03 November 2008

Questions On Stricter Separation from the World

I received the following questions by email and have decided to answer the followup ones here. The initial exchange is also included to provide context.

[[I have read a little on your website and I am curious about your interpretation of "stricter separation" in Canon 603. There is a lot of discussion among eremites as well as non eremites. Do you feel that the concept of what one might call "traditional eremitic life" is not possible to live in this century in terms of stricter separation? Just questions that have cropped up over time.]]

I am afraid, you will need to define your terms better for me to answer you. . . . What is "traditional stricter separation" to your mind? I find the term actually has had many legitimate variations and degrees over the centuries, so if you have a particular idea you need to spell that out. I believe that eremitical life is completely possible in most of its traditional forms (Stylites is one form that is probably less possible or even desirable today though certain ecoactivists still embrace it in order to save stands of trees), however, the way one defines "world" in the phrase "stricter separation from the world" is, as it was in the day and counsel of St Isaac of Nineveh, something that requires definition, otherwise, we will actually misunderstand the nature of eremitical life, including completely reclusive eremitical life --- and note that while the Canon can include reclusion, it does not need to mean this. What it DOES mean has to be determined by the individual hermit, her Bishop, director, delegate, and the Holy Spirit. This is where it becomes important to know the legitimate variations in the way eremitical silence and solitude has been lived out through the last 19 centuries in particular.

[[ What I am asking is how does one understand the mind of the church when it comes to the term "stricter separation as used in Canon 603. Can one live that "stricter separation" as understood by the church in the 21st Century. Somehow one's own interpretation of this canon law can reflect a great deal of confusion as to what eremitic life is about as understood through the centuries. Do Bishops and those whose counsel they would seek (to determine a candidate for this life) truly understand the vocation as understood in the mind of the church? For instance, if a bishop were to seek the counsel of a religious of the diocese regarding the rule and plan of life. Let us say one who does not understand what the mind of the church is in this regard - then the rule and plan of life might be accepted based on the necessary canonical wording, but not necessarily the charism of the life. We have in our diocese a sister hermit who basically promised to live the life and was received by the Bishop with no rule or plan of life, which is the second part of the canon. Eremitic life as experienced through the centuries and I speak of solitaries, not
lauras, seems to be more specific in terms of its tradition than what I see in this day and time. Hence the question.

First, remember that Canon 603 is only 25 years old. It was included in the Revised Code of Canon Law in October 1983 and had never been part of any previous code. (In fact, the eremitical life per se was never included in the Code as far as I know. Eremitical life, if it was provided for at all, was provided for in proper law, that is, in the Rule and Constitutions of individual orders and Congregations). The point here is that we are not speaking about a canon which may have become anachronistic over time therefore, but something meant to accommodate the experience of the church precisely as she neared the 21st century and sought to provide for hermits in contemporary terms. As far as the mind of the Church goes, it is up to the Bishops, canonists, hermits themselves and their directors all listening to the Holy Spirit to determine together what stricter separation from the world will and will not mean in each case. There is no single established meaning although there are certainly recognized parameters which excludes part-time or casual eremitism. Bishops are primarily responsible for discerning the presence of such vocations in their dioceses. Had the Church as a whole meant absolute reclusion, she would have said so in the canon. However, she did not.

Instead she used a relative term, "stricter separation" rather than "strict separation" or "absolute separation" and again, she is guided by the entire history of eremitical and monastic life in her understanding of this. Had she envisioned such a vocation for those who were not required to work at all to sustain themselves, she would have said so, and made provisions for the church supporting her hermits. And of course, she has done neither. In any case, in this matter, one understands the mind of the church precisely by listening to her Bishops. After all, it is significant that the responsibility for discernment of new forms of consecrated life (C 605) is placed directly in the hands of Bishops and immediately following both Canons 603 and 604, which were included in Canon law only for the first time in 1983. THIS is the mind of the Church on this matter and I suspect most Bishops meet their responsibility well.

