10 January 2008

The Unique Charism of the Diocesan Hermit

I received a question about the issue of canonical status, specifically why is it some hermits seek canonical status --- viz, isn't it a matter of pride, of self-aggrandizement and the refusal to live the hiddenness appropriate to the eremitical life? I would like to answer this question, but I would also like to frame my answer in terms of the unique charism of the diocesan (C 603) hermit. It does no good to simply deny the truth of the assertions in the question. Instead it must be seen that canonical status fosters a particular charism in ways non-canonical status does not.

As I have written a while back, it is not unusual to hear stories about hermits or aspiring hermits who approached their dioceses requesting to be admitted to eremitic profession under canon 603 (the ONLY way for a solitary hermit -- as opposed to one belonging to a congregation --- to make public profession), and who were told "no" for a variety of reasons. Some of these are completely legitimate, relating as they do, to the hermit herself, her competencies, maturity, stability, spirituality, and so forth. Others are much less legitimate: "one does not need to be professed to be a hermit," (this is strictly true but may be misleading) "canonical status is contrary to the statuslessness of the real hermit," "you can do and be the very same thing by embracing solitude as a non-canonical hermit," etc. While it is surprising to hear diocesan officials (who usually ARE canonical themselves in one sense or another!) saying such things, these assertions do raise a number of questions, not only about canonical status and the nature of public profession and consecration, but about the unique charism of the diocesan hermit.

Public Profession or Private, Canonical Status or Non-Canonical, Does it Matter?

It might be well to deal with some basic questions first then. What is the difference between public vow and consecration and private vows and dedication? Well, to begin with this is NOT simply the difference between vows made in a darkened, relatively empty church and those made in one filled with people! It is not about notoriety or lack thereof. Private vows are undertaken by making vows in the presence (not in the hands of) one's priest, spiritual director, et al, in which one commits (dedicates) oneself  to God to live according to specific values. The commitment is serious and real, but it does not cause the person making it to enter a new state of life (religious or the consecrated state of life), nor does it constitute them in a new juridical standing under canon or civil law. One can be dispensed from the vows at anytime by one's pastor, and one lives one's life as a private person --- not in the sense of remaining behind the scenes, so to speak, but in the sense of living and acting or ministering in one's own name, not in the name of the church or as a public representative of this life. In a private profession one dedicates one's self to God (a significant act!) but one is not consecrated by God via the Church, that is, one is not permanently set apart by God in this particular way through the mediation of the Church.

In public profession and consecration the situation is different. First of all "public" does not merely refer to the presence of the public at the ceremony --- although it is appropriate that the profession be attended by the public! "Public" here does not point to or imply notoriety just as "private" does not point to the lack thereof. It points instead to a profession which establishes the professed in a public role with legal rights and responsibilities. One has a right to represent the religious or consecrated (in this case, the eremitic) state publicly and in the name of the Church in whose authority the professed was admitted to vows and had those vows received. For the Sister living in community, for instance, with public/canonical profession she acquires specific rights within the institute or congregation (voting rights, right to hold office, to be entrusted with certain tasks, etc). Further, while one professes vows publicly during perpetual profession the person is consecrated by God. Again, both the individual's dedication of self and Divine consecration mediated in each case by the Church are present during perpetual public profession. Not so in private vows or dedication.

A note on the term "Canonical Status"

The questions which prompted this blog entry are not uncommon. Recently I read a blog piece which attributed the motives of pride and a love of notoriety to those hermits who specify they are diocesan or canon 603 hermits, or who seek this standing. These hermits were played off against those who supposedly more authentically accept the hiddenness of the eremitical life and seek not to be "somebodies" but to be "nobodies." I think this kind of characterization is unfortunate, but there is a common misunderstanding about the term "status" in the phrase canonical status at the root of such analyses. In ordinary usage, "status" refers to a relative ranking in church or society. One has status if one is ranked higher than others, for instance. But this is only one meaning of the term and it is NOT what is denoted in the phrase "Canonical status." Instead the word refers to a kind of standing under the law; it means literally, "canonically legal standing," or "standing in canon law." This is the case because it comes from the Latin status which refers to "state" and points to a new state of life. Hermits who have gone through the often protracted process of discernment and been admitted to profession under canon 603 share a new standing in the church. Not only have they entered a new state of life, but they represent this state and the eremitical vocation in an official way in the name of the Church.

Note well, that the church herself recognizes the existence of both non-canonical and canonical hermits. She does so in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is not a matter of one kind of hermit being better than another kind of hermit, or one having greater relative ranking over the other, etc, but it IS the case that one has a public and legal standing under canon law, while the other does not. While it may be difficult to eschew the idea that one is of a higher rank than the other, it is something we should consciously try very hard to do. In any case, even if it is difficult to avoid this altogether, it is a misunderstanding we should try dilligently at least not to exacerbate.

