06 February 2009

Confusions regarding the notions of "Catholic Hermit", "Temporal vs Mystical Catholic Worlds," etc.

Please note, this article is not meant to answer the simple question about what a Catholic or diocesan hermit is. If you are looking for that kind of post, please see Notes From Stillsong Hermitage, What is a Diocesan Hermit?. The following article is concerned more with the misuse of the term Catholic hermit in contrast to the sense in which the Church uses the term.

Sister, could you please comment on the marked passage? I am confused by some terms, like "temporal Catholic world", but also by the reference to a canonist who seemingly should not be trusted in some of her comments, especially re the definition of "Catholic hermit." Thanks.

[[This was in reaction to being told of some person who may or may not have a canon law degree writing online that hermits who are not canonically approved are not to refer that they are Catholic hermits, for that implies they are canonically approved. Also, such hermits should not have confessors to guide them.... So, we have here an example of someone out in the blogosphere interpreting canon law using personal augmentation and opinion. The reality of a statement of fact can be twisted any which way, but fact is fact. What another wants to think depends upon that others' frame of reference. To be a Catholic hermit means just that: Catholic and hermit. It does not imply or infer the status in the temporal Catholic world known as canonical approval or disapproval. Also, there is nothing in Canon law that states a Catholic hermit ought not be guided or supervised by his or her confessor. Ask a priest canon lawyer.]] (Emphasis added)

Yes, I have actually recently read this very passage even apart from your question, and I also know (as a superficial online acquaintance only) the Canonist who is being maligned and deemed mistaken. She has written that the term "Catholic hermit" necessarily implies canonical status or standing, and I completely agree. I have referenced her comments a number of months back, so you can look for those too if you care to. (The poster who wrote the above passage is correct about frame of reference being important. This person I have cited previously is a canon lawyer who specializes in consecrated life, so she is well-qualified here. She works in and for the Church in this capacity, and her blog is an instance of authoritative information.) But let's look at this now.

On the term Catholic Hermit

If a man says "I am a Catholic priest" does he merely mean, "I am a Catholic and a priest by virtue of baptism into the priesthood of all believers?" No, certainly not, at least not if he means what the Church herself means by this. Does he mean "I function as a priest in the private sector with my minister's web license and am a Catholic, so therefore, I am a Catholic priest? Again, no, of course not. Does he even mean, "I was an Anglican priest, but have since become Roman Catholic; I have not been ordained in the Catholic church, but I am a priest forever, and therefore I am a Catholic priest"? No. Similarly, if a lay woman says she is a Catholic nun, does she mean she is Catholic, dresses simply, is cautious in her spending habits, and prays regularly? Again, not if she means what the church means by these terms.

We could extend these examples further, and perhaps gain greater clarity too: a policeman who resides but does not work in or for the City of Las Vegas is not a Las Vegas police officer according to normal usage, for instance; a platonic friend who is a boy is not a Boy Friend (though young people do play games with language to taunt their parents in this regard!), but the bottom line is the same: The terms Catholic priest, Catholic nun, or Catholic hermit mean that the people so identifying themselves are these things (as the church herself defines them!) through the authority and mediation of the Catholic Church. They mean they undertake and represent these states of life or vocations in the name of the Church who authorizes this, and not in their own names. It means they represent ECCLESIAL vocations in the way I have explained in the past (please see tags below).

The church herself has raised the publicly vowed eremitical vocation to the consecrated state and public standing in law, and because she has, a Catholic hermit is not simply a "hermit" (in the common sense of the term) who is Catholic. (To be very blunt, if that were the case, and were he Catholic, Theodore Kasczynski (the "hermit" Unabomber) could have called himself a Catholic hermit; so could any curmudgeonly loner, misanthrope, or agoraphobic living alone, for instance, so long as they were baptized Catholic). A Catholic hermit, on the other hand, is one whose vocation is discerned and mediated by the Catholic Church in whose name and in direct and real responsibility to whom the hermit lives her life. Both terms, "Catholic" and "hermit," are important and qualify one another. Not just any form of solitary living is authentically eremitical despite the common sense of this term (cf Kasczynski or the misanthrope again). Similarly then, not every form of genuinely eremitical life is Catholic in the normative sense of that term; that is, not every genuine eremitical life is undertaken with the authority and in the name of the Catholic Church. In this matter the Church recognizes certain individuals as publicly representing the vocation, and she grants both commensurate rights and obligations along with the title Sister or Brother to these. The RIGHT to call oneself a Catholic hermit is implicitly granted by the Church in a definitive liturgical act (". . .be faithful to the ministry the church entrusts to you to be carried out in her name"); it is not and cannot be assumed by the individual on her own authority.

