15 October 2015

Common Questions re the Hermit and Canon Law

The readings throughout this week are focused on the relationship of law and faith, works and grace. The essential point of Paul's arguments is that we are justified (made part of a covenant relationship with God) through faith (i.e., through trust in God who is both the gift and gift giver) rather than through works, especially works of the law. That is the point of today's lection and of tomorrow's where Abraham is said to have believed God (note it does not say Abraham believed in God!) and this was credited to him as righteousness (that is, as right standing in a covenant relationship with God).

The corollary to this fundamental truth is that only God can bring us into right relationship with himself and that once this occurs, we are made capable of truly good works. Justification precedes good works, but at the same time, once we are justified, once we exist in a covenant relationship with God, we WILL do good works --- not least because we ourselves will be an expression of what it means to be truly human; we will truly be God's good creation.

Common Questions about the Hermit and Law:

Regular readers will know that one question (and variations thereof) which I have been asked a number of times in various ways over the years is, Sister Laurel, how can you live with such dependence on canon law or on what you call "proper" law? If living as a hermit means depending entirely on God, then why do you need law at all? Isn't this contrary to the Gospel and Paul's teaching on Faith? Isn't this a typical Catholic error? Isn't dependence on law a source of sin or doesn't it inevitably lead to sin? I received such an email a couple of days ago which was ostensibly triggered by the week's readings from Romans.

Thus, it seems like a good time to reiterate Paul's arguments on the relation of law to grace not only in relation to any life at all, but particularly in the life of a canonical hermit. First of all a hermit believes God (as tomorrow's reading from Romans puts the matter of Abraham). That always comes first and last. It is the critical and foundational thing, the very reason for her vocation and the thing such a life alone with God witnesses to. Imagine a life given over to prayer and to becoming God's own prayer in our world if one does not first and last "believe God" and thus, trust in God's promises, will, plans, and future.

Imagine giving up one's dreams of service (in the Academy, the Church, the world at large) as well as the promise of worldly success, wealth, prestige, influence, and so forth, even to the extent of giving up friends, family, career, and the potential for marriage, childbearing and parenting, etc, if one was not first and foremost "believing God" and proclaiming the absolute sufficiency of the grace of God with one's solitary life. When confronted with the choice for eremitical solitude we must figure that one who does these things is either crazy or rightly trusts the God who brings life out of death and meaning out of meaninglessness with the whole of her life. Either she has betrayed her humanity with all its gifts and potentials, or she has trusted God and realized that same humanity in the most radical and paradoxical way. The first word in any authentic hermit's life is grace! The second is faith and the two are inextricably wed in a fulfilling relationship.

Only thereafter comes law whether that be civil, ecclesiastical and canon law, or the hermit's own proper law. Moreover law serves love, it does not replace it. When Paul spoke about the Law he spoke of it as a taskmaster and more importantly, a teacher. It was the job of the Law to show us what it looked like to live a covenant relationship with God. It served to some limited extent to protect people from influences which would destroy that covenant relationship or draw them into loving something more than God or in God's place. It codified what a reverent life looked like, what a life which recognized the presence of God in ordinary life demanded of us. The written Law pointed beyond itself to the law written on the heart, the law which was really supposed to be the norm and dynamic of our lives. And finally, the Law taught individuals the impossibility of "keeping the law" on one's own. Not only did it instruct us in the ways sin appeared in our lives, but it impelled us to recognize we could do nothing apart from or without the grace of God --- especially keeping the Law or living the Law written on our own hearts (the will, spirit, and call of Godself which resides there). In other words, the Law witnesses to the foundational place of the grace of God. It presupposes that grace and serves to invite us to be open to it when and in whatever way it comes to us.

