28 October 2011

On Hermits and Loneliness, Followup Question


[[Dear Sister,
you wrote about hermits and loneliness back in June of this year. Would you say that the absence of loneliness when one is alone or lives a solitary life is a sign of an eremitical vocation?]]

By itself no, I don't think that is a necessary conclusion. While I think it is true that more malignant forms of loneliness (those significantly accompanied or dominated by anxiety, depression, a need to seek others out or distract oneself, etc) are generally absent for the authentic hermit, I think that more normal loneliness, associated with the fact that one is loved and loves others but is also mainly separated from them, is a piece of eremitical life. As I noted in that earlier post, loneliness can and does occur for the hermit because of the need to share dimensions of her life, or because her union with God is partial, for instance. It is true that hermits turn to God to share what cannot be shared with others, but for most hermits -- especially those not called to absolute reclusion --- this does not automatically do away with the need for friendships or the sometimes-painful drive to love in concrete ways. In fact, it may exacerbate these to some extent. Thus, as I wrote earlier, I think that simple loneliness is a piece (though not a dominating one) of living an eremitical life.

Because of this, the complete absence of simple loneliness is not something I expect hermits to experience. Unless we are speaking of what we experience during chosen and limited periods of physical solitude (which all persons require), the absence of even simple loneliness is more apt, it seems to me, to be the result of blunted sensitivity or diminished affectivity, the consequence of personal woundedness, or even the result of a more malignant self-centeredness and exaggerated individualism or even narcissism. Note well that I have referred to the absence of loneliness here --- that is, I have referred to something defined in negative terms, the absence of something. If a person has a deeply intimate and pervasively consoling, even companionable relationship with God, then I think they will characterize that in more positive terms. If they have made the transition from isolation to genuine solitude, then I think they will do the same with that experience. In other words they will not be saying, "I don't feel lonely" so much as they will be saying something like, "My life is full and rich: I am deeply loved and am called both to return and share that love," etc.

Obviously though, one of the natural questions people ask of hermits is, "But don't you feel lonely?!" In this context, and bearing in mind the distinction between simple and malignant or pervasive forms of loneliness I have drawn in the past, one will generally answer "no." The answer given is naturally articulated in negative terms. Is this a sign of an authentic eremitical vocation? Maybe. My own sense, however, is that one should look to other and more positive signs instead: does one love more fully as a result of physical solitude? Is one's life full and does it become fuller as time goes by? Does one deal with loneliness by persisting in fidelity to one's commitment to solitude and without the need for distraction or not? Can one maintain significant friendships even within this solitary context? Are people generally impressed with the sense of joy that comes from authentic solitude and marks the hermit as "at home" in such a context? (Joy is not the same as more superficial happiness and is often, rightly I think, identified as a gift of God.) Does one convey a sense of the significance and wholeness of such a life or does one give the impression of a kind of narrowness and futility? Is one's humanity, despite being a work in process, more integral, authentic, compassionate, generous, transparent, and honest?

25 October 2011

The Silence of Solitude as Essentially Missionary


[[Hi Sister, it seems strange to me to speak of hermits participating in the mission of God to the world. It seems to me that missionary work is active, and though I am sure prayer and union with God is helpful, I can't see where union with God is a form of mission. Perhaps that explains why sometimes I read about hermits who seem completely wrapped up in some sort of union with God and feel no need to be part of the church or her "temporal" affairs.]]

I suspect you are not alone in this. Remember the book I recommended recently on Secularity by Ronald Rolheiser? One of the major underlying elements in this book is that God is missionary and the Church participates in this. Vatican II's Ad Gentes affirms that all mission begins with the Holy Trinity with the sending of Word and Holy Spirit into the World. Mary Maher, SSND, outlines this very well: [[In the early Church, as the theology of the Trinity was developed, and already we see roots of this in the Gospel of John, mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. In classical trinitarian language, mission is understood most fundamentally in this way: God the Father sends the Son; the Father and Son send the Spirit; the Father, Son, and Spirit send the Church. Missionary initiative comes not primarily from the command of Jesus to his disciples to go out to the whole world and preach the Gospel. Rather, missionary activity comes even more basically from the very nature of God, a triune communion of love. Mission, therefore, is not primarily an activity of the Church; it is primarily an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.]] (Maher, Mary, "Called and Sent: Reflections on a Theology of Apostolic Religious Life Today" (Seminar: Union of International Superiors General)

