by Therese Ivers, JCL
In researching for my dissertation on hermits, I have come across a handful of times an individual has professed vows under the provisions of canon 603 in the hands of his/her bishop but has a full time or very active part time job. While I understand the desire of pious laypersons to become consecrated persons, the canon on hermits is not intended to accomplish this for people with substantial interaction with others. It is actually an abuse of the canon to profess individuals with employment outside the hermitage that isn’t done in solitude. Further, because the canon must be followed in its entirety for a person to be a canonical hermit, either the vows are invalid in the case of a full-time worker in a normal job that isn’t done in strict solitude or the vow of obedience is being violated.
Why would the vows of someone with active employment be invalid? The reason is that the canon calls for the “silence of solitude”. This does not mean that an individual living alone in his apartment but who goes out to work every day qualifies as a hermit-candidate. It is not a sneaky loophole for letting someone who doesn’t join an institute of consecrated life to be “recognized by the Church” for a person with an active apostolate in the Church. Rather, the “silence of solitude” is a term rich in meaning and history. It is a term that indicates – among other things – that the individual lives a life with very limited interaction with others in order to spend most of his life alone with God in prayer, penance, and every day living in solitude. If you were to compare a hermit’s solitude to forms of religious life, it would squarely land on the cloistered, contemplative end of the spectrum as opposed to the religious forms of life that are heavily apostolic with a lot of interaction with people.
For a person to be truly consecrated as a canonical hermit, there are certain non-negotiable elements. One is the “silence of solitude”. If it is missing from the lifestyle and rule of the individual in question, it would negate any vows made because it is a non-negotiable part of what the Church has established of her expectations for the profession of hermits and consecration by God mediated by Her.
Although full time work as a social worker or in an office as a receptionist or as a bagger in the local grocery store clearly invalidate any vows, there are plenty of other situations where one is not living in the “silence of solitude” and therefore is not a viable candidate for the profession. One example is taking care of a relative living under the same roof. The carer cannot impose his desire for solitude upon such a relative in charity. Another example is raising children or living with one’s spouse. Living with one’s spouse automatically eliminates the possibility of being a hermit because the spousal support, affection, and shared communion of the whole of life is there even if there is no conjugal activity. It is that intimacy of life that the hermit rejects by definition. Likewise, there is no such thing as a “part time” hermit in the Church’s vocabulary.
The person running an apostolate or the individual with a spouse or children may be very good Catholics and they may indeed spend weekends or nights in prayer. They just aren’t hermits. Silence and quiet time for prayer is essential for the spiritual well being of humans, but the canonical hermit has radically dedicated his/her life to living in it on a more than full time basis. Although the lifestyle indicated by the Church is like cloistered life for strictly enclosed monks and nuns, there is no laws of cloister. The hermit obviously will leave the hermitage for necessities like groceries, the Sacraments, and occasional excursions or retreats.
Aspiring hermits should note that it is difficult in this world to support oneself while living in solitude. This is one acid test of the genuineness of the call to hermit life under the provisions of canon 603. Can a person live in solitude without abandoning responsibilities (child care, marital vows, parental care, financial self-support) and survive?
Let’s also look at the concept of the silence of solitude from another angle, namely, the difference between eremitic life and coenobitic. The Carthusians are a religious Order. They are considered coenobitic with a primary emphasis on the eremitic life. Why are they coenobitic (communal?) and not considered hermits? The hermit monks and nuns stay in their hermitages and small gardens and pray, work, and eat in them individually. They only go to the chapel for Mass and Matins. Once a week they get together for a walk for a few hours and talk. The conversae (“lay” brothers and sisters”) also live in the charterhouse and they provide manual labor and can have a simplified prayer routine. It is the conversae who brings the food into the food slot for the individual hermitages, etc.
What can we learn about the “silence of solitude” when analyzing the lives of the Carthusians? That if they consider themselves semi-hermits because they get together daily once or twice for prayer/Mass and have recreation together once a week, how does a person with a full time job as a parish finance manager or a social worker fit the description of living as a hermit? This is part of what the Carthusians have to say about solitude:
The cloister and cell only assure an external solitude. It is only the first step whose goal is to encourage interior solitude, or purity of heart: to keep one’s soul away from any and all things not of God or which do not lead to God. It is at this level that the Carthusian meets the sudden impulses of his thought and the changes of his feelings. As long as the monk discusses with his “self”, his sensibilities, his worthless thoughts, unreal desires, he is not centered on God. It is here that he experiences his weakness and the power of the Spirit which he learns bit by bit « …the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart which allows God to enter by all path and access. » (Statutes 4.2)
To read more about solitude and the different degrees of solitude, you can go to their website here which I encourage you to explore for a better understanding of the solitude canon 603 is talking about.
Also, for solid information on the vocation to hermit life, I recommend Sr Laurel’s blog, Stillsong Hermitage. Sr. Laurel is a theologian, knowledgeable about her vocation as a hermit, and has a wealth of wisdom to share on the subject. She is an authority on the eremitic vocation whom I respect and hold in high regard.
(c) 2015 by Therese Ivers, JCL All Rights Reserved.