03 November 2020

Thanks and Why Did You Reprise the Piece on Solace?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for the piece you put up yesterday by David Whyte. It is really wonderful and I missed it the first time you put it up several years ago. (Maybe I didn't miss it and it didn't really speak to me then, but it did this time!) I know this is a personal question but do you mind telling readers why you put it up again? I don't think you have done that with your "Contemplative Moment" posts so it piqued my curiosity. Is it because of the pandemic? Did you think this was particularly meaningful at this time because of the suffering the world is experiencing? I thought maybe the reason it spoke to me this time was because I really needed consolation that did justice to my own suffering and this piece did that. Sometimes what you write makes me think you know me and just what I need! I am going to get David Whyte's book!]]

Many thanks for your comments and questions. Yes, David Whyte is a really wonderful writer and what he has to say is rooted in a deep wisdom which is only gained through experience. I think you will love his book; I have posted several passages (definitions) from it over the years and it confirms for me that quite often we need to spend more time thinking about the words we use too blithely or facilely. Consolation (and/or solace) are among these. 

For instance, in spirituality people speak of experiencing consolations and usually they mean by that that somehow God did something "pleasant" or pleasurable for them in prayer, and sometimes they will mean that something that happened in prayer eased their pain and made them feel better. Thus, they will speak of "sweet consolations" and play these off against "bitter desolations" --- where desolations are unpleasant and, at least momentarily, make one feel worse. But in Ignatian spirituality these words are not so easily defined in this sort of black and white way. Instead, what Ignatius meant by a consolation was anything that helps us grow closer to God (and our deepest selves), and desolation is anything which does the opposite. A consolation in this sense might be immensely painful; it might entail serious struggle and various lesser forms of death (or even death itself), while a desolation might be deceptively pleasant when in reality it draws us away from God, and so, away from the very source of life and meaning which is the ground of real happiness or beatitude. David Whyte's piece on solace understands the complex dynamics of these words and captures them very very well.

So why did I reprise this piece? In the Scripture class I am teaching on the Gospel of Mark we had finished the first half of the Gospel, the portion that includes Jesus' non-stop "campaign" through Galilee and environs, his seemingly unceasing miracles, exorcisms, teaching, and his calling and missioning of his disciples/Apostles. This is the story Mark tells in a breathless way, much as an excited 4 year old might recount the story of Christmas morning or a beginning writer just discovering conjunctions might link sentences together with "and" after "and" after "and". This section concludes with Jesus' transfiguration and Peter's compromised profession of Jesus as the Christ or anointed One of God and Jesus' instruction on his death. As Jesus and his disciples move towards Jerusalem and the cross, the first story of the second half of the Gospel (Mark 9:14-29) is Jesus' last recounted exorcism, the healing of the boy with epilepsy which occurs against the backdrop of the disciples' failure to do this and the boy's Father's request to Jesus to heal his son if he can. 

I have never taught this story before and, because of my own seizure disorder, it has always been a difficult one for me. I have tended not to spend a lot of time with it, but now I had to teach it and that meant understanding the story in terms of Mark's Gospel, why it is placed where it is in the text, and attending to what Jesus says about the disciples' failure and the place of prayer in the successful healing. As part of this I especially had to be ready to deal with my own identity as a woman of prayer and the importance of suffering in discipleship (because of the story's context); I needed to do this in light of my own struggles with continued seizures.  Consequently, I spent more than two weeks with the story, reading commentaries, journaling, praying with it (lectio, etc.), and using a couple of sessions with my spiritual director to explore all of this and particularly the way the story affected me. Central to this period was recognizing and articulating the questions characterizing my own struggle to be myself in the face of competing gifts and limitations. Especially I had to pose some sharp questions to God, questions I had never specifically asked Him (unlike the exchange that occurs in the dialog between Jesus and the blind man in the story of the healing of Bartimaeus which ends the section in Mark 10:46-52!!); the process was both incredibly painful and healing for me. Thus, the following paragraph was timely and particularly powerful:

To look for solace is to learn to ask fiercer and more exquisitely pointed questions, questions that reshape  our identities and our bodies and our relation to others. Standing in loss but not overwhelmed by it we become useful and generous and compassionate and even amusing companions for others. But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light, and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?

A second reason had to do with several conversations I had with a writer for the New York Times. (More about this later.) We were talking about eremitical life and the place of solitude in a truly human life, but also, yes, there were links to the pandemic and the added dimensions of solitude so frequently forced upon people as a result. Especially, we were talking about what is possible and necessary then with regard to solitude, not only for hermits, but for every human being. I had written some about the place of struggle and even of suffering in growing in one's capacity for compassion and had cited Douglas John Hall's God and Human Suffering where he says: 

[[The question therefore becomes: How can one at the same time acquire sufficient honesty about what needs to be faced, and sufficient hope that facing it would make a difference, to engage in altering the course of our present world towards life and not death?]] a page later he observes that acknowledging suffering is not enough. What is also required is [[ the trust that something --- the life process or Providence or God --- something “enduring,” as Isaiah put it, is able to take into itself all that does not endure, even things that are not, and give them a future that infinitely transcends the bleak promise of their past.]] 

Eremitical solitude combines all the elements needed for sufficient honesty about "what needs to be faced" with a defining orientation to God and God's Providence; together these provide significant hope in the midst of suffering in a way which is profoundly consoling. Above all I recognize my own eremitical life as motivated by the desire and sense of a call that, by virtue of the grace of God, can [[shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth (me), and bring (me) into the light.]] So this too was on my mind and in my heart, and David Whyte's piece on Solace helped clarify and contextualize all of this for me personally. However, yes, I certainly believed it would speak to readers during this time.

30 October 2020

A Contemplative Moment: Solace (reprised from May 2016)



is the art of asking the beautiful question, of ourselves, of the world or of one another, in fiercely difficult and un-beautiful moments. Solace is what we must look for when the mind cannot bear the pain, the loss or the suffering that eventually touches every life and every endeavor, when longing does not come to fruition  in a form we can recognize, when people we know and love disappear, when hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.
Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp or make sense of.
Solace is a beautiful, imaginative home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated. When life does not in any way add up, we must turn to the part of us that has never wanted a life of simple calculation. Solace is found in allowing the body's innate wisdom to come to the fore, the part of us that already knows it is mortal and must take its leave like everything else, and leading us, when the mind cannot bear what it is seeing or hearing, to the birdsong in the tree above our heads, even as we are being told of a death, each note an essence of mourning; of the current of a life moving on, but somehow, also, and most beautifully, carrying, bearing, and even celebrating into the life we have just lost. A life we could not see or appreciate until it was taken from us
To be consoled is to be invited onto the terrible ground of beauty upon which our inevitable disappearance stands, to a voice that does not sooth falsely, but touches the epicenter of our pain or articulates the essence of our loss, and then emancipates us into both life and death as an equal birthright.
To look for solace is to learn to ask fiercer and more exquisitely pointed questions, questions that reshape  our identities and our bodies and our relation to others. Standing in loss but not overwhelmed by it we become useful and generous and compassionate and even amusing companions for others. But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light, and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?

by David Whyte in
Consolations, The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

29 October 2020

Questions on Open Commensality or "Open Table Fellowship"

[[Dear Sister, how can you speak about open table access? How can we say we "value the Sacrament appropriately" if everyone is admitted to it [indiscriminately]? Do you also advocate allowing public sinners to partake of the Eucharist? Don't we need to protect the Eucharist from sacrilege? What about keeping people from eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily? Don't we have an obligation to do these things? I think you are being irresponsible and maybe even heretical. Does your Bishop know what you think about this? Do you allow public Sinners to share Communion in your hermitage?]] (Constructed from questions posed in several emails.)

