by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD (cand), DHS, OCV
Five to fifteen minutes total of the time I spent in canon law classes for my licentiate in canon law were spent on canons 603 and 604. Why? Because they either considered too rare of a vocation, or because there is a lot of jurisprudence and history that must go into the proper interpretation of these canons. A good interpretation of these two canons, which deal with hermits and virgins respectively, can take volumes and much research and familiarity with the development of the vocations, significant legal history, concrete lives of those who lived it in earlier centuries, etc. I should know. My first approved subject for my doctoral dissertation was on diocesan hermits. I wrote extensively before I discovered that someone else had gotten to my conclusion first, and my topic could no longer be considered a significant contribution to the field.
My second (current) subject of my dissertation is on sacred virgins. It always amazes me how little native English speakers think there is about this vocation because they cannot read other languages. The bibliography of just one of my sources contains 50 pages of books, articles, and other treatments on virginity that are utterly unknown to these virgins who rely mostly on religious life to give them guidance instead of their own patrimony. It is embarassing and scandalous. If 5 or 10 minutes total is all a priest hears about hermits in all of his formation as a priest and in canon law, then he is simply not an expert on the vocation. Yet, unfortunately, that is the most that 99.999% of priests and chancery officials know about the hermit vocation. This is why many make serious blunders when it comes to hermits (and virgins).
At any rate, I am returning to the topic of hermits and vows yet again because in the last few months I have seen 3 separate “professions” of hermits that have sparked grave concern about the direction the eremitic vocation is going in, and part of this concern is linked to errors surrounding the nature of consecrated life and the role and nature of vows. (I do not think any of the three were valid.)
Let’s begin with the hermit vocation. The Church recognizes in law, only hermits who are validly consecrated according to the provisions of canon 603. But wait, what about the “private hermit”! Isn’t that a vocation? No. Simply put, it is not a vocation (if you want to know why, read my upcoming dissertation). It is a lifestyle that is adopted by some members of the faithful who feel called to imitate Catholic hermits who are professed according to canon 603, but who do not conform to canon 603 completely themselves. Retired clergy and single lay persons can live “like” hermits: they can devote hours upon hours to prayer and penance. They can live in the “solitude of silence”, segregated from normal society for the most part. They can -but shouldn’t- even mouth off words of vows, sign made up vows on the altar, and wear costumes. But they do not have a hermit vocation. In other words, they can be “hermits”, in the sense of living a lifestyle of prayerful seclusion, but they are not recognized as such by the Church.
The Church is the protector and clarifier of vocations. People are expected to conform their lives to the vocations they have been accepted into, and not define a vocation by their own individual lifestyle. In other words, there are objective standards to which those who are authentically called must live, and definitions which they have no ability to change because to do so would change the nature of the vocation. In an earlier post, I pointed out that Covid 19 has made a lot of people “recluses”, locked into their homes. But being mostly confined to the home and being a devout person does not constitute a person a hermit. The vocation is deeper than a superficial resemblance caused by global lockdowns. To pretend that all a hermit is is a single person in a household who rarely goes out is to completely miss the point of the vocation to the eremitic life. Canon 603 merely scratches the surface of what it means to be a hermit, and to be quite frank, it is a pity that it is the only canon on the vocation as this really trips chancery officials who do not know how to interpret it and come up with all kinds of crazy abuses.
A real hermit is one who has thoroughly discerned, internalized, and acted upon the call to be alone with the Alone, in the “silence of solitude”, in strict withdrawal from the world. A real hermit is one who conforms to the values of the eremitic vocation but does not necessarily adopt all of the means. E.g. The making of vows and the writing of a rule of life that has been approved are “means” to an end; years of studying about the vows, writing a rule of life that is sensible for living out a genuine eremitic lifestyle, having accountability to God and the Church, these are all ways intended to foster and protect authentic expressions of the eremitic vocation. Without other people to intervene, a twisted, false ecclesiology, a lifestyle of isolation, unhealthy prayer or penitential practices, and possibly danger to mental health can blossom and grow if the individual is not well balanced, knowlegable, “mature” in faith, etc. Thus, a hermit is a member of the faithful who conforms to the essentials of the eremitic lifestyle: assiduous prayer and penance “in the silence of solitude”, in “stricter withdrawal from the world”. The hermit is not a person who is active in priestly ministry, campus ministry, or who otherwise engages in interfacing with people on a regular, sustained basis.
