26 August 2014

A Contemplative Moment: Contemplative Love

The call to marital love has fire in it. The fire is a shared desire to become unclothed in loving intimacy such that all one is somehow becomes the beloved, and all the beloved is somehow becomes one's very self. It is this transubjective unity, this oneness as love makes one that constitutes the sole center and final fulfillment of the call to love.

This same movement toward intimate communion forms the innermost core of our faith. In Christian life it is not enough simply to develop an intuitive sensitivity to God's presence in daily life. Nor is the awakening call to life in Christ adequately responded to by the cultivation of certain loving qualities exemplified by Christ in the gospels. Instead, Christian life is centered in the response of self-giving love in which all that one is somehow becomes God's and all that is God somehow becomes one's very self.

James Finley, The Awakening Call

American Canyon Earthquake

To folks who inquired about the earthquake that occurred early Sunday morning in American Canyon and how I am doing, thanks for asking. Stillsong Hermitage is located in the East Bay, that IS the Eastern portion of the SF Bay Area. The earthquake's epicenter was in American Canyon, a few miles from Napa which is in the North Bay. However, here at Stillsong the motion was certainly felt. It was strong and seemed to last quite a while (about 10-15 seconds). It was also more of a rolling motion than a sharp jolt --- though I guess it could have been a jolt that first awakened me.

Others at Mass Sunday morning described something similar and a couple of us wished we had thought to begin counting to see how long the quake lasted! While Napa experienced a lot of damage, especially in masonry facades, chimneys and infrastructure there was no damage here at all. Nothing fell from shelves (though my book shelves are so packed nothing moved in the Loma Prieta quake either and that was a MUCH stronger quake). Here the only sign of the quake afterwards was that the melted wax in the presence lamp sloshed enough to put the candle out --- a reminder of how safe these are in regard to fire dangers!

My cat, Clancy, was asleep with me and, while he was awake and alert during the shaking, he did not freak out. I don't know if he was awake just before the quake --- alerted by his little kitty earthquake radar. He did go outside afterwards to scope things out but returned about an hour later. Unlike many of us though, he went back to sleep! (Most of the folks I spoke to had difficulty getting back to sleep even though few said they felt much anxiety from the quake.) Aftershocks will continue for some time (a week or so). There was a significant one this morning, but unless you were already dealing with structural damage that could be exacerbated by more movement it caused no problems.

Nicolas was asleep on mattress
One of the really awful stories coming out of the quake though is the story of two friends asleep side by side in one of their living rooms. The guest was asleep on the couch while his best friend, Nicolas, was asleep on the floor nearby. When the quake hit, the fireplace and chimney in the room crumbled and fell on him. He had tried to crawl away but was still caught. Nicolas suffered multiple pelvic fractures and it has been reported that it will be months before he walks again.

But awful as these injuries are what most moved me was an interview with his overnight guest --- the friend who got the couch instead of the floor and was uninjured when the bricks fell. (Sorry, I don't have his name!) Clearly he loves Nicolas and was terribly sorry Nick had been injured. His pain for his friend was visible and palpable. But he is also a survivor in this and is apt to be feeling terribly guilty he was unhurt while his friend bore the brunt of things. I was very impressed with him even as I felt real concern for him and the degree of trauma he had experienced. I hope he is given any help he needs to deal with his friend's injuries and his own coming through things physically unscathed. Certainly he will be in my prayers.

But again, here at Stillsong all is very well. Thanks again for asking.

23 August 2014

Update from Dominican Sisters of Catherine of Siena --- Iraq

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Dominican Sisters in Happier Days (2013)

August 23rd 2014

Dear all,

We continue to share our daily struggle with you, hoping that our cry will reach the world. We are like the blind man of Jericho (Mark 10: 46-52), who had nothing to express himself, but his voice, asking Jesus for mercy. Although some people ignored his voice, others listened, and helped him. We count on people, who will listen!

We entered the third week of displacement. Things are moving very slowly in terms of providing shelter, food, and necessities for the people. There are still people living in the streets. There are still no organized camps outside of schools that are used as refugee centres. An unfinished, three story building has also been used as a refugee centre. For privacy reasons, families have made rooms using UNHCR plastic sheets in these unfinished buildings. These places look like stables. We all wonder, is there any end in sight? We appreciate all efforts that have been made to provide aid to the displaced people. However, please note, that providing food and shelter is not the only essential thing we need. Our case is much bigger. We are speaking about two minorities (Christian and Yezedians), who lost their land, their homes, their belongings, their jobs, their money, some have been separated from their families and loved ones, and all are persecuted because of their religion.

Our church leaders are doing their best to solve the issue. They have been meeting with political leaders, with the President of Iraq and Kurdistan, but initiatives and actions of these political leaders are really slow and modest. Actually, all political meetings have led to nothing. Until now, there has been no decision made about the current situation of the displaced minorities. For this reason, trust in the political leaders has diminished, if it exists, at all. People cannot tolerate it anymore. It is too heavy of a burden. Yesterday, a young man expressed that he would rather die than live, without dignity. People feel that their dignity has been stripped from them. We are being persecuted because of our religion. None of us ever thought we would live in refugee camps because of that.

It is hard to believe that this is happening in the 21st century. We wonder what is exactly happening. Is it another plan or agreement to subdivide Iraq? If this is true, by whom and why? Why are the events of dividing the Middle East, that happened in 1916, being repeated now? At that time it was a political issue and innocent people paid for it. It is apparent that there are sinfully, cunning people dividing Iraq, now. In 1916, we lost seven of our sisters, many Christians died, and more were scattered. Is it just circumstance we face this division again, or is it deliberate?

However, the struggle is not only in the camps, with the displaced people. What has happened in our Christian towns that have been evacuated is even worse.

The IS forced out of their homes those who did not leave their towns up to the night of August 6th. Yesterday, seventy-two people were driven out of Karakosh. However, not all of them arrived; those who arrived last night were in miserable condition. They had to cross Al-Khazi river (a tributary to the Great Zab) on foot because the bridge had been destroyed. There are still quite few on the side of the riverbank. We do not know when they will make it to Erbil. It depends on the situation and negotiations between the Peshmerga and the IS. There are some people who went to fetch the elderly and the unable to walk. One of our sisters went to bring her parents, and told her story. Another woman, said that she was separated from her husband and children, and she knows nothing about them; they are probably among the others who are on the other bank, or they might be among the hostages taken by the IS. Also, a three-year old daughter was taken from her mother’s lap, and she also knows nothing about her. We do not know why the IS are sending people out of Karakosh, but we have been hearing from those who just arrived, that IS are bringing barrels into Karakosh and the contents are unknown.

In addition, we know of four Christian families who are stuck in Sinjar for over three weeks; they are probably running out of food and water. If they do not get help, they will die there. At the present, there is no contact with them, and there is no way to negotiate with the IS.

As for our community, we know that our convent in Tel Kaif is being used as an IS headquarter. Also, we know that they had entered our convent in Karakosh. Those that recently arrived have stated that all the holy pictures, icons, and statutes are being destroyed. Crosses have been taken off the top of churches and they have been replaced with the IS flags. That is not only in Karakosh and Tel Kaif.  In Baqofa, one of our sisters heard the situation was calm, so she went back with few people, to get her medicine. She found the convent had been searched; everything was open and strewn across the rooms.  The minute they entered the convent, three bombs hit the town.  They left immediately.