Countercultural vs Cultural ways of Measuring What is Precious:

I realize that admitting everyone to Eucharist because the Eucharist is special is counterintuitive. We ordinarily believe that something is special when only some are allowed to participate in or partake of it, when it is reserved for some elite or other. In fact, one of the ways we define specialness in our world (and let's be clear it is a worldly definition) is by limiting access in this way. If something is available to everyone then, by definition, it ceases to be special and becomes common. When we realize that this is the deeply engrained way we think and run our world, we also begin to understand how radically Christianity undercuts our normal worldview. It says instead that the most precious realities we know are meant for everyone, not for an elite few. It says that in fact, in a world where things are measured according to whether or not they are common or a limited edition with limited access, and where a person's value is measured in part by how much access they can afford or otherwise earn or merit, what is truly rare is something where access (and thus, the love of the community in Christ) is available to all without price. Wasn't this part of the meaning of the Incarnation? Wasn't it what Jesus himself modeled for us --- even when he was badly treated or the disciples tried to fend people off and prevented them from touching him? Isn't it the reason Jesus' life and death tore asunder the veil between the sacred and profane, heaven and earth? Isn't it at the heart of our theologies of grace and redemption?

In fact, I believe that this kind of access to the Sacrament is a piece of valuing it appropriately. I believe that allowing such access must be complemented by treating the Eucharist with as much reverence as we can at all times (something we can certainly improve on in most parishes), by making sure our ministers act out of this reverence and model it for others, and so forth, but I believe both of these elements are part of treating the Sacrament as the most truly Sacred reality we have ---along with the Word of God, the other Sacraments and Church herself. Similarly, I believe we each demonstrate our sense of being both called and chosen not by excluding others but by inviting them to participate in the Communion which enlivens and empowers us. More, we do this because in this way we proclaim the Sacrament a gift we can never merit ourselves and therefore, can never exclude others from if they sincerely wish to participate.

Taking Seriously We are ALL Sinners:

As far as admitting public sinners to the Eucharist I believe part of the problem has been separating our universal identities as sinners from our ability to receive the Eucharist. Our focus instead has been, perhaps, too much on "being in the state of grace." If we were to make it clear that we welcome public sinners to join all the rest of us sinners in receiving the gift which empowers repentance (as , by the way, our prayers before Communion proclaim when they say, "Lord, I am  not worthy. . ."), the Eucharist could no longer be used by those in good standing to brand others. 

On the other side of the equation, public sinners could not use the Eucharist  as a way to assert they are Catholics in good standing, nor to thumb their noses at the hierarchy, nor any of the other motives that might be in play except that on some level they, like the rest of us, remain believers open to being changed and healed. There would be no reason for media to play up the reception of Eucharist by those members the Church has termed public sinners --- unless, of course, it is to publicize the fact that the Church welcomes everyone to receive the gift of God she mediates. (Wouldn't THOSE be great headlines!!) Nor would those Catholics who are in good standing be as easily able to forget that Eucharist is a gift they never merit. 

Though we pray, "Lord I am not worthy. . ." every time we approach the Lord's table, I suspect that often there is an implicit, often unconscious rider attached, "O Lord I am not worthy, (but I am in the state of grace so on some level I am not really unworthy any longer)!" in even more egregious situations, the rider which might be attached could go something like "O God I am not worthy, but I know I am not a public sinner like that guy over there!!) I suspect that more often than we realize, the parable of the publican and the sinner applies to "Good Catholics" looking askance at people whose hearts they can never really know. Finally if we allowed universal access, the Church herself would be encouraged to remember she is entrusted with Eucharist as steward with the Master's property; it is not her possession anymore than the risen Christ can ever be anyone's possession.

While I believe we ought to treat the Eucharist with the utmost reverence, I do not believe that allowing sinners to approach the Lord's table constitutes sacrilege unless they are approaching in order to consciously thumb their nose at  the Faith we hold. And in such a case the injury is being done to themselves, not to Jesus. God risks in loving us. We take the same risk in loving others in this way. As I understand it, allowing sinners to approach the table to foster reconciliation and build unity is the reason we were gifted with Eucharist. Too, I am reminded that in the NT it is Jesus' holiness which is "contagious" and makes holy, not the other way around. Jesus is never made unclean by consorting with sinners, touching the sick or dying, breaking kashrut, and so forth. 

Similarly, Jesus never prevented Judas from partaking of the meal with the others though Judas' betrayal was real and already underway at the Last Supper. When people are kept from Jesus he stops the disciples and allows those without status to approach him. He speaks to women; more, he allows them to speak to him --- even Canaanite and Samaritan women! He welcomes children (those with no status whatsoever) and admonishes his disciples not to prevent them from coming to him. In the parable of the Prodigally Merciful Father (Prodigal Son) Jesus redefines the nature of repentance so that instead of going through the Temple process it comes to mean, "Just come home, rejoin the family, and enter the feast!" No one, according to Jesus, was rendered unclean in the parable when the prodigal son traversed the center of the community to return home. Sacrilege might have been on Jewish leaders' minds, but it was not a concern of Jesus.

Paul's Theology and Eating and Drinking Unworthily;

What about eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor 11), especially since we universally proclaim our unworthiness before Communion? It's an important question of course, but what did Paul mean by that? What was the situation in Corinth? Remember that everyone including the socially well-off were bringing food and drink to the meal. The poor brought less, the rich more and there were inequalities and divisions in the actual meal. Also Paul had been trying to hammer home the notion that in Christ there are no distinctions; there may be different gifts but they are from the same Spirit in the same Body. The Corinthians had bought instead into the notion that some gifts were special, others less so, some were called to a greater spiritual life or holiness than others who were supposedly called to or gifted with less. Unfortunately those with greater social advantages mistook these for spiritual gifts as well. Their celebration of the Eucharist reflected all of these distortions of the Gospel. Any interpretation of what Paul means by eating and drinking unworthily must bear this in mind.

Thus, I think Paul's reference to eating and drinking unworthily actually involved his judgment on elitism and the practice of giving a greater share in the Eucharistic meal to some than that given to the poor and those considered "less spiritually gifted". At the same time then, neither do I think he meant approaching the Eucharist as though we ARE worthy, as though we DO merit such a great gift, as though we believe reception indicates our relationship with God is "just fine thank you very much" and in fact, is better than our neighbor's, is ever acceptable! Those who receive a gift no one can merit can only do so unworthily if they ignore, forget, or otherwise refuse to claim their identity as sinners who in no sense can EVER merit this great gift. Personally I think this is a far bigger and more insidious problem with our Eucharistic praxis today. Paul was speaking of those who disdain the meaning of the Sacrament in an elitist and divisive way. This was what Paul might have considered "public sin" in his communities.

