02 August 2013

Charges of "Over-institutionalization": Why Several Rules Written at Different Stages?

[[Sister Laurel, Canon 603 only requires one write ONE Rule. Aren't you making something simple much more difficult and complicated? You have been criticized before for "institutionalizing" what is a free and simple vocation. So aren't you doing this once again with all these made up ideas about writing several Rules and stages of formation or "readiness" for consecration"? The canon is straightforward and so are paragraphs 920-21 of the Catechism.. Why not let them just speak for themselves?]]

Thanks for your questions. As I have noted before, I personally agree the eremitical life should not be overly "institutionalized" in some of the ways I think you mean; however I continue to disagree that what I am suggesting in Notes From Stillsong: Role of Diocese, Writing a Rule, and Possible Stages of Discernment actually does that. Instead I think my suggestions protect not only the vocation generally, but the legitimate freedom authentic hermits need. At the same time it provides assistance to dioceses on the basis of my own lived experience and the experience of other hermits I know, as well as that of folks writing about formation, etc whom I have read. I can state with all sincerity that such a practice and its attendant process would have helped me immensely in negotiating the time frame and "tasks" involved in becoming a hermit (instead of  remaining or being "just" a lone pious person) and then, a diocesan hermit; I similarly believe it also would have assisted my diocese in discerning not only my own vocation but in evaluating and implementing canon 603 in prudent ways more generally. I also believe it answers some of the questions I occasionally get from Bishops and Vicars who deal with candidates or inquirers for canon 603.

The Context:

First, while canon 603 is very simply stated, and while on one level it can be said to be straightforward (especially for one who has lived eremitical solitude for some time and has the experience to read it with an appropriately enlarged "desert" understanding), for most people these simple or straightforward elements are deceptive in their supposed simplicity. For instance, and as I have noted before, the canon speaks of "the silence of solitude," rather than silence AND solitude. It does not note that this phrase has Carthusian underpinnings, for instance, nor that it means MUCH more than the simple absence of noise or company. For instance, it presupposes that chancery personnel who read this canon and try to implement it know that "the silence of solitude" has to do not only with external silence and physical solitude, but that it is more than the sum of these two elements and involves the unique wholeness and individuation achieved in communion with God within the context of a desert spirituality. It has to do with being oneself in and with and through God alone --- and the various kinds and degrees of silence (or song!) that occasions. You see, despite the apparent simplicity of the canon, the reality to which it points in this instance is neither so simple nor so straightforward as most readers think.


Similarly, and related to this, we are speaking of a vocation that is truly little known and often misunderstood in our contemporary world. It is a vocation fraught with stereotypes and it is being attempted (or actually lived) in a world which distrusts solitude, hardly understands the meaning of real silence, rejects the possibility of life commitments, trivializes sexual love and in conjunction with that does not understand celibate love, is overly enamored of affluence and efficiency, and generally idolizes these as well as individualism (which is often mistaken for eremitical life). In contrast however, eremitical life is counter cultural to all of these and someone proposing to be consecrated under canon 603 needs to be very clear they are not simply using (or trying to use) the canon to "consecrate" any of these serious temptations. It takes time to clarify one's own motivations, first to become clear about what they are and secondly to purify them. This is especially true if one has never lived religious life before and is really starting right from the beginning sans adequate mentors, and models --- and, for the most part today, chanceries are mainly getting inquiries re canon 603 from lay persons who have never lived religious life and never lived in eremitical solitude.

Thirdly, we are talking about an ecclesial vocation in which one represents the eremitical tradition in dialogue with the contemporary church and world and does so in a way which is publicly responsible. While there is a great deal of freedom (especially authentic freedom)  in the eremitical life, it is not the case that one simply lives alone and does whatever one wants and calls that "eremitical". Especially one cannot justify misanthropism, selfishness, a lack of generosity, individualism (including pietistic or devotional privatism), a lack of discipline, ignorance of the tradition, or the isolation of personal eccentricity via this canon. In other words, not every form of aloneness or physical solitude is eremitical nor consistent with eremitical tradition or attuned to the needs of contemporary church and society. Not every form of liberty is synonymous or consonant with eremitical freedom. Not every form of physical silence contributes to the silence of solitude and some may be a sign of a destructive antithesis. Thus, we are speaking of an institutionalized reality which involves canonical rights and obligations, legitimate definitions and public expectations and hopes, as well as the hermit's public commitment to be responsive to the Holy Spirit and responsible in all the ways this vocation calls for.

