Alas, Poor Solitaries
A number of people have forwarded to me some correspondence that has been appearing on the House of Bishops (TEC) mailing list, including one from the person who confesses (he's rather proud of it) to having written the dreadful canon governing solitaries. In this post he names me in a hostile way. Of course, as usual, I have no way to reply because I do not have access to this list. Hence this post.
At the time (late 80s) the legislation was written, his community had been in existence only 20 years. It was not even a residential community. It was at that time little more than what one saintly, now deceased, Franciscan called 'a sewing machine community'. No wonder the canon was so dreadful!
Why can't the institution leave us alone! Or, if it is so threatened, why does it appoint totally unqualified people to write its legislation?
Two years ago I got so fed up I wrote the PB; I was fobbed off on the bishop who runs the committee on religious life. Below is the correspondence, with names blacked out to protect the guilty. Of course I never received a reply.
The first item, however, is a letter to a new player in this sorry game, who seems somewhat sympathetic. I have little hope he can make any difference.
Someone has forwarded to me your circular on legislation about solitaries. I shudder to think what that will be. I'm forwarding some correspondence with Bishop J..... two years ago after I wrote to the PB.
My letter is ascerbic, frustrated and exasperated for self-evident reasons. Many of the issues as they affect the church at large have been and continue to be discussed on my blog: ravenwilderness.blogspot.com. As there have been nearly 70,000 hits in the last 22 months from 103 countries, there seem to be a lot of sympathetic people out there.
I would be glad to help in any way if my input would be useful to develop a sane legislation. Frankly, I think the solitaries should be responsible for each other, oversee each other, profess each other, and leave the bishops out of it except for having a bishop protector.
With every good wish,
9 June 2010
Dear Sr. Martha Reeves/Maggie Ross,
Your e-mail to the Presiding Bishop was forwarded to me as I chair the House of Bishop’s Standing Committee on Religious Communities.
At our meeting in spring our committee discussed with the House of Bishops the interpretation of the Canon regarding individuals who have been “set apart” for the religious life but are not members of any religious community (Title III Canon 14 section 3). Those persons, whom many call solitaries, are canonically under the authority of the local bishop, and the receiving of their vows need to be filed with this HOB Committee.
The Bishop of New York, who has received several solitaries, shared the guidelines he uses for the local recognition of solitaries in his diocese. I have attached those guidelines. Note that these are only guidelines as suggested to other Bishops who may have oversight of Solitaries in their dioceses.
We did gather information from those living the solitary life and shared with the House their views on this solitary life, and their suggestions regarding “recognition”, either by the HOB Committee on Religious Communities or the local Ordinary.
In your e-mail you spoke of “legislation that was forced on the solitaries by the religious communities”. I am not familiar with such legislation. If you could inform me of that legislation I would appreciate it. If you have information from your life-long study of the solitary life, I would also appreciate that.
You made a statement about who is not qualified to discern alone the solitary vocation. I agree no one alone can discern for themself or for another any religious vocation. But can you suggest what persons together would be qualified and should be involved in the discernment of a vocation, especially the vocation to a solitary life?
In the future the HOB Committee on Religious Communities will continue to discuss solitaries and other issues, but I don’t believe we will be invited to discuss this again with the whole House, at least for some time.
I look forward to any information you can share with the Committee that will help us look at our relationship with solitaries through their local Bishop.
As a matter of interest, your email is the first time any bishop in the Episcopal Church, or anyone on a committee on religious life has ever been in touch with me about the solitary life in the 30 years of my profession (the anniversary is this coming Saturday the 12th). I was irrevocably professed as a religious for the whole church and my current protector is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I'm afraid Bishop Sisk has been disingenous at best. He obtained questionnaires from two solitaries whose mental health is very much in question and whose views of the life are eccentric to say the least and geared to 19th century—if not 17th century— stereotypes. Sisk presented these responses as typical of the solitaries. They are not. I have a degree from Stanford and have taught at Oxford University where I lived for many years. Another solitary is a graduate of West Point and retired from the army with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Sisk's guidelines, as also Title III Canon 14 section 3 are guaranteed to attract the wrong sort of person to the life, and to guarantee its failure. God so loved the world that he didn't send a committee. His guidelines are all about the bishop covering his rear end and not at all about the welfare of the solitary and the proper discernment and nurture of the vocation—and the nurture of the vocation takes place in solitude.
