13 June 2019

On Canonical Hermits and the Ministry of Authority

Mary Southard, CSJ
[[Dear Sister Laurel, I was impressed with what you said about your Directors exercising the ministry of authority as  a matter of love. I am also a Religious Sister (Saint Francis) and I don't think most people understand the requirements of religious obedience in this way. What was especially striking to me was the way you explained that your change in state of life affected others and called for this new form of love from them. When you write about ecclesial vocations or "stable states of life" the way others are implicated in your profession and consecration is what you have in mind, isn't it? I had not seen it as clearly until you explained about requiring obedience as an act of love on your Director's part. The way you described how intently and well your Director must truly listen to and know you in order to require religious obedience from you by virtue of your vow also made this much clearer to me. Thank you! Oh, sorry, I forgot to ask a question! Can you say more about this? I think I have understood you, haven't I?]]

Wow! really terrific comments and questions! Thanks!! Yes, you have it exactly right and I don't think I could have said it better. When we speak of a change in one's state of life or ones initiation into a stable state of life, or when I use the term ecclesial vocations or speak of the rights and responsibilities associated with the canonical state of consecrated life, I am trying to at least point to the way an entire constellation of relationships are affected; new relationships and roles are established and new ways of loving and being loved are effected and called for. This constellation of relationships actually are a piece of what makes living one's vocation possible. The example of religious obedience is an important one because to require obedience of another because one has been entrusted with "the ministry of authority" in her life and by the Church is first of all to commit to being profoundly obedient oneself. To listen profoundly to another in a way which allows them to come to the fullness of life God calls them to, especially in an exercise of legitimate authority, is to engage in a clearly and deeply loving, creative, act.

Because this specific way of exercising authority (that is, in requiring obedience of someone by virtue of their canonical vow) is so rare for my Director (et al) I only truly discovered how loving for me and demanding for her this specific ministry can be in the last several years. I made vow(s) several times over the years, most recently in my solemn/perpetual eremitical profession under canon 603, but only in the past three years have I experienced how profoundly implicated others are in the Church's decision to admit me to public profession and her reception of my commitment . I have long appreciated that others in the Church have a right to certain expectations in my regard by virtue of public profession, but the unique demands of the vow of obedience in this matter were not clear to me until I found myself truly loved and cared for by virtue of my Director exercising this ministry in my regard. Vows certainly help to create stability in a state of live, but above all, and especially in an ecclesial vocation, it is one's relationships with others and especially with those who exercise the ministry of authority in one's regard that stability is established and protected. (By the way, my Director exercises the ministry of authority in ways other than the narrow action I have spoken of in this paragraph; all of it is loving and creative; all of it is rooted in a profound obedience on my Director's part, both to God and to my own being! As you well know, one shouldn't think requiring obedience in this specific way is all there is to the ministry of authority!)

I write here a lot about the besetting sin of our times (or at least one of these), namely, individualism. When I am asked about hermits whose vows are private or those who do not seek canonical standing I often comment on how difficult it must be to live this way. In part in making this observation I am recognizing that such vocations may well be inherently unstable; as I have noted before the world militates against such vocations but in part I am also recognizing that such vocations may well be inherently unstable because they are also unrelated to others in an institutional or structural way and, unfortunately are poorly linked to the reality we call (legitimate or ecclesial) authority. If so, then they also lack the stability associated with the canonical hermit's consecrated state of life. (This is not to say that such hermits cannot build in the kinds of relationships which will provide greater stability and protect eremitical solitude from becoming skewed in the direction of individualism, but the vow of religious obedience implicates others who make a binding commitment to the hermit and the ministry of authority her vocation requires. What I think is often not recognized sufficiently --- not least because it is too rarely experienced, even indirectly, by those outside religious or consecrated life -- is that the legitimate exercise of authority which is part and parcel of empowering another to live their vocations in the name of the Church, is (or is meant to be) acts of love which empower and set free.

Stereotypes of hermits abound, but so do stereotypes of those called to exercise the ministry of authority in our lives. One blogger I can think of regularly writes about how it is that some seek canonical standing because of pride or the need for some kind of prestige, a penchant for legalism, etc. Unfortunately, she writes from outside the canonical vocation as do others who also automatically associate canon law or the embrace of canonical standing with legalism or some unusual love for canon law, etc.. But as I have said here a number of times, "law (can and often does) serve(s) love"! Those who agree to serve in the exercise of legitimate authority in our lives have assumed an awesome responsibility, not because they are into power or pride (most are very far from these!!), but because they have accepted a call to assist God in loving us into wholeness; they have accepted the sometimes difficult call to assist one to achieve and live a disciplined, ordered, and personally integral vocational stability in their state of life.

We recognize relatively easily that someone accepting a role in congregational leadership is accepting a call to love in a unique and challenging way. But what is more generally true is that in the life of anyone entering a new state of life, people must step up and take on a similar role or that person's life will lack some of the stability it is meant to be marked by for the sake God's life in that person, her vocation, and the life of the Church. This is one of the reasons initiation into new states of life involve public commitments, not private ones. Canonical hermits live a life of the silence of solitude but, again, they do so within a constellation of relationships, some of which are directly implicated in making sure the hermit can and does live her vocation with the integrity she and the Church as such feels she is called to do, but also as the Church has allowed her to publicly commit to doing. This is the heart of what it means to be admitted to an ecclesial vocation. Again eremitical life is about a solitude lived with God for the sake of others. I should underscore that this solitude, which is never to be confused with isolation, is also empowered by the love of others for the hermit (and the hermit's love for them!); those exercising the ministry of authority in her regard are primary among these.