Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions V

It is one of the fruits of our divisions that organized communities have provided the fostering and validation for new forms of dedicated life across the boundaries of religion, and found insight into their own difficulties from visitors from "outside". For many of us, it has been across the boundaries that the most impartial, clear, and effective discernment, vocational insight, or psychotherapy has been available because, across the boundaries, there is no stake in the outcome, no knee-jerk reaction that attempts to keep someone on the straight and narrow of canon law, because canon law does not apply. It isn't always like this, but it can happen.

It happened to me.

Anglican communities, revived only 150 years ago, still seem to have a fundamental problem with romanticism and exterior validation: "Are we real religious?" many still wonder, nervously looking over their shoulders at a Tridentine or Victorian model, failing to realize that as long as this question is self-consciously asked, authentic religious life, whether in community or in the context of committed relationships and jobs cannot be lived. How can God accomplish conversion of the heart to more than we can ask or imagine if we continue to confine our selves to a template?

But I was telling a story.

To try to recover the insight of an ancient form of life and live it authentically in the modern world: nothing could be more threatening to an established order—especially when that form of life has no regular, controllable pattern, especially when it is necessarily at variance with a romantic template in the cluttered landscape of the modern world.

That such was my vocation, that is, that solitude is as necessary because of my inherent strengths and weaknesses as it has been discerned a divine calling, did not seem to the established order to be worth consideration. That, as it unfolded, I might have done scholarly research about it, or subjected myself to the most searing discernment I could find, or that there were others like me, quietly and responsibly undertaking the same quest, never seemed to cross the minds of the critics, especially the formal communities, within our church.

The communities, it has to be said, were threatened not only by the new solitaries, but also by warring among themselves, between the traditional groups, and the new ones that included married people and networked. At a peace conference a few years ago, both groups took an almost predictably expedient solution and focused their fears outward, passing a resolution that called for the new solitaries to be "controlled" by themselves as a safeguard against "bizarre behavior and aberrations".

After we got over the shock and the sorrow, it was hilarious. The new Roman canon law had been promulgated, and while in the past Anglican communities frequently had invoked the old canons (however irrelevant across the boundaries) to justify themselves, this time they chose to ignore the new.

[Update, 2006: unfortunately the Roman canons have been amended beyond recognition, and the Church of England and Episcopal Churches have passed legislation concerning solitaries that practically guarantees that the aspiring solitary will fail, or that his/her vocation will be twisted out of all recognition by the imposition of stereotypes held by those who haven't the slightest notion of what the solitary life is really about.]

Some of us were professed before the new canon law appeared, and were deeply thankful when we discovered that Canon 603 and, in some cases, 604 were virtually identical with what we had worked out quietly with our individual bishops under the influence, we had hoped, of the Holy Spirit. Some of us were not so lucky. There were bishops who panicked.

[Update, 2006: Some of us received no discernment and should never have attempted a solitary life. There were also bishops who were completely irresponsible who professed without discernment, and bishops who regarded solitaries as their personal playthings. Solitaries need bishop protectors who are not their diocesans, as it is most often the diocesans from whom they most need protection.]

All of us encountered uncertainty and competing claims to authority and authenticity. Most of us went across the lines for counsel and discernment that would not be influenced by the politics of our own church [the traffic went all ways from Roman Catholic to Baptist]. We were joined by others from different denominations that do not have the tradition of this sort of dedicated life, but do have the same hunger of the heart.

In the old days, of course, this was the way it was done. One consulted with the elders, Egyptian, Syrian, or Cappadocian. Bishops weren't in the picture. One simply went into the desert. One learned from the solitude.

But then, as now, for the established order, the desire for such simplicty was suspect, subversive; it all seemed too out of control, someone wanting a quiet life of prayer and solitude, to be left alone to get on with it, hidden and without fuss. It had to be organized; it had to be controlled. Otherwise it might become all too evident that without the solitude of the heart is that dimension of every Christian's vocation that leads to freedom in the divine mercy—without this solitude any community, family, church, monastery, becomes a counterfeit, a tangled mass of fears and dependencies and power politics.

