01 October 2018

On Determining Limits on Active Ministry Under c 603.

[[Dear Sister, you have criticized situations in which a "hermit" undertakes significant levels of ministry outside the hermitage. I am thinking about a Sister in the Archdiocese of Boston who worked fulltime at Boston College (I think that's right), a situation with which you took exception. I think you have written about several similar situations and characterized the use of canon 603 as a stopgap for an apostolic life marked mainly by active ministry and not eremitical life. How does one determine how much is too much active ministry in all of this? You do limited ministry at your parish, how do you determine how much is appropriate? Also, I was wondering what happens if a hermit's pastor desires she do more active ministry than she is comfortable with? Can a hermit's bishop assign her to more active ministry outside the hermitage?]]

Thanks for your questions. Yes, I have criticized a number of situations in which I believe c 603 was abused in order to profess someone in a stopgap vocation which was not truly eremitical. The situation in the Archdiocese of Boston was not the only one in that diocese which suffered from the same problem. I believe these kinds of abuses of c 603 stem from a couple of significant deficiencies: 1) a failure to understand that eremitical life is not the same as simply being a lone religious without a community; 2) a failure to esteem eremitical life or its specific witness, not merely to the ministry of prayer, but to the foundational truth that we are each completed by God alone, 3) a correlative failure to understand or regard the significance of a life of the silence of solitude where the silence of solitude is the context, goal, and charism of the vocation God has entrusted to the Church. When these deficiencies are present, whether on the part of the diocese, the candidate, or both of these, one of the first things that happens is a tendency to embrace ever-greater kinds and degrees of ministry outside the hermitage.

The Silence of Solitude as Foundational Charism and Apostolate:

Before one can determine the level of outside ministry that is appropriate in any given eremitical life I think it is crucial that they are clear about just how and why eremitical life itself is a gift, and why the sacrifice of the silence of solitude is not only as loving as any other form of apostolate, but is the foundational charism of eremitical life. Unless we understand that the truth of the person's completion in God, that God alone is sufficient for us and what we are made for, is the greatest truth to which one can bear witness, we are apt to see a need to complement our eremitical life with various forms of outside ministry. Unless we understand how profoundly loving it can be to sacrifice so very many of the discrete gifts and talents we may possess in order to make our life in and with God itself the single gift we bring to the entire Church, we will feel compelled to add ministry outside the hermitage to the silence of solitude. Hermits are gifts to the Church and world precisely as hermits. While they engage in prayer and by definition live a life of prayer as "ecclesiola", they are not gifts to the Church and world as "prayer warriors". Instead, to the extent they allow God to pray in and through them, to the extent they are covenant partners of God who allow God to complete them and perfect authentic humanity in this way, they will  minister effectively to the Church and world precisely as hermits.

Being over Doing:

What I am trying, even struggling, to say here is the truth that allowing God to complete one in the silence of solitude (which will include prayer, study, inner work, lectio, etc) is the single foundational apostolate or ministry the hermit is charged with by canon 603 and the Church herself. However, the Church does not send the hermit out to the world around her but rather into the hermitage and its environment of silence and solitude where this apostolate will be undertaken. When I was perpetually professed, my cowl (prayer garment) was granted with the following prayer from the Rite of Profession: " Sister, may you be faithful to the ministry the Church entrusts to you to be carried out in its name." But let me be clear, the Church charged me to undertake a life of prayer (and all that requires) in order to be transfigured by the love of God as my ministry to and within the Church. She sent me into the hermitage where I wear the cowl during large parts of my life there to undertake my ministry to become my truest self in God and witness to the universal call to holiness. I was not sent out into the world, but into stricter separation from the world in a focused search for communion with God and personal perfection in order to minister to that same world for the sake of its salvation. This will always be fundamental to the eremitical vocation.

It took me some time to understand precisely what the ministry and witness of a life of the silence of solitude consists. It took time for me to understand that it could involve and even require the sacrifice of discrete gifts and talents that led to a poverty which only God could make rich with grace. It took some years before I understood that it was precisely this poverty and this treasure --- the treasure of authentic humanity achieved only in and as communion with God --- to which a hermit witnessed in the silence of solitude. And it took more time for me to understand that "the silence of solitude" was precisely the goal and gift (charism) of the eremitical life, or that it could thus be the witness I was called to become, the ministry to which I was fundamentally called, the apostolate of being (myself-with-and-in-God) over doing to which I have been sent by the Church. Once I had come to relative clarity on these things, the tension I continually felt between solitude and ministry outside the hermitage eased considerably. The Camaldolese with whom I am an oblate speak of "the privilege of love" as the heart of our lives, and the dynamic behind every impulse and movement or ministry of our vocations. While we will sometimes express this privilege of love in limited ministry outside the hermitage (and offer hospitality within our hermitages), we recognize that an eremitical life of "the silence of solitude" itself, a term which points to the very being of the hermit in communion with God, is a foundational expression of the privilege of love which is the necessary ground of every other ministry or apostolate in the church.

Your Specific Questions:

With all that background, perhaps now I can answer your specific questions. One cannot accept profession under c 603 unless one understands the gift quality of the life it outlines --- and unless one understands that one is sent not out into the world, but instead into the hermitage for the very sake of the salvation of the world, a world which needs to hear that only God alone can complete and perfect us and our humanity. To do so when one mainly feels called to ministry outside the hermitage, or for other less worthy reasons, is to use c 603 as a stopgap solution --- that is, as a way of gaining religious profession and standing without the challenges of community, for instance. But when one is clear about the essential nature of one's ministry and apostolate, then one can more easily discern the appropriateness of limited ministry outside the hermitage.

What I now do is remind myself of the foundational calling I have embraced, the reason and way it is a gift of God from which others can benefit, and only then do I determine if and to what degree other ministry is appropriate. Usually it must be ministry that is directly linked to my solitary (covenantal) life of prayer in and through God. Spiritual direction is a natural expression of this along with other gifts and skills I have (theology, pastoral skills and training, etc); so is leading Communion services or doing the Scriptural reflections which are part of these. Occasional workshops or talks at my parish also seem to me to be a natural expression of the foundational charism of my vocation as is writing this blog. But let me be clear, I am not called go out to do prison ministry, or ministry to some other specific group of people in the Church or world. (I might well, however, choose to write prisoners who are trying to deal with the isolation of their lives and the frustration of not being able to "do" for others. Crucially, these persons need to hear they mainly have what they need to become who God calls them to be, even in such limiting circumstances.) Neither am I to allow anything to distract me from the silence of solitude of the hermitage.

Should my pastor or bishop ask me to undertake some form of ministry outside the hermitage it would need to meet these conditions. I am first of all and in everything I do, a hermit --- nothing more, nothing less, nothing other. I will not have or be able to accept an apostolate outside the hermitage -- though I may do limited ministry outside it. My apostolate is the life of the hermitage; ministry is the service I do by virtue of this and it will only occasionally take me outside it. Should I be asked to undertake activity outside or apart from the hermitage with which I am not comfortable because it seems to mitigate faithfulness to the essential vision and praxis of my eremitical life, I will need to decline the request to do so.