09 October 2014

More on Hermits and Private vs Public Obligations, Relationships and Witness, etc.

[[Dear Sister, am I right in saying you are in charge of determining how much solitude is healthy for you, or how much is allowed while maintaining other ecclesial obligations? What if you wanted to spend three months or more in absolute reclusion? Could you do that? How does that work? Your own life is governed by a Rule which you wrote. Could a lay hermit (I mean a hermit who is not a canonical hermit) write a Rule which allowed her to be completely reclusive and not go to Mass regularly? Would this be an example of the competing obligations you spoke of earlier today? My guess is this wouldn't work even though she is doing it to be a hermit --- a good thing and pleasing to God as the Catholicam blogger wrote! I say that because it seems kind of elitist to me.]]

Really great questions and points, especially because they tie into yesterday's posts and the discussion begun on two other blogs and continued here.

Yes, I am largely the one responsible for discerning how much solitude and what kind God is calling me to, what I need for a healthy eremitical life as well as what degree and kind of solitude honors other (sometimes competing) ecclesial and personal obligations. However, neither do I do this alone --- nor could I. I couldn't even say that God alone and I determine this without need for others because it is so easy to delude oneself about what is of God, what God is saying, etc. That was one of the reasons people like Peter Damian and Paul Giustiniani had a healthy caution when it came to the solitary eremitical life which they both esteemed; they saw this life as fraught with peril. One really does need to discuss things, consider what others see and hear (especially what they observe in terms of growth in the hermit's own life and the fruitfulness of her solitude), weigh the consequences, engage in mutual prayer, and so forth. The stable relationships canonical standing creates are necessary for truly discerning what God is calling one to. When a large change like that of reclusion is being considered (and even for a diocesan hermit already living substantial physical solitude reclusion is still a significant change and commitment, and not just for the hermit herself  --- more about that below).

You see, complete reclusion is difficult for a diocesan hermit because she really is responsible for her own upkeep, shopping, errands, and sometimes a limited degree of ministry. For me that means I do regular spiritual direction and assist at the parish for a brief time about one morning a week. However, if I were to determine that I really needed to do something like what you suggest, what I would be likely to do to begin anyway, is to 1) take one or two days a month to see clients during the three month period (I cannot responsibly stop working with people while I am discerning this matter), 2) ask for others in the parish to take on what I am doing there while I continued doing maybe one morning a month for that three month period (if someone can take over that day as well, then that would be fine), and 3) request parishioners to help me by shopping for me, bringing me Communion for the week (there are some alternatives to this but something needs to be worked out), etc. I would probably also elect to meet with my own director at least once or twice during this time. This would not be complete reclusion but it would be the closest to which I could responsibly come right now; if after this kind of period of discernment I determined I was being called to even greater solitude for a longer time then I would need to find ways to achieve that. But, again, all this needs to be discerned.

I have written here before that one of the things a diocesan hermit must be open to is the possibility that God is calling her to reclusion and I am quite serious about that. If I were to discern a call to reclusion, then my Bishop would need to agree and an arrangement with my parish and pastor made to ensure regular reception of the Sacraments, occasional Mass here in the hermitage, and some way to get provisions and have errands run. My expectation would be the diocese and parish would assist with some of this but, as you can see, a lot would need to be worked out and other people would need to make commitments to enable my reclusion. A hermit can never forget the love and faith of those who allow  and often help support and empower her to live solitude in their midst; the situation with reclusion is, again, even more dependent on others as she is given the freedom to explore communion with God. Remember that when, and to whatever extent, we are in union with God we will be called and empowered to regard and treat our brothers and sisters with greater love and solicitude, not with less, and certainly not with a mere abstraction of the word love (e.g., "I love humanity; it's people I despise!" "I love souls, but embodied historical persons are not my concern!") even as we spend our time navel-gazing in the "contemplation" of our own existences! Communion with God fires our hearts and focuses us outward even as it draws us in and requires a real and creative introspection. In my experience, that introspection is meant to be at the service of a greater outward focus toward real people.

Private vs Public Commitments, Rights and Obligations

I am sorry if I was not clear regarding what happens when a lay hermit takes on private obligations (as opposed to the public obligations assumed in public profession); let me repeat some and try to clarify as I go. Since a lay hermit is a baptized Catholic she will have assumed and been charged with the public rights and obligations associated with that commitment. The obligation to attend Mass (Sunday obligation) is part of this. These rights and obligations are legitimate ones meaning the person is bound in law to make them a true priority in her life. If a person makes a private dedication as a hermit she or he remains in his/her current state of life and assumes no additional (or potentially modifying) rights and obligations. Additional rights and obligations are extended to a person by the Church and assumed by that person in public professions and consecrations as well as in ordinations and marriages (!). In Public (canonical) vows the Church mediates God's call and the person's response in a way which binds both the person and the Church in a public act and a new ecclesial relationship.