In the first place, the notion that the solitary should report to the diocesan is destructive. First, there are very few diocesans who understand or are qualified to have responsibility for such a vocation. More often the solitary needs protection from the diocesan. For example, one solitary I know very well, the daughter of a bishop, made her vows to one diocesan who retired, and is now under another who is extremely unsympathetic. A solitary needs a bishop protector who is outside the diocesan system and can provide continuity and, literally, protection. This bishop protector would cross diocesan lines rather like the Canadian system for the First Nations bishop.
The legislation I spoke of is the Canon cited above. The way this legislation came about is as follows: as far as we know I was the first solitary publicly professed since the Reformation. There had been some other solitaries professed but these were in secret. At the time there were no canons, and the new RC canon law had not come out (in its original form Canon 603 was a good piece of legislation but it has been ruined) and would not for another three years. Bishop Paul Moore, who was at that time visitor to seven religious communities insisted that I go public because, "I want the world to know there is a way of living religious life without losing your mind." I was professed after very careful preparation, including a complete novitiate in a community (now disbanded) and a second novitiate under SSF, who recognised my vocation and enabled it, along with spiritual oversight from the Roman Catholic Cistercians, with whom I have a very long history in terms of doing retreats, counseling and the like.
Of course the communities, especially the communities to which he was visitor, reacted very badly. For example (only one of many, I fear), C...... [an English religious living in the USA] was extremely jealous and when I was in the library at L.......... one day overheard her complaining that "she couldn't possibly know what she is doing." The next morning I gently confronted her and suggested that we meet so that I could describe my preparation. She made three appointments and broke all of them, so she never had the information and yet she continued to slander me on both sides of the Pond. It is in this context that the Canon about solitaries was passed, and it is as destructive as Sisk's draconian guidelines. The issue was about control by the communities, not the welfare of the solitaries. Given the lack of education, preparation and so forth of some of the new communities, it is ironic that solitaries should come up at this point. I ran into one member of a "community" in S....... in the most extravagant dress; the bishop (W.....) had recognised some kind of loose association that she couldn't really describe and in fact she didn't even know what canon law was.
You ask that I share my information about the solitary life with you; I'm afraid that would take an entire book, and I have a book deadline of July 5 for Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, which is coming out in the UK (and perhaps in the US too), so I'm afraid at this moment can't write as I might; perhaps you would be interested in a Skype conversation? But in short if one looks clearly at the desert mothers and fathers, one realises that theirs was a protest movement. There was no set pattern: the whole point of the life is that it is at the behest of the Spirit. The solitary simply by existing speaks truth to power, and it was not for nothing that one of their principle maxims was "flee bishops".
I'm afraid that the model most people have in mind is taken from the 17th century when great landowners advertised in the Times for gentlemen to live in their follies and be viewed by aristocratic house guests, the original garden gnome, if you like. There is a lot of stereotyping and in general the vocation has been made into something exotic, a kind of performance art. There is a confusion of obedience and dependence, which is one of the factors that has ruined both religious life and the church at large. There is little or no understanding of the psychology and spirituality of the vocation. There is a lot on my blog (ravenwilderness.blogspot.com or just google Maggie Ross) if you care to read it; I'm afraid the tone is somewhat acerbic and for good reason. A recent post called "Fantasyland" has responses from some other solitaries.
As to who should discern—this is of course quite difficult. There are very few people who have genuine gifts of discernment and the so-called spiritual direction movement has made the situation even more vexed, because people are being certified who are conforming to stereotype. Furthermore some of the major players—I know this because they came to me in my hermitage before the fact to consult—did not have the cure of souls as their primary motive but rather saving their expensive property and trying [to save] their disintegrating communities. The model is Counter-Reformation. Discernment is a gift and it cannot be taught.
Frankly, at this point in time I think the hierarchy should stay out of it unless a bishop could be found who would act as a protector-general for the solitaries, someone who might know a bit about contemplative life and be able to listen to and trust those who have lived the life for a long time. He or she could work with a loose network of proven solitaries. The present canon should be revoked. Mostly it should be left up to the solitaries themselves. Each solitary vocation is absolutely unique and even those I have met who are mentally unstable often have a genuine core; however because their mental condition makes them unfree they are not able and should not be allowed to make formal vows. Obedience is only licit if it is freely given and mental illness, dependence and coercion—which includes being subject to a changing diocesan—all render obedience illicit.