Apart from what is happening to the Christians, yesterday, Friday the 22nd, a Shiite suicide bomber and gunmen attacked Sunni mosque of Abou Mussab in village under Iraqi government control in Diyala province leaving 68 dead. It is heartbreaking to hear about people get killed while praying. In terms of Media and news release, this massacre overshadowed what is happening to the Christians in Nineveh Plain. We are afraid that our struggle will become only our own affairs, and it will not have impact on the world anymore.

At last, we have to say that people are losing their patience. They miss everything in their hometowns: churches, church bells, streets, and neighborhood. It is heartbreaking for them to hear that their homes have been robbed. Although they love their towns, most people are now thinking of leaving the country so they can live in dignity and have future for their children. It is heard to have hope in Iraq, or to trust the leadership of the country.
Please, keep us in your prayers.
Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena-Iraq

P.S. Please share the letter with other people. Let the world hear the cry of the poor and the innocent. 

Nada Te Turbe - A Virtual Choir of Carmelites

In honor of the Fifth Centenary of the Carmelite Order a group of Carmelites from all over the world were "brought together" to create a virtual choir to sing Teresa of Avila's text (and Spirit!), Nade Te Turbe, (Let Nothing Disturb You):

[[Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, everything passes, God never changes, Patience obtains all things, who has God lacks nothing, God alone is enough.]] 

The music for this was composed by a Carmelite in the United States, Sister Claire Sokol, OCD (Carmel of Reno, NV). The orchestra, also from the US is the Teresian Orchestra of St James Cathedral in Seattle, WA. Please enlarge to full screen to enjoy this at best advantage. Also please take note of the credits and the list of choir members at the end of the video. The faces and diversity in this great unity are wonderful. It is an amazing video and an amazing feat of engineering. Sheet Music available at www.ocp.org.

17 August 2014

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

If we're looking for a Gospel lection that breaks all stereotypes today's is one of these! This reading is sometimes categorized among the "difficult sayings of Jesus" because it has Jesus characterizing a Gentile woman as a dog (a typical epithet of his day when referring to Gentiles) and refusing to extend healing to her daughter because HIS mission is first of all to the lost of Israel, not to the Gentiles. And so, the woman, who has already silenced Jesus with a terrific act of faith, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David," answers Jesus' instruction on this point with a bit of instruction of her own: [[ Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table!]] Jesus, already silenced and now thoughtful, seems even to reconsider and expand the scope of his own ministry in light of it. If Jesus' can grow in grace and stature in this way, through the mediation of a completely disenfranchised woman, then is anyone in the Church really beyond being instructed by the women standing (at best) on the margins of power and authority or the Christ standing as their Master? I don't think so.

What happens to Jesus is as instructive for the contem-porary Church as all of Jesus' words, all his parables, dis-courses, instructions, imprecations, and remonstrances. For (again) in today's gospel story Jesus hears and is silent! He is stopped, arrested by a woman's compelling act of faith. It is a pregnant silence because it is the result of truly listening and leads both to further listening and to a fundamental shift or variation in Jesus' ministry from the lost sheep of Israel to the lost of all the nations. It is the silence of a teacher who is truly effective not because he has all the answers but because he is willing to listen, reconsider the answer and ministry God has given him, and learn! It is the silence of a docile teacher who truly hears the commission of God coming from the least and the lost; it is the silence of one who can change his mind and even the direction of his ministry as a result of an encounter with the truth a woman and outsider carries! Certainly that is precisely the kind of teacher the Church itself is called to be! After all, the Church is not greater than her Master; instead she is called to embody and mediate him. In light of today's Gospel lection the challenge to embody and mediate the DOCILITY of Christ seems compelling!

All kinds of situations reduce us to silence but only sometimes do we really listen therein, only sometimes are we genuinely obedient. Ordinarily today silence is something that occurs momentarily while we plug in a different device or while we take a breath during a conversation in order to "let someone else have a turn". Rather than listening to that other person in the profound way Jesus listens in today's Gospel, too often our silences tend to be filled with mental machinations as we gauge where and how we can reenter the "conversation" and continue our own discourse or argument! Conversations with Church leaders can sometimes give us the sense that we are speaking to a clerically-clad wall. Nothing, especially the living God, is truly heard in these conversations, no minds or hearts are changed, connections and bonds of charity are not made, aliens do not become neighbors, neighbors do not become brothers and sisters, and brothers and sisters especially do not become colleagues in the service of the Gospel!

But Jesus' example condemns such an approach. In this lection one of the lowest and the least becomes the One by which Jesus truly hears the voice of his Father and comes to modify his own understanding of his mission. After his silence at her first words to him Jesus rehearses the standard Jewish arguments for her and for his disciples, arguments that make sense in THIS worldly terms and in terms of an Israel threatened by outsiders, but not in terms of the Kingdom of God: "I was sent only to the children of Israel; It is not just (right or fair) to take the food from the children (Israel) and throw it to the dogs (Gentiles)." (We might hear common arguments for excluding folks from Eucharist today --- arguments that make good sense in worldly terms: "We cannot pretend there is a unity that doesn't really exist. We cannot defile the Eucharist by giving it to public and obstinate sinners. It wouldn't be just to do these things!") But in Matthew's telling of the Gospel story, Jesus has already fed the five thousand (apparently mainly Jews) and found there was plenty left over. He has also just preached that it is what comes out of us that defiles, but to eat with unwashed hands does NOT defile. . . The Canaanite women's response is a reminder of Jesus' great Eucharistic miracle as well as the infinite value and power to heal of even the smallest crumb that comes to the most unworthy from God.

But it reminds us of much more as well. For those, for instance, who object that women cannot teach, we have an example of a Gentile woman teaching Jesus about the will of God and helping to reshape his mission. In so doing she reminds Jesus of a different "justice" in which all are therefore welcome at Christ's table; similarly she reveals that the way Israel is first may not be precisely the way the world (or Israel herself) sees or has seen such matters. Israel is to be first in including, ministering to, and serving the outsider and the unworthy, not in excluding them until some other day of the Lord is at hand. That day is here, NOW, and, with the Canaanite woman's intervention, Jesus too comes to see this more clearly and embrace it more fully. In some ways this shift in vision, a shift the Church herself is called upon to make, parallels the two different ways we have of understanding the term Catholic: the Latin sense of universalis which means universal but leaves some outside the circle however large it is drawn, and the Greek sense of Katholicos which is universal in the sense of leaven in bread where no one and nothing is left excluded or untouched and unfed.

For women, and especially for women religious in the Church this Gospel comes at a significant time. The LCWR has just concluded their annual meeting, this year in Nashville. What will the result be? Do we have a teaching Church that is also a docile Church? Can Bishops and Roman Dicasteries truly listen to and learn from women of genuine faith who ask that ideas of mission and ways of communicating truth be stretched in ways perhaps Jesus himself could not have seen becoming necessary? Were the silences that occurred in the meetings truly contemplative silences where all may be changed, or were they only one-sided respites allowed as an interlocutor planned his or her next intervention in what had, at best, ceased to be a true dialogue? My own prayer is that both the LCWR and the hierarchy reflected long and hard in the spirit of Jesus' own docility on this Gospel lection at some point; further I pray that they and the Vatican dicasteries involved in the oversight of the LCWR especially spend time with it in that same spirit in the next weeks and months.

