23 March 2015

What Specifically does the Church Hold you Responsible For?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, recently you wrote: [[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.]] I understand what you are saying here and I am beginning to understand why you are concerned about people who pretend to a status they don't actually have. What is hard to see clearly is what responsibility or responsibilities a hermit takes on. When you talk about [being a hermit] "in the Name of the Church" that refers to responsibility, I know that. But what specifically does the Church hold you responsible for? Is any of this based on the Bible or is it all about Canon Law?]]

Thank you for the questions.  Let me begin with the last one which I believe is critically important. I think there are very clear Scriptural precedents for the Church's insistence that standing is inevitably associated with commensurate responsibilities. One of the most vivid is the parable of the Prodigal Son/Merciful Father. Remember that when the younger Son demanded "the property that would be his at his Father's death" he very specifically does NOT ask to assume the responsibilities of inheritance. In fact he rejects these outright. Despite some English translations of the text, he asks for the "ousia", the very "substance" of the material or wealth portion of the patrimony that would come to him at his Father's death, but he does not use "kleronomia", the usual word for inheritance. This is significant because asking for the inheritance (kleronomia) necessarily includes acceptance of leadership for the family, their wealth, honor, and general well-being. In fact, it includes the pledge that one will give one's life for the family if need be.

Instead this son effectively wishes his Father was dead, separates himself from the family, sells off his portion of the property for cheap (he does not bargain as is typical in the Middle Eastern culture but liquidates things quickly for whatever he can get in the moment) thus leaving his family in reduced circumstances; he then squanders the proceeds of his impulsivity, greed, and lack of compassion in "riotous (exorbitant) living" among foreigners. He becomes rootless, a wanderer without value or responsible role, someone who has exchanged the lasting or eternal for the entirely ephemeral. (By the way, it should be noted that in Jesus' day calling someone rootless in this way was an unpardonable offense; making oneself rootless was incredibly degrading.) 

Meanwhile, skipping ahead in the story, when the younger son returns home in yet even greater disgrace he is restored to Sonship and will be honored by all the village as the Father's Son because of the robe, ring and shoes with which his Father has clothed him. In other words, he has been re-established as one with genuine standing  in the People of God and real responsibility within and for the family and the family's honor and wealth. With standing comes responsibility. To take what is due a Son and to do so while cutting all ties, betraying and sundering all relationships, and selfishly relinquishing all responsibility for one's family or the People of God is the very essence of sin in this NT parable. Despite some distorted approaches to spirituality, and the genuine limitations of life as a  hermit, I would argue one cannot do these things in the name of eremitical life either. That way lies the disedifying isolation of counterfeits and curmudgeons rather than the ecclesial solitude of the Christian hermit.

Canonical Standing and Responsibility:

 To accept canonical standing then (e.g., that which comes with public profession and//or consecration) is to accept the responsibility to act in whatever way one is commissioned by the Church to do in her name. The same is true with regard to Sacramental relationships and standing: Baptism (Sacraments of Initiation), Marriage, Ordination all come with specific responsibilities within the Church and for the very life OF the Church. In my own life the specific obligations include: 1) an ecclesial vocation lived as an integral part of the Church's own life and holiness governed by both universal and proper law, 2) an eremitical vocation whose nature is defined by canon 603 and other canons related to consecrated or religious life. It includes stricter separation from the world (those things contrary or even resistant to Christ as well as those things which promise what only God can promise), assiduous prayer and penance, the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels and all those imply, life according to an approved Rule I write myself, and the supervision of the diocesan Bishop and those he delegates to act as legitimate superiors and/or delegates (quasi-superiors).

In all this I (and all diocesan hermits) are specifically responsible for living the eremitical life in the heart of the Church as a continuation of the prophetic life of the Desert Fathers, the pastorally significant lives of medieval anchor-ites, along with the hidden witness of so many other hermits, and for extending this rich tradition in ways which meet contemporary needs and speak to contemporary culture. 3) As a representative of these I am also part of a parish and diocese; I was called forth from their midst and professed and consecrated in their presence with them witnessing, supporting, and celebrating. As solitary as a hermit's vocation is it is ecclesial and so I live this life in my parish's midst and serve them and others as my eremitical life makes possible.

