09 February 2016

A Brief Look at the Episcopalian Canon 14 versus the Roman Catholic Canon 603

  [[Dear Sister, you mentioned the difference between the Episcopal Canon and the Roman Catholic Canon 603. It seems to me that the Episcopal canon is more flexible than the Roman Catholic one. Roman Catholics living under c 603 have to be hermits but with the Episcopal canon they can live in many different ways as those consecrated to God.  They make public personal vows and are free to live as the Holy Spirit moves them. 

With c 603 an individual must shape their lives according to the requirements of the canon --- and from what you have said in the past, according to other canons as well. But what happens if the Holy Spirit calls a person to live differently than these canons allow for? For instance, with the Episcopal canon a person could live as a hermit some of the time and as an active religious at other times. I think this is a good thing. If you wanted to live as an active religious you would need to get your vows dispensed wouldn't you? I don't really have a question here but I do wonder what you think about this. Isn't the Episcopal canon a better option which ensures greater freedom than Canon 603?]]

Respect for Anglican Contributions to the Renewal of Eremitical Life:

Let me say that I greatly respect the place of the Episcopal Communion in the renewal of eremitical life in the contemporary Church and world. When I was first considering this life seriously after having read canon 603 and Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action one of the first contacts I made was with the Sisters of the Love of God in order to read some of the work they were publishing on eremitical life. This weekend I looked once again (after thirty years or so!) at a collection of essays entitled Solitude and Communion --- an anthology published by this same community and featuring essays by some of the really great Anglican, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic writers on eremitical life, especially on its communal dimension and the importance of the experience of redemption which must lie at its heart.

The work of these writers, folks like Sister Mary Clare SLG, AM Allchin, Dom Andre Louf, Kallistos Ware, Rolland Walls, and Sister Benedicta Ward SLG, represent genuinely pioneering work deeply rooted in the eremitical Tradition and responsive to the needs of the contemporary world. It was very gratifying to find many posts on this blog site mirroring the same conclusions on the nature of eremitical life represented in this particular collection of essays, but more importantly I was reminded again of the really seminal place the Anglican Communion has had in the renewal of eremitical life in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

And yet, I don't feel the same way about the Episcopalian Canon on solitary religious life. This is precisely because it does not define a specifically eremitical life in the way canon 603 does for the Roman Catholic Church. From my perspective this is an important deficiency, both in terms of eremitical life and in terms of religious life more generally, because it really makes individualism rather than true freedom the measure of all things. In the Episcopal Church anyone living under this canon may call themselves a hermit whether they are one or not. They only need to be living alone to do so. It is striking to me that the sharpest criticism I have heard about lives lived in this way was from an Episcopal solitary who recognized the very same problem. She noted that only a very small percentage (maybe 5%) of those calling themselves "solitaries" or hermits actually live anything remotely like that life defined in canon 603 or recognized from the eremitical tradition and desert spirituality. (cf., Roman Catholic Hermits versus Episcopal Solitaries) That means a large percentage of these "solitaries" are living neither the challenges nor values of community life (which they apparently do not feel called to) nor the radical aloneness and dependence upon God reflected in the kerygma of the Cross and typical of eremitism; yet they are considered solitary religious and hermits. I personally wonder about the wisdom of this canon on a number of levels but the problem I am focusing on here results when these folks call themselves "hermits".

Canon 14 Provides no Means of Discernment:

It seems to me the deficiency of the canon and of the discernment which necessarily accompanies and is defined by it, is directly responsible for this. Here is what I mean. Imagine that one advertises a job listing for a computer analyst and fails to spell out an adequate job description in doing so. One may get a ton of applicants with very different ideas of what it means to be a computer analyst in 2016 --- and as many differing levels of training, education, and competence as a result. Those doing the hiring also may not understand what is required and hire folks who simply are not prepared to do the job --- because they too lack an understanding of what the job entails. Remember, there is no job description, no listing of qualifications without which one can never succeed, and no spelling out of or screening for the dimensions necessary for real competence and fruitfulness! Supervisors and other team members may then find themselves unable to assist the new hires because the needs of the company cannot be met by people who do not have the capacity or the basis to be trained to do so. And of course, what happens in such a situation  to all those who need the fruit of competent analysts' work?

The question of Divine vocations to eremitical life is an even more difficult one; after all we are not dealing with a mere job. So imagine that a Church promulgates a canon which allows for solitary hermits but fails to spell out a vision of what that actually means. How will they or the people seeking to live as hermits discern such a calling?  And if they cannot discern this, then how in the world can they actually live it?  Whose vision of the life will guide in formation, both initial and ongoing? What prevents freedom from lapsing into license, solitude into isolation or the silence of solitude from being replaced by introversion seasoned with discontent --- enough to fuel the life of an institutional gadfly for instance? More, what keeps flexibility from lapsing into distortion, mediocrity, or other actual betrayals of the tradition? What ensures withdrawal from misanthropy, depression, pathological anti-social impulses and selfishness do not replace the anachoresis of authentic anchoritism? And what of the radical Gospel of a power which is perfected in weakness, a mercy which does justice, and a redemption which brings life out of death and meaning out of meaninglessness --- lived out stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude?  What of those who need to hear this Gospel proclaimed as a hermit especially does this --- the marginalized, bereaved, isolated elderly and chronically ill? To whom do they look for evidence of the transfiguration of these things in Christ?