14 August 2014

Feast of Maximillian Kolbe (Reprise)

Today is the feast day of Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered in Block 13 (see illustration below) by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright.

The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Aushwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modelled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ. Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.

I think it is easy to forget this fundamental vocation, or at least to underestimate its value and challenge. We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people! (And this is as true for hermits and recluses as it is true for anyone else.) Likewise, we may think of vocation as a call to religious life, priesthood, marriage, singleness, eremitism, etc, but always, these are "merely" the paths towards achieving our foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Of course, it is not that we do not need excellent priests, religious, husbands and wives, parents, and so forth, but what is more true is that we need excellent human beings --- people who take the call and challenge to be genuinely human with absolute seriousness and faithfulness.

Today's gospel confronts us with a person who failed at that vocation. Extended mercy and the complete forgiveness of an unpayable debt, this servant went out into his world and failed to extend even a fraction of the same mercy to one of his fellows. He was selfish, ungrateful, and unmindful of who he was in terms of his Master or the generosity which had been shown him. He failed to remain in touch with that mercy and likewise he refused to extend it to others as called upon to do. He failed in his essential humanity and in the process he degraded and punished a fellow servant as inferior to himself when he should have done the opposite. Contrasted with this, and forming the liturgical and theological context for hearing this reading today, is the life of Maximillian Kolbe. Loved with an everlasting love, touched by God's infinite mercy and grace, Father Maximillian knew and affirmed who he truly was. More, in a situation of abject poverty and ultimate weakness, he remained in contact with the Source of his own humanity as the infinite well from which he would draw strength, dignity, courage, forgiveness, and compassion when confronted with a reality wholly dedicated to shattering, degrading, and destroying the humanity of those who became its victims. In every way he was the embodiment of St Paul's citation, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness!"

Block 13 where the "starvation cells" were

In Auschwitz it is true that some spoke of Kolbe as a saint, and many knew he was a priest, but in this world where all were stripped of names and social standing of any kind, what stood out to everyone was Maximillian Kolbe's love for God and his fellow man; what stood out, in other words, was his humanityHoliness for the Christian is defined in these terms. Authentic humanity and holiness are synonyms in Christianity, and both are marked by the capacity to love and be loved,  first (by) God and then (by) all those he has dignified as his image and holds as precious. In a world too-often marked by mediocrity and even outright inhumanity, a world too frequently dominated by those structures, institutions, and dynamics which seem bigger than we are and incapable of being resisted or changed, we need to remember Maximillian Kolbe's example. Oftentimes we focus on serving others, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and the like, and these things are important. But in Kolbe's world when very little of this kind of service was possible (though Kolbe did what was possible and prudent here) what stood out was not only the crust of bread pressed into a younger priest's hands, the cup of soup given gladly to another, but the very great and deep dignity and impress of his humanity. And of course it stood out because beyond and beneath the need for food and shelter, what everyone was in terrible danger of losing was a sense of --- and capacity to act in terms of -- their own great dignity and humanity.

Marked above all as one loved by God, Father Maximillian lived out of that love and mercy. He extended it again and again (70 X 7) to everyone he met, and in the end, he made the final sacrifice: he gave his own life so that another might live. An extraordinary vocation marked by extraordinary holiness? Yes. But also our OWN vocation, a vocation to "ordinary" and true holiness, genuine humanity. As I said above, "In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell." In many ways this is precisely the gift we are called upon in Christ to be for our own times. Matthew's call to make forgiveness a way of life is a key to achieving this. May Saint Kolbe's example inspire us to fulfill our vocations in exemplary ways.

Celebrating the God of Absolute Futurity with Rilke and the LCWR

12 August 2014

Feast of Saint Clare and Feast of Saint Jane de Chantal

On August 11 we celebrated the Feast of Saint Clare. Clare had one of the keenest understandings of the nature of religious poverty I know. She understood poverty as the counterpart of love, a theological reality modeled on the poverty of God which corresponds to that love which flows from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father in the Spirit. When asked how it is we center ourselves on the Love of God, Clare's answer was clear: "Become poor." In saying this she was reminding us to become what we truly are, let us be ourselves in relation to God, to others, and to all of creation. And, let us be entirely transparent to the love of God which makes us what we are and is our greatest (or even our only true) treasure.

The contemporary Church focuses very strongly on the preferential option for the poor which is so prevalent in the Gospel.  But what is also true, and what the preferential option for the poor can sometimes obscure is that in Jesus' proclamation all of us are identified as the poor ourselves just as we are called to allow ourselves to become even more truly and exhaustively poor, even more truly and exhaustively disenfranchised from (or entrenched within) one world so we are more truly citizens of the Kingdom of God. Moreover, while we can provide all kinds of things for the materially poor, what we are called to give them (and to make possible within them!) is our credible proclamation of the Gospel. The irony is that we can do so only if we live lives of genuine renunciation ourselves. We can only do so if we show with our lives that God in Christ is our treasure and sustains us in ways nothing and no one else can or does. Each of us is called to create a world which is "egalitarian" and marked by our wealth in Christ. Each of us is called to be poor in the same sense as every other person, and that actually means some degree of real material poverty.

This, of course is one of the messages Clare proclaimed with such clarity --- and Francis as well! It is a central piece of the Franciscan witness in our world. Franciscan joy is genuine and it is striking because it is the counterpart of and counterpoint to Franciscan (Christian) poverty whose wealth is found in the love of God. On this day we especially reflect on the fact that if we wish to center our lives on the love of God we are called to become poor. While that means becoming who we are in relation to God it also means embracing a real material poverty as well. May Clare inspire us to answer this call in our own lives just as she did in her own.

I began the post on St Clare yesterday but it reminds me very much of a passage from St Jane de Chantal's Letters of Spiritual Direction. Today (August 12) is her Feastday: [[ All God wants is our heart. God is more pleased when we value our uselessness and weakness out of love and reverence for the Lord's will than when we do violence to ourselves and perform great works of penance. The peak of perfection lies in our wanting to be what God wishes us to be. What God, in his goodness, asks of you is not excessive zeal but a calm, peaceful uselessness, a resting with no special attention or action of the understanding or will, except a few words of love or of faithful, simple surrender, spoken softly, effortlessly, without the least desire to find consolation or satisfaction in them. If you put that into practice, it will please God more than anything else you might do.]]

07 August 2014

Take up your Cross and Follow Me

In tomorrow's Gospel lection Jesus says the now perhaps too-familiar words, [[Whoever wishes to come after me (a la Jesus' command to Peter to "Get behind me!") must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. . .]] This summary of what it means to be a disciple comes at the end of a series of parables meant to reveal the nature of and empower  true discipleship. And so, Jesus continues, [[ for whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?]] We come to suspect that this idea of "taking up of one's cross" may have to do with much more than embracing suffering and death at the end of our lives --- though of course it may include that. More fundamentally it has to do with embracing the life God offers at every moment from within and without the center of our lives and selves --- allowing it to take hold of us and transfigure our entire being.

