24 September 2008

Bound by Responsibility In Order to Be Truly Free

[[Dear Sister, I read a couple of your posts on your vows and on seeking canon 603 status as a hermit and one of the ideas you expressed was intriguing to me. You said that you sought canonical status in order to live more freely than you would otherwise be able to do. You made vows and sought the obligations of canonical profession in order to be truly free to live out your vocation as a hermit. It is a strange idea that we seek to be bound by vows and obligations in order to be truly free. Can you say more about this? Does it work like this for everyone or just hermits?]]

In a world where freedom is often defined as the ability to do anything we want, the ability to live without constraints or limits, I admit this is a pretty strange notion of freedom isn't it? But, as I have noted before here, in Christianity freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. This means that it exists in spite of constraints. In fact it is essential to the definition of Christian freedom that it exists in the face of constraints. To do so indicates that Xtn freedom allows us to transcend these constraints despite their still existing. Christian freedom is a responsible and transcendent freedom. It is a huge piece of what Jesus is describing when he says that his yoke is easy, his burden light. Although this commment first of all applies to freedom FROM the burdens of the Law (which have been distorted and exacerbated by the power of sin), it also implies, therefore, freedom for the authentic humanity which is the Law's fulfillment.

So, yes, in one sense this notion applies to everyone. We are not truly free unless we can and do take on the obligations of our state in life. That is true whether we are married, consecrated celibate (whether religious or eremitical), single, or clerical. Whatever assists us to do that can be helpful to authentic freedom and whatever prevents it can be seen as a kind of bondage which diminishes and detracts from our calling. However, in the post you are describing what I am speaking about is actually the assumption of a new state of life and responsibilities which went beyond those I had already taken on. So why would I want to do that in order to live the hermit life as authentically and well as possible? Afterall, it is possible to live as a non-canonical hermit. Probably more do this than live as canonical hermits, and presumably authentically, so why not simply go this route?

Let me reprise the paragraph you are probably referring to in your questions, and perhaps a similar one found in a post on a newspaper interview I did. It gives the basic reasons I provided to my diocese: [[. . . Personally, I have found it impossible to live a truly eremitic life without canonical status. Not only is such a life continually threatened by the ordinary values and conditions of society, but also it is eccentric [that is, it is out of the center] and tends towards inconstancy when this is its only real context. Law may generally follow experience, but it is clear to me that canonical status also conveys permission, freedom, and the means for consistency as well. Eremitism is a flexible life in many ways, but it remains an ecclesial vocation which witnesses to Gospel and Church, and to the reality of consecrated life within this Church.

Public profession under Canon 603 establishes the hermit in a new state of life with attendant support and responsibilities. Thus, in making vows under Canon 603, I am seeking to live in law, what I would otherwise be only partially free, and thus, attempting in vain, to live in fact. As I have attempted to explain the matter to others, this vocation is a heroic one which requires and deserves one’s best efforts. Because of this, one must be free to fail and to pick up and try again and again without regard to the apparent (though relative) eccentricity of one’s efforts with regard to the world. In other words, unless one lives this life in a context where it is truly understood and valued, and where one is truly responsible, one is simply not free either to fail or to succeed.]]

Note how important context is to this discussion. If one finds oneself in a context which does not assist one to fully live one's life, one needs to shift contexts. For instance, if one is attempting to learn to play tennis seriously, one cannot do so in a place which has no tennis courts. If one wants to play orchestral music one does not walk into the space where a rock band rehearses with one's violin expecting to perfect one's orchestral capabilities! Contexts are ordinarily the realities or environments which make sense of things within them. We see this with a word in a sentence, or a sentence in a paragraph, or paragraph in an essay, etc. Any shift in context can completely change the meaning of the embedded reality or object. Think of the word gay. It can mean many different things, but its meaning is more fixed within the sentence, "Don we now our gay apparel." However, should we take that sentence and move it from its own context of an old Christmas carol to that of a San Francisco Gay Freedom Day poster its meaning would shift considerably despite superficial similarities remaining. Similarly, consider the idea of a woman screaming. Without context we cannot say this act makes sense or is senseless for it is neither; it is simply a naked act devoid of meaning at all. Now, plug this image into the larger one of a cloister and the image becomes quite sinister even though it requires more spelling out. We might not know why the woman is screaming, but we do know some of the meaning of the act. Transfer the image into the larger picture of a super bowl where the woman's team just scored the winning goal in the last seconds and the image apparently takes on a completely different meaning, doesn't it!?

