25 January 2008

Once again, Canonical Status: Motives for seeking approval, etc.

Well, I have had few questions emailed until recently with this "issue" of canonical status. While this may be my last post on this topic for a while (despite the questions, as interesting as it is to me, it is probably NOT that interesting to most!), here is a followup question I received and my response:

[[It is clear to me that you do not believe that hermits looking for canonical status do so out of pride, a desire for "status," the need for a title, and so forth. Yet, I have been reading everything I can online on eremitism and there is no doubt that some do believe this. It does appear to some that canonical hermits WANT a 'place' in the church, a title, public recognition, etc. Can you say more about the valid and invalid motivations for seeking canonical status under canon 603 as you see them?]]

Fair enough. When I began writing about the question of non-canonical vs canonical status for hermits in the church, I noted that I personally thought non-canonical status was something ONLY to be embraced early on in a vocation --- for instance, in the beginning of the discernment process or beginning of an institute's life. I envisioned most hermits discovering that they needed canonical status simply to live their lives with real integrity, to sense and embrace a genuine share in the church's mission, etc. I have come to revise that opinion and I have begun thinking that the charism of the non-canonical (lay) hermit is different than that of the canonical one, despite the overwhelming identity of the fundamentals of the lives each live. Thus some hermits may indeed be called specifically to non-canonical (lay) eremitical life. [Addendum: N.B., within a short space of time and in future posts I will come to affirm this unequivocally.]

Whether this is true or not, let me say at the outset that wanting a legitimate place in the church (that is, literally a place IN LAW) which validates who one is and what one does, especially when those things are associated with a really eccentric (away from the center) vocation like eremitism is completely understandable and reasonable. As I have also written here before, neither should one be ashamed if one NEEDS canonical status beyond that provided by Baptism in order to live out their vocation fully. We know that contexts give meaning and stability to individual words, and similarly, canonical status, like Baptism itself, gives a distinct meaning and stability to one's life as a hermit. It challenges on a daily basis, and supports in times of struggle. It provides a context when most of reality (including religious life with its accent on apostolic activity) militates against the eremitic vocation as something unworthy of human embrace and emulation. When one adds the element of ecclesiality to the vocation, and the recognition that such status is the way God's call is actually mediated to the canonical hermit, all of this becomes a cogent argument for the need for such standing in law.

It should be clear from my last two entries on this topic that I believe canonical status invests the hermit with legal obligations and rights, and also, that these can be spelled out in terms of expectations everyone in the church --- the hermit's superiors and her parish especially --- should feel free to have and express. These expectations are part and parcel of a public vocation and serve the hermit in a number of ways. The question is, I guess, does the hermit seeking canonical status understand this and ask for admission to public profession with this in mind (or at least in dim awareness at some level or other!), or is she really approaching the diocese on these matters because, as some are now writing about those with or seeking such standing, she is prideful, insecure, needs the approval of others, or has no real sense of self without it? Or again, is she exchanging the "purer" eremitical life of hidden prayer for a public role where prayer in hiddenness is given short shrift? Is she taken with the trappings of the canonical hermit, the prayer garment or cowl, the title, the "status" in the more common "social ranking" sense of the word or, is her request for admission a matter of genuinely needing canonical standing, that is, public standing in law, in order to realize the fullest potentials of the vocation itself?

In authentic vocations the person does not bring only her strengths to the commitment; she brings her whole self, and that means weaknesses, brokenness, inadequacies, etc. The vocation will embody these, heal them over time, etc, but still, they are there and it will sometimes seem (or at least arise as a personal question for the hermit) that perhaps she was merely trying to accommodate these things in embracing eremitism. What I want to suggest is that there are legitimate reasons for and ways of accommodating these things, and illegitimate ways of doing so. For instance, many hermits today experience chronic illness in one form and another. Of itself this does not constitute a vocation to eremitic life, nor would anyone be foolish enough to think it does. On the other hand, of itself it MAY NOT be an obstacle to eremitic life as it more often is in other forms of consecrated life; it could even be the ground for discovering a vocation which allows God's power to be perfected in obvious weakness and the gospel to be proclaimed with a special vividness. I have spoken of this before here. However, it is also the case that the illness MAY be an obstacle to a genuine vocation to eremitic life, and this is true whether the illness is physical or psychological. In one case, the hermit might come to wonder if her illness was the ONLY reason for embracing a call to eremitism when in fact, it was the occasion for considering a form of life she would never have considered otherwise, and one which God was indeed calling her to. In another instance though, the hermit's self-questioning might be pointing to the truth: her illness is an obstacle to a genuine eremitic call and is the only AND INSUFFICIENT reason for embracing it.