Hermits in particular need to be aware of this. As we also know, there is a tendency to see eremitical solitude and its goal of union with God as essentially selfish or all about self and one's own salvation. (Some would-be hermits approach it this way too --- to the detriment and distortion of the vocation!) Similarly, at the opposite end of the spectrum there is a tendency to see the ways in which contemplative union spills over into various forms of limited apostolate as distractions from and something which is not intrinsic to authentic union or contemplative life. While serious discernment is required in determining how and when such spillover is allowed to occur, it becomes easier to understand how "the silence of solitude," which is characteristic of union with God, is the heart of genuine mission resulting in such "spillover" when we understand that the very nature of God is missionary. It also helps us to understand the importance of "the silence of solitude" itself as a leaven empowering mission, and as a gift which can transform the lives of those who feel they have no mission in the Church because they are ordinarily the ones being ministered to (the chronically ill, bereaved, prisoners, frail and isolated elderly, etc).

The Silence of Solitude as Charism of Canon 603 hermits


[[Sister, are you saying that "the silence of solitude" is the charism of diocesan eremitical life? Why not one of the other central elements? Also, I don't quite see how understanding that this is the charism can prevent abuses where the other central elements are treated as negotiable. I am sure you have explained this well, but could you explain a little more?]]

Yes, sorry if I was unclear. I am saying that "the silence of solitude is the charism, or the defining characteristic and specific gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Church and World through diocesan eremitical life." "The silence of solitude" is not merely the external silence of someone living alone --- though it is that too. The "silence of solitude" is what happens when a person who prays assiduously (etc) is brought to union with God. It includes the reconciliation, healing, individuation, and human wholeness which is part of this, eventuating in the ability to relate to others compassionately and with the love of Christ. In a sense then, "the silence of solitude" is both means and goal of the eremitical life, and it stands in marked contrast to the world in which we all live. Our unstable, noisy, overly mobile, self-centered or overly individualistic consumerist world is marked by estrangement and alienation. People hunger for and seek relatedness and meaning in many many ways, but too often these ways are more distractions and exercises in superficiality than means to actual communion and healing.

One group of people in particular symbolize the failure of our world in this regard, and who are more systematically victimized by it; these are those whose alienation and isolation is more pronounced or clear because of chronic illness, bereavement, old age, imprisonment, etc. For these persons especially, but for all the world caught up in noise, busyness, distraction, and the values of something other than the Kingdom of God, the hermit living a prayerful life in and out of "the silence of solitude" says that even the worst isolation and alienation can be healed and lead to communion with God. For this reason I suggest that "the silence of solitude" is not only means and goal of the eremitical life, but that this is the gift hermits (and especially solitary or diocesan hermits) bring to Church and world.

The other central elements of the canon seem to me to function to support and nurture this specific gift or charism. Other vocations are also assiduously prayerful and penitential; others are marked by degrees of separation from the world; others certainly are also publicly vowed and consecrated, are lived according to a Rule (or constitutions) under the supervision of legitimate superiors, but "the silence of solitude" is not the primary gift they bring to the Church and world. Cloistered vocations may themselves be an instance of the silence of solitude to some significant degree, but it seems to me that the diocesan hermit is called to live out this reality differently and in a way which speaks to every isolated and alienated individual in our world with a starker clarity. Further, the fact that she lives and grows in this vocation outside of community and embedded within (and dependent upon) her parish, neighborhood, and diocese argues that "the silence of solitude" is possible for anyone finding themselves in a similar place. All of this makes the diocesan hermit's life a very great gift in a needy world --- but not if the vocation is lived badly, on a part time basis, or in ways which treat the other essential elements as dispensable or unendingly elastic.

Once this charism is understood by every hermit, candidate, Bishop, and chancery official, the elements which support and lead to "the silence of solitude" will be understood and respected as well, I believe. They will be seen as critical to the gift the hermit brings to the church and world --- not simply as elements which can be added (or neglected) in varying amounts: a little bit of silence on the weekends or in the evenings, a dash of contemplative prayer on Saturdays or perhaps on Wednesdays as well, and not just as things to be done, but as characteristics of a particular embodiment of personhood lived in union with God. In particular diocesan eremitical life will not be seen as a part-time "vocation" nor will hermiting itself be seen as synonymous with simply living alone (even if one is pious) or as a lone ministerial religious. After all, the people to whom diocesan eremitical life is especially supposed to be a sign of possibility and hope are not chronically ill, impoverished, bereaved, imprisoned or otherwise isolated and alienated, unable to compete, work, etc, merely on a part time basis. They cannot join religious communities and few will be able seek profession in the Church as a diocesan hermit. Yet, they too are called in some way to an essential wholeness and to union with God (that is, to "the silence of solitude") precisely in their physical solitude.

