30 October 2014

Questions about Spiritual Direction

[[Dear Sister, you do spiritual direction, don't you? When someone speaks of spiritual accompaniment does this mean the relationship is mutual? What I am asking is if I seek a director to accompany me, does she expect me to accompany her on her spiritual journey? If a person advertises through the parish that they offer spiritual direction as a form of "spiritual friendship" does this mean the relationship is one of peers or is it one of superior to inferior? That's not stated very well I guess but I think you understand what I mean. I would like to be friends with my director. I would like us to accompany one another. I would like to meet for lunch somewhere and talk about spiritual matters like equals. Why shouldn't I want this? Two other questions. My experiences in the spiritual life are kind of unusual. How do I find a director who has also had such experiences? Also, if a director charges for her accompaniment what do I do if I think that is inappropriate?]]

Yes, I do spiritual direction and the word accompaniment is one I use a lot to describe something of the relationship. What it means is that the director accompanies the directee in aspects of her spiritual journey with God. A person comes seeking direction of someone experienced in and a regular practitioner of prayer so that she (the director) may assist the directee in discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit in her life. The relationship is ordinarily a long-term one, is not oriented to problem-solving --- though it will also do this from time to time --- and does not work according to the transference/counter-transference dynamic which drives therapy or counselling relationships. In fact, it eschews letting such a dynamic drive the relationship or the growth which occurs there. For this reason among others it is a relationship which is often misunderstood in a culture so familiar with therapeutic relationships.

On Friendships and Soul Friends:

While a Spiritual director may indeed develop a friendship with a directee, especially over time, the term "friend" as in "soul friend" or Anam cara, for instance does not refer to friendship in the ordinary sense. The director is a friend to the relationship between the directee and God, a friend to the directee's heart where this relationship is centered and is the truest part of the directee. She serves to guide the person's journey into this realm of the heart and stands in silence watching and listening as the journey takes place. Ordinarily, therefore, the director tries to convey a reverence for the person's journey and heart, that sacred place where God bears witness to Godself; this implies she maintain some distance, especially in the early stages of the relationship. Friendship in the common sense is not the aim of spiritual direction and it can actually throw the focus of the work (namely, the relationship between the directee and God) off course if it becomes the aim or even an aim of the relationship.

Personally, I have dealt with a number of persons who expect to become close friends, and especially in the beginning of the relationship, wonder why I am not sharing my own story, my own prayer experiences, my own concerns, etc. At this point they really have no sense how profound the sharing of SD actually is, nor how deeply they will be asked to go into their own hearts so that the focus can truly be their relationship with God. In time they usually come to understand that my refusal to change the dynamics of meetings serves to facilitate their own focus on this relationship, and more exclusively on their own growth in prayer and human wholeness and holiness. When the person refuses to accept that the SD relationship is not one of friendship in the common sense it usually means we will not be able to continue working together. People come to a SD for many reasons, some to discuss books and ideas or to talk "about God" in a general sense, some in search of a friend; that is not, however, what spiritual direction is really about and a good director will not allow the relationship to be redrawn in this way.

The Intimacy of Direction:

There is a profound intimacy involved in spiritual direction, and a degree and form of love which is very special, but it may well preclude friendship in the ordinary sense except in certain circumstances. For instance, I have a couple of directees I have worked with for a number of years. They no longer live near here and we meet by skype these days except at regular periods when they come to the Bay Area so we can meet face to face. This means that we will go to lunch first and talk about what's happening first. Then we return to the hermitage and meet for spiritual direction per se. Yet, the period of meeting for direction is not a period of equal sharing. I am there to listen, to suggest ways of moving forward, or to offer some resources for prayer based on what I hear. Regarding mutual accompaniment: when two (or more) people are both mature in the spiritual life and have worked for some time with directors on their own, as well as done some direction, mutual accompaniment can be something which is helpful.

The skills required are those one learns in accompanying and being accompanied over a period of years. Otherwise, however, the directee must remember (as I would remind you to remember) that the director is already working with a SD and often a supervisor as well. She already has someone accompanying her as Anam cara and is not looking for a directee to come in and take his/her place! If you, for instance, are looking for friends with which you can discuss spirituality or theology, then there are other ways of seeking such persons out. It is more than a little presumptuous to contact a spiritual director for SD while expecting her to entrust her heart to you in the very same way. While I understand your difficulty with terms here (it is hard to characterize the inequality along with the equality of the relationship), the direction relationship is one between persons relating to one another in two different roles. The director and directee are equals in Christ and the director serves Christ and the directee with her time, her commitment, and her expertise. At the same time, she sets her own story, desires, and needs (including the desire or need for friendship in the usual sense) aside for the benefit of the directee and her relationship with Christ.

