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.

20 January 2008

The Sound of Silence



I asked an old monk, "How long have you been here?"
"Forever," he answered. " I smiled.
"Fifty years, Father?"
"Forever."
Did you know St. Benedict?"
"We are novices together."
"Did you know Jesus?"
"He and I converse every day."
I threw away my silly smile, fell to my knees, and clutched his hand.
"Father, " I whispered, "Did you hear the original sound?"
" I am listening to the original sound."

Those who pray contemplatively know this experience. It is the experience of being at the center, of having everything make a new kind of sense and having it feel alive with a new kind of life and light; colors are more vibrant, flowers and plants seem lit from within with a unique iridescence; the gentle movement of the breeze through the branches occasions awe and even a sudden intake of breath as the everpresent movement of the Holy Spirit becomes symbolically "visible" for a moment. It is the experience of being part of the same story with our Sister, Mary, and our Brothers, Paul and Benedict, alive in the God who grounds us and resides deep in the core of our being, but who silently and as insistently summons us from without as well.

It is the experience of resting, really resting -- of being where one is meant to be, where one has ALWAYS been meant to be --- the experience of stepping out of time and taking up a place in the eternal heart of the Holy Trinity. God in us, we in Him, a communion of saints learning to love as God loves, to listen as God listens, to sing our lives and celebrate the singing of others' lives, to be the inestimable gifts to one another in Him we were always called to be --- and yet, always beginners, and always with everything ahead of us. It is the experience of being comprehended in every sense of that word: being profoundly heard, understood, known, held securely in God's hands, and completely encircled by his presence. It is the sound of silence and the compassionate space of contemplative solitude.

Time travel is an interesting subject for speculation, but for contemplatives it is something known from regular experience. Every day eternity breaks in upon us. Every day we slip the bonds of mere temporality and participate in time's transfiguration. Chronos becomes Kairos; linear time dissolves into an eternal now, and our citizenship in this world is shown for the pale reflection it is of our truest citizenship in the Kingdom of God. But we do not do this to reject the created realm for some "supernatural" one, much less to leave it behind in a misguided anti-world asceticism. We do it so this world may BE transfigured, and God may come to be ALL in ALL.

Contemplation, afterall, is not escape, but a quiet confrontation, capitulation, and mediation; it is not flight, but an accepting and transforming presence. The hermitage or cell is separate from the world only so the world may be truly loved into its own in genuine intimacy, for real intimacy requires distance as well as closeness. An anchorite has a window into the church, and peeks out onto eternity as it breaks in on the world in the liturgy. But really, every true hermitage (and every true hermit!) is a window through which the love of the living God radiates to transform the world of space and time into heaven itself.

14 January 2008

Followup Question on Canonical Status, Ecclesial vocations, etc


A follow-up question to the one on canonical status arrived in my email box:

[[Thank you for explaining that canonical status does not mean "status" in the usual sense of the word. I really had not heard that before. It is probably true that everyone thinks of canonical status as indicating what you called, "relative ranking" and "perks," but not the responsibilities or legal standing leading to these. You said too that the discernment period is often protracted. That raises two questions for me:1) why does one need to undergo such a process, and 2) why does anyone else need to be involved in discernment in the first place? Isn't this between the individual and God? The idea of a "unique charism" is new to me too. Doesn't this conflict with what you called the "hiddenness" of the hermit? And what about people who do not feel called to the kind of parish or diocesan ministry you referred to? Can't they be canon 603 hermits too? Shouldn't they?]]

I'm pretty sure I have written about some of these matters before (I will try to link you to the pertinent article down below), but let me also reprise that here. The answer to both your questions has the same root, namely, vocations like the eremitic, religious, ordained priesthood, or call to consecrated virginity, are what are called "ecclesial vocations." This means that although the individual can feel personally called to them (and of course MUST feel so called!), the Church herself plays a role in mediating God's call to the individual. If you look over the rite of religious profession or of ordination you will see there is a place where the candidate is formally called forth on behalf of the Church, but speaking as the mediator of God's own will in the matter. She stands and responds, "Here I am Lord; you have called me, and I come to do your will," or something similar. This is more than a bit of superficial pro forma ritual. It is the symbolic expression of the fact that the church herself mediates God's OWN call to this candidate and extends this call formally at a public liturgy. In the question and response which follow immediately, the Bishop will ask the candidate what she requests of God and his Holy Church. She may respond, "The privilege (or grace) of perpetual profession," or something similar, adding a request for "the grace of perseverance," etc. At that point the Bishop, says something like, "With the help of the Holy Spirit, we confirm you in this charism and choose you for this consecration. . ." Only after this dialogue is concluded, a homily is given, and an examination of the candidate's readiness to assume the responsibilities of this call are carried out along with (in perpetual profession) the prostration and litany of the Saints symbolizing the whole Church's involvement in this act, does the actual profession of vows take place.

