19 July 2008

The Diocesan Character of Canon 603 Hermits and Commitment to or Within Specific Spiritual Traditions

Recently a blog writer and soon-to-be conse-crated virgin, in a quite generous reference to my blog opined that she personally believed diocesan hermits should not adopt the spirituality of any particular religious community/order. She thought it rather defeated the purpose of being diocesan.

Now let me say first of all that the blog in question (Sponsa Christi) seems, from the very little I have read to be fair and quite thoughtful; anyone interested in becoming a consecrated virgin should pay some (perhaps a good deal of) attention to it. But in this matter I think the author has mistaken the difference between diocesan priests and order priests as being directly analogous to the difference between diocesan hermits and hermits belonging to religious communities. I think in explaining her own vocation to those who wonder why she doesn't just become a nun, she also is used to pointing to the difference between consecrated virgins and religious women (who, by definition, belong to a community). Again, she believes the distinction between consecrated virgins who are diocesan (and apparently not linked to a specific community or spirituality) and religious women (forgeting that some are diocesan right) is analogous to the difference between diocesan hermits and hermits who are members of Orders/confederations, etc. I simply cannot agree here.

 What the comment seems to presuppose is that there is a specific spirituality attached to being diocesan and that somehow this is defused or weakened ("defeated") by the diocesan hermit's adoption of a specific spirituality (Franciscan, Benedictine, Camaldolese, Dominican, Carmelite, etc) or by the hermit's association with a specific Order or congregation (Oblature with the Camaldolese or Benedictines, for instance). It is an interesting position and one which I have thought about a bit in the last month not only because the author referenced my own blog in commenting, but more especially because of my own interest in the unique charism of the diocesan hermit. (After all, It would be extremely ironic if someone stressing this unique charism was actually guilty of undermining it by her affiliation with Camaldolese Benedictinism and a specific monastery in another part of the country!) In particular, I am concerned to reflect on why it is a good idea for the diocesan hermit to subsume their own Rule under that of another vital spiritual tradition, and why that does not detract from (but in fact, may enhance) one's diocesan character.

 Consecrated Virgins do not write Rules of life, nor do they have vows (which of course is fine!). It may be that the absence of these things however, and especially the lack of need to either write or live (AND GROW!) by a specific Rule also means a failure to understand the importance of having such things subsumed under some larger and established Rule of Life or spiritual tradition. In any case I know from experience that trying to live according to the Rule one has written without this is limiting and limited. I wrote my first Rule in @ 1983-84. At the time I was living as a hermit (though I was a complete novice) and my Rule pretty much described what I was doing that was successful, and what I felt I needed in order to continue in this. (No one provides a "how-to" manual on how to write a personal Plan or Rule of Life, so initially at least, one has to borrow from others or simply write up a mirror image of what one is doing and feels one needs to continue to do in order to stay on track.)

At the time this Rule at least alluded even then to my own felt sense of needing to be informed by a broader spirituality and resolved to look into this, but only noted this as a felt need. The second Rule I wrote and submitted to the Diocese was a revision of this one, and was written two decades later. It included all the categories this one did, but this time added a theology of eremitical life, a theology of the vows, a larger spiritual context for this personal Rule in the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Camaldolese Constitutions and Statutes as well as their Oblate Rule, and a grounding in Scripture which was never made explicit in the first version. All of these additions grew out of my own felt sense of the inadequacy of the first Rule and the need for it to be subsumed under a "larger" and VITAL (tried and true living) spiritual tradition which provided an overarching vision and values which made of it more than a collection of "things to do everyday." Most important to me was to account and provide for my own continued growth in the vocation.

 Why is this the case? It is true because a Rule of Life is NOT simply a collection of things to do each day, and because most of us are not spiritual geniuses who are capable of writing a Rule which all by itself provides the wisdom or vision to direct our lives sufficiently. This is particularly true when we are in the beginning stages of a vocational journey, but it is also true right along the way simply because we are so capable of fooling ourselves, and often so blind to our own needs and deficiencies, especially deficiencies of vision. In Christianity we stand on the shoulders and see with the eyes of prophets and visionaries who have gone before us. If we don't we ordinarily can't see far enough to move ahead with focus and direction, and our growth will be haphazard at best. It happens because one can only write a Rule of life from where one stands at the time, and unfortunately, that may be completely insufficient as a challenge and spur to continuing growth simply because it lacks adequate vision or breadth.

But for the hermit this is all particularly true. Eremitism is a dangerous vocation (solitude is always as dangerous as it is a context rich in potential), and becomes all the more perilous if one is cut off from the tradition of eremitical life as it has been lived (with both its successes and failures) through the millenia. But for me the real question in this specific discussion is whether my own identity as Camaldolese Benedictine detracts from or enhances my diocesan identity and focus. One of the ways I can ask this is what is it precisely about my Benedictinism that makes me so enthusiastic about the option of a specific and unique charism in the canon 603 hermit? And here, I have to say it is precisely the Benedictine emphasis on stability and the capacity to find God in the ordinary that undergirds and perhaps has actually prompted my belief that canon 603 hermits have a unique charism which is different than hermits who belong to orders or even who live in Lauras.

