21 October 2010

Followup Question: Hermit Intercessors of the Lamb and Profession under Canon 603

[[ Sister Laurel, in one post on the Hermit Intercessors of the Lamb you referred to persons who use the term "hermit" in metaphorical ways. Are you saying you believe they were not real hermits? Maybe it is more that they are examples of the term hermit being enlarged rather than "emptied of meaning." Have you considered this?]]

With regard to the Intercessors I have to first say I do not know enough about the way the members lived to draw a conclusion one way or another. The two things I do know about them suggest that perhaps the term "hermit" is meant to indicate a dedication to some form of desert spirituality and a life with some added degree of solitude (aloneness) and silence, but not in the same sense that Canon 603 requires. Similarly, I have heard or read that the "hermits" lived active and fairly social lives most of the week but set aside Saturdays for solitude, silence, and contemplative prayer. IF this is the case, then I would suggest this is neither eremitical life as I personally understand it, nor certainly as the paradigmatic canon 603 defines it. However, my concern in referring to a metaphorical usage was less with "realness" of the eremitical lives of the Intercessors per se as with the possibility of the situation they are now in contributing to a problem which crops up with regard to Canon 603 occasionally --- namely, the profession of those whose lives bear little or no resemblance at all to the life defined therein.

Misuse of Canon 603 in Professions:

Let me explain. While I believe the usage of the term "hermits" in the title of the former intercessors' community was metaphorical (they were not literally hermits as the church understands and codifies this vocation), it remains likely that despite being equivocal and somewhat confusing, the usage can still be of value in pointing to the place of silence and solitude in every life, and especially in ministerial or apostolic lives. Every life can benefit from desert spirituality, no matter how active that life because every life will experience times which especially bring home the fact that nothing but dependence on God will truly sustain or nourish authentically human life. However, with regard to those who wish to be professed under C 603 such equivocal usage and confusion would be contrary to the canon and detrimental to the vocation itself. Canon 603 does NOT define hermit in a metaphorical sense, nor does it do so in terms of silence AND solitude which merely need to be quantified in this or that way. It does not allow for vocations which are merely expressions of a metaphorical eremitism and loosely inspired by the early desert Abbas and Ammas, nor lives which are simply more alone or quiet than most people's. (Please cf the text of the Canon at the foot of this post for the defining or normative terms used in the Code.)

Instead, those professed under this canon must be hermits in a literal sense and as defined herein, thus spending their entire lives embodying more completely the vocation to solitary eremitical life and the charism C 603 describes as "the silence OF solitude." And yet occasionally we hear stories of people being professed under Canon 603 whose lives truly bear no resemblance to the life outlined there, often because C 603 is the only canon allowing for the profession of an individual and can seem to provide an opportunity for making vows when no other way is open to a person. Thus, for instance, in one diocese several years ago a woman was professed despite the fact that she is in every way living an active apostolic life. She works full time five days a week, sets Saturdays aside for silence, solitude, and contemplative prayer and frankly describes the term "hermit" as a metaphor for her life.

In regard to this specific case, let me say clearly and emphatically that this Sister sounds like a completely amazing person and is someone I would personally like to know. She is praised highly by those who know her and apparently works to the limits of her ability in giving her life for others in Christ. However, all of this notwithstanding, she is NO hermit and the life she lives cannot, even remotely, be considered a life of "the silence OF solitude," "assiduous prayer and penance," and "stricter separation from the world" which is part of the strictly non-negotiable nature of solitary or diocesan eremitical life. In her case (and precisely because she is remarkable) I truly believe Canon 603 was used as a stopgap way of professing her because nothing else was available --- which indicates possibly exemplary motives on the part of the diocese --- but I also believe it represented a serious and imprudent misuse of the Canon which actually endangers the very vocation it is meant to nurture, protect, and govern.