On Unusual Experiences and Spiritual Direction:

The idea that a director needs to have had the very same experiences you have had, especially when these are unusual, in order to direct you is a common misconception. It is true that the director must be experienced in prayer, she must pray regularly, be under spiritual direction herself, and be open to meeting with a supervisor should something in her work with directees trouble her or trigger something in her. She should be experienced in a wide variety of forms of prayer including contemplative prayer, lectio divina, Divine Office, etc. She should be skilled in human psychology and be able to gauge or discern whether something is of God or not, as well as skilled in finding ways to facilitate the movement of the Holy Spirit in situations which are, for the most part, not of God. At the same time she must be patient and grounded in the sense that God as Love-in Act is present and takes time to reveal itself as a tiny mustard seed is present despite its near invisibility and takes time to grow.

She must trust in the God who is present in the ordinary events of daily life, and be able to hear and respond to that presence; only then will she be able to assist a directee to do the same. Above all, she must be a person of hope who trusts in the grace of God whose power/love is made perfect in human weakness. She does NOT need to have had visions or other extraordinary experiences, nor does she need to have experienced serious or chronic illness to listen with both compassion and empathy to the way these condition a person's spiritual life. While she should be open to the surprising ways God manifests Godself, she will be sensitive to the fruits of God's presence and activity and she will discern the nature of a directee's experiences on the basis of the fruit associated with them. Always she will seek to enhance the good fruit of prayer and find ways to allow the inauthentic to drop away or be less compelling. Ordinarily the latter will happen as the former is facilitated.

On Payment for Direction:

If you have a problem with a director being paid on a fee-for-service basis I would suggest you speak to the director and see why it is she accepts fees. You need to understand that SD is a ministry and that even when it is carried on by religious it is often the primary ways the individual earns a living. Some religious communities will subsidize Sisters who do SD but this is less prevalent today than it once was. It is wonderful when a person can accept clients and work with them gratis but it is simply not possible for many spiritual directors today. Even so, most work on a sliding scale and accept at least some clients who cannot pay. Some of us accept some form of barter, for instance. So long as the fees are reasonable, the scales can be worked out between director and directee and revised when needs arise, and the directee is assured of the director's care, competence, and experience, then the Scripture that should be kept in mind is probably, "The laborer is worthy of (her) hire."

29 October 2014

Go Giants!!

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I just wondered if you are a baseball fan and if so, are you rooting for the Giants! Do you pray for them?]]

Well,  this is a new question! Unfortunately, I am not much of a baseball fan, though I like the game. But like most folks in the SF Bay Area I do root for home teams during important series. Given that tonight is the last (and seventh!) game of the World Series I am indeed rooting for the Giants (and may even watch the game), but, to be embarrassingly honest, I was not even sure when the World Series began. Had it not been for a friend in orchestra (who IS a big fan) and the fact that the Safeway sales clerks were wearing Giants' shirts this past week and more, I might still be ignorant of this.  Do I pray for the Giants? Well, no, not really and certainly not that they might win games or series. No. On the other hand, GO GIANTS!!

27 October 2014

On Natural and Unnatural Deserts

[[Dear Sister Laurel, in your own life when you refer to "the desert" you are not referring to a geographical place then are you? I understand that Thomas Merton wrote about the unnatural solitudes of the slums. You have referred to that here several times. Did Thomas Merton also mean the desert of chronic illness? Is this a valid extrapolation from the Desert Fathers' and Mothers' flight to the physical or geographical desert? Shouldn't hermits be living in physical wildernesses like these hermits or like John the Baptist, Elijah, and others?]]

