06 March 2009

Followup Questions on the usefulness of the division into "TCW" and "MCW"

Sister, I wanted to ask a followup question on the division between "Temporal Catholic World" and "Mystical Catholic World". The person writing about these things suggests that MCW is less suited to canonical status, and other ties with the Temporal Catholic World and more suited to mystical prayer, Communion with God, non-canonical status, etc. Now some of this makes sense to me. Maybe a hermit does not want to be linked to a public vocation, nor to deal with the hierarchical church, or wear a habit, recognizable liturgical clothes, etc. Maybe she feels called to a more hidden life, or to mystical prayer that cuts her off from community or parish life. In such a case wouldn't it be true that she is called more to the "MCW"?]]

In a word, not least because there is no such thing as a mystical Catholic world which is separate from and in conflict with the "temporal Catholic world," no. First, EVERY hermit is called to live her vocation in the temporal world. The Church has categories which fully allow for the different configurations of the eremitical life a person may be called to live. For instance, there is the basic distinction between lay and consecrated eremitical life which takes care of most of the issues you raise in your question. At the most basic level, over time a hermit needs to discern whether she is called to live a private lay eremitical life, or a public vocation to the consecrated state. Ordinarily every hermit who does not belong to a religious congregation begins as a lay hermit and lives that life for several to a number of years before being able to petition to be admitted to public profession and consecration under C 603. The discernment undergone here is the discernment to remain within the lay state or to seek something else. However, none of this has to do with whether one is called to mystical or contemplative prayer and communion with God, etc. EVERY hermit, whether lay or consecrated, is called to these to some extent and they are called to them within the temporal Catholic world.

If the hermit does not desire to deal with the hierarchical church then it is pretty likely she is not called to consecrated life. However, not all diocesan hermits wear habits or cowls; these matters are worked out with the hermit's Bishop and diocese. My own encouraged (or at least highly esteemed the choice to wear) the habit though it was my choice, but they required the cowl or other prayer garment along with a profession ring. While I usually wear a habit I do not always do so, nor am I required to. Sometimes I use jeans with a Benedictine (black) or Camaldolese (white) work tunic and sometimes without (the tunic also works with the habit, either with or without the veil, so is quite versatile and tremendously practical). The point is that even those who wish not to wear a habit CAN be diocesan so long as the Bishop agrees with the arrangement. (The cowl or other prayer garment is more and more a required matter though.)

One problem your own question points out is the notion that if one is called to contemplative union with God or to mystical prayer, then they are less likely to be called to canonical status. Now, I think that would be an amazing thing if it were true, for it implies that those relatively rare individuals professed under canon 603 cannot adequately live out a vocation to communion with God, intense contemplative or even mystical prayer. Simply because a vocation is public does not mean it is notorious, nor does public in this context conflict with hiddenness. A public vocation can be every bit as hidden as a private vocation. On the other hand, a private vocation itself can become quite notorious if the person is unstable, eccentric in the common sense of that term, etc. Here public and private do not mean notoriety or lack thereof; they mean, as I have noted before, a public identity, a vocation officially lived in the name of the Church, as opposed to a private one lived in one's own name. Do we really want to say that canonical hermits are less called to contemplative or mystical prayer, union with God, etc, simply because their vocations are canonically public ones, or because they may even imply some degree of ministry outside the hermitage? I certainly don't think so.

The Church's own categories are far more adequate for the question you raised. One may become a lay hermit, or one may become a canonical hermit. The first is an essentially private vocation and would certainly be appropriate for one who did not want to deal with the hierchical church. It would, however, also witness to lay persons in the abnormal solitudes they find themselves as the result of society, loss, grief, bereavement, chronic illness, and the like. The second involves accepting a public identity in the Church, and a commission to live out one's vocation for the rest of her life with integrity and fidelity. It involves vows of poverty, consecrated celibacy, and obedience, and yes, it implies superiors, a clear relationship with the institutional church and a special relationship with one's Bishop and those he delegates to serve as superiors for the hermit. One is bound legally and morally to live out the Rule of Life one has composed, to embody the elements constitutive of the eremitical life according to canon 603 and one's Rule, all in the name of the Church and in direct responsibility to one's parish and diocese. While the canonical or diocesan hermit also witnesses to those in unnatural solitudes and reminds them of the redemption possible, she may or may not find that the lay hermit can actually do this better in a given situation.

