09 October 2009

Some Common and Pointed Questions re: Diocesan Hermits and Canonical Standing

The following is a compilation or aggregation of a number of fairly antagonistic questions or objections raised recently. They are important for any understanding of the importance of Canonical standing in the vocation of the diocesan hermit, and I think they are important in revealing the antipathy which exists in regard to canonical status. Because they are related I have combined them for the purposes of simplifying the process of responding in this blog.

[[Dear Sister, I just don't get why you stress the importance of canonical standing or why you see it as a positive thing. The earliest hermits were lay persons and lived a simple eremitical life which did not depend on egotistical statements of power or status. They were critical of the institutional church, not sellouts to its hierarchy or power structure! What has concern with law got to do with the love the hermit is supposed to represent? We all know what Jesus said about those who were more concerned with rules than with loving others. What has the hiddenness or spirituality of the eremitical life got to do with public vocations and canonical vows, titles, and habits? Isn't your proccupation with these things merely a sign of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement? Doesn't it indicate you do not respect or value the lay eremitical vocation?]]

Canon 603 (the Canon governing the life of diocesan or publicly professed solitary hermits) is only 27 years old. Prior to Canon 603 and since the time of Paul Giustiniani in the 16th century, the existence of solitary hermits, that is hermits who do not belong to a religious congregation which allows for their eremitical lives, was simply not supported by the Church in any substantial much less official way. Paul Giustiniani lived during a time when the Church recognized the importance of the faithful, and particularly religious men and women, receiving the Sacraments regularly and this recognition was codified in law (decretals, etc). Despite Giustiniani's esteem for solitary eremitical life, he was forced to conclude that it was no longer a valid way of living the eremitical life because it essentially cut one off from the life of the Sacraments, and so too, to some extent, from the life of the church.

And yet, solitary eremitical life continued to exist, sometimes more tenuously, sometime less, but without universal ecclesial support or approval, and so too then, without the encouragement or safeguards which could nurture such vocations. (Such vocations will always be rare, but their eccentricity should be a function of their prophetic quality --- the fact that they are out of the center or the commonplace --- not a matter of personal quirkiness or indiosyncracy. Ecclesial contextualization and canonical standing helps ensure this.) The first thing one should notice about the role of law in all this, especially with regard to Bl Paul's conclusions which are framed in terms of legalities and therefore could be mistaken as legalism rather than a more substantive concern, is that law is meant to protect both the integrity of the eremitical life (which is profoundly ecclesial) and encourage strong Sacramental lives in those modelling a particularly "heroic" spirituality for others. It reflects pastoral concerns and sensitivity, not an overweaning concern with rules for the sake of rules.

In 1983 Canon 603 was included in the Revised Code of Canon Law along with two other canons (cc 604 and 605) regarding "new" forms of consecrated life. For the first time ever solitary eremitical life was a possibility according to universal law. It was recognized officially as a gift of God to the Church and provision was made to allow individuals to pursue eremitical life as a specifically ecclesial vocation under the supervision of their local Bishop. The canon included a listing of essential or defining elements which characterized authentic eremitical life (silence of solitude, assiduous prayer, penance, and stricter separation from the world, for the praise of God and the salvation of the world), and set forth requirements to guide the stable and integral living of this life (for instance, a written Rule of Life which the hermit's Bishop approves, and public (canonical) vows of the evangelical counsels which establish the person in a public vocation within the church).

Again, what one should notice about Canon 603 is its deeply pastoral character and concerns, not only for the hermit herself, but for the eremitical vocation generally as a reflection of the work of the Spirit within the Church, and for the local and universal church and world in and for whom this vocation is lived. After all, such a calling serves these when it is lived well and with integrity, and it wounds and scandalizes them when it is not. Profession according to this canon establishes the hermit in a stable form of life which is associated with correlative and public rights and responsibilities which serve the Body of Christ and the World. In other words, the provisions of Canon 603 are part of the actual commission of the hermit to live her life for the salvation of the world and they assist her in carrying out that mission. It is simply a case that in regard to Canon 603 (my main concern in this answer) law (and therefore legal or canonical standing and reflection on the significance of these) serves love; it does not contradict or conflict with such a vocation or mission but expresses and enhances it.

