24 November 2010

Follow-up on Part-time Eremitical Life


Well, I've riled some feathers in responding to questions about the "Saturday-only" hermit. Mainly, I think I have been misheard or misunderstood so I am going to post the comments received and try once again to make clear what I am and am not saying.

[[For heaven's sake, the life of the monastic or hermit is not holy orders. I don't think you have the right to claim that if one's particular vocation in that mileau is not precisely what has developed heretofore (or, considering how canon law develops, which flavor or style of the life 'won out' over others) that they ought to go back and reconsider their baptismal vows. My goodness, what an uncharitable remark. My mother is a Ph.D. in nursing; is she a better nurse than a first year? She'd be the first to tell me, after 45 years in nursing, it depends on the nurse. All of your arguments in your responding post seem to follow the fallacy that more time in service or more closely aligned with a particular mode of canon law makes one a better hermit. Bah. Is my close friend, a Jesuit of 50 years a better priest than the newest member? Is a Saturday only theologian better than a 7-day-per-week theologian (frankly a closer analogy since neither involve a sacrament)?]]

I am honestly not sure what I said that was uncharitable in suggesting that anyone in the lay state (or for that matter anyone in any state) reconsider their baptismal promises and commitments. The situation I was addressing was this: there is a failure throughout the church to esteem the lay state, to see it as possessing the dignity it does. What has happened over time and for a number of reasons (including the clericalization of the church) is that when adults desire to make adult commitments to and in Christ they look not first to their baptismal promises (or even to their marriage vows) and to specifiying those vows as needed at this point in time, but automatically to the idea of multiplying vows (and so making private or public vows) as the only form of adult commitment possible besides ordination. Sometimes these even conflict with marriage vows as when married people seek to make vows of celibacy.)

Further, because the Church has consistently given the impression or explicitly stated because of a misreading of Thomas that the laity are in an inferior state of vocation, those who really desire to live the fullness of discipleship have come to believe it will only be possible for priests, nuns, brothers, sisters, monks, hermits, and consecrated virgins --- and not as lay persons. But this is untrue. Vatican II was clear about this. The lay state is part of a universal call to holiness, an adult and exhaustive form of holiness which glorifies God every bit as much as any other vocation or state of life. How it is uncharitable to ask people to START here, and if they are in the lay state to take responsibility for that and for the call to holiness and the dignity of this vocation, I really can't see. This has nothing to do with hermits or non-hermits. It is a problem in the church as a whole, and a quite serious one. We have hundreds of thousands of lay people who believe their vocations are second-class or juvenile and less exhaustive forms of discipleship than those of nuns, brothers, priests, etc. They live and are pained everyday by the sense that their call from/by God is an inferior one. I have simply said this is not the case. The Church has emphatically said this is not the case. So I don't see this as uncharitable but charitable.

I do not know why the discussion morphed into terms of better/worse or younger/older either. I have tried assiduously to reject characterizations framed in terms of better and worse. For instance, I have written time and again that consecrated hermits are no better than lay hermits, but rather that the rights and obligations they have in the Church because of their canonical standing are different. Again, I think we are seeing in your comments the deeply entrenched holdover from the misapplied scholastic language of "objective superiority". That is especially true of your comment that neither monastic nor eremitical lives are holy orders or matters of a Sacrament -- as though that makes them less significant. It does not. For certain, the better/worse language did not come from my posts because in regard to vocations and states of life I reject it absolutely. Thomas also rejected this language and so he drew careful arguments noting that an objectively superior state of life does NOT mean a subjectively better or more holy Christian. Today, the solution needs to be formulated differently than Thomas did; the various states of life are different from one another, with different rights, obligations, and responsibilities, but none are better than the others. Each one is rooted in a call by God and is invested with infinite worth and dignity. Again, different, not better.

Regarding younger/older and experienced/in-experienced, there is no doubt that we all grow into our vocations. Those who wish to be hermits may begin by building in silence, solitude, prayer, penance, and stricter separation from the world. In and of itself this does not make them a hermit. At some point solitude herself MAY open the door to these people and a change takes place if they accept the invitation to enter. In such a case they are no longer solitary persons grappling with the individual elements of the canon or life. Instead, they are hermits in a fundamental sense now living the silence of solitude and allowing (or learning to further allow) everything else to flow from and support that life. Once the door has been opened and one has walked through it in response, growth continues (or should continue). Meanwhile, the central reality of these persons' lives -- the silence of solitude which is a short hand reference to union with God and the quies that flows from it --- will call for greater external silences, stricter separation from the world, etc. Again, not better or worse, but different!

