03 October 2018

The Importance of the Church's Role in Professing and Governing c 603 Hermits

[[Dear Sister, if the Church is so important in establishing the nature of a person's eremitical vocation, and if the commissioning of the hermit is crucial in protecting eremitical life from selfishness, why is it some dioceses refuse to profess anyone at all as diocesan hermits? How should we regard such blanket refusals?]]

This is a great question and one I have not written about for some years. Thank you for bringing it up again. It is clear that I believe the Church's discernment and commissioning of the eremitical vocation is critical for healthy eremitical life and also that I believe healthy eremitical life is critical for the life of the Church. So what happens when a diocese simply refuses to use canon 603 at all? This does happen, probably more frequently than I am personally aware of. It was once the case in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (I am not sure of their position in this regard now), and has been reported in several other dioceses and Archdioceses. Let me say that I understand the difficulties of implementing canon 603, especially in terms of discernment, formation, time frames, diocesan support and justice issues, but also that difficulties notwithstanding, canon 603 is a matter of universal law which recognizes the unquestionable way the Holy Spirit is working in the Church; while dioceses must be careful in their discernment and admission of candidates to profession, it is irresponsible to simply refuse to even undertake suitable discernment or otherwise abdicate the diocese's proper role in mediating and supervising this vocation in today's Church.

God is working in people's lives to call them to solitude. We know this is true because we have persons living as diocesan hermits throughout the world now, most of them in edifying ways. For most of these, canon 603 is not a stopgap vocation but the way God is truly calling them to wholeness and holiness. Others live both more and less credible eremitical lives without benefit of the Church's profession, consecration, and commission (missioning) into the silence of solitude. At the same time it remains true that this vocation belongs to the Church; God has entrusted it to the Church as a unique paradigm of the power of the Gospel, the importance of prayer, the potential of nature and grace combined, and of the prophetic dimension of ecclesial life besides.

It is the Church that is responsible for discerning ecclesial eremitical vocations with the hermit candidate, for entrusting and supervising the vocation especially in terms of the rights and obligations that come with public profession and initiation into the consecrated state --- rights and obligations that are not additional to the vocation (because it is ecclesial) but intrinsic to it, just as she is responsible for mediating the hermit's call and commissioning to embrace stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and the life of the evangelical counsels, in ways which are both healthy and countercultural.  All of these elements of ecclesial vocations protect the eremitical life from needless eccentricity, individualism, and even selfishness; they are part and parcel of God's redemption of human isolation and transformation of that into what canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude."

Just go off into Solitude; That's all you Need:

I used to hear from folks who had approached their dioceses seeking admission to profession and consecration under c 603 that they had been told, "Just go off and live in solitude; that's all you need." But given all I have written about this vocation as an ecclesial vocation, I have to say I believe such advice has very limited utility in cases of lay hermit vocations or as a tactic to temporize initially when evaluating the suitability of a candidate or starting them out (or revisiting the possibility of starting them out) on a process of mutual discernment (some folks approach dioceses without yet having lived even a week in eremitical solitude and are given such instructions before being allowed to return to the diocese to participate in a serious process of discernment). However, it is downright wrong in cases where God is calling someone to serve God and the Gospel in an ecclesial vocation to eremitical solitude, and therefore, who both needs and desires to do so as a Catholic hermit. While the need for careful discernment is critical, it is not necessarily an indictment of the hermit's maturity or spiritual readiness to admit they need to be admitted to canonical standing in the consecrated state of life. Instead it can be a sign of a genuine vocation.

When I wrote and submitted my first Rule I noted that I sought canonical standing because over time I had determined it was impossible for me to live eremitical life without it; while I came to terms with the possibility my diocese might never implement canon 603, I also came to see I needed the freedom to fail in my attempts to live the central elements of the canon, but also to succeed in doing so; I needed a way to assure the motivation to try again day after day to truly be the person God was calling me to be in stricter separation from a world that pulled at me in every way. I needed the protections and permissions afforded by profession under canon 603 including ecclesial guidance, the weight of becoming part of a living tradition of hermit life, and a very real accountability to the Church and those who formally represent her in my life.  In short, I needed the freedom to explore a call to union with God, and to do so in a way which proclaimed a Gospel I had given my life to.

