04 May 2019

On My Own Decision to Pursue Consecration Under Canon 603

[[Dear Sister Laurel, you discerned whether to live your eremitical vocation as a lay hermit or as a canon 603 hermit didn't you? What made you decide to go for canon 603 or to not settle for lay eremitical life when that was looking like what you would need to do because of your diocese's hesitance to profess anyone under c 603? I know you say both vocations are valuable so I wondered why you chose to jump through the hoops it took to get canonical standing, especially given the long wait this entailed.]]

This is a great question (thanks for reading up in this blog; it shows in your question!). While I haven't talked about this for some time I have posted on it in indirect ways so I hope you'll look for those posts. It was natural for me to look to canon 603 profession and canonical standing as the way to establish one in an ecclesial vocation, not only because of my background in religious life, but because of my background in theology. I also had some experience of  non-canonical religious life which ostensibly used regional service roles as the means to governance but lacked any authoritative structures to deal with problems with community-wide implications. I saw several times where people without leadership (service) roles, but who were very much "power people" in their local communities and thus, in the community as a  whole, took advantage of situations to exploit or otherwise act unjustly toward those they disagreed with or perhaps didn't like.

These exploited or badly-treated persons had no canonical protections in such situations nor did they have any meaningful recourse to leadership or governance structures. There was an attractive but na├»ve idealism in this community, but idealism alone can't always deal with concrete situations; as a result there were some significant failures in justice. This was one of the first times I clearly saw that law could serve love -- particularly when idealism was inadequate to deal with human sinfulness and will-to-power. When the community shifted from a relatively neutral non-canonical to an anti-canonical stance things were exacerbated and my insight into the positive and complementary role of law made me consider the role and importance of canon law more than I had up until this point. Thus, when I began reading in canon law (1983) the New Code had just come out. I discovered both canons 603 and 604 on eremites/anchorites and consecrated virgins, as well as canon 605 which is addressed to bishops encouraging openness to new forms of consecrated life. Already a contemplative and still in community, I began thinking and reading about eremitical life then and it captured my imagination. A year or so later contacted my diocese for the first time about professing me as a hermit. Then began a long process of meeting with a Vicar in the Archdiocese of San Francisco who understood c 603 and then regular meetings for 5 years with Sister Susan Blomstad, OSF who became the Vicar for Religious and Vocations director for the Diocese of Oakland.

Eventually (during these five years) the diocese decided it would profess no one under c 603 for the foreseeable future --- a shock to Sister Susan and to myself --- because neither of us were informed of the decision in a timely way. By the time we were both informed, I was established as a hermit and it suited me well. Whether in community, as a c 603 hermit, or as a lay hermit I knew I would continue living eremitical life. I remember telling my director that I wished the Church would recognize how the Holy Spirit was working in my life (structured according to c 603) but if she would or could not I would continue living as I was. And so I did. Lay eremitical life would have been fine, had it seemed God was calling me to that --- but I eventually decided I needed to approach Bp John Cummins again before he retired and try to get my situation "regularized". I had learned I personally needed the structure of canonical standing and profession to live eremitical life in the heart of the church and continued to be struck by what it meant to be part of an ecclesial vocation and all that meant. That whole process took some time (lost letters, lost files, misfiled missives) and John Cummins had left office before the Chancellor contacted me to apologize and put in a word with the new Vicars for Religious. It took 23 years from the time I first knocked on the chancery door (so to speak) to the day I was perpetually professed as a diocesan hermit in 2007.

So why go through all the hassle? Why not live as a lay hermit? I was very clear about how God was working in my life with a call to eremitical life and that clarity deepened over the years. It was especially clear given my celibate experience, flourishing in silence and solitude, and what I experienced as a nuptial relationship with Christ. Moreover, I knew that if this vocation could function as a context for growth and real freedom for me it might well do that for others --- but only if dioceses were not afraid to use the canon and if they could see that eremitical life was a true vocation. You see, the world in which we live is tremendously individualistic, consumerist, and marked by isolation. Eremitical life is a paradoxical expression of life in prophetic witness against these things --- but the demands on dioceses for determining the distinction between these is significant. Yet, without its specifically ecclesial context this prophetic quality of authentic eremitical life cannot, it seems to me, be made as clear  as the hermit needs to do.

The freedom of the hermit requires a framework which establishes this both in the church and vis-a-vis society and the larger world. Canon 603 provides such a context. It represents a protective and challenging structure which defines eremitical life and the freedom thereof in contrast to a dehumanizing individualism, and contra the isolation and consumerism of so much contemporary life. Consecration under c 603 gives  one permission to explore the freedom of the Gospel lived in and towards the silence of solitude in the very heart of the church. This is a very great gift to the hermit and to the world. I felt called to live this this gift of God and its paradoxical witness not only so others could see what the Holy Spirit was doing in the church generally with this vocation, but in my own life as well.

Eremitical life is salvific for some of us. It has been salvific for me --- especially in its power to transform various forms and degrees of isolation into eremitical solitude. I believe others could benefit from this, both from the example of what canonical hermits live and from my own story. Some very few might find vocations to eremitical life while others might see a prophetic witness to the power of the Gospel in their own state of life. I don't live eremitical life because I wanted to do this or because it validates isolation or some misguided individualism. I did not choose canonical standing because I like canon law (though I think canon 603 is a thing of real beauty). I do it because via eremitical life God has been at work redeeming and transfiguring my life and I must honor and witness to that --- and I must do that in a way which says law serves love, reasonable structure protects real freedom, and living all of this in the heart of the Church through her People and institutions (including canon law, legitimate superiors, etc) can give witness and serve as challenging to the Church as well. Not everyone has my background or needs canon law to do all of this. I did and do; for this reason I chose to jump through all the hoops associated with becoming a consecrated Catholic Hermit, that is, a canon 603 hermit who lives an ecclesial eremitical life in the heart, name, and on behalf of the Church.