Similarly since Paul was concerned with a Church some of whom had denied Jesus' resurrection they may have doubted they receive Christ's very Self in this Sacrament. Today people may receive because they are making some political or similar point with their reception. In other words, they are using the Sacrament for their own agenda, not making themselves open to God's! Let me also be clear about one thing though. If a person believes in her heart of hearts that receiving is wrong, then it is wrong and receiving would be a sin, potentially a very grave sin. The sin here is that the person acts against conscience; it would remain wrong even if she were really in the state of grace otherwise.

Keys to the Celebration and Reception of Eucharist:

When we are dealing with such a great gift as the Eucharist we are going to run into problems (or at least tensions) in regulating its celebration and reception. I personally believe that the greater problems fall on the side of self-righteousness or complacency. I believe it is more pernicious and problematical to allow folks to believe they actually DO merit Eucharist in some sense because they are "in the state of grace" or can make a fidelity oath than it is to cultivate the sense of our prayer, "O Lord I am not worthy. . ." and open Communion to those who are thought to be (or even those who really are) public sinners. 

The weight of admitting everyone in this way falls on the community of faith to make sure the liturgy is reverently done, the Eucharist is treated with great regard, our gestures of reverence are not hurried or made as a kind of afterthought (for instance, the sign of the cross cannot be done furtively as though we are children who don't know how, our profound bows cannot be done with a mere embarrassed nod of our heads or while hurriedly backing away from or moving toward the altar; neither can we make up or multiply our own expressions of reverence in an attempt to outdo someone else!) Being welcoming and hospitable does NOT mean being overly casual or complacent, much less sloppy and careless. Just the opposite. We honor guests when we make it clear how important and sacred the event to which they have been welcomed.

The idea, of course, is to let everyone have a sense that what we do here is, to some extent, different than what we do elsewhere, that it is weighty and, for instance, requires gestures we use nowhere else, gestures, etc that are done thoughtfully and with reverence. If we can do this we can provide a context which opens Eucharist to public sinners (and to us less-public sinners!) which can empower conversion. Especially we can make it clear that this Sacrament is special precisely because it is meant for every person, not for an elite. This is the countercultural or "anti-world" lesson we really need to teach in our Christian praxis and worship.

On Charges of Heresy and Communion Here at Stillsong:

Finally, let me answer your questions about heresy, etc. What I have said here about admitting public sinners is not heretical. It pertains to discipline, not to doctrine or dogma. Further, I have fully honored and supported the Church's theology of the Eucharist in what I have written here. I argue as I do BECAUSE I believe fully in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as well as in the proclaimed Word, assembly, and priest. As for my hermitage the Eucharist is reserved here for only two reasons: 1) for my own needs because of the demands of eremitical solitude, and 2) because occasionally someone in the immediate neighborhood (part of this parish) may need someone to bring them Eucharist if they are ill. If my pastor were to say Mass here, especially on a special day or feast, it is possible a couple of others could also attend (though not while on lockdown!), but my own celebrations of Communion here are private. Even my diocesan delegates do not ordinarily receive Communion with me here. I assume my Bishop is aware of the contents of my Rule, that he occasionally reads this blog, and I know that I am appropriately trusted to be duly reverent of and responsible for the (reservation of) the Eucharist entrusted to me. More than that I cannot say.

22 October 2020

What Do You Make of a Diocese Closed to Considering Professing Diocesan Hermits?

[[Dear Sister, I wrote to you many many months back, and we exchanged some emails. I hope you are well, and given the pandemic, I doubly hope you are well. I thought this right up your alley. I saw on one diocesan website that states, ¨We have no diocesan hermits, and we are not opening to accepting any.¨ How very strange, given that the eremitic life has been present throughout the life of the church. Why do you suppose the eremitic life is so suspect? Sure, in a land with so many people, and indeed so many single people, there must be good hermits among us. What gives?]]

Hi there, and thanks for your concern and for the question. All is well here, though there are some ways I have not been able to get together with people and that really is a source of strain. I apologize that I do not recognize your email address. Perhaps you could jog my memory some re what we have discussed in the past; that would be helpful to me.

Yes, I think I know the diocese you are speaking of. They have a good understanding of the diocesan eremitic vocation and I can say that because I know who contributed to and wrote their material on this vocation. I have never asked why they decided to take this tack --- they were once open to hermits under c 603, so this is a shift for them. However, let me say that given their sound understanding of the vocation, this may not and need not be a matter of the eremitic life itself being suspect. It may be that the diocese has not found anyone willing or able to commit to accompanying a candidate for profession through the sometimes-lengthy discernment process required. It may be that no one feels they understand the life well enough to do this. This can happen precisely because they DO value the vocation and realize the degree of commitment it takes on the part of chancery personnel working with a single individual.

Similarly, it could be that they have received a considerable number of inquiries and petitions to be admitted to vows under canon 603 and found none of these were really hermits nor interested in becoming hermits. (Here is one place the distinction between being a lone individual and being a hermit is critically important. It is also a reason some dioceses have run into problems after they have admitted persons to profession.) I know that in my own diocese I was told they received on average, one request per month by persons seeking to become diocesan hermits even in the years since my own perpetual profession (this was around the time the person I was speaking to assumed office of Vicar for Religious). This was about five or six years ago and that meant the diocese had dealt with 8-10 years of at least a dozen petitions or inquiries per year and "none of these had gotten as far as (I myself) had". 

It needs always to be remembered the vocation is a rare one. (This emphatically does not mean it is either more or less valuable than other vocations, but it is rarer than they are nonetheless.) Moreover, eremitical solitude differs from other forms of solitude; the reason and way a person lives their own aloneness differs completely from many of these while sharing external similarities. This is ordinarily not appreciated by many whose imaginations are captured  by canon 603 --- and sometimes it is not sufficiently appreciated by the chanceries discerning a vocation with them. Consequently, the number of individuals who approach a diocese completely unready to enter into, much less to journey through a serious discernment and formation process eventuating in perpetual profession because they are not yet  hermits in any essential way seems to be considerable. Of these, a majority are not even contemplatives yet. Many would like to become Religious living without benefit or the obligations of community and also without literally embracing a desert spirituality and becoming a hermit --- a lot like the Episcopal (Anglican) canon allows for, but the Roman Catholic canon 603 is specifically eremitical and does not envision a generic religious life lived alone,

Yes, you are right that there are a lot of single people out there, but that is not the question. There are also a lot of people out there who would like to be Religious, but that is not the question either. Both of these facts can complicate or obscure the real question, which is, how many of these have experienced a divine call to live as a hermit and have taken the initiative and responsively shaped their life in that precise way before ever contacting a diocese --- or even if their diocese shows unwillingness to profess diocesan hermits? I think this is a critical part of discerning such a vocation and the question that must not be missed. 

Recently I have met a number of people who like to consider themselves hermits or aspiring hermits. Of these relatively few people, only 1 or 2 seem(s) to have actually become hermits in some essential sense and of these neither has demonstrated (to me anyway), that they actually have taken time to distinguish between being a lone individual and a hermit, secured a regular spiritual director, worked at personal formation in eremitical life/spirituality, or reflected significantly on the hermit's relation to the whole church. They tend to define freedom in terms of license and be about individuality rather than solitary eremitism. In other wards, this is a select community of self-described hermits and aspirants with only a couple actually taking the steps a diocese would need to see in order to accept and advance their candidacy toward profession.