[[And please, Sister, let's not use the straw man fallacy. Comparing a person's Saturday only eremitc life with a saturday only state of motherhood is pathetic. Sorry, it is. Do I need to spll (sic) it out? If one has committed one's heart to a solitary life as best as they are able, but it involves work outside the home, what is that to you? A mother and spouse have an entirely other promise--of course they don't get (much) time off. The point is that I am and many are pushing the meaning of words and of particular callings. You are not, and neither is canon law, the first or last word on what constitutes an eremitic life. You certainly are the last word on what it constitutes to you and those of your persusion or particular charism, but that's it. Period. Don't lay down roadbloacks to others. The fact that is that there IS a groundswell, a grass-roots movement of folks, in the married or other secular states looking for a deeper commitment to their spiritual development, with expression in their lifestyle and self-styling--they are allowed to use old words in new ways. Especially when they don't impinge on the nature of the sacramental forms.

I think the analogy holds. If a person babysits a child once a week, that does not make her a Mother no matter how badly she would like to be one. If a person lives an eremitical or desert day once a week, this does not make her a hermit or desert dweller no matter how much she would like to think it does. The illustrations can be multiplied: if a person leads a Communion Service once a week (or even several days a week) on his pastor's day(s) off, this does not make him a priest or pastor (though he may be very priestly and pastoral). If a person prays contemplatively once a week this does not make them a contemplative. A person who spends a day a week at a monastery or enclosed in their own house is not necessarily a monk or nun who lives a cloistered life. It is simply not appropriate or accurate to speak of a Saturday-only eremitical LIFE as you have done --- unless you are speaking about a hermit who is actually failing to live her call to a LIFE of the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, and separation from the world, etc. Here the distinction another diocesan hermit once drew might be helpful: many people are called upon to build in elements of eremitical spirituality in their lives, but this does not make them hermits nor argue that they are called to eremitical life per se. Put another way we could say that some people's lives have an eremitical flavor or cast without being eremitical lives.

You can and probably should feel free to push the meaning of words all you like, but in doing so you need to beware of emptying them of meaning altogether and making them incapable of communicating anything substantive. You should also not be surprised however when the onus of demonstrating the legitimacy of your usage falls directly on you. Whether we like it or not, the Church has a normative understanding of what constitutes eremitical life. Those of us who live that from the inside know the wisdom of this definition. We know from the inside what the struggles and joys of FULL-TIME silence of solitude, etc, mean -- as opposed to a single desert day a week -- for instance. There is simply no comparison. Both are good, but they are also not the same thing, and they require different names as a result. The Church's normative statement (Canon 603) has been formulated in a way which ensures certain non-negotiable and foundational elements even while it allows flexibility and diversity in expression. You are mistaken then if you believe canon law is not open to newness in this regard, and you are certainly mistaken if you say that I am not. However, to push words in ways where they may mean anything one would like is simply to ensure they mean nothing at all.

As I have written now a number of times, a hermit who needs to work outside the hermitage on a part-time basis is not ideal but this can still be made to work on a case by case basis. However, someone who needs to work FULL-TIME, especially outside the hermitage has, I sincerely believe, ceased in essential ways to live the fundamental elements which define the life. Meanwhile, back to the Saturday-only example which is even more troublesome:  one day a week of contemplative prayer, silence and solitude is NOT an eremitical LIFE. It is a wonderful and helpful thing, but it is not what Canon 603 (or the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the whole eremitical tradition) recognizes as an eremitical LIFE. The reason this is important is because the Church recognizes eremitical life as she discerns it is to be defined as a pastoral gift to the Church and world. (See  below.)

[[So, I think we should just agree to disagree. I guess it comes down to who is the more accepting here? What is the most compassionate response? For that matter, why don't you go back and consider your own baptismal vows---why weren't they enough? What makes your life intrinsically 'other' than other's? It doesn't sound very nice the other way, does it?]]