So what does it really mean to take up our crosses? And what are the deaths Jesus is envisioning here? Only Jesus' own cross can tell us what is meant here. When we look at Jesus' passion we certainly see the pain and the shame of his death. We see the torment he undergoes at the hands of the powerful and influential because he proclaims a different Kingdom, a different reality which rivals and threatens this one. We see the inhumanity, the fear, the insecurity and need to shore themselves up which is associated with what Matthew calls here, "the world." It allows these same people to see an entirely God-filled man as godless, the one who fulfills the law as lawless, the one who is in intimate relationship with God as an abject sinner and blasphemer who is alienated from God. And of course it allows us to see the justification of injustice, oppression, and even murder in the name of religion and good public order as these blind men lead others all around them into the pit --- just as we heard in Monday's readings.

But we also see a man who, throughout his entire life and especially in his final passion has given and risked everything to shine a bright light on this world of power and influence, this world marked by such appalling deafness, blindness, cruelty and death to allow that other kingdom to be revealed, realized, made real in space and time. He has embraced a unique poverty, a complete helplessness and lack of self-assertion. And because he does this in complete self-emptying, because there is absolutely nothing more he can give, nothing else he can achieve, he takes an immense risk: As I have noted before, either the Kingdom and God he has tried to witness to is a fraud OR the Kingdom of this world's oppression will come face to face with its limits and bankruptcy as it tries to destroy God's own Messiah and it will itself be destroyed in the process. Jesus literally puts EVERYTHING into his Father's hands. Commending his Spirit to God is not a simple pious act of breathing his last with the na├»ve confidence that he will now live in heaven. It is instead a summary of the risk Jesus takes in putting everything, his entire life and mission, his entire death and eternal destiny into God's hands.

The act of taking up our own crosses is similar. No, we are unlikely to be crucified in the way Jesus was ---though I am reminded of the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena who are in danger and are being persecuted today on this Feast of St Dominic --- but we are called on to live the reality of our deepest, truest selves fully and exhaustively in a way which allows our own lives to be transparent to the love and power of God which is perfected in this way. We are called to allow the life of God which resides deep within us to grow more and more influential until it fills our whole hearts and transfigures our whole lives. We are to meet injustice, oppression, and violence in whatever way these arei expressed and to do so with innocence, with trust in God, and with non-violence; we are to witness to authentic humanity in the face of the distorted humanity we see so much more often in today's world. We are to stand up as citizens of the Kingdom of God and live as pilgrims for whom this reality around us is really not our truest home. In other words, we are to let ourselves be entirely dependent on and transparent to God just as Jesus' was entirely transparent to him.

To do this day by day over the long haul (which, by the way, Jesus ALSO did) involves both dying and rising on a daily basis. It involves the gradual death of the false or ego self that is so much at home in the world of power, prestige, competition, entitlement, etc. It involves the death of impatience and the need to see quick fixes and immediate results rather than radical solutions that take time to take hold. It means trusting in the ultimate victory of God and his vindication in our lives over the long term. It means daily prayer and penance, and a commitment to making the things of God central in our lives even when we can see no progress or the whole project seems futile or foolish. It means a commitment to conversion, ongoing, long term radical conversion and the trust that this takes. It means accepting our true poverty (and wealth) by allowing God to be the sole source of strength and meaning in our lives; and it means doing so again and again in ways which get deeper and deeper. It means the death of many of the ways we measure others and ourselves and a commitment to learn to see every person as God sees them.

A renewed and whole-hearted commitment to each of these and so many more that I have not named is what Jesus is speaking of when he tells his disciples to "get behind me" or "follow me" or "take up your cross".  After all, we TOO are the ones who have not yet tasted death and seen the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom. We are witnesses to his resurrection, witnesses to the fact that abject poverty, weakness, and incapacity in the face of a world of power, wealth, and prestige, while they seem to end in hopelessness will be made the most perfect revelation of God's power and purposes. Once again the Gospel calls us to a life where we truly risk everything on the Good News of what happens when each and every day we truly throw in our lot and "get behind" Christ as his disciples. After all, Jesus has traveled this way before us and look at the results of  the risk he took!

06 August 2014

On Spiritual Direction and Mystical Experiences

[[ Dear Sister. Are spiritual directors familiar with mystical experiences today? Is it possible that a directee would have experiences that were really from God but that the director doubts? ]]

If a client has experiences s/he calls mystical and is sure are of God I may or may not agree. If I have doubts about these experiences being of God I am apt to kind of bracket them off in my mind, hold them in prayer, and wait for the fruits of such experiences to become evident. (I will also do some personal work to be sure there are no personal reasons which bias my perceptions in this matter.) Occasionally I will tell a person the reasons I doubt these experiences are of God or indicate what they remind me more of, but usually I will not do this. In either case I will temporize and try to assist the person to attend to what changes in them along with the shifting way they view the world and God as a result of these experiences.

The focus cannot remain on the experiences themselves in any case; it must shift to God and to what God reveals of himself in these ways. The person experiencing whatever it is must move from this original focus to wisdom. They must integrate whatever they have been given and grow in "grace and stature" as persons in Christ --- as the saying goes. Nor does this happen all at once. Again, if an experience is of God then it will be given for a reason and one will judge matters according to the fruits of the experience, both immediate and more mediate. Can I be mistaken? Of course. Similarly there are probably people doing direction today who are ignorant of such things or even closed to them. Still, if we continue to focus on the fruits of experiences and work hard to stay out of the Spirit's way in our work with a client, our own initially mistaken opinion will not make a lot of difference.

However, I don't personally know any working directors who are not regular pray-ers; this means they have ordinarily had occasional mystical or peak experiences themselves. Beyond this most have had some advanced education in spirituality or theology and many in psychology or pastoral counseling as well. All the directors I know have also worked with people who have had genuine mystical experiences --- though these tend not to be particularly unusual or frequent. They ARE personally striking and ALWAYS life changing however! Most of us have heard God speak to us from time to time and may have experienced ecstasy. Occasionally there might be something we identify as a vision. Many of us have moments of profound intellectual insight which may be tied to some kind of imagery. What tends to be true of all of these experiences is that the person will return to them again and again to continue to allow it to nourish them and become a source of real wisdom. Each experience is a doorway to the infinite, a way of being taken hold of by mystery. Each experience allows us to enter this realm again and again. Thus, this is another reason they are not usually frequent and certainly not predictable.

Are Directors More Secular and Skeptical of Mystical Experiences Today?

[[Since you do direction today would you say that SD's are more secularized or less open to mystical experiences today?]]

Now this is a great question! It is true that directors do not believe in the frequency or prevalence of such experiences which was once the case. Not least we know that religious ideation, etc, can be and even often is a function of psychological dysfunction and mental illness. Our minds are incredibly powerful tools and they can respond to personal needs and desires in amazing ways --- not all of them helpful and many of them contrary to God. We are, for better and worse people steeped in history and science in a way which does not allow us to see the world as our ancestors did. Even so, unless we are scientific naturalists we believe in ultimate Mystery; we know that reality is grounded not in death but in Life and that the intelligibility of the world points unmistakably to God who grounds and is the source of meaning and so too, intelligibility. We experience the hope of those who are called into and drawn by an absolute future; we are not those who believe that everything randomly came from nothing and will simply sink back into nothingness at some point in time.

