by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD(cand), OCV, DHS
One of the deacons I am friends with has spoken about his visits to impoverished housebound people and assistance both spiritual and temporal given to them. Our conversations became a catalyst for this article, which has been put on the backburner for far too long, for I wish to speak on covid isolation, Sunday rest, the movement of parishes and dioceses cutting off Mass live streaming to encourage people to go back to in-person Mass, and hermits.
Covid has wreaked havoc around the globe. No one has escaped its impact, and for the first time in history, most of the world had had its Sunday Mass attendance obligation suspended because of the virus. This has lead to otherwise healthy single people living in greater isolation due to government regulations. They have been cooped up in their homes and apartments, only gradually being “let out”, perhaps only for a brief time before again enduring more isolation if another wave breaks out.
Church going Catholics have been fairly vocal about the pastoral and governmental response to the covid crisis. This is not what we’ll be focusing on today, and any comments about the concrete handling of this situation by authorities will be summarily deleted, as this is simply not the space for such a discussion. Rather, we will be examining something I think has been overlooked and undervalued, namely, Sunday rest, the lot of the homebound, and hermits.
Healthy individuals who are forcibly isolated and who have more limited access to the sacraments have understandable feelings about being unable to socialize with people, partake of the sacraments normally, etc. Priests who are dealing with the crisis are for the most part not happy about having to livestream their Masses as being a “youtube tech” was not what they imagined as part of their ministry description. Both groups just want to go back to life as normal with in-person Masses, and having a normal social life and ministry. This is fine and natural.
When transitioning back into society, it is appropriate for us to begin seriously reflecting upon how we understand Sunday, which is to help “everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.” [CCC #2184). Sundays are not simply for attending Mass and fostering our spiritual lives, although that is extremely important; humans need a holistic and uplifting praxis of the day that allows for but sufficient rest and leisure for other very positive effects in our lives: cultural, familial, and social. In pandemic times, how this is accomplished must be adapted for our concrete reality. Obviously we cannot completely re-create our former social, familial, and cultural activities conducive to Sunday observance in these trying times, and millions of us have to do this in relative isolation because of the restrictions imposed on us.
Many Catholics know that we are “to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The charity of truth seeks holy leisure- the necessity of charity accepts just work.” (CCC #2185). However, it may come as a surprise that “Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation.” (CCC #2186). How many healthy individuals think only of fostering their own leisure, their own social life, and their own methods for attaining relaxation?
Who of us think about doing works of mercy and offering humble service to the “sick, the infirm, and the elderly”? I would mention in particular, the home-bound isolated individuals who are ignored by society and rarely or never visited by their relatives or members of the clergy or fellow parishioners. Do we go and mow the lawns of widows, the elderly, homebound, or the military spouse with children? Do we make it a point to ensure that there is regular visitation of the sick by not just extraordinary ministers but also priests who can hear confessions? Will we keep livestreaming Masses and prayer services for the homebound? Or will all sense of solidarity evaporate once the healthy get what they want?
Let’s face it. Marginalized persons are so far out of the mind of most of the healthy who are not caregivers, and their pastors, that their needs are simply ignored when it comes to decisions about livestreaming Masses, visits, and volunteer work. This needs to end. If healthy people are finding it difficult to cope with imposed isolation, it is high time to consider those who are homebound and do not necessarily have the same resources for cultivating their social, religious, cultural, and familial lives. That couple on a fixed income might need to get out of the house and brought to a social activity or cultural experience provided with courtesy and respect by others. Or, that 83 year old woman living alone with a leaky sink could do with a cheerful word and donated repairs services.
It is time that we embrace the fullness of living out the Sunday observance and start reaching out to our neighbors. We need to bring community and care to our homebound, and to foster a love and appreciation for our culture. We need to be constructive about our collective future.
Now, it is time to shift to a related topic, that of hermits. If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the fact that people can live in isolation on a temporary basis, but most people are not called to live withdrawn from normal pre-pandemic social interactivity. The majority of people are waiting with bated breath for normality to return so that there is an end-point to the severe disruption isolation causes in their lives. Put in another way, most people do not have a positive call from God to live “alone with the Alone” as a hermit.