There are all manner of human needs for validation, or approval. Some of these are healthy and should be met, while others are unhealthy (or unChristian) and ought not be indulged. Some are motivated by a sinful or distorted pride, and some are not. Untangling the twisted skeins of motives within us is something that takes time and work! I also think it is something that cannot be done completely alone: it requires the help of a good therapist and/or spiritual director, good friends who are honest and insist on honesty from the hermit, but also, time and patience. This is true because, like the incarnation itself, eremitical vocations grow out of the most unpropitious appearing soil. What was barren becomes a womb for God's own presence; what was a desert which appeared without hope of fruitfulness blossoms with unimaginable life. What is true is that this side of eternity both life and death, barrenness and fruitfulness, disappointment and promise, co-exist within us at every moment. At least in the beginning stages of discernment, so will an individual's motives be ambiguous; later on they may be clarified and simply be paradoxical: there is a desire for status (legal standing) so that one may live a hidden life in real integrity and holiness, etc.

It seems to me then, that what can also happen is that, over time, motives are purified, the needs for validation, etc which are rooted in inadequacies in the hermit's personality can, in many cases, be outgrown or healed. This can allow one to discover the valid reasons for requiring approval or validation stemming from the potential of the vocation itself which were there right along, but were obscured by the hermit's own "deficiency needs". The vocation to eremitical life is MEANT to serve others in the church and world as a whole. Of course the vocation is a gift of God to these, but it is also a gift to the hermit herself. It SHOULD summon her in her weakness to greater (greatest!) wholeness and perfection; it should not and must not not merely bypass these things. At the same time, while it will use and even build on them, it cannot be built on them alone. Any vocation to serve others ordinarily requires various forms of authorization, and authorization says that the vocation is NOT built only on deficiency needs but also on true giftedness (also called "potentiality needs") which will serve others well.

What I am saying is critics of canonical status for the hermit especially can be correct in individual cases since the human need for approval can stem from both deficiencies AND potentialities or giftedness in the human personality. Where they are wrong is to generalize as though ALL those who seek or have canonical status do so because of motives which run counter to the very nature of the vocation itself. Even when more venal or unworthy motives are present, what tends to happen is that they are worked through and left behind before the hermit is admitted to profession and especially prior to perpetual profession. As this occurs, the hermit will discover there are deeper and more valid reasons for seeking the church's approval and canonical standing. She will, if her vocation is genuine, discover and also allow these reasons to motivate and challenge her. Otherwise, there should be no profession, especially perpetual profession! As I noted above, canonical standing allows certain potentials of the vocation to be realized. Once this is understood it can be seen that the motivation for seeking such standing need not be a betrayal of the true eremitic vocation, but rather the logical route for its fufillment.

Originally I was rather moved by the argument that hermits SHOULD be non-canonical because the vocation began as a protest of the Church's capitulation to the world of privilege and power, and should therefore continue in this way. However, I also understood that some vocations are eccelsial realities which are mediated through the Church. Canonical status therefore need not be a matter of "selling out" to the power structure of the institutional church, and in fact is more likely in well-motivated people to allow their vocations to reach a maturity and fullness which remains merely potential in non-canonical forms. However, it remains true that the
Church recognizes non-canonical hermits as a valid form of eremitical life. This means, I think, that we must understand there are completely valid motives for embracing EITHER form of eremitic life, and that neither can be disparaged.