All of that said, I do believe it is wrong for a diocese to simply close themselves in a blanket way to ALL individuals seeking to discern such a vocation with the Church. There will be few genuine vocations, yes, but the universal Church has determined this vocation exists and there are authentic hermits whose lives argue for the vitality and significance of this vocation. All dioceses should at least be open to the fact that there may be one or two people in the local church who might well be determined to have an suthentic eremitical vocation. In the case you described the diocese is actually giving people reason to do something which is not a good idea, namely, to diocese shop for a bishop/diocese who will profess them. More importantly, they show themselves apparently closed to the working of the Holy Spirit in the local Church.

At the same time I do believe that a single really good candidate, one who has become a hermit on her own initiative under spiritual direction, and come to understand the importance of ecclesial vocations to eremitic life might well change this diocese's mind on the matter. It would take some perseverance on the part of the candidate and some willingness to listen on the part of the diocese, but it is possible for an authentic hermit to change a diocese's mind -- at least in terms of opening themselves to actual discernment processes. Since this implies opening themselves to other possible candidates, they might then need to set some guidelines on the basis of such a vocation --- guidelines about what they expect in a candidate who wishes to discern an ecclesial vocation with the chancery staff, for instance. That would be entirely reasonable and allow them to winnow out those who have not even begun the process of becoming and living as a hermit in the lay state. There are also enough dioceses and some diocesan hermits now who can assist in working out a process (not a program!) of formation, etc. which is responsible but not onerous. Given all of this, simply closing to the possibility of using canon 603 generally seems particularly unreasonable to me.

20 October 2020

Are Canon 603 Hermits "Religious"?

[[Dear Sister, are canon 603 hermits considered religious?]]

I have answered this question on the blog before so you might look for it in other places here, but the answer to your question is yes, c 603 hermits are considered religious. In the Handbook on Canons 573-746  and in the section on “Norms Common to Institutes of Consecrated Life” looking at canon 603 specifically, canonist Ellen O’Hara, CSJ writes, [[The term “religious” now applies to individuals with no obligation to common or community life and no relationship to an institute.]]

One can argue the case on the basis of the public profession made, the stable state of life entered, the title hermits are allowed to adopt, post-nomial initials bishops approve, and the other canons which also apply to the c 603 hermit that they have entered the religious state. This is particularly true since religious come together in communities because they are called to chastity in celibacy, religious poverty and obedience, not the other way around. Community life supports and elaborates the more original call to live the vows along with a call to specific mission and charism; one does not make vows because one is called first to live in community. That is, the call to chastity in celibacy is an actual gift and call; it is not embraced merely because it is helpful to life in community or to the community's ministry. 

Hermits’ need for community support is addressed in the next sentence of the chapter when O’Hara says; [[Groups [of hermits] could use the category of associations of the faithful to have ecclesiastical identity if they wish.]] In this way canonists recognize the character of solitary hermits as religious and at the same time avoid the requirement (cf commentators on c 603) that c 603 not be used for communities of hermits.

Can a Bishop???

[[Dear Sister, if someone is professed as a diocesan hermit when they are in their mid to late twenties and their bishop changes down the line, can the new bishop ask the person to leave their vows and "come back when they are fifty"? Also, does canon Law say one has to be at least 30 to become a diocesan hermit? I heard this on a video called Joyful Hermit Speaks and it all sounded a bit off to me.]] 

The answer to both questions is no. Once someone is perpetually professed an incoming bishop will become the hermit's legitimate superior and will certainly have a voice in her life --- which will become truly meaningful only when he has gotten to know the hermit, understands her Rule, has met with her delegate(s), and perhaps had conversations with her pastor. However, he has no right or power to simply ask the person to leave her vows, nor would any canonical hermit or diocese allow this. In serious matters public vows may be dispensed, but this is a really serious situation requiring similarly serious grounds. It also requires attempts to resolve things otherwise and allows for appeals should the diocese move toward dispensation. 

The bottom line here is that under canon 603 one does not make vows to a specific bishop. One makes vows to God in a bishop's hands so that eremitical life may be a gift to the universal church but especially to the local diocesan church. Bishops may (and do) come and go, but one's vows do not. As I have written before, this is true whether an incoming bishop believes in c 603 vocations or not. To have canonical standing is to have certain protections in law; a new bishop (or an old one) cannot abrogate these rights on a whim.

The answer to the second question is also no. Canon Law requires one have completed their 18th year (or, that is, be 18 yo) in order to enter religious life but apart from this there is no additional or differing requirement re c 603. It is true that eremitical life is ordinarily seen as a second half of life vocation and I personally argue that younger persons (younger than 30 or so) consider entering a community where eremitical life can be lived; in this way they can be mentored and supported in the way a younger candidate for profession will need. Still, canon law says nothing about this specifically beyond the age for entering religious life. I'm afraid the videos you have mentioned are an unreliable resource regarding c 603, consecrated life, and even private vows.

19 October 2020

Questions on Becoming a Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister, I have always wanted to be a religious but, well, I got married. Now I have thought again about becoming a religious but the places I have checked have an age restriction and I am too old. Am I right that there is no age limitation for becoming a hermit? I am not sure I could live entirely alone (I have lots of friends and my kids come by a lot and sometimes stay over), but is that part of being a hermit? How would I go about this if I decided I wanted to be a hermit? Would I just go to the chancery and ask them? Would they recognize me as a candidate and can I wear a habit? I have lots of questions and I don't know who else to ask. I think it takes two years to become a religious so is it the same to become a hermit? Thank you.]]

I think I have addressed all of these questions before so this will be a kind of summary which, hopefully, will get you started in thinking about what you are proposing to do. Let me begin by saying that what you have described suggests it is far too premature for you to go to your chancery with this. They would not be able to help you much and would be more likely to dismiss you with what one hopes would be some generally helpful suggestions. The process of becoming a hermit even apart from diocesan discernment and eventual profession takes times and there are recognizable stages to be negotiated. Because of this it would be extremely unlikely for a diocese to accept you as a candidate (an unofficial term only) right off, and I  honestly could not see them doing this until after you had lived eremitical life under the supervision or at least while working regularly with a spiritual director for several years at least. 

A diocese will want to see a pattern of assiduous prayer and penance. They will want to see that you have become a contemplative who thrives in the silence of solitude. They will want to see that you have undertaken the shifts from someone interested in eremitical life per se (not just religious life lived alone) to someone for whom prayer is primary and then to someone called to contemplative prayer. They will want to see at this point an increasing need for solitude and silence and a sense that you believe this is who you are called to be and the way your relationship with Christ is to be shaped and expressed for the whole of your life. They will look for a shift from contemplative prayer to contemplative life, a dependence on Scripture and personal preparation to live and make profession of the evangelical counsels, and that you have undertaken all of this with the assistance of regular spiritual direction. Finally, in all of this they will be looking for the development of your own humanity; they will want to see growth in wholeness and holiness. If they see all of this (or most of it) they may then accept you for a period of discernment regarding profession under canon 603 as a diocesan hermit. There is no upper limit for admission to profession as a diocesan hermit; it is considered to be a second half of life vocation.