Solitude, the solitude of the heart, in the midst of human brokenness gives clarity to think and act responsibly and kenotically in community, in creation, to relate to others with respect and humility, without fear or the need to dominate. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of saying, "If governments knew how subversive is contemplative prayer, they would ban it!"


Blogger Yzerfontein said...

That Desmond Tutu is one wise priest.

5:18 pm, November 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are references in here that I don't connect with: specifically to the Roman Canon Law.
Can you tell me what is wrong with the Episcopal canon??
As it happens, I do SD with three people living alone who are fed by
writings such as yours. Whether or no they are solitaries, I leave to God!!

Also, what are your thoughts on "Raven's Bread"

11:17 pm, November 04, 2006  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear OAGH,

The questions and history surrounding canon law relating to solitaries are too complex to go into here. Basically the canon law was made by religious communities concerned with status and power and threatened by the appeareance of solitaries, whom a number of Episcopal and C of E communities persecuted relentlessly for the first 20 years or so. The discernment process of the present canon law is wrong, as is the role of the diocesan bishop.
There are bishops who will profess anyone without an discernment at all—another scalp on the belt. And while illness can be a vehicle for solitude it is dangerous for those who have mental problems. The line is not always clear because the solitary by definition will be at odds with a team-playing culture.
On the other hand, solitaries more often than not need protection from diocesans, most of whom appear to know absolutely nothing about religious life, much less solitary life, and some of them seem to base their "knowledge" on some of the more bizarre fantasies that circulate around the notion of solitude. Solitaries need a different, outside bishop, who is sensitive to the solitary life, who can relate directly to the diocesan (since the non-ordained and sometimes even the non-bishop are more often than not regarded as cretins by members of the bishops club/clergy club/religious community club.) Religious communities cannot discern solitary vocations by definition, in part because they are using an imagined artifact as part of their own spiritual method, whereas the solitary is letting go of "means" (as Julian of Norwich says), most especially the stereotypes others would lay on him/her (including such attraits as "Carmelite" or "Franciscan"), in order to live in radical trust and profound listening from moment to moment. This is only part of it, of course, but it is an important part. The solitary needs to find a bishop who understands the radical nature of trust involved, the trust in God that the solitary is exploring and the space of trust given to the solitary by the bishop while the solitary does the exploring. Furthermore, in the UK anyway, the canons require a committee to oversee the solitary, which is a recipe for disaster, because as everyone knows, six people on a committee have seven opinions—and seven sets of stereotypes. The solitary life and the spiritual maturity required for it are learned by being solitary. Full stop. The questions that arise in solitude need to be taken to the appropriate person, who will not necessarily the same one all the time (see my remarks in the forthcoming article in "Weavings" on Discretion in 2007). This is the basic problem with so-called spiritual direction which, in my view, is right up there with fundamentalism as one of the most destructive forces at work in the church today. The bottom line is that the solitary life reflects an attempt to live openly the solitude that is the human condition, but that which most of us spend a lot of time and money and energy trying to avoid. Obviously the person seeking the solitary life simply by doing so is going to be a challenge, may appear "odd", and won't fit into any category. Which is precisely the point. I realize these remarks may be more confusing than helpful because they are so condensed.
As far as canon law goes, it would be far more useful for those seeking greater solitude to speak with people who have been in solitude a long time. This doesn't necessarily mean those people who are vowed to solitude but those who are really living it, and who, of course, will be unobtrusive and probably hard to find. Our religious culture has fallen prey to the celebrity syndrome; people who can help others on the solitary path will understand its ordinariness, in the most radical sense of ordinary.
As far as "Raven's Bread" is concerned, I haven't seen it so I can't comment.

10:09 am, November 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An american solitary made a comment to me about CofE canon law as it relates to solitary life, and I thought she must be hallucinating. I quickly scanned through the canons, and could find no mention of religious life, let alone solitary life, so I concluded that I was right in what I had always imagined to be the case. Namely that religious life in the Church of England was basically a matter of make it up as you go along, and I do not mean to suggest that would necessarily be a bad thing. But now I hear Maggie Ross talking about Canon Law as it applies to solitaries, and am slightly confused.

