19 January 2015

On canon 603 and Herding cats

[[Hi Sister Laurel, in a blog with a long article about Roman Catholic Hermits one writer notes that  "defining Canon Law for Hermits is as practical as herding cats". I think the comment was meant facetiously since the article is a positive one. The author said it was a topic he would return to but I'm not sure whether he has done that. What do you think about the comment? Is canon 603 impractical?]]

Hi and thanks for the question. I am familiar with the article you mentioned, partly because the author referenced something I wrote here on the issue of supposed drawbacks of canon 603. The article you cited is a fine blog introduction to the state of hermits in the Roman Catholic Church today and can be read here: The Hermit in Roman Catholic Canon Law. I have read other articles in the blog occasionally and I definitely recommend it. Unfortunately, I don't know either whether the author followed up on the "herding cats" comment. On one hand it certainly makes me laugh in recognition. Anyone trying to achieve consensus with even a handful of other hermits can assuredly relate. Even so I think the image is flawed. Keeping that in mind, my initial response is that the truth or falsity, the accuracy or inaccuracy of the statement really depends upon at least two things.

The first is the purpose of canonical legislation; if Canon Law is meant to create an exhaustive and detailed norm or set of norms to which every hermit must be conformed without exception or flexibility then the statement is entirely true. No such law or canon could be composed, much less enforced. Such a project would be futile. However, if canon law is meant to set up a general norm by which the movement of the Holy Spirit can be discerned and responded to in significant ecclesial ways then the statement is false. That is, in such a case the project would not be nearly so futile as the comment might suggest. The second thing upon which the truth or falsity of the statement depends is whether and in what sense we consider hermits "individualists".  I am not sure how most folks regard canon law generally, but I would be VERY surprised to hear any authentic hermit living the nuts and bolts of an eremitical life who would consider canon 603 to be an attempt to impose an unnatural uniformity on genuine hermits much less on individualists who merely want to do what they want when they want to do it. I honestly believe that any authentic hermit, whether canonical or non-canonical, reflecting seriously on the nature of canon 603 will recognize the gift it is to both the Church and world in defining the essential nature of Christian eremitical life and freedom.

I have reflected on the nature of Canon 603 in a relatively focused or persistent way for the last 10-11 years and again (in my introduction to this canon) more superficially from about 1983-1989. Today, of course, I look at it from from the inside, as someone professed accordingly, and as I have written before here (cf Supposed Drawbacks of Canon 603) I find it to be an amazing blend of certain non-negotiable elements and the flexibility (also a defining element in authentic eremitical life) which comes from the experienced hermit writing her own Rule. Together these serve the eremitical tradition and the individual hermit's authentic freedom to explore and embody this vocation in contemporary circumstances. More, because the canon understands that genuine Freedom is lived within historical constraints the Canon defines and codifies those elements necessary to allow the Holy Spirit to move and guide a hermit in her exploration of the undefinable depths of solitary life with God and to do so as part of a living tradition.

Canon 603 does not attempt to define every particular of the hermit's life. Neither do bishops nor delegates responsible for supervising the lives of diocesan hermits. To do so would "cripple" the Holy Spirit and curtail human freedom necessary for and a sign of spiritual growth rather than establishing a context which helps ensure these. It DOES seek to differentiate, I think, between individuality and any exaggerated individualism however. One of the really popular conceptions of the hermit is the consummate individualist. They are, stereotypically, the persons who eschew community,  reject peer pressure, and go their own way. They are seen as persons who march to their own drummers, who live off the grid, who are often self-centered, curmudgeonly, anti-institutional, antinomian or anarchical, and anti-social. This means that quite often we have called such persons hermits. It is a common and legitimate usage for the term "hermit" but it is not what the Church means by the term. Rather than a definition that centers on individualism, the Church recognizes eremitical life as a unique expression of the covenant life which issues in true individuality. Hermits, in ecclesial terms, are individuals who live a solitude which both fosters and witnesses to the foundational relationship with God every person IS.

Canonical Hermits MAY be (or at least begin as) individualists, but their vocation calls them to allow this to be tempered and channeled by their dependence on God and their openness to God's will and purposes within the context of the faith community we call church. In time the individualist is transformed into a contemplative individual whose heart, mind, and spirit are inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit to reflect the silence of solitude in an ecclesial context. As I am sure I have written here many times, one of the reasons canon 603 stresses the eremitical life is lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world is to underscore the distinction between the covenantal life of the Christian hermit with its incredible individual integrity and authentic freedom and the self-centered license or the isolation of the individualist.

This conversion from autonomy to theonomy, that is from being a law unto oneself to being moved by and obedient to the sovereign will of God in a desert context, is an aspect of what I have identified here before as the necessary and essential transition from lone individual to hermit which must precede the possibility of admission to even temporary profession. The Holy Spirit has worked in this way within the Christian tradition for two millennia and given the epidemic of ego-centric individualism in today's culture I think it is important to understand eremitism as something fundamentally different than a call to individualism or even as a call which accommodates individualism. Perhaps it is one of the rare and paradoxical ways in which God combats an individualism which drives so much worldliness and its need for reconciliation. In the case of canon 603 the church has found an effective if imperfect way of codifying the elements essential to an inspired (charismatic) and consecrated eremitical life.

At bottom the truth is that while every hermit is different from every other hermit, what it means to be an eremite in terms of canon 603 is not defined by these differences but by the significant similarities recognized and forged by the constitutive elements of ecclesial eremitical life. In other words eremitical life as understood by the Church is something individuals are formed in by the love of God through stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, the evangelical counsels, and the silence of solitude in an ecclesial context according to a Rule the Hermit writes herself. The Canon recognizes and affirms this in a normative way.

The dynamic involved in its creation is an example of the wisdom we hear in tomorrow's Gospel lection: The Sabbath (or the law) is made for man, not man for the Sabbath (or the law) . In approaching the Church's creation of canon law for hermits we must understand that the law (canon 603, etc) is made for the sake of the vocation, not the other way around. As a result we must understand that not every "hermit" in the common (individualist) sense of the term will either desire or be able to live in this way for the sake of God and others. But then, not every "hermit" in the common sense of the term will have been called by God to human wholeness and completion via this specific route. In fact, history tells us very few will. In creating canon 603 the Church is not attempting to herd cats; instead it is attempting to characterize, nurture, protect, and govern a vocation which some relative few in humanity's immense "clowder" will embrace obediently and wholeheartedly to best fulfill God's own purposes for their lives and his Kingdom.