I think it is not understood sufficiently that vocations like this in the church are NOT matters of individual discernment alone. When I say the vocation is an ecclesial one, I mean several things: 1) the Church herself discerns who is called to this vocation; 2) the Church regulates and oversees the vocation because specific expectations and responsibilities are involved, 3) the Church mediates the ACTUAL CALL of God TO the person, and 4) she receives the hermit's vows authoritatively and publicly consecrates her to the service of God and his Church. There is no doubt that a person can feel a call years before the local church (the diocesan church) is ready to move on such a vocation, and the person needs to remain true to that in the meantime, but it is ALSO true that in Roman Catholic theology, vocations to consecrated, religious, and priestly life, the Church herself mediates God's OWN call; she does not merely recognize or validate that the individual's discernment is sound --- though of course, she does this too. So, to answer your second question first, yes, the call is between the person and God but not ONLY between them. Even more accurately it might be said that the call to an ecclesial vocation involves God, the individual and God's Church in a mutual dialogue of discernment, call, and response. We might also say that unless and until the Church formally calls the Sister forth to make her perpetual profession and to consecrate her to God (or at the very least DECIDES OFFICIALLY to admit her to these things), the call is at best incomplete or only partial.

Your first question was also good: why does such a process have to take place (and why, I will add, is it often so protracted)? The fact is, it is easy for an individual to make a mistake regarding vocation. I would say that with regard to an eremitic vocation it is even easier. But even when one is correct about one's own discernment, it takes some years to grow into the vocation, especially as, in the case of canon 603, one may not be coming from a monastic background or background in other formation to religious life. On the diocese's side a number of things must be clear to be sure they are dealing with a DIVINE vocation: the person must be psychologically and spiritually sound, they must be able to support themselves in some way, shape, or form, and must demonstrate the ability to carry on with this vocation in relative independence from superiors or other church leadership (as well as in obedience and fidelity to them) for the WHOLE of their lives.

The local diocese must also feel this vocation is right for the local church (diocesan eremitism is relatively new so reflection on what it means for any dioceses involved is ongoing). Details need to be worked out: what kind of communication and how much will take place between the hermit, her Bishop, Vicar, etc? How will the vow of obedience work out in terms of everyday and unusual requirements or requests on the hermit's behalf? What about ongoing formation, education, spiritual direction, routine "permissions" or oversight, and the like? The simple fact is most diocesan personnel have no experience dealing with candidates for the eremitical life, and sometimes themselves see the vocation as unnecessary, a waste of time, or too eccentric to attend to seriously. And, since candidates have often lived out commitments to other forms of religious or consecrated life before coming to the conclusion that they are called to eremitic life, or they have come to eremitic life rather late in life after significant changes, trauma, etc, greater care may be taken than would be the case otherwise --- and rightly so!


And of course I have not even discussed the unique charism of the diocesan hermit here (though I have done so in another post below). The fundamental vocation is defined as one of silence, solitude, prayer, penance, and greater separation from the world. However, an ability to relate well to people, to be a vital part of a parish, professional competence (in and out of cell), and genuine compassion are also part of this vocation. It is not generally enough to be temperamentally a loner (and in fact, this may be a contraindication of/to such a vocation. Those who are not temperamentally loners can make wonderful hermits and they are not coming from a place where their temperament also disposes them to isolation rather than solitude!). One embraces eremitical silence, solitude, prayer, penance and greater separation from the world in order to spend one's life for others in this specific way. Whatever FIRST brings one to the desert (illness, loss, temperament, curiosity, etc) unless one learns to love God, oneself, and one's brothers and sisters genuinely and profoundly, and allows this to be the motivation for one's life, I don't think one has yet discerned a call to diocesan eremitism.