A second element which has contributed to my sense of unique charism has been my experience of the difference in expectations a parish necessarily has (and is allowed to have) of the publicly professed hermit (as opposed to the non-canonical hermit). It is NOT some notion of diocesan spirituality or the idea that my identity is analogous to that of a diocesan priest as opposed to an order priest that leads me in the direction my thought has gone. It is Benedictinism and Camaldolese Benedictinism especially, with its accent on "The Privilege of Love" and the "threefold good" which includes solitude, community (koinonia), and evangelization (or martyrdom). Let me note that had I begun with these ideas from a non-eremitical tradition, I could never have believed it was possible to reconcile them with the true life of a hermit. There are too many stereotypes and preconceptions which refute them (and too many genuine examples as well). The notion of living as an urban hermit in the middle of an urban diocese under the direction of a secular priest Bishop, despite its allowance in Canon Law, would simply have made no real sense and would have been constantly assailed by idealizations or different notions of the hermit vocation which would suggest Canon 603 was a bad idea and a misconceived experiment by a post Vatican II Church who had lost touch with eremitical tradition. I might also have had to be continually concerned that my sense of a unique charism which focuses on the hermit as resource to parish and diocese was simply a way to rescue an eremitism that was not "pure enough" or not sufficiently reclusive or "detached".

In other words, without the Camaldolese Benedictine underpinnings the whole notion of a diocesan hermit, much less the notion of a unique charism would have been a contradiction in terms. (And let me tell you, there are hermits, both canonical and non-canonical living today who come from different perspectives who stress the absurdity of such a reality as a "diocesan hermit"!) At the same time, my own Camaldolese Benedictine affiliation challenges me to remember at all times that I am part of the eremitical and monastic tradition of the church, and not merely the diocesan or cathedral tradition. It reminds me that eremitical life sprang up in the soil of a necessary and prophetic anti-institutionalism and because the institutional church had succumbed to the power of the state and actually become a state power. It reminds me that eremitical and monastic life has always had a prophetic and even salvific role within the institutional church, sometimes saving her from aspects of herself. It reminds me that the eremitical life can be lived poorly or inauthentically, that when one is detached from monastic roots, one loses one's way rather rapidly and readily.

While my Bishop is sensitive to the need for eremitical life and has been open to my vocation, and while he is my legitimate superior and the one under whose direction I am to live my Rule of Life, at the same time he is not the person to whom I can turn for day to day wisdom in living this life. Neither is my pastor (though he has been of immense help in this). No, it is to my spiritual director, and my Benedictine sources and resources that I mainly turn for this daily wisdom and encouragement. (I am hoping that it goes without saying that prayer is my primary help!) Again, let me be clear that I believe profoundly in the reality of a diocesan charism, and I surely believe the canon 603 hermit should embody that charism. The notion that there is really such a ting as a diocesan spirituality is far less convincing to me. In any case, hermits represent more than the cathedral or diocesan tradition in the church, and to be honest, the diocesan or cathedral tradition has never provided an adequate context for authentic (true) eremitical life. In my experience both aspects of the vocation have to be provided and allowed for. For me that means not just profession according to canon 603 and a commitment to my parish community, but an integral relationship to the essentially monastic tradition of eremitical life as it has originated, developed and persisted within the church. Personally that translates into Camaldolese Benedictinism, but others are possible.

In particular it is the Benedictine value of stability with the insistence that the monk find God in ordinary life (a part of the vow/value of stability) that allows me to consider seriously and commit myself to the existence of such a thing as a unique charism for the canon 603 (diocesan) hermit. My thanks to the author of Sponsa Christi for spurring me to pursue this line of thought. I have only just begun it and foresee that it can be taken much farther --- especially given the reality of Rule and vows and all the ways these can be interpreted and lived out. Perhaps she will say more about her own perception of this notion of a "diocesan spirituality" and that will clarify matters for me. Perhaps too what I have identified as a unique charism of the diocesan hermit is what she is thinking of as an actual spirituality.

However, the bottom line at this point is that consecrated virgins and canon 603 hermits, despite both being "diocesan" have different roots, different charisms, and quite different demands and forms of embodiment. The canon 603 hermit (as opposed to the order hermit) is not analogous to the diocesan priest (as opposed to an order priest). Diocesan or not, the hermit remains an instance of the eremitic tradition and must live from this tradition as well as one's diocesan context. (In fact, it occurs to that dioceses recognize this in allowing the adoption of a monastic habit by the hermit and insisting that she adopt the cowl or other prayer garment at solemn profession.) To do otherwise is to cut oneself off from a source of life and order in one's vocation. It is, at least in my experience, to open oneself unduly to the risk of distortion and inauthenticity.