of clergy and religious life governance during the Gregorian reforms in the 11c. When the new canons were introduced, together with canon 605 which fosters new religious communities, the bishops – for the first time since the Middle Ages – were directly responsible for a form of religious life!

This was a shock for both sides – clergy and religious! Bishops did not know anything about the job and were not particularly keen for extra responsibilities. Religious, on the whole, simply shrugged and said it wasn’t their job either: their responsibility stopped at the doors of their communities or – at widest – extended to the Congregation. Occasionally, a religious community has fostered a closer relationship with a particular hermit or virgin, but such exceptions are few and far between. Very often, soon after the virgin has made her commitment the guidance of the church dries up. The result has been, with a few exceptions, a no-man’s land of ‘do-it-yourself’ formation and quasi-religious life.

On the whole the pattern seems to be that the Consecration or hermit profession works well in its first stages. The consecrating Bishop has an interest in his charge, and makes provision for formation (usually very basic), presides the profession, and sets up a minimalistic support system, which usually means appointing a spiritual director and/or some oversight from a religious community or the Vicar for religious. . . . ]]


Thereafter she finds there is simply little oversight and the situation becomes problematical. It sounds to me like your delegate is unusual and you are as fortunate as you said you were. I assume you agree with Sister Petra's analysis of the situation. My question is how does a hermit find someone to serve in this way? How does she avoid the notion of "do-it-yourself" formation mentioned in Sister Petra's account of things? Does the diocese have a role in all of this or should they have a role in all of this?]]


I read Sister Petra's account of things on the blog "City Desert" (cf. City Desert: Modern Roman Catholic Hermits) a couple of years ago I think. I was struck not only by her analysis of the lacunae in canon 603's provisions (or, more accurately I think, the deficiencies in the way the canon is implemented in many dioceses), but also the similarity of her impressions regarding Sister Irene Gibson to my own. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the second portion of her comments on formation --- though I would like to have read those. I don't know how pervasive this problem is but, as I have noted, I do know how fortunate I am in having a delegate who accepts her role in service to the diocese and myself, and who has made it her own so that 1) she regards my own needs and her responsibility in helping me meet these very seriously indeed, and at the same time 2) regards the classic freedom of the hermit which is embodied in canon 603 (and my own Rule) at the same time. Sister M. has worked with me for many years now and she has done so during particularly intense formative  periods in my own life despite the fact that she is (more primarily) on her congregation's leadership team during a particularly critical time in her congregation's life.

Finding a Delegate:

So, how does a hermit find someone to work with them in this way? The responsibility for finding a religious to serve in this way was something my own diocese told me I would need to take care of myself. I don't know if they realized how difficult it could be (I certainly did not)  or if they had not really thought things through yet, but undoubtedly I was (yet again!) very fortunate that Sister Marietta agreed to fill the role. However, the content of the role was not really spelled out so it has been something that evolved as Marietta's own sense of responsibility, her experience in formation and leadership, and her own care for me came together with my own needs, discernment, and growth in this vocation. In a sense this kind of "free hand" mirrors the way a hermit's own vocation grows and should grow --- with an emphasis for all involved on discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit in this hermit's life. But the diocese should play a part in all of this -- more of a part than my own plays I think, and far more than dioceses play in the lives of most hermits.

When I say this I mean the diocese: 1) should take the need for a delegate of sufficient experience and commitment very seriously, 2) they should assist a hermit in finding someone to fill this role if the hermit does not know  or cannot find someone right off; this could and probably should include speaking with formation and leadership personnel of congregations in the diocese to seek their assistance,  3) besides the annual or bi-annual meeting with the hermit they should meet regularly with the hermit's delegate for a sense of how things are going --- not so much for the hermit's sake as for that of the delegate herself and for her input on her own role; after all she is serving them in this role and helping them and other dioceses to understand what it can and perhaps, should and should not be, 4) when a new bishop comes in he should make a point of meeting not only the hermit but her delegate as well; moreover he (or the Vicar for Religious) should have all contact information for both persons on hand, 5) when this becomes necessary the diocese should assist the hermit to find someone suitable to replace the delegate. It is not, in my opinion, a role which should be allowed to go vacant nor is it a role just any religious can fill, and 6) the delegate should be given a free hand to work with the hermit as they both discern what is helpful and necessary. Both she and the hermit can report on this in annual meetings with the bishop. The bottom line in all of this is that the delegate serves BOTH the hermit and the diocese or diocesan bishop. She should not be seen as simply doing a personal favor for the hermit. Instead she should be recognized and even commissioned to serve in this capacity --- not publicly commissioned, perhaps, but really  affirmed in this service by the pertinent chancery offices/bishop.

