05 June 2019

On Monastic and Eremitical Life in the Future

[[Dear Sister, Sorry for the back to back questions. Recently I was on retreat at a Trappist monastery. During vespers on the last day of my retreat I took a good look at the monks in choir and realized that due to the age of the monks and the lack of vocations that this monastery (barring a miracle) will be gone in 10 or 15 years. It made me incredibly sad. I also realize that this will be the case for most monastic communities throughout North America (and probably Europe too).  While there are a few happy exceptions to this trend (many of which are very traditional) I fear monastic life is dying and with it many beautiful traditions and more importantly much wisdom that will not be passed on to a future generation of monastics. This realization raised many questions for me. I would love your opinion on them:

1) Do you think the growth in the hermit vocation is a response to the general collapse of religious life after the Council?]]
Thanks for your questions. I am still working on the one prior to this one so no problems that you wrote again. In fact, it's a help to me and I am grateful. First though, let me say that I definitely don't see what is happening to religious life as a "collapse". What people became used to was actually not the norm but an exaggerated instance of numbers. We know that the average life cycle of a congregation is ordinarily around 150 years. This is typical for Apostolic or Ministerial congregations which are founded for specific ministries and needs. For monastic congregations the shift in numbers does not mean the monastic life is dying out, much less "collapsing". Monastic life has evolved over time, throughout time and will continue to do so. Today, for instance, the popularity of oblates represents a shift in the form in which monastic values are embodied but they depend on vowed monastics so a shift in numbers here may point to a new form of monasticism with greater presence among the covenanted laity but not without vowed representation and (perhaps) leadership. Most of the religious I know recognize that even when communities die (or, better said perhaps, achieve the completion of their historical lives and missions) their charism continues if the congregation has worked to provide for this, and they trust that God will ensure the continuance of religious life itself in whatever form that will take. I agree with that view of religious life as providential --- which certainly includes monastic life itself.
Regarding the upsurge in eremitical life, no I absolutely do not see it as a result of some sort of "collapse" of monastic life  While the Trappist community you saw was ageing and perhaps dying out, that is not the case generally. Even so, the upsurge in eremitical life, to the degree these vocations are authentic, is more representative in the Western Church at least, with the Church's new-found esteem and provision for this vocation in canon law. The vocation never died out in the Eastern Church and I believe the Western Church would not have experienced the dearth of vocations it did had it recognized the vocation universally in law or truly esteemed it as the Eastern Church has done right along. Another source of authentic eremitical vocations is the countercultural, paradoxical, and prophetic reaction to individualism (and several other "isms") so prevalent today. Canon 603 defines an ecclesial vocation which is individual but not individualistic. I sincerely believe that  the hermits I know who live their lives as consecrated Catholic hermits, and thus as those publicly professed (whether  in community or under c 603) have, out of the love of God, embraced an essentially ecclesial vocation in profound reaction to the dis-ease of individualism (and those other "isms") which so afflict our culture.
[[2) It seems most hermits look to communal monastic life for their inspiration by adopting the charism of these communities as the inspiration/grounding of their lives as hermits (i.e. Camaldolese, Carthusian, Cistercian).]]
Remember that monastic life grew out of (and sometimes was an attempt to protect the very best impulses of) eremitical life and a radical discipleship, not the other way around. However, that said, it is also true that in monastic life we see preserved and developed the values and spirituality of eremitical life, particularly the communal or ecclesial seedbed leading, for instance, to authentic solitude and "separation" from the world. We look to monastic life because it ordinarily provides the necessary formative context for human growth and spiritual maturity which allows one to hear an authentic call to the silence of solitude in eremitical life. The larger Church, per se, does not ordinarily do this where once it did. So, for instance, if we want to understand values and praxis central to eremitical life, values like silence, solitude, assiduous prayer, penance, the evangelical counsels, the value of manual labor, the importance of community for solitude (and vice versa!), etc., we mainly have to turn to monastic houses and communities. Generally speaking, silence and an understanding of, much less an esteem for solitude-in-community simply cannot be found in parish churches. Contemplative life (which eremitical life always is) itself tends to be found and supported effectively in community, (and again generally speaking) not in contemporary parishes. Regular prayer (Divine Office, contemplative prayer, the cultivation of the Evangelical counsels, and life rooted in Scripture or the Rules of Benedict, Albert, et al., also cannot generally be found in parishes.)
[[3) What effect do you think the collapse of monastic life will have on the hermit vocation? It seems to me that without a connection to a living monastic tradition the hermit life will become unanchored.]]
While I don't believe eremitical life will disappear, I believe it will become even rarer if monastic houses disappear. Canon 603 allows for hermits who are formed mainly within parishes or dioceses, but these vocations are truly very rare. What is crucial to them is not merely the silence of solitude but the fact that the values of eremitical life are embedded in and supported at every point by the life of the Church itself. Camaldolese hermits "live alone together". Diocesan hermits live the silence of solitude only with the support of a parish and diocesan structures but also may find these insufficient and require the more intense and explicit contemplative life of the monastery for support and inspiration. Eremitical life must be anchored or rooted in specific practices and values; these are most fundamentally ecclesial, spiritual, and human values not merely monastic; but at the same time they have been lived and embodied most faithfully and consistently in monastic life. To the degree people can really find these values in their local churches (or in accounts of monastic life, etc) eremitical life will continue as the rare vocation it is. Paradoxically, at the same time, to the degree people find these values to be important but threatened to disappear from the local Church, eremitical life will continue to arise as a prophetic reality, just as it did in the days Constantine published the Edict of Milan and inadvertently triggered the rise of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  
Unfortunately, I believe the existence of authentic eremitical vocations will be more threatened by ignorance and individualism than by the growing loss of numbers among those living monastic life itself. Today, dioceses sometimes (maybe often) fail to distinguish between lone individuals and authentic hermits; this leads to the undiscerning and unwise profession of "vocations" which cannot persist except as aberrations of eremitical life. Eremitical life is marked by great freedom and no hermit is identical to any other, but license and freedom are not the same things. To the degree diocesan staff don't understand eremitical life and mistake it for merely being someone who lives a relatively pious life alone, candidates discerning eremitical life may substitute individualism for eremitism without noticing what is actually happening.

