11 August 2019

On Canon 603 and the Chronically Ill and Disabled (follow-up questions)

 [[Dear Sister, I have been interested in an article you wrote several years ago about eremitical life as a possible vocation for those who are chronically ill. Do dioceses consider that article when they are discerning whether or not to profess someone as a diocesan hermit? What about canon law that argues that candidates for religious life and priesthood must be in good health? Doesn't what you wrote conflict with these canons or do dioceses determine things on a case by case basis? I would think it might be problematical to have writers like you seeing canon 603 as a kind of "haven" for those with mental and physical illnesses, wouldn't it? . . . Has anyone ever suggested your article makes it hard for dioceses with regard to canon 603 vocations?. . . Has anyone suggested you are giving false hope to those who are disabled and expect to be admitted to profession when dioceses are more likely to reject them?]]

Wow, good and difficult questions in some ways. Let me give them a shot! First of all, I have no idea if dioceses consider the article I wrote 30 years ago for Review for Religious (cf RFR archives: Volume 48, Number 2, March/April 1989). Certainly there are copies out and about regarding this even though RFR is no longer, being published; also, I have posted a copy of it here on this blog ( cf, Review For Religious, Chronic Illness as Vocation and Possible Eremitical Vocation) as well as answered questions about it as follow-up. However, I really cannot say how widely read or influential the article is or has been over the years. On the other hand, it is my hope that at least some dioceses, pastors, and spiritual directors have read and considered the article and that they bear it in mind as they consider candidates for public profession under c 603 or work with those who are chronically ill. Chronic illness prevents many of us from living in community and sometimes (I don't know how often) it may condition us in ways which predispose towards lives of the silence of solitude -- lives in which the isolation occasioned by chronic illness can be redeemed and transfigured into the silence of solitude associated with eremitical life. Dioceses must be able to recognize this dynamic at work in the lives of the chronically ill when it occurs and, when circumstances are right (meaning when many more circumstances than illness per se come together in the relatively clear pattern of a healthy and graced eremitical calling), they must be open to admitting such persons to profession and consecration under canon 603.

I wrote the article you mention because I had come to understand that while I could not live religious life in community (my illness was both too demanding and too disruptive --- though initially we had not thought this would be the case), I could certainly live as a hermit. In fact, I came to understand that the context of eremitical silence and solitude could allow my own life in  and with Christ to transform weakness and brokenness into a source and form of strength and essential wellness. I knew Paul's theology, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness," and it seemed to fit the  situation perfectly. At the same time, while illness and the isolation it occasioned was one predisposing condition for a life of eremitical solitude, it was not enough of itself to suggest, much less indicate I had an eremitical vocation. On the contrary, it might have suggested that physical isolation was a component of something pathological which must be countered, not given the chance to be transfigured into eremitical solitude via even greater silence and physical separati
on from others.  For that reason, when I wrote the article in RFR I was very careful to indicate chronic illness was something which might indicate such a vocation; it was a possibility dioceses and spiritual directors should consider as they worked with those who were chronically ill or disabled.

In no way would I ever consider canon 603 a "haven" for the chronically ill and disabled but yes, I do think that despite its demanding character, eremitical life has the flexibility and freedom to allow for some among this population to discover the grace of God calling them to a wholeness and holiness via this path. When this happens their lives will makes a powerful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ --- in spite of and even especially in the case of their illness/disability. What Merton said about the necessity of Solitude herself opening the door to the one who would be a hermit remains true. I do believe that the canons requiring good physical and mental health for those entering religious congregations or moving towards ordination are necessary. However, today congregations can and do make case by case decisions on who they will allow to enter and who they will advance to profession while congregations and dioceses do the same with candidates for ordination. There are some absolute impediments to ordination, and  generally speaking, I agree with these, but profession as a diocesan hermit is really a very different matter and dioceses can afford to be more flexible without making the vocation a "haven" for the chronically ill and disabled; not only do hermits not live in community but they are self-supporting so that dioceses are not, generally speaking, responsible for medical expenses, insurance, living expenses and the like.

No one has ever suggested my article makes it hard for dioceses trying to discern c 603 vocations, though I admit I hoped when I wrote it to introduce a possibility into their discernment processes they might not have considered adequately, namely, that chronic illness might be a source of the grace of an eremitical vocation which itself could contribute to eremitical formation in terms of several different and critical values (pilgrimage, solitude vs isolation, an independence rooted in radical dependence upon God, a paradoxical wholeness, etc). That was completely contrary to the wisdom of the time re religious vocations; but then canon 603 itself was also pretty contrary to what we were used to at that time as well! Again, my article did not argue that chronic illness is a kind of passport to profession. I did not say that illness provides sufficient grounds for professing someone or discerning eremitical vocations; it argued that in some cases there was the possibility that illness might condition one towards such a vocation, might make it easier for such a vocation to be received. At the same time then, I have not heard anyone suggest I am giving folks false hope. I have been clear that discerning an eremitical vocation takes time and serious attention and prayer; I  know that some dioceses may not consider chronic illness in the way I would hope they would, but at the same time I think dioceses in general do recognize the flexibility and freedom built into canon 603 even while they recognize the demanding nature of the life codified there.

It is the case that I hear occasionally from someone who is chronically ill or disabled and who read my article all those years ago (or more recently for that matter!) and have subsequently been profoundly disappointed by a diocese who will not admit them to profession. Those communications are some of the most difficult I receive; they cause me pain because my article did have a place in encouraging their imagination about and discernment of a vocation; I feel particularly sorry for the individuals involved and empathize with their disappointment. The difficulty of balancing the nature of a public vocation (consecrated life is always a matter of public commitments and obligations) and discerning a call in someone whose life does not fit all the standard criteria or who embody the grace of  God in a new and unexpected way, is very difficult for dioceses as well as for the individuals petitioning for admission to profession and consecration. Sometimes the answer is living eremitical life with a private commitment rather than as a consecrated hermit or anchorite. Sometimes the person needs to transition from the isolation occasioned by their illness to solitude-as-healing, and then to life in society. Sometimes (especially in these kinds of cases I think) both the individual and the diocese need to take more time together in their discernment. Canon 603, because it does not codify any specific time frames, certainly allows for this kind of time if dioceses take both its traditional elements and its uniqueness seriously.

What must be certain is that the person advanced to profession (public vows) and eventually to consecration can live c 603 in an exemplary (that is, an edifying) way which helps dispel the stereotypes which so accrued to eremitical life throughout history. This person MUST say to the whole Church that eremitical solitude is not about isolation but is instead about the redemption of isolation into a unique and often obscure but very real form of community lived in and with Christ for the sake of others. This is why I have written those admitted to profession must have experienced eremitical solitude as redemptive and be able to witness to that clearly with their lives. The witness given depends upon the authenticity and depth of the hermit's experience and ecclesial rootedness. This presence of a redemptive element is something I have put forward as a central element in discerning an eremitical vocation under c 603 and it is something I am more clear about now than when I first affirmed it. Still, if dioceses are to demand the presence of such an element they also MUST, for their part, be open to discerning its presence which builds on chronic illness and/or disability. The process leading to c 603 profession and consecration is meant be truly mutual.