6:05 pm, September 15, 2007  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

It IS confusing. The last time I checked, the US church has canon law regarding religious communities and solitaries. In the UK, I believe (but I am still confused on this, even after extensive correspondence with one of the bishops) that there is no canon law specific to solitaries but there might be a canon law setting up a committee of representatives from communities to deal with problems in religious life, and there is a set a guidelines.

In any event, the guidelines I saw (afraid I no longer have the correspondence, since it was on paper) were pretty destructive, involving committees and basically making the same errors as the US church has made. Sorry I can't be of more help but I have more or less washed my hands of the intransigent and hermetically sealed clergy club (and that includes religious orders that want to dictate how others live, warning, for example, of the dangers of aberrations from would-be solitaries, while ignoring those within their own houses). The issue, of course, is CONTROL.

My current feeling is that things are so bad in the institution at the moment that any would-be solitary would be wise to avoid official involvement in it like the plague. Furthermore, in our narcissistic religious culture, people have a lot more remedial work to do in the spiritual life than was true in the past, if they are really serious about union with God. Making an issue out of being a solitary (a paradox that elides dangerously into a contradictioni if there is not determined vigilance and a profound understanding of spiritual psychology) is simply adding yet another layer of self-consciousness, yet another identity construct that must be got rid of.

The ox-herding tale makes the same point: the man tames the ox, gazes at the moon, becomes enlightened, and returns to his village, merry and covered with mud, no longer caring what others think. He is indistinguishable from the surrounding population. (Forgive this crude summary of a subtle tale.) Our culture is so stuck on labels that one such as "solitary" becomes extremely dangerous; the most dangerous stereotypes being not those imposed on one by others, but imposed on oneself from within. The institution's stereotypes are worst of all and completely out of touch with both the historical and the contemplative reality. The institution is more concerned with life-STYLE, making a religious fashion statement, than contemplative life.

Better to just to do it rather than talk about it, as Bp. Kilmer Myers once affirmed. Live it; and in truly living it, one is unconcerned with status or consequences. But one has to be willing to pay the price.

8:05 pm, September 15, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Possibly you men the

"Advisory Council on the relations of Bishops and Religious Communities"

If so, as I understand it their role is advisory rather than juristical. Even if they wanted to obtrude themselves into a solitary's life they would need the kind of sanction which they clearly have not got.

Having said that, I have heard tales elsewhere about diocesan bishops who regard themselves as uniquely well qualified to guide a solitary, but who clearly are not. In one case the community the bishop had dispatched her to in order to "learn what obedience means," as he put it, instead advised her to find herself another bishop.

11:13 am, September 17, 2007  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks for the clarification.

The woman you describe was very lucky to have found a welcoming and wise community. Some communities on both sides of the Pond have behaved otherwise towards solitaries, especially in the beginning.

Perhaps there should be a system of solitaries caring for solitaries, rather like the Cistercian model of "parent" houses.

What you write about bishops also rings very true on both sides of the Pond.

Why do we need this rigid, self-certifying and exclusionary class system? It's completely antithetical to the Gospels, as Garry Wills, among other scholars, has shown in his excellent little book, "What Jesus Meant".

11:40 am, September 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having seen the Advisory Council's so called guidelines, I have got to admit that I think they have made themselves into an irrelevance as far as solitaries are concerned. At least the Romans seem to know what it is that the phrase "solitary life" refers to. For that matter ECUSA seems to have a better idea than our dear old Church of England.

10:25 am, September 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Perhaps there should be a system of solitaries caring for solitaries, rather like the Cistercian model of 'parent' houses."

Good idea. Now, how are you going to go about organising it? I am just starting out, and although I can recognise crap (from the Advisory Council) when I see it, I am not sure I would have that much to offer.

3:29 pm, September 25, 2007  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Perhaps "organizing" is at the root of the problem? It's when we start trying to formalize something like the solitary life that it goes wrong. It's not hard to find out who the solitaries are (inside or outside the Church). One could suss out which ones are reasonably sane and simply ask?

3:44 pm, September 25, 2007  

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