This is why I argue that candidates for profession under Canon 603 thus themselves will have made the transition from doing "hermit things" (whatever this actually means!) at some point before profession is even considered and will be living and living towards the goal of "the silence of solitude" every day of their lives. Further they will do so because they know that otherwise their life is not the gift it could and is meant to be for those who have no other option or hope. Similarly it is why I argue that Bishops and chanceries must first understand and appreciate the charism of diocesan eremitism before discerning vocations to Canon 603 profession.

Every single vocation in the Church, and the Church herself participates in God's mission to reconcile the world to himself. Hermits certainly do the same. Eremitical life is about proclaiming God's grace to transform and heal human poverty and alienation and to redeem the isolation and estrangement which is so prevalent in our world. The silence of solitude (the wholeness and quies or shalom of union with God) is the eremitical charism which says that divine grace and human poverty together result in precisely the kind of authentic humanity our world needs so desperately.

23 October 2011

Canon 603, Misuses and Abuses: Part 2, Recognizing and Embracing the Charism of Solitary Eremitical Life

[[Hi Sister, your last post raised additional questions for me so I am writing to see if you can answer them. You said that lauras are very different than communities of hermits. Can you say what these are? You also described the flexibility of the eremitical life and described conditions that allowed for such flexibility. It seems to me though that these same conditions can lead to abuses and misuses of C 603. Has this happened? Is it common? Is Canon 603 itself enough to prevent such abuses or does the Church need something from Rome like the other poster mentioned --- a document like Vita Consecrata?]]

So, I hope my last post answered your question about some of the major differences between a c 603 laura and a community. Let me give the rest of your question a shot in this post. I want to start though by discussing the cause of the abuses we see (because yes, we see them and yes, this has an effect on further vocations).

Neglect of Charism: The Source of Abuses and Misuse of Canon 603

My own sense is that misuses and abuses in the application and use of canon 603 inevitably stem from one single source, namely, an ignorance of or failure to appreciate the actual charism of diocesan eremitical life. Because people (including Bishops and chanceries) don't actually understand or regard the vocation's nature as gift or the quality of that gift in concrete terms, the essential elements of the canon are treated as negotiable or susceptible to endless compromise and dispensation. I am identifying the charism of diocesan eremitism as a life of "the silence of solitude" lived by a solitary hermit, and lived, as the canon specifies, for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. The shorthand form of the charism is "the silence of solitude". The salvation it refers to and occasions takes a number of forms, no doubt, but one of the most important and necessary in today's world is the witness to and modeling of the transformation of isolation into genuine solitude possible with the grace of God for those multitudes who are left alone and estranged in a world marked by excessive mobility and in which the meaning of a life is gauged by the criteria of productivity, consumerism, wealth, and the like.

Essential Elements of the Canon Establish the Gift Quality of the Vocation

Once this is understood the essential elements of the canon (a vowed life of stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, according to a Rule of life the hermit writes herself and lives under the supervision of her Bishop) cannot be set aside or redefined to mean anything at all. Because the vocation is a gift especially to those who cannot simply opt out of the circumstances that isolate and limit them (situations like chronic illness, bereavement, old age, imprisonment, etc)--- not even for brief periods --- hermits must be able to live full-time solitude and in doing so witness to the redemption of isolation possible when one stands on the margins of society empowered by the grace of God. Understanding and respecting the gift eremitical life is to these persons would put an end to the possibility of some of the misuses and abuses of the canon we do see today: part-time hermits (hermits who work full-time outside the hermitage in very social roles and allot Saturdays (et al) to contemplative prayer), "hermits" who are professed merely because there is no other canon in the Revised Roman Code to profess an individual even though they are truly called to be ministerial or apostolic religious, "hermits" who are merely failures at life or who are so eccentric or misanthropic that their isolation is mistaken for authentic solitude and canon 603 is seen as a way of validating their lives, married hermits, and persons who simply live alone and are relatively pious.