These lines are part of the horizon against which my suggestions about the writing of various Rules need to be measured. They form the context which is a necessary PART of allowing the canon to speak for itself. They are a large part of the context which prevents us from reading the canon in a theological, historical, or spiritual vacuum and distorting it completely.

The Reason for Several Rules:

The simple fact is even for those with a true vocation we grow into eremitical life. It takes time not only to discern whether or not we have such a vocation, but in the process, to learn either that it is not simply about living alone, or that it is truly a a gift to others. It takes time to intelligently and faithfully appropriate a living tradition that is capable of speaking to the contemporary situation. It takes time not only to learn to pray and live in the ways that monks, nuns, and hermits live, but to be able to articulate the what and why of all that. If one is to take all of this on and then modify it in ways which fits one's own specific vocation, that too takes time, experimentation, and lots of thought and prayer --- not to mention consultation and supervision. While one will discuss all of this with one's director and delegate (or diocesan Vicar, etc), one also needs to prepare to write a Rule which is the result of years of practical learning and which will be canonically binding. It seems to me the only reasonable way to do this is to 1) recognize the basic stages involved in becoming a hermit, and then 2) write a Rule which corresponds to what one knows and is ready to live and live into.

A related fact is that very few of those who contact dioceses with inquiries about canon 603 ever advance to even temporary profession. Some of those who do not advance may in fact have eremitical vocations which, in time, they can make evident to their dioceses. Of those who do advance, some who are prematurely professed or who are using canon 603 as a stopgap solution to canon law's lack of any other means of professing an individual person, will live the life badly or leave it altogether. How do we  allow all possible vocations to participate in a serious discernment process? How, at the same time, do we prevent inappropriate professions or uses of canon 603 which create seriously disedifying precedents? How, in other words, do we intelligently and wisely implement canon 603 without 1) infringing on eremitical freedom, and 2) without betraying the eremitical tradition or the meaning of the canon itself?  Diocese's need a better means of discerning authentic eremitical vocations while they also minister to those who approach them with interest in canon 603. It really seems to me the suggestions I have made help do that.

Likewise, too often today dioceses ask candidates for profession to write the Rule required by canon 603 before they are ready to do so. One solution to all of this is to expect several Rules over a longer period of time --- each of which allows for growth and may be used for discernment. So often our first attempts at writing such a Rule serve only to show us and our dioceses how unready we really are. Anyone who has tried to write a Rule or Plan of Life knows how truly difficult a project this is. So often what we live, we live unconsciously and without real understanding. So often we think we are living certain values and then discover that we have never actually taken time to define them, much less to understand how a tradition defines and lives them. So often we think living a life is merely about doing certain things when in fact it is about committing to be or become persons whose hearts are configured a certain way; we do certain things in certain ways and often over long periods of time precisely so that this transformation of our hearts can occur. Writing several Rules over a relatively brief period allows us to accommodate (and consolidate) the changes disciplined living and the grace of God occasions in our hearts.

The Bottom Line:

I personally think it is either arrogance, naivete (sometimes a helpful naivete!), or both, to believe that someone with no background in religious life, no real background in eremitical life, no particular theological background, and limited experience of spiritual direction, etc would be able to write the Rule which canon 603 calls for on their first attempt. At the same time no one in the chancery can or should relieve the hermit of this obligation. And here is really the bottom line: Canon 603 requires one Rule written by the hermit who will be professed, but it is meant to be a livable Rule which is consonant with the eremitical tradition, appreciates the charism of the vowed diocesan hermit, is tailored to the individual living and writing it, appropriately inspires, guides, legislates, and finally, which can also serve others in demonstrating what this life is really all about.

When Canon 603 was promulgated it presumed that candidates would mainly come from the ranks of religious/monastics who had grown into a solitary vocation; it therefore presumed an extensive background, knowledge, experience, and wisdom on the part of the candidate. In fact it grew out of such a situation. Today, however, individuals inquiring into or seeking profession mainly do not have this background or experience. We must find ways to remedy this deficit and prepare candidates (or, better put perhaps, assist them to achieve the requisite preparation)  to write the Rule the canon requires. Adequate discernment of and formation in the vocation presuppose and necessitate this and my suggestions are one piece of a process meeting this requirement while protecting eremitical freedom and diversity.