16 October 2010

On Visibility, Canonical Standing, and betrayal of the Eremitical Vocation

[[Dear Sister O'Neal,
Do you feel the visibility of your vocation detracts from the "hiddenness" of the eremitical life? Does living according to Canon 603 limit and taint the purity of the contemplative life? Someone calling themselves "Catholic Hermit" writes the following: [[This journey is for anyone, and to be consecrated by a canon law label or an increasingly visible, institutionalized hermit vocation would not allow for writing and living out the Order of the Present Moment, a spiritual order without temporal limits that confine by labels, definitions, visibility and temptation to personal hubris. While the hermit vocation is viable and willed by God for some, it is to be lived then, as the Church defined in the Catechism and then in CL603, which very much requires being hidden in Christ. Since the trend being promoted by some is not that, there is resultant taint and limitation in the label.]]

I have written about this before so I ask you PLEASE to check out posts with labels like "essential hiddenness," "eremitism and hiddenness" or "institutionalization of the eremitical life" which deal with the paradox of a public vocation which is also one of being "essentially hidden in Christ", etc. The obvious answer to your questions is no, I don't think there is any necessary conflict or detraction or else the Church would be guilty of this herself in promoting a public vocation under Canon 603. Further, it makes very little sense to 1) suggest that the Church, precisely in nurturing and governing the solitary eremitical vocation with specific definitions, requirements, ritual, etc is buying into increased institutionalization which is destructive of the vocation, and then 2) affirm that one should live the life just as C 603 and the catechism outline. What diocesan hermits and their Bishops are doing is exploring the meaning and limits of Canon 603 with their lives and commitments. This is what it means to live a vocation in the name of the Church. They are seeking to honor and foster precisely this meaning in her rituals, etc. Despite the elements of the canon sounding simple or obvious, the life defined in the Canon is NOT so very self-evident as the author of this statement would like.

The fact that I have needed to write about the distinction between lives of some degree of silence AND solitude and lives of the silence OF solitude, or that the term hermit is widely associated with stereotypes which look nothing like the life fostered and governed by C 603 should underscore this. The idea of married hermits, communities of "hermits" including parents and children, "hermits" who work full time in active ministry during the week and spend Saturdays in silence and contemplative prayer, misanthropic, selfish, or merely deranged "hermits." etc, also suggest that the nature of the life defined in Canon 603 is not so clear and self-evident as some would like. The same is true regarding the nature of the hiddenness of the life. Note, by the way, that hiddenness as a defining term is not included in the Canon anywhere and anonymity is certainly not alluded to. What is spoken of is "stricter separation from the world," "the silence of solitude," and "assiduous prayer and penance". If we are to understand what hiddenness is necessary or essential to the vocation itself it will only be as diocesan hermits live the vocation and contribute what they learn about it to the Church as a whole. In these and so many other ways the need to spell out what Canon 603 does and does not allow or call for, especially in regard to the contemporary world, is simply necessary if the Canon is to do its job in nurturing, protecting, and governing the solitary eremitical vocation.

Freedom is not the Absence of Limitations or Constraints

As far as there being limitations in the label "diocesan hermit" or C 603 hermit, yes indeed there are limits involved. Again, one can hardly suggest that exploring these limitations and the eremitical realm they define is problematical or that there should be no such limits while in the same breath affirming that "the trend promoted by some" diocesan hermits is contrary to the Canon." That is a bit like saying, "I am going to use the word hermit any way I would like --- none of these silly limitations or canonical definitions for me -- but you others, YOU must use the term as I define and use it!" In any case, are limitations necessarily perversions? Do they define a life contrary to eremitical freedom? I would say not necessarily. This is so not only because the absence of limitations creates meaningless amorphous blobs of reality and little more (actually, one can argue there would be nothing at all without limits or "lines" of definition), but because the very nature of Christian Freedom is that it is a life lived fully and abundantly within the constraints of life. Words, for instance, are free to have and take on meaning only to the extent they are limited by context and usage. Without limits (definitions or defining parameters) they are meaningless and are not free to be used fruitfully. Human lives are truly free not when there are no constraints, but when they are empowered to fullness and transcendence in spite of and even within and through various constraints. That is why Catholic theology (and the NT) defines freedom as the power to be the persons we are called to be within the spatial temporal reality of historical, embodied, existence.

The Freedom of canonical eremitical Life and the Present Moment

By the way, this notion of freedom is actually necessary to understand what it means to live in the present moment. Despite the author of the comment you cited desiring it otherwise, "the present moment" is a temporal designation but it is a paradoxical one. It does not mean ceasing to be temporal but rather discovering in the temporal the presence and meaning of the eternal. Living in the present moment means dwelling in a way which allows that "eternal now" (to use Paul Tillich's terminology) to become clear and lifegiving. It means living within space and time, but as those not bound in slavery to the past or in useless anxiety about or fear of the future. It means living within the constraints of space and time, but in a way which allows the eternal to fill and redeem it. It is an exercise in attentiveness, obedience, and freedom, but only insofar as one does NOT attempt to escape the limitations of time into some imaginary atemporal and non-spatial existence. When contemplatives speak of living in the present moment they speak of being completely present to whatever is at hand, however ordinary, however limited, but doing so in a way where eternity (God's own life) is allowed to break in and pervade that reality, or where that reality mediates God's presence (eternity) --- just as Christ's incarnation of the logos did for God in our world.

