26 June 2010

Call for Questions and Suggestions

Readers of this blog could do me a great favor in the next two weeks or so. I am working on an extended project on diocesan eremitical life and it will include many of the topics I have discussed here over the past three years or so. Much of that is already due to questions you have sent me via email and I am very grateful for your assistance here.

However, what I would like to know from you is what questions, topics, concerns, dimensions I have missed, etc, would you like to see discussed in a book on the Canon 603 vocation (or on this blog for that matter). These might be really basic things I never cover very well, or, as noted, things I have never really dealt with.

They could be anything really including questions or concerns having to do with the Rule or Ratio vivendi (Plan of Life), the vows, essential elements of the life, formation -- whether initial or ongoing, history of the Canon and of eremitical life generally, desert spirituality generally, support and finances, lay hermits and their importance, countercultural or prophetic witness, urban hermits, lay and diocesan hermits' relationships with or to their parish, institutionalization of the vocation, recreation, relationships with others, psychological concerns or topics, contemporary (or other era) hermits including the desert Fathers and Mothers, or anything at all. (Perhaps you could think about what you would like to hear me (or any other hermit) talk about if I came to your parish to talk about this vocation or desert spirituality more generally!)

I am sure that even in my listing these things you will think of obvious questions (or whole areas!) I have never adequately addressed, or objections to things I have written here. I would very much like to read your input on all this as it will help make this project a very much better reality.

Please give this some thought and email me before the 10th of July if you can. If you can't make the 10th deadline, try to get your questions, etc to me by the 15th at the latest. (I will be away after that for retreat, etc, and I would like to have most of this before then.) After that perhaps I can post about what I have received and ask you all some questions on the basis of what you have shared.

When you email, please put something identifiable in the subject line: HERMIT PROJECT or something similar for instance. Thanks in advance for your assistance in this. I really appreciate it.

Sister Laurel, Er Dio
Stillsong Hermitage
Diocese of Oakland

23 June 2010

Mystical Experiences and One's Place in the World

[[Dear Sister, I know you don't like the division between the TCW and the MCW [Temporal Catholic World and Mystical Catholic World], but as a contemplative do you ever feel as though you don't belong to the temporal [or embodied] world? Have you ever had mystical experiences . . . which contribute or tempt to this?. . . Do you know any mystics? Do they experience this division?]]

One note on my dislike for the division you mention. Terms like these are not helpful, and are simply seriously misleading theologically and spiritually if they are played off against each other as mutually exclusive. In the passages I have commented on before this was what was true. Hermits were said, for instance, to need to make a choice between the TCW and the MCW. This was what I objected to.

But regarding your questions. No, as a contemplative I feel that I belong to God, and while that includes very very rare mystical experiences which minimize (or completely obviate) awareness of my body, involve what I presumptuously describe as union with God, etc, I really never feel that I do not belong to the temporal world of space and time or to the world of embodied reality. In fact, contemplative prayer, whether involving experiences sometimes called mystical or not, always seems to root me more firmly in God's good creation despite any experience of being caught up in God's presence and love. It does so in terms of mission or eremitical charism. I come away from prayer renewed in my sense of self, my sense of being called in unique and significant ways, and too, of being sent to serve and contribute to the salvation of a world God has called good and loved with an everlasting love. (Please note the various meanings of the term "world" in various posts, including this one. Here I am speaking about God's good creation, not "world" in the sense a hermit or monastic uses when referring to "contemptus mundi" or "fuga mundi.")

Further, I believe I come to these BECAUSE my union with God is something which has, to whatever degree, become more intense and pervasive. The closer I am to God and to union with God, the closer I am to all which he holds as precious, all that is grounded in him. Most especially, I experience myself as more capable of loving others as they need to be loved, more open to hearing how this is from them, and more eager and generous in responding appropriately and adequately. There is a related need to spend time in solitude processing and celebrating what happened in prayer, but these two dimensions of contemplative life complement one another; even --- maybe even especially --- when we are speaking of mystical experiences involving ecstasy, trances and the like, they absolutely do not need to (and probably should not) ultimately conflict.

