15 November 2015

Can a Hermit Live Eremitical Life Without Law?

[[Sister Laurel, is it possible to live as a hermit without law? One of the things you seem very keen on is the importance or the positive place of law in your life and in the lives of all diocesan hermits. You are probably aware that one hermit writes regularly about legalism and just recently wrote a piece called "Beware of the Scribes". (cf., Beware the Scribes!) It isn't always easy to know what or who she is referring to but she does seem to have problems with canon 603 and I think she has some real problems with what you write. I am guessing and say that mainly because I don't know anyone else writing about the things you do.). Do you get charged with being a legalist very often? Anyway my basic question is, is it possible to live without law?]]

Thanks for the question. Yes, I am aware of both the blog you referenced (I have linked to it previously) and the specific (now-redacted) post you noted. It is true that Ms McClure (aka "joyful hermit"--- please see her Google and public LinkedIN profiles) and I do not see eye to eye on the place of law in the life of consecrated hermits or even on the nature of consecrated eremitical life. It is also the case that both of us have written against positions held by the other which, to some extent, only makes sense since she is a non-canonical (in this case, a lay) hermit and I am writing as a canon 603 (that is, a consecrated) hermit.

The charge that I am a legalist (even when not using the word itself) has been made a handful times over the years (sometimes by Ms McClure). In most instances  it was a charge made by someone styling themselves as a religious or consecrated hermit when they were neither. In some instances the person had sought canonical standing and been rejected by their diocese. (Note well, the reasons for rejection need not have been and were not always personal.) A somewhat similar occasion involved a person who thought the term hermit should apply to anyone going off for the weekend on a period of quiet or retreat. If they wanted to call themselves hermits, then fine. He proposed the word could mean whatever the individual wanted it to mean and called this "pushing the boundaries" of meaning. I disagreed and argued not only that the Church has clearly defined the nature of what she recognizes as eremitical life --- and done so in a way which allows for significant flexibility and variation as well, but that eremitical solitude was neither a part time  avocation nor was it a form of individualism.

On Individualism and Reflecting on Canon 603:

As you can tell from this and from many other posts here, I have come to have a significant suspicion of the individualism and alienation which drives so much in our contemporary world and I am especially concerned that it not be validated with the name "hermit". A tendency to individualism at the expense of ecclesial accountability is very real and something I am personally tempted to. It goes hand in hand with the tendency to mediocrity (which does not necessarily mean one should be driven instead by perfectionism!). I personally suspect these specific temptations (especially individualism at the expense of compassion and ecclesiality) are endemic to the eremitical vocation. Finding individualism to be a kind of epidemic in our culture does not surprise me, but it does make me pretty keen (as you rightly put it) on the positive place of "law", or maybe more accurately, of structures and relationships assuring accountability and sound discernment in the hermit's life.

A second element in some of my writing since perpetual (eremitical) profession in 2007 is the proprietary sense I have for this vocation. I believe I've written about this once before (see, On Encouraging or Discouraging Eremitical Vocations) but it was quite a while ago. Essentially I mean in this that I was surprised to discover after perpetual profession and consecration not only a sense of personal accountability for my own vocation, but a sense of responsibility for the eremitical tradition itself and in particular, concern for the vocation of the diocesan hermit professed under c 603. In a sense I felt a kind of proprietariness regarding the call, not as though I "owned it" exactly, but certainly as one who understood it from the inside out while being commissioned to live it canonically (in the name of the Church). The result of that has been a lot of thinking and writing about c 603, the structures and relationships it assures to help maintain accountability, the ecclesial nature of the vocation itself, and the hermit's taking on a place in the living (and recently renewed!) tradition of eremitical life.

None of these concerns are driven by legalism but they are certainly prompted by reflection on the place of the canon in nurturing, protecting, and governing solitary eremitical vocations. You see, I mainly live my life within the world created by public profession under canon 603. I can understand where some looking on from outside see my concerns as driven by legalism but the truth is that they are the result of taking the obligations and nature of my vocation seriously. This, in turn, has to do with taking seriously what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church in this vocation; it is about honoring God and acting in a way which is truly accountable to God's own Church and to all those with whom I come into contact --- those, that is, for whom I live this vocation. In my understanding acting responsibly is an act of love so again, none of this is driven by legalism (and, in light of Ms McClure's charges and those of two or three others, I have thought and prayed about this a lot!); neither then is it about "desiring to diminish or elevate Catholic hermits one over another" or "to lord it over others," as Ms McClure suggested (some are) doing. (By the way, I don't know anyone who writes about what I write about either, but if you should find someone please let me know; I would love to read their stuff!)

Why I Reject the Charge that I am a Legalist:

Life under canon 603 is eremitical life lived within a certain environment and context. That context is ecclesial; the canon itself helps establish that context while it also specifies the conditions one would find in any desert and defines the goals of living there. The vows outline a condition of religious poverty, attentive listening and the progressive relinquishing of self-will, and chaste love in celibacy --- in other words a God-centered life of generosity and selflessness. The elements of the canon apart from these specify a life which is given to providing space and time to God alone. The goal of the life is union with God and communion with all that is precious to God. The space is both external and a matter of one's heart, mind, and body. The elements of assiduous prayer and penance and the silence of solitude provide for the realization of this goal. And yet, the canon also is very clear that the vocation it defines is one of generosity to and love for more than God alone. It carefully states that it is a life lived "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." My Rule is the more personal translation of the way I live these elements and specifies the ways the various relationships (including those of director, delegate, Bishop, parish, pastor and Oblate contacts or prioresses are honored and serve the vocation.).

