15 September 2018

Canon Law and the Freedom of Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, is it true that canon 603 came to be because of abuses common to the eremitical vocation? Have you heard the quote by the person who says hermits follow God with a minimum of structure? (Sorry, I forgot who it was who said this.) I wondered if living according to canon law is faithful to this idea.]]

Hi there. I have written several times about the history of canon 603 and debunked the notion that it was published/promulgated in order to combat abuses. You can find an account of the contemporary history in the following article: History of Canon 603. Other posts can be found under the label "Canon 603 --- history" in the right hand column of this blog. However, let me say here that canon 603 grew out of a community led by Dom Winandy under the protection of Bishop Remi DeRoo. Bishop Remi had come to recognize the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church eremitical life represented and desired Vatican Council II to recognize it as a state of perfection. Canon 603 came about when Vatican II authorized the renewal of the Code of Canon Law in light of the pastoral changes and theological shifts adopted by Vatican II. While it is true canon 603 provides non-negotiable elements which serve to structure an eremitical life and, when properly understood or "unpacked", shows its true purpose is to define a form of life which is faithful to the eremitical tradition, it also represents a gift to the contemporary hermit and Church in which the authentic freedom of solitary communion with God may be explored and celebrated --- and all this in the name of the Church.

I believe the quote you paraphrased was made by Jean LeClercq. (Merton, a friend of LeClercq, also refers to a minimum of structure as an essential  characteristic of eremitical life.) The truth is that canon 603 does not outline or define a highly structured life. Yes, it is regular and full, but its regularity is meant to ensure each hermit lives the essentials of the life in a way which stamps the whole with genuine freedom --- always a gift of God. Genuine freedom  is not the same as license; it does not mean doing whatever one wants whenever one wants, but rather represents "the power to be the person one is called to be" within and even in spite of the constraints our lives impose.  The essential elements are uniquely shaped by each hermit and combined in ways which will make the specific pattern of her life different from the pattern of another c 603 hermit. Most importantly, the hermit will combine the elements specified and personally needed in order to live the most fully human life possible. I doubt very much there is another diocesan hermit who plays violin once a week in an orchestra (though I would love to meet one) --- but playing has always been a critical piece of my own communion with God. Long before I learned other forms of prayer, playing violin/improvisation represented my own participation in the transcendent and was my primary way of being my truest Self. Thus, when I wrote my Rule I allowed for continuing playing in the Oakland Civic Orchestra as well as doing some chamber music with friends from the orchestra once a week.

Thus, the hermit's Rule of Life, which is also required by the canon, allows one to structure one's life in whatever way serves her own growth in wholeness and holiness.  I think folks who have lived lives under c 603 with the assistance of good spiritual directors come to know how it is that the canon creates a realm of freedom allowing one to explore the heights and depths of life with and in God. It is a regular or orderly life of prayer, penance, meaningful work, recreation and rest through which one is loved and comes to love more and more deeply and well as the years come and go. This "privilege of love" marks every activity, every period of work, rest, or recreation, every purpose dignifying the life. Canon 603 does not foster a legalistic life. Legalism, I have found, is the mistake of beginners (or something imposed by those who have never lived eremitical life). It is the stance of the insecure and relatively ignorant. For those who have lived eremitical solitude for some years c 603 gives them the opportunity to compose a Rule which is more vision of the life one is committed to out of love --- for self, for God, and for all that is loved by God --- than it is an outline of what one must and must not do hour by hour, and day by day.

Thus too, it will not surprise you to find that I believe canon 603 defines a life which is faithful to LeClercq's quotation; it does not betray it. I have certainly read the complaint that canon 603 is an instance of increased institutionalization which betrays the freedom of eremitical life. The only articles I am aware of that have been recently written or otherwise posted in this vein have been written from outside an experience of the life of the canon. I don't believe the author shows an adequate sense of either the canon's history or the quality of the life it is normative of. The pieces' antipathy to canon 603 eremitical life has personal sources which I partly understand but must reject for the bias they lend to these articles' perspective. It is really important (and this is true for Vicars and Bishops as well as for potential candidates to diocesan eremitical life) that canon 603 be understood not merely from the perspective of the canonist, but additionally and even primarily from the perspective of a diocesan hermit who has found the canon to be a gift of God making eremitical life possible and personally (humanly) fulfilling.