16 September 2011

Consecrated Virgins and Objective Standards, More Questions


[[Dear Sister Laurel, I am a Consecrated Virgin and disagree with what you have written about the vocation, especially about objective standards or requirements. I believe that it is reasonable to ask CV's to do and their dioceses to require the following: 1) direct service to the church, 2) specific obligations for prayer and daily Mass, 3) poverty and obedience, 4) a significant bond with the diocese for which they were consecrated, and 5) that they be open about their vocation --- which openness may include some recognizable garb or symbol besides their rings. None of this seems too much to ask of consecrated women, especially if they are to be distinguishable from ordinary or even devout laywomen. Wouldn't you agree?]]

Well, I would agree with some parts of this and disagree with others; it all depends on what specifically each of these points means and how they are concretely expressed. There is an assumption underlying all of this and you have made it explicit in your last sentence, which I would like to note first. Namely, that Consecrated Virgins (or consecrated persons in general) are to be distinguishable from "ordinary" or even devout laypersons. My problem with that is that it seems, at best, a very short step to treating the lay vocation as the lowest vocation on a kind of "ladder" of vocations --- the kind of "entry level" vocation which is fine for the "called" but not for the "chosen". But the truth is that Lay life is, by definition, the life of the non cleric called to be adopted Sons and Daughters of God in Christ. It is rooted in a form of consecration which therefore has an intrinsic dignity and challenge to it which is both extraordinary and very demanding. While it is true that people lead nominally Christian lives which do not really measure up to the dignity of their vocation, the "ordinary" lay vocation is not ordinary at all and the "devout" layperson is merely someone living out that vocation with integrity. Considering lay vocations or lay life as a kind of "entry level" state with other vocational calls as "higher" calls would be a really serious mistake. Especially it would undercut the insight and thrust of Vatican II's recognition that the life of holiness represented by the lay life is part of a universal call to holiness and, though the shape of it may differ, is no less than any other call to holiness.

All of this shapes the way I approach your questions and, along with the particularly general nature of what you have laid out (more general than other versions of the same points I have actually read on blogs), makes me hesitant to simply agree or disagree. So, regarding your actual questions and requirements, what do I think? Let me take your points one by one.

1) direct service to the Church. The Canon which governs your life is clear that the vocation is one of service to the Church and to one's brothers and sisters. My experience of canons (limited, I admit) is that they say what they mean and mean what they say. Had the Fathers that formulated this Canon meant direct service, parochial service, they would have said so. Instead they qualified it with, and "in accordance with (in harmony with) their state." As noted in earlier posts, the consecrated virgin in the world is, by definition, called to a secular vocation, as well as an apostolic one. This means being sent into the world, not into the Temple as "vestal" virgins. Christ's Body is meant to feed and nourish the entire world, and the consecrated virgin is to do that in her unique way. I see this as a direct service to the Church, but then, my definition of Church is not merely, the "institutional Church" here. While I think consecrated virgins might well ALSO serve in ways the institutional Church requires (the symbol of virginity as a whole-hearted, loving, and countercultural gift of self would be critically important for youth in our parishes, for instance), I don't think the vocation per se should be defined only in terms of such service, especially as a full-time requirement.

2) specific obligations for prayer and daily Mass: I have already written a lot about the development of a sound Eucharistic spirituality which does not require daily Mass so I won't repeat that here, but I will talk some about requirements of prayer. The documents on this vocation encourages, but does not require, prayer of two hours of the Liturgy of the Hours. These are the same hours every person in the Church is encouraged to pray, and I think it is significant that the Church has not generally or specifically required more than this of the CV when she might easily well have done so. In some ways I would personally be fine with some form of MP and EP being made a requirement because I know many Benedictine Oblates, for instance, who, despite very active ministries and lives "in the world," do this and more and find it helpful. However, these Oblates are also monastics and called to inculcate monastic values where they live. Consecrated Virgins are not. I would also personally encourage (but not require!) some CV's to pray Night Prayer as well --- because I find it a gift myself, and critical for both ending my own day and preparing for night, sleep, death, and even the new day. But I encourage this on a case by case basis. With regard to the LOH, more than this (i.e., the full Liturgy of the Hours) seems to me to be a burden which could actually distract from the other prayer and work the consecrated virgin is called upon to do and be in the world.

Consecrated virgins (living in the world) should, of course, be women of prayer, and in point of fact, SECULAR women of prayer. Everything they do, every place they are present, every encounter, etc is meant to be a part of this prayer. They live in light of a special intimacy with Christ, but they do so in a way which calls every person to live out a similar but personal intimacy with Christ in the workplace, in their daily interactions, business dealings, families, and so forth. Will this look different than the lives of devout lay persons? Maybe, but maybe not. I would think it well might not in fact. Certainly the spousal relationship with Christ will shape everything differently than the spousal relationship of one who is married with children, and thus, has limitations the CV does not, but what this might look like is not clear to me. Still, it is a difference which the heart makes that is the measure of demonstrable differences here --- not additional external requirements re prayer. Should the consecrated virgin pray in the way, and to the extent she feels called? Yes, of course, but what is a significant prayer form for one may be unfruitful for another. Whatever the CV does to become a person of faithful and constant prayer, the distinguishing characteristic of her life will be the kind of love which stems from that prayer and with which she approaches the world.