Remember that whether we are celebrating Xt's Nativity, his participation in and victory over sin and death marked by crucifixion and by his bodily resurrection on Easter, or the continuing incarnational presence of Christ due to his Ascension, we are celebrating a God who dwells with us and who even takes incarnate reality into himself (Christ remains the embodied Logos even at the Ascension). In all of these cases we are dealing with the mystery of incarnation and it is incarnation which reveals and glorifies God most fully in each of these great moments of salvation history. Experiences which minimize incarnation or stress the eternal at the expense of our temporal and embodied existence (as though they are ever completely separable or wholly in conflict) are, at best, suspect to me. This might be good Platonism, but it is bad "Christianity". In an older terminology, these kinds of approaches to spirituality and prayer are disedifying: they do not build up.

Regarding your questions relating to mysticism: yes, I have had mystical experiences. They are profound experiences which, as already noted, occur relatively infrequently (for about 30 min to 1 hour or so at a time), are usually marked by relatively dramatic physiological changes (sometimes including cessation of breathing, slowing of all functions, with complete attentiveness to the inner experience of God in prayer), and often, imagery of God in Christ who interacts with me in various ways. The initial and overarching experience in these periods was a sense of God's tremendous joy that here I was! In the first experience, for instance, I simply "heard" God say in some way, "I am SO glad you are here. I have been waiting for SUCH a long time for this."

I suppose these experiences qualify as "ecstasy" in the technical sense (a standing out of one's ordinary way of being), but in the more common sense of the term (i.e., incredible joy) these were experiences of God's own ecstasy. I can conclude I myself was overjoyed, but what was compelling, even overwhelming, was the sense of God's great joy simply in being with me like this. For this reason, even this single experience changed my life completely --- my way of seeing myself, my way of seeing others, my way of being in the world, and especially my prayer. The shift marked with regard to prayer was from a kind of self-centeredness to attitudes and approaches which were specifically God-centered. That was true in prayer because I became mainly concerned with it as a way of being there FOR God. I began to approach it as a matter of giving God time with and in me --- no matter whether I was aware of him, felt healed, fed, loved, consoled, challenged, or anything similar. (On another level I KNEW God was effecting all these things in me, but the subjective or affective experience (or its absence) was simply unimportant. In light of this experience, what was critical about praying was that God be allowed access to me (and thus to my world) as much as I could allow through his grace.) This remains one of the most important insights I have had into the nature of prayer and is at the heart of my (or any truly Christian) theology of prayer, etc.

However, I am not a mystic nor do I know any. Most Sisters I know have had such experiences from time to time (we tend to call them touchstone or peak experiences, and sometimes use words like mystical or ecstatic in matter-of-fact, non dramatic ways), but, even if the experiences were frequent or regular, I doubt any of us would consider ourselves mystics. Perhaps, but not without real resistance and the exhaustion of our usual vocabularies! In part I think this hesitancy comes from a recognition that the entire mystical experience is a total gift and we have done nothing to prepare or ready ourselves for such occasions apart from ordinary faithfulness to prayer. Such experiences, by the way, can come even when a person has no real prayer life, or is only beginning to develop one, and are often seen more as God's gracious intervention meant to assist (or give a spiritual kick in the pants) at any moment than they are a sign of an "advanced" prayer life.

In part therefore, hesitancy about labeling ourselves mystics comes from a tendency for the term "mystic" to confuse identity with rare and unusual experiences which may have little to do with reflecting the nature or quality of a person's everyday prayer life and spirituality. I suppose that when I use terms like hermit, contemplative, pray-er, theologian, etc I am identifying goals as much as I am identifying central and defining realities in my life. But mystical experiences are neither of these for me. Significant as they can be, they certainly do not define the majority of my prayer, nor are they a goal. (Greater or complete union with God is a different matter, and is certainly both an immediate and ultimate goal.) Somehow, I can never see myself saying: I want to be a better mystic (what would that even mean???), but I can see myself saying I would like to be a better human being, hermit, pray-er, contemplative, Christian, etc. Hence, identifying oneself or another as a mystic is not something I would ordinarily do except as a way of pointing to one of the many ways God is active in one's life. Thus, if someone asked me about the character of someone's prayer life I MIGHT say, "She's a mystic," to give them a sense of things, but I would not refer to the person as a whole as a mystic.