For instance recently someone asserted that physical solitude had literally "nothing to do with the hermit vocation." What was important this person contended (the only thing necessary in fact), was the inner solitude of the "cell of the heart." However, Canon 603 specifies "stricter separation from the world" --- a specification which covers BOTH inner and outer solitude and recognizes BOTH as essential. One of the witnesses a hermit gives to our contemporary world is that the unnatural solitudes and various forms of isolation which life in our world fosters (the isolation of urban life, bereavement, chronic illness, old age, failure of life commitments, etc) can be redeemed. But how would my life as a hermit speak of that specific hope and promise to people who have become isolated physically as well as emotionally and spiritually if I do not live a very real physical solitude which is completely redeemed with God's presence? I could not, and this is especially true with regard to those persons who cannot simply choose to end their physical isolation. Thus, Canon 603 includes this, not merely because it is essential to my own life as a hermit, or to the vocation generally, but because it is one aspect of living this vocation "for the salvation of the world." By including this element in the Canon the church ensures not only that it is a normative part of the eremitical life and that one cannot redefine eremitical life in terms merely of an inner solitude of the heart (important as that is!), but that the diocesan hermit will reflect on and live out this dimension more and more fully and diversely for the sake of others!

Similarly, reflecting on the unique charism of diocesan eremitism which flows directly from the rights and responsibilites implied by canonical standing has more to do with understanding what expectations others may necessarily have of the Canon 603 hermit than it has to do with legalism or concern with canonical standing for its own sake. By reflecting on the gift which Canon 603 represents to the church and world, the diocesan hermit begins to penetrate her own vocation more and more deeply. She will come to understand its implications more profoundly, and she will be challenged to live that vocation with greater depth and integrity. Especially she will be challenged and supported in her growing appreciation of the concrete ways in which this vocation is lived for the sake of others. In part, such a realization stems directly from the contemplative life she lives, but in part it comes from reflection on the fact that in professing/consecrating her publicly the Church has extended to her specific canonical rights and responsibilities. It has not done so to contribute to the hermit's self-aggrandizement or because she has "sold out" to the institutional or hierarchical power structure and is now to be included in the "old boy's club of the church," but instead to humble and challenge her with a continuing ecclesially-mediated call of God (and help equip her with the wherewithal) to respond fully in a way which serves others with her life.

Thus my own preoccupation with these things comes from several places: 1) a kind of awe that God has worked in my life in the way he has and has called me to this vocation not only for my own sake but especially for the sake of others, 2) a greater sense of the importance of the diocesan hermit vocation with the unique charism which characterizes it and flows directly from the fact that the vocation is canonical; I have written before about this and, as noted above, defined this charism in terms of the necessary expectations others are allowed to have of such a publicly professed person. 3) a growing awareness that canonical standing both defines and protects the integrity of the vocation even while it challenges hermits (including lay hermits) to live up to the essential elements of that vocation, and 4) a sense that hermit life is profoundly ecclesial and therefore is never a matter of exaggerated individualism (nothing characterized by isolation or simple individualism or merely personal eccentricity should be called eremitism). A theology of eremitical life is profoundly related to the theology of consecrated life and a theology of church. So is the life itself. Please note that all of these aspects of my "pre-occupation" with the importance and place of canonical standing for THIS vocation have to do with a sense that the vocation is meant for the sake of others. None of it has to do with personal aggrandizement or ego (and the commitment to make sure that these do not become problematical is part and parcel of the canonical commitment itself; canonical commitment and standing obliges to greater humility, not less).

Some false antitheses:

Within the questions put to me and the objections against canonical standing which were raised there are, both implicitly and explicitly, a number of false antitheses. Law vs Love is the central one which has been implicit in everything I have said thus far. However there is a related tendency to characterize a concern with Canon law as a concern for non-essentials, with things which are marginal to the heart of the vocation itself or is merely phariseeism. Drawing this dichotomy simply fails to appreciate how Canon 603 serves the vocation, and how reflection on what it defines and codifies can be profoundly spiritual and relates to the very essence of the calling. A second false dichotomy includes linking canonical standing with valid vocations to eremitical life and non-canonical standing with invalidity -- as though only the canonical vocation is valid and significant while lay eremitical life is not. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor from what the Church holds to be the case. What I have said here many times is that both lay and consecrated expressions of the solitary eremitical vocation are valid and significant; in fact they are profoundly complementary and mutually illustrative and reinforcing, but for those very reasons they differ in significant ways as well.

A third false antithesis (which was raised along with the questions above) is that of intellectual vs spiritual --- as though being a theologian and/or a scholar of the eremitical or monastic life, or intellectual in one's approach to their fundamentals implies a failure to be sufficiently spiritual. This stereotype is not uncommon nor is it new. Anti-intellectualism is (disappointingly) alive and well today, but in regard to this antithesis, we must remember that the notion of a theologian with strong intellectual gifts and no real spirituality is often a caricature. The Holy Spirit works on and through the intellect just as She works on and through the heart. In fact, the dichotomy which is sometimes mistakenly absolutized between mind and heart fails to regard the completely complementary nature of these realities which are at the service of one another in all genuine spirituality.