While this was not part of your question, let me say something here about the phrase "the world" in the above answers. Greater separation from the World implies physical separation, but not merely physical separation. Doesn't this conflict with what I said about the unique charism of the diocesan hermit? No, I don't think so. First of all, "the world" does NOT mean "the entire physical reality except for the hermitage or cell"! Instead, "the world" refers to those structures, realities, things, positions, etc which PROMISE FULFILLMENT or personal completion apart from God. Anything, including some forms of religion and piety can represent "the world" given this definition. The world tends to represent escape from self and God, and also escape from the deep demands and legitimate expectations others have a right to make of us as Christians. Given this understanding, some forms of "eremitism" may not represent so much greater separation from the world as they do unusually embodied capitulations to it. (Here is one of the places an individual can fool themselves and so, needs the assistance of the church to carry out an adequate and accurate discernment of a DIVINE vocation to eremitical life.)

Not everything out in the physical world is "the World" hermits are called to greater separation from. Granted, physical separation from much of the physical world is an element of genuine solitude which makes discerning the difference easier. Still, I have seen non diocesan hermits who, in the name of "eremitical hiddenness" run from responsibilities, relationships, anything at all which could conceivably be called secular or even simply natural (as opposed to what is sometimes mistakenly called the supernatural). This is misguided, I believe, and is often more apt to point to the lack of an eremitical vocation at the present time than the presence of one. (Let me say that even in these cases, these journeys can grow and mature INTO authentic eremitical vocations. It may take some time, and it ALWAYS requires really good spiritual direction sometimes along with psychological assistance and therapy, but it is possible!)


You also asked: {{. . . the idea of a "unique charism" is new to me. Doesn't this conflict with what you called the "hiddenness" of the hermit? And what about people who do not feel called to the kind of parish or diocesan ministry you referred to, or who are unable to do it because of illness or other limitations? Can't they be canon 603 hermits too? Shouldn't they?]]

One of the things mentioned in Canon 603 is that the eremitic life is lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. The idea of praising God is not problematical, I don't think,(that is, I don't think you need me to say more about what this means, true?) and obviously one does (or SHOULD DO) this whether one remains in cell or goes out occasionally. One's whole life SHOULD BE a psalm of praise, a magnificat to the Lord, as I have written before. The idea that the eremitic vocation is not geared towards self-indulgence, escapism, pathological introversion and the like is underscored by this phrase. The phrase "for the salvation of the world" does the same. At the same time, I think these two phrases, while applying to all eremitical life, especially ground the vocation to DIOCESAN eremitism as one with the unique charism I have outlined.

ALL hermits, solitary, monastery-based, non-canonical, laura-based, etc, are concerned with the salvation of the world. We all pray for the world; we all serve as a still-point leavening our world with the peace of contemplation, and mediating the energy or reality of the Kingdom through our prayer. My point in the earlier blog entry was that for the diocesan hermit, the relationship to parish and diocese symbolized in a vow of obedience to God in the hands of the hermit's Bishop comes into greater focus and occasions specific expectations and responsibilities other hermits might not share. Still, the actual outworking of this charism occupies a spectrum, from praying for parish and diocese while remaining secluded, to ministering in more active ways occasionally while maintaining an essentially eremitic life.

Obviously the individual hermit's gifts, talents, capacities, training, education, inclinations, resources, and the like help determine where along the spectrum she falls. Also, while the charism is part and parcel of the vocation, I believe, how it is expressed or embodied over time can shift as well. There will be rhythms to the hermit's ministry: sometimes greater reclusion will be called for, sometimes greater apostolic work. The point I wanted to make is that with public profession, the parish and diocese have rights and expectations in the diocesan hermit's regard which do not obtain with non-canonical status, for instance. One's eremitism is not merely between oneself and God, but is meant for the well-being of others as well, especially of one's parish and diocese. So long as one demonstrates a true willingness and capacity to be a hermit FOR these others in identifiable ways, then yes, the hermit can and should be a diocesan hermit in spite of personal limitations or disability.