Legal Standing: A Matter of Obligations, Responsibilities, and Rights.

The question this all raises for me is this: "In light of public profession and consecration, and canonical standing, what can necessarily be expected of the canonical hermit which IS NOT necessarily expected of the non-canonical hermit?" I think this particular question reframes the issue of public vs private and canonical-vs non-canonical in a more positive way. It also points to the fact that solitary hermits with canonical standing, despite all the similarities in fundamentals, have a somewhat different charism than those hermits who live in community or as non-canonical hermits. It is a charism which is related directly to the rights and responsibilities which attach to their state. In reflecting on my New Year's resolutions a few entries ago I wrote:

[[ The diocesan hermit does NOT belong to herself or even only to God; she belongs in a special way to her parish and diocese.) The Camaldolese describe this part of their own charism as "living alone together." For me I suppose it is more a matter of being alone together since I do not live with parishioners and yet, I am joined in communion with them in several different and profound ways.]]

So what is it my diocese and parish, my Bishop and Pastor, et al have a RIGHT to EXPECT from me BECAUSE of public profession and canonical status? First, they have a right to expect me to live my Rule of Life with real integrity. In that Rule I make certain claims about eremitic life, about silence, solitude, prayer, penance, and the grace of God --- as well as a commitment to a life that is ordered accordingly. They have every right to expect my life to embody the truth of those claims and commitments in a way which is edifying to them. (I should note that since the Rule itself is approved by the Bishop, people have a right to expect it to be soundly based both theologically and spiritually, and capable of being adopted by others as well.) I also made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which characterize the content of my life in terms of Jesus Christ and a mutual responsive and responsible love which will not (and will not be allowed to) die, and which also summons every Christian to something similar. They have every right to expect to be able to see the truth of these vows in all that I am and do. They have a right to expect to see me growing in these (or at least to trust that I AM doing so!), reflecting on them and sharing the fruits of this reflection in whatever way is appropriate not only in the parish, but in the diocese and the wider church community as well. And of course, they have every right to have my life be of direct fruitfulness and benefit to the diocese and parish. More about this in a bit.

More generally, parish and diocese have a right to expect the following characteristics of me: 1) wholeness --- psychological, spiritual, and personal. The vocation to eremitism is a vocation to wholeness, personal maturity, compassion, reliability, stability, and authentic sanctity rooted in the incarnation. It is not a vocation to eccentricity or instability, misanthropy or personal indulgence and selfishness. It is reasonable to expect I will take advantage of every resource necessary to attain and maintain these characteristics. 2) professional competence --- every hermit has a mission and a ministry even if these are only evident in her prayer per se. Above all, it may be reasonably expected that the hermit is a woman or man of prayer, that s/he is a contemplative for whom the life of prayer is primary and underlies, supports, and informs everything else. It is never an afterthought, never a postscript to a life of apostolic or pastoral zeal and activity. This said, most hermits, however, do come in contact with others in additional pastoral capacities. Canonical status says the Pastor, the Bishop, and indeed, anyone who approaches the hermit has every right to trust that the hermit is spiritually sound, and trained adequately (or capable of determining the need for more training or education) in whatever areas of endeavor she engages: spiritual direction, adult education, retreat work, etc. They have a right to expect that simple prayer requests will be met, and met with compassion, discretion, and sensitivity. (Obviously one impaired under #1 above, would be unable to meet these simple requirements.)

They also have the right to expect: 3) appropriate spiritual and theological formation: for those hermits who write, publish, are involved even in limited catechesis or faith formation, or do retreat work or spiritual direction, these are essential. Of course, they are essential in the hermit's day to day life in cell as well. Without them the hermit is apt to go off the rails entirely in one way or another. Spirituality requires good theology, good theology issues in and is supported by mature spirituality. The two go hand in hand and the hermit needs both if she is to touch others' lives fruitfully, and also of course, not only to survive the struggles of the hermitage but to mature into sainthood there.