All of these instances of misuse and misunderstanding occur when the elements of canon 603 are treated as optional or negotiable or are redefined to mean something less or other than they actually say. So, for instance, the silence of solitude is redefined as "silence and solitude" and treated merely as external things to be built into one's day rather than as the very goal of the life --- a way of describing the silence (and the song!) that results when one lives in union with God as well as the external environment that helps lead to this. Assiduous prayer and penance too are treated as quantifiable activities rather than as the quality of an obedient and articulate life steeped in and open to the active Word and presence of God. Stricter separation from the world is treated as the simple act of closing the hermitage door on reality rather than as a commitment to becoming holy and authentically human precisely as God's dialogue and covenant partner within a solitary context. "For the salvation of the world" is then an obscure phrase tacked onto what seems to be a thoughtless, selfish, and individualistic pursuit rather than being taken as a defining element of the vocation which marks it as one of generosity and love at its very heart. No specific person or group of people is seen as benefiting from the integral commitment to a life of genuine solitude when this phrase is cut off from concrete circumstances.

A Life of Compromise and Mediocrity

When all this happens it is a short step to a life of compromise and mediocrity. Once people fail to understand "the silence of solitude" as a description of the union with God which transforms all human weakness and poverty or redeems ANY form of isolation or estrangement without regard to productivity, wealth, buying power, status, and the like, the essential elements outlined in the canon become more or less dispensable. When it ceases to be not only the environment necessary for the diocesan hermit but the goal of her life as well the same thing happens. And as a result canon 603 can become a stopgap way to profess anyone who merely lives alone and fits under no other canon rather than the canon which is reserved for professing those who are truly already hermits in some essential way, whose lives witness to the dynamic embodied in the term "the silence of solitude," and who require profession under this canon in order to live out this embodiment as fully and integrally as possible.

As your questions recognize, flexibility can lead to abuse, but my own sense is that what is important in making sure there is genuine flexibility and not simply a casual disregard for the elements of the canon is a sense of the gift quality of the vocation. When the hermit understands and esteems the gift her life is to Church and world in very concrete terms she can be flexible out of love, not merely casual out of disregard or ignorance. At the same time she will not be rigid in her living out of this vocation to Christian freedom, because rigidity is a function of ignorance and lack of understanding (not to mention a lack of love) as much as is license.

On the Incidence and Significance of Misuse and Abuse of Canon 603

Are there many misuses or abuses of canon 603? No, not in absolute terms. But given the relative rarity of the vocation every one of these is akin to 100's of instances of abuse in other more common forms of consecrated life. Each one establishes a precedent, and in a vocation which is little-understood, even by Bishops, and where Bishops are, at least in part, dependent upon living paradigms of the nature and significance of the vocation for truly understanding the vocation, each precedent can have enormous influence, whether for good or for ill. Often the result of such instances is not the profession of others in the same way, but the refusal of Bishops to profess anyone because the vocation is made to look badly conceived and incredible by such misuses.

Do we need the Church to produce a document for Canon 603 like Vita Consecrata? I don't know. We certainly need Bishops and chancery personnel (not to mention those who wish to be professed under this canon!) to understand the true meaning of the central elements of the canon and WHY they are non-negotiable. Non-negotiable does not mean inflexible in expression or embodiment, but it does mean that these elements contribute to the gift quality of the vocation and that that will be lost if they are treated as expendable or infinitely elastic. Commentaries are clear that canon 603 is not a call to a life of merely external silence and solitude, nor to simply living alone, doing one's own thing, and being fairly pious in the process. What must happen is for Bishops and their chancery personnel to educate themselves on canon 603; similarly, as mentioned in my previous post, they must appreciate that what is canonically possible because it is not prohibited is not the same as what is prudent for the vocation itself. If a document from Rome can do these things, then perhaps it could be helpful.

22 October 2011

Canon 603 Misuses and Abuses: Part 1, Lauras vs Communities

[[Hi Sister, your last post raised additional questions for me so I am writing to see if you can answer them. You said that lauras are very different than communities of hermits. Can you say what these are? You also described the flexibility of the eremitical life and described conditions that allowed for such flexibility. It seems to me though that these same conditions can lead to abuses and misuses of C 603. Has this happened? Is it common? Is Canon 603 itself enough to prevent such abuses or does the Church need something from Rome like the other poster mentioned --- a document like Vita Consecrata?]]


