21 March 2015

Some Reflections on Why Canon Law is Important to the Diocesan Hermit

[[Hi Sister, have you always been interested in Canon Law? Do diocesan hermits have to have this kind of interest or knowledge? (Suppose I couldn't care less about this kind of stuff, could I still be a hermit?) One friend said that hermits usually don't care about laws, their freedom is contrary to that and everything I have read about hermits stress their freedom. Is there some way in which he is right or are consecrated hermits kind of "law and order types"? Are those hermits who do their own thing misrepresenting this vocation?]]

Have I always been interested in Canon Law? Nope, definitely not. My own interest is very limited and circumscribed, namely, it is confined to canon 603 and to the life defined there. In a broader sense that and my own history means being interested in the canons on religious life as well; after all a number of those apply to those professed under c 603 hermit, but I can't say canon law per se holds much interest for me apart from the life I have been commissioned to live in the name of the Church. Theology is a much more compelling and pervasive interest for me and my interest in this canon specifically often has to do with the theology it seeks to express and protect. Most often this involves ecclesiology (theology of the Church) and the way individuals are made responsible for embodying theological truth.

Thus, my interest has also grown over time. It has been spurred by several ideas which are integral to canon 603, not least, 1) the ecclesial nature of the vocation, 2) the amazingly beautiful combination of non-negotiable elements and individual flexibility c 603 codifies, 3) the responsiveness of this canon to history and its capacity to reflect and protect the solitary eremitical tradition as part of the Church's own patrimony, and 4) the lesson that canon law follows life and law serves love. I don't think we necessarily always see these things clearly in canon law (or any law for that matter) but we do see it in the case of canon 603. Especially important here and with regard to #1 above is the way the canon (and canonical standing more generally) creates stable relationships which are essential for ecclesial vocations. The idea that the canon legislates, establishes, and protects those relationships necessary to live this life well and in a prophetic way was tremendously surprising and impressive to me.

While canonical hermits do not usually need much of this kind of knowledge (we have canonists and Vicars who handle canonical details with regard to vows and other things), some, like myself, are interested to the degree that c 603 is new and codifies in universal law a new form of consecrated life. Thus, we tend to be interested in this canon, how it came to be, why it exists, and so forth, and some few of us reflect on the way the canon works in our own lives and the vocation more generally; as noted above we are interested in the relationships it establishes in law, the purpose of these, what we would be living apart from the canon and how it differs because of the canon and things like this. Because as hermits our need for legal recourse or canonical consultation is rare at best once we have been admitted to perpetual profession we are ordinarily otherwise completely free to follow our own Rule of Life without worrying about canonical matters. On the other hand, most of us do have an interest in the canon and its normative character when this is being denied or contravened publicly by folks pretending to represent consecrated eremitical life. In any case at least one diocesan hermit here in the US is a canonist working for a diocese so an interest in canon law is at least not antithetical to the eremitical life!

Am I a Law and Order Type? 

I don't think I am particularly a "law and order" type, nor are most of the hermits I know. Of course we respect law and see its importance in society and the life of the Church. We are not antinomians or anarchists. Rather, we recognize that c 603 is an historic canon and those I know do feel both honored and obligated to live our lives with a real cognizance of what is finally possible in universal law because of it. There is something really startling and humbling when one realizes one is part of a long-awaited and fought for extension of an ancient tradition into a contemporary situation, and therefore, that one is part of a relative handful of hermits now living a new ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church. Personally, I believe the eremitical vocation has the capacity to redeem (heal and give meaning to) the lives of many people who are isolated by life's circumstances and I feel proprietary about the significance of the canon for this reason as well.

Sister Ann Marie OCSO signs Solemn Vow Formula
Especially clear to me is that if the canon is to be used in this way however, it needs to be mediated by the Church and cannot simply be one more occasion of the divisive, individualist, "do your own thing" tendency of our modern world. As far as I can see, that tendency only leads to greater isolation and greater need for redemption. We all know how empty a life of merely "doing your own thing" can be. Imagine how that is exacerbated when one is already searching for meaning, or already feels isolated or as though they do not fit in! My own experience of this vocation says that whether lived canonically in the consecrated state or non-canonically as a hermit in the lay state, for instance, the eremitical life lived in the heart of the Church witnesses to a solitude which is dialogical and contrary to any individualistic isolation. Canon 603 recognizes this clearly when she defines the life as one "lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." If the eremitical vocation is allowed to be degraded into another instance of "do your own thing" or "don't give a damn about the Church's laws or decrees", etc, then we will have lost one of the really unique gifts of the Holy Spirit!