This means that if a non-canonical or lay hermit decides to write a Rule which demanded she miss Mass on Sundays, for instance, she would be putting an entirely private commitment over a public and ecclesial one she has already accepted as a life obligation. She would be putting an entirely private commitment over a public (legal and moral) one she accepted freely and was charged or commissioned with by the Church. One could not do this apart from other really significant extenuating circumstances and remain a Catholic in good standing --- at least not without seriously deceiving oneself. In such a case, the extenuating circumstances would themselves need to be serious enough to permit the person to miss Mass; being a lay hermit who is privately dedicated to solitude simply wouldn't be sufficient in this way.  In other words, public rights and obligations trump private rights and obligations while legitimate or canonical rights and obligations trump non-canonical rights and obligations in this regard. Because of the differing weights or seriousness of the person's commitments (that is, some that are public and canonical or legitimate, and some which are entirely private) this would not be a good example of what I was speaking about when I mentioned competing obligations; in my usage about that I was referring to competing public and canonical or legitimate obligations all of which publicly (legally and morally) bind the canonically professed hermit.

Public Commitments, A Matter of Relationships and Witness

The reason public vs private are "weighted" in this way is important because of the correlative relationships and witness which attach. Private commitments are, while not unimportant, of less social consequence. After all they are called called private for a reason!  Public commitments issue in public responsibilities to live one's ecclesial commitments in an edifying way and thus, with integrity and with an eye toward how one's actions affect others; this is true even of the hermit whose life is essentially hidden! They involve others, not least in the expectations they allow others to necessarily hold in the committed person's regard; further they are either a witness to others or they represent a betrayal of one's responsibility to witness appropriately to those others. If an avid soccer fan (and a Catholic) sincerely believes God is calling her to watch every game of the World Cup no matter her obligations to spouse, or children, or parish (Church) or God via these other relationships, and decides she is justified in this way, she is lying to herself in one way or another.  Nor is the example she is giving particularly edifying.

To take a  more serious example, if a wife decided she no longer wished to take part in marital relations, nor to care for her family because God was calling her to embrace celibacy and live as a hermit, once again she would be lying to herself and others and failing to witness to the sanctity of marriage and sexual love as she has PUBLICLY committed herself and been commissioned by the Church to do. The Church no longer effectively devalues the Sacramental and legal state of marriage nor profanes marital love in the name of religious life or celibacy as higher values. What then of someone who is legitimately allowed by the Church to call herself a Catholic Hermit and who, without the mutual discernment or approval of legitimate superiors, thereafter claims that God has blocked her way to participate in any significant way in normal ecclesial life (including Mass and the Sacraments) or who contends that the abstract (bloodless) "love of souls" takes the place of concrete love of others? Is this really the message of the Gospel entrusted to the Church? Does this constitute an edifying example of Christian witness? Does it even witness to the vocation of the Catholic Hermit and the way the Church understands that today?

You see, what is also true is that the public commitments in each of these situations is presumed to be an expression of God's will! This is especially so because, as ecclesial realities, they are sanctioned and blessed by the Church. That means there must be pretty significant indications when one proposes changing them for what one privately experiences as the will of God! It also means in some way these private experiences and determinations need to be corroborated or affirmed by others in the Church (meaning pastors, Bishops and their delegates, etc) as well. In the situation you referred to --- a privately dedicated hermit determines she is called by God to reclusion and to cutting herself off from the Sacramental and ecclesial life of the Church symbolized in the minimal obligation of Sunday Mass -- I  was not struck so much by the elitism of the determination (though I certainly agree this person would never allow other Catholics to make the same determination in the name of private revelations and discernment) as I was struck by the extreme individualism, and even narcissism of the situation.

Canon 603 allows for the first time ever in universal law for individuals who are not part of religious communities and congregations to live and explore the depths of the vowed life within the realm of eremitical solitude (communion with God), that is, a life which says God alone is sufficient for us human beings. But it does this with ecclesial vetting, oversight, and support. Far from getting in the way of the individual's relationship with God the structures and relationships set up in canonical standing create a realm of freedom where the individual may truly live a life of assiduous prayer and penance without real concern that she ought to be about something else, some more active ministry, some money-making project for the sake of others, etc.

But the paradox is that this solitary enterprise is taken on for the sake of others and as a specifically ecclesial reality. While other people do not occupy the hermitage with the hermit, their faith and support make this life possible; moreover they look to the hermit for a witness which illumines some dimensions of the Gospel in a particularly sharp or compelling way. The Church has given the faithful this right when it called, professed, and consecrated this hermit from their very midst and then established her hermitage there as well. The bottom line truth here is that the hermitage is a still point in an often chaotic world and this is not for the hermit's benefit alone! She is there at the service of God and others. Not all hermits' lives are good and pleasing to God. A misanthrope's (or other individualist's) isolated shack is not the same as the hermit's dwelling which is always situated in profound relationship to God and others in the heart of the Church.