23 May 2014

What does it mean to say a vocation is normative, canonical, or ecclesial? What does it matter?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, when you say that a hermit with public vows has embraced a "normative (canonical)" and ecclesial vocation do you mean that all other hermits measure their lives according to these people? What does it mean to call a vocation ecclesial? Why does it matter? Is this important to the person in the pew? Also, if you live your life "in the name of the Church" does this mean that when you speak out here you do so on behalf of the Church or as some sort of official spokesperson?]]

I have written about these topics a lot -- though not so much recently --- so I really encourage you to look them up in the topics or labels list at the bottom of this post as well as to the right. In any case this answer will reprise a lot of what those posts already contain. (The need to repeat this kind of thing as questions occur is one of the deficiencies of a blog format.) Still, your questions are also a little different than what I have answered in the past, especially in wondering about what it means to say a vocation is an ecclesial one or what it means to say "in the name of the Church" so I am glad to look at these things again. That is especially true when some question the need for canonical standing with regard to eremitical life --- as one person wrote to me yesterday morning.

Normative Vocations:

When I say that a hermit has embraced a normative (canonical) vocation through public profession I mean that her vocation is governed and measured by the canon defining her life. In my case and the case of other diocesan hermits it is mainly canon 603. While one hopes that anyone professed accordingly lives her life in an exemplary way it is first of all the life described by the canon, and so, the canon itself which is normative; that is, the canon tells us what the Church herself understands, establishes, and codifies as "eremitical life" for the benefit of her own life and the salvation of all. A person admitted to a public commitment to live under this canon has committed to living this specific understanding of the eremitical life and is publicly responsible for doing so in recognizable, fruitful, and faithful ways. She does so  in order that the life and holiness of the Church may be augmented and may serve to witness to others in terms of eremitism itself. You might say that a diocesan hermit is responsible for enfleshing or incarnating this canon and the form of life it describes for the healing and inspiration of her local Church, the universal Church, and the world at large. Only in this sense does the hermit herself become "normative" of the eremitical life. (The diocesan hermit is so-called because she is publicly professed and consecrated by God in the hands of the diocesan Bishop and is bound to this specific diocese unless another Bishop agrees to receive her and supervise her vowed life in his diocese).

Canon 603 has a number of non-negotiable elements to it. It describes a vowed life (603.2 specifies a publicly vowed life) of stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance according to a Rule the hermit writes herself and which is lived FOR the salvation of the world. All of this is undertaken in law and under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop who is the hermit's legitimate superior (superior in law). In other words this c. 603 hermit lives a solitary eremitical life of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to the canonical specifications of the Catholic Church so that others might hear the Gospel of Christ in a particularly vivid way through her life of desert spirituality. She is not a misanthrope, a failure at life or relationships, nor is her solitary life a selfish or self-centered one. The requirement that this life be a loving one lived for the sake of others is no less significant than the requirements of assiduous prayer, stricter separation from the world, or the silence of solitude.

Because she does this in the heart of the Church and for others the canon stands between them and her as a kind of signpost and point of entry. It tells her fellow Catholics (and all others as well) what her life as a Catholic hermit is about (the term Catholic here implies one who is publicly and thus, normatively committed to this life; it specifically means a life lived in the name of the Church; in other words, it is a right (with commensurate responsibilities) granted BY THE CHURCH, not one which is self-adopted). The faithful can read the canon and question the hermit about what it means for her life; the canon gives the faithful in particular the right to specific expectations with regard to this hermit. This is not the case when one's commitment is private. Similarly it constantly summons the hermit to faithfulness to a specific and normative vision of eremitical life as the Catholic Church understands and codifies it. Both the hermit and the Church itself are mutually responsible for the faithful living out of this vocation. Both are publicly committed to this. If the hermit continues to allow her life to be shaped by God in the heart of the Church in this particular way and if her superiors work with her to ensure the same then this eremitical life will be truly edifying --- meaning it will build up the Church and the Kingdom of God.