No, you are correct that I am not ordinarily referring to a geographical place when I speak of deserts though I must say that the geographical places we call deserts are wonderful symbols or paradigms of the internal realities associated with desert spirituality. Further, while I don't think Thomas Merton was referring to the desert of chronic illness with his comment about city slums, neither do I think he was necessarily excluding it. I am not sure he considered it directly. Merton's concern was the isolation brought about by poverty and the harsh landscape poverty created in terms of human potential, the need for distraction, and the yearning for meaning and a sense that one's life was of some real worth or value. He was concerned with contemporary environments which lead to boredom and futility (as well as enhancing our fear of these) and he was concerned with situating the hermit's life and witness in a central place where the terrors of desert existence defined in terms of these specific contemporary realities could be effectively dealt with. Chronic illness is one of those "desert experiences" which calls out in all of the ways any desert experience does. I don't recall Merton addressing this directly but I have no doubt he would have included it in his reference to the unnatural solitudes associated with urban slums and other settings as well had he considered it at all.

Your question about a valid extrapolation asks if it is alright to understand desert in this non-geographical way. This objection is one that some hermits today make regarding those of us who live in urban areas and not in a physical wilderness. There is some validity to their objection because the physical silence and external solitude of the physical desert is so very different from the relative solitude of an urban hermitage. When one visits the desert both the physical silence and external solitude are palpable realities. There is a depth to them which one can almost touch and taste and smell. They press on one's skin and call to one's heart seeking a response, an answering embrace of sorts. They constitute a living presence which is undisputed and awesome in and of itself. Further, these interlocking pieces of desert wilderness form a reality which only seems to deepen in the face of the odd noise, movement, or other distraction --- a characteristic which makes it not only awesome but terrifying to us. I can completely understand the objection of hermits who contend the unnatural solitudes of an urban area are discontinuous with the awesome natural solitudes of the desert. Still, I cannot completely agree with them, especially when they begin to argue urban hermits are not real hermits, or the unnatural solitudes of urban life and chronic illness, for instance are not real solitudes.

Because I have written about the nature of wilderness in the Scriptures I am going to refer you to one of those posts Hermits are desert Dwellers with the request that you check it and others under the label "desert spirituality".  In these posts I have pointed out that the real importance of the desert is as a place of meeting between a person whose poverty is writ large and the God whose merciful love transforms that poverty into the richness of adopted Sonship and Daughterhood. It is the place where one does battle with the demons of one's own heart and the world as well, the place where one consolidates the truth of one's identity in and for Love-in-Act --- or loses it entirely, whether in death or the various absurdities and insanities associated with human isolation.  If this understanding of wilderness or desert is the heart of the Scriptural understanding, and I have no doubt that it is, then geographical setting, while not unimportant, is not critical to our definition of "desert dweller". More important by far is the potential for meeting God created by an intense and profound experience of human poverty and impotence.

So, my answer to your last question is no, not necessarily. While physical solitude can help get us in touch with a sense of our smallness and need for God there are other situations and contexts which are every bit as huge and intransigent, every bit as humbling and existentially challenging, every bit as much authentic "deserts" as those the desert Fathers and Mothers fled to in order to really live an authentic  and edifying Christian life. In every case the stories of hermits' lives remind us that an external situation can allow and call for a response to the God who brings life out of death and meaning out of absurdity, but of itself it does not make one a hermit. Sometimes human poverty remains merely that. Sometimes the proffered grace of God remains unaccepted, unembraced, and rendered powerless to transform or make fruitful. Sometimes the desert crushes the would-be hermit and instead of an eremite we get a personally desiccated casualty of human weakness and the desert's inexorable power. Again, it is the heart of the notion of the eremite that they be desert flowers blooming in the midst of life's harshest realities through the grace of God. Wherever this happens we have authentic hermits and authentic desert spirituality.

I hope this is helpful.

24 October 2014

On Making the Transition from Lone Person to Hermit and then Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister, I have the impression that you did not choose the circumstances that eventually led you to become a hermit. I also get the impression that you stress that those circumstances weren't enough to make you a hermit or to discern a call to eremitical life. What was it that made the difference for you personally? Did your circumstances change? How did you make the transition from being a lone person to being a hermit "in some essential sense," as you put it, and then, a diocesan (Catholic) hermit who embraced not only an individual vocation but a place in fostering the eremitical vocation in the Church? Is this typical of diocesan hermits?]]

