29 March 2015

On Symbols and Ongoing Mediation of Ecclesial Vocations

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I was intrigued by something you wrote recently about the mediation of one's vocation to the consecrated state. You said that the mediation is a continuing reality and that this is linked to the reason we call such vocations "ecclesial." I couldn't cut and paste the passage but maybe you can do that for me? What I was wondering was whether you might say a little more about this? It is a new idea that my legitimate superior might play a part in the continuing mediation of my vocation and since I don't wear a habit I wonder how that applies. I believe I can see some of this now that you say it but I was hoping you would explain more fully. How are you using the term symbol? It must be in a more active sense than I am used to. Thanks for considering my questions.]]

Thanks, Sister, for your questions. Here is the passage you referred to:

[[ The bottom line in all of this is that initiation into the consecrated state is always a mediated event. Someone intentionally acting "in the name of the Church" admits a person to and mediates this consecration. Further, mediation of one's life in this state is a continuing reality with both liturgical and canonical dimensions. It extends not only to the mutual discernment of the vocation and the formal, liturgical mediation of the call itself by the Bishop at the time of definitive profession, but also to the extension of rights and obligations as well as to the legitimate relationships established to govern and supervise the vocation. All of these things participate in the continuing mediation of God's call to the person and the person's continuing response to and embodiment of this vocation.

This is precisely why such vocations are called ecclesial. At every point the individual lives the charismatic aspect of her vocation in light of the Church's own liturgical and canonical mediation and governance. Similarly, it is this dynamic covenantal relationship that constitutes the "stable state of life" one enters upon definitive profession and consecration. The hermit's Rule is the pre-eminent symbol of all of this but there are other symbols as well, legitimate superiors, religious garb and prayer garment, title and post-nomial initials. All of these point to a stable state of life which is dependent upon the Church's own continuing mediation. All of these participate in the mediation of this vocation, in differing ways and to greater and lesser degrees.]] (cf. If Vows are not Legitimate are they Illegitimate?)

My ideas here are based first on the sense that a vocation, even when we say yes to it in a definitive act (perpetual or solemn profession) is something we must say yes to every day. Secondly it is based on the ecclesial nature of the vocation to the consecrated state and the stable structures and relationships intrinsic to it. I think the bottom line is that every vocation is a living reality at whose heart is the living God and our response to that God. The relationships involved must be renewed ---offered and accepted anew every day. Even in prayer this is often an ecclesially mediated relationship.                                      

I have become more sensitive to the dynamic involved as I have dealt with several isolated lay hermits who live without any Rule, supervision, or oversight, and no real relationship to the Church beyond the fact of their baptism. (Claiming to live at the heart of the Church despite never attending Mass, having no relationship to the local Church and living an isolated life one simply calls "being a hermit" is to claim a destructive fiction which betrays one's baptismal vows and covenant; moreover it mistakes individualist isolation for eremitical solitude.) I have also become more sensitive to the reality of the continuing mediation of my vocation because of 1) my own work with my delegate and 2) the sense of responsibility (the call to respond) I have to my parish, both directly (as part of this community) and indirectly (as a hermit in their midst). I believe that a number of members of the parish perceive whether more or less obscurely, they are a part of this continuing mediation. Certainly my pastor does. In any case what has become clearer and clearer to me is that my own vocational call continues to be mediated to me via a variety of stable ecclesial structures and relationships.

While you undoubtedly know the experience of hearing God's call in a definitive way and having said a definitive yes to God's call in your perpetual or solemn profession, I am sure you also experience the need for an ongoing recommitment daily, weekly, annually at retreat, etc. But this is not a recommitment to an abstract idea of "vocation". It is the recommitment to the living God mediated to us in prayer, Liturgy, Scripture, and the stable relationships of our state of life. I did and do not commit to an abstract notion of eremitical life so much as I commit to the God who calls me to meet, remain with, love and be loved by him in the silence of solitude. Secondarily I commit to honoring and representing as honestly as I can a living tradition which is the Christian eremitical tradition. The opportunities for saying yes again and again are innumerable. But consider that there are certain privileged ways in which the invitation to say yes to God's specific call and thus, to his setting you or myself apart for service in the consecrated state of life occurs regularly in our lives.

Rule and Delegate (or Legitimate Superiors):

In my own life it is my Rule of Life that serves this function most explicitly almost every day of my life, but especially as I make decisions about variations in my horarium or whether to do x or y at my parish. It is rarely far from my mind as I write about this vocation or reflect on the terms of the canon (603), but the idea here is that it is a symbol of the life I have said yes to, a symbol of what has been life giving to me even before I wrote the Rule, and a symbol of the life the Church of Oakland commissioned me to live and the Bishop of Oakland approved with a Decree of Approval.

My Rule is a deeply personal document because it was my own work reflecting years of growth, study, and life in solitude, but it is also now an ecclesial document that marks my life as one of covenant with God as well as with and through my Diocese and the Universal Church. It is a living document which challenges, consoles, encourages, and empowers. Because it includes the episcopal (Bishop's) Decree of Approval it participates in the Church's own commission to me (and her prayer that it will assist me) to live the eremitical life well. In all of those things it mediates God's own call to me and invites my response. In all of these ways and more it mediates God's own Spirit to me.

