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 meaningful 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. The delegate, on the other hand,  assumes a responsibility for the hermit's vocation itself. Not only does s/he concern him/herself with the hermit's well-being but s/he is concerned that the eremitical vocation is being lived well and in a way which is consistent with the canon and with the eremitical tradition in the Church. The spiritual director as director does not assume this kind of responsibility.

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 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 their vocation in any direct way. That does not mean we don't talk about their vocations to religious life and 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 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, for instance, 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.) 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 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. To be clear, neither my bishop nor my delegate exercise their authority in this way very often; in fact it is extremely rare. Moreover, the Bishop seems to leave such matters to the delegate, probably because he knows she knows me far better. Still, the relationship between the bishop/delegate, and the publicly vowed hermit is marked by the bond of 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 vows. 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 the congregation. Moreover she does spiritual direction and is trained/licensed 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. Because of her background and experience she has the ability to hold authority lightly and to exercise it with a personal integrity which is far more compelling than any merely external or more superficial exercise of authority can be. For the same reasons, and though this is a rare thing indeed, she is similarly able to require x or y from me when she is clear in her own mind and heart that this is the best and most loving thing.

It seems to me that a non-religious might be tempted to either neglect entirely the exercise of authority (as though anything goes) or exercise authority in a more heavy-handed and less loving or genuinely wise, patient, 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. This happens sometimes with regard to spiritual directors. It can make one feel different and special, especially in a culture where obedience in the sense of  "giving up one's own will" is esteemed. In such circumstances the exercise of religious 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, and can be infantilizing, elitist, and contrary to the freedom of the Christian hermit!

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.