07 June 2014

The Paradox of Canon 603: Structure in the Service of Life With and In God Alone

[[Dear Sister, because you are professed under a Bishop does this make you a kind of quasi religious order? Does a lay hermit have to go more their own way than a canonical hermit or do they have to do without a "middleman" like you have? Is it more a matter of launching into the unknown than with the canonical hermit?]]

Thanks for the questions. I think I know what you are trying to ask with the second and third questions but let me suggest that the answers you are seeking (and the questions you are asking in these) are a bit too black and white, too desirous of a yes or no response. Back to those in a moment.

The answer to your first question, however, is no, diocesan hermits are not some sort of a quasi religious order constituted by Bishop and hermit. They are simply religious and represent a change in the way that term is used in the Roman Catholic Church precisely because they do NOT belong (via public profession) to an Order or congregation. One of the reasons I use the term "solitary eremitical life" to describe this (and one of the reasons the Church herself uses it more and more in profession formulas of diocesan hermits) is to indicate that it is NOT a matter of belonging to or constituting a religious order, quasi or otherwise. While the Bishop is my legitimate superior and while my delegate (or any delegate really) serves in a capacity as the hermit's superior or quasi superior on both the hermit's behalf and that of the diocese, and while my vocation is both profoundly and formally ecclesial, I remain a solitary hermit whose eremitical course is charted in the dialogue between myself and God alone.

The paradox here is real and acute. Of course both my Bishop and my delegate (as well as Vicars for Religious, et al) are privileged to share in some parts of that dialogue and are responsible for keeping their fingers on the pulse of my vocation just as I am responsible to listen carefully to them, but generally there is nothing intrusive, presumptive, or overbearing in their place in this dialogue. They are actually called to and responsible for mediating God's own call as well as my own response, but for that very reason, as I understand the term anyway,  they are not "middlemen" in my relationship with God --- no more than, for instance, my pastor proclaiming the Word of God is some sort of middleman between me and that same Word. In any case, despite some overlap in common usage, I think there is a far more significant difference between a mediator and a middleman in these cases so I don't accept its use here.

This anticipates your second question. What gives me pause there  is precisely the use of the term "middleman" which makes it sound as though the vocation is not also and always a matter of what happens between the hermit and God alone. But perhaps your usage here is a consequence of my recent stress on the ecclesial and normative nature of the vocation. If so let me clarify the picture a little. While the reality of ecclesial mediation is a strong one in terms of the call to an ecclesial vocation, that does not detract from the fact that very much like the lay hermit the essence of the canonical hermit's life is the dialogue that occurs between herself and God alone. There is a paradox here, an emphasis on both/and rather than on either/or.

It is a bit like  the dynamics of spiritual direction where part of the director's primary obligation is to stay out of the Holy Spirit's way;  the Spirit, after all, is the "real" director! The spiritual director may assist a directee in her own hearkening to the Spirit in her life and will actually mediate or participate in the mediation of God's word to the directee --- even, and often especially, in her silence and listening --- but in doing this she gives the Spirit the sacred space to work! The Church mediates the call (and the hermit's definitive response) to an ecclesial vocation but at the same time this means her job is to allow God to be the source, ground, and goal of this vocation --- and therefore, to give God space to work in both the hermit's life and in her own as well! To the degree the director or superior, for instance, do this they will truly mediate God's own voice to the hermit. After all, they are not merely reporting what God says to them --- as, on the other hand, a middleman  might. Except in the most general sense they are unlikely even to know what God is saying/doing in the hermit's life at this particular moment! But of course, that is not their responsibility. Instead they are mediators and the hermit listens to the God who comes to her and to all of us in this or similar ways.

You see, with regard to your third question, every hermit's life is a matter of launching out into the unknown --- or rather, into the infinitely mysterious depths of life in God. But no one can do this without some degree of structure and/or established context. No one can do this without significant help charting and navigating their course. No one --- not even the truest mystic (and maybe especially the true mystic!) --- can do it without the mediation of the Church and her people! What canonical standing does is create a stable and legal context for this journey or voyage where shipwreck can be avoided, whether it occurs in the deep waters of contemplative prayer, is occasioned by the seduction of sirens we all too-easily mistake for the voice of God, or is (the far more likely) foundering that regularly occurs in the doldrums or on the shoals of the journey.

Because every true eremitical call is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church intended for the praise of God and the salvation of others the entire Church has a stake in each one. In and with her canonical vocations she will signal to everyone the place of the church in supporting, nurturing, and governing all eremitical vocations. The Church similarly signals especially to all hermits (both non-canonical and canonical)  that the eremitical vocation is not a way simply to do your own thing or to validate mere eccentricity --- including "spiritual" eccentricity! This is particularly important in an age seemingly ruled by individualism and even narcissism. While she does this by means of canonical standing more generally she also does so in terms of and by the existence of canon 603 itself.

Canon 603 is Normative of the Eremitical Life in the Church for ALL hermits:

Remember that the first part of this canon applies to every hermit in the Church because it defines the Church's own vision of the shape of this particular (eremitical) journey into God --- the dimensions of it, that is, that she can see and which are necessary on the part of ANY person claiming to be a serious voyager in this eremitical way: assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from those things which are resistant to Christ as well as some very good aspects of God's own good creation, the silence of solitude, a Rule or Plan of Life, the evangelical counsels, and a healthy life within the Church itself. While not every hermit will be given (nor desire or petition for) standing in law, canon 603 signals that eremitical vocations are genuinely inspired or charismatic realities in our contemporary day and age and further, that every authentic Christian eremitical vocation will be shaped accordingly and be an ecclesial reality in at least the most general sense of that term. 

What I mean is that, each one, when authentic, will be lived within the Church, be nourished by her Sacra-mental life, be fed by her Word, be sensitive to and participate to some degree or way in her missionary and evangelizing impulse (which, after all, is the very impulse of God!), and finally, CAN only exist in relation to and with the "assembly of called ones" the church is. At the same time each authentic eremitical life will involve a launching out into the unknown or at least the unplumbed depths of life in and with God.

This is, in fact, what canon 603 makes possible for both canonical and lay hermits simply by its existence within the Church! Again, it is the freedom the constraints of this canon permit whether de jure or simply de facto, that is, whether the hermit exists in law or simply in fact. What is up to every authentic hermit, non-canonical or canonical is that they allow themselves to live out both parts of this paradox in the way God calls them to. In other words, whether she is canonical or non-canonical, every hermit sharing in the vision of authentic eremitical or anchoritic life the Church has actually codified in canon 603 will also share in the this-worldly dimensions of the Church that allow such a voyage into the depths of God to be more safely made and the delusions and illusions so common to some "spiritualities" to be avoided. Neither is called to "go their own way" but rather God's --- and both are called to do so according to the vision and understanding of eremitical life the Church has codified in canon 603.

Diocesan Hermits as Hothouse Blooms?

You may remember that once I wrote a post contending with the assertion that canonical hermits were "hot house blooms" nurtured and cultivated while non-canonical hermits were wild roses trying to survive on their own without assistance, etc. In that post I listed the similarities that exist between non-canonical and canonical hermits. It might be a good idea to link you to that post here for a discussion which also takes into account the difficulties of living as a lay or non-canonical hermit but paves the way for this post as well. (Thus please see: Diocesan Hermits as Hothouse Blooms?)