06 October 2015

Eremitism as a Vocation that Belongs to the Church: Sources of this Position

 [[Hi Sister! Thanks for your recent posts on reclusion and the relatedness that is part of that vocation. I read your post on Sunday obligations for hermits last year (I think it was last yea) so I realized that reclusion is more dependent on others than we often think but there was something new in the idea that the recluse reflects the interrelatedness of all of creation. I think you were also clearer about the idea that such a vocation "belongs to the Church", not to the individual. Can I ask what the sources of your ideas on this are? Your emphasis on community is so strong that sometimes I have to remind myself you are speaking about eremitical solitude or even reclusion. Does this come from your reflection on canon 603?]]

Thank you for the question and the observations. If there is greater clarity about the idea that vocations to eremitical solitude and even to reclusion "belong to the Church" and not to the individual, it is because I am coming to greater clarity myself. I spoke recently of the spiral movement of thought -- you know, where the same points come up but each time a bit closer to the center and deeper as well. I think this is mainly something similar. When I first got some clarity on the nature of  ecclesial vocations (about 20 years ago) I knew I had come to a realization that would change a great deal in my own perceptions and understanding. I had no idea I would be exploring the meaning of the term in one way and another for the rest of my life! And yet, this is precisely what has happened --- and I think will continue as a focus for my own reflection.

(By the way, I should note here that in this post I use the term ecclesial vocation in two senses. The first is general, less usual, and means any vocation that "belongs" to the Church, is an expression of Church, or necessarily serves the Church and the world through the Church. The second sense refers to "ecclesial vocations" in the proper sense of the term. This usage is much more specific and besides everything just mentioned refers to those vocations which are mutually discerned by the individual and Church leaders and are mediated juridically by the Church in rites of profession, consecration, and ordination. Ecclesial vocations in the proper sense are governed by canons beyond those associated with the lay state of life. They are public vocations, not private ones and involve public commitments and commissioning, not private vows or the lack of specific commissioning. Consequently, they result in necessary rights, obligations, and expectations on the part of the whole Church, and often the public at large. I have ordinarily only spoken of ecclesial vocations in this proper sense.)

Something similar to what I experienced with regard to the notion of ecclesial vocations happened 40 years ago with the work of theologians Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs and the notion of the human being as a "language event" --- which ties in here because this idea too stresses the interrelatedness of all life and the embedded nature of all vocations; people come to be in being addressed and called to be by others. They come to be in responding to these words and in addressing others. They are mutually responsible in these and other ways. Thomas Keating, as I have noted here before, calls human beings "a listening". Scripture speaks of the Christ Event, the fullest revelation of both God and Mankind as incarnate Word. Ecclesia (the Greek word for Church) is the reality of those called together to witness to the Word. Because of the theology of "language events" I came to see more clearly that none of these things exist in isolation; they cannot. It is not their nature. In any case I am coming to greater clarity regarding the profound relatedness of eremitical solitude and the vocation to reclusion myself so there is little surprise that it shows up here on this blog.

Your question is about the source of all this and I think there are five main 'streams': 1) theology (both systematic and historical theology including reflection on canon 603 and its history), 2) personal experience (including ongoing reflection on living canon 603), 3) sociology, 4) science (especially in regard to contemporary physics and biology), and 5) an increased sense of the prevalence of stereotypes and distortions of the truth. Not to worry, I am not going to list all of these in detail, but I do want you to see that each of these areas provides a kind of stream that feeds my own posts here. Sometimes I will focus on the theology involved, sometimes, on the counter cultural nature of the vocation, sometimes on the stereotypes I have encountered or the distortions of the eremitical vocation as the Church understands it, and so forth, but whichever the focus for the moment the other streams are also prevalent and feeding my thought.

A little more about canon 603:

You ask specifically about reflection on canon 603 and here I have to say that is a really great and terrifically perceptive question. You see, the one place where all the other bits come together, the one reality which combines all of these streams or threads is precisely canon 603 itself so it makes sense that it would become a kind of structural or formal center which demands a person eventually look at all these dimensions. Canon 603 is a norm for the solitary eremitical vocation in the Church. It is a bit of codified (normative) wisdom which is theologically compelling, culturally challenging, open to the findings of the behavioral sciences, and immensely respectful of the needs and experience of both the believing community and the person called to live this vocation in the name of that community.

Up until now I have said that this canon is an amazing blend of non-negotiable elements and flexibility. I hope I have conveyed that it is an amazing combination of formal structure and charismatic energy. (How often can we say a church law is an inspired gift of the Holy Spirit? I don't know -- I am no canonist! Neither am I generally tempted to approach canon law in this way but I definitely believe it is true in this case.) In any event, yes, more often than not it is my reflection on canon 603 that has been the source of insight into the eremitical vocation. At the same time that is because this canon is sort of lens which both reveals and reflects all these other streams and sources in a coherent illuminating and life giving beam.