Mysticism (or "Mystics") and the Temporal World

Again, though, even if I or other Sisters alluded to were mystics (meaning those who had been gifted with mystical prayer from time to time or even frequently) it would not mean we would cease to belong to the temporal or embodied world(s). In the experience I described, returning to a sense of my body, resuming breathing (getting my diaphragm to move again in response to another's urgings), figuring out what to do with my hands (which had been resting in that other's, and which remained suspended even after the other's hands were removed) took an effort, a focus I did not quite have immediately, and a period of "easing back" to something more normal. Evenso, at no time did I "leave" my body (a deep state of rest and attentiveness to God in complete dependence upon His care and sustenance is not the same as death --- which IS defined as the separation of body and soul!), nor was the imagery of the prayer experiences "unembodied". These experiences were, instead, experiences marking both Christ and myself as embodied and related in profound ways. (And remember, even glorified bodies, though not temporal --- that is, not subject to the exigencies of time, are instances of embodied existence.)

Significantly, neither did I ever completely cease to be aware of God's love for others. I knew that everyone was completely cared for even as I felt like I had God's complete and undivided attention and love. This paradox is what Augustine also once wrote about: "God loves each of us as though we were the only ones in the universe." The experiences were wonderful, awesome respites, reminders of the complete sufficiency of God alone and signals of what we are each meant for; they were experiences of the way God loves us each and every one of us at every moment, whether we are aware of it or not (and we are mostly not!), but they were also instances and examples of heaven's interpenetration of this world and so, of the eternal interpenetrating the temporal and bringing it to perfection. As such they empowered, transformed (converted and transfigured), and inspired in an ongoing or continuing way months and even years after they had occurred. Even now, 28 years later, I can touch into that first 40 minute experience and appreciate it in ways which continue to foster growth and sanctification. The experience itself has ceased, but God's continuing dynamic presence has not.

[[I also wanted to ask about today's Gospel. What is it that keeps a hermit, contemplative, or mystic from violating the requirements in today's Gospel? Jesus says you will know a good tree by its fruit, but what is the good fruit which comes from people who are shut away from others, or who are taken up with the "MCW"? I just don't see it!]]

Your last questions are really excellent (and their direction is a bit of a surprise after your first ones!). if you don't mind I will mainly answer from the perspective of contemplative and hermit. As I have written before, and as the Canon governing diocesan eremitical life states explicitly, this life is one lived "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." Failure in either regard marks one's vocation either as inauthentic or failed. But how is it a life lived mainly in the silence of solitude can do either of these and not be hyper-individualistic, self-centered, or unproductive? What does it mean to bear good fruit in such a vocation?

First, praise of God: God is glorified when his life in us is revealed to (and this means not only making known to, but making real within) the world. Our lives praise God when they evidence essential wholeness, wellness (even if that is in the face of serious physical illness), the capacity for love and compassion, and a fundamental generosity, joy, and gratitude at being alive in and for God. We praise God when we live our most authentic humanity (and this means in all its limitations and fragility) well. For the hermit, the silence of solitude and all it comprises should spill over in these things, whether or not this happens in active ministry, hospitality, writing, occasional contacts with parishioners (including one's prayerful presence at liturgy), or in any other way.

I personally believe a hermit's life should draw people in in some way, encourage them to make some of the values embodied in that life their own --- not because the hermit is particularly different from the rest of the assembly or community, but because she is very much the same, with the same needs, weaknesses, gifts, etc. While the call to be a hermit is rare, it should still be a vocation which does not exclude people. As I have written before, even when I am not around my parish for liturgy, etc, people miss me and are aware of the hermitage in their midst. They KNOW that it serves as a place of prayer, a kind of place of rest and order in what can be a very hectic and godless community. That very fact witnesses to fundamental needs in every life, and calls them to make of their own homes something similar --- within the constraints of their own situations and vocations.

