13 January 2020

Follow up Questions on the Church and Eremitical Life

Dear Sister, You have so carefully laid out what c603 is all about, and usually you include something as to the fact that there have always been lay hermits in the Church. You have said that they are a valid place in the eremitical life of the church. How? Why?  I am curious as to whether you ever find that lay hermits have a real value to the church. I must admit I mostly find them eccentric. I'm sure in the past there have been many who have lived edifying lives — but I have always wondered what on earth St. Simeon the Stylite and others like him contributed to the church. How did their lives point to God???]]

LOL!! Great questions and one or two I can only take a stab at. I'll include your other questions and comments below this. All authentic eremitical lives are important in the life of the Church, and this is true whether the vocations or commitments are public (canonical) or private (non-canonical). Canonical vocations (consecrated eremitical lives) serve in a paradigmatic way for the whole Church. What I mean is that the Church defines eremitical life canonically and admits individuals to profession after a period of discernment and formation. In this way the Church makes as sure as she can that those who live this vocation in her name represent solid examples of this life. But anyone who is canonically free can live as a hermit and be a tremendous example of what is possible when Divinity (grace) and humanity (nature) live in communion or even union with each other. When reduced to its simplest witness this is what eremitical life is about. Hermit's are called to give people hope regarding what is possible with God and with God alone. 

Almost everything I write about here is a reflection on some dimension of this. When, for instance, I write about the redemptive event which must be present in a hermit's life for one discerning such a vocation, this is just an elaboration on the idea that in an authentic eremitical life one should see evidence of the dynamics that are set loose in a life and the larger world when the love of God touches a broken, sinful human being. It does not  matter whether one is canonical or non-canonical, lay or consecrated, solitary or living within a community of hermits. The witness is the same so long as what we are seeing is authentic eremitical life. The elements will also be essentially the same: the silence of solitude as environment, goal, and charism, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from those things which separate us from God in Christ, spiritual direction (may be informal). A few other elements are added for those canonically established as hermits so that the ministry of authority can be worked out appropriately and the vows lived with integrity, but again, all of this is meant to establish and support a life which witnesses to what happens when God and (wo)man live in communion with one another.

Now, for my "stab" at an answer. I think Simon the Stylite witnessed in the same way to others but within a context marked by incredibly limited conditions. Every hermit lives in a kind of wilderness or desert. Some of these are very stark indeed. St Simon's was one of these. When you think of the kinds of things we all think of as essential to healthy life and begin to pare them away so one witnesses to God and the Human person alone, Simon Stylites is a pretty good example of what this might look like. We no longer have great evidence of what St Simon's life was about but I don't have the sense he was insane or disedifying to those who knew him. He represents an example of a relatively rare form or eremitical life and while I doubt many of us feel called to follow his example he does at least remind me of how far from this example my own life actually is!

[[I see again on the blog the image of the naked tattooed hermit — is he a fraud? mentally ill? driven by the Holy Spirit to live this life? I have assumed that when you use that image you are using juxtaposition to show how disordered the life of a self-proclaimed hermit can be. Am I wrong?  How can the vocation of a lay hermit have anything like the value of a c603 hermit???]]

I've added Tom Leppard's name to the picture you refer to. His story was first posted here a number of years ago. You'll find it under the labels to the right. Despite my recent use of his picture he represents more a stereotype (or constellation of stereotypes) than a fraud. He was a profoundly unhappy person who found that whenever something went wrong in his life others were involved. So he had himself tattooed and when off to live alone on the Isle of Skye. He represents for me the idea of "hermit" as misanthrope, escapist, mentally ill, eccentric, etc. Had a British reporter not written an article about him and the hope he represented for elderly Britons I might never have known about him, but essentially he is everything people have thought hermits were/are and everything I personally know hermits are not. He did not proclaim himself a hermit and so he is not a fraud. He lived a personal truth as best he could --- bizarre as that was/is. Still, he is a counterfeit and one that underscores and encourages misunderstandings of the eremitical vocation.

Regarding your last sentence/question above,  it is true that the chances of the hermit's witness value is greater if they become canonical. They are more likely to be known and write publicly or minister publicly in the limited ways allowed by c 603. However, I think in some ways the lives of lay hermits speak more powerfully to those who will never seek canonical standing beyond their baptismal consecrations but who, perhaps, are isolated or disabled and believe their lives are of little value than canonical hermits will. These lay hermits (hermits in their baptismal state) will live lives which speak of Christ and of human wholeness to their neighbors and brothers and sisters in their parishes and put the lie to the misguided idea that one must be a consecrated hermit (or religious) for one's life to be of value. That is simply not true. Vatican II stressed the universal call to holiness; we need for hermits embracing eremitism in the lay state (with or without private acts of dedication or vows) to witness to this truth as Vatican II called every person to do.