Misrepresenting Facts to the Vulnerable, A serious Pastoral Matter

Thus, when a person who neither understands canon 603 nor lives under it or in an institute of consecrated life, but still falsely claims to be a "professed religious" and "consecrated Catholic Hermit" while writing, [[Perhaps it is best for all of us, and maybe especially us consecrated Catholic hermits, to not get too caught up in the ins-and-outs of the temporal Catholic rules and laws and the raft of interpretations of those rules and laws]] it strikes me as particularly self-serving and pastorally insensitive. (Neither is it particularly accurate; a single  two paragraph canon is hardly a raft of laws nor is c 603 exactly a hotbed of interpretive controversy.) It especially says to me this person has not really understood the reason the Church takes care whom she consecrates and how, whom she professes in this or that vocation and why. In my experience people searching for a way to belong, a way to redeem their own isolation, a way to ensure the meaningfulness of their lives are legion in our world --- and perhaps especially in our culture. They are also more vulnerable to people offering a less difficult or at least more individualistic way to embrace religious life.

We do these persons no favors when we tell them to do whatever they wish, call themselves whatever they wish and never mind about the "temporal laws" of the Church. We do them no favors when we misrepresent facts, misread texts, or treat Canon Law as though it is an option we can ignore while arrogantly calling ourselves "consecrated Catholic hermits" and thus claiming under our own authority a designation only the Church herself can permit us to use. Especially we do these persons no favors by encouraging them to embrace pretense in the name of the God of Truth.

In the end to do that is to betray their deepest longings and treat them as though they are either too unimportant to God to be called to live a significant (meaningful) vocation, or simply too weak to bear the vocation God truly HAS extended to them. This is so because in the Church, standing in law ("status") is always associated with the gift and challenge of responsibility. We do not recognize a person's real dignity nor show genuine respect for them by extending standing (much less allowing them to pretend to standing which is) without commensurate responsibility. In any case, while the institutional Church is not perfect, generally speaking she uses canon law to order and protect her charismatic life, not to stifle it. She uses law to make certain that freedom is not degraded into an irresponsible license. The diocesan hermit does something similar with her Rule and, of course, Canon law, legitimate superiors, and the other mediatory structures and relationships of the Church. These things ordinarily help INSURE the freedom of the hermit, they do not hinder it.

Authentic Freedom:

You see, authentic freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be in spite of limitations and constraints. In the diocesan hermit vocation, or any vocation to the consecrated state in the Church God calls the person and that call is mediated through the structures of the Church. The charismatic dimension of the Church is always mediated in this way. Catholic hermits are not folks who simply do whatever they want (your friend's more commonly held sense of what it means to be a hermit sounds like more of a stereotype to me); they are persons who do what God wills; Catholic hermits are those who live an eremitical freedom (the will of God) as that is mediated not only in solitude, but in and through the structures of the institutional Church.

In my own experience the Church's canon law here provides some of the necessary structure permitting a person to concern themselves wholeheartedly with prayer, the silence of solitude, and the rest of the eremitical life without concern for whatever the world says, believes, values, etc. Moreover, they do so within the very heart of the Church. That is true whether they do so as canonical (consecrated) or non-canonical (lay).  In fact, that is true even when they are fighting for a new way while accepting the current truth of their situation. (The monks who accepted secularization while struggling for something like Canon 603 and living under the protection of Bishop Remi De Roo are exemplars of this kind of creative and risky freedom.) Freedom involves constraints. License is a different matter.

Doing your own thing may pass for freedom, at least for a time, but such persons tend to find they are marginalizing themselves and exacerbating their own sense of unfreedom and meaninglessness. In theological terms they are opting not for the way of the Kingdom and the Life of the Spirit but instead for the way and spirit of the world. The irony is that such persons are therefore more apt than those living fully within the Church's constraints and structures (canonical, liturgical, theological, etc) to be in a destructive bondage, whether that is to insecurity, shame, their own personal failures in life, a fear of meaninglessness, loss, grief, illness, or whatever drives a need to define themselves; whatever creates and grounds this kind of arrogance is not a symptom of freedom but of slavery.

Living Eremitical life inside and Outside the Church:

But let me be clear. A person who truly lives the hermit life without doing so under canon 603 is still a hermit and can live the life in a completely authentic and exemplary way for others --- whether those folks are hermits or not. In this these hermits would be in line with the Desert Abbas and Ammas who actually lived their lives in protest to the worldliness of the Church that had allied itself with the State after Constantine's Edict of Milan. If one has not been consecrated through the mediation of the Church as part of an Institute of Consecrated Life or under c 603, one can certainly still live eremitical life as a lay hermit, a hermit in the lay state of life (or, if one is a priest, in the clerical state of life).

One could also leave the Church and pursue an eremitical life in open protest to what one might see as the Church's compromises with worldliness (and the way some folks write of Canon 603 and the Church's use of law more generally seems suggest they see these as a terrible compromise with worldliness). I personally think this is unnecessary and misguided; I would not understand it but it is a choice I would respect at the same time for its honesty. What is not okay, what I personally cannot respect, is effectively thumbing one's nose at the Church's clear understanding, law, and sacramental structures while fraudulently calling oneself a "Catholic Hermit" and thus, claiming one is living this life in the very name of the Church. I do think that is a clear misrepresentation of this vocation. Of course, if any person claiming to live eremitical life in the name of the Church is also not really living an exemplary eremitical life but instead is merely trying to validate personal isolation and failure, that, it seems to me, would also be a serious misrepresentation of what the Church understands as the eremitical vocation.