Secondly, the salvation of the world: Salvation has to do with making whole, and in the case of either individuals or the world as a whole, bringing to perfection --- not in some precious esoteric sense, but in the sense of bringing to fullness all the potentials we (or the world) possess(es) in God. It involves making true, purifying of distortions and all that demeans, and overcoming all that alienates in reconciliation and healing. God is the cause here and each of us is responsible for allowing God to be sovereign in our lives in ways which affects others similarly. Sometimes this is made manifest as described above. Spirituality is revealed then as an eminently practical reality --- not something for specialists, but an integral part of every genuinely human life. It is not about making us into angels, but about making us into authentically human beings who incarnate the loving, creative, Word of God in all we are and do. Prayer, in particular, is a form of relating which fosters the goal of all of reality, our own personal reality, DIVINE REALITY, and that of all of God's creation.

This is true whether we directly influence others to pray (in teaching or spiritual direction, for instance), or whether our own lives and prayer serves as a silent and hidden leaven in a world needing this. In other words, to use that old language again, authentic spirituality edifies, authentic prayer and prayer experiences build up and perfect. Prayer is most fully real in our lives when we allow the Holy Spirit to act within and through us not only for ourselves, but more primarily for God, for the whole of humanity, the creation we are called to steward, and indeed, the whole of the cosmos. Authentic hermits, contemplatives and mystics all must be aware of and committed to this attitude. When it is absent or when the fruits of prayer (love, compassion, peace, joy, and gratitude) are absent or superficial, then one can question the authenticity of the characterization (hermit, contemplative, mystic, etc).

I hope this is of some help. If it raises further questions or requires clarification, please get back to me. Please also check some of the other blog entries on eremitical life as one of love and service. These may do a better job of answering the questions you posed about eremitical life per se.

19 June 2010

Feast of Saint Romuald

Reprised from 2008.

Congratulations to all Camaldolese monks, nuns, and oblates this day, the feast day of the founder of the Camaldolese Congregations!

Saint Romuald has a special place in my heart for two reasons. First he went around Italy bringing isolated hermits together or at least under the Rule of Benedict --- something I found personally to resonate with my own need to subsume my personal Rule of Life under a larger more profound and living tradition or Rule, and secondly, he gave us a form of eremitical life which is uniquely suited to the diocesan hermit. St Romuald's unique gift (charism) to the church involved what is called a "threefold good", that is, the blending of the solitary and communal forms of monastic life (the eremitical and the cenobitical), and the third good of evangelization or witness.

So often people understand the eremitical life as antithetical to communal life, and opposed as well to witness or evangelization. Romuald modelled an eremitism which balances the human need for solitude and a commitment to God alone with community and outreach to the world. The vocation is essentially eremitic, but rooted in what we Camaldolese call "The Privilege of Love" and therefore it spills out in witness and has a communal dimension or component to it as well. This seems to me to be particularly well-suited to the vocation of the diocesan hermit since she is called to live for God alone, but in a way which ALSO specifically calls her to give her life in love and generous service to others, particularly her parish and diocese. While this service and gift of self ordinarily takes the form of solitary prayer, it may also involve other ministry within the parish including limited hospitality --- or the outreach of a hermit from her hermitage through the vehicle of a blog!!! So, all good wishes on this feast of Saint Romuald!!

And for those who are not really familiar with Romuald, here is the brief Rule he formulated for monks and oblates. It is the only thing we actually have from his own hand.

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you
can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

15 June 2010

Canon 603 as a Stopgap Means of Achieving Profession.

[[Sister, I am involved in [a named group]. . . seeking to become a religious institute. I have been told I need the following before I contact the Bishop about becoming a diocesan hermit:. . . the Seven Pillars of New Foundations (rule, constitutions, horarium, formation program, remunerative work, stable source of habit parts, and four persevering members). When I have these in place. . . I will present my information to the Bishop. I live in my own home and the others in [the group] do that same in different cities, and dioceses. We decided we were not yet ready to live a cenobitical life so we are 'going the diocesan hermit route.' Can you give me any advice on these pillars or on approaching a diocese about this? Also, which Bishop do I contact, my own or that of the foundress of our group?]]