WOW! Now THESE are really great questions. They actually capture the concerns of a number of diocesan hermits with various areas of interest who feel proprietary about this vocation, not out of ego, but because they recognize how fragile is this vocation which is the work of the Holy Spirit. Diocesan hermits wish to honor the work of the Spirit and do so in a way which contributes to an understanding of a vocation which is at once RARE and infinitely valuable while also contributing to its integrity and authenticity. Because of this we are aware of abuses or misuses of Canon 603 --- usually stemming from an understandable (though not excusable) ignorance of its central elements or the very nature of eremitical life itself. Such ignorance (which occurs on every level, from the merely curious, to candidates, to canonists, to Vicars for Religious, to Bishops) allows the canon to be used to justify profession of individuals who are not hermits and may never be hermits. But let me answer your questions and get back to this as part of those answers. I am going to break these into more than one post, one on the laura/community distinction, and one addressing the remainder of your questions!

Canon 603 and Lauras vs Communities

First, let me reiterate that Canon 603 is meant to foster, nurture, and govern solitary eremitical lives, not the lives of hermits living in community. The first thing that Canon 603 says by its very existence is that the Church has recognized the ecclesial validity and significance of the existence of solitary hermits and wishes to protect them. Canon 603 believes in solitary hermits, and affirms that indeed, the Holy Spirit calls individuals to authentic eremitical life in a solitary way whether in deserts, on mountain tops, or even in the unnatural solitudes of urban life. Canon 603 is an implicit affirmation in her belief that human isolation can be redeemed and transformed into true solitude and that one does not need to be part of a religious community (or even a laura!!) to live eremitical life authentically and fully. Further, given the prevalence of parishes and dioceses and the access of the Sacraments and Christian community, as well as Canon 603's insistence on an approved Rule and the supervision of the local Bishop, the solitary eremitical life is more possible than it has been in the past. (Remember that Paul Giustiniani once concluded that solitary eremitical lives could no longer be considered legitimate because of the need for and Church requirements regarding regular participation in the Sacraments. He posited lauras as the answer.) Finally, it is important to remember that for various reasons eremitical life has always been threatened to disappear in two primary ways: either it "becomes" and is absorbed into cenobitical life, or it is suppressed or simply dies out. Canon 603 is, in its own way, a law which is meant to prevent both of these eventualities and the reasons which lead to them.

The first way is by allowing for lauras but NOT communities. Now, let's be clear that the Canon does NOT itself specify this allowance. Everything about the Canon is geared to the solitary eremitical vocation. Commentators however, do recognize that the Congregation for religious (CICLSAL) in Rome acknowledges lauras to be a possibility and they have allowed this as an option FOR THOSE DIOCESAN HERMITS WHO DECIDED TO COME TOGETHER IN THIS WAY at the discretion of the local ordinary. So the first element in determining the difference between a community and a laura is the recognition that a laura is not a place where a non-hermit may go to be formed as a hermit. In a Canon 603 laura, then it seems to me that there would be no postulancy, novitiate, juniorate (or their correlative superiors or formation personnel), etc. It would be, by definition, a place where SOLITARY hermits who are already professed according to Canon 603 with their own Rules of Life, their own spiritualities, ministries, interests, confessors, directors, and delegates, etc, may come together to mutually support one another in greater physical solitude and solidarity than would be possible otherwise.

Thus the structure of the laura would be minimal. A set of approved guidelines or "house rules" to ensure the solitude of the place, provision for some common prayer and meals at regular intervals, a set of rotating charges or chores which are to be done on a regular basis, and a general expectation of common regard and assistance may be all that is required. Each hermit would generally follow her own horarium and work and pray on her own. Except for communal meals to which each would contribute in some way, each hermit would be responsible for her own food, cooking, etc. I am envisioning a laura without a priest so attendance at Mass would be part of the hermit's regular participation in a parish community. (Liturgies of the Word with Communion would be extensions of parish liturgies.) In general the laura would not be the place a hermit entertained friends, but if the grounds are sufficient, there is no reason occasional friends could not come for walks and quiet talks, or even a meal and period of recreation, etc. Meetings with spiritual directors and delegates could take place at the hermitage whenever these need to be scheduled (or not, as the hermit works out). The hermits would generally be free to come and go as they individually needed without answering to anyone at the laura so long as their obligations there were otherwise met and folks were informed of and understood the basic itinerary and contact details. (A sign out sheet would be an easy solution here.)

