11 March 2015

A Little on Witnessing to a Love that Does Justice in the Face of Tyranny

[[Dear Sister, I am new to your blog and I haven't explored it very much. I am surprised to find a hermit writing about current events. Do you really not hate ISIS? I think I do. I think I shouldn't but I can't control what I feel when people kidnap and threaten to burn children alive! But here are my real questions. From other articles it seems that your vocation is pretty new and not very well known. I know we don't have any Canon 603 hermits in our parish or diocese. How many of you are there in the US? Do Canon 603 hermits exist in other countries as well? Are there many of them? Do you mind if I ask other dumb questions before I read much of your blog?]]

Welcome to Stillsong Hermitage's blog then. To be honest, I don't write very much about current events but I was asked to write about the situation in Syria and I was very moved by the murder of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. That this occurred just as we were preparing for Lent and the ritual of being marked with the sign of the cross in ashes made things immensely more weighty in my own mind and heart. Add to that the fact that I was just beginning to read the Scriptures with eyes more newly sensitized to the place of honor-shame in Middle Eastern cultures and to see many of Jesus' encounters with family, religious leaders, and so forth as violations of honor, occasions leading to dishonor and shame for some, and you can see why these stories had a special poignancy for me.

You see I have recently come to understand freshly the difference between what guilt-sin-individualist cultures like ours and honor-shame-collectivist cultures like those of the Middle East perceive as honorable. Consciences in these two types of society are formed in vastly different ways from one another. It is not necessarily that consciences have been turned off, as a friend recently commented to me, but rather that they are formed very differently, namely as an instance of group conscience according to what the group determines to be honorable or dishonorable. In light of this I came to see even more clearly how Jesus could be crucified or the cross could be a symbol of the most abject dishonor/shame an individual could know. I have also recently been freshly sensitized to the epidemic quality of shame in our Western culure and to how extraordinarily thin in number and depth have been the reflections of systematic theologians on this aspect of the Gospel and Cross of Christ despite the fact that exegetes regularly remind us that the Gospel writers focus on not the physical pain Jesus experienced but the shame associated with his crucifixion.

These and other threads came together for me recently within a short period of time and all of them were and are critically important. We have either lost or never had an adequate sense of how very counter cultural Jesus and the Kingdom he proclaimed were and are. If we are to begin to understand ISIS and to deal with them adequately we must recover and/or cultivate this awareness. If we are to love our enemies as well as our brothers and sisters in the faith, we must understand this. I suppose it is particularly ironic that a very small piece of this reflection on current events in light of Jesus' Kingdom message and behavior comes from a diocesan hermit living a relatively hidden and certainly silent and contemplative life. But this really is the role of contemplatives and hermits in the Church. Living in silence at the center of existence makes this possible and sometimes, anyway, even imperative. I am reminded of something Thomas Merton once wrote:

I make monastic [eremitical] silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists, and agitators, and, when I speak, it is to deny my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. But it is true, nevertheless, that the faith in which I believe is also invoked by many who believe in war, believe in racial injustices, and believe in self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny. My life must, then, be a protest against these also and perhaps against these most of all.

Of course, in the situation with ISIS the self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny are not those of the Church nor of Islam. But they are those of religion more generally. It is against just this kind of tyranny that Jesus stood, and against which we should stand in our own lives today. This is the reason theologians often distinguish religion from faith. Faith does not allow us to hate. Often it calls us to be weak and lacking in control but still it empowers us to love. This is so because it is rooted in trust in God's love and the power of that love to create justice. So, ordinarily my own protest is carried out in silence and prayer. Martyrdom, witness, takes many forms. When so many threads some together as happened recently, it may be time to speak.

Numbers of Canon 603 Hermits in the US and Elsewhere:

As for your "real" questions. . . numerically the diocesan hermit vocation is quite rare. While there have always been hermits --- especially in the Eastern Church (their course has been more variable in the Western Church, sometimes dying out altogether) --- diocesan hermits only came to be a possibility in 1983 with the publication of the Revised Code of Canon Law. The model and original impetus for the establishment of this new form of consecrated/religious life was a group of about a dozen hermits who had once lived solemn vows as monks in community; when they discerned a call to solitude they each had to leave their monasteries and solemn vows and become secularized; this was because there was no provision in their own congregation's proper law for solitary life, nor was there any provision in canon law --- the more universal law of the Church. Eventually they came under the protection of Bishop Remi de Roo who came to see the significance of their vocation. Bishop Remi then made an intervention at Vatican II sincerely pleading with the Church Fathers to recognize the eremitical life as a way of perfection. Nothing happened at Vatican II but the plans for a revision of Canon Law were initiated and these eventually included Canon 603 which provides for solitary consecrated hermits in universal law for the very first time.

In the US there are about 80 diocesan hermits, perhaps a small number more or fewer. The Vatican has begun to include numbers of c 603 hermits in their statistics on religious and consecrated life but I don't think any have yet been published. In some countries there are none at all. I have a friend in New Zealand who is a diocesan hermit; she is the only one there. In other countries, France and Italy, for instance, there are more than in the US but the number is still relatively small. Because canon 603 is part of a universal Code of Canon Law binding on the Universal Church, not just a single diocese here or there (as was once the case with hermits or anchorites in Europe, for instance), there are now diocesan hermits all over the world. As you can see though, relatively speaking diocesan hermits are an infinitesimally small percentage within the Universal Church.

Finally, please don't worry about questions being "dumb". I have asked in the past for folks to pose whatever questions they have. A few people do that and some even ask questions on an infrequent but more or less regular basis. They are all very helpful to me. For instance in a post I put up earlier I was able to answer a question about the meaning of the term "institutes". It never occurred to me that word could be a source of misunderstanding for someone reading canon 603 ("Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life. . .") but it was a really great question because it made something clear to me I had not known. I think all questions can do that but quite often it is the most obvious ones that don't get asked and could be most instructive for me as well as for readers. So while I do encourage you to read posts linked to the labels on the right of this blog, please know all questions are more than welcome.