22 June 2017

On Rules, Bishops, and Finding the Way With Canon 603

Dear Sister, could you comment on the following? It is an excerpt from a post on Citydesert: A Hermit's Christmas . You have written about Rules and writing them. I wonder if you agree with what this hermit has to say. Also, could you comment on the portion about bishops? I wonder if this resonates with your own experience? [[She admits, that although she is guided by her rules (sic) of life, there are times when she has to make it up as she goes along. As she embarked on her new path, she sought the blessing of the Most Rev Malcolm McMahon, then the Catholic Bishop of Nottingham. “He said: ‘We don’t do hermits.’ He didn’t know anything about it – although he did grow to like having a hermit in the diocese: it gave him kudos with the other bishops.”]]

 Thanks for your questions! I have read this article and recognize the section you cited. Let me say that Sister Rachel's descriptions of "making it up as she goes" and of her bishop's initial response resonate with me --- big time!! One of the reasons I chose to write my Rule in the way I did and encourage others to do the same is precisely because when one puts Gospel and principles of eremitical life before one puts an emphasis on law one gets a Rule which is sufficiently structured but also allows the hermit the time and space to respond to the Holy Spirit in uniquely personal ways. In writing a Rule one simply cannot account for every contingency if one tries to write it in terms of "do's and don'ts". One needs instead the experience and insight to write a Rule which captures an authentic vision of eremitical life, states clearly the way one sees one's mission and charism, and then draws conclusions about specific do's and don'ts which are generally applicable. If one can do that the Rule will function well and also leave room for adjusting to unexpected situations and circumstances.

Another piece of all of this that helps the hermit to discern how she will act in such circumstances and situations is the feedback of her delegate. One of the reasons a canonical hermit has a delegate is because the hermit will need to discuss these kinds of things with someone who knows her and her life. For instance, last year I thought about doing something which my Rule could never have anticipated and I asked my delegate if she saw anything problematical with my doing what I was considering. She responded that so long as it was, 1)  consistent with my Rule, 2) consonant with my deep conscience, and was,  3) sensitive to my own health and/or physical needs, she could see no problem. She also noted that since I was thinking about a public action, I needed to consider whether or not I would wear my veil and/or cowl. And then, "Your decision." All of this was very helpful to me, especially since it defined what I had to consider and left the decision squarely in my own hands. (It also pointed up a couple of places my Rule could be more helpful in such cases --- exceptional though they might be!)

There is no way a Rule can anticipate, much less legislate every little (or big!) thing unless it is made to be essentially restrictive and contrary to the freedom of the hermit. At the same time it must be very clear about what the hermit is doing and why she is doing it. When it is clear in this way discernment will be needed, of course, but it will also be possible. The Rule and one's own internalization of its articulated vision and mission then serves as a significant guide for one's discernment. Beyond this the hermit's delegate (who, in my experience, has a copy of and knows the hermit's Rule) will assist in specific thorny instances of discernment and help her in living this Rule with a flexibility which serves genuine fidelity.

This is not exactly "making it up as one goes" in a way which suggests the hermit is free to do anything at all at such times, but I think it is "making it up as one goes" in the way Sister Rachel was speaking of. Remember that in Sister Rachel's case, a diagnosis of cancer required significant changes in her schedule, degree of social contact, etc. Accommodating these kinds of needs while still keeping one's Rule in some essential sense demands flexibility and discernment but it demands these within the context of the vision, mission, and gift of solitary eremitical life the hermit has spelled out in her Rule. When I wrote my own Rule I chose very specifically to focus on spelling out who I was and was called to be in terms of canon 603 and only thereafter, what specifically I was called to do or not do. I think this corresponds generally to the distinction between Gospel and Law. What I find to be true is that so long as a hermit knows, both intellectually and deep in her heart, who she is, discerning what she is to do will follow more easily --- even in difficult situations and circumstances like those Sister Rachel faced.