I understand the idea of mystical prayer "cutting a hermit off from community or parish life" (more about that in the next paragraph below) so let me speak to that last portion of your question. Every hermit must obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit and it may well be that for a time the call to mystical prayer requires greater reclusion than at other times. My own experience tells me that these times are temporary and further, that they spill over into times when one must return to her parish community and serve them in a more direct way. However, canonical status does not prevent greater degrees of reclusion to accommodate mystical or contemplative prayer. What it does do is make sure the individual hermit is properly directed, and remains aware of the ecclesial context of her vocation (which includes community even in reclusion). If a hermit feels called to complete reclusion for the sake of such prayer, Canon 603 allows for this, so long as the person can support and care for herself still. However, let's be clear that Canon 603 status will also make sure that responsible parties (including the hermit herself) make sure the prayer is genuine, that the person is not running from social responsibilities, or suffering from some sort of psychological or emotional problem related to her solitude and silence, etc. Beyond this, canon 603 status will ensure that a call to mystical prayer and relative reclusion is verified and carefully nutured. Far from being a hinderance to such a vocation, Canon 603 status would assist the hermit here.

One very important point must be made here: it is not a matter of contemplative or mystical prayer cutting a person off from community, but of embedding them within and relating them to the community in a different way than is ordinarily recognized. As I have written before, communion with God implies communion with those who are also grounded in Him. Communion with him implies communion with all he cherishes. Further, mystical prayer is always an act of love and it involves not just the pray-er and her God, but all those whom (or that) God loves as well. In actual mystical prayer experiences one is also aware that even while one is alone dancing with God (or whatever images or experiences are involved), all those he loves are being perfectly cared for at the same time; one is glad and grateful for it, and it is part of what one celebrates with him. This experience exists simultaneously with the sense that God loves you as though no one else existed and that you have his complete and undivided attention. It is a fantastic paradox, and an awesome experience -- characteristic, in my experience, of true mystical prayer.

I recently read a quote by a Cistercian monk, Armand Veilleaux, OCSO, which says pretty much the very same thing: "...An authentic contemplative life does not consist in withdrawing from reality to live in an artificial or purely spiritual world. It consists in withdrawing to the center, to the heart of all reality. A healthy community life helps us to evaluate with serenity the varied information that we receive, the different events through which we live."

On a less universal level, in my own hermitage I keep a basket next to the tabernacle and in that basket go all the intentions I am asked to pray for. People know that I am praying for them and their intentions, and they feel linked to my prayer. My very reclusion (or at least my solitude) marks me as deeply involved in their lives and the lives of those they love and are concerned for. I do not retire to the hermitage to get away from my community, but to live for them in a different way. It is thus a solitude they sometimes share in consciously even while my activities are completely hidden from them. Because of these and other reasons I have already mentioned in the previous post, I would definitely reject the notion that authentic contemplative or mystical prayer cuts one off from the community, and I would affirm instead that when it is genuine it does just the opposite.

So, the bottom line as far as I am concerned? The division into temporal and mystical Catholic worlds in specious and creates problems --- both practical, spiritual, and theological. The Church already divides eremitical vocations into lay and consecrated (I am prescinding from referring to clerical hermits deliberately just for this post), and that is completely adequate, even while it avoids the problems associated with the other division into TCW and MCW. I think if you use the church's own division as you reflect on the things which caused your question you will find it is a completely adequate division for you too.

As always, if this raises further questions, or is inadequate in some way, please get back to me. Thanks.