25 February 2018

On Eremitical Life, Hiddenness, and Illness

[[Dear Sister, what happens to hermits when they become ill? If one is supposed to "be hidden from the eyes of men" then how do they manage illnesses? Can they get help from others? Can they make Doctor's visits? I have been reading a blog post [title omitted here by Sister Laurel] by a Catholic hermit who claims that illness is a real issue because the hermit is supposed to live a hidden life. Her situation (she is too weak to get up to fix meals or even to go to the doctor) raises other questions for me. How can a diocesan bishop allow a hermit to be in such circumstances?  How do you balance the hiddenness of your vocation with times of illness. Do you ever need assistance with things? How do you handle that?]]

Interesting questions! Let me start by outlining something about "hiddenness" itself. This will not only explain why "hiddenness" is not present in canon 603 while it is present in the catechism's paragraphs on eremitical life, but it will also prepare the way for thinking about your questions re illness.

Hiddenness is not a primary value:

The hiddenness of the Catholic hermit (that is, the hiddenness of the hermit whom the Church herself has admitted to public profession and consecration!!) is only implicitly defined by canon 603. While hiddenness is explicitly mentioned in the catechism, this text is not legislative or prescriptive. It is descriptive but not prescriptive in the same way the central elements of c 603 are prescriptive. This does not mean hiddenness is unimportant, but it does mean it is derived from and secondary to the elements of the life c.603 legislates. A canonical or consecrated hermit is not bound to live hiddenness; it is the result of and is shaped by the things she IS bound to live, namely, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, the evangelical counsels, all supervised by the diocesan bishop and those he delegates to do so in his place. What this means is that as significant as hiddenness may be to the Catholic hermit, these other elements have priority to any notion of hiddenness; more, these other things give a better sense of what defines eremitical life!

Another way of looking at this is to note that hiddenness may or may not be edifying. It is the reasons one manifests hiddenness that are more important than hiddenness itself I think. What I mean is that in eremitical life hiddenness is rarely a value in and of itself (in most areas of life hiddenness -- not privacy or discretion --- is a disvalue and this can be true even in eremitical life). That is especially true in Christian eremitical life where witness is a very high value in eremitical and other forms of discipleship. (For that matter discipleship is itself a very high value which must be seen to undergird other values like solitude, silence, and penance, for instance.) Because I embrace a life of the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance I will find there is an essential hiddenness about my life but you see, my life is a hidden one because my engagement with God and my commitment to life mainly takes place in a hermit's cell. Thus the questions I ask myself in discerning whether I am called to this or that activity (outside the general outlines of my Rule) is rooted in whether these are commitments to God and life in and for God in my eremitical calling, not whether it fosters hiddenness or not.

To choose hiddenness for its own sake may allow or even invite one to mask all kinds of problems or label any form of separation from others as "eremitical" when they are really a refusal to engage or to live with and for others, that is, when they are a refusal to love as Christians are called to love. Self-hatred, misanthropy, selfishness, and any number of other "pathologies" can take root and/or thrive in "hiddenness from the eyes of (others)". The reason for one's hiddenness is and must be rooted in a higher and transcendent value which makes hiddenness itself meaningful as a Christian value. For the solitary Catholic (canonical) hermit some of these are the central elements of canon 603. For the Catholic (i.e., the canonical) hermit who is part of a community or congregation they are the central elements of their Rule and Constitutions.

Dealing With Illness and other Needs:

All of this helps explain why canon 603, the canon which governs (consecrated) solitary eremitical life in the Roman Catholic Church does not even mention "hiddenness from the eyes of men," while the catechism includes this. Again, the canon is prescriptive in nature; it defines the elements which are primary or essential. It prescribes these as essential like a doctor prescribing medications indicates these are essential. The catechism is descriptive and includes elements which are secondary or derivative --- that is, elements which are less essential or which derive from the more primary, essential elements; these are still part of the picture drawn by someone describing eremitical life as a whole.

If I thought I was primarily or mainly called to live a life of "hiddenness from the eyes of (others)" I would struggle constantly with whether or not I could leave my hermitage to shop, attend Mass, go to doctor's visits, or even (as I did today) attend a Town hall meeting on stopping gun violence! Heck, I would have to question whether one could even be called to public vows if one is primarily called to this same hiddenness. But I am called to live an essentially Christian eremitical vocation of assiduous prayer and penance in the silence of solitude. Sometimes that means being openly and demonstrably a member of a number of human communities! Moreover, I am a Catholic hermit with a serious chronic illness. That means I have needs and must meet them if I am to live life prayerfully --- that is attentively, gratefully, and responsibly.


Like most folks I have a number of people I can call for assistance. My director and I meet regularly here at the hermitage and she is available in between meetings should I need to contact her. I belong to a parish community and am ordinarily able to attend Mass 2-3 days a week; parish members, my pastor, a number of friends, are all available should I need various kinds of assistance. I generally simply need to ask and we will find a way to work things out together. But let me be clear here, in most situations I am the one responsible for initiating contact or the request for help. I do not expect people to read my mind and precisely because the majority of my life is undertaken in the silence of solitude I don't expect folks to worry about me or call to check on me if they don't see me for some time.

If I become as sick as the person you describe purportedly is or was, then arrangements would need to be made for regular assistance unless hospitalization is the real need. In such a situation there would be absolutely no problem at all having people come into the hermitage to assist me and no problem if I need transportation to doctors appointments or if I need to be hospitalized. As noted above, canonical (consecrated) hermits do NOT primarily commit to remain hidden from others. They commit to an essentially solitary vocation of Christian life and love where the foundational and defining relationship is a hidden one. The diocesan hermit's delegate or director, and ultimately, of course, her Bishop are responsible for ensuring she can (and does) live her Rule and fulfill her vows --- along with anything else which constitute essential elements of her eremitical calling.

This is true in initial discernment, through temporary vows (which should allow sufficient time for the diocese to be sure the person can truly live the life before admission to perpetual profession; they will continue to do something similar after perpetual profession as well. (While serious failures to live eremitical life after perpetual profession might actually require dispensation of vows, elder hermits becoming seriously ill after years of living eremitical life, for instance, are another matter. Though these hermits might well need to move to some form of assisted or modified solitary/communal living to deal adequately with their illness or disability no one would seriously suggest their vows should be dispensed.)

As a point of information however, the blogger you are referring to, is not a consecrated (canonical) hermit. She is a lay person living as a dedicated hermit with private vows. This means her bishop is no more directly responsible for supervising the way she lives than he is for supervising the way any other lay person in his diocese lives. Her life may raise all kinds of questions but the actions of the bishop of her diocese do not --- at least not in her regard.

I hope this is helpful.