Wow, I am impressed! You have managed to summarize so much important stuff in a few sentences, some of it stuff I have not really written about directly here. Your impressions are spot on too. Add to that your questions are good ones and I have to give you kudos across the board! Thanks! But that being said, the question about making the transition from being a lone person to becoming a hermit in some essential sense is not an easy one to answer. That is true because it is not about any one thing that was helpful, but about a number of things which all came together to confirm a call to eremitical solitude. Anyway, great questions. Let me give them a shot!

No, I did not choose the circumstances which eventually led me to become a hermit. As an adult (and while still a Franciscan) I developed or manifested an adult form of  mixed seizure disorder (Epilepsy) which later proved to be both medically and surgically intractable. Coupled with that, probably because of injuries that occurred during seizures, I developed chronic pain, eventually diagnosed as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy or (the preferred term these days) Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Both conditions isolated me from others (including from Mass attendance, or contributions to parish and diocesan life), prevented me from pursuing the career I had been educated and trained for (mainly teaching systematic theology but some clinical pastoral work as well), and caused me some serious and extended questioning about the meaning and value of my life more generally. Today the seizure disorder is better controlled for several separate but mutually contributory reasons (including physical solitude and silence!) while the chronic pain remains a daily reality which requires medications and adjunct therapy "to keep the fire down." While this was enough to isolate me from others, including from the local faith community and most friends, you are correct that it was no where near enough to conclude, 1) I was actually called to become a hermit, nor (much less!) 2) that I was actually a hermit in some essential sense! A transition was required!

Making the Transition from Lone Person to Eremite:

The first real shift occurred in my prayer. Over time I began to develop a more contemplative prayer life and I began to trust that more and more. By the early 80's besides my own doctors who continued to try to control both the seizures and the pain, I was working regularly with a spiritual director and was developing the tools I needed to work through the various bits of healing required by having my life sidetracked by illness and injury. At the same time she helped me begin to trust the various ways God was working in my life and I began to imagine this thing called eremitical life as a result of reading canon 603, which had been published in October of 1983, and then Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action and LeClerq's Alone With the Alone. Merton's work especially fired my imagination here. More and more my work with my director had to do with essential wholeness in the face of disability and my work with doctors became less about control of seizures and more about dealing with disability. While I continued medications, etc, for the medical stuff, the work I was doing with my director became far more important in freeing me to embrace life and become open to seeing the good God would bring out of the situation.

I had begun to experiment with living as a hermit in a conscious way and it began to be the focus of reading, research, discern-ment, etc. Early on in this process I began to write for publication (mainly Review for Religious) so it became clear that as a context for my life eremitism of some sort was truly fruitful in these terms and would lead me to contribute to the life of others and to that of the Church more generally.

Within this context then several things happened. Among them, I embraced a contemplative prayer life marked out by monastic regularity and liturgy, I undertook the lifelong work of regular spiritual direction in a focused way which led to my own increasing and essential wellness in spite of disability, I began to understand the importance of a vocation to be ill within the Church as potentially a way of proclaiming the Gospel of God (whose power is made perfect in weakness!) with a special vividness. This meant that I had begun to see my life and prayer as an important opportunity to make God manifest to others where in the past I would not have seen disability as anything other than an obstacle to a life of such significance.  In time I began to consider and write about Chronic illness as vocation and, for some relative few, as a potential call to eremitical life. Additionally then, I began to understand the main focus of my prayer as being there for God's own sake; solitude took on a distinctly communal hue, the silence of solitude assumed a more Eastern and Desert Elders cast of quies or hesychasm, while ministry to others seemed the natural expression of the compassion empowered by the silence of solitude. Thus, over time I also came to understand the terms of canon 603 radically differently than I had in 1983. All of this growth and integration was spurred by reflection on the eremitical life outlined in Canon 603 and expanded on in other texts.

Throughout these years (@1983-1995+) then, my life shifted from being mainly about myself and my own disability along with the lost opportunities or potential associated with disability and grew in this new perspective. The focus on the illness, and all it brought in its wake had been necessary for a time but now it needed to become more of a subtext in my life -- even as it continued to bring a degree of pathos and gravitas to my life. That is the shift that occurred during this period.) It became very clear that whether I eventually lived my life as a lay hermit or continued pursuing perpetual profession as a diocesan hermit,  eremitism was truly the vocational path which made my own life fruitful and other-centered. Thus, I continued to reflect on and research canon 603; I did so within a Camaldolese context now because I understood the threefold good of the Camaldolese (community, solitude, outreach or evangelization) to be a dynamic expression of the very best that eremitical life could be, not only for hermits but for the whole Church and world-at-large as well.