Access to phone, computer, media, internet, etc is determined by the hermits' OWN Rule of life. Similarly, each hermit would continue to maintain individual bank accounts and be responsible for her own needs and expenses. Some portion of each hermit's income could be given to cover common expenses, rent, and/or upkeep, but these hermits would remain solitary hermits, responsible for their own personal and living expenses, healthcare, etc, in all the ways any other diocesan hermit would be. They would also, therefore be allowed to earn money doing spiritual direction or whatever else they are skilled at and this money would NOT become part of the common pot. (Given the frequency with which lauras fail for whatever reason, it is important that the individual hermits, who remain professed in the diocese, be able to move to other places on their own if necessary. The provision for individual earning and bank accounts is something specifically addressed in the Guidelines for Eremitical life by the Diocese of La Crosse.)

Significantly, there would be no general superior here. Delegates (quasi superiors who serve both the diocese and the individual hermit) will more likely (and far more prudently) be drawn from religious or others outside the laura. Confessors and spiritual directors are also chosen by the hermit in complete freedom from those outside the hermitage. The choice of ministry, recreational activities, friendships, degree and nature of parish participation, etc are up to the hermit so long as these choices do not impinge on the solitude of the hermitage itself or the individual hermit's own Rule and solitary way of life. Whether hermits are spiritual directors, writers of icons, authors, medical transcriptionists, etc, since they carry these activities out as solitary hermits, the laura is neither responsible nor liable for problems which might occur as a result. Only the hermit herself is so liable --- as would be the case for any C 603 hermit anywhere. And, as mentioned above, the laura is not a house of formation. Hospitality might (and, in the desert tradition, should) be offered if there is an adequate way to do so, but that is a very different matter than becoming a house of formation!

Similarly, there is no concerted common garb, spirituality, mission, or ministry here (though the garment given at perpetual profession besides the habit may be the same or similar for all hermits in a given diocese). The laura might be composed of diocesan hermits from Carmelite, Benedictine, Camaldolese, Carthusian, Trappist, Franciscan, or other spiritual traditions. Habits, when habits are worn at all, might reflect any of these or none of them. Each hermit will live out the diocesan hermit's charism of "the silence of solitude." This is the gift she brings to Church and world but the way in which she embodies this in presence and ministry to others can and will likely differ one from another. A Canon 603 laura will be rich and diverse in terms of spirituality with no single or predominant vision of reality or even of eremitical life beyond that articulated in Canon 603.

Why the concern?

As you might be able to tell, I believe that there are communities of hermits today professed under canon 603 which merely call themselves lauras in the sense truly allowed by Canon 603. I think this is a mistake and a betrayal of the Canon and the vocation it governs. Some members of these actually consider the Canon "impossible" and suggest that it is inadequate to live a good eremitical life (although these persons are professed under it and have committed themselves to living out an eremitical life in accordance with it). Some mistakenly argue that commentators note that Canon 603 allows for communities. (Beyer, who is misquoted by one of these persons for instance, explicitly notes that lauras are permissible but should NOT rise to the level of communities.) Some, in a rather different situation, want to be or belong to a community from the beginning and use Canon 603 to get individual members (or themselves) professed on the way towards this. This actually crosses the line from betrayal of the canon and vocation it defines to outright fraud. The question at bottom of all of these instances is whether we really believe that solitary eremitical life is possible or not. The question is important because there are millions of isolated persons in our world who could be given great hope if the answer is yes. Either "the silence of solitude" --- that is, the silence of a simple and committed solitary life lived in union with God --- is possible for the individual who lives without benefit of formal community, or it is not. Canon 603, by its very existence and formulation, says that it is.

