25 May 2014

Followup Questions on Ecclesial Vocations, Canon 603, Freedom, Constraints, and Commitment

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I am so profoundly grateful for the article in which you tackle some of the differences between lay and canonical eremitism.  One thought that struck me was, when a person opts to remain a lay hermit (or solitary as in the Episcopal Church), might that imply that the words, the obligations, of Canon 603 could be modified?  Well, now, I mean, what if my understanding of solitary life is different in some ways? ]]

Of course one can remain a lay hermit in either Church community and act with the same Christian freedom but with greater liberty in some ways as well. While I think that canon 603 is remarkably adaptable (witness the fact that no two diocesan hermits write the same Rule, follow the same horarium, or approach the question of active ministry in exactly the same way), and while I have never found the relationship with superiors to be onerous, it is true that in accepting the rights and obligations associated with a public commitment to and under canon 603, I am not able to simply explore anything that captures my imagination or shape my life in any way at all. While I think the non-negotiable elements of canon 603 apply to any form of eremitical life worthy of the name (and here I mean stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance as well as some form of the evangelical counsels and the notion that this is lived according to a Rule the hermit herself writes --- all for the praise of God and the salvation of the world --- I can't really imagine or recall a meaningful or authentic eremitical life that wasn't an expression of these in one way and another) the other elements are not strictly necessary and certainly not in the same way for lay hermits.

You clarify your question when you write: [[I do not feel that my vocation is an ecclesial one.  It would exist if there were no institutional religion on the face of the earth.  Ideally, the church and its structures should be supports for spiritual life, not members of the church living to support the church qua institution, and a top-heavy one at that. Yes, Jesus described us as part of himself, himself and the father as one, so that we are all members one of another.  But where does he say that law should be multiplied and that each personal spiritual expression must be defined by a hierarchical structures of men? I take advantage of the church for my prayer.  I go on retreat at RC retreat houses.  But any manifestation of institutionalism just doesn’t work for me.  I feel as if, were I much younger and went through the steps to become a professed Hermit, I would probably then run away to have more freedom.  And I know the freedom of life in Christ.  It’s just that that is not quite the same as any hypothetical freedom of life in the Church.]]

The Church seems pretty present in your life:

 Well, first of all let me point out that in "taking advantage" of the Church as you describe, or even in considering canon 603 as a guide for your life in some way, reading about hermits (much less articles BY hermits!), considering writing for your church publication or newsletter, seeking spiritual direction, etc, etc, you are indeed dealing with expressions of the institutional church. While an institution, organization, or even an organism can become deformed or dysfunctional the simple fact is that even the simplest grouping of people will have institutional elements, rules, customs, standards, values, common beliefs and practices (rituals, etc), boundaries, and so forth. In your own home I know for a fact that you have instituted (note that word!) some of these in order to protect and nurture the quality of your eremitical (solitary) life. Because of this you also know, I think, that the constraints applied here have led to a real freedom to pursue your vocation as you perceive and receive it from God.

I think what you are concerned with is not the institution of the Church which is a living reality manifest in even the least among us (which is one reason Peter Damian referred to hermits as eccesiolae -- little churches) but, as you say, institutionalism, which is a rather different animal. To that end I would caution you not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Similarly, I think you are confusing freedom with license to some degree. The same caveat applies here. When I chose to seek admission to vows, whether as a Sister in community or as a solitary hermit under canon 603 it was my experience that I was choosing among goods and that though there were significant constraints in the choices I had made, these served a deeper freedom.

No place we go or choice we make in this world is free from constraints --- even when those are the constraints of age or heath or intelligence, etc. The task is always to choose that set of constraints (or embrace them in a way) which allows God to do the very best within and with these. To do otherwise is indeed to choose a merely hypothetical freedom and to mistake mere license for genuine freedom. So long as we are not choosing sin vs faithfulness or indulging our falsely autonomous self I think our choice is always not so much freedom versus unfreedom as it is the choice between one expression of freedom and another one, one set of constraints and another one. If the constraints associated with the expression of freedom you choose do not serve you well or are impossible to bear, then by all means, you should select a different expression of freedom (by which I do not mean a different version of freedom) with a different set of constraints insofar as that is possible or prudent --- for sometimes, as you well know, our inability to bear constraints points to our own need for growth, faith (trust), and conversion. That is one of the key lessons of monastic (and eremitical) stability.

On Constraints and Commitment

One point here, of course, is that we cannot do away with constraints. That is simply impossible. Constraints help define our truest freedom. They are the result and the way of genuine commitment! Commitment always entails both constraints and freedom; in fact the language of commitment is that of responsibility and obligation. Both curtail our liberty while they lead to a more profound freedom. Another is that the constraints  themselves are not the point; the reality (or true freedom) they serve is. You also write: [[If it comes right down to the truth of the matter, I feel very deeply and definitely Christian, and called at the same depth to a life of liberty in solitude, with no one and no rules or expectations of how I’m going to live.  I trust myself, I trust in Jesus to lead me.  Because I’ve begged for this opportunity for so many years, studied about it, lived bits and pieces up until the past few years when I’ve been able to “grow” it, I feel pretty clear that the openings which have come my way, in bunches and with the feel of God all over them, this is what I’m called to. ]]

