11 February 2009

Followup Questions: Should a Hermit Care about canonical standing and the like?




[[Sister, should hermits care about things like canonical standing, and the like? If one is truly a mystic, or truly a contemplative then should such things as legal standing, dress, identification, and other things associated what you referred to as the "temporal world" really matter? I read that for authentic mystics such things would not matter. God gives the vocation and all the credentials such a hermit needs.]]

It's hard to know where to start in answering your question. Let me assume this is a followup to the earlier one about the terms "temporal Catholic world" and "mystical Catholic world", and that you have read the post on that --- as well, I hope, as others on the importance of canonical status, lay hermits (with or without private vows), etc. If you have not, please at least look at these entries as well. (Some prepare for or repeat what is here; some add to or enlarge on it, and some just do a better job of addressing the issues.)

First, let me say that any division into authentic and inauthentic must not be done on the basis of canonical standing or lack thereof, nor on the basis of whether one is reclusive and involved in mystical prayer or not. Authentic and inauthentic in the hermit life must instead be a reflection of how truly the hermit's vocation of silence, solitude, prayer, penance, and stricter separation from the world serves the more basic or foundational requirements that this be a vocation to discipleship and love. This love is an expression of the goals which serve as the heart of Canon 603: the vocation is for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. BOTH aspects (a commitment to God and to ALL he cherishes) are required for this to really be a vocation of authentic loving eremitism. The means to this are the elements already mentioned: silence, solitude, etc, but the REASON for these things is that one wishes to glorify God (meaning praise and reveal him in this world) and contribute to its salvation. One may have (and, in fact, NEED) canonical standing to do this, or one may be (and NEED to be) a lay hermit and do it equally effectively without such standing.

If by "car(ing) about" you mean, "Should a hermit want canonical status (standing), the right to wear a cowl and habit, the right to a title (Sister, Brother), or to do ministry besides what is done in the hermitage itself because of the public recognition and perks these things can give her?" then my answer is no, she should not care; she should be relatively indifferent to these things in themselves. However, if you mean, "does she really need such things to grow in and live out her vocation with integrity?" then the answer is a resounding yes, in some cases she absolutely DOES need to care about such things, and this remains true whether she is given to mystical prayer or not.

A hermit will also care about canonical standing and all that entails to the extent she is committed to the witness that a canonical hermit can and needs to give to the contemporary world for its own benefit. (Lay hermits also witness in their own way so they too express caring about status precisely by retaining lay standing.) By the way, the diocesan hermit need not choose to wear a habit or be addressed as Sister (some countries do not use the title at all for hermits), but ordinarily the liturgical garment given at perpetual profession is worn in public so there is some symbolic and recognizable presence in this way. She will care about being present to her parish and diocese despite the essential hiddenness of her life of prayer, and should her contemplative life and prayer spill over in various ways, she will find appropriate ways to express this and she WILL care about this process. Whether diocesan or a lay hermit, mystic or not, there is no doubt that the temporal world MATTERS and the hermit expresses caring and concern for it. She is part of it, responsible for it and its redemption in her own way, but as I have noted a number of times, she can never simply abandon it or turn her back on it completely in the name of the (fictional) "mystical Catholic world." Even authentic recluses do not simply abandon the world. Again, hermits, of whatever stripe or degree of reclusion, are bound by the essential goals and reason for their vocations: to praise God and (help bring about) the salvation of the world.

The last two sentences of your question are provocative. Authentic mystics is the term in the first one that niggles at me some. What is an "authentic mystic"? Is it one who has what are called "mystical experiences" in prayer or does it go beyond such stuff? How would you define this term (or how would the person you read do so)? Mystical experiences happen from time to time in contemplative prayer but does that really diminish the person's concern for the rest of creation? Is it a term associated with union with God for you? And again, if one is really united with God in this way, do they also cease to be concerned with the salvation of the rest of his good creation? Perhaps you can tell I don't think so. We are all grounded in the same God, linked to one another in him, so union with God means union with others as well. Granted, someone who has had a mystical experience or two might be temporarily and selfishly caught up in the experience and desire to leave the world behind, but my own experience is that this is the temptation of the beginner. As growth in mystical prayer continues the dynamic changes. (It is also true that mystical experiences per se do not make the mystic; sometimes when one is being initiated into contemplative prayer, one will have a mystical experience or two, but these tend to be God's way of encouraging the person to persevere. They tend to say, "See how much I love you! Never forget this!" and they also challenge, "Will you love me in return even without such experiences?" Finally, they also remind us of where our lives are going and what they are meant for ultimately. They are a taste of what we will come to want for everyone, not just ourselves.)

In particular, if mystical experiences continue, one begins to be reshaped by them, just as in any prayer. One's heart is remade. One's mind is transformed, and one begins to look at the world with new eyes and a deepening compassion and love. Does one simply not care? No. One cares all the more deeply because after all, GOD CARES DEEPLY, and through prayer one is more profoundly united to God and his will for creation, as well as to creation itself. The mystic is one who, whatever else is true for her, can truly say, "I, yet not I but Christ in me!" and such a one will care deeply for the world and whatever is necessary to bring it to the perfection God wills for it. The Church, and aspects of the Church (including Canon Law, status/standing in law, public profession and consecration, or lay status among other things) are pieces of this. Only the individual concerned, mystic or not, can, with the grace of God, determine what is necessary for her to receive, respond to, and live out God's own call to her with faithfulness and integrity.