Bearing the parable of the Prodigal Son/Merciful Father in mind, as a Sister (that is, as a professed religious), I am responsible in various limited ways for dimensions of the life of this parish family. There is something similarly true with regard to the diocese as such though ordinarily this is expressed in my commitment to parish life, or, occasionally, in diocesan events and diocese-wide celebrations, funerals, etc. It always means the parish and diocese are kept in my heart and prayer, but it sometimes means speaking at other parishes in the diocese, doing an occasional presentation at Contemplative Outreach or similar groups in the area, regarding desert spirituality, eremitical life, contemplative prayer, etc. In any case I am responsible not merely to be a hermit, but to be a hermit in the heart of the Church and to appropriately allow the fruits of my own solitary contemplative life to nurture the life of the familiy I know as the local parish and diocesan Church.

In terms of the universal Church I really do feel the obligation to live a life which is truly an extension of the eremitical tradition which has been part of her life since the 4th Century and certainly was an element of Jesus' own life, that of John the Baptist, Elijah, etc. And even beyond the universal Church is the world-at-large --- also searching, hurting, and yearning. Every person comes to communion with God in an essential solitude and the hermit's life reminds them of this. At the same time some effectively marginalized persons especially need the example of the hermit's solitude to come to a sense that their own isolation, no matter the circumstances causing or exacerbating it, can be redeemed through such communion.

Canon 603 is very specific about the hermit living her life for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. Her own prayer --- intercessory and otherwise --- is very important here, but so is the entire solitary life she lives as a public person in the Church. The very hiddenness of the hermit's life is, paradoxically, actually part of her public identity and witness. After all, most of the struggle, love, work, and prayer we all do in our lives is hidden "from the eyes of men" and sometimes that can tempt us to abandon this for notoriety, etc. A hermit reminds everyone that this is unnnecessary and perhaps even illegitimate depending on what God wills in our lives. At the very least, the hermit's own life of essential hiddenness encourages patience and suggests a new way of seeing things. Especially it encourages us to see the dignity of our lives and the significance of whatever we do in and with God, no matter how ordinary or how hidden.

So I have a strong sense of responsibility in all of these ways. Moreover, as you very perceptively put the matter, the Church herself rightly holds me morally and legally responsible for living my life in these ways. Public profession and consecration establish a covenant between the individual professed and the Church more generally --- usually through an institute of consecrated life, but now with canon 603, through the hermit's diocese and local Bishop. The Church spells out some of this in the canon, but she fully (and rightly) expects the hermit who is publicly professed to concretize or make these obligations more specific in terms of her own prayer, study, reflection and response to the grace of God as it comes to her through the relationships that constitute her life. This is another reason it is very important that there be sufficient formation and mutual discernment before admitting someone to profession and (then) consecration under canon 603. Through canon 603 diocesan hermits give their lives to Christ and to those who belong to him in what is intended to be an irrevocable gift. Thus the Church that receives this gift needs to have the sense that the candidate has the necessary tools, sensibilities, maturity, and constitutive relationship with God and his Church to truly "flesh out" (or even incarnate) all of the potential which is profoundly embodied in this brief but richly pregnant canon.

Canonical or non-Canonical Hermits: Standing Comes with Responsibility, Rights with Obligations:

My own understanding of the Parable of the Merciful Father (aka Parable of the Prodigal Son) colors the way I see people who seek (or pretend to!) the status or standing of consecrated solitary hermits without accepting the responsibilities the Church associates with such standing. One's life in the Church always comes with commensurate responsibility. Standing as a publicly professed and/or consecrated person in the Church codifies such responsibilities in law. The Prodigal Son was given a robe, a ring, and sandals signifying his new standing in the family. It is not hard for the diocesan hermit to see or hear echoes of this story as the Bishop presents (or clothes her in) the prayer garment, eremitical tunic or scapular, and profession ring, or as he presents her a copy of his formal approval of her Rule which establishes it as binding on the hermit in law as well as morally.

Resonances of the Son's renewed acceptance of his place in protecting the patrimony of his family and People are not far from the hermit's heart when she makes her vows in the hands of the Bishop while resting them on the book of Gospels, or signs those same vows on the altar, or is congratulated and welcomed in her new standing by friends, family, and especially the whole parish community at the Eucharistic Feast. I would think the lay hermit who lives her eremitical life by virtue of her baptismal consecration alone might well perceive similar resonances with 1) her baptism which initiates her into the family of followers of Christ, 2) her anointing with chrism, 3) her clothing with the white baptismal garment, and 4) the giving of the baptismal candle which is accompanied with the commission to keep it burning brightly as a witness to others. In either case, and in all other instances of ecclesial commissioning, standing in the Church comes with responsibilities and rights are accompanied by obligations. The matter is both canonical and profoundly Scriptural but as I understand it, it is Scriptural long before it is canonical.