Non-Canonical Hermits, authenticity vs counterfeits:

Many people live as hermits but not in a way which is normative and sometimes not even in a way the  Church would consider authentic. I have a friend whose brother lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small secluded cabin. He has lived there for at least thirty years that I know of. He is a hermit who lives a significant physical solitude, but he is not a hermit in the sense the Church uses the term. Further he is a Catholic but he is emphatically NOT a Catholic hermit and to think of him as one could be disedifying. If you look at other posts on this blog you will find the story of Tom Leppard an eccentric and curmudgeonly misanthrope who lived as a hermit on the Isle of Skye in significant physical solitude, deprivation, and psychological isolation for a number of years. Tom also fails to meet the criterion of those called "hermit" set forth by the Church. Recently a "hermit" in Maine was arrested for stealing. He was indeed a hermit in the common sense of the term, but he would have thought canon 603 the description of an entirely alien landscape and certainly could not have lived as a hermit in the name of the Church. These examples could easily be multiplied many times over. A quick search of the internet will uncover other equally eccentric and frankly alarming examples of counterfeit eremitical life.

Not all authentic hermits are canonical of course. Lay hermits who will always represent the lion's share of the eremitical population may well live most of the non-negotiable elements of canon 603 and do so in exemplary ways (I know several who are wonderful examples of eremitical life) but they live their commitments to this way of life privately, neither publicly called, publicly committed or commissioned, nor accepting the public rights, obligations, nor the expectations associated with canonical standing. This is not a deficiency but it is still a significant difference which those considering one form of eremitical life or another need to be aware of. The faithful in general also need to be aware of the differences here not least so their own expectations can be appropriate ones. While our private commitments should be serious and something we live with integrity, members of the Church have no real right to complain or question if they do not see signs that this is occurring in an exemplary way. In my own life, while members of the church will be concerned for me if I am having problems living my eremitical commitments with integrity, these concerns can actually be taken to my legitimate superiors with the justifiable expectation that the situation will be rectified in all necessary ways. Not so with private commitments.

Ecclesial vocations:

I think you may already see that a normative (canonical) vocation and an ecclesial vocation are closely related  even overlapping ideas. Still, we do mean one thing I have not yet explicitly mentioned here. An ecclesial vocation is one mediated to the person by the Church. One cannot claim such a vocation on one's own. Such vocations are mutually discerned. The person whose vocation is mutually discerned is then called forth from the midst of the assembly to respond publicly to this vocation and commit her life to it. Her vows are received in the name of the Church and the rights and obligations attached to this state are mediated to her as well (things like the right to be known as a diocesan or Catholic hermit, the right to wear a religious habit or prayer garment publicly, the right to use the title Sister (etc) along with all the obligations attached to these and the expectations associated with them, etc. are included here). The very state itself with all the graces attached are mediated by the Church. When I spoke above of the mutual responsibility of hermits and superiors for making sure the life is lived well I was also referring to the ecclesial nature of the vocation.

On the ground canonical standing also means that the Church has vetted these folks over some period of time and, as well as possible, found them sane, spiritually well-grounded, theologically sound, and committed to living this life for the sake of others. They are not seeking a sinecure nor a place to live a life of idleness. Again, they are not misanthropes, failures at life, eccentrics, or self-centered and self-pitying misfits. They understand the vocation, have significant positive reasons for pursuing it and are deemed to have been called by God through the ministry of God's Church to do so. They live disciplined lives of prayer and penance according to a Rule they have written.  The Rule by which they live their lives and the vows they have made have been approved by canonists and others to be sure they represent a healthy and sound version of vowed eremitical life which can truly serve as a witness to others. As a piece of this their lives and efforts are also supervised and supported as they meet regularly with a spiritual director and/or diocesan delegate as well as less frequently with their Bishop. In other words, an ecclesial vocation is one in which the person and the Church more generally --- especially through the agency of the local ordinary or other superiors --- are publicly and mutually committed in an effort to be faithful to this vocation which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Why Does this Matter? Is It Important to the Person in the Pew?