The second sentence I found provocative was the one regarding God providing all the credentials and vocation one needs. Unfortunately, this is not strictly true, or rather, the way in which God provides these things may well, and often does include the mediation of the church, canonical status and the like.

Since the hermit is concerned with praise of God and the salvation of the world, she obviously is concerned with the effect of her life and vocation on others. Some of this happens completely mysteriously, without visible evidence through her prayer. In no way do I wish to minimize the truth of this really amazing reality. Through prayer itself the hermit draws the world into God's ambit more and more personally, and through that prayer she can contribute to the world's salvation. I do not see this, nor can I explain it very well theologically, but I know absolutely that it is the case. But this is only a part of the picture, and unless one has a vocation to complete reclusion (a vocation which is VERY rare and generally needs to be vetted by the Church), one ordinarily contributes and witnesses to the world in other ways as well. And if this is the case, then one's vocation must be authentic and one's credentials established one way or another. (By the way, I would suggest that in the case of a vocation to complete reclusion and mystical prayer, the discernment and approval of the church is even more important than for non-recluses. Reclusion per se need not be eremitical, and selfish reclusion, or reclusion based on deficiency needs does not praise God nor particularly contribute to the salvation of the world. Meanwhile, mystical prayer needs also to be genuine and for the benefit of others; ordinarily one needs the assistance of the church in determining and growing in this.)

Expectations, Accountability, and Canonical Standing:


In the Catholic Church some vocations are known as "ecclesial vocations." They involve a number of ecclesial dimensions, but among them 1) the church is responsible for discerning these vocations; 2) the church herself mediates the vocation from GOD to the individual. One may feel called to priesthood or religious life, for instance, but the church herself, mediating God's own call, must admit the person to vows and consecration or to ordination. Individuals cannot assume such vocations on their own initiative alone; 3) the person with such a vocation is directly responsible to the church (hierarchy, superiors) for the living out of this vocation; 4) one is additionally responsible or accountable to all the church for his or her vocation and acts in the name of the church in living it out, ministering to others, etc. The diocesan hermit vocation is one of these ecclesial vocations, and in such a case credentials, those things that establish us as credible in the eyes of others and suggest they can safely entrust themselves to us do not come from God alone.

For instance, as I have written here before, canonical status means that the people in my parish have a right to certain expectations of me in light of my standing in law. These include personal, psychological, and spiritual wholeness or well-being, adequate formation and oversight, appropriate education and training, theological and spiritual competency, professional competency (if different than these two), integrity in living out my Rule of life, the right to expect my life will be lived FOR them in all appropriate ways, the right to expect that my Rule of Life is sound and could be adopted by others if this seemed helpful, the confidence that I will continue to grow in this life and remain committed to the parish and diocesan communities, and that my own life will challenge them similarly, etc.

Canonical Standing actually says these things are reasonable expectations of a diocesan hermit which others can necessarily have. While a lay hermit might well be able to meet such expectations, parishioners do not have a right to these expectations NECESSARILY in their regard. Yes, God gives the grace of a vocation, and if one wants to go into complete reclusion, they may not PERSONALLY need any more credentials than the call to reclusion, but for hermits generally, the discernment and vetting processes that are part of extending canonical standing serve to be sure the vocation is an authentic eremitical vocation, not simply the selfish solitary life of someone who is unhappy, having delusions or weird psychiatric symptoms, or someone who simply can't abide others or deal with the real world of space, time and people. This is generally true for recluses too since their vocation is even more countercultural and eccentric (out of the center) than non-reclusive eremitical life. Canonical standing does benefit the hermit, but it benefits those who meet her and require her assistance too.

And of course, what we have been saying then is that canonical standing establishes one as forever accountable to those who have summoned them forth to respond to the gift of this vocation. When I refer to expectations, I am really referring to elements of the canonical hermit's foundational accountability. The rite of profession, as I have noted above, begins with a calling forth of the candidate and she responds, "Here I am Lord, I come to do your will!" She lives her life not just on their behalf but specifically accountable to them through legitimate superiors for a vocation and commission mediated to her by the church itself through her own local (diocesan and parish) communities. Beyond this, they support her in her vocation and are themselves challenged by it. Such relationships then are not insignificant but essential to the eremitical vocation and the life of the church itself. They are part of what I have identified in other places here as the "unique charism of the diocesan hermit."

One friend, and also a diocesan hermit of 25 years explained it this way on hearing your question: [[. . .I can only say that for myself it was important that I would be called to accountability by the Praying Community, the Church for the vocation that God has given to me, I have been called by God from the praying community and for the Community and if I am to be authentic then I need the Church to hold me accountable for what God has given to the Church and to me. Also, in a way I am called to hold the Church, the praying community, accountable to support by their prayers and other means the gift that God has given the Church. I did not do it for "stature" in the church or recognition by the community but because we are all connected by God in whom we dwell. My understanding of Ecclesiology moved me to make vows within a diocese.]] (Sister Janet Strong, Er Dio, Diocese of Yakima)

I think Sister Jan says it very well. Diocesan hermits care about canonical standing because it establishes them in a formal relationship which is lifegiving to both the hermit and the community from and for which she is called. We care because we know that such committed relationships are willed by God, and necessary for the salvation of all. We care because it is the will of God that we do so, because discipleship (ours and that of those we touch with our lives and witness) demands it, and because formal (canonical) standing allows us to live out our eremitical lives with faithfulness and integrity.

I hope this helps. If it raises other questions or leaves aspects unanswered, please get back to me on it.