I don't particularly understand how one could suggest that canonical (diocesan) eremitical life would not allow for writing or living out "the order of the present moment," because of institutionalization, etc, unless of course one simply does not have or understand a call to this life. I have the liberty in my life to freely explore the infinite and eternal realm of union with God precisely BECAUSE of canonical standing. It is a freedom I possess because in being professed publicly I am also publicly free from the common requirement that my life make sense in worldly productive, competitive, and consumerist terms. The Church supports me in this at every point. She asks me in fact to do this in her name and on her behalf. And of course I am responsible to do so --- to do, in fact, what my heart yearned for. If my relationship with God and my experience of the silence of solitude ALSO leads me to write (or compose, or minister to some limited degree, etc, etc) I am completely free to do that.

Do I need permission for these things? Yes and no. If by permission one means prior authorization for every little thing, then no. (Big changes in my Rule, etc are a different matter.) However, what "permission" actually means ordinarily is the responsibility to genuinely discern the place of these and other things in an authentic eremitical life and generally my delegate or my Bishop (who share in this discernment process in varying ways) will permit or encourage this. Thus, I explore the "limits" (parameters) of this vocation with care and fidelity, prayer and reflection, and I act on what I discern. Regularly I meet with my delegate or my Bishop to inform them of what this means. Occasionally it becomes clear I have not discerned wisely or accurately as they reflect back to me their own perceptions (or as I realize in explaining my discernment that it was really inadequate!) So, again, this requirement of my vow of obedience is hardly a limitation of my freedom, but rather an expression and extension of it.

Concretely this means I am free both to fail and to succeed in this life, free to try again as often as I need precisely because I AM consecrated (set apart and specifically graced by God through his Church) as a diocesan hermit, free to explore everything it does and doesn't include, free to explore the gift this life is to the church and world, free in fact to understand my own life AS a gift when once I saw it as meaningless and unproductive. I am free to love, and therefore to minister in the ways my vocation and limitations in life permit --- and to constantly find I can transcend some of these limits because of the "constraints" of Canon 603. I am free to withdraw (in the sense of anachoresis) in greater reclusion, or to move into more activity at my parish or diocese and some greater visibility otherwise.

Will I make mistakes? Yes, and with the help of God and my superiors (not to mention that of my friends!!) I will also correct them. I am free day in and day out to spend my life in prayer, study, writing, and to explore the source and "limits" of human fulfillment and joy without worrying that perhaps I am called to something else. I am free to attend to the requirements of my own true self, to work on healing and integration, to give myself over to the process of redemption and becoming whole and holy as a result of God's love without fear that I am really being selfish. (What selfishness there is will soon be revealed and dealt with!) It is canonical standing with perpetual vows which guarantees these freedoms and many more. How can one argue that such constraints limit or prevent one's ability to dwell in the present moment???

Temptation to Hubris

And as for the accusation of "temptation to hubris", well temptation is not sin, nor is it something we need be protected from so long as we can triumph over it in the power of Christ. Indeed in the real "order of the present moment" we continually transcend or triumph over temptation. It is part of the dynamic of not being enslaved by anxiety or past memories, etc, which do still pull at us and the way we exercise continuing choices for God and his Christ -- choices which strengthen, purify and mature us. Hubris can easily be projected onto another, so we ought be careful concluding that a diocesan hermit who accepts public profession, wears a habit and/or cowl, writes a blog, or carries on her rightful ministry (which may include doing some theology or reflecting on the nature of eremitical life) is doing these things because of hubris. At the same time, we also ought be very careful not to call hubris a person's joy at being called or their very humble (i.e., honest) awe and pride that the Holy Spirit deigns to use her as s/he does!

When Mary says, "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit exults in God my savior because he has done great things for me" we hardly identify that as hubris! I would say instead that she is rightfully and humbly proud. When she ponders these things in her heart we see the essential hiddenness of such a life. When she speaks to her Son regarding the needs of the wedding party or tells the disciples to "do as he tells you" at the Cana feast, we hardly fault her for failing in this essential hiddenness! We see very little of Mary in the Gospels really, but when we do see her she has a tremendous impact. It is important not to mistake this for the kind of visibility our world cultivates today and which eremitical life especially opposes.

Visibility of "the World" and Hermit Bloggers

While my life is not anonymous, it is essentially hidden, and besides what the term means in eremitical life through the centuries, it is hidden in ways the world seems no longer to understand. We all know people whose every daily detail goes on their blog or facebook page, or is put up on twitter. Within limits some of this is fine. We are a global village and some of this contributes to growth and maturation in this. But most of it is simply the inability to respect others, ourselves, the nature of privacy, and the need to aggrandize and publicize every aspect of one's life as a result. I will think more about this issue of visibility, what is acceptable, what drives it, etc but for now I can honestly say that my own limited visibility is not driven by anything more than the need to share what the Holy Spirit is doing through this relatively unknown vocation and the way it is a gift to Church and world. I believe that is what drives other diocesan hermits with blogs, for instance. It seems that our Bishops agree, by the way, or, of course, there would be no blogs!

However, even within this blog there are limitations in what I make known or "visible." I have been asked in the past to share more about my everyday life, and I have once considered allowing comments on this blog. Both possibilities I rejected as serious intrusions into my solitude, privacy, and essential hiddenness (of which this blog is actually an extension). In fact this blog serves as a kind of grill or turn --- or better, an anchorite's window on her world --- where I pass things out to the world outside the hermitage and the world has a chance to address or at least read what I share as well. But most of the time the world outside my hermitage has no sense of me whatsoever, and certainly no sense of what is happening on a daily basis in my life. I have the sense it is this way for other diocesan hermits with blogs as well. So, yes, my life has a certain visibility but as I have explained before, the fact that I am a diocesan hermit is a public matter; what goes on in my daily life is mainly something that remains between me and God (which includes my director and/or delegate).