08 April 2019

Stages of Growth in Prayer Associated With Eremitical Vocations

Hi Sister, I understand there need to be stages of growth or maturation in coming to the eremitical life. You have written that one needs to move or transition from being a lone individual to being a hermit in some essential sense [before transitioning to actual eremitical life]. Are there any changes in one's prayer life that need to occur before one becomes a hermit in this sense? How can one recognize the stages of growth involved? Thank you!]]

Great questions and questions that make more explicit the track of development or maturation which is implicit to the various transitions I have written about using terms like lone individual, hermit in an essential sense, and then, authentic hermit life! Assuming one has made the critical shift from individualism to person-in-community and for others, one of the most significant shifts that takes place in a development or shift to eremitical life is the shift to contemplative prayer and then to contemplative life. From there one needs to move toward greater degrees of solitude and silence. At this stage one may or may not have transitioned into being a hermit in some essential sense because ordinarily, one comes to this stage without becoming  or needing to become a hermit in any sense of the term. One may need significant degrees of silence and solitude (including some periods of extended solitude) but by itself, this will not make one a hermit in any sense of the term. Still, in time -- if one perseveres in this way of life and prayer -- it will raise the question whether the person might require fulltime solitude to fulfill their vocation to authentic human existence in Christ. I suggest that when the answer to this question seems to be "yes" and one begins to do what is necessary to reflect and honor this answer, one will be a hermit in some essential sense and be  moving towards being a hermit in a formal sense as well.

Beyond a need for greater physical solitude, even some extended solitude then, one will find that one's relationship with God is not only the primary relationship of one's life, but that this relationship requires fulltime solitude. At the same time one will realize that paradoxically one's mature love for others requires this same kind of solitude and that it is a fundamental gift to and model for them and the love God has for them. All of this is reflected in one's changing prayer life. Similarly, if truly one has an eremitical vocation,  one will discern that the silence of solitude itself is necessary in order that one may be the person God calls them to be and that this reality will not only be the context for coming to fullness of life (makarios, flourishing, and teleios, wholeness -- as in the beatitudes), but that it will therefore also be the goal and charism (gift quality) of one's life.

This process of growth is not a simple or an easy one and it takes time and significant and assisted discernment (with spiritual directors, superiors, significant friends, etc.) to negotiate the shifts in perception, need, and response to these that must occur. In other words, one does not wake up one morning after some significant failure in active ministry or even some significant shift in one's health or other circumstances and decide one has a call to eremitical life. This is completely wrongheaded and fails to understand either the process of discernment or the nature and importance of eremitical life. The shift from active ministry and prayer, to contemplative prayer, then to contemplative life per se, to contemplative life with greater silence and solitude, and then finally (and rarely) to full-time silence and solitude which leads one to understand the "silence of solitude" (not just silence and solitude but a special form of hesychasm or quies) as the very goal and charism of one's life, is a serious and long term process. It cannot be short-circuited and must not be short-changed.

In the history of c 603, the canon governing my own vocation, this process was modeled by monks who, over long years in cenobitical life came to require greater solitude, and then after more time, came to see their need to live as hermits -- first within their monastic communities, and when this was not possible because of the community's lack of proper law accommodating them in this matter, were required to be secularized and dispensed from solemn profession! (Consider the sacrifice and compelling nature of a call to eremitical solitude in such lives!)

Only after years of living like this, then forming lauras of similarly-minded persons under a bishop protector were these individuals able to live the eremitical life they truly felt called to --- but at the same time, only over this period of formation and formation's necessary struggles and transitions were their eremitical vocations truly discerned and embraced. In all of this one's relationship with God, and so, one's prayer, shifts from that associated with an active life, to contemplative in nature, then to that associated with a contemplative life with even greater silence and solitude, and finally to that associated with eremitical life (contemplative life in and for the silence of solitude and all that implies). Again, this means serious struggle and discernment; it will also mean significant sacrifice in service of human wholeness and the glory of God.

When a person approaches a diocese, for instance, and petitions for admittance to profession under canon 603, they may be dismayed that they are not simply approved for this admission and instead are told that the discernment process is a long and mutual one. But whether one comes never even having lived alone, or never having lived significant silence and solitude much less eremitical "silence of solitude", or whether one comes to the diocese as one who has experienced these things, the discernment will still need to indicate one has negotiated all those stages noted above -- and more besides -- if one is ever to be admitted to profession under canon 603. In some cases a person may have enough experience, personal formation, and discernment to allow them to be considered for temporary profession, but before perpetual profession one will have negotiated all of the stages noted above and will have discerned a genuine calling with their own director and diocesan personnel as well.

I wanted to thank you again for your question.  I wish I could leave out the step of moving from being a "lone individual" from the discussion, but because canon 603 is open to those who have never lived community as Religious cenobites and because our culture is profoundly individualistic --- this category has to be considered as a kind of critical differential diagnosis which must be accomplished by those concerned with discerning truly solitary eremitical vocations on behalf of the Church. Again, thanks for raising the question of shifts in prayer. It allowed me to think freshly about the process of discerning and being formed in an eremitical vocation and I very much appreciate that!