12 August 2016

Canon 603: Escapism vs Unique Engagement, Canon Law vs the Word of God

Dear Sister, you have written that eremitical life is not escapist. I am sure I have read books or essays by spiritual writers which speak of being out of the world in escapist terms and sometimes I wasn't that bothered by the idea but the following passage makes me uncomfortable, particularly when it is supposed to equate purity of "being in Christ" with freedom from having to see things that are painful. Some of the Saints, maybe a lot of them had to see things that were painful and they were pure of heart:

[[This is pertinent right now, for am feeling very weary of the afflictions of body and mind and heart and even at times, of the soul. The soul grieves for a purity of being in Christ and free from having to see things that are painful to see and sorrowful to sense. How can a person be glad for the years of seeing ills and nastiness, of evil and wrong doing? How can one be glad for seeing with inner sight and having to live with what is seen? Perhaps the answer is in not living with what is seen, and of avoiding seeing with deep inner sense. The sure way to not see the ills of the world is to avoid being in the world, whether or not it is the secular world of society or the temporal/secular world of the Church.]]

So my first question is are you comfortable with this passage? Is this the reason hermits "flee the world" or embrace "stricter separation from the world"? What is this "inner sight" or "inner sense" this person is talking about?

Escaping the World vs Engaging the World in the Silence of Solitude:

A few years ago I wrote about the monastic truth that we do not truly see a person until and unless we see them as God sees them. This does not mean one does not see the ugliness and distortions of the world around them but it does mean that one also sees more deeply to the profound goodness and holiness which is also present in any reality grounded in and made for God. This is because one sees with the eyes of love which ALSO involves seeing the potential within the person or situation. Evil is real; falseness is real, but these are LESS REAL than the true self or the deep reality also present. Personally I would distrust any sort of "inner sight" that focused on the negative to the exclusion of the more truly real and good. I know that at the very least I would have to question whether it was of God. I would also probably want to get some professional assistance with it if it seemed to be such an affliction.

At the same time I would be cautious of any advice to refuse to see with whatever "inner sight" one has simply because that means seeing the evil in our world. We are called to learn to see "with new eyes" and I don't think that happens by avoiding seeing reality.I certainly don't mean to suggest that any of this is easy (to some extent I can sympathize with the author's sense of discomfort) nor that Christians see reality in "Pollyannaish" ways. In fact, because we also see the deeper truth and potential of reality and because we see with compassionate hearts, the distortions and betrayals we perceive may look even worse to us. We are not surprised to find evil (brokenness, untruth, distortions) in the hearts of those we meet and minister to --- after all we find these in our own (!), but we are committed to the deeper truth grounding these persons (and ourselves!) and to seeing the whole of reality as it is in light of this. To the extent we rest in God and "see with new eyes" we see with the eyes of love and faith, with the vision of those convinced of the sacramental and potential character of reality --- a reality grounded in God. So, as we look evil full in its face we do so in the only way which can ever succeed in transforming and thus destroying it, namely, with a love which sanctifies and heals, a love which transfigures and summons to transcendence and truth.

It seems to me that hermits embrace the silence of solitude to reject enmeshment in many of the values and dynamics at work in the world, but we do so precisely in order to embrace and engage with this reality in a more creative and transcendent way. We are detached so that we can truly love this other through our attachment to God and his Word --- something we mainly do by witnessing to the truth of the Gospel which consoles and challenges that other. While I dislike the image of the hermit as prayer warrior (the accent is too much on doing and not enough on being in the power of God) it makes sense to me to say that as persons of prayer we carry reality in our hearts and bring it to God or hold it before God in our prayer. In Christ we too are mediators who carry the cries of the world, the anguish of its illness and meanness of its incompleteness, yearnings, strivings,  and distortions within our own hearts and thus, before the creator and redeemer God.