Many have the idea that a Catholic hermit is someone who lives alone. In this time of pandemic, it is possible that some might consider themselves all but canonical hermits because the externals of devout Catholics might have the outward appearance of that of a hermit’s life: a rhythm of prayer, meals, greater separation from normal activities, etc. But it is clear that such people do not fit the definition of a real hermit. It is one thing for people to be in relative isolation during the pandemic but afterwards go back into normal socialization. And for those who are homebound due to age or chronic illness, if they had a choice, many would opt into normal activity. It is another to voluntarily choose, not isolation, but healthy solitude to be alone with God.
Why bring up hermits in connection with the pandemic? Because outward circumstances do not a vocation make. A hermit is more than a pious person who is “alone” in a household. A hermit is essentially one who is given a special call by God to consecrated life “for the sake of the kingdom” in “the silence of solitude”. A call that must be carefully discerned over a period of many years because it is so rare and it can be dangerously unhealthy for a person who is not balanced to embrace.
The pandemic is not only bringing out the goodness in people as evidenced by the outpouring of the corporal works of mercy by individuals and organizations, but also the ugly distortions of sin, the amplification of struggles of people with certain mental health conditions, and proliferation of issues due to financial inequity. It will undoubtedly bring up a small segment of people who may be considering the eremitic vocation for the first time in their lives because of forced isolation. The healthy individual should be using this time of forced isolation as a time for reflection, and adaptive habits that foster community, culture, religion, etc. within the boundaries set by the authorities. To really use this opportunity for “solitude” to have better self awareness and to do some good soul-searching. Those struggling with the challenges posed by isolation should work to find solutions.
For a very small minority of people, this period of forced isolation may be the transformative experience needed to seriously consider the possibility of a hermit vocation. In the absence of certain distractions, one might very well find oneself drawn to be with God in a disciplined life of prayer, penance, etc., lived in solitude that the busy-ness of everyday life may have drowned out. But hermit life is not the life of the eccentric person who hates people or is a-social. Nor is it a nice label for “basement dwellers” who are unable to function in real life. It is not the caricature of eremitic life that might come immediately to mind of a cranky social misfit that the Church fosters as an authentic vocation to the eremitic life.
The Catholic hermit withdraws from normal social life because he is drawn to conversation with God, not because she thinks that she cannot live in society without sinning because all “conversations are idle”. The diocesan hermit is a healthy, balanced individual who is able to have strong relationships with others, not the loner who can’t get along with other people. A person called by God to this lifestyle is drawn to the service of the greater body of Christ in service done via prayer and penance rather than focusing on his own private benefit. The hermit doesn’t spend the majority of his time wrangling with the problems of society and of the Church in activity, but instead focuses on grappling with those elements in his own life that keep him from a closer and more virtuous relationship with God and cooperating with grace to become a greater vessel to humankind.
Whether the hermit is a dedicated individual (via lifestyle and/or private vows) or a consecrated diocesan hermit whose superior is the bishop, the lifestyle embraced is far different and more expansive and rich than that of those simply forced into isolation by reason of the pandemic, ill health, age, quarantine, or even imprisonment. It is not about isolation but of communing with God and fighting with the inner demons. The eremitic lifestyle is not a runaround for starting a religious community or shorthand for a person who is aping religious life as a kind of “active religious of a community of one”. It is its own unique style of life with its own charism, spirituality, way of life, etc. It is a very rare vocation in the Church.
If a true call to the eremitic life that might bubble up within the laity and possibly detected in this time of pandemic is rare, it is far rarer for there to be an authentic vocation to the eremitic life from members of institutes of consecrated life and diocesan clergy. The pandemic is certainly impacting religious and clergy alike. It is fostering deep divisions over issues such as social distancing, vaccinations, care for the elderly and vulnerable, sacramental access, etc. It can be a catalyst for pitting brother against brother, sister against sister, priests against priests, and parishioners against priests. Thus, it shouldn’t be too surprising that care should be taken in the discernment of a religious or secular institute member who yearns for a hermitage but whose institute does not provide for hermit members, and the discernment of diocesan priests to the hermit vocation.
