28 March 2013

Discerning Canon 603 Life as a Gift of God

[[Sister O'Neal, thank you for answering my questions on profession when one does not really want it.  The lay hermit I was speaking of said that while she didn't believe this was what [Jesus] was calling her to, she would turn in her paperwork and then if it really seemed to be wrong for her, "I can always decline the kind offer of canonical approval, can't I?" It sounds to me like this hermit doesn't understand what is being offered to her or why. Does this happen a lot? Are there hermits out there who feel this way about their vocation? I wonder if a person could really embrace a life of solitude if they did.]]

You are right about the lack of understanding here. To begin with it is very unlikely anyone is "offering to profess" this person given the level of ambivalence and even potential disingenuousness she admits to. In short though, she does not feel called and nothing can be done in the absence of a sincere heart-felt sense of being called. As I have noted before admission to profession is not so much an offer or invitation the Bishop makes (especially not in order to "approve of someone") as it is the way he extends the rights, obligations, essential freedom, and call to the covenantal life of an ecclesial vocation to the person he is also convinced is called by God to this. When the Church admits to profession she mediates this divine call to the person in a formal, definitive, and solemn way and receives the person's definitive response in a way which establishes a sacred covenant marked by vows, structured legally (canonically and by Rule), and supported by all of the relationships the Church recognizes as essential to living such a covenant well and fruitfully. The language of "approval" hardly begins to convey this rich content and has only very limited utility in such a situation; I tend to avoid it while those stressing the supposed status (in the inaccurate sense of prestige) of canonical standing (standing in law) tend to use and misuse it exclusively.

IF a Bishop invited a person to "turn in her paperwork" he has more likely invited her to let him and others take a look at her Rule or Plan of Life, and perhaps, to participate in a serious and mutual discernment process. (No other paperwork is required at this point; in time Sacramental certificates, declarations of nullity if applicable, etc, indicating a person is free to be professed will be required when it seems the person is a suitable candidate --- though the declaration of nullity would be sought immediately because its lack is an impediment to profession and discernment hardly makes sense with such an impediment in place.) During this process, should she (or anyone in such a position) come to be convinced she is NOT called by God to this, she (or anyone in such a position) has a responsibility to notify the chancery and withdraw from the process. I would therefore be very surprised to learn that a situation like the one you referred to EVER really happens and more surprised to hear there is ANY diocesan hermit who feels this way about his/her vocation. (A hermit who decides she has made a mistake in accepting admission to perpetual profession will, after serious consultation, ask to be dispensed from her vows. If the vows are temporary she can (again after serious consultation) either seek a dispensation or decide to continue the discernment appropriate to such vows until they lapse and it is time to apply (petition) for perpetual profession.)

Your next to last question is the most important, and the most interesting one because it raises the prospect of living a life which is contrary to what one truly feels called to when that life is a rare way to achieve human wholeness and holiness anyway. It raises the question of integrity and what it really means to be called by God and to respond to that call with one's whole self. It raises questions about embittered "hermits" who are icons of isolation and misanthropy, but are nothing like hermits in real life --- at least nothing like the hermits who are truly citizens of the Kingdom of God living the incredibly joyful and fulfilling "silence of solitude." For now your questions underscore the kinds of things chanceries watch out for when people come seeking to be hermits under canon 603.

 I think the bottom line must be that the person recognizes canon 603 as a gift of God to the Church and is awed and excited by the sincere sense that she might just be one of the persons who are publicly called and commissioned to live this gift. She will have found that through the grace of God eremitical solitude brings her to a wholeness and holiness she could not achieve as well in other contexts. She will be in love with God but also deeply in love with those he also loves as he loves the hermit.

The silence of solitude she lives will be rich and filled with relationships: first with God, but through God with her parish, friends, other hermits around the world, and those in the diocese more generally. If she has a blog there will be friends from there as well though there may be very little contact. For some very few hermits there will be a call to reclusion; for one of these her love for others will be mediated only through her love for and relationship with God. Every genuine hermit is open to this possibility and to growing towards it. Again though, what one will note in such hermits and all canon 603 hermits is a sense of awe, responsibility, and great joy at being called to live publicly committed lives which continue the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the contemporary Church. It really is an awesome thing to be called to love and serve God and others in this way.

Post script: Sorry, I didn't answer your last question explicitly so let me come back to that. Would someone be able to embrace a life of [eremitical] solitude if they felt they were not really called to it by God [or felt this call deep within themselves]? I can't see how. One wonders how people live any life if they feel profoundly that God has not called them to it. I would imagine a sense of resignation and quiet desperation would accompany much of such a life. But with solitude where the heart of the vocation is communion with God, and where often or for much of the time the only relationship one experiences directly is that one has with God it would be very much more problematical to try and live such a life.

This would be complicated by the fact that God calls us to serve others with our lives and such a person would also be missing the way God is calling them in particular to serve others. The examples I have seen of those trying to live in such a way (and I have seen at least a couple)  turn God into a source of monstrous theology and make of their own lives one of unrelenting suffering and victimhood. These are dressed up in pious language of course, but the combination is pathological on every level and the result is extremely sad and destructive, to say the least.