The other side of mediation is also true: we allow God to heal and transfigure us so that our lives effectively witness to the redemption at work in our world in Christ. Thus, it also seems terribly important to me that we hermits allow ourselves to be profoundly aware of the disorder in our world, not that we avoid that or seek solitude in order to escape it. Again, the silence of solitude and the stricter separation from "the world" is a rejection of enmeshment in order to be creatively engaged in the name of the God who is Love in Act. What is essentially true however is that this vocation is not only about personal salvation. It is a prophetic vocation which, again, exists as a gift to the Church and world so that one day God may be all in all.

I am afraid that in the history of monastic and eremitical life this truth has sometimes been obscured or completely missed --- something which, in a single stroke, has falsified these vocations and rendered them incredible as truly Christian. It is possible that the person you are citing holds a more nuanced position than indicated in this single passage --- after all, we often tend to write about one side of a position and then another in developing or articulating what our lives are all about. The author of the comment you cited complains that s/he is suffering and tired; s/he may make the dimension of engagement with and on behalf of the world clear elsewhere or she may simply be growing towards seeing and embracing this perspective. However, as it stands I believe what s/he says there is too one-sided; it is antithetical to eremitical life as the Roman Catholic church sees and defines it in canon 603 which involves "assiduous prayer and penance", "stricter separation," and "the silence of solitude" for "the sake of the salvation" of the world.

If the incarnation teaches us anything it is that salvation comes through a profound engagement of God with the other in which the boundaries between sacred and profane are torn asunder. Jesus' 40 days of temptation in the desert was a snapshot of the dynamics of his entire life, a snapshot of a life given to the struggle to exhaustively embrace a Sonship of redemptive engagement without enmeshment. If hermits are not significant sharers in this same identity and mission, if their vocation is given over to avoidance of and escape from temporal reality rather than mediators of a heaven which interpenetrates and transfigures our world so that we are representatives of "a new heaven and a new earth," then it is not really a call from the God of Jesus Christ.

Either Canon Law or the Word of God: Is it really that Simple?

[[You don't write about canon 603 as though it is opposed to the Word of God but I think this hermit sees it that way. It seems to me the Word of God needs interpretation and so does canon 603. Why would someone treat life under canon 603, and even a life concerned with the interpretation of canon 603 (or any canons) as opposed to life under the Word of God? Here's the passage I read: [[ There is a certain freedom in being among people who are so steeped in the Living Word that they live in His Word. That certainly seems better than those who live in Canon Laws, for example, or who live in their status or position or labeled vocation. And this is not to cast aspersions on anyone in particular, but in general. There seem to be much living in Canon Laws in the temporal Catholic Church, but then also in breaking those laws in some cases, or interpreting them in various ways, not consistent. All that brings on more feeling of sickness, of weighty weariness, of soul disillusionment.]]

I'm afraid it is not at all clear to me what this passage is saying. The distinction drawn between those who live in His Word and those who "live in Canon Laws" is artificial and simplistic. It is also generally untrue. Every Catholic is called to live in and from the Word of God, but at the same time every Catholic is bound by Canon Law in a variety of ways even when they are unaware of this. That is true whether one is lay, consecrated, or ordained, and it is true whether one is married, single, dedicated, living as a hermit or any other way of serving Christ. I don't think the poster who wrote the above would suggest that every canonist is more taken with canon law than with the Word of God, much less every priest or religious who, by definition, live their lives under additional canons than lay persons and spend at least some of their time trying to understand these or the deeper realities they intend to protect or nurture.

Taking Time to Understand the Canons under which we live our lives, Canon 603:

What is unique about canon 603, for instance, is that it defines an entire lifestyle with terms that are not always immediately understood and which need to be applied to contemporary eremitical life. These terms themselves refer to profound spiritual realities which the diocesan hermit needs to live into in time. Moreover the canon defines a new form of consecrated life in response to the call for this at Vatican II and the needs of a number of monastics who suffered secularization and dispensation of solemn vows in order that they night live eremitical lives. In light of all of this it requires its terms to be brought in explicit ways under the purview of the Gospel -- to be sure that things like "stricter separation from the world" and "the silence of solitude" are not read individualistically, selfishly, or in other ways unworthy of the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ.