3) poverty and obedience: One thing must be said up front here. All Christians are called to live the evangelical counsels in some sense, but this ordinarily does not mean religious poverty or religious obedience. It does not mean either of these things for a consecrated virgin living in the world either. Evangelical poverty GENERALLY means allowing Christ to be one's treasure. It means using wisely and for the good of the Kingdom whatever resources one has. It means being a good steward of the wealth of creation, and ordinarily it means, therefore, embracing a certain simplicity of life which allows ALL people to share in the world's wealth no matter their station in life. It does NOT necessarily mean one must be materially poor, however, -- and in this is the challenge which faces consecrated virgins. Unlike religious women, CV's are called upon to model the Gospel counsel of poverty in a way which speaks directly to those in the world who are truly responsible for the world's wealth and others' access to that. They are to be truly rich in Christ and witness to this precisely in the midst of the world which so needs such a witness. They will do so as corporate persons, homeowners, business owners, attorneys, civic leaders, etc etc.

With regard to obedience, the consecrated virgin is called to listen and respond to the Word of God not only in Church or their own rooms, but right in the midst of the world --- just as every person is meant to do. That listening and responding may certainly include a reflective dialogue with one's pastor, Bishop, etc in order to hear and consider one's response to the needs of parish and diocese as well, but it will not be formalized with a vow or promise to subject one's will to the will of these persons. That is characteristic of religious or eremitical obedience, but not the obedience of a CV living in the world. I think the CV's obedience will be more wide-ranging in focus than that of the Religious, then. She will (like religious women) pay careful attention to what is happening in the world, to politics, sociology, economics, etc, and respond as she hears God calling her to do, but at the same time she will do so in direct ways religious cannot always attain. Will this look differently from the obedience of devout laypersons? Perhaps. But if it does, it will be because the love which shapes her life has a somewhat different stamp than does Christ's love in the life of the devout layperson.

One caveat regarding obedience and promises or vows. I have heard many people wanting to make a vow of obedience because it seems to them to do one or all of the following: 1) mark them out as a person who is more intimately related to the institutional church; 2) mark them as someone who is more important (especially when one's legitimate superior is the Bishop) and somehow separated from the choices and responsibilities of others (lay persons) in the Church and world; 3) require a kind of subservience which can verge easily into a juvenile relationship with the world of adulthood. All of us, for instance, have had the experience of saying, at some point in our lives, "So-and-so (the boss, or professor, or whomever) wants me to report directly to him!" and we know how proud we can feel at those times. As a diocesan hermit with vows professed in the hands of the local Bishop, I have experienced the temptation associated with this myself. It is something to be eschewed! (Fortunately, competent persons who serve as legitimate superiors, delegates, etc, generally discourage these kinds of relationships and reject utterly an approach to obedience which is juvenile and blind! It is interesting to realize how universal this need to be answerable to someone is --- and how destructive it can become.) In any case, CV's wishing to make a promise of obedience to the local Bishop need to be clear re their motives and recognize that, even in the best cases, they are trying to adopt a form of religious obedience, but not the kind of obedience the world so badly needs modeled for those living in its midst.

4) A significant bond with the diocese for which they were consecrated: I honestly don't know what this means. It seems to me that CV's are surely called to be aware of the needs, dreams, potentials, and general state of their diocese and parish. They are surely called to serve those needs both parochially and in the wider world. Further, they are called upon to model such a relationship for others who might also take on such a responsibility and relationship. Is such a relationship insignificant? If this is a way of saying, "vows (or promises) of poverty and obedience" then it is a very narrow definition of the term "significant." For instance, despite the role I have in my diocese and parish, I know that there are people who are much more knowledgeable about and concerned with the needs and inner workings of these things than I am. They are an incredible gift to both parish and diocese in a way we really need. So, if you can specify more clearly what you had in mind, it would be helpful to me.

5) An openness about their vocation which may include distinguishing garb or symbol beside their ring. It is one thing to be open about one's vocation, and another to wear distinguishing garb --- especially when one's vocation is essentially secular and not to be marked off by garb which creates boundaries and separation. My understanding of the Rite of Consecration is that while it refers to the giving of the veil, this is understood to refer to a veil which is used during the consecration, and perhaps during liturgical celebrations (rather like my cowl is --- for I certainly don't wear it when I go to coffee with my friend on Sundays!). The wedding ring is a VERY significant symbol which at once marks one as committed, but also which is clearly understood and invites significant conversation. Obviously one should be open about who one is, and how one has been called, but at least a portion of this openness means openness about the secular nature of one's vocation.

It is not always easy to talk about the deepest things in one's life, especially the foundational love-relationship which defines one's existence above all others, for instance but this is what is required in Canon 604 (or any public vocation) and the openness you allude to. To witness to a God who takes as spouse someone living in the world, working at the same kinds of jobs, facing the same economic challenges (including how to deal with personal greed and wealth), the same relational obstacles, threats, and disvalues (the objectification of women, the trivialization of sex and denigration of virginity, the notion that a woman is only complete when linked to a man, etc, etc) is a very challenging witness. It is also one that religious women (who are, by definition, marginalized from the world in ways the CV in the world is not) cannot undertake in the same way.

Thus, I honestly think CV's are called upon to do this without the protection or the facilitation which a habit, veil, or other distinguishing garb makes possible. They are espoused to Christ and the wedding ring is the sign of complete dependence upon this foundational relationship. It is, in its own way, a sign of the specific poverty appropriate to the Consecrated virgin.

I hope these answers are helpful.

P.S. I referred to the called vs the chosen in the beginning. By called I mean everyone whom God in Christ has summoned to himself. By chosen I mean all those who have indeed answered this call. I reject the notion that God calls some, and then, in another selection-like process elects others for special favor, and these are "the chosen." When Jesus says many are called but few are chosen it inevitably seems to mean the-all-composed-of-the-many are called, but of these, relatively few respond as grace enables them. There is nothing elitist in this at all -- and it is something today's Gospel seems to underscore, I think.