12 January 2017

On Communities as Formative Contexts for c 603 Hermits

Dear Sister, I was reading about diocesan hermits and came across an online discussion on the difficulty of becoming a diocesan or Catholic Hermit. One person spoke about her diocese not allowing diocesan hermits or consecrated virgins because of the rarity of the vocation and the fact that it is supervised by the bishop. I guess it was thought that discernment and supervision would be too much of a problem. One person then responded: [[I think it makes sense that it's a rare vocation, and not one to be taken on lightly. Without the direction of a community and superior, those living in solitude can easily stray from the path or become quite eccentric. It's important, even in the solitary vocations, to have a good SD. It might be even better to live with a community for a while, to receive good formation in the religious life, and only then to step out on one's own (with God, of course!). There are quite a few communities of hermits in the US where you could inquire about being formed with the intent of eventually becoming a diocesan hermit.]] Is this a good idea? Do you know anyone who would take me on if I wanted to do this?]]

Thanks for your questions. Some parts of this response are very fine I think. In fact I would say everything up to the last sentence is right on. However, the last sentence and the idea of going to a community with the idea of being formed by them and one day leaving to become a diocesan hermit seems unworkable and potentially seriously problematical to me. I do believe that a solitary hermit who seeks to be canonically professed and consecrated as a diocesan hermit should have some background in religious life (or its equivalent) and access to a monastery where she may spend time -- including extended periods occasionally if that is possible. However, no community will take on a person in order to form them if the person does not intend to stay in the community. Nor should they.

Formation is done in the particular charism and mission of the institute in question. The purpose is not simply to make a religious, monastic, or hermit but to form someone into a Benedictine, Carthusian,  Camaldolese, Franciscan or Carmelite hermit, etc. One enters a community with the explicit sense of discerning and being formed in a vocation with this particular community for the rest of one's life. One learns to live with and love one's Sisters in this community, to be a Sister to them and to throw one's lot in with this group of people come what may. In such a community there is shared solitude which is every bit as communal as any other dimension of the life here. I think that some very rare communities might be willing to allow a person to undertake formation with them while knowing the person desires to become a diocesan hermit down the line but I suspect the successful candidate would be a rare and exceptional person as well.  If it were the case that one could become a hermit in six months to a year, perhaps one could arrange to be a guest somewhere for that period of time, but one cannot be formed as a hermit in such a short period -- much less be prepared for vows and consecration.

Absolutely one could learn to pray the Office, develop some sound habits of work, prayer, recreation, and rest which would serve one when one began one's formation as a solitary diocesan hermit; similarly, one could get a good sense of the nature of monastic and eremitic silence and solitude and see how one does in such a context, but formation as a hermit? No, not in such a time frame. Besides, one is to be formed as a solitary hermit and this takes time on one's own; it also requires that one (learn to) take care of everything one needs to live on one's own without the benefits of community life. This includes writing one's own Rule and this in itself requires experience as a solitary hermit and attention to what actually works for oneself during different seasons and during wellness and illness as well.

Finally, I have to say that the discernment and formation process of a diocesan hermit must be diocesan and involve diocesan personnel, the person's home parish, and so forth. This, I think, must be primary even if it is supplemented by periods at a monastery or hermitage one knows and even if it is preceded by a time as a religious in community. Only when this is the case will one know whether one can truly live an eremitical life outside a community of hermits; only in such a case will one be able to discern properly or provide appropriately for both initial and ongoing formation. Moreover, only in such a case can one know whether one's diocese is truly open to admitting hermits to profession and consecration under c 603. A diocese cannot promise to profess one IF one spends an extended time in a monastery or hermitage, nor can one expect a diocese to profess one simply because one HAS spent such time in such a context. Again, while such formation is apt to be beneficial, the solitary eremitical vocation is not the same as eremitical life in community; it must be lived and reflected  upon on its own terms.

What I would suggest to you if you are interested in becoming a diocesan hermit (or really to anyone who is so interested) and you (or they) have no background in religious life is the following: 1) find yourself a good spiritual director, preferably a religious with experience in formation and one who lives contemplatively (even if an apostolic religious); 2) establish a relationship with them over some time, 3) begin living as a solitary hermit if that is your decision (use c 603 as the guide for your life), 4) read everything you can about it as you meet regularly with your director. If you can live this way for two or three years, and if you really thrive in the silence of solitude, then try your hand at writing a Rule. Once you have managed this task (something which is likely to take you several months) you are probably ready to contact your diocese with a request that they consider admitting you to profession under c 603. If they are open to admitting ANY suitable person then at this point you will likely begin a discernment process with the diocese itself.

I do think that candidates for consecration under c 603 and those already professed and consecrated can benefit from regular time away in a disciplined, regular monastic context so I suggest looking into options for that. I believe this is ordinarily necessary in order to understand what a Rule and the life itself should include and also to have an experience which challenges one to faithfulness even when one is far from the monastic community. In this way I think I am in essential agreement with the perceptions of the person you cited in your question even I am not in agreement with her specific suggestion re joining a religious or monastic community. I believe that all dioceses that demonstrate caution in approaching the eremitical vocation lived in the name of the Church, who recognize the relative and even the absolute rarity of this vocation, and who understand the absolute need for sufficient formation --- both initial and ongoing --- serve this vocation even when they mainly refuse to profess individuals. Especially dioceses who recognize that a lone individual is not necessarily a hermit, that isolation (physical, emotional or psychological, etc) does not constitute eremitical solitude and who insist on communal or ecclesial sensibilities in their candidates serve this vocation. Whatever assists an individual candidate to live a life embodying authentic eremitical solitude needs to be considered and honored; extended or regular times with a community certainly aids in this.