For the religious, a simple transfer isn’t possible. The religious would have to line up a way of providing for himself, a hermitage, etc. Then he would have to seek a dispensation from community life to experiment with this lifestyle, and eventually from his religious vows. Only after living several years as a lay person testing the hermit vocation successfully would the former religious be in a position to petition the bishop for candidacy as a hermit.
Likewise, the secular priest who desires to be a hermit would have to ask for release from his active ministerial obligations from his bishop. He should have a demonstrable yearning and personal holiness and soundness of life that would indicate potential success in this way of life. As it is a completely different vocation than the priesthood, the clerical aspirant would have to begin from the very beginning and presumably take the same 9-12 years that a lay hermit would have for formation. The theology he has been taught is a good support for the eremitic life but is not a substitute for the actual living of the life nor for the gradual learning of the praxis and theology of consecrated life. Eremitic life goes beyond slapping on the vows of poverty to that of the priestly promises of celibacy and obedience to his bishop and living “alone” [in fact this is not how profession is done, but that is a whole different can of worms].
The clerical candidate would have to learn about the vocation and spirituality of the diocesan hermit. Unlike most aspirants, he would never have to worry about his financial support as the diocese will always have the obligation to support him even if he did profess the vows because he would continue to be incardinated in the diocese but not be in active ministry. He should not be too surprised if permission to experiment with a possible vocation to the eremitic life is not granted by his bishop until retirement age, although bishops should be open to the vocation and give the matter serious discernment on a case by case basis.
For its part, the diocese should be very careful in this time of the pandemic to be even more thoughtful about potential candidates and to have a good grasp on the nature of this vocation. This is a true vocation, and is not a way of getting rid of an annoying individual by “professing them” and then forgetting about them. Nor is it a canonical equivalent to giving a stamp of episcopal approval on an individual’s ministry, whether they be lay or clerical. It is not a way of “validating” a homebound individuals’ existence and giving them a “meaningful purpose”. Nor is this a way of blessing the eccentric individual or the asocial person who is unable or unwilling to live in society because of a false ideology or physical/mental weakness.
If it is tricky for the bishop to discern the lay person’s potential vocation to the eremitic life, which must be tested over a long period of time, it is all the more delicate in the situation of those who desire to separate from their religious institution or be a clerical hermit. The bishop should enquire about the experience of the community of the ex-religious. Was the individual balanced, loving, mature in the virtues, etc. Likewise, the character of a clerical aspirant should be duly considered. Did he live up to his holy vocation as a mature, balanced, holy cleric? Hearing directly from the members of the institute in addition to superiors, and members of the councils and parishioners is important in these special cases.
In particular, the bishop should ensure that primary reason for a religious considering leaving an institute isn’t on account of “personality conflicts” but because they are persons of proven virtue and have carefully discerned a call to greater solitude. Since there are rogue priests who just want to do their own thing, the diocese should take care that the priest is carefully supervised and that the rule of life contains elements that make it clear that this is not a canonical construct for “independent priests” but is built for the “silence of solitude”, a life centered primarily upon prayer and penance with little to no active ministry involved in person and online.
Also, a word of warning. Just as healthy religious have the right to common “communal life”, so too diocesan priests have the right to not be shunted to a fake vocation as a hermit if he is a “misfit” or for “punishment”. A priest found guilty of certain delicts can certainly be punished by being sent to a religious house, if such will receive him, but he is there as an outsider, following their way of life as a restriction on his activities rather than as a person embracing the life as a positive call from God. No priest can be punished by being told to become a diocesan hermit because not only is that outside of a bishop’s authority, but it goes against the very nature of the vocation itself, for which the bishop is a guardian.
In summary, let us not mistake isolation for eremitic life. We need to be mindful of the homebound and sanctify our Sundays in service to and in communion with others. Those who are called to authentic hermit life should be aware that it takes much discernment on the part of the individual and diocesan bishop in addition to rigorous formation proper to the vocation.