We have made everything about the church much too exotic and the solitary life is an extreme example of this. The solitary is saying, "everyone is a solitary; in that inner solitude is the kingdom of heaven; don't be afraid, behold." The American church in particular is suffering from the effects of the appalling decision in the 1950s to follow a business model. The recent debate over the non-bishop of N. Michigan showed that the most fundamental notions of holiness, of shared nature with God, of worship and spiritual life as self-forgetfulness have gone missing and some bishops (including the new one in Seattle and Southern Ohio) even said such a view was heresy. The absence of the word "behold" which occurs over 1400 times in Hebrew and Greek is absent from the NRSV (27 times in the OT/Apocrypha and not at all in the NT) is symptomatic. How are we to understand the end of Matthew, "I am with you until the end of time" if the "behold" is not there? It is in the beholding that he is with us; he's not hanging around like Casper the ghost!
If I were beginning my solitary vocation in such a climate, I certainly would not make vows into such an institution. And I know many clergy who say the same thing and are taking early retirement. As one very successful (by the world's standards) rector said to me recently, "It's a completely different context." She retires early in September.
If the church wants to survive then it must take a very hard look at itself and what it is about. The solitaries tend to emerge at such times of crisis. Judging from my work here at Bishop's Ranch, a retreat and conference centre where I have a year's tenure, there is a vast hunger for silence, stillness, simplicity, especially liturgy that has these qualities. We have a Sunday congregation, half of them retired clergy, none of whom would go to church at all if our quiet liturgy did not exist. There are thousands of people who have lapsed from TEC for the same reason. In all the years I was in Alaska I was never able to go to church because of the dreadfulness of the liturgy and the ignorance and patronising, infantilising attitudes of the clergy. The solitaries are only the tip of the iceberg, but I am afraid that TEC's bishops and clergy are going to go far past the point of no return before they will be willing to give up any of their perks and address the real issues. For example, small churches are dying and people are without the Eucharist because the hierarchy is too stubborn to license people locally to celebrate without forcing them to be ordained.
However that is another topic. By now you are probably relieved that I do not have the time at the moment to go on at further length because of my book deadline but perhaps we can have a Skype meeting as I suggested above. If I sound exasperated it's because I am. And weeping at the waste of it all.
With every good wish and my prayer,
And here is an earlier letter I wrote on the subject:
Our new bishop came back from the House of Bishops with all sorts of
news - the one item that intrigued me most seemed to confuse almost
every other person in the room - that they will be looking at the role
of (and place in the church - and structure for?) "anchorites" and
And who are they going to consult about this?
On June 12 I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of my solemn vows,
which I made after exacting preparation. As far as we know I was the
first publicly professed solitary (there were some privately professed
before me) since the Reformation. The bishop who professed me, Paul
Moore, was visitor to seven religious communities at the time. He made
me go public, professing me as a solitary religious for the whole
church because, he said, he wanted to show the world that there was a
way to live the religious life without losing your mind. The
communities were enraged that someone escaped the net. At one point
they proposed that there should be a "registry" of solitaries-why not
ask us to wear a yellow star as well? Not one person from the
religious communities on either side of the Pond (nor one bishop) ever
approached me about what my preparation had been, how I understood the
life, or anything about what I was doing, but the slander machine went
into high gear, all the way to Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of
Canterbury. John Allen, then Presiding Bishop, was very supportive, as
were the Canons of Christ Church where I was then living in Oxford,
Rowan Williams (now my bishop) and others.
And it was the religious communities who subsequently wrote the
absolutely dreadful legislation that dictates the life of solitaries
in TEC, making them tame ciphers instead of being able to live the
role of speaking truth to power set out by the desert fathers and
mothers. This legislation practically guarantees failure.
The situation has become so dreadful that solitaries are now talking
about professing other solitaries, bypassing the hierarchy, and it is
quite possible that this may be the only way forward. Under present
conditions, the solitary life is reduced to performance art-as is,
sadly, much of the life of the church.