Similarly, if the term "Catholic hermit" is used by someone to describe herself, others have have every right to infer that the person has the official standing to act and style herself thusly in the name of the Church. The rights and obligations of the Catholic hermit do not stop at the hermitage door, nor do they fail to impact others. The vocation of the Catholic hermit, hidden though it may be, is still a public vocation. Again, rights have correlative responsibilities and the designation "Catholic hermit" comes with both. Misuse of the label opens the way to misrepresentation of all kinds simply because one who is not canonical may not understand, appreciate, or even care about the commensurate obligations that come with profession and consecration as a Catholic hermit, much less feel bound to exercise them. Accountability, formal, legitimate, and real is associated with the term Catholic Hermit.

The Canonist referenced in these comments has merely pointed out the normative Catholic meaning of such terms, and in this I believe she is completely correct. She has twisted nothing and her credentials are not in question. Neither, as far as I can tell, is she merely offering personal opinion here; she speaks as a Catholic canonist!

Note: after I wrote this article I discovered Canon 216. It says the following: [[All the Christian Faithful, since they participate in the mission of the Church, have the right to promote or sustain apostolic activity by their own undertakings in accord with each one's state and condition; however, no undertaking shall assume the name Catholic unless the consent of a competent ecclesiastical authority is given.]] Thus, the prohibition is present in black and white. The argument that one need merely be Catholic and a (lay) hermit to call oneself a "Catholic hermit" is specious. The same is true of a religious community and the term Catholic. One must be using the term in the way the Church herself does, and be doing so with the authority of the Church, otherwise the usage is illegitimate at best. See also Canon 300 which applies to groups: No association shall assume the name "Catholic" without the consent of ecclesiastical authority in accord with the norm of C 312

Can Hermits be Guided by Confessors?

As for the issue of not being guided by a confessor, you didn't ask about this explicitly, but it is included in the passage and is one of the things the canonist was said to be wrong about so I will address it here: I believe the author of the passage you asked about is referring to the same entry on eremitical life by the referenced canonist, but has completely misread or miscontrued what she said. What was affirmed was that a hermit's spiritual director ought not to also be her superior. Here is the accurate passage, at least from the same entry on hermits: [[. . .Normally, it is best if the superior is not his [the hermit's] spiritual director unless exceptional circumstances call for it and if the extent of the obedience owed is clearly spelled out in the hermit’s rule of life. Otherwise, the private hermit should not make a vow of obedience but should content himself with the vows of poverty and chastity. The vow of obedience more properly belongs to the applicable canonical forms of consecrated life, not to private individuals who are not living in community or under hierarchical authority.]] Despite it not sounding like the correct passage (it does not mention confessors), as far as I know, this is the only reference to hermits in which the same author refers in wisely cautionary terms to specific arrangements re spiritual directors as superiors, but in no way does this suggest a spiritual director should not guide a hermit. Quite the opposite, in fact, is presupposed.

Temporal vs Mystical Catholic Worlds

The term Temporal Catholic World (and its implied "opposite," Mystical Catholic World) can indeed be confusing. It is a neologism of sorts, so is somewhat idiosyncratic and eccentric. In some senses I find it theologically objectionable because in the passages I read at least, it is counterposed with the phrase Mystical Catholic World and the two tend to be played off against one another as though they are completely distinct and oppositional. [The marked passage above does not refer explicitly to "mystical Catholic world" but others did.] But for the Christian this cannot be claimed to be true without emptying the Incarnation of meaning. Is there any question that Jesus was a mystic? No. So was Paul, but neither of these played off the temporal world against the so-called mystical world. Neither rejected one in the name of embracing the other. In fact, Jesus' entire role as mediator is a matter of making sure these two dimensions of the one world interpenetrate one another in a more and more definitive way.

A Catholic is called to live in this world of space and time. She is called to live out her faith in Christ in a world which is yet incompletely redeemed, and in this way to be in it even if not "of it".
She is called to understand that with Christ the separation between sacred and profane has been broken down, the veil rent in two. S/he may be called to be a mystic, and yet, his/her contemplative life can spill over into ministry other than prayer. It MUST spill over into love of others! Those who are truly contemplatives or authentic hermits know this phenomenon well. Does it require care in making sure the active ministry one undertakes is the fruit of contemplative life? Yes, absolutely. Should active ministry always be undegirded by and lead back to prayer? Again, absolutely. But union with God necessarily leads to love of others in unmistakable and concrete ways, and therefore quite often to more direct or active ministry, how ever that is worked out by the individual.

It is true that there is a rare vocation to actual reclusion, but recluses are also in communion with the church and larger world -- in some ways to a greater extent than most people. Their reclusion is actually a paradoxical way of assuming responsibility for (and in) "the world", both within and without the recluse's own self. Remember that prayer links us in God to all others (we all share the same Ground of Being and Meaning), and that love of God issues in love of others, a concrete love, not love as an abstraction or pious parody of itself. At the same time, our love for others reveals God to us and casts us back into his arms so that we can be remade sufficiently to love all the more truly and profoundly. As a friend recently reminded me, "In solitude we should hear the cries of the world. It takes strength. And if you don't hear that cry, you are not mature enough. . ."