This is one area where the Canon is not specific even though everything in the Canon is geared towards the solitary hermit and the Canon itself was formulated with this specific vocation in mind. History tells us that the solitary eremitical vocation is fragile but vital and significant. Canon 603 is a way of protecting and governing such vocations and the gift they are to the Church and World, especially to isolated individuals everywhere --- individuals with no chance or even desire of becoming religious or living in community, or to those individuals who need the model of solitude and contemplative prayer of what are sometimes disparagingly called "freelance" or "solo" (rather than solitary) hermits right there in their parish communities. Canon 603 nurtures and protects a unique eremitical charism then, but this is one place where unawareness of this charism leads to misuse and abuse of the canon. It is also a place where greater clarification and education might be prudent. As I have stated before, it is one thing to argue for the canonical possibility of something, that is, it is one thing to argue that the law does not specifically preclude that thing, and entirely another to argue for its prudence in light of the gift it is to Church and world.

15 October 2011

On Vocational Flexibility and the "Sensus Fidelium"


[[I do have a specific question about how the Church works. I watch you working out in your own lived experience and Rule, guided by canon law, what you believe "hermit" to mean, in discussion with other hermits. I also watch you discussing what "consecrated virgin" means and should mean in lived experience.

Because these are renewed-ish vocations, is this how the sensus fidelium is worked out, by discussion among the people familiar with both the canon and with their own callings? Do you expect a formal pronouncement in greater detail, like "Vita Consecrata" but specific to hermits, virgins, and widows? Or is the simplicity, flexibility, and interpretability of the canon law a great virtue of these vocations? Or have I missed the point entirely?
]]

Thanks for the questions. Sensus Fidelium or "sense of the faithful" is another thing. Because the baptized are also given the gift of the Holy Spirit they have a part in the essential infallibility of the Church or what is sometimes called her indefectibility --- her divinely assured ability to continue to participate in and proclaim the truth of the Gospel in season and out. Sometimes this is exercised in the faithful's refusal to receive a doctrine or teaching, for instance, but in all cases the Church's teaching depends in part on it being received teaching. This criterion is also a piece of understanding what it means to proclaim the Gospel authentically because proclamation means announcing the Gospel in a way which convinces and changes hearts and lives. If those charged with proclaiming the Gospel (namely, every Christian) find that their message is not being heard effectively, they need to reflect on what is missing in their proclamation.

But with regard to vocations which represent gifts of God to the Church there is give and take as the Church teaches about and legislates on these vocations, and, significantly, as those living them educate the hierarchy on the nature of the vocations themselves. Thus, with regard to Canon 603 lived experience preceded the canon which was a response to individuals who had calls to eremitical solitude but were required to leave religious life to pursue it. Because of this lived experience the Church was prevailed upon to include the life in an official way and a Canon was devoted to it in the Code. Once that occurred other individuals began to envision what this vocation could mean in a contemporary world and in time Bishops began to be more open to professing individuals under the canon.

It is possible that there is greater give and take with regard to Canon 603 than with other vocations in part because the hermit's legitimate superior is the Bishop and she meets with him regularly. My own personal experience of these meetings (yet pretty limited) is that they are warm and serve to allow the Bishop to get to know both the hermit and her vocation, as well as her thoughts on the nature of the vocation, concerns about it, etc. Another reason there may be more give and take with regard to Canon 603 is that this is a little-understood way of life clothed in mystique and riddled with crippling stereotypes. Because of the rarity and uniqueness of the vocation, failures in authenticity are quick to be evident and successes are edifying. Bishops sincerely desire successes and seem open to learning about the vocation from someone living it from the inside. Further, the eremitical vocation itself has been described as the epitome of freedom, though this means freedom in an authentic sense, not in the sense of license. This certainly adds to a sense of flexibility on everyone's part but also to a sense of constraint and responsibility. Finally, the vocation is a solitary, not a communal one (even lauras or colonies of hermits are significantly different than communities of hermits) and this means the combination of faithfulness to Tradition and adaptation to individual needs and those of the times is achieved more immediately by everyone involved (meaning the hermits, their delegates, and their Bishops).

In my last meeting with my Bishop (a canonist) we spoke about Canon 603 and the beauty of the way it has been written. I had commented that in the past few years I had come to appreciate this beauty, especially the way it combines essential elements and the flexibility of a personal Rule of Life. My sense (because of a comment by my Bishop in this meeting) is that this is not true of many canons, but in the case of this one, I don't think it can be denied. In any case I don't think that Canon Law generally is as flexible. (At least it is often not treated that way by the hierarchy.) Even Canon 603 has non-negotiable elements (for instance it defines a vocation of the "silence of solitude", not merely a vocation with some degree of silence AND solitude; this means that once the terms of the canon are understood, one (whether bishop or hermit) is bound by them and called upon to make sure they are lived out. With regard to Canon 604 (consecration of virgins living in the World), one cannot simply treat the phrase "living in the world" as a bit of verbal decoration, a minor distinction without real substance, but instead must treat it as something pointing to the very nature of the vocation itself. Finally, with regard to Canon 603, the flexibility allowed is written into the canon itself and worked out between the hermit, her delegate, and her Bishop. I think this is relatively unusual, and no, not really typical of the way the Church (or canon law) works generally.

