20 July 2013

Consecrated Virginity and Separation from the World

[[Dear Sr Laurel, Thank you for answering my e-mail in the past. I have read your comments on phatmass about consecration to both hermit and consecration (sic) virgin with interest - especially the possiblity (sic) of a call to both a spousal relationship with Christ and the call to contemplative solitude. Just to take things a little further... do you think it is possible that a vocation to consecrated virginity can include an element of separaton from the world (whilst in the world), living a life with a great degree of solitude and contemplative prayer ?]]

If one is very careful in delimiting how one uses the term "world" (the Johannine usage has three senses and canon law reflects these in c 603 for instance), if one is not attempting to mitigate much less do an end run around the essential secularity of the vocation, and if one is careful not to actually be embracing (or attempting to embrace) eremitical solitude, then yes, I believe one could integrate a secondary "separation" (i.e., not being of the world which is supported by contemplative prayer) with the secular (being in the world) character of one's vocation as well as integrating the contemplative dimension of one's life with one's active and ministerial life. Besides being profoundly Christian this is the only way I can see what you are referring to actually working for a canon 604 CV. For that matter, it is probably also the only way one can genuinely maintain a profoundly eschatological secularity.

You see, while the hermit embraces stricter separation from "the world" primarily in the sense of "that which is resistant to Christ", she ALSO embraces a stricter separation from the things of the world which are more ambiguous (qualified goods and realities which are mixtures of (the) godly and godless) than even other Religious, and thirdly, in her call to remain within her cell living a life of assiduous prayer and penance, she often maintains a stricter separation even from elements of God's good creation per se. (These unqualified goods are often sacrificed in order to maintain custody of the cell, an even greater good for the hermit.) A consecrated virgin, like every other Christian, is called by canon 604 to embrace "separation from the world" in the first sense but in relation to the other senses of the term she is entirely secular. Thus, unlike religious whose relationship with the things of the world are qualified by their vows and hermits who are called to stricter separation from the world than even most religious, the CV under canon 604 will live, work, and minister in the world which is ambiguous and freely relate to the world which is God's good creation. If she negotiates this division in senses of the term "world" and integrates contemplation with a ministerial life in and to the world she will actually be living the very thing which distinguishes secularity from secularism; she will be refusing to allow the secular a place of ultimacy in her life and will, moreover, be modeling an appropriate (eschatological) attitude toward the secular.

What remains primary for the c 604 CV, however,  is the fact that by definition her vocation is a secular one (that is, it is lived out in the world and exercised in the "things of the spirit AND the things of the world"). This does not allow her to opt out of engagement with or ministry to the world and it means her contemplative life serves her secularity. Frankly, many people live (or attempt to live) as lay contemplatives today; they combine responsible secular lives with a strong contemplative prayer life and, apart from the consecration of the virgin per se which they do not share, this actually seems to be what you are describing. Remember that it is the Virgin's consecration under c 604 itself which obligates her to and makes her capable of  an eschatological secularity the world needs very much. However, the moment one's description of the CV's life veers into eremitical or semi-eremitical solitude (for instance with references to "great degrees of solitude") one may actually be speaking of a betrayal of c 604's essential call. Thus, the subject line of your email to me refers to a "hermit element" in the OCV vocation. I would say that description is illegitimate and should never be used with the c 604 CV. Every significant Christian vocation should probably have a contemplative dimension which requires a degree of  physical solitude and silence and contemplative prayer, but these are not "eremitical elements" nor are they specifically eremitical at all. Something more is required to make them eremitical --- which is why I argue that living a pious life alone is, of itself, not essentially eremitical.

You write: [[ I know that the Rite refers to the CV living in the world, but I always thought that this referred to the fact that the CV was not in the monastery and therefore in the world. My reasoning came partly from my understanding that the CV vocation originally was lived in solitude or within the family context, and later CV's started to live in community which led to the formation of monasteries. Therefore, it could be said that the same vocational call to a consecrated spousal relationship with Christ was lived both in the world ( i.e., alone or with family), and in the monastery. ( I would see the main difference being that in the monastery there is the addition of religious vows). ]]

But in this I would argue you are mistaken at several points. First, as I have written several times in response to Jenna Cooper's "secular lite" position, the Rite which was renewed by the Church in c 604 does not merely say "living in the world" as though this merely means "rather than living in a monastery." It says (cf. the homily) that one is called to live in the world and serve one's brothers and sisters "in the things of the Spirit and the things of the world".  As I have said a number of times in posts on this topic there are two forms of consecrated virginity today, one lived in the world (a secular form), and one lived as a religious in a vowed expression of separation from it (a specifically cloistered form). I would argue that Canon 604 very specifically reprises a secular form of the life which existed into the 12th century (until 1169 CE) side by side with the cloistered Religious form and was, unfortunately, eclipsed by it. This is really the charism and more immediate source of canon 604, the form of the life the Church sought specifically to re-establish in a world crying out for witnesses to consecrated or eschatological secularity. 