You may recall that  at one point when you wrote me before you said, [[I am writing a provisional Rule of Life and the variety of hermit lives and Rules raise some questions for me. For instance] if someone is a true Christian, and who can judge that?, and says she is a hermit, lives alone sincerely giving herself to prayer, to the heart of the world and by extension and above all, to God, what makes her less a hermit? Less "worthy" (and I know how you hate that distinction) of being called a hermit?]] I responded: [[Dear Poster, Thanks for your questions! If you take a look at the content of your conditional sentence above you will see that you have laid down some very stringent requirements for recognizing someone as a hermit (although I personally would switch God and world in your sentence so that the heart of God comes first and then the heart of the [next] world by extension). Essentially you have described what I refer to as the distinction between a person merely living alone (implicit in your post) and a desert dweller or hermit (which you actually describe explicitly):

IF someone is a true Christian
IF she consciously claims the life of a hermit (desert dweller) and lets that define her (desert spirituality)
IF she lives alone (or, in cases of real need, with a caregiver who does not get in the way of her Rule and actually allows her to live it as fully as she feels called)
IF she sincerely gives herself (not just a bit of time here or there) to prayer, (add penance, silence, solitude and the silence OF solitude).
IF she lives in the heart of God (or is genuinely committed to doing so) and by extension gives herself to the world in this way. . . (all of this I refer to especially as the silence of solitude). The devil is in the details.]]

Definitions as Constraints that Free Words to Have Meaning

I might also have noted in that post that your very description implies a set of constraints which allow you to see or establish the reality of someone and the genuineness of their commitments. Definitions are nothing more than constraints which allow (i.e., free) a word to be meaningful in a particular way. If you look carefully at your own life you will finds rules and other constraints galore. There is simply no meaningful or truthful life without them, and there is certainly no way to be the persons God calls us to be without them. Freedom, after all, is the power to be the persons God calls us to be and that also means not being the persons so much of reality (including our own super egos) tells us we can or cannot, must or must not, should or should not be.  The whole question is full of constraints --- those we must embrace to be true to ourselves and those we must eschew at the same time if we are to reject or at least refuse to collude with our false selves. Sin is a reality; false selves are realities; the presence of cultural voices and norms which militate against truthful or authentic humanity not only exist, they are rampant.

In my own life I also trust myself and I certainly trust Christ to guide me. He has never failed in that. But I also know myself as sinful and I know that the Rule I follow, the Canon which governs my life, the Word of God I focus my life on and in, the Sacraments that only come through the institutional Church, and  the superiors I am obligated by vow to listen carefully to in obedience, are some of the privileged and necessary ways I hear Jesus speak to me daily, sometimes even moment by moment. That is especially true not only with regard to Scripture and prayer, but with regard to my delegate, to those friends who know me well and challenge me to transcend and leave behind the false self who so often is too much a dominant voice in my life. Even so, I do not always listen well or respond generously or lovingly. These bits of "institutional life" are part of the way Christ speaks to me, but for that very reason I also need them to help mediate the grace which transforms my mind and heart. To be frank, I believe anyone who says they can hear Christ adequately apart from the institutional Church is probably kidding themselves. Calling the ecclesial the body of Christ is not merely some touching bit of poetry; it is also literally true.

You see, I could not say with you that my vocation would exist "if there was no institutional religion on the face of the planet". If Christ's church did not exist neither would my vocation; that is true because it is profoundly Christian in every way, not simply because it is a formally ecclesial vocation. I need Christ --- not least to call me to authenticity in the desert. I need Christ to show me the difference between isolation and solitude, between real independence in God (what Tillich called theonomy) and individualism, between the eremitism of the Tom Leppards of this world and his own. And that means I need the mediation provided by the Body of Christ. There is no resurrected Christ unless there is also still an embodied Christ and that implies a Church. By the way, while I am sure you meant no offense, let me point out there is absolutely nothing hypothetical in the freedom to which Christ has called me through and within his Church. I sincerely wonder if you and I are really all that different.

Discerning one is not Called to an Ecclesial Vocation:

The bottom line, however is that you have clearly identified that for the time being at least you are NOT called to embrace an ecclesial vocation. There is a thread of anti-institutionalism running through your heart and mind which, in some ways mirrors the concerns and lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The difference is that the Desert Fathers and Mothers truly loved the Church and worked at their lives as an important part of being and encouraging the existence of what they perceived to be the TRUE Body of Christ and its Gospel. You see, they were committed to that and that made their vocations ecclesial in yet another and profound sense. While I don't think you are entirely different than they are they did have rules, customs, mentoring, etc to prevent them from simply going their own way on a whim (or in the clutches of the noonday devil!). I believe that is also true of you but some of what you have said makes me wonder. In any case, your desire to be entirely free of rules, etc means you will spend a lot of energy and time re-inventing the wheel. In some ways it will mean you will fail unnecessarily. In some ways it means that bias will keep your heart closed to some of the central ways Christ's presence comes to us and challenges us to commit ourselves and be remade. But it also means that to the extent you are truly committed to and in Christ you may discover a way to be a prophetic presence in the world which I will not.

As to your original question none of the essential terms of the canon can be modified in any significant way if one wants to live the vision of the eremitical life Christ's own Church sets forth as consistent with her tradition. Remember that the central elements of this canon were also lived by the Desert Fathers and Mothers who ALSO were engaged in a profound and extensive criticism of the worldliness of the Church. Indeed, they are part of these elements' very source as normative.

How you or anyone else chooses to embody these elements is actually part of the flexibility of the canon --- within limits of course (remember words can be emptied of meaning). Part of the canon need never apply to you, namely section 2 which reads, [[A hermit is recognized in law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.]] You need never embrace any part of this section of the canon. You, like many other lay people will live as a hermit or solitary in exemplary ways perhaps, but you will simply not do so in the same way as one publicly professed/consecrated in an ecclesial vocation.