The situation would be vastly different if we had 10's of 1000's of hermits (and the possibility of greater numbers of failures and abuses with inadequate oversight) in the US, for instance, or a similar number of consecrated virgins. Were this to happen we would be expecting clarifying documents like Vita Consecrata, but at this point, despite some unclarity and abuses, we do not. In any case, I think canons 603 and 604 are exceptions in this matter.

I hope this at least begins to answer your question. Thanks for your patience.

07 October 2011

Book Recommendation, "Secularity and the Gospel" by Ronald Rolheiser (editor and author)

As a hermit I have to be very cautious about "world-hating" language and attitudes which are inappropriate to any Christianity, just as I have to reflect seriously on what is involved in the "stricter separation from the world" which is a non-negotiable element of Canon 603. Recently as well, the various ways we view secularity, especially the unnuanced ways which can creep into our attitudes towards vocation and ministry, our almost-allergic reactions to the term secularity, etc, have colored the discussions here -- not just on eremitical life, but on that of Consecrated Virgins living in the world as well. In other words, in many ways secularity itself is a significant topic for hermits and non-hermits --- and one which opens up new vistas for ministry to both Church and World for those called to it.

So, when I was at the chancery yesterday, imagine how pleased I was to discover a book entitled Secularity and the Gospel, Being Missionaries to our Children (where children are various forms of secularity prevalent in our world today --- as well, sometimes, as our literal children and families.) I was early for my appointment, so I was offered coffee and settled in to read for a while! The book, a collection of essays by people like Ronald Rolheiser (also its editor), Michael Downey, Robert Barron, et al, is exciting in the way it approaches secularity and especially the Church's place in God's mission to proclaim the gospel to and within secularity. I can't write much at this point, because I have not finished the book, and I cannot begin to do justice to what I have read even, but one or two passages may give an idea of the concept and challenge of missiology which permeates the entire work:

[[. . . missiology and evangelization are predicated on much more than pastoral strategy and technique. To be more effective missionaries to and within secularity we must, like Jesus, have the personal maturity to to walk inside our world and be present to both its grace and its sin, even as we remain sinless ourselves. Like the three young men in the book of Daniel, we must be able to walk right into the fire, without ourselves being consumed by it because we are singing sacred songs inside the heart of the fire. (Dan 3:19-30)]] Secularity and Gospel pp 69-70

or again,

[[In essence, as Walter Breuggemann put it, the task is to out imagine the prevailing ways of understanding the relationship between secularity and Christianity. This task, we feel, calls for a new romantic imagination, that is, an imagination like that of Francis and Clare of Assisi that can romantically inflame the heart with the beauty of God and the faith. Our real task is to make the secular world fall in love with God again. We recognize this will not be easy. Our churches are aging and greying, and many inside our churches and outside of them are already disillusioned with romance, love, and faith. But, as Jesus tells us, nothing is impossible for God.]] ibid, p 83

One of the pivotal essays which underscores the attitude of the missionary to secularity is Michael Downey's, "Consenting to Kenosis, Mission to Secularity." Others include, "Evangelizing American Culture" by Robert Barron, "Evangelization in Secularity: Fishing for People in the Oceans of Culture" by Ronald Wayne Young, OMI, etc. In short, this is a book I think any Consecrated Virgin living in the World needs to read and meditate on. It treats secularity and "the world" as the tensive realities they are, and is an exciting, energizing, even inspiring aid to the church imagining her place in God's mission to the world. What is especially striking I think, is that it portrays missiology as undergoing a kind of rebirth. When I was first studying theology (Summer's Master's work with many religious including Sisters who had been in the missions) missiology had become something few wanted anything to do with because of its past associations with oppression, cultural and religious insensitivity, and coercion. But missiology is a vital piece of our lived faith, and the new mission field is secularity. What better group of people to embrace this new field than consecrated virgins living in the world?