24 November 2016

Canon 603 Vocations: On the Differences between Delegates and Spiritual Directors

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what is the difference between a diocesan hermit's delegate and their spiritual director? Is there really much of a difference in these roles? Can anyone serve as delegate or does it need to be another religious?]]

Yes, there is a significant difference between the role of spiritual director and that of delegate. First of all, there's no doubt a spiritual director enters into a pretty intimate relationship with a directee, but there are distinct limits. For instance, a spiritual director works to assist a client to grow in her relationship with God, et al., but she does not assume a specific responsibility with regard to the person's vocation per se. This means that the delegate, who is also concerned with the vocation per se is, in my experience anyway, at least potentially more profoundly involved with the hermit than even the spiritual director.

For example, as a spiritual director I may work with a religious or a priest and in our work together we touch on many of the dimensions of these persons'  lives with God and by extension, on dimensions which impact and reflect on their vocations. However, as spiritual director I am not responsible in any direct way for those vocations as such. In short, I do not oversee or supervise directees' vocations in any direct way. That does not mean we don't talk about their vocations to religious life and/or priesthood insofar as these are grounded in the person's relationship with God, but it does mean I am in no way charged with making sure they live their vocations with integrity. Neither am I responsible then for serving their congregations, communities, or dioceses and bishops in a way which helps assure them this is the case. (In saying this, by the way, I do not mean that a diocesan hermit's delegate necessarily reports on the hermit to the bishop, although he may well ask for her input from time to time; likewise, while formal reports could be required, my own diocese has not done so, for instance.) Still, as delegate she serves both the hermit and the diocese in making sure this vocation is well lived and represented.

The delegate concerns herself with the nuts and bolts of the hermit's life AND vocation. She may be involved with making sure the hermit really does have sufficient silence and solitude, that her relationship with and commitments within her parish do not conflict with her essential vocation to stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude. She may be sure the hermit has ways of assuring her living conditions, eremitical environment, and necessary forms of care as she ages. (A spiritual director may ask about these kinds of things insofar as they affect her client's prayer life or spirituality but she will not actually have a role in supervising these aspects of the client's life.) Similarly, the delegate may be sure that the hermit's life is not one of isolation rather than healthy anachoresis (eremitical withdrawal). Again, while the delegate is responsible for overseeing the well-being of the hermit and her spirituality in ways a spiritual director may share, the focus and concern of the delegate as delegate broadens some to embrace the vocation itself and all that is involved in living that well --- not in some abstract way, but as it is embodied in the concrete life of this particular hermit. (By the way, the bishop's concern is somewhat different than the delegate's because he is charged with overseeing the incidence and well-being of canon 603 vocations more generally; the delegate is not.)

Religious Obedience:

Also, because of this the hermit's delegate has the authority to direct the hermit to do x or y or "insist" on actions in ways a spiritual director simply does not have the authority to do. My own diocese recognized this by using the language of "superior or quasi-superior" in asking me to choose my delegate --- language which indicates that, because she serves both me and the diocese with a delegated authority, I owe her the same kind of obedience (i.e., religious obedience) I owe my bishop when he asks for or directs me to do something in terms of my vow. To be clear, neither my bishop nor my delegate exercise their authority in this way very often; in fact it is extremely rare. (Only one of the bishops I have lived this vocation under has ever done so --- not least, I think, because they trust my delegate to supervise my life in ways they cannot and because they know me far less well than she does. In a couple of cases, for instance,  my sense was that the bishop left the business of religious vows and values up to the religious.) Even so, the relationship between the bishop and delegate, and the publicly vowed hermit is marked not only by a general attentiveness and responsiveness every Christian is obligated to and knows as "obedience", but also by a formal and "religious obedience", 1) because the hermit is publicly vowed to this and 2) because the broader and mutual concern of all involved is not only the personal life, well-being, and spirituality of the hermit but the Church's canonical vocation of solitary eremitical life itself.