The Implications of Misuse of the Canon

Obviously this is a rather "gnarly" problem and one with which the Church will have to deal. Every individual profession sets or continues a precedent and in this particular case it sets a precedent which can easily and eventually empty the terms of Canon 603 of meaning. Further, if the precedent is repeated, if others with similar lives are professed, this could actually lead 1) to increased reluctance by Bishops to profess ANYONE under this canon --- something we actually do see today, 2) to increased interventions by the hierarchy imposing more and more rules, guidelines, etc, and 3) (when all else fails) to the actual suppression of the solitary eremitical life altogether. The latter has certainly happened in the past. Besides outright suppression, what we have seen at various points in the Church's life more generally is that either solitary hermits and their vocations are smothered in rules or swallowed up into communities as the church tries to regulate their lives, or the term "hermit" comes to be used merely metaphorically for any life of greater aloneness or relative silence and even as a synonym for isolated do-your-own-thing life, life characterized simply by misanthropy, selfishness, bizarreness, etc, etc.

In the first situation hermits may come or be brought together by bishops in what may initially be authentic lauras (which are colonies more than they are juridical communities) and then find that over time increased rules, structure, etc, invariably transforms the laura into a religious community. In this way the solitary eremitical life is thus lost and replaced by cenobitical life. In the second situation every element outlined in Canon 603 is perverted or otherwise rendered null or empty. What replaces eremitical life is an antisocial, eccentric life constituted less by Christian freedom than by some merely humanistic liberty, and the term "hermit" ceases to have real meaning for most people apart from this notion. (This allows for situations like the one I wrote about recently where "Tom Leppard" was identified by a reporter as a hermit, situations which do nothing more than reinforce stereotypes and makes the actual vocation unbelieveable and ridiculous.) When this happens the church can (and has) suppressed the vocation because it has come to represent abuse, misuse, distortion and a libertinism which is disedifying and even contrary to Christian discipleship.

The Importance of Canon 603 in protecting the solitary eremitical vocation

Thus, Canon 603 is significant because it allows in Law for the solitary eremitical vocation particularly. The entire stress in the Canon is on this, and this is really the first time in the history of the Church that this has occurred on a universal level. Given the very fragile nature of the vocation and the two major ways it has been imperiled in the history of the Church noted above (1) increased institutionalization and excessive oversight and 2) inadequate or lacking institutionalization and insufficient oversight which thus allows an "anything goes" kind of life), Canon 603 defines the life in terms of BOTH non-negotiable and universal elements AND individual flexibility ( via the individual Rule of Life written by the hermit herself and based on her experience of how God calls her uniquely). It is thus clearly defined, but also can have quite diverse and relatively flexible expressions.

I think the Canon is therefore masterfully written in a way which allows for fidelity to the traditional understanding of this life AND to the freedom and creativity in the specific living out of this which each hermit is also called. Canon 603 is an incredibly wise and prudent attempt to protect one of the most delicate vocations in the church. If it is misused though, if its essential elements are misdefined, disregarded, or treated as negotiable and a life professed under the canon in not truly defined by them and so, ceases to be a literal expression of these elements, the term hermit may become a mere metaphor, which, as important as that may be to some, is not at all what Canon 603 is meant for. In such a case it would not be a matter of the term hermit being enlarged so much as it would represent a genuine emptying of the term of meaning. It would also render the Canon ineffective in doing what it was truly meant to do, namely (again), to nurture, protect, and govern a very rare and fragile vocation which is a gift of the Holy Spirit to Church and world.

Hence, my concern with metaphorical vs literal, and solitary vs communal or cenobitical in my post on the possibility of professing former Intercessors under Canon 603. In responding to the question I was not concerned so much with the nature of the HIOL's use of the term hermit (though I admit I don't like usage which confuses the issue of what is or isn't a hermit), but rather with whether this was a life which the church could somehow "automatically" profess under Canon 603 without separate and serious discernment or caution --- especially given the communal nature of the HIOL vocation. The question posed by the reader raised all kinds of caution flags in my mind, not regarding the HIOL themselves, but with regard to maintaining the vitality, meaning, and purpose of Canon 603 per se.

Text of Canon 603, Revised Code of Canon Law

Sec 1: Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance.

Sec 2: A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.