While we may agree to disagree, there is a distinction between being genuinely accepting and merely being uncritical and uncaring of meaning or truth. Compassion requires that we be truly loving, and it is not loving to allow a person to live a lie, or to empty meaningful terms of content when that content is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and World. Canon 603 is such a gift. It defines the nature of eremitical life in a world and at a time when dislocation, isolation, alienation, and the search for meaning in our isolation and alienation are rampant. Even so, it is a canon which allows for great diversity even while (and perhaps because) it clearly spells out foundational, or non-negotiable elements comprising authentic solitary eremitical life. It is the entire vision of eremitical life which it provides us which is a gift of the Holy Spirit to both the Church and world.

I will repeat my main point from the other post because this is the true answer to "What is it to you?" above as well. FULL-TIME hermits who have allowed isolation and marginality to be redeemed and this transformed into the "Silence of solitude" can speak effectively to all those persons in our parishes, dioceses, neighborhoods and world who CANNOT leave their situations for time off one day a week -- those who are chronically ill, disabled, the isolated elderly, impoverished, etc. Hermits' lives are compassionate answers to the questions these myriads of people have and are. These people need to know that their aloneness is not a sign of the senselessness of life or abandonment by God, but the ground out of which God can call them to the silence of solitude and union with himself. I don't think a person who is busy, engaged, working, socializing 5-6 days a week, and then takes a day for silence, solitude, and contemplative prayer can effectively serve in this way. Hermits, whether lay or consecrated, who live the terms of Canon 603 with the whole of their lives CAN minister to these people in a way I believe no one else can do quite as fully or effectively. I believe this ministry is part of the charism of eremitical life and a reason the life (not the avocation) is growing today. It is certainly a reason eremitical spirituality is growing today, but again, embracing elements of this spirituality does not make one a hermit anymore than my own embracing of elements of Ignatian spirituality makes me a Jesuit.


Finally then, on the question regarding my own call to something other than the lay state. This is not a new question and I have written on it before two years ago or so, so please check that out. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: My credibility regarding the Importance of the Lay Vocation My own discernment of this took several extended periods of time, and my discernment of a call to consecrated eremitical life rather than lay eremitical life took about 25 years. In answering that call finally (with perpetual profession and consecration) I did so because I felt called to accept rights and responsibilities that did not flow from baptismal commitments, but from a different call as well: I was called (both subjectively and objectively) to consecrated celibacy and a nuptial or spousal relationship with Christ, and I was called to witness to that publicly with a form of love which was more eschatological and universal than otherwise. I was called to be obedient in a way which specified my usual call to obedience with a legitimate superior, the elements of Canon Law, the Church's definition of eremitical life, etc, and again, I was called to do that publicly. The same is true of poverty. I felt called to a degree and kind of poverty which does not automatically flow from the baptismal or lay state. I found I needed this commitment to live freely what I felt called to.

But let me be clear, I did indeed live my baptismal commitments fully before this and I realized that I might well never be admitted to the consecrated state as a hermit if the Church did not agree that this was God's own Call for me AND FOR THE CHURCH. (In that case, I would need to come to terms with the idea that perhaps I had not discerned properly). In fact the Church DID agree, and mediated God's own call, my response and profession, and God's consecration to me. Had the Church said no, I would have remained in the lay state, a lay hermit, and tried to live this full-time life in a way which glorified God and gave honor to the lay state. It would have been a different life, one where I would still be doing much of what I am doing now, but with different rights and responsibilities in terms of the Church. (I need to say here that the fact that I DID come to terms with living as a lay hermit is important to who I am today as diocesan hermit and allows me to esteem lay eremitical life better than I think some do. It also allows me to appreciate the differences between the two forms of eremitical call. So again, as I well know --- these are not to be seen in terms of better or second-best, but different.)

Those different rights and responsibilities include the living out of Canon 603 with the whole of my life in as faithful a way as I can. Part of the responsibility means learning more and more about the forms and fundamentals of the eremitical life over the past @2000 years of Church life and why they are included in the canon. It means standing in that tradition and taking it on in ways which allow it to speak to the contemporary world. It does not mean emptying the term of meaning or trying to apply new senses to it before I understand from WITHIN the life and have thus accepted a personal responsibility for it. "Hermit" is not a word without history or meaning, and while the application of this meaning can certainly vary, like most things we need to accept the basic meaning and live it before we start jettisoning bits in the name of some sort of individual liberty.

I hope this clarifies some points of misunderstanding.