Hi there. I think there is some confusion on a number of points both in what you have cited and in your own understanding of Canon 603. Assuming then you only know what you have been told by the person you cited, I am going to answer at some length here. Pardon me if some of this is already clear to you. You will find this repeats other articles found in this blog as well.

First, Diocesan hermits are not part of communities. That is they are not religious hermits, but instead they are solitary hermits who MAY but need not join together for mutual support with other hermits from the diocese in what is called a laura. This possibility, contrary to popular opinion is NOT written into Canon 603 itself. It is seen by some as implicitly allowed, but the Canon itself clearly gives every preference to solitary eremitical life so lauras (some suggest) may NOT really be in accord with Canon 603. (They may instead be a form of eremitical life which requires use of Canon 605 which deals with new forms of consecrated life.) A laura (a name that comes from the Greek word (lavra) for the paths which link the individual hermitages) is not the same thing as a religious institute or community. Juridically, that is in Canon Law, the hermits remain solitary hermits even if they come together in a Laura (which, by the way, would be in a single diocese under the Diocesan Bishop).

Discernment is therefore a matter of determining a call to a solitary vocation, and while the process can (and ideally, I think, should) include an extended time in community or a monastery setting (or even in a Laura) --- say for a month or two -- discernment of this vocation for lay persons is primarily done outside these contexts. I say this not only because lay people usually do not have the kind of access to these that discernment requires, but more significantly, I think, because it makes no sense to discern a solitary eremitical vocation, or the form that is to take --- for instance whether lay or consecrated --- mainly (much less only) in community or even in a Laura. The same is true of formation. One can hardly say one has discerned or been formed in a vocation as a diocesan hermit if one has not largely done so in the ordinary setting of that life, namely, in solitary living where the parish is one's primary community and where one is responsible for one's own horarium, living situation, chores, business "in the world", ministry, income, etc.

This last comment does not apply to you directly it seems, but it does raise the pertinent question about both discernment and formation: What are you in the process of discerning a vocation to? Is it community life or is it diocesan eremitical life? You said you all decided to "go the diocesan hermit route" because you were not ready for cenobitical life. Besides the fact that the cenobium is traditionally and psychologically an important, even crucial, preparation for solitary life --- and not the other way around --- there seems to be some confusion about what you are either discerning or being formed in and for here. If you are trying to become a diocesan hermit you will do so under your own Bishop and no other. Further, you will need to be pursuing this because you believe in your heart of hearts that God has called you to this, not as a stopgap measure until something else is possible, but because it is a LIFE VOCATION and therefore, the way to your own and others' wholeness and holiness for the whole of your life from this point on.

Another question this raises then is, unfortunately, that of fraud. It is not uncommon to hear of people who believe Canon 603 is the "easy" way to get professed until they can find or found a community. I have written here before about this problem, especially in an incident occurring in Australia. Canonists, Vicars, and Bishops are increasingly aware of this difficulty and some are taking simple steps to make sure the person being professed under Canon 603 is doing so as a solitary person who has discerned a life vocation to diocesan eremitical life. One step is to include an introductory line as part of the vow formula itself: ". . .I earnestly desire to respond to the grace of vocation as a solitary hermit. . ." Another is to require the candidate for profession to sign an affidavit which states clearly that they are not and do not intend to become part of a religious community (even a fledgling or putative one), and are accepting profession as a solitary hermit. This leaves the option open in the future of joining with other diocesan hermits in a laura, but it makes it clear that the vocation being embraced is a life vocation and, as far as one knows and intends, not that of a religious hermit (one in community). If one made vows under Canon 603 while part of the kind of initiative you mentioned above, they would then be committing fraud, their vows would be invalid and they would conceivably be open to sanctions. These are, unfortunately, merely prudent safeguards of which I completely approve.