12 January 2008

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus



Of all the feasts we celebrate, the baptism of Jesus is the most difficult for us to understand. We are used to thinking of Baptism as a solution to original sin instead of the means of our initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus, or our adoption as daughters and sons of God and heirs to his Kingdom, or again, as a consecration to God's very life and service. When viewed this way, and especially when we recall that John's baptism was one of repentance for sin, how do we make sense of a sinless Jesus submitting to it?

I think two points need to be made here. First, Jesus grew into his vocation. His Sonship was real and completely unique but not completely developed or historically embodied from the moment of his conception; rather it was something he embraced more and more fully over his lifetime. Secondly, his Sonship was the expression of solidarity with us and his fulfillment of the will of his Father to be God-with-us. Jesus will incarnate the Logos of God definitively in space and time, but this event we call the incarnation encompasses and is only realized fully in his life, death, and resurrection -- not in his nativity. Only in allowing himself to be completely transparent to this Word, only in "dying to self," and definitively setting aside all other possible destinies does Jesus come to fully embody and express the Logos of God in a way which expresses his solidarity with us as well.

It is probably the image of Baptism-as-consecration then which is most helpful to us in understanding Jesus' submission to John's baptism. Here the man Jesus is set apart as the one in whom God will truly "hallow his name". Here, in an act of manifest commitment, Jesus' humanity is placed completely at the service of the living God and of those to whom God is committed. Here his experience as one set apart for God establishes him as completely united with us and our human condition. And here too Jesus anticipates the death and resurrection he will suffer for the sake of both human and Divine destinies which, in him, will be reconciled and inextricably wed to one another. His baptism establishes the pattern not only of HIS humanity, but that of all authentic humanity. So too does it reveal the nature of true divinity, for our's is a God who becomes completely subject to our sinful reality in order to free us for his own entirely holy one.

I suspect that even at the end of the Christmas season we are still scandalized by the incarnation. We still stumble over the intelligibility of this baptism, and the propriety of it especially. Our inability to fathom Jesus' baptism, and our tendency to be shocked by it, just as JohnBp was probably shocked, says we are not comfortable, even now, with a God who enters exhaustively into our reality. We remain uncomfortable with a Jesus who is tempted like us in ALL THINGS, and matures into his identity as God's only begotten Son. We are puzzled by one who is holy as God is holy and, as the creed affirms, "true God of true God" and who, evenso, is consecrated to the one he calls Abba and to the service of his Kingdom and people. A God who comes to us in smallness, weakness, submission, and self-emptying is really not a God we are comfortable with --- despite three weeks of Christmas celebrations and reflections, and a prior four weeks of preparation -- is it? And perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the scandal attached signals to us we are getting this right theologically.

Afterall, today's feast tells us that Jesus' public ministry begins with a consecration. His public life begins with an event that prefigures his end as well. There is a real dying to self involved here, not because Jesus has a false self which must die -- as each of us has --- but because his life is placed completely at the disposal of his God, his Abba. Loving another, affirming the being of another in a way which subordinates one's own being to theirs --- putting one's own life at their disposal always entails a death of sorts -- and a kind of rising to new life as well. The dynamics present on the cross are present here too -- complete and obedient (that is open and responsive) submission to the will of God, and an unfathomable subjection to that which sin makes necessary so that God's love may conquer precisely here as well.

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.

07 January 2008

"And a little child shall lead us!"

Well, we are approaching the Baptism of Jesus and the end of the Christmas season. A friend sent me a picture this evening which I thought was simply too precious not to share.


The picture was accompanied by the citation of Matt 18:20: "Where two or three are gathered, there I am as well!" and the completely rhetorical question, "Does this count?"