In other words, eremitical life began to be not only the context of a life of essential wholeness and communion with God which embraced disability and transformed it into an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel with my life, but it was the vocational pathway which made essential wholeness as well as real generosity and concern for others possible. It drove my reading and my theology to some extent (though my theology, which centered on the cross in Paul and Mark, supported this vocational pathway at every point), and it challenged me physically and spiritually to become both more truly solitary (in an eremitical sense) and contemplative as well as more open to community. In short, it engaged me on every level in a constructive way; it made me more compassionate and capable of love, more genuinely dependent on the grace of God for the meaning and shape of my life, and, while it did not bring physical healing, it deprived illness of the power to define, fragment, and dominate my life and over time would even make a gift of disability and limitations. It is what allowed me to eventually write here:

[[In the power of the Spirit and from the perspective of the Kingdom --- it is all of a piece:  Mountaintop experiences and years in the desert; a power made perfect in weakness; a  bit of human brokenness and poverty made a gift to others by the whole-making grace of God; mute isolation  transfigured into the rich communion and communicative silence of solitude; a life redeemed and enriched by love. It is all of a piece ---  epilepsy and ecstasy. I am grateful to have learned that. In fact, I am grateful to have needed and been called to learn that!]] Ecstasy and Epilepsy: It is all of a Piece

When I look back at the main stages this journey required it involved (in a pretty simplified form) movement from 1) being a lone or isolated person who merely imagined what being a hermit might mean to 2) being a hermit as the Church herself understands the term, and finally to 3) being a hermit who lives the life in the name of the Church. Each stage was either preceded or accompanied by significant and entirely necessary theological preparation and spiritual formation. This process has taken 31 years so far and exploring the last stage, both in terms of communion with God and the ecclesial implications of the vocation as I continue to grow personally, will no doubt occupy the rest of my life. I am grateful to God for what (he) has done; God is indeed a master story teller who, from the perspective of absolute futurity, weaves amazingly coherent tapestries with the most inadequate and broken threads!

Transition to Diocesan Eremitical Life:

The last question you ask has to do with the last piece of transition, namely embracing canon 603 life in a way which allowed me to be concerned not only with my own vocation, but with the eremitical tradition itself and diocesan eremitical life as a piece of that living reality. I pursued canon 603 profession beginning in 1985 or so and continued doing so right through perpetual profession in 2007; this is a complicated story and there is no reason to detail it here or now. What is important is that until admission to perpetual profession in 2007 and the years immediately after that, I did not have a strong sense that I was part of a living eremitical tradition, much less that I would have some (small but very real) place in handing on or nurturing that tradition.

But with perpetual profession one comes to know that one has been gifted with rights and obligations beyond baptism and this sense developed especially as people asked questions about the difference between private and public vows or between personal dedication to God and public consecration by God. The difference between validating one's isolation and allowing God to redeem it so that it is transfigured into eremitical solitude was another huge piece of my developing sense of the gift and obligation held in my own eremitical life. It also developed for me as I became more sure I not only understood canon 603 but embodied it in my own way.

Something similar happened with regard to the Camaldolese charism as I moved from understanding it intellectually to having the sense I was a living expression of it and the dynamic within the threefold good which is so characteristic of it. (My life in my parish during the past 8 years contributed greatly to this bit of internalization and integration; in fact it would be hard to overstate its importance here.) A final piece of all this, and one which is not yet solidified within me has to do with my own Franciscanism and where that actually fits. You see, St Francis lived as a hermit for a time and wrote a Rule for hermits which is pretty different from the monastic approaches to eremitical life. I have the sense that my own Franciscanism is stronger than I realized and I am freer to explore that now that I have not only understood but internalized the Camaldolese charism in a foundational way.