So, assuming that you have discerned you are truly called to life as a diocesan hermit under Canon 603, what about the other things you need before approaching your own Bishop? What you cite is correct about a couple of things. You will need to be able to support yourself in some way, and you will need a proven track record (or secure source) here while you are living as a hermit. You will need a Rule or Plan of Life which you have written on the basis of your own lived experience. (Ordinarily it takes several years of living as a hermit before one is really ready to write such a document, but it is one of the most crucial elements of the Canon and one of the most formative experiences a hermit can participate in.) Constitutions are appropriate for a religious community but diocesan hermits don't require them (the Rule is analogous to a Constitution in some ways). However, you will likely need a delegate who will serve you on a more day to day basis than chancery personnel usually can do. This person will assist you to work out the nuts and bolts of your calling, balancing activity with contemplative life, community and solitude, changes in horarium, concerns with physical welfare, finances, etc. She will also serve as someone whom the Bishop can call on if he has concerns or wishes additional input re the hermit's life. The passage you cite is also correct about a horarium. Ordinarily this schedule is simply part of your Rule of Life and has been worked out over time to make best use of time, and including what is fundamental to eremitical life in light of individual needs and capacities.

The passage you cite is not correct about formation program or habit parts or four persevering members, however --- not with regard to Canon 603 anyway. You will need to have provided for and achieved your own formation for a while before you approach a diocese, though dioceses may point you towards other resources you can pursue on your own. Your Rule of Life will also make clear your need and provisions for ongoing formation --- at least that this is a clear ongoing concern with some basic ideas on how this need will be met. As for habit parts, not all hermits wear habits (it can certainly be an important witness but is hardly a foundational element of eremitical life --- or of religious life for that matter) and those who do require their Bishop's approval to do so.

If you choose to wear a habit you will need to speak to your Bishop about whether and when that may be allowed. Ordinarily permission comes only when admission to profession is sure or with profession itself since the right to wear a habit is part of the rights and responsibilities associated with canonical standing. This is a reason part of temporary profession can include investing with the habit. (The cowl, if used, comes with perpetual profession -- as it always has in monastic life.) Too often today I hear of people styling themselves as religious and wearing habits on their own initiative who have no concept that it is actually a responsibility with which one must be vested --- not one they can honestly assume on their own. Again, four persevering members is unnecessary and does not refer to solitary diocesan eremitical life in any case.

But let's also back up a bit in looking at when it is likely time to contact your diocese. Assuming you are (and have been) working regularly with a trained and/or approved spiritual director, and that you have lived as a lay hermit for several years -- long enough to know eremitical life of some sort is your vocation -- you will be in a position to discern whether you are called to lay or to consecrated eremitical life. I think it is important to spend some time on this dimension of your discernment because the church recognizes both lay and consecrated eremitical vocations, but also because the need for lay hermits, their ministry and witness, is very great. (See other articles on this topic for an explanation of what I mean here.) After that, and if you truly determine it is the latter you are called to, you will need to determine whether that will be in community (as a religious hermit) or as a solitary (diocesan) hermit. If and once you have determined the latter is most likely, then it will be time to contact your diocese with your petition to discern further with them (since they mediate this particular call to the individual, they also need to discern the reality of the vocation!) and to be admitted to profession under Canon 603.

Note again that all of this is done within the context and competency of your own diocese with your own Bishop --- who becomes the hermit's legitimate superior, and whose "subject" you now are anyway. While it is possible to move to another diocese after profession, one must get the permission of both Bishops involved in the move to do so. (Remember that a Bishop must determine that this vocation is something the diocese can benefit from and is ready for. Some (perhaps many) have not yet done so. Moving to another diocese is not something one undertakes lightly, not only because of the monastic value of stability, but also because one's life is affirmed as a gift to the local Church at profession.) I personally can't even imagine how a religious-institute-to-be hopes to have individual members professed separately under different Bishops (not to mention under a Canon which deals with solitary and diocesan hermits who, because of something similar to monastic stability implicit in the Canon, cannot move to another diocese without the permission of both Bishops involved) and then, having planned to do so from the beginning, seeks to bring them together in another place under another Bishop and Rule as a religious institute! The whole set up, premeditated as it is, up smacks of manipulation, insincerity or hypocrisy, and not a little lack of understanding of or confusion regarding the gravity and nature of the vocations they are speaking about. Besides being a canonical nightmare it is a completely irresponsible and dishonest way to proceed.