The same is true with our lives. If we seek to live them in a conflicting or less than optimal contexts they will fail to make real sense. More, they will become incoherent (for coherence, the "holding together" of meaning is a function of context). Each of us searches for the context, state of life, etc which allows our lives to develop and make the most sense they possibly can. Once, years ago now, a Sister in this area wrote for a newspaper article, " One does not need to be a nun to do what I am doing, but I need to be a nun to do what I am doing." I think she was getting at this very notion of the importance of contexts, and I have never heard it expressed more simply. Thus, in terms I am using here contexts can free and empower: free us from the pull of contexts which are less than optimal and can render our lives incoherent and conflicted just as it can empower us to embrace their potential meaning more fully or exhaustively. The language the Church uses to refer to these processes is that of grace: in entering a new state of life (the real context!) one truly called to this state is given the graces necessary to live such a life of coherence and meaning.

Thus, I also wrote: [[In my Rule, I described eremitism as an eccentric way of life, and one which I personally found impossible without canonical status. What I did not describe particularly well was the constant pull from society and even the church and religious life to engage in active ministry, to use one's gifts in more usual ways to benefit one's sisters and brothers, to help bring the Kingdom/Reign of God in fact. Of course other Christians are prayerful (no doubt many as prayerful as hermits are); and of course contemplative prayer itself is esteemed and understood to some extent. But eremitic life is generally not, and it is a fragile thing, easily compromised, easily lost in activity and other things which are -- of themselves --- also quite positive. Acting in the name of the Church, remaining in one's hermitage when "cabin fever" hits, turning to prayer instead of to some other way of being a Christian in the world, trusting that one lives at the heart of the church and the heart of others' lives even when they are not aware of that, is part of what is empowered by canonical status.

For one given canonical status, and especially for one admitted to perpetual profession, the Church says, you are a hermit: "With the help of Almighty God we confirm you in this charism and choose you for this consecration as a diocesan hermitess." (Allen H Vigneron, Perpetual Profession Liturgy, Sept 2, 2007) All of the theoretical justifications of the eremitical life, all of the talk of the hermit's marginality, the reflections of the benefits and justification of the eremitical contemplative life, the confirmation and mediation of this as a Divine call, and all of the reasons for persevering in it come together in this one sentence. The canonical or diocesan hermit has been confirmed in this vocation from God and given the permission and freedom to live this life in whatever way GOD calls her to do, nevermind what society says or understands to be legitimate, nevermind even what other Christians say or understand to be legitimate. One has been given a context in which this can be accomplished, a context which frees and empowers --- and of course which challenges to consistency and integrity on a continuing basis.]]

This last paragraph above brings up another aspect of obligations taken on within a public social or ecclesial context: the power of others' expectations to summon and inspire. Admission to eremitical profession says that the Church has discerned this vocation with the hermit. They have mediated this call to her in various ways and stages. And finally they have called her forth, received her profession and consecrated her so that she may indeed live as she has been called to do. Granted, it is the case that expectations can be a burden as well, but generally, bearing the expectations the Church has of one now really does serve to urge, empower, and inspire one to live this vocation the best one can. Graces accompany these acts of the church, and her expectations themselves can be seen as graces. I am sure you can think of a number of examples where this is true for you or those you know no matter the vocation involved. It is true of marriage, for instance. We find that obligations and expectations carry us through the difficult times when motivation is weak, etc. We also find they remind us of the ways the Holy Spirit moves in our lives --- for the Holy Spirit will work in ways which are consonant with our call and both summon and empower us to live out that call fully and authentically.

I hope this helps. There is probably lots more to say on this, and I may add to this answer when I have a bit more time, but as always, please get back to me if anything needs clarification or expansion in the meantime.