There are a few other things which will need to be explored. Since you were married the chancery will need to be sure you are canonically free to make another life commitment. This means if you were divorced there needs to have been a decree of nullity unless your husband or former husband is deceased. You will need to demonstrate an ability to support yourself (the church will not do this for you). Things like insurance, living expenses, library, retreat, direction, all have to be covered by the hermit. If you receive disability payments that is fine. You should be a member of a parish faith community and be known by your pastor. Most dioceses will ask for a recommendation from your pastor, your director, and sometimes medical personnel. Psychological testing may be required by the diocese and would ordinarily be paid for by them if that is the case. Still, all of that is a long way away for you from what you have described to me.

For those in community, after candidacy (9 mos. to 1 year) two years of novitiate (one canonical year and one ministerial or pastoral) is typical for novices approaching temporary profession with up to another 6 years before perpetual profession. But eremitical life is not as structured or as closely supervised as life in community. Ordinarily bishops do not profess hermits who have not lived the life for less than five years and some need for diocesan personnel to follow the hermit for that long after they approach the diocese and before admitting them to temporary profession if the person is seen to be a good candidate for a discernment process. (Not everyone is.) When this happens it is usually at least another two to three years before perpetual profession. Some bishops require five years in temporary vows. I have read one canonist who uses the same time frame canon law makes normative for admission to profession in community life, but in the main most hermits (and the bishops whom) I know agree that is not adequate for eremitical life.

I hope this is helpful. Other articles on spiritual direction, time frames, formation and discernment as a diocesan hermit are also available on this blog. You are thinking about embracing a significant and sometimes poorly understood vocation which requires significant personal initiative and resources for formation. It is not the same as life in community or even life as a religious living in her own place. There are similarities, absolutely, but the degree of silence and solitude differs significantly as does the relative absence of an active ministry or apostolate. If you are truly interested in pursuing this and perhaps feel a call to do so, and if you do not have a spiritual director, that is the place to start.

13 October 2020

On Conscience and One-Issue Voting

[[Dear Sister, I think you wrote a piece about elections and one-issue voting in 2012 or 2016. Could you summarize that article here now? I have family who are arguing that anyone who votes for a candidate who is not anti-abortion  who votes for a party that supports a woman's right to choose is necessarily damned to hell. I don't believe the current President is really anti-abortion but even if he is everything else he is about does not exactly scream "pro-life". . . . At the same time I don't think VP Biden is necessarily anti-life because of his support for abortion. . .]]

Thanks for asking about this; I posted this piece in August but decided that might have been missed by many. So here it is again. I also noted then that I had seen a post around then which criticized a bishop for restating Benedict XVI's analysis, so yes, there is significant misunderstanding on what the Catholic Church teaches about conscience judgments/decisions and the difficulty with one-issue voting. Abortion tends to be the single issue around which such misunderstandings and their attendant arguments are marshalled. Here is the article you were asking about. I have cut some of it to limit it to the key points: 1) what it means to have an informed and a well-formed conscience, and 2) how one determines one is to vote in a situation which is ambiguous or (misleadingly) marked as a "one-issue" situation.

Hermitage Chapel and Cave of the Heart
. . .Let me restate 1) the pertinent part of the Church's teaching on the nature and primacy of conscience, and 2) Benedict XVI's analysis of elections which involve, for instance, the issues of abortion and contraception when neither candidate or party platform is really completely acceptable to Catholics.

First, we are to inform and form our consciences to the best of our ability. These are two separate but related processes.  This means we are not only to learn as much as we can about  the issue at hand including church teaching, medical and scientific information, sociological data, theological data, and so forth (this is part of the way to an informed conscience), but we are to do all we can to be sure we have the capacity to make a conscience judgment and act on it. This means we must develop the capacity to discern all the values and disvalues present in a given situation, preference them appropriately, and then determine or make a conscience judgment regarding how we must act. Finally we must act on the conscientious or prudential judgment that we have come to. (This latter capacity which allows us to reason morally about all the information is what is called a well-formed conscience. A badly formed conscience is one which is incapable of reasoning morally; such a conscience is incapable of discerning the values and disvalues present, preferencing these, and/or making a judgment on how one must act in such a situation. Note well: those who merely "do as authority tells them" may not have a well-formed conscience informed though they may be regarding what the Church teaches in a general way!)

There are No Shortcuts, No Ways to Free ourselves from the Complexity or the Risk of this Process and Responsibility:

There is no short cut to this process of informing and forming our consciences. No one can discern or decide for us, not even Bishops and Popes. They can provide information, but we must look at ALL the values and disvalues in the SPECIFIC situation and come to a conscientious judgment ourselves. No one can do this for us, nor can we abdicate our own responsibility to embody Christ in this given situatiuon. The human conscience is inviolable, the inner sanctum where God speaks to each of us alone. It ALWAYS has primacy. Of course we may err in our conscience judgment, but if we 1) fail to act to adequately inform and form our consciences, or 2) act in a way which is contrary to our own conscience judgment we are more likely guilty of sin (this is  actually certain in the latter case). If we act in good faith, we are NEVER guilty of sin --- though we may act wrongly and will always have to bear the consequences of that action. If we err, the matter is morally neutral at worst and could even involve great virtue. If we act in bad faith, if we act against our conscience judgment, we ALWAYS sin, and often quite seriously, for to act against a conscience judgment is to act against the very voice of God as heard in our heart of hearts.  Please note: in moral theology we speak of "certain conscience judgments"; this does not mean we are certain we are absolutely free from error but rather, this is the judgment our own (always imperfectly) informed and formed consciences have come to in this place and at this time. This we know certainly and for this reason, because we are acting in good faith, we do not fear we are in error. We must act on such a judgment.

And what about conscience judgments which are not in accord with Church teaching (or in this case, with what some Bishops are saying)? I have written about this before but it bears repeating. Remember that at Vatican II the minority group approached the theological commission with a proposal to edit a text on conscience. The text spoke about the nature of a well-formed conscience. The redaction the minority proposed was that the text should read, "A well-formed conscience is one formed to accord with Church teaching." The theological commission rejected this redaction as too rigid and reminded the Fathers that they had already clearly taught what the church had always held on conscience. And yet today we hear all the time from various places, including some Bishops, that if one's conscience judgment is not in accord with Church teaching the conscience is necessarily not well-formed --- never mind that church teaching can never acount for all of the values and disvalues present in a given situation; this is what the individual believer can and is called to do. But this minority position is not Church teaching --- not the teaching articulated by Thomas Aquinas or Innocent III, for instance, who counseled people that they MUST follow their consciences even if that meant bearing humbly with excommunication! Again, the certain conscience judgment MUST always be followed or one sins and can be sinning gravely.

Benedict XVI's Analysis on one issue voting:

Now then, what about Benedict XVI's analysis of voting in situations of ambiguity where, for instance, one party supports abortion but is deemed more consistently pro-life otherwise? What happens when this situation is sharpened by an opposing party who claims to be anti-abortion but has done nothing concrete to stop it? MUST a Catholic vote for the anti-abortion party or be guilty of endangering their immortal souls? Will they necessarily become complicit in intrinsic evil if they vote for the candidate or party which supports abortion? The answer to both questions is no. Here is what Benedict XVI said: If a person is trying to decide for or against a particular candidate and determines that one candidate's party is more consistently pro-life than the other party, even though that first party supports abortion or contraception, the voter may vote in good conscience for that first candidate and party SO LONG AS they do not do so BECAUSE of the candidate's (or party's) position on abortion or contraception.