In any case, I do urge you in your work with your director to discern whether or not you are called to life as a diocesan hermit. If so, you will then need to sever ties with the group you mentioned so that that piece of the confusion is cleared away and you can proceed more honestly and with more genuine commitment to this vocation rather than to another. (If, on the other hand, you wish to remain with this group, or otherwise determine you are called to cenobitical life, you should give up the idea of being professed under Canon 603; it is not meant for this situation.)

I hope this helps. As always if my response raises more questions or requires clarification, I hope you will get back to me.

01 June 2010

Support for Sister Margaret McBride: Lift the Sanction!

[[Sister Laurel, do you support what Margaret McBride did? And why should her Bishop lift the automatic excommunication. If she really did what she believes is right, then all she needs to do is go to confession to get back in the Church.]]

Yes, I absolutely support Sister Margaret's decision. I pray that I would have the courage to make and bear the consequences of such a difficult choice myself, but I do believe she discerned and preferenced the values and disvalues in the situation in a truly conscionable way. Let me be clear, as I understand the situation she did NOT make a choice for abortion. She made a choice for life, not only the life of the Mother, but the (quality of) life of her other four children, husband, etc. Even if I agreed that the abortion was direct rather than indirect (something I am not convinced of except in a very narrow sense), I believe Sister Margaret acted in the most loving, life-affirming way possible given the circumstances. However, even if I am completely wrong in this regard, the question before us now is whether McBride's Bishop should lift the sanction or not. As I also wrote earlier, in such a case (especially where every option seems to involve real evil) and the person acts in good conscience in the most rigorous sense of that term, we cannot allow a Church law (in this case, the imposition of automatic excommunication), no matter how significant, or well-intentioned and helpful in most instances, to trump God's own Commandment to Love in the most effective way we can in concrete situations. This principle was important for understanding Sister McBride's own decision, and it applies with regard to the sanction imposed on her by the Church in canon law. God gives us law to help us, but it is up to us to act in ways which make law serve love, not thwart it.

Your comment about just going to confession is problematical in several ways. I believe Sister Margaret's Bishop should lift the sanction in the first place precisely because Sister Maragaret acted in good conscience and CANNOT therefore just confess and return to full communion with the Church. One does not confess what one was convinced in one's heart of hearts was the most moral thing to do. One does not receive absolution for doing what one knows to be the right thing even if one changes her mind down the line (such a change does not alter the nature or quality of the original action). One confesses sin, not error (if error one concludes there has been) for which one is not culpable. For Sister Margaret, the option open to those who carelessly, thoughtlessly, or even maliciously have an abortion or cooperate in the process, and then have regrets about it all, is not a possibility. After all, Sister Margaret DID act after serious reflection; she acted in good conscience; that is, she acted with care and fidelity to the Gospels, the teaching of the Church generally, her understanding of the espiscopal directives to hospitals, and to God's own voice within her. This is one of the reasons Aquinas wrote that if one acts in good conscience and is excommunicated, one must bear the excommunication humbly (that is, in the power of God with whom one remains united!). Even should Sister Margaret decide she erred in her decision to commit one evil rather than another, she still acted according to her heart of hearts and committed no sin. Without denying the truth and trivializing the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the process, what would she confess?

I believe Sister Margaret's Bishop should lift the sanction for other reasons as well. As noted, Sister Margaret has no other option. The second reason flows from this. Surely the Church does not wish to leave people in such a situation pastorally. This would conflict with the commission Jesus gave to Peter when he affrimed that what was bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and what was loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. Clearly Jesus meant the Church to act in ways which allowed love, mercy, and all the power of the Spirit to triumph over more abstract codes or notions of justice. This is the reason the Church allows confession as the remedy for serious sin. It is even the reason she applies a penalty as severe as excommunication, after all! The desire is to bring a person face to face with the seriousness of their sin and allow for repentance. But what about a case where a penalty falls automatically or even unjustly on one who has not sinned and cannot confess and be absolved? Aquinas analyzed the aituation well with regard to the individual's primacy of conscience, but what of the Church's own conscience and responsibility here? The Church (via her hierarchy and law) is often able to publicly affirm her powers to bind, but it is far less common to see her exercise publicly her authority to loose. This, it seems to me, would surely be a worthy case for this.