Something similar happens with meetings with my delegate, or with my Bishop. In meetings with my delegate especially as we explore how I am living my life, problems that may occur, shifts in my understanding of the terms of the Canon or my Rule, and much more. Each meeting involves my own getting in touch with what I am called and consecrated to live; it gives me a chance to look at the overall pattern of my commitment to this life and to renew that. I genuinely feel that the vocation is extended to me in a fresh way during these meetings and that I answer that call in a significant way. Since my delegate serves both me and the diocese as my superior (or "quasi-superior") her role is an ecclesial one and it is not hard to see meetings with her as an expression and renewal of the covenant relationship between myself and the Church. These are not formal meetings, there is no liturgical element (though sometimes we have dinner together), but they do indeed continue to mediate call and response to an ecclesial vocation.

I would bet you that were I to discuss the matter with my delegate she would describe a sense of being responsible for the continuing mediation of God's call to me and my response to that call. I suspect that every person in the role of superior realizes to some extent that their governance is a piece of the mediation of ecclesial vocations. I suspect that most of the time the verb "to mediate" or the noun "mediation" are not the language used but however we speak of the active participation in the nurturing, protection, and governance of vocations to the consecrated state the idea is the same: we participate in the continuing mediation of call and response whenever we participate obediently (attentively and responsively) in the legitimate relationships which are part of life in a stable state of life.

On Habits and Other Clothes as Mediatory Symbols:

In fact, something similar happens every time I get dressed --- or when I put on my cowl (prayer garment) whether in the hermitage or in Church --- though to a much lesser extent. There is a renewal of what is very specifically an ecclesial vocation, an ecclesial identity. You may not wear a habit but I will bet you and your congregation made a conscious decision about what you do wear and that it reflects your own commitment to ministerial religious life, your own commitment to remind people of the vocational dignity of the laity, and to your own accessibility to the folks you encounter. My clothes (generally speaking!) are a symbol of what I have been called to, whether monastic or specifically eremitical. To put them on is to remind myself that what I live I live in the name of the Church. It is to accept anew my part in the covenant made with the Church at consecration --- at least when I am attentive to its potential and significance.

Yours may well also be a symbol of your ecclesial vocation, though not a symbol most people will automatically recognize or understand in this way. After all, as noted below, symbols are born, and this birthing may take time. It seems to me that they may certainly function in this way for you and for many ministerial Sisters. (I admit I have mainly thought about this with regard to the habit so accept these ideas as entirely  tentative.) Your own clothes generally reflect the values of your congregation, the values you personally affirm and live as a vowed ministerial Sister. What I am saying is that every time you consider what you are wearing and why you are doing so, your own commitment is (or at least may well be) renewed and the clothes can be the mediatory symbol which empowers this. Consecrated Virgins living in the World are specifically called to wear secular clothes rather than a habit. This is an explicit part of their ecclesial vocation and covenant: it can be a profound symbol of the very essence of their call and response to consecrated or eschatological secularity and can be a means for the continuing mediation of that call and response. Through this way of dressing, especially in its modesty and simplicity, the Church's own life and holiness further interpenetrates everyday life and the sacred transforms the profane.


When I speak of symbols I mean what Paul Tillich meant by them, namely, mediatory realities which participate in the very things which they mediate. They are much more than signs because signs only signify something by virtue of common agreement. Symbols are living realities which are born and can die. Moreover, as Tillich writes: [[ A symbol has truth: it is adequate to the revelation it expresses. [Here we might think of bread or wine being an adequate symbol to convey a nourishing reality or communion.] A symbol is true: it is the expression of a true revelation. [Here we can think of Bread and Wine being a new expression or embodiment of the Risen Christ.]] (It is important to remember that the term revelation means both "making known" and "making real" in space and time! This corresponds, I think, to the two senses of symbol Tillich speaks about.) Or again, Tillich writes, [[Religious symbols are double edged. They are directed toward the infinite which they symbolize and toward the finite through which they symbolize it. . .They open the divine for the human and the human for the divine.]] and finally, [[A religious symbol can die only if the correlation of which it is an adequate expression dies. This occurs whenever the revelatory situation changes and former symbols become obsolete.]]  (ST I:240)

Catholics often object to calling Eucharistic bread and wine "symbols" but really, in the way some first rate Protestant and Catholic theologians use the term "symbol," they mean bread and wine which participates in the Divine reality they mediate to us. These things ARE Jesus Christ himself; they are the way we meet and take him into ourselves. They are not merely a sign of Jesus' gift of self or love, they are a living reality which mediates Jesus' very self to us. We rightly respond "Amen" when presented with the affirmation, "the Body/Blood of Christ." This is one of the truly privileged ways --- even the most privileged way --- the Risen Christ is embodied in our world.  (N. B., Let me be clear, I am not attempting to convey an adequate theology of Eucharist here, nor am I saying the term symbol says everything Catholic theology says about the Real Presence --- though it is far more powerfully expressive of the heart of this theology than most Catholics actually understand; I am merely trying to speak of the proper way we ought to understand the idea of a symbol.)