I don't know how this Franciscan piece of things will actually shake out but it is part of my own history and life which I am currently examining more closely; in one way or another it will be another piece of becoming responsible for the living tradition we call eremitical life in the Church. It seems to me this concern with the vitality of the tradition itself is really a normal culmination of the movement in my adult life. I moved from an active and largely other-centered life of ministry and preparation for ministry, to a life isolated by chronic illness and concerned with making sense of itself; from there my life shifted again to a solitary and contemplative one which, through the context of eremitical life, was empowered to be lived for God and others in the silence of solitude. Next my life shifted to one which consciously embraced and reflected the place of the Camaldolese charism in achieving this movement, and finally, it involved canonically and publicly embracing eremitical life more generally as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the entire Church and world. Many things mediated the grace of God and brought me to embrace eremitical life; it is this vital if rare and fragile tradition which has made a gift of my life. I am responsible for it both morally and legitimately (in law) --- a responsibility I accept with real joy and not a little awe.

Is this Typical of Diocesan Hermits?

To be honest I don't know if there is a "typical story" for diocesan hermits. I do know that a number of us contend with disability and chronic illness of various types and severity. I also know that none of those with whom I am acquainted believe it is enough to be chronically ill or disabled and isolated in the way this can bring about to conclude one has a vocation to eremitical life! Still, over time each of us discerned that eremitical life created the potential for significantly meaningful and fruitful lives when our illnesses militated against that. We each recognize that eremitical life allows us to live an authentic religious life which is not self-centered even while it requires signifcant physical solitude. Moreover my sense is that each of us has come to an essential wholeness and even holiness in which illness is deprived of its capacity to define and dominate our lives despite the symptoms that trouble us every single day. (This is one of the reasons I personally have very little tolerance for self-labeled "Catholic hermits" for whom eremitical life is little more than an opportunity to justify and wax endlessly about their own "God-willed" isolation and unrelenting physical problems.) Here as in everything in Christian life the truth is, "By their fruits ye shall know them!" --- that reflection of what God has done in one's life in the desert is, perhaps, the only really typical (and compelling!) piece of any genuine hermit's story!

I hope these answers are helpful. It is unlikely I will write about some parts of this again very soon. Still, if I have been unclear or raised additional questions, I hope you will get back to me with those.

23 October 2014

Paul to the Ephesians: Remember Who you Really Are!

In tomorrow's first reading from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, one of the "prison letters," Paul refers first to himself as a prisoner for Christ. He does this so that, paradoxically we can understand that Paul and we ourselves -- who share the same call as Paul -- enjoy a much deeper, more profound freedom in Christ, namely the freedom Baptism in Christ empowers; it is the power to be the persons we are called to be, the freedom to be the persons God himself needs us to be so that he might be all in all.

In each of our lives there are significant constraints and limits of all sorts. Illness, age and physical limitations. material limits and constraints with regard to temperament and character, as well as the limitations and obligations imposed by the relationships which mark us as friends, parents, teachers, mentors, directors, superiors, pastors, and most importantly, as sisters and brothers in Christ.  These all remind us, on the one hand, that, like Paul, we do not have the liberty to simply do whatever we want. And yet, also like Paul, we share in a deeper freedom. a deeper hope, a call to a more profound identity in the power of the Gospel.

God has won the initial victory over death, but death is still real, still influential, still capable of making us insecure and anxious. We still carry it in our own bodies, we build it into our institutions and relationships, we choose it in its many forms and moods whenever we fail to remember and live up to the deep identity and call of God which is our truest nature. So Paul asks us to get in touch with that deeper freedom, that deeper identity and call to unity which is the basis of all our hope.

When we do that we act not out of insecurity or anxiety, much less out of fear, but instead with patience, gentleness, peace, and humility --- that loving honesty about ourselves and others which true freedom makes possible. And to get us in touch with that deeper freedom he reminds us of who we are, namely, we are those who share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism; we are a new creation, enlivened through faith by the grace of a prodigally merciful God who in Christ is victorious over the godlessness which divides us. It is this shared identity in Christ which transcends our differences and makes us brothers and sisters in Christ.

What Paul asks the Ephesian Church to do is to remember who they really are and to act as their Lord did and does yet act among us. Last week in Prayer Lessons Learned on a Bike Path  I spoke of maintaining a human perspective, taking the long view with Christ as our focus instead of the law he fulfills; it was, I suggested, the heart of a truly spiritual life. In tomorrow's first lection Paul gives essentially the same advice: remember who you really are and act accordingly; keep your eye on the fact that you are a new creation with one Lord, one faith, and one baptism; act not out of anxious concern for the imprisoning limits and constraints which mark your life, not out of a defensiveness driven by the reality of death, but in authentic freedom grounded in God's own eternal life and (his) victory over death. This is God's greatest gift to us. Paul asks that we honor it in all we do and are to one another.