Thirdly, the Church knows there is a tension in her own teaching on conscience. While some try to soften or remove this tension by defining "good conscience" in terms of "acting in accord with Church teaching," as I already mentioned this is not how Aquinas views the matter of conscience, nor is it a position Vatican II accepted. When individuals clearly act in good conscience in circumstances which are morally difficult or conflicted, when they exemplify thoughtfulness, courage, fidelity, compassion, integrity, honesty, and all the other kinds of values we recognize as signs of God's existence and Christian discipleship --- despite what law says --- we must recognize the tension which is at the heart of the Church's own teaching and find ways to act justly. Allowing an automatic excommunication to stand in the face of clear indications a person has acted as a true disciple of Christ hardly supports justice or a gospel which defines this in terms of mercy and forgiveness. Canon Law itself allows for consideration of extenuating and mitigating circumstances (C 1324) and notes that even in the case of Latae Sententiae excommunication, punishment is allowed only if the violation is seriously imputable due to malice or culpability (i.e, one has acted with due dilligence --- otherwise the penalty is not imputed!)." (C 1321) While imputation is presumed (C 1321), there is plenty of room for ecclesial consideration in these relevant canons, and many exculpatory reasons which apply automatically to the impaired, minors, or even the simply thoughtless. To let this stand in the current difficult and ambiguous moral situation removes the personal element of discernment and judgment which is at the heart of the way the Church is clearly told to deal with (all of us) sinners in 1 Corinthians in favor of an impersonal, abstract, and so, arbitrary and unjust judgment.

Further, the Church needs the witness such an act would give. It certainly need not be seen as supporting abortion. Nor was Sister Margaret disobedient in some way, so lifting the sanction need not be seen as acquiescing in this or other acts of arrogance or selfishness. On the contrary, it would support the difficult act of obedience and faithfulness she undertook on behalf of life. On another level we see the Church bending over backwards to deal mercifully and generously with pedophile priests for whom there is neither automatic excommunication or (usually) excommunication by virtue of a deliberate judgment, no laicization, and continued church support even if the priest is shipped off to a monastery. At the same time we see women religious being investigated, accused as a whole group via the LCWR of heresy or heterodoxy, of unfaithfulness to the fundamentals of their vocations, and so forth. There is a desperate need to see the Church's own application of penalities as evenhanded and commensurate with the individual situation. At the present time, this is simply not possible.

Another factor in the Church's own need for this witness is that today we have an episcopacy which is increasingly seen, whether rightly or wrongly, as made up of canonists rather than proven pastors. (The two things need not be mutually exclusive in my experience, but often they have proven so.) Whether perceptions are accurate in this regard or not these factors together have helped lead to a serious inability of most of the laity (and many clerics) to trust the authority and pastoral sensitivity and expertise of the episcopacy. The hierarchy may not be able to change the direction of these trends (on both sides!) to demean, distrust, and accuse, overnight, but they can certainly make it clear when the case merits it, that they are capable of putting love above law, the Gospel above Canonical norms, and that they recognize when one has behaved morally as a Catholic Christian and incurred an unjust penalty.

Finally, on a more political level perhaps, should Sister Margaret's bishop lift the sanction, his act will also help to indicate that such penalities and such decisions are significant and cannot simply be ignored or trivialized. Instead they must (and will) be dealt with by those with the authority (and the courage) to do so. In this case Sister McBride's decision became a matter of the external forum, and not through her own publication of the matter or the actions of her congregation; the solution therefore needs to take place on this level. To lift the sanction is appropriate and prudent for her Bishop for these reasons as well.

I hope this answers your question. Please note that my position and many of my reasons will also apply to at least some of those who acted with Sister Margaret or as a result of her decision. As always if this post raises more questions or is unclear in some way I hope you will email me again.