14 June 2019

On Authentic and Inauthentic C 603 Vocations

[[Dear Sister, As you know, I’ve been a reader of your blog for many years. I think you should be commended for bringing a better understanding of the hermit vocation to the public; in particular you’ve done a profound service by explaining what canon 603 means and how it is to be properly understood. Thank you! I too agree that being a canon 603 hermit is a profound vocation that must be discerned by both the individual hermit and the Church (in the person of the local bishop). It is an important vocation, but one that I think is actually rare. 
It seems to me though that you have many people writing you with all sorts of ways, and even schemes, to being declared a 603 hermit (and being able to wear a habit etc.). It seems to me that this obsession with being declared a 603 hermit by some might a symptom of the “clericalization” of the laity we’ve seen since the Council. It seems many people don’t feel like they are fully committed as Catholics if the aren’t doing “churchy” things in a really obvious and public way. It seems odd to me that so many people are obsessed with receiving canon 603 status. Why doesn’t it occur to them that they can live a quiet life of prayer and contemplation as a consequence of their baptismal vows? One does not need the bishop’s approval to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, do Lectio, go to daily Mass etc. and perhaps have a small quiet apostolate. 
This might sound harsh, but I think for some the desire to be declared a 603 hermit flows from ego and status seeking rather than a genuine vocation. Sometimes when I read these handwringing letters about the struggle of being received as an official 603 hermit, I think: “Gee whiz pal...there is nothing stopping you from living as a hermit right now! Just do it!” It seems many want to do what Thomas Merton’s therapist accused him of wanting to do which was live as a hermit with a huge flashing sign over the hermitage that said “hermit lives here”.  Perhaps we need to rediscover the power and beauty of living the lay vocation in a spirit of holiness, prayer and service in the midst of our ordinary lives. Perhaps we are underestimating what it means to simply live our baptism with integrity and purpose (which for some might look exactly like that of a professed hermit). 
This in no way is meant to denigrate those who are legitimately called to profess vows as a canon 603 hermit, but I think this call grows out of years of living that naturally on one’s own (with a spiritual director to keep one balanced). What do you think of this near obsession on the part of some to be officially declared a canon 603 hermit? Do you think it’s an expression of a type of “clericalism”? Is it an expression of ego? Finally, in St. Benedict's Rule it says that the solitary life should only be undertaken after years of testing in the monastery. Are you concerned that so many people would like to be canon 603 hermits without the proper formation (which may or may not include living in a monastic community)? I would welcome your thoughts on this. Please feel free to post this on-line if you feel it might be helpful.]]
Thanks for your comments and questions. I have written a lot here over the past decade and more on the importance of lay life, the possibility and significance for the church of folks living as lay hermits (hermits in the lay state), the need to look at our baptismal commitments and to renew them in light of adult lives and commitments, and the need to embrace fully the theology of the laity made so clear and prominent at Vatican II. Similarly almost every time I have written about the significance of the Canon 603 vocation I have either written a separate post about lay eremitical life or included caveats about failures to esteem the lay eremitical vocation. I have also written about the lay hermit life as necessary preparation for most people considering petitioning for profession under c 603.  I won't repeat all of this here. Long term formation is necessary to become a canonical hermit and living as a lay hermit under a good spiritual director is the usual way these days to receive that formation. In other words, I mainly agree with what you have written above.
This morning I revisited some comments I had written on an online forum several years ago. I reread comments I hadn't remembered --- among them, one that complained that a newspaper reporter who had interviewed me wrote I often wore jeans (I don't, though I do wear pants or jeans and a work tunic at times). The person commenting said he didn't think my life was credible if I wore jeans. Another person noted a lot of people on a monastic forum wore habits despite not being professed monastics and despite not having been given the right to style themselves in this way by any legitimate authority. The hang up regarding playacting, dress-up, costumes, etc and trivialization of the religious habit (or the title, "Religious") by those with no right to wear/use them is something that continues to be a problem and I guess that really surprises me. It carries over to those seeking to be professed under canon 603. There is no doubt the majority of people seeking to be professed are turned away as unsuitable, or, after a period of discernment, because they are found to have no eremitical vocation. And yet, over and over, people who have never lived as hermits of any kind, who may not even live alone, decide they want to wear a habit and/or "be a religious" in others' eyes.
This does seem to go hand in hand with the increased establishment of new groups of people desiring to become religious, congregations of consecrated life, etc. Unfortunately, these rarely seem to me to be developed because of recognized  unmet needs as was the case in the past. (For instance, Sisters found families with young children needed various kinds of assistance and congregations were established or diversified to meet these needs, schools were needed for low income children and communities were formed or diversified to meet these needs, etc.) What is different from many groups being formed today is that these older congregations were not formed merely so people could be religious or wear habits or have some kind of privileged status as does seem so often to be the case today.  I don't know if I would call all of this kind of thing "clericalization" exactly but I know what you are describing;  it does represent a need to "be someone", and to be recognizable and with some kind of status or standing in the Church beyond that they associate with lay life.