Even if one seeks to move back behind this fact to the early Church, it is important to remember that in the early Church, worship was done in house churches; it was homes that were the center of ecclesial life and consecrated virgins were a central part of this life. Public and private life interpenetrated one another and their boundaries were blurred. The same is true of lives of prayer; folks lived integrated lives of profound prayer AND profound secularity. The entire Church community described in Acts of the Apostles embraced the values later associated specifically with the evangelical counsels of Religious life. This did not make them monastics or other than secular. When folks decided to embrace solitude and rejected "the world" (as in the desert Fathers and Mothers) they left this more integrated life behind and traveled into the desert. Monastic life grew directly out of this desert/eremitical movement as lauras were transformed into monastic communities per se. Meanwhile religious profession via the vows qualifies one's relationship to the world in at least two and sometimes three senses of the word and creates a form of relative separation from it, especially in the senses of 1) that which is resistant to Christ, and 2) that which is ambiguous, the realm of power, wealth, and so forth. The monastery setting is an appropriate physical way of accommodating this entire pattern of qualified relation to the world as is life in community more generally. It is a symbol of a life which is NOT the original form of consecrated virginity, that is, not secular, and not given over to both the things of the spirit and the things of the world.

[[b) - Also, can it be understood that the main service of a CV could be prayer? ( The Rite distinguishes service and prayer, which suggests a form of service on top of prayer as service - or is that not necessarily the case? ) I wonder, because the Rite does suggest that the lifestyle is adapted to the gifts of a person, which could include a predisposition to a life of contemplative prayer and a degree of solitude) ]]

No, I don't think so. Again CV's are consecrated to serve the church and world in the things of the spirit and the things of the world. They are called to a form of eschatological or consecrated secularity.  While prayer is a central and critical component of the CV's life, it is not the defining characteristic, at least not to the extent where it could be said to detract from or replace service in more direct ways. If a person has the necessary gifts and a predisposition to contemplative prayer, this is wonderful and certainly serves any authentic active ministry, but if you are speaking of the gift and predisposition to a contemplative life and vocation per se then  it is unlikely you are speaking of a vocation to canon 604 for women living in the world; again canon 604 very explicitly articulates a secular life of service in the things of the world as well as of the spirit.

If a woman truly feels called to a contemplative life and even to one of eremitical solitude, then I personally believe she should pursue these in a specific and conscious way, either in a monastery, a semi-eremitical community, or perhaps, in rare cases, as a diocesan hermit. These avenues as well as religious life more generally are open to her in the contemporary Church as is lay contemplative life so, unless her original discernment and formation were completely inadequate or skewed and her consecration premature or ill-advised, I wonder why she would want to formally embrace a specifically secular vocation and then fail to live it (or even seek to redefine it as an essentially contemplative or even semi-eremitical one) because she has now discovered different gifts and a different sense of call. This does raise the question of adequate discernment however, and it argues for consecrating only mature vocations, rather than allowing the consecration of women whose spirituality is not yet well-defined. (Note well that I am not ruling out elderly CV's embracing a life of prayer in their post-work years, but this is a different question I think.)

You also write: [[To explain my question further: c) - My impression is that some if not most of the early virgins lived lives of prayer, lived at home, and were not so involved in apostolic service - which was more the domain of deacons / deaconesses. I don't have ready literature to support this view, it's more of an impression that I have gained with time and general reading, although I would like to follow this up if I have the opportunity.

d) - While I intend to be loyal to the teaching of the Church, and seek to understand it more fully, I wonder how interpretations have developed historically... In the light of Vatican II which encouraged a return to roots of consecrated life, it does seem to me that some of the modern interpretations of CV, (perhaps including the Rite itself ), do not always make room for the expression of the vocation as it was in the early Church. ]]

Unfortunately, from what I have seen and read, there is not a lot of direct evidence regarding the nature of the lives lived by virgins in the early Church supporting this. I have seen nothing that indicates they lived essentially contemplative or eremitical lives, for instance.  Again, I think it goes without saying they were women of both deep prayer and significant service. I say this in part because categories were not so sharply drawn at that time so the lives of deaconesses and virgins probably overlapped, especially given the domestic focus or locus of local churches as well as the sense that virgins dedicated to Christ became "men" in a spiritual sense and that they specifically argued for the opening of ministry in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. What I am also suggesting here is that the evidence of what virgins who had given themselves wholly to Christ did in the face of being barred from certain ministerial roles suggests this limitation was more a function of cultural biases than it was the acceptance of a true charism. Thus, St Perpetua et al argued for their essential "maleness" and struggled to be allowed to minister in all the ways men did. This hardly suggests they saw the original charism of their lives as one of separation from the world or of being given over to contemplative prayer except to the degree this supported direct ministry and witness in and to the world.

However, this seems to me to also be somewhat beside the point in looking at c 604 vocations. As I noted above, in promulgating canon 604 the Church seems very clearly and deliberately to have been recovering the secular form of the life that not only pre-dated but also had developed side by side the cloistered form and, again, which was first subverted by the cloistered form of it (cf Sharon Holland, IHM's essay on Consecrated Virginity today) and then was completely eclipsed by it in a Church which came to value Religious life and devalue the secular. It seems to me that contemporary CV's must be keenly aware of and honor not only these more immediate roots of her vocation, but also the correlative reasons the Church established canon 604 when she did as well as the limitations she imposed by removing references to a habit, living in community, vows of obedience, etc. In particular the contemporary CV under c 604 must be able to see her vocation in light of Vatican II, the emphasis on the new evangelism and missiology, and a growing esteem (and need) for a consecrated secularity which is in necessary contrast to both secularism and to (non-secular) Religious life as it is institutionalized today. It would be nice to see CV's who have read the proceedings leading to the promulgation of canon 604, for instance. If we want to understand the mind of the Church in reprising this life that surely seems to me to be a primary source of understanding the authentic charism of this vocation.

There are a number of posts I would refer you to here which have already covered these points more adequately. One of them is Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Minimized Secularity, a Legitimate Development? Another is Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Secular vs Secularism and Consecrated Virginity but others would also be helpful, I think. I hope you will look at these (cf the labels below as well as the links).