The Value of Canon 603 as a Normative Vision:

I think it is important to see that more than being a law, Canon 603 is a normative vision of the essence of eremitical life. When I say I live my life under this canon I am saying I live my life according to this vision and the relationships in which it establishes me. The vision itself summons me to allow God to shape my life accordingly and it affirms that God has done similarly through the centuries in ways which hermits and those looking to them have found redemptive. I do what I can do to allow this shaping and I do that in order that the Gospel proclamation that is uniquely expressed in eremitical life might be proclaimed in my own. I do not mean that my life is or is primarily meant to be a kind of generic Christian witness (though it should also do this). Instead it is a much more radical kind of witness where a personally "noisy"  (anguished) isolation symptomatic of sin and the consequences of this state of estrangement and alienation is transfigured into the silence of solitude; in this vocation the hermit's redemption is worked out in a loneliness and dependence on God which is similar to that of Jesus' life, passion, and death.

Perhaps it would help if I put the text of the two canons side by side so to speak. The difference between them is striking. First, the Episcopal Church's only canon speaking to the profession of solitary individuals: [[Title III, Canon 14; Sec. 3. Any Bishop receiving vows of an individual not a member of a Religious Order or other Christian Community, using the form for "Setting Apart for a Special Vocation" in the Book of Occasional Services , or a similar rite, shall record the following information with the Standing Committee on Religious Communities of the House of Bishops: the name of the person making vows; the date of the service; the nature and contents of the vows made, whether temporary or permanent; and any other pastoral considerations as shall be deemed necessary.]] As you can see there is absolutely nothing at all about the nature of eremitical life in the Episcopalian Canon. (Neither, contrary to some objections, is there anything particularly constraining, much less controlling or distorting (falsifying) of a solitary life in this canon.) It simply requires the proper recording of the place and nature of the person's vows, and generally specifies the rite to be used for profession.

Canon 603: Text of the Roman Catholic Vision of Solitary Eremitical Life:

Next, Canon 603 in the RCC's Revised Code of Canon Law: Can. [[603 §1. Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance. §2. A hermit is recognized in law as one dedicated to God in the consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes their own Rule or Plan of Life under his direction.]] Unlike canon 14, Canon 603 describes a recognizable and traditional eremitical life. It describes the central elements of the life including its positive motivation and ecclesial dimensions. It effectively combines these non-negotiable elements with the non-negotiable requirement of the hermit's own Rule --- a combination which assures the vocation's necessary flexibility and freedom in the Holy Spirit as well as helping protect from the potential decline into individualism and license through its institutional dimension.

When I think of Canon 603 I think of it as a kind of sacred space I can enter into for reflection, prayer, and exploration. Elements like "stricter separation from the world" or "the silence of solitude" provide doorways which both demand and allow the candidate to enter into the eremitical life more fully and see it from one perspective and then another. Besides the eremitical tradition, union with God itself shines its own light on these terms and allows one to truly understand them. Yes, these elements serve as constraints on my life but they also challenge to growth and signal vast regions of freedom (including the freedom of the prophet) which shape and are shaped by my silent dialogue with God. Canon 14:3 of itself, as far as I can see, neither necessarily invites nor inspires anything like this.

You ask if canon 14 isn't better than canon 603 because of the freedom associated with it. It seems to me that given c 603's universal and therefore universally binding vision of eremitical life as well as the protection of flexibility and personal integrity provided by the hermit's own Rule, canon 603 is less subject to the whims of individual Bishops and their personal visions of eremitical life than canon 14 might be. With Canon 603 both the hermit and the bishop are constrained by the vision set forth; there is less room for episcopal idiosyncrasies and biases. On the hermit's side of things canon 603 does not simply allow one to live any way at all and call it eremitical or "solitary" --- as canon 14 seems perhaps to do. Instead it provides a framework which empowers the hermit to plumb the depths of a life of prayer and the silence of solitude in union with God in a way which may well make of her a prophetic presence within the Church and world --- and it does this with the blessing and explicit commissioning of the Church. Since I understand freedom as the power to be the ones we are called to be, and since I find the canon to be empowering in this way, I experience canon 603 as incredibly freeing rather than constraining.

Of course I believe that God has called me to be a hermit and that doing that well (that is, in a way which witnesses to the redemption of the cross) for the rest of my life is part of that calling.  It seems to me that moving from one calling to another, one form of religious life to another, might really mean to fail to live any life vocation as fully as is needed. One of the tensions I deal with and have written about here in the past is that between active ministry and the withdrawal required by eremitical silence and solitude. But that tension has been helpful to my growth as a hermit precisely because I am professed to live the vision and grow in the wisdom of canon 603 for the rest of my life.

For instance, had I, despite my perpetual eremitical profession, been able to be an active religious at one point and then a hermit for a while and then an active religious again, as I think you describe and as is a continuing temptation, I would never have come to see that letting go of discrete gifts and talents so that the redemption God achieves in eremitical solitude IS the real gift of one's life and the gift she lives FOR others. That special kind of "seeing" --- and the witness to God's own faithfulness that must flow from it --- would never have occurred precisely because it required long term stability in the eremitical vocation to come to. In a day and age when "part time vocations" are being touted as an option to cope with this ministerial shortage or other, we especially need the witness and wisdom of those who persevere for the whole of their lives and know the freedom that comes precisely from the stability of life commitments.