Because we believe as we do, because we are scientists and theologians, parents and pastors, philosophers and physicians, directors and psychologists, Sisters and Brothers in Christ, etc, we have met the truly new (kainotes) time and again. We have been taken hold of by Mystery but we no longer can mistake that for mysteries --- problems which must be solved. We no longer believe in a God of the gaps who is pushed out of reality by new scientific discoveries, for instance. Instead we meet Mystery in the everyday events and activities of ordinary life. With every new scientific discovery, every new insight in whatever field, every glimpse of the ordinary, we also can and often become aware of a pervasive dimension of depth, meaningfulness, intelligibility, futurity, and genuine newness we call God or Mystery. Mystery breaks in on us in the ordinariness of life and spiritual directors know this VERY well. The secularity we embrace is that of the Incarnation, a secularity which is eschatological and sacred. My own sense therefore says we are believers who attend to the truly credible (and the truly awesome) without falling into naive credulity.

The bottom line here is that it is true that spiritual directors today do not accept as authentic (or at least are skeptical about) some phenomenon that were once automatically seen as Divine. But this does not mean a rejection of the truly mystical or even the miraculous. Mystery and miracles are real. Miracles reveal the deepest order of the cosmos as does Mystery. We expect this deep dimension of reality to be experienced by every person who opens herself to it and, of course, we are open to such experiences ourselves. Still, to reiterate one last time, the authenticity of any experience can only be measured by its fruits: do thesse experiences build community, do they increase a person's capacity to love in real and concrete terms; is one made more generous, self-sacrificing, hopeful, whole, and happy through them? If so, then we are dealing with something that is truly of God; otherwise judgement must be withheld until the fruits (including the bad fruits of division, selfishness, isolation, etc) become clear.

Feast of the Transfiguration and the Story of the Invisible Gorilla (Reprised)

Transfiguration by Lewis Bowman
Have you ever been walking along a well-known road and suddenly had a bed of flowers take on a vividness which takes your breath away? Similarly, have you ever been walking along or sitting quietly outside when a breeze rustles some leaves above your head and you were struck by an image of the Spirit moving through the world? I have had both happen, and, in the face of God's constant presence, what is in some ways more striking is how infrequent such peak moments are.

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. It depends upon our expectations. In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams in either white or black shirts, observers were asked to concentrate on the number of passes of a basketball that occurred as players wove in and out around one another. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest, and moves on. At the end of the experiment observers were asked two questions: 1) how many passes were there, and 2) did you see the gorilla? Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla. Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. Even more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of blindness and ignorance. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.

For the past two weeks we have been reading the central chapter of Matthew's Gospel --- the chapter that stands right smack in the middle of his version of the Good News. It is Matt's collection of Jesus' parables --- the stories Jesus tells to help break us open and free us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that we might commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout this collection of parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment which involves the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard last Friday. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the usual significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority they could not deny they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they decided they saw only the son of Mary, the son of Joseph and "took offense at him." Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and the God he revealed. Similarly, Jesus' disciples too could not really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refuses to accept this.

It is in the face of these situations that we hear today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain apart. He takes them away from the world they know (or believe they know) so well, away from peers, away from their ordinary perspective, and he invites them to see who he really is. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus' is at prayer --- attending to the most fundamental relationship of his life --- when the Transfiguration occurs. Matthew does not structure his account in the same way. Instead he shows Jesus as the one whose life is a profound dialogue with God's law and prophets, who is in fact the culmination and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the culmination of the Divine-Human dialogue we call covenant. He is God-with-us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. This is what the disciples see --- not so much a foretelling of Jesus' future glory as the reality which stands right in front of them --- if only they had the eyes to see.

For most of us, such an event would freeze us in our tracks with awe. But not Peter! He outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right here and now. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto amazing prayer experiences --- but in doing so, fail to appreciate them fully or live from them! He is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, consistent with his tradition while neglecting the newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has still missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!!!"

The lesson could not be clearer, I think. In this day where the Church is conflicted and some authority seems incredible, we must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through Bishops and all believers. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling we are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.

04 August 2014

Update: Letter from Dominican Sisters in/of Iraq

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Dominican Sisters in better days (2013)

Dear Sisters, Brothers, and Friends,

Thank you for journeying with us through prayers and support in the past few months. It really is a time of peril and we are hoping that a miracle from God will end all that. So far, 510 families have been displaced from Mosul. Some were fortunate to leave before the deadline ISIS set as they were able to take their belongings with them. However, 160 families of them left Mosul with only their clothes on; everything they had was taken away from them.

These families are in so much need of help and support. People in Christian towns that received these refugees opened their homes to provide shelters and food for them, as much as they could. People are strongly willing to help, but the fact that they did not have their salaries for two months (June- July) makes it extremely difficult for them to offer more. As the salaries of government employees in areas under ISIS control are being suspended. Additionally, because of the present situation in Mosul and the whole province (of Nineveh) the economy of the state is suffering, which naturally affects everyone. Since the tension started in Mosul, many people lost their jobs as 99% of jobs stopped, which means there is hardly any money to be used let alone loaning to those who are in need. This is not only in the province of Nineveh, but also in Erbil. Moreover, all Christians in the plain of Nineveh have not received their food supplement, which the government used to provide via the smart ration card. This is causing a crisis not only for the refugees, but also for the residents in the area.

However, the church is calling people to open their homes for refugees as there are some families staying in Church’s halls with limited space and public services in Nineveh plain. But in Karakosh, residents and churches are collaborating. Residents are welcoming refugees in their homes and churches are providing for them; therefore, refugees prefer to come to Karakosh. Additionally, the church, with the help of Christian endowment, is planning to provide caravans as kind of accommodations for the time being. This project, however, seems to take longer time than expected.

As you perhaps know, concerning the situation in Mosul, the Islamic State has a policy in governing the city. After displacing the Christians, they started their policy concerning the holy places that angered people. So far, the churches are under their control; crosses have been taken off. But we are not sure about the extent of the damaged done in them. In addition to that, a few mosques have been affected, too. The ISIS destroyed two mosques with their shrines last week: the mosque of Prophet Sheeth (Seth) and the mosque of the Prophet Younis, or Jonah, said to be the burial place of Jonah. The militants claim that such mosques have become places for apostasy, not prayer. This was really too painful for all people as Jonah’s shrine was considered as a monument. Also, it was a historical place as it was built on an old church. Destroying such places is a destruction of our heritage and legacy.

Besides, ISIS is setting some rules that even Mosul residents cannot tolerate. Like forcing young people to join them, preventing women to go out, and enforcing the strict interpretation of Islamic law.
People in towns around Mosul are afraid that ISIS would extend their control after the Muslim Feast holidays. This period of Muslim feast was a kind of intermission, but no one knows what to expect next. In fact, they have already started. The ISIS are extending their controlled zone. Yesterday (Aug 3) there were encounters between ISIS and Pashmerga outside of Mosul to the north. Meanwhile, the central government is attacking the ISIS  in Mosul. Most of Christians in towns of Batnaya and Telkaif have left their homes because they are very close to Mosul. The situation in Karkush is in the present time is calm. But this causes fear and horror among Christians and that’s why some families from Karkush are leaving to Kurdistan, some have plans to leave the country, and some are staying. This in any case weakens Christians' feeling of belonging to the country.

We are surprised that some countries of the world are silent about what is happening. We hoped that there would be stronger international approach toward Iraq, and Christians in Iraq in general.