It would be very simple to neglect or ignore elements of this canonically defined life and make it about myself --- my introversion or love of solitude, my chronic illness, my interests in theology and spirituality (especially my struggles or "successes" there), my love for music, study, and writing. But the canon and my public dedication (profession) and consecration means that my life is lived in a different environment, context, and with a much different focus than would be the case without it. For me the canon opened  (and demanded I embrace in every way!) a world which is fundamentally other-centered. That is it defined a vision of eremitical life which is focused first of all on God (Union with God and concern therefore with God's will, God's plan, God's vision, etc)  and then on those whom God loves with an everlasting love --- namely, the Church and the world the hermit is called to serve in Christ. Profession and consecration served as a specifically ecclesial doorway to this world. In other words the canon defines this as a vocation of both profound and extensive relatedness, first with God and then with the whole of God's creation; because of this it creates the necessary context (structure, relationships, and commitments) to be sure this definition is realized (embodied) in the hermit's life.

Were this other-centered focus to fall away, either because I begin to live an individualistic life or because I simply cease to be faithful to the canon that defines and governs that life in all the ways that governance occurs, I could well be left with nothing but my false self, a few pious nods daily (or weekly!) to God --- and perhaps a few mildly creative hobbies! In my mind's eye this is similar to what happens when the hermit's external desert is exchanged for a comfortable, even luxurious environment or what happens when the desert prevents the ecclesial relatedness which is part of any calling in the Church or is embraced in an act of misanthropy. Living authentically as a hermit becomes much harder and certainly so as a life commitment without the appropriate environment or context. I truly admire those who can live as hermits apart from such a context. Lay hermits, for instance, live a vocation which shares membership in the Body of Christ due to baptism, but they often do so without a specific commitment or supportive relationships so many say are needed as a part of the environment and context of genuinely eremitical lives. The ones I know who are successful have integrated at least some of these elements into their lives (regular contact with a spiritual director, a personal prayer Rule, and parish Sacramental life, for instance)

Can One Live as a Hermit Apart From Law?

The brief answer to the question of whether one can live as a hermit without law is yes if one is using the term law in the narrow sense of Canon Law. But the real answer is not so simple. Law may also mean a Rule or Plan of Life however, and I think it is less possible to live as a hermit without such a guide and guardrail --- even if one only has an internalized Rule or Plan. If one were to live in a rural or more isolated area without contact with others, computer or media access, no phone, and perhaps biweekly access to the Eucharist and other Sacraments, then a Rule would still be necessary, but less so. The external environment itself will serve to dictate the rhythms and focuses of the life. Hermits always try to recreate this physical environment to whatever extent they can. They are up early, go to bed early, often spend some time in vigil, and measure the periods of their day by alternating prayer, lectio, labor, rest, work, more prayer, and study. One's Rule creates an environment of sorts which may fly in the face of the natural environment in which one finds oneself and this is especially true for the urban hermit who must separate herself from so much in order to embrace and be embraced by God in the silence of solitude.

But one still needs to live this life for God and for others and that, it seems to me, to require some kind of structured and defined commitment. Just as canon 603 provides hermits in the Catholic Church with a vision of this vocation, its structure and significance, the isolated hermit especially needs something which specifies a similar vision and significance. If we can call this element "law" in a broad sense then I think it would argue law is always necessary for the hermit. Similarly, (and I am assuming through all of this you mean a hermit living this vocation within the Church)  a hermit must participate in the relationships which assure not only one's ecclesial fidelity but also one's growth in this vocation. The call is a gift of God to the Church and if one does not really thrive as a human being or in one's witness to the redemption which is ours in Christ and the continuing sanctification which comes from the Spirit, then this is not the eremitical life envisioned by the Church. We simply need the relationship with spiritual director or other "elders" of some sort to help us in assuring the growth, integral relatedness, and witness which should be ours as hermits.

So, I guess I have come to the conclusion that a hermit life within the Church is not really possible without law in some sense.  One can always live alone, but eremitical life is different than simply living alone.  One can always make it up as one goes, but that is not the same thing as being truly open and responsive to the Spirit who comes to us in surprising, but also profoundly "ordering" and "sense-making" ways. (see also. Formation, Flexibility, and Making Space for the Holy Spirit.) The "law" I am speaking of does not need to be Canon 603 in a formal sense but the eremitical life lived within the Church still needs to involve the vision and central elements of canon 603 even when these are not codified in Law or embodied in a written Rule or Plan. This is because Divine Law is reflected and mediated in various forms of church and personal law. Because the Church itself is a community and community does not exist without some sort of law (ordering principle), structure, and especially the kinds of bonds which constitute real relatedness (which implies rights and obligations given and assumed for the sake of others and the glorification of God). I think all of this means "law" in some form or another.

Excursus on Canon Law as Ministerial:

Of course, at the same time, I don't believe that the Divine Law is merely above Canon Law any more than I believe Canon Law is somehow autonomous, or a law unto itself. Neither do I hold that Canon Law is a genus or subset of the species Law. Instead I believe it is merely analogous to civil law, and must be approached differently in relation (namely, in both subordination and service) to Theological truth and life. James Coriden describes this perspective on Canon Law in his work on the Ministry of Canon Law. I am entirely convinced that canon law especially should always serve love and the Law of Love --- or, as Thomas Aquinas said, it should be "an ordination of reason for the common good promulgated [by those who have] care of the community." (ST I-II, 90, 4) While I am not personally convinced Canon Law per se always functions in this way, I am certain that c 603 does.