In other words, in such a situation abortion is not  and cannot be the single overarching issue which ALWAYS decides the case. One CAN act in good faith and vote for a candidate or party which seems to support life as a seamless garment better than another even if that candidate or party does not specifically oppose abortion. (Please note that in this analysis a candidate may support a platform which includes the right to abortion or the "right to choose" and not be a supporter of abortion itself.) One cannot vote FOR intrinsic evil, of course, but one can vote for all sorts of goods which are clearly Gospel imperatives and still not be considered complicit in intrinsic evil. By the way, this is NOT the same thing as doing evil in order that good may result; it is about maximizing the good one chooses while avoiding choosing evil!! Benedict XVI's analysis is less simplistic than some characterizations I have heard recently; theologically it seems to me to be far more cogent and nuanced than these. For more on Benedict XVI's own position, please look for original articles on Benedict's analysis.

07 October 2020

Smiling Jack


Just a little bit of humor and nostalgia in a new key!! I grew up in the Los Angeles Harbor Area and when I was just turned  three they began painting one of the huge tanks at a nearby refinery as a Jack-O-Lantern each year. I think I really did believe it was the world's largest Jack-O-Lantern! Smiling Jack has been part of that area's familys' Halloween celebrations since @1952 and for several years when we were small our parents would drive us up to see him (well-lighted at night) and how he had transformed yet again. This year they have added something new to Jack. Much as I miss many peoples' smiles these days, I personally miss some of his smile (his widely-spaced snaggle teeth always made me laugh) but the message is a good one: Mask up!!! I know in this case I am preaching to the choir, but if it's not too much trouble (or too "macho!") for Jack (and those who care for Jack), it's certainly not too much trouble for us!!

04 October 2020

Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi (partial reprise)

My God and My All! Deus Meus et Omnia!  Despite being displaced by the Sunday festivities, all good wishes to my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers on this patronal feast! I hope it is a day filled with Franciscan joy and simplicity and that this ancient Franciscan motto echoes in your hearts. In today's world we need more than ever a commitment to Franciscan values, not least a commitment to treasure God's creation in a way which fosters ecological health. Genesis tells us we are stewards of this creation and it is a role we need to take seriously. Francis reminds us of this commission of ours, not least by putting God first in everything. (It is difficult to exploit the earth in the name of consumerism when we put God first, and in fact, allow him to be our God and our All!) 

Another theme of Francis' life was the rebuilding of the Church and he came to know that it was only as each of us embraced a life of genuine holiness that the Church would be the living temple of God it was meant to be. The analogies between the Church in Francis' day and our own are striking. Today, the horrific scandal facing a Church rocked by sexual abuse and, even more problematical in some ways, the collusion in and cover-up of this problem by members of the hierarchy, a related clericalism Pope Francis condemns, and the exclusion of women from any part in the decision making of the Church makes it all-too-clear that our Church requires rebuilding. So does the subsequent scapegoating of Pope Francis by those who resist Vatican II and  an ecclesia semper reformanda est (a church always to be reformed). 

And so, many today are calling for a fundamental rebuilding of the Church, a rebuilding which would sweep away the imperial episcopate along with the scourge of clericalism, and replace these with a Church which truly affirms the priesthood of all believers and roots the Church in the foundation and image of the kenotic servant Christ. The parable of new wine requiring new wineskins is paradigmatic here (and part of the reason we speak of ecclesia semper reformanda est). On the other side of this "silent schism," some are calling for a Church that retreats into these very structures and seeks to harden them in an eternal medieval mold. Yes, in some ways we are already a Church in schism; we are a divided household, so it is appropriate that on this day we hear Jesus' challenging commission to his disciples (Luke) or grapple with the lection from Job where Job struggles to come to a mature and humble faith in the midst of his suffering, and to do so in order to remind us of the humble world-shaking faith of St Francis of Assisi.

Francis of Assisi, despite first thinking he was charged by God with rebuilding a small church building (San Damiano), knew that if he (and we) truly put God and his Christ first what would be built up was a new family, a new creation, a reality undivided and of a single heart.  Like so many today,  Ilia Delio calls for the systematic reorganization of the church and the inclusion of women at all levels of the church's life, but she adds the need for a scientifically literate theological education as part of achieving the necessary rebuilding. So, in a broken world, and an ailing church, let us learn from these  Franciscan "fools for Christ" and begin to claim our baptismal responsibility to work to rebuild and reform our Church into a living temple of unity and love. The task before us is challenging and needs our best efforts. 

Again, all good wishes to my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers on this Feast! Meanwhile, as a small piece of my own continuing education towards a genuinely "scientifically literate" theology, I am reading again in the area of Science and Faith (John Hough) and then, because I need to get in better touch with my Franciscan roots over the next weeks, I am or will be rereading Daniel Horan's The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton, along with  Ilia Delio's  Francsican Prayer; Crucified Love; and Clare of Assisi, A Heart Full of Love. I wholeheartedly recommend all of them but especially Franciscan Prayer and Clare of Assisi. If you are a fan of Thomas Merton (or Daniel Horan), that one is also really excellent.

28 September 2020

Fire still burns but New Camaldoli Monks Return to Hermitage!!

Over the past several weeks a source of real anxiety has been the way the fires up and down the state of California threatened so very many. But among these, and particularly important to me and some I love, have been the Motherhouses of the Sisters of the Holy Family, the Mission San Jose Dominicans here in the Bay Area (evacuation was threatened and prepared for, but not needed), and the New Camaldoli Hermitage of Big Sur. Today Dom Cyprian published the following account of the Camaldolese return to New Camaldoli. 

Dear friends,

Our mandatory evacuation order was lifted on September 15, and the brothers came home on September 16, which happened to be the feast of Saint Cyprian. In spite of everything, the timing was perfect, because the refrigeration repairman also came on the 16th, and we are slowly getting up and running. Still to come, a repair on the broken water main to the retreat house and a pretty damaged section of a portion of the new road, for which cost the US Forest Service has committed to reimbursing us.

My list of thanks goes on and on: to Fr. Zacchaeus and Brother David who stayed behind with me and kept singing our liturgies and celebrating the Eucharist and cooking up meals; to our incredible staff, particularly Michael Richards, our genius head of maintenance, and all who stayed behind and helped in so many ways––from ember watches and guides for the fire fighters all the way to Wade calmly making coffee every morning and quietly working away in the cloister garden and feeding left-behind cats with ashes falling around his head; to the absolutely amazing firefighters from the US Forest Service, the Vandenburg Hotshots and CalFire, the teams flown in from LA, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico, who endured battling the blazes in record breaking heat and saved all our structures, not to mention our lives; and of course to all of you who have kept following us through this ordeal with your thoughts and prayers and generous donations.

All this of course in the midst of us still observing the protocols for the Coronavirus is going to make this a memorable year. But we are prisoners of hope.

Many grateful blessings from us to you, and prayers that all may be safe and sheltered, joyful and free.