All of this became even more critical given the radical countercultural nature of eremitical life. Embracing such a life, no matter the personal circumstances, could (and mainly would) be seen as abdicating one's own responsibility for a loving life both living and proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. In other words, "just going off and living in solitude" without canonical commission would never have been enough for me if I was to live my vocation wholeheartedly over the whole of my adult life. I needed to be sure my life was not an instance of misguided individualism, personal and ministerial failure, or some form of unhealthy selfishness subtly disguised with pious labels; I needed to be confirmed in my own discernment of God's movement in my life and encouraged to feel free to continue discerning this movement every day of my life. And I needed to proclaim that God had redeemed the isolation of a life marked and marred by chronic illness and transformed it into an instance of essential wholeness and paradoxical presence precisely in and through the silence of solitude.

This is a difficult (and not atypical) discernment, I think, requiring time and expert assistance. It was and remains today the Church's obligation to aid and support me and others in this process by virtue of her Divinely granted responsibility for eremitical life --- something I think remains true, though in differing ways, whether or not she decides to profess a person or not.

The problems Dioceses Face in Implementing Canon 603:

There are certainly problems dioceses face in implementing canon 603.  Adequate discernment and formation are demanding requirements which dioceses may not feel able to achieve or assist with. (This is the reason I have posted here about a process of discernment and formation which protects the hermit's freedom, allows a diocese to follow and dialogue with the hermit in a constructive way, and which is not onerous for the diocese or her personnel.) Many dioceses have c 603 hermits today and can refer Vicars and others should assistance in discerning authentic vocations be required. The hugest caveat dioceses should be aware of is the caution that being a lone individual, no matter how pious, is not necessarily the same as being a hermit and that c 603 is meant for eremitical vocations, not simply to profess solitary religious as is the case with the Episcopal church's canon on "solitaries."

Contemplative vocations are relatively rare and misunderstood (or at least not understood or sufficiently esteemed) today; eremitical vocations are even more rare and mainly misunderstood, not only by the faithful generally, but by chanceries as well. In a culture marked and marred by an exaggerated individualism and currents of selfishness it may be tempting to dismiss eremitical vocations as illegitimate instances of the culture in search of legitimization, but this would be a mistake. In relatively rare instances genuine hermits will come along who can and do live a paradoxical call to "stricter separation from the world" and "the silence of solitude" and do so as a direct challenge to the individualism and selfishness of the culture. The Church must be open to discerning and professing these vocations!

Questions of justice remain: what do we do with and for hermits who have lived their vows for years and even decades but may, as they age or become infirm, require financial assistance or help with housing? As it stands now dioceses require waivers of liability and stress the hermit must be self-supporting; but what happens down the line when civic safety-nets no longer work and the only option the hermit has is to live in a nursing facility where silence and solitude, much less the silence OF solitude cannot be found? These are important questions and will need to be dealt with but I don't think they are insoluble, especially if the Church continues to be careful in her discernment and profession of eremitical vocations and willing to work with them on a case by case basis. I think the careful way most (but not all!) dioceses have proceeded in professing the c 603 hermits they have aids in solving these problems. What must not happen (and really has not happened) is to allow the floodgates to open and every solitary person approaching a diocese to petition for profession under c 603 in search of a sinecure to be admitted to profession in a careless and undiscerning way. Similarly, (and this has happened) we must not allow c 603 to be used as a pretense to profess individuals with no real eremitical vocation --- lone individuals who have not and may never embrace a desert spirituality, those who want to start communities (even communities of hermits!), those who work fulltime outside the hermitage in highly social jobs, and those who simply want to be religious without the challenges and gifts of community.

At the same time though, it is equally irresponsible to simply refuse to profess anyone under c 603 as though the Church's post Vatican II decision to honor the eremitical vocation in the revision of the Code of Canon Law did not reflect the movement of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, it is hardly fair to penalize individuals with authentic vocations but who merely happen to live in a diocese that has refused to implement the canon in any case. It may be that Vicars, bishops and others will need to educate themselves on this vocation, but isn't this part of their legal and moral responsibility? Canon 603 provides the means to be admitted to a new and stable state of life, namely, the consecrated eremitical state. It does that not only for the church as a whole, but for a fragile, rare, and significant ecclesial vocation that requires not only everything the hermit can give, but the Church's own wholehearted pastoral care and concern as well. The refusal of dioceses to discern, profess, and supervise or govern c 603 hermits now, a full 35 years after c 603 was first promulgated, represents nothing less than the local Church's abdication of her own role precisely as Church!