For that reason my own experience and theological reflection, along with the lives and theological (or canonical) reflection of others illuminates this canon so that its depths and hidden contours, colors, and capacity can be more readily appreciated. If instead we see it only as a constraining norm, a law which is merely superficial or extraneous to the vocation it defines and governs, or if we treat it as a legalistic imposition which supposedly stifles the eremitical vocation, we will have failed to appreciate the nature and function of the canon itself and probably the vocation it codifies.

Personal sources, Theology:

I don't want to go into the theology involved at any length here since I think it is something I write about all the time. It is true that because I am a systematic theologian I look for the deep connections and theological underpinnings of a reality. That is just natural for me. With regard to the eremitical vocation and the call to solitude, both creation (where God is meant to be sovereign) and ecclesiology (the theology of Church) itself are foundational here. We talk of the Church as the Body of Christ and of this body having many members, all important, all necessary, all interrelated. It is hard to believe that God would call people to eremitical solitude or even to reclusion (as you say) if it meant truly being cut off from the Body of Christ in some significant way.

While it is true the relatedness between hermit and community is sometimes obscure there is no doubt it is real and critical --- just as so many of the life processes of the human body are hidden but real and critical nonetheless. This dimension is foundational and must be protected. Paul's theology of the charisms of the Holy Spirit and the way they serve and complete one another is also foundational here. We do not have people speaking in tongues without those God inspires as interpreters. We do not have individuals called to symbolize the Church at prayer without them being integrally related to that same Church. Meanwhile, as important as individual salvation and perfection might be the ministry handed onto the Church by God through the Christ Event is the "ministry of reconciliation". Through this ministry all people but also all of creation is to be brought to perfection (maturity and fullness) so that God is all in all. In all of this eremitical life is a gift of the Spirit to the Church and it is up to the Church to mediate God's call to those who live this vocation in the name of the Church. Of course Lay hermits too participate in the Church's ministry of reconciliation in this paradoxical vocation --- though as hermits they do do so in what might be called "ecclesial vocations" in the much more general sense of the term.

Personal Experience:

I have known both times when I was unable to participate effectively in church and her ministry due to illness and times when I was able to participate fully. I have lived as a hermit during both of these and there is no doubt in my mind that the first period was also one where something crucial was missing from my eremitical life while the second involves a richer and more paradoxical sense of the silence of solitude. This sense is a large part of what informs my reflections even though it is usually only implicit in my posts. Especially here, I believe the time of enforced separation due to illness made me more aware of the ecclesial or communal dimension of the eremitical life -- and particularly of the need to be able to participate in some way in the liturgical and other communal life of the Church if one is to live consecrated eremitical life in the Church's name.

Reflection on canon 603 is something I have done in both periods of my life but the relational and ecclesiological sense of each of its elements was something I resisted (it was painful to embrace completely) so long as illness prevented my own participation in parish life. My relational standing in the People of God has helped me appreciate the history of the canon, the place of community in the growth of a call to solitude, the relational nature of the vows,  and the distinction between the isolation or estrangement of sin and the engagement with God on the part of others (and in limited ways, with them as well) which is so characteristic of the silence of  eremitical solitude in an ecclesial context. One can live as a hermit both ways but there is no doubt in my mind that alienation and estrangement --- even that occasioned by illness --- only allows for a partial and somewhat distorted understanding of the canon 603 vocation.

In particular this can become clearer once the Church has admitted one to profession and consecration, when she has, in fact, entrusted one with the canonical responsibilities and obligations connected to the public form of this vocation. At that point one acquires a profound sense of being part of the handing on of a living Tradition. One acquires a more explicit sense of mission which differs significantly from mere purpose and this happens as the result of being publicly and canonically consecrated and commissioned by the Church. This is vastly different, and in some ways, a vastly richer experience of the ecclesial nature of an eremitical vocation than simply living as a hermit because one has discerned one is called to be a hermit apart from the Church's active ministry in mediating this call. My experience in this also leads me to say that in the case of lay hermits, I think there must be a strong ecclesial dimension to their lives and though this is not as clearly established as it is in the case of the canonical hermit, it must exist and be nurtured and protected by the hermit in whatever ways are possible.

Culture and the History of Eremitical Life:

Both the nature of our culture and the history of eremitical life underscores the importance of understanding eremitical life and even reclusion as relational vocations which in significant ways "belong" to the Church. Eremitical life has always been a prophetic way of life speaking the will of God into the contemporary situation with a uniquely arresting kind of power and vividness. In the days of the Desert Mothers and Fathers hermits reminded the Church it had allied itself too closely with the political and cultural environment and called it to conversion.

Today hermits remain a counter cultural reality in a world marked and marred by individualism (often expressed in materialism and consumerism) so long as solitude is understood in terms communion with God and all that is grounded in God. If solitude is defined in terms of estrangement and alienation eremitical life becomes complicit in these and betrays its own roots and nature. Similarly, to some extent eremitical life reminds religious men and women that though communion with those in the saeculum does not allow for a simplistic division between the spiritual and the secular or the sacred and profane, neither can religious buy too completely into the world of the saeculum; they must maintain an eschatological perspective and orientation even as they participate profoundly in the saeculum.