In the name of Jesus,

Cyprian, OSB Cam

22 September 2020

Questions and Clarifications re the last post

[[Sister Laurel, in outlining your response to the last poster (dealing with the problem of envy, etc) you spoke of rights and obligations and also graces. Does this contribute to envy and so forth? Is the greater problem a failure to understand what canonical standing means or is it a failure to adequately esteem lay vocations?]]

Thanks for your questions and for reading the last post. The greatest problem in that post no matter the way I organized it, especially in dealing with the problem of  hermits calling themselves consecrated or canonical when they are not, is the Church’s failure to adequately esteem the lay state and lay vocations (including lay eremitical life).  This is a more universal and significant problem than is the misunderstanding of what we mean by canonical standing or associate with canonical vocations.

A second and related problem for many with regard to the term "canonical", I think, is not understanding that canonical standing is associated with specific legal rights and obligations, and also associated appropriate expectations. We call canonical what is associated with all of these in law and we admit people carefully to such additional rights and obligations lest they prove incapable of living what requires the specific grace of God. Baptism gives access to all the grace needed to live in the lay state. It does not, of itself, give access to the grace needed to live consecrated or ordained life, for instance. As a Deacon I am sure you are aware of that, just as in the same vein, I am aware I am not called nor graced as needed to live in the married state nor as a priest or deacon. 

By the way, this is not elitist and should not be a cause for envy; it is simply the fact that God graces us in the way we each need to live our vocations in the state of life to which we are called. (I should also note, then, that a problem with treating a non-canonical vocation as canonical (or a lay vocation as one in the consecrated state) is that one is expecting of the person with that non-canonical vocation to respond to graces which accompany a canonical/consecrated vocation instead. Because some live out their eremitical vocations in the consecrated state and have been professed, consecrated, and commissioned to do so, some things bind these persons "in religion" in ways they would not do to one who is not called to the consecrated state. For instance, where some things may be sinful for one in the lay state because they constitute a sin against precepts of Divine law, these same things will be grievously sinful for those in the consecrated state because they constitute things which are also sins against a vow/public commitment. The point is that just as rights and obligations differ, so will the associated graces in order that one may fulfill one's commitments and live one's call faithfully and fully. 

 The third and (in this case) derivative problem or set of problems ├íre the way envy and resentment along with individualism, substituting license for authentic freedom, etc., take advantage of and are sometimes rooted in these other two problems, both the failure of the Church to esteem lay vocations, and the ignorance of what the term "canonical standing" actually implies. I think if the Church solved the first two problems, the problem of envy would lessen. I also think if she more clearly dropped the notion of "higher vocations" (as Vatican II seems to have done) and spoke and acted with real esteem for all vocations and all states of life, the problems mentioned regarding envy, pretense, fraud, etc would be significantly minimized.

Does Canon 603 Define Two Vocations or One?

Dear Sister Laurel, First of all, thank-you so much for your blog. I have been reading it for close to 8 or 9 years. It has been a great inspiration and help. . . . I could be missing something essential regarding Canon 603, but I have the impression that your general designation of ‘Catholic/Diocesan Hermits’ as ‘Canon 603 Hermits’, and not more exactly as ‘Canon 603,2 Hermits’ or as ‘professed Canon 603 Hermits’, may, inadvertently on your part, be contributing to the misunderstanding some of your unprofessed hermit-readers have regarding their canonical status.  

Please correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I understand, the Catholic faithful, whether lay, religious or clergy may all live a life as described in Canon 603,1 (also described in CCC 920-921, which does not cite paragraph 2 of Canon 603). Therefore, all Catholics living the eremitic life are in fact, technically speaking, ‘Canon 603,1 Hermits’, and indeed derive a basic canonical status as hermits from this fact. 
  • Some (most) of these hermits do not live this vocation in the name of the Church, but all the same do have a canonically circumscribed and recognized place in the Church through Canon 603,1. Hopefully, this fact should assuage any sense of insecurity some of your hermit-readers may have regarding the recognition of their vocation by the Church
  • Some of these hermits are called by God and the Church to indeed live out their vocation in the name of the Church, as in your case, and this is where paragraph 2 of Canon 603 ‘kicks’ in. These hermits can be called ‘Catholic Hermits’ or ‘Diocesan Hermits’ and are, technically speaking, ‘Canon 603,2 Hermits’.

If I am indeed correct regarding this distinction, my suggestion would be to refer to those Catholics who live the eremitic vocation in the name of the Church, and thus answer to their bishop regarding their eremitic life, as ‘Catholic Hermits’, ‘Diocesan Hermits’ or as ‘professed Canon 603 Hermits’, and to refer to all other Catholics who live the eremitic life, as ‘unprofessed Canon 603 Hermits’, whether they be lay, professed as a religious, or ordained.]]

Dear Father, many thanks for your comments, questions, and proposal, and too for laying out your thought so clearly. Your suggestion on dealing with the problem of envy re canonical standing (status) is interesting indeed! Unfortunately, I believe that your distinction and proposal cause (or at least complicate) more problems than they resolve. As you well know, lay hermits live eremitical life in the baptized or lay state. That too is bound to canon laws, but we don’t ordinarily call such vocations “canonical” or refer to such hermits as “canonical” because their eremitical lives are not lived under specific canons dealing with eremitical or religious life. 
With regard to canon 603 itself, while unprofessed (lay, but also clerical) hermits may live some version of the life described in c.603.1, they do not actually live under nor are they juridically bound by the canon. In other words, their lives are not actually or truly circumscribed by the canon because they have not entered the state of life it requires, provides for, and defines. They may live aspects of c 603.1; it may more or less describe the way they model their lives as hermits, however, when you write that these folks live according to canon 603.1 and are technically canon 603.1 hermits, that is simply not true. Even when such persons use canon 603.1 to inspire and guide their eremitical lives because of its clear description of the life's central elements, they are not, either technically or substantively, canon 603 hermits because they are not hermits living under this canon in a juridical sense. (By the way, religious who live as hermits under the proper law of their congregations and who are inspired by c 603.1, are also not canon 603 hermits, not even technically.) Let me lay out the reasons I say this in the next several paragraphs. But first, the text of Canon 603:
Can. 603 §1. In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.
§2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and lives his or her own plan of life under his direction.

N.B.,  some translations read "and lives a proper Plan of life. . ." This is not a Britishism --- as though one needs a proper Plan or Rule much like one needs to start the day with a "proper breakfast". Instead proper here means one's own legally binding plan of life -- much as Institutes of Consecrated Life have their own Constitutions and Statutes in addition to being bound under the pertinent norms (canons) of Canon (universal Church) Law. Note that living a "proper plan" under the specific direction of the diocesan bishop clearly establishes him as the hermit's legitimate superior, not merely as a spiritual director, for instance.

Canon 603 defines one, not two vocations:

I think it is clear that canon 603 does not define two different eremitical vocations, one lived in the name of the Church and one not. Certainly the Church fathers who authored and promulgated this canon did not intend to do so. Instead they were describing one canonical vocation lived under the specific governance and in the name of the Church who summons and commissions the person to do so; moreover they were doing so in two interrelated sections,  section 603.1, which lays out the central elements which must be found in such a vocation because these elements are eremitical per se, and 603.2, the specific juridical provision for such a life and what is necessary for doing this in law. Thus, the Church fathers were not suggesting a canon 603.1 vocation and a c 603.2 vocation with two separate sets of canonical rights and obligations (or rather with one vocation with additional rights and obligations and the other without these), but one (solitary eremitical) vocation characterized as described and lived under canon law in accordance with canon 603 as a whole.