For most people, it is far easier to be a canonical hermit than a lay (or clerical) hermit at least in theory. This is because, in theory, the Church assists diocesan hermit candidates in discerning and embracing what is truly eremitical and jettisoning what is an obstacle to that lifestyle. The vows and rule of life help provide a meaningful way to ascertain whether a person is actually living a life that is suitable for those desiring consecration. The consecrated state is not merely a “legal” state. It is an ontological reality to which greater responsibility on the recipient is attached. Years are spent in formation, in which the theology of the vows should have been assimiliated, the virtues understood and practiced. Layers of self-deception and walls to grace should have been peeled away in formation and the resulting rule of life should reflect a clearer reflection of the hermit’s understanding of self and the road to greater conformity to Christ.
Those who do not wish to (or cannot) pursue formation and profession as a hermit under canon 603 have a much harder time of it. To be faithful to the eremitic lifestyle, they must forgo certain things that could be of great help. They may not wear a habit, because the habit is a public sign of consecration, and they have chosen a path outside of consecration. To wear a habit would be to wear a lie, deceiving the faithful about their true status as regular members of the faithful (or clerics). They may not make vows at Mass because without a legitimate superior, they have no one to receive their vows. They cannot sign vows on the altar, because that is reserved to those who are liturgically allowed to do so (namely, those who are in approved institutes of consecrated life or those in the process of becoming so with appropriate permission, or those who are professed in the hands of the bishop in accord with canon 603). Any rule of life that they might have will probably have to be worked out alone without the assistance of canon lawyers and others who might be experts on this lifestyle. They cannot expect formation or continuing formation from the diocese in the eremitic lifestyle. This means that often, lay “hermits” will actually not be living authenticly as hermits because they can’t or they won’t or they don’t know how. E.g. The married husband or wife raising a family is not a “hermit” no matter how devout they are or how many hours they spend in prayer to the detriment of their actual vocation. The college professor or the activist priest are no more hermits than the local news reporter. The hermit vocation is not about being a “single religious” living independently, with or without other people, with bits of prayer sprinkled in their day. It is far richer than that, and that is why most people are not called to this lifestyle, much less vocation. Humans are social and this is why it is a rare vocation. God rarely calls people to the hermit life.
Now, a word about vows. Vows should be studied for years before making them. There is no point in a private vow of “obedience” as there is no legitimate authority to obey. Real experts should be consulted for valid vow formulae. Recently, there was a ceremony with invalid vows for a “diocesan hermit”. Because the vow formula was invalid, the individual is not a hermit until/unless that is rectified.
Lastly, let’s briefly discuss private vows. Private vows do not a hermit make. Private vows should never be made in a way that gives the impression that the Church accepts or approves those vows, particularly at Mass. No priest should preside at any Mass or ceremony that looks like the profession of vows for a hermit, because by so doing, he is mocking the actual vocation of diocesan hermits, violating liturgical directives, and in general confusing the faithful about the consecrated state. It could safely be considered sacriligious to do so as he does not have the authority and it would be simulating a real sacramental (eremitic profession).
St. Paul the First Hermit, pray for us!
P.S. In case you are wondering, I have studied way more than 5-10 minutes on hermits!!! I probably have one of the best private collections on hermit books, treatises, and articles in the Americas. I have also studied for years on consecrated life, the eremitic life, and yes, I do possess a diploma from the Vatican on the Theology and Law of Consecrated Life, making me a perita (expert). That is why I am writing now. To share with you so that invalid ceremonies do not continue to harm the dignity of the vocation and make a mockery of the consecrated life.