One other thing I should make very clear: none of this minimizes, much less removes the hermit's responsibility for discerning her own needs and living her own life with care and integrity; instead these relationships are helpful in maintaining the perspective necessary for assuring the hermit remains responsible for the whole of her life and vocation. Again,  these specific relationships are part and parcel of recognizing and appropriately honoring a vocation as ecclesial --- a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church which is entrusted with the task of mediating, nurturing,  and governing that vocation, and to the hermit who is called to live that life in a way which fulfills her own deepest call to humanity and to do so in the name of the Church.

Who Should Serve as a Delegate?

In my opinion it only makes sense to have another religious as one's delegate --- and one who has lived this life for some time. (S/he need NOT be a hermit but s/he does need to be essentially contemplative and appreciate the eremitical life.) This need that the delegate be an experienced religious holds because the person needs to have a background in living and directing others in the living of religious life and vows. Personally I feel very fortunate and I understand not every diocesan hermit is as blessed in their own situations --- sometimes because their diocese has not known what is appropriate for canon 603 life or seen how to implement this, and sometimes because the hermit herself has not been able to work with sufficiently experienced persons or sometimes even known what is possible. Thus I describe my own experience here because I believe it can help others (especially candidates, chanceries, and bishops) in imagining not only what relationships hermits need to live this life well, but in seeing what canon 603 in particular calls for in terms of eremitical obedience and freedom.

My own delegate has been a novice director and serves on the leadership team of her community --- both during tumultuous or critical times in the life of the Church and her congregation. Moreover she does spiritual direction and is trained in PRH --- a form of personal growth work I have written about here before. In each of these ways she brings something to her role as my delegate which has been a definite gift to me.  I believe it has been important that she have the skills associated with these roles --- not least the ability to listen and to hold authority lightly and the wisdom, compassion, and personal integrity required to exercise it in a way which is far more compelling than any merely external or more superficial exercise of authority can be. As noted above, she does not direct me to do (or not do) x or y often (I can count the times she has done so over the past almost 10 and a half years on half of one hand), but when she does there is no question it is because she knows in a profound and personal way the importance of whatever is at issue --- and because she genuinely knows me and loves me as Christ does.

In considering who should serve as delegate then, it seems to me that a non-religious (or one with little experience) might be tempted to either neglect entirely the loving exercise of authority (as though anything goes in eremitical life) or tend to exercise it in a more heavy-handed and less loving or genuinely wise and prudent way. This latter way of exercising authority does not occur because the person is naturally more heavy-handed or less loving, but because s/he has not lived or internalized the values and vows of religious life (especially in regard to living and exercising authority) in a way which sensitizes  him/her appropriately. When this is the case the one exercising authority may actually collude with the more inexperienced, immature, and even juvenile aspects of the hermit's own self and approach to authority. For instance, it is tempting for a neophyte to think of oneself as "bound in obedience to" a superior --- even when the person is not a legitimate superior and does not have this authority.

Though fairly rare I think, this happens sometimes with regard to (less competent) spiritual directors working with non-religious. Having an SD exercise authority in a heavy-handed (authoritarian) way can make one feel different and special, especially in a culture where obedience in the sense of  "giving up one's own will" is (rather romantically but tragically) misunderstood and esteemed. In such circumstances the exercise of what mistakenly passes for obedience can make one feel like one "belongs" to a special culture or even that one is "cared about" in a unique way. To have a delegate whose notion of obedience involves a heavy-handed exercise of authority can be disastrous, especially when the hermit is new to all this or has personal healing which still needs to take place. The results of such collusion are unhealthy; they can be infantilizing, elitist, and, in these and other ways, contrary to the freedom of the Christian --- much less the Christian hermit whose vocation is meant to be a model of Christian freedom.

On the other hand, a delegate who has lived under and exercised authority in ways which encouraged and helped her to hold authority lightly,  lovingly, and in a way which fosters another's growth in maturity, integrity, and freedom is a very great gift. Religious obedience in particular can help us truly listen to God and challenge us to embrace the potentialities which live within us and which we might never have imagined holding. Again, however, I think it does take someone who is experienced both in living religious obedience and in introducing others to or enhancing their living of it --- as well as to religious poverty and chastity in celibacy --- to really serve effectively as a diocesan hermit's delegate.