Canon Law and Proper Law and the Consecrated Catholic Hermit:

The Catholic Church recognizes that canonical or consecrated hermits live from the grace of God first and foremost, just as any authentic hermit does. She recognizes that the call to be a hermit is an extraordinary grace in and of itself. She understands it, in part, as a mediated grace which comes to the individual not only directly but through the life (Word, Sacrament, People and Tradition) of the Church and speaks to her heart. She sees it as a gift which God gives not only to the individual called, but to the entire faith community. Moreover, as a gift entrusted to the Church this calling is understood as an expression of the Gospel she is called upon to proclaim to the entire world. For all of this to be true the Church has to discern such vocations along with the hermit; beyond discerning such vocations (something that requires a clear and normative understanding of what they are and how they are characterized), the Church has to provide ways of maintaining, nurturing, and governing them. She is responsible for this, for discerning their soundness, and for keeping the pulse of the spirituality characterizing them. Especially she is responsible for being sure some of the common "isms" of our modern world like individualism, narcissism, cocooning, isolationism, and antinomianism, etc are not allowed to replace or pretend at being authentic eremitical life.

In all of this the Church knows that law can serve grace. Law can serve love just as the Ten Commandments can serve the more primary love of God. Structure can define, govern, nurture and protect a vocation. More importantly, in a world where grace is mediated through temporal realities, law can establish stable relationships that help nurture and protect the hermit's life with God alone. Canon law serves in all of these ways. It defines a consecrated form of life which represents a normative vision of the eremitical calling. It defines the way such vocations are to be discerned, nurtured and governed. It makes sure that the freedom of eremitical life with God alone is not replaced by pretense or distortion. It provides for ongoing supervision and assistance, spiritual direction, and accountability. (There is no love without accountability nor authentic freedom either!) It helps make clear that the hermit within the Church, and especially the canonical hermit, is an important part of a living tradition which cannot be allowed to be lost sight of --- whether by the hermit or by her legitimate superiors!

In addition to accepting the place of canon law in her life the consecrated hermit reflects on and expresses the place of the Grace of God in her life by writing a Rule of life. In that Rule she incorporates her vision of the life, especially as her own individual life with God belongs to the greater vision of the Church; she builds in allowance for the various forms of prayer, silence, solitude, Scripture, study, lectio, recreation, sacrifice or penance, and (limited) ministry through which God is truly allowed to be sovereign in her life. The Rule will reflect her vows and the relationships which are central in assisting her to being truly accountable. It will mark the times she requires for retreat or other time away from the hermitage and in its own way it will codify all the external constraints which mark a life of inner freedom, a life where Grace is the primary gift and the thing to which the hermit witnesses in everything she is and does.

I am sure that objections about the place of law in my life (or in the life of any canonical hermit, and also, perhaps, in the life of the Church itself) will be raised again from time to time, whether we are reading through Romans at that point or not. What needs to be made clear is that the canonical hermit does not embrace law, nor write about law because she is a legalist. She does so because she recognizes that God has gifted her with a unique calling, one which is so precious, so vital, and also so fragile that it requires the assistance of others and the establishment of stable structures and relationships to be lived in a genuinely responsive and accountable way. She does so because to go it alone is to risk mistaking some other voice for that of God and thus, ensuring that the witness of her life is either lost entirely or rendered destructive, "disedifying". In this, as in the entire history of Law and Gospel, Law is presupposed by and anticipates Grace for its fulfillment. It serves Love-in-act and allows that love to be mediated to others in service.

Question and Variations:

Clearly I don't believe governing eremitical vocations with canon (universal Church) and proper law (the hermit's own Rule) is contrary to Paul's own teaching on Law and Gospel. I believe instead it reflects the wisdom of Paul's understanding and theology. Can it be misused? Of course. But when the hermit, her diocese, bishop, director, and delegate, are all dealing from a place where they are prayerfully seeking to hear the call and will of God, when, that is, they are attentive to the grace of God, law will serve love as it is meant to do. The alternative is to jettison law and allow a fragile vocation to succumb to the powers, and ideologies of a world fraught with caricatures and fraudulent versions of genuine individuality and freedom. Please see the labels below for other posts treating various versions of the questions raised here, especially for those stressing the way consecrated states of life require legitimate relationships which foster both stability and accountability.