26 November 2010

Followup: First and Last Word in Eremitical Life?

[[ Dear Sister O'Neal, I don't think you really responded to one poster's point. She/he said, "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 persuasion or particular charism, but that's it. Period. Don't lay down roadblocks 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." Isn't it true that people are allowed to define these things the way they feel called to do? Isn't this the way things change and grow?]]

Thanks for the question. I believe I did respond to this person's point and actually have done so in a number of posts on this blog over the past couple of months even, but you are correct, I did not respond to the comments about being the first or the last word in what is eremitical life or setting up roadblocks to people, etc. First, I do agree that people should explore new ways of embodying older vocations (or the values of those vocations). For instance, we see today a tremendous growth in the popularity of oblature --- a way of living an essentially monastic life or the values of that life in ordinary society. We see Public Associations of the Faithful with domestic expressions, cenobitical or monastic, and even eremitical expressions. I absolutely agree that in much of this ferment the Holy Spirit is at work in new ways --- but not all and not when the movement actually empties words of meaning in the process, especially in ways which prevent or shortcircuit the serious pastoral applications of the original meanings.

Despite the poster's contention that I am not using words in new ways the simple fact is that diocesan eremitism itself is a NEW form of eremitical life, one which does indeed stretch the meaning of the term hermit in some ways. Most diocesan hermits are urban hermits and despite the history of anchorites or urbani who did indeed live in towns, the term hermit meant desert or wilderness dweller and this was taken in a literal sense. Even today there are Canon 603 or Eastern Hermits who reject the notion that there is such a thing as an urban hermit. The notion that urban life itself can represent an unnatural solitude because of the poverty, extreme mobility, and alienation of contemporary urban life is new, as is the idea of hermits living in the midst of such centers in order to witness to the redemption of such unnatural solitudes. Similarly where once the laura was the ordinary and accepted way to provide the necessary community and support for hermits, diocesan hermits explore the notion of parish and diocese as primary community. They live, as hermits always have, in the heart of the Church, but they often do so now very literally in the midst of the local church.

As for Canon Law not being the first or last word in what constitutes an eremitical life, I would actually agree with that, but with serious caveats and nuances attached. Canon law, like all law, follows life and is an expression of what history has shown us to be true and necessary. The history of Canon 603 itself is an important example of this. People have been called to and lived eremitical lives in the Catholic Church for 18 centuries and never before has there been a recognition of these persons or their vocations in universal law. As I wrote recently, even Vatican II made no mention of the eremitical life until pressed by Bishops who had hermits in their dioceses who had been forced to leave their vows and the consecrated state behind in order to follow a call which was actually an outgrowth and intensification of their consecrated lives. Canon 603 grew right out of this situation which demanded the revision of Canon Law according to the spirit of and emphases of Vatican II' conciliar document; the terms of the canon, the non-negotiable elements seen as foundational, did the same.

Canon 603 is the result of reflection on the lives of hermits and the nature and value of these lives. It is the result of reflection by and on the lives of those who have taken on the history and tradition of eremitical life and carried it on through 18 centuries of Church life. It is not an arbitrary piece of legislation made up merely by those who have never lived the life and do not understand it. And so, while law is not the first or last word regarding what eremitical life is, it remains normative of what authentic eremitical life has been in the Church in the past 18 centuries as well as how the Holy Spirit continues to work in contemporary times. Because Canon 603 consists of both non-negotiable elements and allows for personal expression it does not stifle the Spirit but respects the way she works. In reflecting on the meaning of the Canon's terms someone may certainly argue differently than I have regarding married hermits or part-time hermits, just as I argue differently than those who assert eremitical life doesn't allow for urban hermits, but I don't think they can simply use the term hermit without regard for the terms of this Canon or create new meanings out of whole cloth. That way lies the emptying of terms of meaning and the loss of significant history and living tradition.

So, I appreciate that people feel called to experiment, but I think they disregard Canon Law in this instance at their peril --- especially if they wish to claim that they are responding to a divine vocation, and not merely to the urgings and yearnings of individualistic hubris or need for novelty. I promise you that Canon 603, for instance, while it is clear about non-negotiable elements has immense room for experimentation and diversity of expression. What Canon Law ordinarily does with regard to authentic vocations, in my experience, is to be sure the non-negotiable elements anchor experimentation and diversity. It sets up parameters within which those who feel called to experiment, for instance, may roam freely, intelligently, prayerfully, faithfully, and with care. It helps individuals be sure they are listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit and not to their own egos. It is not, therefore the first or last word exactly, because it begins with reflection on real lives and experience and leads to more of the same, but it is surely an anchor which helps make certain our experiments in living are exercises in fidelity to God's own voice and the application of living tradition and not more of the addiction to novelty or our own resistance to authority and the heightened voice of excessive individualism which so characterizes contemporary life.

What should be clear is that my own reflection is of course neither the first nor last word in what constitutes eremitical life, but it IS based on serious reflection on the canon, on the history of eremitical life (which I am coming to know better myself), and on the life lived and struggled with FROM THE INSIDE rather than as a mere outside observer or dilletante. People should of course feel free to contend with my conclusions, but they should also be able to do so with reasons which are more substantive than, "I think it should be this way" or "Well, this definition seems good to me." It should also be clear that Canon Law is no straightjacket used to stifle the Holy Spirit; using it in this way is an abuse of the Spirit every bit as much as libertinism or failure to regard Tradition at all.

By the way, I personally have no desire to set up roadblocks to others undertaking legitimate experimentation, or seeking ways to live authentic vocations (and why my own opinions posted on a blog would have the power to do that is completely unclear to me). Neither am I opposed to authentic development and growth. However, I do wish the eremitical vocation to be understood and especially to be understood as a signifcantly pastoral reality which, in Christ, is capable of redeeming hundreds of thousands of lives marked by isolation, alienation, a sense of meaninglessness, abandonment by God, etc. THAT vocation with THAT capacity is not a part time avocation, nor is it the "vocation" of dilletantes, misanthropes, or social misfits and failures. THAT significantly pastoral vocation is the one the Church has codified in Canon 603, for instance, and I personally believe that anyone who wishes to use the term hermit for themselves HAS to seriously come to terms with that canon in one way or another or risk undermining the power of the term "hermit" to do what it is truly capable of doing.

I hope this is a more complete answer than you felt my first attempt was. If not, please get back to me and explain what you felt was lacking. That would be of assistance to me.