Importantly, we cannot treat hermits as though they are something other than rare. Eremitical life is simply not the way most people come to human wholeness or genuine Christian discipleship. Especially, we cannot see them as the replacement troops for diminishing numbers of cenobitical religious. The two forms of religious life are related but not interchangeable and dioceses will need to resist the impulse to treat them identically or to look for numbers in either form of religious life. Similarly, we cannot allow c 603 vocations to be replaced by individuals who actually reject Vatican II and the wisdom it codified and is now found embodied to some extent in the post-Vatican II Church. (I say to some extent because I believe Vatican has not been adequately received by the Church yet.) Vatican II is part of the Church's authentic Tradition and we cannot allow individuals who reject that part of the Tradition to isolate themselves from the contemporary Church while taking refuge in a canon which was actually made possible by the Vatican II Council and it's call for the revision of Canon Law itself. I think this specific use of canon 603 represents a particularly disreputable form of individualism which cannot be validated as diocesan eremitical life.

[[4) Finally, it seems to me that growth and vocations in the monastic life is mostly among communities that are quite traditional (i.e. using pre-Vatican 2 liturgies). I don’t think dismissing them, as some do, is the answer. The monks and nuns of these communities are well educated, hard working and living their monastic life with integrity. In short, they are “doing and living it.” And they have been for decades. They aren’t a flash in the pan. It seems that if monastic life is going to survive then the future belongs to these communities as they will be the only ones in existence. What are your thoughts regarding this phenomenon and what implications, if any, will it have for canon 603 hermits?]] 
I don't believe the pre-Vatican II monastic communities will be the only ones in existence in the future. I think in this matter you have overstated your case. At the same time, I recognize that Canon 603 itself with its clear effect upon eremitical vocations is, again, a direct result of Vatican II and its return to earliest Christian sources and impulses. If the pre-Vatican II monastic communities you mention are to continue and be something the post Vatican II church can learn from, they will have to do so in dialogue with the contemporary Roman Catholic Church and with contemporary monastic life. Unfortunately, I haven't seen much evidence of a desire to embrace such dialogue by the communities you are referring to.

Canon 603 hermits may draw from some of the values found in monastic life lived in these congregations and houses, but c 603 eremitical life remains the fruit of Vatican II and is shaped charismatically by the same Holy Spirit that occasioned Vatican II and inspires all authentic monastic and consecrated life. (By the way, as something of a postscript I should note that monastic houses don't necessarily lose members because they are inauthentic in their living of monastic life, and neither is it automatically true that the traditionalist communities you are speaking of gain members or demonstrate continuing numbers because they are living authentic and healthy monastic life. The situation is very much  more complicated than that and once again numbers are not the guiding criterion here any more than they are with eremitical life.)  

These are my initial thoughts on the things you have written about. I think of it, therefore, as the first step in a continuing dialogue. I hope you find it helpful.