As for us as community, our sisters in Batnaya and Telkaif had to leave the town with 99% of people who left because of violence outside the town. We have had our annual retreat on the 20th of July. That gave us opportunity to pray for Iraq and our Christian community during this time of peril.

Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena –Iraq.

August 4th 2014

03 August 2014

A Contemplative Moment: The Silence of Solitude

The Silence of Solitude

"Solitude has nothing to do with existential neurosis, but is rather a creative search for the flame of love that burns in God's heart. . . .What occupies the center. . .is the existential solitude of God himself. This is what the human heart wants to absorb and this is where it wants to rest. The eremitic solitude is in no case a fruitless and spiritually empty isolation, a cold indifference toward people and the world, or a selfish passiveness. Just the opposite, it is a space of redemption, full of spiritual life and meant to accept and change any human distress, sorrow, or fear."

Fr Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam: The Eremitic Life

Followup to Questions about the Value vs the Utility of Eremitical Vocations

Dear Sister your last post on the diocesan eremitical vocation was very positive compared to what I wrote you about [two weeks ago]. (cf, On Maintaining the Distinction between Utility and Value) I am guessing you would disagree with this [included] take on your vocation as well. Could you comment? I believe the immediate context is that this person has petitioned her diocese for canonical status and had not received a response yet (this was written several years ago and she wrote them [her diocese] a couple of months prior to this post). S/he says the vocation need not be credible and is for "good-for-nothings".

[[The hermit vocation is a veritable non-entity in the views of most, of nearly all, even in the Church. Yes, it is written in the Catechism, there is a Canon Law that is applicable, there are saints who have hermit status, and there are a minutia of canonically approved, known hermits in the world. But the remaining souls who are called to the life are veritable non-entities in the non-entity status of their vocation. It is such a non-entity that a response to a request is long in coming, if it ever arrives in the post. An appointment to discuss the vocation, is not of much consequence or importance to the degree that it keeps being put off until "sometime". Yes, we can talk about it "sometime". Now, this may to some in the vocation seem like an insult or a negativity. It is not! It only verifies all the more the vocation for what it is: non-entity status. A hermit's life is so hidden, so undefinable, so inconsequential, so non-this and non-that as to be nothing and worthy of only good-for-nothings.]]

Certainly it is true that this vocation is little known and little understood in today's Church. That is one of the reasons some diocesan hermits have blogs. It is also true that the vocation is counter-cultural and stands in opposition to many of the ways our world measures productivity and status. Hermits, at least among those who do not know them personally, may be thought to be folks who have failed at life, dislike people, are pathologically introspective and many other similar stereotypes. However, this post is written by someone waiting for word from her diocese on whether they will work with her to discern a vocation to diocesan eremitical life. The idea that the vocation is undefinable and inconsequential is certainly a misrepresentation which someone petitioning her diocese for admission to canonical standing should not make. Further, she seems upset that she has not gotten a fairly immediate response to her request to do so (she has gotten a response but it seems not to be permission to make vows). In any case, I don't think she is speaking about the counter cultural nature of the vocation itself; rather I think she is feeling dismissed by the diocese and may be being ironic (and perhaps hyperbolic) in this response. (In other words she may be guilty of dealing with disappointment by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.)

 I say that because it is sometimes hard to wait for a diocese's response to one's initial request to be considered in this way. However, presumably this difficulty stems from the fact that one really understands that the diocesan eremitical vocation is a significant one and genuinely believes one is called to it by God. It is awfully hard to believe someone who felt the vocation is worthy only of "good-for-nothings" would desire canonical standing or seek to live such an ecclesial vocation. For that matter it is hard to understand why the Church would esteem or VALUE such a vocation enough to recognize and govern it canonically or in this way link it to public rights and obligations as a witness to the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the difficulty in getting oneself professed is ordinarily a sign of the value and esteem with which the Church regards this vocation. Only in a handful of situations has it been tied to members of the hierarchy's denigration of the vocation. It does seem to me that this person is speaking of being treated by her diocese like a "good-for-nothing" because they are not responding to her query quickly enough to suit her or because she is "only" a lay hermit. It's a bit hard to tell from this passage if she believes canonical vocations are esteemed while lay eremitical vocations are not. For that reason I checked the post and found the following passage which clarifies a bit more what she is actually saying. She continues:

[[It is the life and work of a slave to a servant. There is no need to rise up in ire, to take offense, to counter that there is worth and value and to try to make the world, even the Catholic world see and understand and validate the vocation. There is no reason to "fight" for status, canonical or non-canonical, either one. There is no need for a support team to encourage sticking with trying to be made "credible" in the eyes of anyone on earth. What is the point? This is not part of the vocation, for the vocation itself is hidden in God through dying into nothingness. The status is thus as a non-entity which is no status at all. And this is a positive.]]

I may have answered a similar question several years ago and what I wrote just a few days ago on the distinction between utility and value and the importance of maintaining that certainly reiterated my disagreement with the exaggerated conclusions arrived at in the cited post. First, canonical standing is not about status in the common sense of prestige or social privilege. As I have written many times here, it is about standing in law as well as in the consecrated state of life, both of which are linked to public rights and obligations the Church entrusts to the person; the person assumes these in the act of professing vows and accepting consecration in the hands of her Bishop. Since it is both a new and an ancient vocation which had effectively died out in the Western Church, it is appropriate that diocesan hermits make this vocation known --- not least so it can be understood and witness in ways which are important to the Church and world. In other words, it is an important way of living and the Church recognizes that by linking it to profession and consecration. Lay eremitical vocations are also of great value; their counter-cultural nature coupled with the fact that they witness generally to the call of all the Baptized to assiduous prayer and genuine holiness is striking.

Secondly, while I agree that perseverance and patience are both necessary, one must recognize that canonical standing IS part of the vocation of the solitary consecrated hermit and is not extraneous to it. When one enters the consecrated state of life that state of life is constituted by the rights and obligations one embraces and is entrusted with. Thus, as I have noted before, while one can never change the fact that one has been consecrated, while consecration per se can never be dispensed, one can leave the consecrated state of life. Unless one decides one is not truly called to this one petitions for admission to vows and participates in a mutual discernment process because one feels called by God to embrace an ecclesial vocation. It is true that if a diocese has never professed a diocesan hermit before, or if they have not had suitable candidates they will seek to be very sure the person petitioning has clear signs of maturity and sufficient experience of eremitical solitude to be professed. The process can be a long one and, again, requires perseverance but generally people (candidate and diocesan curia) work together in a way which is relatively transparent even as it tests the candidate and her patience, her sense of eremitical call whether or not canonical standing is in her future, her ability to deal with uncertainty in solitude, etc.

It is also true, however, that diocesan personnel can certainly receive a petition from someone they almost immediately and clearly feel is not suited to this life and does not have such a vocation. In such cases the diocese may seek to find a pastoral and sensitive way to share their conclusion; this too can take time and give the impression that they are not being completely transparent or are dragging their feet. Sometimes a diocese will say, "Continue living as you are living now" in order that the fruits of that way of living can become more evident in time. In such cases they are usually open to reconsidering a petition in several years. Sometimes they will say pretty immediately, "We believe you should be more involved in your parish," or, "this does not seem to us to be the best way of using your God-given gifts," or even, "eremitical solitude seems to be unhealthy for you!" I suppose one way of rationalizing such rejections is to tell oneself the diocese does not understand or value the eremitical vocation but generally my experience is that dioceses DO value this vocation and seek to profess those with clear vocations who are both healthy, genuinely happy, and show signs that eremitical solitude is the context in which they have most clearly matured spiritually and personally.