Note well that in c 603.1 the phrase besides institutes of consecrated life refers directly to consecrated life (that is, life in the consecrated state); it clearly interposes c 603 vocations as a new form of consecrated life alongside institutes of consecrated life. Moreover, it does so in a way which implies the need for c 603.2 as completion and exposition or legal specification. 603.2 thus states explicitly what was implied in 603.1.  Canon 603.1 and 603.2 together refer to a single new form of consecrated life. Moreover, the canon does not merely describe such a vocation (c 603.1),  it makes explicit provision for it in law in a way which make it real and governable in space and time for those admitted to profession under this canon (c 603.2). In other words, in light of canon 603, while there are now (provisions for) canon 603 hermits, and hermits who belong to institutes of consecrated life, there is simply no such thing as a c 603.1 hermit which is distinct from a canon 603.2 hermit.

Getting to the heart of the problem, failing to esteem lay vocations:

Your solution/distinction is incredibly interesting and creative but as noted above, I believe it causes more problems than it might ever solve: Firstly, it does not get to the heart of the problem you have described very well. I believe that in fact, it misses this problem and allows others to actually evade it, namely, the Church has not yet effectively found --- and MUST find --- ways to take the lay vocation, including lay eremitical life, seriously and work to convince every baptized person that their callings are rooted in the consecration of baptism. This rooting means they are profoundly significant for the Church and the world without being "canonical" or associated with a "second consecration" as is religious life, etc. For too long the Church has spoken of "vocations" as though the word only meant vocations to the consecrated, religious, and ordained states of life. Vatican II made serious headway in terms of theological  and ecclesial foundation but translating that into an appreciable shift in attitudes on the ground has not yet sufficiently occurred. 

Regarding the problem of envy and resentment more generally or that of false notions of freedom, the solution is outlined in the essential problem: namely, find ways to have the Church truly esteem lay vocations, including the vocation to lay eremitical life. Find ways to help people make explicit their baptismal promises in terms of eremitical life, for instance, and celebrate this -- not at Mass, perhaps, but in some other way. Help them to understand the significant, responsible, and even prophetic nature of lay eremitical life (as was true with the Desert Abbas and Ammas). If we could do that, and if we could make clear the fact that baptismal consecration is more than the act of joining a religious club, and that it initiates one into a very real and profound vocation in itself, we would do well in our catechesis and pastoral praxis to help everyone in the Church to understand and truly appreciate this.  We do not do it by extending the term "canonical" to something without additional rights and obligations beyond those associated with baptism.

Once again, failing to regard canonical standing as a matter of  legal rights and obligations:

Secondly then, your proposal exacerbates problems because it fails to recognize that canonical standing implies rights, obligations, and appropriate expectations beyond those associated with baptism. Especially important is the fact that those whom you describe as "technically" living under the canon,  would NOT be bound by canon 603 in any juridical way; that is, they would have neither accepted nor been extended any of the legal rights and obligations associated with standing in law under canon 603. To say one is "canonical" means necessarily to be given and have accepted the rights and responsibilities associated with a canonical state beyond those associated with the baptized or lay state. This is the universally understood sense of the term “canonical.” Also, one enters the canonical state in this case via profession and consecration, whether by using vows or other “sacred bonds”; this is necessary because the graces associated with fulfilling such vocations and with the assumption of specific rights, obligations, and expectations beyond baptism also differ. Again, none of this means that these vocations are better or higher than eremitical lives lived in the lay state, but at the same time they are different in their rights, obligations, and appropriate expectations, as well as in the graces which allow their fulfillment.

If one were to allow canon 603 to refer to two separate and canonically disparate vocations, we would begin to see lay hermits without the commensurate rights and obligations calling themselves "canonical"; they would be distinguishing themselves from and (at least subtly) pitting themselves against those who had fully accepted the sanctity and significance of eremitical life in the lay state. It would introduce a new, more dangerous, and insidious way of saying, “I am not just a lay hermit! I am canonical!”  --- though the term remains relatively empty of real distinction. For those I hear from most (or complain about myself), to proceed in this way would be handing them permission to continue and indeed, to intensify the fraud they are perpetrating in the Church today. I know people who claim to be consecrated hermits though they are not. Some do so to beg for support and perks, not to serve God in his Church. Were they to start calling themselves “canonical” (albeit “only” c 603.1) in order to exploit a purported "technical" difference, they would claim canonical standing in their parishes and online and, given the normative meaning of the term canonical given above, this would be untrue and confusing. Most hermits, of course, would not seek an improper advantage; others would merely not understand the issues involved, but motives aside, the usage would still be untrue and confusing.

In any case, again, we do not resolve the issue of envy or a mistaken notion of freedom by calling something canonical that is not so. We cannot dignify a relatively meaningless label in this way, a notion of "canonical standing" which is without the additional rights, obligations, and expectations or the associated necessary graces  inherently associated with canonical standing. That would be akin to emptying the term "canonical" of meaning at the same time we exacerbate the problem of trivializing vocations in the lay state. Moreover, it would be profoundly uncharitable, and it would make the problem of mistaking license for "authentic freedom" much worse as it would do with the problem of individualism hiding under the guise of eremitism --- only now this would be occurring under the guise of a completely ungoverned  and putative "canonical" eremitism.

The bottom line in all of this is that canon 603 provides for a single eremitical vocation, not two where one of which is lived in the name of the Church with all the graces associated with this right and obligation and one is not. If one is admitted to profession under canon 603 one can be said and expected (!) to live eremitical life in the name of the Church and her life will be governed appropriately under law. Instead, solitary canonical eremitical life calls for and is governed by both parts of this canon, a description of the life provided for in law which requires Rule, supervision, legitimate superiors, etc. Yes, the Church hopes that all hermits will take the description of eremitical life in c 603.1 seriously as the Church's own wisdom in this matter, no matter the state of life in which this is done, but she will admit only a small fraction of these to profession and consecration under canon law, whether in institutes of consecrated life or as a solitary hermit under this canon specifically. The remainder she will quite rightly expect to live as significant examples of life lived in the baptized state alone just as did the Desert Abbas and Ammas.

14 September 2020

Feast of the Exaltation (Triumph) of the Cross (Reprise)

[[Dear Sister Laurel, Could you write something about [today's] feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

First of all, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative. We are dealing with the profoundly scandalous way God triumphs over human sin and the powers of evil in our world. It is a feast in which the torture and death of one man is celebrated as the greatest occasion of blessing in human history.

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was not the will of God, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was also a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph only because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in all of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they are miniature instruments of torture, yes, but also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the assistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exult in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we must bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace always results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will really be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In all cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives in spite of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in any situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We must do whatever it is that allows us to not close ourselves off to God, and to remain open to growth as human. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act as we can to change that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means, "it fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life") then we must do what it takes to allow grace to triumph.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others to the grace of God. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in today's feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the Cross of Christ empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in that Cross in embracing our own.