Mystics though any of us may be, we are all still "temporal world Catholics". Or perhaps the paradox is stronger and truer as it often is in Christianity: to the degree we are true mystics and citizens of heaven, we belong even more integrally to the temporal world loving it deeply and profoundly into wholeness. Never do we abandon it! Eremitical vocations (including reclusion), undoubtedly require "stricter separation from the world," in the sense defined below, but they do not allow us to divide reality into a temporal Catholic world and a separate and opposing mystical Catholic one, especially when that division (which could be used in a more typological sense otherwise) is accompanied by the implication that hermits in the "TCW" (read canonical or diocesan hermits!) are not given to contemplation or union with God, or the direct affirmation that a hermit needs to discern whether she is called to one or the other of these "worlds." [[So what hermits ought consider in discerning their vocation, is if he or she is called by God to be a temporal Catholic world hermit or a mystical Catholic world hermit. . . .]] This kind of stuff is simply theological nonsense, not least because any hermit alive today and every living Catholic mystic is alive in the "temporal Catholic world" (how could she NOT be?); further, both requires much from, and owes much to, that very world --- not least the recognition of its sacramental character as well as commitment to its continuing redemption and perfection in Christ! It is precisely the mystic (hermit or not) who appreciates all this most clearly!

The term, "world" in the phrases "hatred for the world" or "stricter separation from the world, " as I have written before, needs to be defined with care to prevent such theological nonsense. In Canon Law the term refers to "that which is yet unredeemed and not open to the salvific action of Christ," not least, I would add, that reality within ourselves! (A Handbook on Canons 573-746, "Norms Common to All Institutes of Consecrated Life," Ellen O'Hara, CSJ, p 33.) I have referred in the past here to "the world" as that which promises fulfillment apart from Christ. Neither of these complementary definitions suggests the wholesale renunciation of temporal for mystical, or supports the invalid and simplistic division of reality in such a way. Instead, both look to a certain ambiguity in temporal existence, and look to its perfection and fullness of redemption in Christ; rightly they expect Christians to open the way here. I hope you will look past relevent posts up --- especially re the notion that the world is something we carry within us, and not something we can simply or naively close the hermitage door on!

Again, I am reminded of several passages from Thomas Merton in regard to this last issue,

"When 'the world' is hypostatized [regarded as a distinct reality] (and it inevitably is), it becomes another of those dangerous and destructive fictions with which we are trying vainly to grapple.

or again,

And for anyone who has seriously entered into the medieval Christian. . . conception of contemptus mundi [hatred for or of the world],. . .it will be evident that this means not the rejection of a reality, but the unmasking of an illusion. The world as pure object is not there. it is not a reality outside us for which we exist. . . It is only in assuming full responsibility for our world, for our lives, and for ourselves that we can be said to live really for God."

as well as,

"The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.. . . This 'ground', this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door. When I find the world in my own ground, it is impossible for me to be alienated by it. . ." (The Inner Ground of Love)

or again:

"There remains a profound wisdom in the traditional Christian approach to the world as an object of choice. But we have to admit that the mechanical and habitual compulsions of a certain limited type of Christian thought have falsified the true value-perspective in which the world can be discovered and chosen as it is. To treat the world merely as an agglomeration of material goods and objects outside ourselves, and to reject these goods and objects in order to seek others which are "interior" or "spiritual" is in fact to miss the whole point of the challenging confrontation of the world and Christ. Do we really choose between the world and Christ as between two conflicting realities absolutely opposed? Or do we choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in him, that is to say, redeemed by him, and encountered in the ground of our own personal freedom and love?" (The Inner Ground of Love, Emphasis added)

And finally (I have quoted this before):

"Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our own alienation and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time? If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love and nowhere else will I find myself, the world, and my brother and my sister in Christ. It is not a question of either/or, but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivity and "purity" but of wholeness, whole-heartedness, unity, and of Meister Eckhart's gleichkeit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything."

I think, unfortunately, it is possible to read a lot of medieval mystical theology which is built on a notion of the world and contemptus mundi or a mundo secessu (as used today in Canon 603) that does indeed falsify the situation and makes difficult to see or make the real choice before us Christians. Yes, we must discern whether we are called to contemplative or active life (or to which of these essentially or primarily), to eremitic or even reclusive life or to apostolic or ministerial life, and of course, if God gifts us with mystical prayer, we need to honor that, but again, all this happens in the temporal world and as a gift to that world. In light of the incarnation, and especially in light of our own relational human constitutions as imago dei trinitates and grounded in God who speaks in and through us, that is precisely where God is to be found. Heaven and earth interpenetrate one another in light of the Christ Event and our task is to allow that to be more and more the case in Him. Setting up false, absolute, simplistic, and destructive dichotomies is no help at all.

I hope this helps. As always, if it is unclear or raises further questions, please email me.