Thirdly, while the vocation is one of essential "hiddenness from the eyes of men"  neither Canon 603 nor the CCC speak of dying into nothingness. Of course there is a significant dimension of dying to self (meaning the false or ego self!) but one does NOT become a non-entity in the process; one embraces anew the incredibly significant status of daughter or son of God in Christ (and brother or sister to all others) just as one did in Baptism and therefore comes to represent a vocation which has significant value for men and women living in the 21 C! Not least hermits proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the life and meaning which he brings to even the least and most lonely of us. It is a rich life, a joy filled one of profound (and incredibly paradoxical) relatedness to all of creation which would be meaningful simply because God calls one to it! Even so, it is significant to others and MUST be credible to others (no matter how paradoxical or counter cultural such credibility is)  because it is a proclamation of the Gospel and the redemption connected with that. The God it witnesses to must be the God of Jesus Christ who redeems the most death-dealing or isolating circumstances human beings know.

I have known (usually -- though not only -- through their writing) several so-called hermits that were either no such thing or, at best, were pretty disedifying examples of the vocation. While all of us struggle at times to live our lives well and with integrity, and while none of us are likely paragons (Merton warns about believing hermits should be perfect examples of their vocation), there are those who justify isolation or an inability (or refusal!) to take part in normal society because of mental illness, spiritual and personal eccentricity (or outright weirdness!), misanthropy, judgmentalism, individualism, self-centeredness, etc, by applying the term "hermit." But in some of these cases the impression they give in adopting the term is that solitude is really nothing more than isolation, that the only real joy found in the eremitical life is that of suffering and struggle, that the spirituality appropriate to such a vocation is some sort of pseudo-mystical misery willed by a sadistic God who may reward such pain with occasional "consolations", and that attempts to find or worship God in the ordinary world of time and space is "unspiritual". As far as I can see there is nothing of the good news of Jesus Christ in any of this and nothing credible much less exemplary therefore in such lives.

I am sorry when persons are not admitted to profession as a diocesan hermit or even to an extended period of discern-ment with their diocese; I know the pain it occasions. But at the same time I am sorrier still when those with no true vocation call themselves hermits (much less Catholic Hermits) and give scandal by living a life which is far from healthy and thus, even farther from being Christian or genuinely eremitical. Because diocesan eremitical life is an ecclesial vocation this means it must witness to the Gospel of God in Christ in the name of the Church. Standing in law, credibility, even "approval" by the hierarchy of the Church and those who benefit from the witness given are a necessary part of this vocation and its accountability to God and God's Church --- essential hiddenness notwithstanding. After all, credibility is part of ANY Christian vocation; we live our lives in response to this call so that others "may believe in Him whom you have sent." (John 6:30) If our lives and vocations lack credibility in the profound sense of imaging God's redemption, especially in the midst of suffering, then they are not Christian; they are not of God.  It seems to me, that the pious language of "being nothing" aside, only one who fails to understand the true nature, value, and responsibility of such calls could suggest otherwise.

28 July 2014

Why Does Jesus teach in Parables? Some Notes on Matt's Introduction to Jesus' Parables

[[Dear Sister, [last week] we heard the disciples ask Jesus why he taught in parables and the answer was very difficult for me. He seemed to say that he spoke in parables because to some (disciples!) it had been given to hear but to others (non disciples!) it had not been given to hear. He then says that some have dull hearts lest they turn and Jesus would heal them. He finishes this off by saying to those who have even more will be given and to those who have not even that which they have will be taken away from them. Is this really the Gospel? Did Jesus really tell parables to PREVENT people from hearing the Good News and being saved? I don't think that is a Jesus I either do or can believe in.]]

The Paradoxical and Ironic nature of the Introduction: Neutrality is not Possible

When I read this introduction to Jesus' parables in Matthew I tend to wonder how many really destructive visions of Christianity have been nourished by a mishearing of it. I remember when I was an undergraduate and my major professor read this text to us looking for us to make sense of it. I was astounded by what I was hearing. (How could JESUS say such a terrible thing to the really poor?!) But I also had the sense that if I could hear it rightly I would understand something more about the Gospel as well as Jesus' parables themselves. The first thing we should recognize perhaps is that Jesus parables are really dangerous pieces of narrative. They are capable of overturning everything we see or hear or think we understand while they provide us with a counter-cultural reality which fulfills our every desire. If we really hear them nothing will be left unchanged. If we do not hear them rightly they might seem to justify some of the very worst elitism and other attitudes so prevalent today in both our world and in our Church! In other words, they can either open our hearts or cause a hardening of them. What they do not allow for I think is neutrality.

As you noted in your question, the introduction to the chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus why he teaches in parables and he responds, [[To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has more shall be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even that which he has shall be taken away. That is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. ]] Jesus then concludes with the prophecy from Isaiah and calls the disciples blessed for they have eyes to see, ears to hear, and have understood. How are we supposed to hear this? How do we usually hear it? Does anything change in the process of Jesus ' introduction? After all, remember that what a parable does by definition is throw down beside one another two perspectives on reality. The first will be familiar, the second will conflict with that and therefore it will disorient us; it will throw us off balance. We regain our balance only by choosing to stand with both feet in one perspective or the other. This introduction to the chapter of parables actually works the same way.

The Common Misreading of the Text:

I believe the way we usually hear this text represents the common, familiar perspective Jesus wants us to leave behind. Thus, we are apt to hear the passage cited above as punitive and as one which supports an us versus them or elect vs non-elect perspective. When Jesus says, [[This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.]] we are apt to hear him saying his own teaching in parables is a way of punishing those who simply couldn't get it and applauding those elect ones who did! It is a way of strengthening the line drawn between insiders and outsiders, making the division sharper and more binding. Because it is the disciples being played off against those who have seen but not really seen, heard but not really heard, etc, this reading becomes almost automatic. Often we strengthen this reading by treating "to you it has been given" versus "but to them it has not been given" as referring to a foregone Divine determination or even predestination: God has chosen the disciples but these others have not been chosen. Instead, I think Jesus is pointing out that some have come to a graced acceptance of a gift in contrast to others who have not YET done so.

I say this for a couple of reasons. First, the facile division of reality into the easily identifiable ""haves and have nots" is not really the way Jesus usually works. His message is never about strengthening the wall between the elect and the non-elect, the elite and the hoi-polio, the chosen people and the non-chosen. Instead it is about breaking it down, subverting it, turning it on its head. Secondly, it is never all that clear when dealing with Jesus' message who has "gotten it" and who has not. No, Jesus is more subtle, more sly and more "cunning" than this. When we remember how it is Jesus' parables work and how powerful and paradoxical they are we may begin to sense that perhaps the joke (though it will turn out to be a wonderful joke!) is on us.

