Thursday, May 31, 2018

Cor Orans: Into the Woods

Earlier this month the instruction Cor Orans was released by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The document makes sweeping changes to the way women's religious communities are governed.

I am not going to attempt a summary of this document, but I want to recommend to you a piece by the Remnant. It is written by Hilary White, but the crux of the article is some commentary by an anonymous Carmelite sister explaining how the new instruction essentially demolishes the contemplative nature of her order. I have heard similar observations from other individuals who know much more about religious constitutions than myself. I recommend you read the article, but more so, if you happen to know any women in contemplative religious orders, get their insights on the document.

There is one thing I want to contribute to this conversation, however: The time is approaching when those who want to live out an authentic religious charism are going to have to do so outside the framework of the institutional Church. No, I am not promoting schism or disunity in any way. I am merely pointing out that, while the Church can exercise some control over religious institutes, it does not have authority over religious life in its entirety. And an authentic religious life might need to be found outside her existing structures.

Some examples of what I mean: The Church can tell you you cannot start a religious order or cannot govern an order in a certain way; however, the Church cannot tell a man he can't retreat to the woods and live alone in prayer and penance. An ecclesiastical stamp of approval is needed for a group to start taking novices or receiving solemn vows; an ecclesiastical stamp of approval is not needed for a group of single women to move in together and live an ordered life of religious discipline. A religious rule must be approved by a pope or bishop; a religious lifestyle needs no such official approval and can be lived anytime in any place on the simple initiative of the individual.

In other words, there is no prohibition on doing the things religious do, so long as it is not formalized. And in the current ecclesiastical climate, such measures might be the best way to live out a religious vocation and renew the Church. Obviously such people cannot  make solemn vows that are recognized ecclesiastically; such groups cannot call themselves "religious orders" or lead the public to think they are. But they can live religious lifestyles in accord with what they feel called to, and that's what is most essential here.

I honestly do not think this is novel. St. Anthony neither had nor needed ecclesiastical approval to move out into the Egyptian desert. St. Benedict did not ask anybody's permission when he retreated to the caves of Subiaco. St. Francis was certainly allowed by his bishop to live in San Damiano and make repairs there, but his initial renunciation of wealth and life of begging was spontaneous. St. Ignatius took to the cave of Manresa to study and pray of his own initiative, not because some bishop told him he could.

Obviously it did not always happen this way; in many cases a new order or a reform was established through official channels. But I want to recall to our minds that this was not universal. Often times what occurred was a man or woman followed a spontaneous prompting of God to live a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience and was subsequently so influential that the Church found an official outlet for their charism.

Yes, the days are coming when a group of women who feel called to serve God in the religious life, rather than join some existing order, will look at ways to fulfill that call outside the official framework - obviously still in full unity with the Church, but in a manner that is more about living a certain lifestyle than in receiving any official status. It looks like such "official" status is becoming less meaningful these days anyway.

Can such self-initiated efforts eventually be brought under the Church's official aegis? Given their good fruits and (hopefully) a change in mentality in the Magisterium or course. But distressing news should not stop men and women from living a vocation now if they feel called to it in whatever way they are able. If you are a single woman and feel called to religious life but you can't realistically find a convent that will be faithful to traditional spirituality, then find three other woman who feel the same, rent a house, study the discipline of the religious life, and start doing it yourselves. Just act. Be the holiness the Church needs. Trust God to attend to the details.

I've always been an advocate of this kind of "into the woods" sort of approach to these things. Our civilization was built in such ways. Christendom only ever existed because men and women walked into the woods in hopes of finding a quiet spot to pray. It will only be rebuilt in a similar fashion.

Walk into the woods. 

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