I hope you can see that all of this does matter to the person in the pew. In fact all of the requirements and vetting is done so that the Church as a whole is able to see and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in her midst. The key word in all of this is CREDIBILITY. The Church understands the eremitical life as a great gift of the Holy Spirit but she also knows that it has become associated with all sorts of stereotypes and nutcases as well as authentic hermits. As I have noted, our world is fraught with individualism, narcissism, the aggrandizement of victim status, misanthropy and self-centeredness --- all of which have been confused with authentic eremitical life and the words "solitary" and (more problematically) "solitude". The silence of solitude has been confused with the silence of emptiness, lack, and personal deficiency whereas it is really the silence of communion and fullness. Canonical Hermits are specifically called to witness to the vast differences between a solitary life lived in communion with God and for the salvation of the world and these perversions , distortions, or counterfeit versions of authentic eremitical, and indeed, authentic human existence.

I believe that is terribly important to the rest of the assembly (ecclesia) and especially to anyone struggling to make sense of lives where they or others they love are now alone, feel their lives have ceased to have meaning because of loss (job, money, status), bereavement, or illness, etc. I believe it is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and world peopled with the marginalized, prisoners, the poor, sick, and suffering who are in search of a peace the world cannot give. And of course, it is because I believe this vocation IS a gift of the Holy Spirit to Church and World that I am sensitive to its normative and public character. In other words, it is because this vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit and is lived for the sake of others that emphasis on such things as normativeness, canonical standing, or ecclesiality are important. If the vocation meant nothing and was not a gift of the Spirit to the Church and world, if it was really nothing more than an expression of  a selfish or misanthropic individualism whether a relatively pious form or not, then indeed, why should we care about such things?!?! Why indeed, should we codify it, invest it with rights and obligations, or encourage others to seek it?

Living Eremitical Life in the Name of the Church

No, when I write here I do not do so as an official, a spokesperson for the Church. However I do write as one commissioned and one who does live diocesan eremitical life in her name. In other words I am responsible for being a solitary Catholic Hermit in the sense the Church uses that term. I and others like me are, that is, charged with representing a living eremitical tradition in the Church and we are, as noted above, publicly and legally bound to do that with faithfulness in a way which adds to the tradition (especially in its dialogue with contemporary culture I think) and to the holiness of the Church herself. Anyone claiming the title "Catholic Hermit" should be able to say the same or they are actually breaking faith with the Church herself. Because by education I am a theologian I am also called in a charismatic way to reflect on the vocation itself more systematically than many others living the life. Still, every diocesan hermit I know reflects on the life c 603 outlines precisely as part of living it with integrity. Moreover, almost all those I know regard the importance of working with their Bishops to ensure the health and beauty of this gift of the Spirit. All of this is a normal part of living the life in the name of the Church as "Catholic hermits."

(By the way, the Church is very careful about folks calling institutions, forms of life, etc "Catholic" and actually forbids this in law unless the right is granted by the appropriate authority.) You see to call oneself a Catholic priest, a Catholic Sister, a Catholic hermit, a Catholic lay person, etc, is another way of saying, "I have been publicly commissioned (publicly ordained, professed, and/or consecrated --- including baptismal consecration) to live this life in the name of the Church." It is another dimension of a normativity whose purpose is really a profoundly pastoral one. Canonical standing nurtures and governs the vocational gifts of the Holy Spirit to the entire Church;  it also helps prevent faithlessness, hypocrisy, and even outright fraud. After all, in a vocation as rare, little known, and unusual as authentic eremitical solitude, especially given the stereotypes that exist and the individualistic tendencies in our culture, it would not be hard for some to misrepresent the vocation or call themselves "Catholic Hermits" when they are really no such thing.