First we need to recall that Jesus' parables create sacred spaces in which individuals can leave a lot of their personal baggage, preconceptions, and biases behind, enter the story, meet God face to face so to speak, and make a choice for faith or unfaith; they can choose the vision of reality appropriate to the status quo ("the world") or they can reject this and choose the vision appropriate to the Kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus tells parables not to keep people locked out of the Kingdom but to welcome them INTO it! He proclaims his message in parables BECAUSE the supposed clarity of plain speech we all prefer (e.g., a kind of theological or doctrinal explanation) simply does not have the power of story. Jesus speaks in parables precisely because folks have not really seen, not really heard or understood, and because it is his vocation, his calling or "job", his mission to heal them of this and empower them to truly see, hear, and understand. In other words, Jesus teaches in parables not to punish or exclude, but as a way of healing and including!

Secondly we need to remember that Jesus' parables disorient and off-foot us when the perspective of the Kingdom is thrown down beside that of our everyday world. We have assumed in hearing Jesus' explanation of his method of teaching that we are the insiders, the disciples, and that only those "others" haven't really "gotten it"; but what if we are wrong in precisely this belief?? What if in some ways Jesus is ironically baiting a trap (a trap designed ultimately to transform, heal, and save us) and we fall right into it as we enter his story??!! There is paradox here and when we begin to see that, then perhaps we have truly begun to see, hear and understand rightly! What we must realize is that in in speaking as he does Jesus has drawn us in in a way which will allow us to be convicted and converted as well! No one listening to a parable can remain a disinterested listener or observer and assume Jesus is merely telling the story to (or about!) "others;" the same is true of Jesus' explanation on why he teaches this way. If we thought we were the insiders we may learn that we have only barely entered the Kingdom --- or that we have not really done so at all! What seems straightforward turns out to disorient, open us to question ourselves, and  empowers us to embrace a new way of seeing, hearing, and understanding.

. . .Lest they See, hear, or understand and I would heal them

Other pieces of this introduction are as easily misunderstood because of our tendency to easily adopt an us versus them perspective (with ourselves as the chosen, the disciples, and others as the outsiders of course!). One of these is reading verse 15 as though it says "I teach them in parables lest they see, hear and understand (so that) I will heal them." But the text does not say this! It says instead, ". . their hearts have grown dull. . . LEST THEY see, hear, and understand and I would heal them." In other words they have made a choice for a closed, dull heart rather than an open and responsive one; their hearts, for whatever reasons, are dulled or hardened LEST they see and hear and understand. This situation prevents them from seeing, hearing, or understanding rightly. Even so, Jesus' teaching in parables has the power to soften the hearts of those who would otherwise reject him. Still, this introduction regarding why Jesus teaches in parables focuses on the power of parable and Jesus' compassion in teaching as he does.

To Those Who have, even more shall be given; to those who have not, even what they have shall be taken from them:

This saying of course ordinarily strikes us as completely unfair. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. This is the way of the world and it is certainly disappointing, even disillusioning, to hear Jesus speaking this way! But how is it heard by those who see, hear, and understand rightly? How is it heard by the Blessed (Happy) who have entered the Kingdom of heaven and share its perspective on reality? Well, in a general sense probably something like this: [[ Those who have opened their hearts and minds to a different way of seeing and understanding will come to see and understand even more; those who have closed their hearts and minds to the eternal Kingdom of God will lose even the little they actually have.]]

But remember too that Jesus is speaking now to the disciples who have heard and seen and understood to SOME degree, but not completely. They have come to participate in the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates to SOME extent, but not completely. This introduction to the way he teaches and all of his parables are addressed to THEM as much as to anyone else because he teaches everyone in parables. It asks his disciples to let go of an us vs them attitude they all-too-readily adopt --- which is the reason of course, they fall into Jesus' little trap! Thus Jesus' comment should probably also be heard as, saying, "I teach in parables because they have not seen, heard or understood, but let's be clear --- I teach you in parables too! What do you suppose THAT means?" (Matthew reiterates the conclusion when he has Jesus EXPLAIN the parable of the sower to his disciples in the next pericope: the disciples are as much outsiders as insiders!) Further, we should probably hear Jesus saying,  "If you continue to hearken to my Word, continue to see rightly and understand, if you continue to relinquish the perspectives of the world which is so profoundly part of who you are, then you will come to participate in the Kingdom of heaven even more abundantly. If you do not, then even the little you have will be taken from you."

Jesus Teaches Everyone in Parables!

To reiterate, it is not so much that Jesus teaches some in parables while others he speaks to more plainly (though I agree there is some truth to the idea that Jesus' parables were coded speech which protected both him and his disciples from the powers seeking to destroy him. The greater (and ironic) truth however is that Jesus characteristically taught EVERYONE in parables and that those whose hearts and minds are open in the ways of the Kingdom are not puzzled by Jesus' parables. Happy indeed those who are NOT confounded by Jesus' parables! Thus, when someone says to one of us who live a form of discipleship, "The Kingdom is like a pearl of great price" we are not baffled at all. We know EXACTLY what this means; we understand what it means to go and sell all, buy the field and claim the pearl as our own. We know what it means to stumble onto something that will change our entire lives and to do so as we walk through the ordinary settings of our lives. But for those who have never experienced the grace of God in this way, or what it means to find the one thing we have yearned for our entire lives and to let go of everything else so we may claim that one thing, this parable makes little sense. For outsiders Jesus' parables are riddles --- an original sense of the term "mashal" from which parable also gets its name; but for those who are already "hearers of the Word" they are plain and incredibly powerful speech!

A Summary of the Questions Raised in Matt's Introduction

I suppose the question then is how do we hear these parables and the fact that Jesus regularly teaches in them? Do they confirm us in an "us versus them" world of elect and non-elect or do they confirm that Jesus speaks to all of us in the same powerful way so that we may ALL be able to see, hear, and understand the ways of the Kingdom of God? Do we see Jesus as attempting to screen out the unworthy, those "predestined" to fulfill some terrible prophecy, or do we see him as the one who seeks to include ALL of the marginalized (that is ALL of us) and to fulfill the will of God by changing the situation the prophet saw commonly occurring in front of him? Do we see others as the marginalized and non-elect, or do we recognize that but for the grace and power of Jesus' stories we too would be among those who grasp at the ultimately worthless and will lose even the little we have? Are we among those for whom Jesus' parables are a kind of confusing trap or are we among those who find that even in catching us unaware they provide us an expansive sacred space where we may be truly free?

The introduction to Matthew's chapter on Jesus' parables allows us to entertain all of these questions before we move on to hear the parables themselves. It readies us for the same kind of decision that the parables themselves allow for; this means we encounter the parables as those who are more and less already part of the Kingdom or as those who stand outside it --- but it also helps us to know that if (and to whatever extent) these language events of Jesus' confound us, if (and to whatever extent) they are riddles to us rather than plain speaking, then we stand outside the Kingdom of heaven. Not least this introduction seems to me to remind us that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is not so clear as we commonly think it to be; after all if we see others as outsiders it may be because that is where we stand ourselves! In other words, the whole insider/outsider way of thinking may be one we are being asked to reconsider! It is the perspective Jesus may be trying to get us to relinquish.

Pretty humbling stuff, isn't it? This too reminds us of the ways Jesus' parables themselves serve to disorient and reorient! To walk away from his stories feeling a little confused about who is who and who stands where seems to me to be a salutary thing! It means our hearts have been softened, our minds have been opened, and we are more ready than we were before to accept the Kingdom of Jesus. It is entirely appropriate to find Matt's introduction to this unique and powerful form of literature doing something similar.