A fourth false antithesis is that of setting off the public vocation of diocesan hermit against the hiddenness of eremitical life. I have written about this before so for now let me point out that to embrace a public vocation means to embrace publicly and canonically (the two terms are synonymous here) the rights and responsibilities of a vocation in a way which allows others to have necessary expectations of the one so committed. Public does not indicate notoriety in this context. Thus, a hermit becomes responsible to the larger church and world to live out the essential hiddenness of her vocation. Others may necessarily expect that she does this with integrity and in a way which serves others. They may indeed hold her accountable in ways they may not do with a lay hermit who has not accepted the public responsibilities of Canon 603, for instance. All of this ties in closely with the charism of the diocesan hermit and its expression in terms of necessary expectations which others may have of her. The point here though is that the public character of the vocation does not conflict with the hiddenness of the vocation. Instead it protects and nurtures it.

Looking at the public dimension of the vocation

As for habit, title, etc. they are simply a natural part of the public (and monastic!) aspect of the vocation. They indicate the acceptance of a public ecclesial identity with commmensurate rights and responsibilities in relation to the Church's own commission of the person. While they can become problematical in terms of ego, etc, ordinarily they serve to challenge to humility and to recalling that the whole of one's life is given to and for others. Again though, they are not automatically (or even ordinarily) indicators of self-aggrandizement, but rather a visible sign of the way the Holy Spririt is working in the Church and world through this individual life and vocation. Personally I would probably never mention them except for those who adopt them on their own authority and pretend to the vocations they symbolize. While these persons may be very well-intentioned and seek to serve others in this way, the act is still a fraudulent one and I think demonstrates a failure to esteem the lay vocation the person is actually called to at this point in their lives. Both are in serious conflict with a Christian vocation.

It is sometimes argued that once people were more commonly able simply to adopt a religious or eremitical habit and go off to live the life. However, that is certainly not true today, and in fact it was not the case in the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers either. In those earliest days the habit was given to a young monk by an elder, and if the monk proved unworthy the habit was taken back again. Later the habit was given by a priest and it was again taken back from those expelled from the desert. From this point on the giving of the habit became a solemn rite. (Regnault, The Day-to-Day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth Century Egypt) There are even apothegms in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers denouncing the imprudence of young monks adopting the habit on their own and declaring themselves anchorites.

Today, the prudence shown in the desert is duplicated and developed in the contemporary Church. She is careful in mediating God's own call or extending the rights and responsibilities of ecclesial vocations precisely because 1) they are ecclesial and not discerned or lived privately, 2) they come with correlative rights and responsibilities which are a part of being commissioned by the Church. For this reason clothing with the habit occurs in liturgical contexts which mark the assumption of these under authority, and celebrate the actual commissioning involved. Self-assumption of the habit is empty of all of this meaning and actually conflicts with it. In many ways I personally find such a practice ignorant (not least of the theology of commission, but also of the linking of responsibilities with rights and the theology of consecration), thoughtless (of the needs and expectations of others and their rights to have these met in someone wearing a habit or using a title), self-absorbed, and so too, a matter of ego and literal arrogance (where one arrogates or takes to themselves something they need to be commmissioned to take on). This is simply the normative practice of the Church, and it makes profound sense, so the argument that because once upon a time it was possible to simply take the habit and live a religious or eremitical life so we should be able to do so today is simply not cogent.

It may be surprising that such questions are common, and astonishing that they are posed with real animosity, but again, I believe it is a natural consequence of the church's having treated the lay vocation as second class for so very long, and often treating it as no vocation at all (for instance, by meaning only religious or priestly vocations when one spoke of "having a vocation" or "praying for vocations"). We must certainly put the lie to such positions and work to heal the injury done to those whose vocations (and lives) were invalidated by such positions. Evenso we cannot jettison important theological distinctions or lay all the blame at the door of Canon Law or those who have vocations to the consecrated state and who therefore fall under the Canons related to these in the process.

Neither, by the way, can we forget that the church uses lay and clergy as the hierarchical division which is fundamental to church life, but that this is NOT the same as the non-hierarchical distinction between lay, consecrated, and clerical states of life --- also very real in the life of the church and recognized in Canon Law by its codification of rights and responsibilities which are linked to each! (Briefly, I am saying that diocesan hermits, et al, have rights and responsibilities which flow from neither the lay state itself, nor from the clerical state. These are codified in Canon Law and so, are both implicitly and explicitly recognized in Law as differing from the lay state. They are specifically noted in the CIC to be non-hierarchical. Additionally, Canon 588 distinguishes between states of life (identified as lay, consecrated, and clerical in sec 1), and institutes (which are either clerical or lay in sec 2 and 3.) For this reason people who write about the rights and responsibilities of the consecrated state do not generally do so to Lord this state over the lay state. When I personally write to stress the non-hierarchical nature of such states of life for instance, I do so precisely to disarm such a superior-inferior approach or attitude.