The place of stereotypes and frauds in affirming this vocation belongs to the Church:

Skipping for now the place of the sciences, there are stereotypes and those who would distort eremitical life in ways which are obstacles to understanding the profoundly ecclesial and relational nature of eremitical or reclusive solitude. Stereotypes come to life in real people today and those who represent distortions of eremitical life make it much harder for others to leave stereotypes behind. This in turn could mean that eremitical life will continue to be neither understood nor appropriately valued by the majority of our Church and world. It can also mean that for those rare persons who have such a vocation, an eremitical life will be harder to consider seriously and harder for the Church to deal with. Prelates who are charged with discerning these vocations may instead dismiss them as too bizarre, too troublesome and time consuming, too difficult to discern, and too contrary to the Church's understanding of herself or her communal life to be considered healthy. This means especially that the major expressions of disaffected human existence today (misanthropy, narcissism, isolationism, etc) will be (or continue to be) more easily labeled "eremitical" despite the fact that they are realities which are antithetical to the real thing.

Tom Leppard (see articles)
In instances where the Church's own vocation to the consecrated eremitical life is misrepresented by actual frauds this situation is exacerbated and those without such a vocation may well be misled to unknowingly adopt an equally inauthentic version of this vocation. What is especially difficult about these fraudulent vocations is the disparaging way the ecclesial dimension is treated. I believe there are relatively few outright frauds out there but because they write and otherwise represent disingenuous or perhaps "merely" delusional nonsense which is disedifying and seductive for those seeking a way to validate individualism and narcissism, they can cause significant mischief in people's lives and in the life of the Church itself. Moreover they can do so in ways far more powerful than lifeless stereotypes (which are powerful enough in themselves) can do.

I do feel real sympathy for those I am aware of --- and in some cases I feel or have felt significant pain -- both because of and for them. I sincerely believe these persons began pursuing eremitical life in good faith but failed in solitude and came to reject the Church's role in governing ecclesial vocations precisely because of individualism, illness, and sometimes, outright narcissism. It is these cases especially that underscore for me the importance not only of humility in this vocation, but of a vital embeddedness in the faith community with competent direction and regular oversight. In the cases I am aware of some do seek admission to profession under canon 603 but when they are discouraged from this, or actually refused admission, their disappointment has sometimes hardened into despair and disaffection. Once this occurs their relationship with the Church can weaken and sometimes is transformed into actual disregard for her teaching, praxis, and members. These persons may then strike out on their own while yet representing themselves as Catholic Hermits --- hermits living eremitical life in the name of the Church. I do understand the pain of such disappointment; it is terribly painful to sustain what can feel like a personal rejection. But I also understand that one's identity as an integral part of the Body of Christ is too precious to jeopardize in this way. Certainly it cannot be replaced by this kind of pretense.

The tragic irony in such cases is that the eremitical life that could have healed one's self-centeredness and transfigured one's marginalization itself becomes a victim of these. What could have been a path to significant integration, reconciliation, and fruitfulness becomes instead an example of a withered fig tree which may have lost any possibility of a verdant future. Once again though, this underscores the ecclesial nature of the authentic eremitical vocation. Such vocations, whether lay or consecrated, "belong" to and must be overseen by the Church. They are a signifcant part of her living Tradition, her Patrimony. In what may be the vocation's most significant paradox these persons demonstrate that authentic Catholic Hermits are never those who attempt to go it alone.

One final source, Camaldolese Spirituality:

Let me note briefly here that a final source of my own conviction about the notion that eremitical vocations "belong to the Church" is my own relationship with Camaldolese and Cistercian spiritualities. Any Congregation or Order comprised of hermits or allowing for hermits constitutes an ecclesial context which assures the health or vitality of the individual vocation concerned and of the eremitical vocation more generally. One of the more significant contributions St Romuald made (besides founding the Camaldolese Benedictine Order!) was bringing isolated hermits together or at least under the Rule of St Benedict --- moves which helped curb tendencies to destructive individualism, provided discipline, and related these vocations to the larger Church. Centuries later it was Peter Damian, Camaldolese monk and prelate who referred to the hermit in (her) cell as an ecclesiola ("little church") --- not because one can be church by oneself, but because an individual who is properly professed and/or integrally related to church, represents or symbolizes the whole. One of the phrases characterizing Camaldolese life is "Living Together Alone". There is no doubt I am significantly influenced by Camaldolese thought, spirituality, and praxis in this matter.

N.B., for those interested in reading about Camaldolese spirituality generally or the phrase, "living together alone", please see The Privilege of Love, and especially Brother Bede Healey's "Psychological Investigations and Implications for Living Together Alone". Also important here are Dom Robert Hale's "Koinonia: The Privilege of Love", and Dom Cyprian Consiglio's, "An Image of the Praying Church: Camaldolese Liturgical Spirituality."