The Role of the Delegate and the Role of the Diocese:

Since I have not been able to read what Sister Petra says about formation I don't know whether she is speaking of formation of hermits who have sufficient experience of religious life prior to perpetual profession under canon 603, or those who, relatively speaking, have none or very little when she refers to "do-it-yourself-formation". (I believe it is wrong and an abuse of canon 603 to profess hermits with no experience of or formation in the skills, values, attitudes, and disciplines of religious life but the simple fact is that it does happen in some dioceses.) Neither do I know if she accepts solitary eremitical life as possible under c 603 or believes instead that hermits must live in colonies. Since she is from Scotland she may be associated with a group that believes c 603 is inadequate for the living out of the eremitical vocation. (She may even be the person who once wrote this. I cannot recall.) If she does believe the latter, then I disagree with her and while I believe dioceses have to take greater care in implementing canon 603, I also believe the canon per se defines a livable eremitical life. In instances of solitary eremitical life we must recognize that formation for the hermit mainly occurs in solitude and that hermits who are perpetually professed must show both initiative and responsibility; they must be able to discern (at least in some vestigial sense) and either find or ask for what they need. At the same time the hermit's delegate should be able to discern and inform the hermit of avenues of formation, resources for retreat, etc., which can be helpful to her and certainly those which are necessary for her well-being generally and in this vocation specifically.

While canon 603 does not spell out the role of delegate nor provide for legal categories governing the relationship between herself and the hermit, the canon does clearly say the bishop is the hermit's legitimate superior in whose hands she makes her profession and under whose supervision she lives her Rule and commitment. Given the busyness of bishops and, generally speaking, their own lack of expertise in religious or consecrated life, this can easily be seen to call for a delegate who is a religious with sufficient experience and talents in formation and leadership; the bishop would be the one who outlines the responsibilities of such a role in light of his own needs and those of the hermit, but also with feedback from the Sister or Brother who is assuming the role of delegate. In general we are talking about exercising authority with a light touch but insisting everyone shares in ways which are pertinent not just to the hermit's vocation but to working out prudent ways to implement canon 603 itself so the whole Church benefits.

One thing I may not have been clear enough about: the delegate is NOT the hermit's formation director. The hermit ordinarily has none (and here is the reason for requiring significant lived experience prior to admitting to eremitical life/profession). Moreover, the hermit's formation as hermit mainly occurs in silence and solitude. The delegate and the hermit's spiritual director can assist the hermit in negotiating this more specific formation --- especially her ongoing formation which never ceases to be a challenge and obligation. At the same time there are resources which should be considered in assisting the hermit's education and formation in religious life generally and in eremitical life more specifically. For instance, it is critically important that the hermit has extended experience of real silence and solitude. One of the best ways this can occur is with an extended stay (or repeated stays) in a contemplative monastic community. It is tremendously helpful  to live with religious who themselves live silence and solitude (in community) as they move through a daily routine of prayer, work, recreation, prayer, etc. We tend to learn what is possible by watching others. More, hermits need to be sustained in their solitude and having a sense that others move through their days in the same way the hermit does is tremendously helpful in providing this sustenance.

Dioceses must take seriously their Responsibility with Regard to C 603

I have argued in several specific ways that the diocese is and should be involved in this but let me also comment in a more general way on the place of the diocese in regard to this topic. Dioceses act in a rather uneven manner in implementing canon 603. Some profess, it sometimes seems, almost anyone coming through the door petition in hand. Some refuse to profess anyone at all --- whether because they have no suitable candidates or because they don't believe in the vocation itself, and some use the canon with care and caution --- usually because they understand the vocation along with its rarity and have high standards on who they will admit to formal discernment and profession. Some dioceses may also be concerned their responsibility for the life of solitary hermits will be onerous and more than they can take on --- or more than they know how to take on. It is this last concern which needs to be discussed at greater length and it is a discussion which a delegate along with the hermit can help to facilitate. In particular hermits and delegates can have meaningful input on formation, both initial and ongoing. In any case, a diocese which professes a diocesan hermit definitely needs to take on meaningful (which does not mean extensive) responsibility for this vocation. Otherwise, as I have suggested before, they probably ought not admit hermits to profession under canon 603.

Canon 603, as I have written uncountable times, defines an ecclesial vocation and in all such vocations there is a bond of mutual responsibility between the hermit and the Church as a whole. It is true that generally speaking diocesan hermits do not need much oversight in living their lives. Still, they represent a new form of consecrated life which reprises an ancient and important impulse to prophetic and contemplative witness pivotal to the life and good health of the Church; for this reason every diocesan hermit and those who assist her share in the establishment and evolution of canon 603 life within the Church. There has to be meaningful dialogue between the diocese/bishop and the hermit and delegate so the Church can continue to recognize and risk consecrating these vocations. If the canon is not working well in some way or a hermit's life is disedifying, if dioceses require greater experience of such vocations, if they are to risk discerning and professing c 603 vocations, then it can only be with the input of hermits who are already perpetually professed (and their delegates!) in order that the limited experience of the Church in regard to these vocations can be extended and enlighten more widely.