In other words, as a unique gift of the Holy Spirit which is only now coming to be lived in the Church, canon 603 cries out for attention and reflection both with the Gospel and with contemporary life and culture.  That is especially true since eremitical life is radical and extremely fragile precisely in being radical. It can be lived either as a radically prophetic Christian vocation or an equally radically selfish and anti-Christian lifestyle without much change at all in its externals. It takes reflection on the canon in light of the Gospel of Christ to distinguish which is which sometimes; one needs to understand the heart of the canon, the inner core of the life it defines beneath mere externals and this means bringing the Gospel to bear in one's interpretation and living of this canon. In all of this a hermit's concern with the canon, her reflection on it and insistence on it being interpreted with integrity is less a matter with 'living in canon laws" or being too taken with the "temporal Catholic Church" than is it of being concerned with exploring and living a gift from God which can transform the world and bring the Kingdom of Heaven.

At the same time canon 603 defines an entire lifestyle it says nothing about a lot of the nuts and bolts the Church must come to understand. It does not mention discernment, formation, realistic time frames leading to temporary or perpetual profession, or the kinds of relationships and structures which are necessary if the calling is to truly be an incarnational gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and World. It says nothing about ongoing formation, limited ministry allowed (or not), financial and other support, age restrictions, etc. This is both a strength (because it allows significant flexibility and the judgment of diocesan personnel and the individual hermit on a case by case basis) and a weakness (because the eremitical vocation is not always well-enough understood by those either seeking to live or administer and supervise it). It is hardly surprising then that some hermits will reflect on these things, not only as they pursue their own vocations and attempt to live them faithfully and with integrity, but as they consider the vocation more generally and become intrigued with various aspects of it because of their beauty, their paradoxical character, or their prophetic capacity, for instance. During all of this, especially as she lives and reflects more deeply on the constitutive elements of the life, every hermit will bring her vocation and the canon which defines it under the Word of God.

Rejecting Simplistic Antitheses:

It is not helpful, I don't think, to make general criticisms about breaking the norms of canon law or their inconsistent interpretation without also providing specific examples. For instance, what canons are being broken? Are diocesan hermits doing this? And if they are does this mean canon law (like c 603) for hermits is a bad idea or does it mean inadequate discernment, formation, ongoing formation, oversight and support, etc? If something like canon 603 seems to be inconsistent with another text (like CCC par 920-21, for instance), does this indicate actual inconsistency or does it mean canon law is binding in a way different than the text from the CCC? Does it indicate actual inconsistency or some form of inadequacy on the part of the person reading the two texts? For instance, if c 603 refers to institutes of consecrated life (meaning societies of consecrated life) and as happened recently, a reader translates institutes as "other church laws or statutes" thus concluding c 603 is merely one canon among others which may but need not be used for solitary consecrated eremitical life one is left with a serious conflict. But where is the source of the problem? Is it with the text or the reader? Moreover without those who specialize in the canon how do we ascertain this?

Generalized criticisms like those cited are not only facile and simplistic, but they may be built on false antitheses that block intelligent discussion or prevent the genuine improvement of any situation calling for such. Neither do they bring real expertise to bear. If the author of the comments you have cited is a non-canonical hermit, then she has a place in the Church's ongoing conversation on eremitical life. She may not be able to discuss canon 603 from either an "academic" understanding much less from actually living it, but the various elements of the canon which are central to any eremitical life should certainly be within her purview. Moreover, the strengths of non-canonical (lay) eremitical life are likely to be things she is most familiar with and can discuss with aplomb. It would be terrific if she wanted to engage in ongoing discussions in ways her experience can illuminate, but a blanket condemnation of c 603 as being opposed to the Word of God or of c 603 hermits as being legalists opposed to those steeped in the Word of God is pretty much a non-starter in the eremitical world --- or the world of those truly knowledgeable about the relationship of Canon Law and the Word of God!