28 July 2019

Followup Question on Lay Hermits and Their Potential Capacity to Speak Better to the Laity

[[Hi Sister, I remember where you once said you were surprised to find that in some ways being a lay hermit might have been able to speak better to laity than being a consecrated hermit under c 603. I wondered if you could explain how it is this might be so.]]

Good question and not one I can recall following up on before this. Thanks for asking. One of the problems we still deal with despite Vatican II is the sense many of the laity (in the vocational sense of that word) still seem to have is that a call to deep prayer lives and exhaustive holiness is somehow the purview of religious. That said it seems at least equally true that living such a life (of exhaustive holiness) but as a hermit, when it is considered at all, is considered the purview of religious. While many lay persons feel called to live lives of solitude and consider themselves to be hermits, the call to a life of "assiduous prayer and penance", stricter separation from the world, and "the silence of solitude" --- which is far more than a life of silence and solitude, still most often seems to be considered the purview of religious. A too-distinct line is drawn between the life of the religious and that of the lay person (using lay here in the vocational rather than hierarchical sense).

Eremitical life, as it is defined in c 603, then, is rightly seen as giving us a vocation which is vastly different than simply going off and living in silence and solitude, or even of loving solitude. Part 2 of the canon makes clear that a consecrated form of this life is lived by making a public commitment in the hands of one's local bishop. However, part 1 of the canon simply defines the nature of eremitical life per se as this is understood in the Roman Catholic Church. The problem is that very few lay persons I have read or spoken to seem to think Part 1 of canon 603 can describe a vocation suited to lay persons, because it specifically defines a desert vocation. Sometimes this becomes clearer as lay persons express comfort calling themselves solitaries or "lovers of solitude" but eschew the description hermit because they cannot see themselves embracing a desert spirituality; I have seen this reflected even in popular publications like Raven's Bread, a newsletter for hermits and other lovers of solitude.

A desert vocation is profoundly dependent upon God in the silence of solitude for one's completion as a human being; it is relatively and even absolutely rare for a person to be called to human wholeness in this way. As a result many lay persons embrace a less demanding form of life where some degree of prayer, silence, and solitude matches their temperaments, perhaps, but risking everything on the fulfillment which comes from a solitary relationship with God is simply not their desire or their actual vocation. The Episcopal Church recognizes solitaries who are not hermits --- vowed religious who are neither members of congregations or institutes of consecrated life nor who embrace a true desert vocation. Their lives, though of undoubted value, do not speak to others in the same way a hermit's might, nor do these people necessarily desire to live that same witness. Neither do those who choose to live a kind of "part-time" eremitism where solitude is a kind of luxury and assiduous prayer and penance are less ways of life than they are significant additions to one's way of life. (More about this another time, I think.)

And yet, it is my opinion that lay persons who do embrace all the elements of canon 603 apart from its Section 2 (the provision for public vows under the supervision of the diocesan bishop), and do live as hermits, also have the capacity to say to every person that we are called, without exception, to live the values of assiduous prayer lives with some degree of silence and solitude and an essential separation from the world (that is from that which is contrary to God or promises fulfillment apart from God). Moreover, these hermits can say to isolated elderly, and the chronically ill, that eremitical life itself (as described in canon 603) can be a perfect means of contextualizing their lives and serving others in an incredibly meaningful way, whether or not these persons experience a call to consecration under canon 603 --- and (perhaps especially) even if they do not precisely because they are less well recognized by the Church than are consecrated vocations. Again, the Church must do better in encouraging and recognizing lay vocations generally, but lay eremitical vocations specifically.

My point in the article you referred to was that, surprisingly, my very consecration separated me somewhat from those who neither seek nor are called to live as consecrated hermits and it may have made it harder for them to consider eremitical life as a vocation for lay persons. Given the importance of eremitical life as a particularly meaningful context and even a potential vocation which can assist isolated elderly and chronically ill (et al.) to appreciate the value of their lives when other standards (work, productivity, social activity, etc) fall away, I found this problematical. I wanted to witness to a way of life that allowed  the chronically ill and isolated elderly to discover a new and marked value to their lives, particularly as a privileged way to proclaim the gospel of the God whose power is perfected in weakness. To find my own vocation was mainly seen as only appropriate for religious and was not considered as defining a life appropriate for lay persons (in the vocational, not hierarchical sense) was surprising and disappointing to me.