[[What did the church do — if anything — about regulating the lives of hermits before c603??  I'm speaking of those who were not already associated with religious orders.  How did they prevent scandal?]] 

I am going to ask you to look back at earlier articles for more detailed posts on this question because this post will be overly simple otherwise, but it seems to me there have been several stages of eremitical life in the Western Church. The first is that of desert fathers and mothers which died out after the 6th C. These hermits were self-regulating and placed *** would-be hermits under the tutelage of elders. These elders granted the "candidate" the permission to take on the hermit habit or took it from the candidate as necessary, taught them what they needed to know, supported them, and so forth until the hermit was ready to live on his/her own. Remember these hermits were critical of the church and the way she had succumbed to the world of politics and power, and had become not just legal (cf. the Edict of Milan) but enmeshed in the world. They are a primary reason we identify the eremitical vocation as prophetic.

Into the Middle Ages hermits who were not members of orders or congregations existed more independently; most of the time these hermits were not problematical but they could be a source of scandal or confusion and were many times were not particularly edifying. People like St Romuald (early 1000's, founder of the Camaldolese) went around Italy trying to bring as many of these as he could under the Rule of Benedict in order to add some structure and sense of ecclesial identity to these hermits' lives. Otherwise hermits formed or continued living in congregations during this time, The Carthusian and Camaldolese were both founded in the 1000-1100's.

In the Middle Ages bishops brought anchorites (male and female) under their direct authority and oversaw their lives. Hermits who desired to preach were licensed to do so by local bishops. Hermits were granted a hermit tunic by the local bishop and fell, at least loosely, under his aegis. So, there were statutes in the canons of the local Churches (dioceses) which brought some order to what could be chaotic otherwise. These norms differed, however, from diocese to diocese and were uneven at best. In the Western Church the eremitical vocation pretty much died out after this except in semi-eremitical congregations. (It was always connected to monastic life in the Eastern Church and never died out.) Only in the 20th C did the Church see a resurgence of interest in the eremitical life.

The Church has always tried to find effective ways to deal with the eremitical vocation, sometimes to foster it, sometimes to correct or control it, and often to prevent it from falling into some common traps and counterfeits. For that matter hermits themselves have always tried to regulate authentic eremitical life recognizing that it is not a life of license, individualism, or selfishness, but of love and generosity; they have also seen that to the degree it is authentic it is profoundly communal or ecclesial and from the days of the desert Abbas and Ammas, a profoundly prophetic vocation. Some of the reasons c 603 is so significant stem from the fact that it approaches eremitical life as a positive reality and recognizes it as a gift of God. Canon 603 is universal church law and takes the place of any local statutes which pre-existed it; it is instead, the single way solitary hermit are consecrated in the Universal Church today. (Including hermits as part of the consecrated state is also quite new.) Moreover, it allows for appropriate structure (legitimate superiors, ministry of authority), essential or non-negotiable elements, and combines these with the  life experience and discernment of the individual hermit. It is both profoundly ecclesial and dependent on the Holy Spirit in ways which help ensure both fidelity and flexibility.

Abba Poemen
***Remember, this group refers to hermits from several desert areas (Egypt, Palestine). They were made up of hermits who lived in solitude in three main forms: entirely alone, in cenobitical monasteries, and those living a "middle way" which was akin to what we recognize today as lauras of hermits (hermits in a colony linked together physically by the pathways (lavra) which were created between each hermitage as hermits travelled back and forth. Today we tend to separate the cenobites from the eremites leaving hermits who constituted what Derwas Chitty rightly call "a city". The solitude remained substantial but hermits were bound in community by the the unique obedience of the desert where every hermit could seek or be sought out for a word from his/her brother/sister hermits. Sometimes the Desert Abbas and Ammas wrote that it was enough for them simply to see another hermit living his/her life --- that hermit became a living word for his/her brothers and sisters.

Please note: it is possible to argue that these three forms of desert life correspond in a general (inexact) way to the three forms of eremitical life extant today: 1) hermits in a laura (or a desert city) might be seen to correspond to c 603 hermits as I have described this vocation over the past decade and more, 2) hermits who live in a coenobium (like the Carthusians or Camaldolese Benedictines, and 3) solitary lay vocations.

I hope this is helpful.