Let me underscore the difference in motivations alluded to in the last paragraph. Some accept religious vocations and the things associated with those vocations because they (and the institutional church entrusted with these vocations) are convinced they are being called by the Holy Spirit, not because they want to "be someone" or have some "privileged status", etc. They are true religious and experienced in their call a societal and ecclesial need their love of God and their neighbors require they help address. Depending on many factors they may or may not wear a habit; it depends on what, in their discernment serves the specific vocation and its mission. Supporting the wearing of a habit per se does not rise to this level of vocation. Feeling called but failing to secure the agreement and necessary support of the institutional church (congregations, bishops, etc) in what are specifically defined as ecclesial vocations does not rise to this level of vocation. Dressing up in a habit without being given the right to do so because one feels habits should be honored fails to recognize the farcical nature of what one is doing or the way it renders the habit incredible as a meaningful symbol of ecclesial vocations.

It has seemed to me that many people seeking canonical standing under canon 603 are often trying to find a way to validate their own isolation and sometimes their  inability to pursue a religious vocation in community. Some have been required to leave community during various stages of formation and they latch onto c 603 thereafter. A relative few (very few!) of these and others will discover that eremitical solitude is a unique form of community in the Body of Christ and truly discover that the Holy Spirit is calling them to this rather than to isolation. Many who seek canon 603 standing will do so as a way of avoiding formation or the oversight of superiors; they believe it will allow a degree of individualism with minimal formation and responsibility, a bit of prayer, a little added silence, but not really much more than this. Part of the reason for these non-vocations is an inadequate understanding regarding what the life is about, what it looks like, how truly countercultural and even prophetic it is and in what ways it is truly important for the Church and a world in which individualism is rampant and the isolated elderly, for instance, live the final years of their lives without real hope or sense of meaning. Authentic hermits speak to these folks especially vividly I think. Fraudulent or inauthentic hermits are guilty of a hypocrisy which actually ridicules and trivializes these peoples' lives and concerns.

One can only draw some broad conclusions about the possible use of canon 603 by those without eremitical vocations: ignorance of the nature of consecrated vocations, inadequate or even selfish motivations, misunderstanding the vocation as individualistic and without a true witness value or mission. The commissioning of the canonical hermit is a great grace for the hermit herself, but it is still mainly done for the sake of others --- not merely to pray for others, but to live for them in a way which shows them how meaningful their lives may be apart from status, wealth, marriage, career, etc., when we each discover God alone is sufficient for us. Eremitical solitude is opposed to individualism; the significance of the eremitical life is eviscerated when consecrated hermits live their vocations badly, when dioceses mistake being a lone individual for being a hermit, or, of course, when people pretend to eremitical vocations despite inadequate discernment or ecclesial support of their choice. In any case, you are right on when you say a person wanting to be a hermit should just get on with it. One does not need c 603 to do this, and in fact, one cannot embrace canon 603 except to the extent one has "just gotten on with it" without any promise of canon 603 profession!!

Sorry, this took so long. I hope it is at least a little helpful!!