What Sister Rachel writes about her Bishop is certainly familiar to me. When I first began becoming a diocesan hermit and was petitioning for admission to public vows, I was working with the Vicar for Religious in a process of discernment. During this process because of another situation which "left a bad taste in his mouth", the bishop decided not to allow any professions under canon 603 for the foreseeable future. He did not communicate this to the Vicar however. I personally think the Bp had forgotten Sister Susan was working with me in regard to c 603 and innocently failed to communicate the matter to her. Whenever the decision was made it was only made known to Sister Susan after we had met for about five years and she was ready to recommend me to the bishop for profession; it was a difficult decision for both of us. In any case, I eventually petitioned again (or renewed my original petition) and was accepted for admission to vows. The time it took from the day I knocked on the chancery door, so to speak, to the day I was perpetually professed was 23 years.

Other dioceses have recognized that canon 603 is too-easily misused today or that it does not provide adequately for the solitary hermit's initial or ongoing formation. Some have decided the vocation itself (along with c 604) is not real, is merely a "fallback" vocation and do not allow for it. Some recognize that requiring hermits to be self-supporting is a double-edged sword: it is necessary to prevent those merely seeking a sinecure, but it may be unjust to those with genuine vocations to solitude --- especially as they age and become infirm. Some have had many would-be-candidates seeking admission to profession but found none of them suitable -- and they may be entirely correct in this! In the space of the last 34 years my own diocese has had only one person they professed specifically as a diocesan hermit; in the last 10 years (since I was perpetually professed) I know they have had many people knocking on the door about this (perhaps averaging one a month by one account) but none have been admitted to perpetual vows. In reviewing my own petition Archbishop Vigneron was very clear he needed to learn a lot before any decision could be made. Fortunately, he spent time doing that! So, what Sister Rachel writes about this is not unusual and something I definitely can resonate with, yes.

I can't comment on the second observation Sister Rachel makes about other bishops regarding her bishop because he decided to consecrate a diocesan hermit. I do know that Bishops seek out those with experience of hermits whom they have professed and consecrated in order to get a feel for how things work with the canon. Vicars, canonists, and diocesan hermits themselves may also be contacted for insight and information. But whether or not and how other bishops may regard those among them who have professed and consecrated c 603 hermits is not something I have any knowledge of.

I can say that it is my impression that some bishops "like" having hermits or like using canon 603 for "special cases" and profess more persons than they really should. Especially it is problematical when bishops have a number of hermits the majority of whom 1) have no formation,  and 2) are really just solitary individuals but not hermits; (some of these are active in terms of ministry and life rather than contemplative, and some are simply misfits who cannot live in community). Equally problematical are,  3) those who are unsuitable because of some psychological defects or defects in personality, and 4) those who desire to use the canon as a stopgap solution to beginning their own communities. The root of these problems come from bishops not having a clear idea of what constitutes eremitical life and most especially what constitutes the charism of this life. When bishops are clear in their own minds about the nature and gift this life represents to the Church and world they are much more likely to admit to profession those who show real understanding of these things and live them with a sense of mission. Without a clear sense of the charism ("the silence of solitude") of the vocation especially, bishops will continue to admit those without an authentic eremitic vocation to profession or, alternately, refuse to admit anyone to profession.

In any case, this recent history of misuse and abuse coupled with a long pre-canon 603 history of stories of eccentrics, stereotypical nutcases and misanthropists, is instrumental in making canon 603 something bishops eschew and shun learning anything more about. It is good that bishops turn to their confreres who have had experience with solitary diocesan hermits, not least because the vocation is rare and when there are "success" stories to hear bishops should be made aware of them. Problematical areas need to be clarified, discernment and formation issues dealt with in ways which allow for better and wider recognition of genuine vocations., and stories of failures need to be analyzed so that bishops know what kinds of things are danger signs. Again. in all of this Vicars, canonists, and diocesan hermits and their delegates can be good sources of information as well.