05 January 2008

Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, Resolutions for the Year


Well, it seems hardly possible that the twelve days of Christmas have passed and the New (secular) Year is hard upon us. In just another week Christmastime will have passed. I have been spending time looking over the past year (and even decades prior to that) and looking at what has happened to me, all that I have to be grateful for, how it is that God has been so very active in my life all this time much of which culminated and came together in visible ways in this past year (it was also the 40th anniversary of my baptism). While Christmas was an especially significant one for me this year in light of perpetual eremitic profession, I think in some ways Epiphany is even more meaningful to me. After all, how many times in the years leading up to perpetual profession did I fail to see God's hand at work? How often did I question whether things were proceeding according to his will? Let me say frankly that there were a number of them, and while I know for a fact not everything that occured (or failed to occur) was the will of God, Bonhoeffer's observation that ultimately nothing happens outside his will, along with Paul's that our's is a God who brings life out of death, is something I regard as completely true and without doubt. Of course it is also without doubt that his presence is often manifested in smallness, weakness, and the apparently ordinary, and sometimes I missed his quiet and everpresent epiphanies!

So, while we are supposed to come into the New Year with resolutions, because I have been focusing on what I am thankful for, I am only just now getting around to mine. So, what are they? Well, they all have to do with my eremitic life (because everything I am grateful for has to do with this vocation), and especially the unique charism that belongs to the diocesan hermit ---living into and out of that more fully. The diocesan hermit is sort of an interesting reality. She is called to be a solitary, like all hermits. And, like all Christian hermits, she is called to be a solitary-in-community. Except it is the case that her relationship with the local church, and especially with her parish are different than the hermit living in a monastery. This is also different from that of the non-canonical hermit who may or may not be accepted as representing eremitical life and is not representing this vocation (is not being a hermit) in the name of the church. (This acting in the name of the Church is not a matter of status so much as it is a matter of responsibility and others' completely appropriate expectations! 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 together alone." For me I suppose it is more a matter of being together alone since I do not live with parishioners and yet, I am joined in communion with them in several different and profound ways.

The first of my resolutions then: to really come to know my parish, the people, their stories, lives, needs, dreams, hopes, tragedies, etc, that are part and parcel of its reality. No Christian hermit lives an emotionally impoverished life, nor one that is lacking in relationships, but I am very grateful for this community and the way they enrich me and allow me to reciprocate! Still, they are really my "new" parish, and that means I hardly know them as I would like or need to. (Let me say I am not sure HOW I will accomplish this goal AND maintain my hermit's solitude, but it should be interesting to give it a shot, no?)

The second, and related resolution: to continue to grow into my vocation to be a contemplative heart beating silently, strongly, compassionately, continuously, lovingly, and courageously in the center of this reality, in the center of the local diocesan church more generally, and in the heart of the Church universal. I have written about hermits being on the margins of society, but that is only so they may truly exist deep in the heart of God, and in the heart of his people as well, mediating God's presence in whatever ways he wills.

The third resolution then: To be completely faithful to "the discipline of the cell" which will, paradoxically, allow me to be present in and to the parish in even more fruitful ways, writing, teaching, blogging (especially scripture reflections), composing, playing violin, --- and under, with, and through it all, praying always --- contemplatively, intercessorily, and supportively.

Of course there are individual goals within each of these resolutions, goals which will be benchmarks of success or progress and I will not go into those here. When I reflect back on what this last year has been, and what I believe God wills for the new year, everything coalesces into these three related resolutions. I might summarize it as "the call to be a Camaldolese in the specific sense demanded by a vocation to diocesan eremitism".

In the meantime, all good wishes for a wonderful Epiphany, and for the remaining week of the Christmas season! Especially, prayers and good wishes for your own resolutions in this coming year!

From Stillsong I wish you Christ's Peace! May it be a source of strength and revelation to all you meet!

01 January 2008

Happy New Year



"I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "Plans of fullness, not of harm: To give you a future, and a home." Dan Schutte, A Song of Hope

May the God who brings life out of death, meaning out of the senseless, healing out of brokenness, light out of darkness, hope out of despair, and belonging out of lostness, touch our lives this coming year in the ways we each need. May he love us into fullness of existence and transform us into authentic and truly passionate lovers in (and of) Christ. May he bless the time we each have turning chronos to kairos and bringing everything to fullness and perfection in himself. May we be attentive to him in all the times and ways we need to be, allowing the ordinary moments of everyday life to be recognized for what they are in him ---opportunities for the triumph of grace in our world. And may God bless each of us who journey together and touch one another in such diverse ways, whether within our parishes, dioceses, or via internet connections like blogs and message boards!

Peace and all good wishes for the new year from Stillsong Hermitage!!!
Laurel M O'Neal, erem.