4) Oversight, direction, and accountability: A canonical hermit is responsible directly and/or legally to several other people.There is her pastor who, while not a legitimate superior, ordinarily does assume oversight regarding her activities in the parish, and extends opportunities to her on the basis of need as well as her own interests and competencies. There is her Bishop who has canonically approved the hermit's Rule and is her legitimate superior to whom she is bound by a vow of obedience; (the vow is made to God but in the hands of the Bp and for this reason the hermit is responsible to him). The Bishop may delegate the day to day responsibility for the hermit's integrity, well-being, growth, etc to another (religious, Vicar, priest, etc) and thus, establish them as superiors or quasi-superiors. Evenso, the hermit meets with the Bishop regularly, maintains interim contact by email or post, and generally keeps him apprised of her situation. The canonical hermit is accountable both generally (to God, the universal and the local church) and more specifically to whomever assumes the role of legitimate superior in her life. There is her spiritual director who, like the pastor, has ordinarily recommended the hermit for perpetual profession and consecration, who meets regularly with her, and who therefore understands her and assists her to grow in and remain faithful to her vowed commitments, prayer, personal development, etc. Finally, if the canonical hermit has affiliated with a Congregation, Institute, or monastery, as an Oblate or Associate, she will be responsible in a more casual way to her prioress, abbot, oblate chaplain, associate director, etc. To all of these people in various ways, and with varying degrees of legality, etc., the hermit is accountable.

And finally, the members of my parish and diocese have the right to expect 5) that a life lived for God more generally will be a life lived for them specifically. I believe the members of my parish (and diocese more generally) have a right to expect my vows to God to signify my willingness and availability to give my life for them, not only in prayer, penance, silence and solitude, but in whatever ways my gifts allow within this specifically eremitic framework. The corollary here is that my vows make me a public person, no matter the essential hiddenness of my life, and that, I personally believe, gives my pastor the right to call on me in ways which are appropriate to a diocesan hermit. The same is true of my Bishop. For instance, if there was a candidate for eremitic profession who needed mentoring or occasional contact, and together we agreed this would be reasonable for me to undertake, I believe it would be a part of the charism of the diocesan hermit.

All of these expectations point to the gift the diocesan hermit is to the Church and world. They point to a life lived for others and meant to assist in their redemption. They point to a person who has assumed a life in solitude to reveal God's presence there. They focus especially on the richness and generosity of the life because eremitical solitude contrasts so completely with the narrowness and self-centeredness of isolated living. They remind us that many many people exist in physical separation from their dioceses and parishes and yet belong intimately. Many of these pray regularly and even assiduously in ways which allows the Church to continue her mission in the world. And for those who have not yet discovered the difference between isolation and solitude, or who have not yet discovered the way God's presence can transfigure human isolation, the diocesan hermit especially is a gift who lives out this particular good news. In short, these necessary expectations serve the gift the diocesan hermit is to her local and universal church.

In saying this, I think I have my finger on the unique pulsepoint that marks the heartbeat of the diocesan hermit as somewhat different than that of monastery-based or non-canonical hermits. While it is true that everyone would need to exercise real care and discernment in taking advantage of this dimension of the vocation, I genuinely believe this is part of the unique charism of the diocesan (canon 603) hermit. Overall, I see the diocesan hermit as a RESOURCE for the diocese and parish, not only as a still point of contemplative and intercessory prayer (which they should assuredly be in every instance), but as an official representative of a unique and rare vocation to consecrated life which proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Church --- a church which needs it, and needs to know it consciously. She will represent this vocation to others, not only in fundamental and essential hiddenness, but publicly. (Note that part of the public consecration of the diocesan hermit, as I have also commented on in other entries here, is the canonical granting of (or clothing with) the cowl or other prayer garment. At every liturgy she attends this garment marks her in a way which symbolizes essential hiddennness, but ALSO in a way which says she is here in the midst of the assembly as "their hermit". It is a paradoxical symbol I think, one which says both hiddenness and availability in one breath. Ideally, the cowl (or prayer garment) sets the hermit apart and recalls the essential solitude of her life, but not as a wall or hedge which shuts others out. Instead it points to something very old being made new and embodied in new and relevant ways to a Church which needs both dimensions, the ancient and the new, the solitary and the communal, the contemplative and the apostolic or evangelical. The diocesan hermit includes these others in her life even while maintaining an essential hiddenness and solitude)

Let me reiterate (because it is so easy to misunderstand on this point) that I am not implying, much less saying that the canonical hermit is better than the non-canonical hermit. Neither am I saying she necessarily represents the eremitical life better than a non-canonical hermit might well do. But canonical standing does say to others that this person represents this vocation on behalf of the church, or in her name. It does say that this SPECIFIC vocation (not the eremitic vocation generally, but THIS person's vocation) is authentic and tested, that it has been discerned by many people over a period of years and is of God. It says that this person has accepted this call and committed herself to living it out faithfully, and that further, there is every reason to believe she will really do that with the grace of God over the span of her entire life. Finally, it says that she will live her life FOR the others who are her parish and diocesan community. A non-canonical hermit may do all of these things, but there is nothing in her situation per se which obligates her in the same way public profession and canonical status do, or which necessarily allows others to look at her commitment in the same way they MUST be able to do with one canonically professed and consecrated.