As for canonical wording, there is, so far as I know, no fixed canonical wording required for a hermit's Rule. (There are fixed elements for the vow formulae but even then the candidate writes her own vows and this is a different matter.) Yes, canonists pass on the document to be sure it meets certain standards, but a number of others (Vicars, vocation directors, spiritual directors, priors and prioresses, etc) do the same and it is a completely individual document. No one gives the candidate a list of formulae to include or even a list of elements which should be addressed. Because of this, and especially because the Rule is so completely individual, the rule can be used to primarily guide discernment of the vocation. The Bishop's approval is the final and incredibly important step in a rather long process of discernment and evaluation, and the least part of that is vetting the Rule for canonical muster. Far more important is the Rule's capacity to reflect and nurture the nature and quality of the person's eremitical life. Thus, it is possbile for a Rule to be judged acceptable for purposes of the Canon at the same time a candidate is not admitted to profession. The contrary is also true. While Vicars, et al, meet and generally speak regularly with the candidate after she has become a serious candidate, it is the Rule itself which ordinarily serves as a definitive element in discernment.

Again, the charism of eremitical life can be reflected and lived out in a variety of ways. This has been true throughout the history of the Church and it remains so now. As I noted in my earlier response, the eremitical tradition is quite varied and that includes, but is not limited to solitary hermits. St Romuald would be a good example of this. The same is true of St Francis, as well as of hermits who became Popes, etc. etc. The hermit vocation has never been a one size fits all kind of thing eventhough the broad strokes are the same. There are standards for physical solitude without which a person will not even be considered a serious candidate, but what true eremitical solitude consists in, again, Bishops themselves determine by speaking to other Bishops re their own experience in the matter, to established (canonical) Congregations like the Camaldolese, diocesan hermits and their delegates, as well as by steeping themselves in the history of eremitical life in the past and present. Solitude is also a matter of the heart, and how a hermit defines "stricter separation" will be apt to change and develop over time based on what is required for the individual to maintain THIS solitude. Remember that eremitical life is a living reality, hence Bishops will be careful but also open to forms which differ in small ways from others but which share the same broad strokes. Again though, it is up to Bishops to determine what is the mind of the Church in these matters. More strongly put, it is up to Bishops to establish the mind of the Church over time and with experience, for they are the ones seeing, discerning, and guiding these vocations. Rome's understanding of these matters will depend on her Bishops' experience and wisdom.

By the way, please be aware that asking a diocesan hermit about the possibility of living "traditional" stricter separation from the world according to the mind of the church is a lot like asking a consecrated virgin today if it is possible to live such a life of chaste espousal to Christ in the 21st century according to the mind of the church. I would bind myself to neither (consecrated celibacy nor stricter separation from the world) if I thought that either was impossible, or that I was not living according to the mind of the church, nor would any of the hermits I personally know. The obvious answer is "Of course it is possible! Hermits, including myself, are doing it as we speak." Again, this is why I asked you what you meant by "traditional stricter separation" from the world.

Finally, regarding the Sister in your Diocese, I personally have never heard of a Bishop simply disregarding the requirements of the Canon in the way you describe. It would astonish me if it were truly the case. The Canon binds BOTH hermit and her Bishop in a mutual relationship; it would be more than a bit empty if there were no Rule guiding BOTH of them in this enterprise. Now, if the Sister is living as a hermit but NOT under Canon 603 it would be another form of eremitical story. (The Church recognizes both non-canonical and canonical hermits as valid forms of the life; only the latter requires a Rule which is approved by the person's Bishop. That said, to my mind, only an idiot would try to live such a life WITHOUT any Rule at all. That is begging for trouble.) With regard to the general situation you describe, there are other possibilities as well. For instance, this Sister could have been professed in community and be living as a hermit now while remaining part of her community or even transitioning to profession as a SOLITARY hermit under canon 603. Further, if she has been accepted as a candidate for eventual profession under Canon 603 but not yet written a Rule it would be a different and more understandable matter. There are a number of possibilities here which completely respect the provisions and requirements of the canon. Without more information it would be imprudent at best to criticize your Bishop in this regard.