Meanwhile, in tomorrow's Gospel lection Luke reminds us that the choice before us, the choice between life and death, between inauthentic and authentic existence, the choice for Christ is an urgent one. Luke's reading underscores the fact that opportunity can become judgment; a summons to embrace the Kingdom or reign of God can be rejected and lead to disaster. In both Paul and Luke the decision placed before us is to further embrace the persons we are in Christ. In that way God's will to be all in all will one day be realized in our world and we truly serve God and one another with our lives.

21 October 2014

Mutual Discernment and "Niggling Questions"

[[ Dear Sister, I appreciate your answer to my question about a Bishop desiring a person to seek profession even if they felt it was wrong for them. At the end you said something interesting about if your profession had been based in the Archbishop's desire or yours it actually would have raised questions for you but that questions were quieted or resolved at profession. You offered to say more about this and I would really like to ask you to do that. What questions would have been raised for you? What ones "melted away" with profession and consecration?]]

I am glad you asked the question; I hope the answer was helpful and that you looked under the labels mentioned to find the earlier post. For those who have not read the recent post, the passage you are referring to read:  Finally I don't think he did something he did not desire to do in this, but at the same time, I don't usually think in terms of what Archbishop Vigneron desired or did not desire. This is important because if my eremitical life is a matter of discernment then many niggling questions and problems melt away with profession and consecration. If it had merely been something my Bishop (and I!) desired, then it actually raises questions, creates difficulties, and certainly it would heighten the niggling questions that would have remained on the day of profession. Let me know if you want me to say more about this.

The questions that were based in desire rather than genuine discernment would include questions about whether or not I was really called to this, whether I was fooling myself and allowing ego to get in the way of the will of God (such an easy thing to do!), whether my gifts for things like theology, music, writing, teaching, etc were really going to be wasted here and wouldn't that be like burying my talents, whether my tendency to sometimes withdraw for negative reasons rather than for the challenge of prayer and God's summons to wholeness and holiness was the defining motive in all of this. It included questions like whether or not I could persevere in this life, whether the difficulties that would naturally occur were signs I had missed my vocation, whether one day I would need to ask to be dispensed as I sought my true vocation (that is, what God had really willed for me!), etc. For all of these questions and more to drop away one has to be certain that the Church and they themselves carried out a sound discernment process; one has to know that as far as everyone involved can tell (conclusions based in thought, prayer, conversations, recommendations, evaluations, etc), God is truly calling one to this. Personal preferences will not be sufficient in such a situation.

Further, my Bishop said during his homily that I would be exploring what it meant to be a hermit in the 21C. Exploration requires one break away from stereotypes and templates and be oneself in a given situation. Among other things it requires integrity and courage and a strong sense of confidence that you and God are in this together --- not something that is particularly likely if you have the sense you are in this vocation  not because of discernment but because of mere desire. When that desire is someone else's and your own heart is really not in this calling (or is actually "sickened" by it) chances are almost 100% that you will fail in this commission. In any case it is hard to believe the witness one gives to others in such circumstances will be suffused with a joy no one can miss or mistake! Today when I am asked or have the desire, for instance, to do some active ministry or consider taking on another spiritual direction client (something I presently do, but that I consider with care to be sure that I can accompany the person in the long term), to go back to school for another degree or some certification or updating that would be helpful in some way, take a teaching job, or even something which otherwise would be relatively trivial like choosing to just watch a little TV some evenings and wake a little later in the morning, it is important that I know why I am doing what I am doing and that at bottom this life of the silence of solitude is God's will not only for me but as a gift to the Church and world!


There is simply no way I could continue in this vocation if I was not certain in my heart of hearts that this was my call. It would be selfish and irresponsible to do so. This kind of relative certainty required the Church not only to say she believed this to be the case, but also to mediate this call to me in a public liturgical and juridical act. After all, there are many ways to pray, many ways to serve God and God's People, and we each have many talents and resources which would allow us to do that in numerous ways.  It is not merely that there may be easier ways but much more importantly, that God, in fact, might well will it for the sake of the Kingdom! In all of this personal desire or attraction are important but they are insufficient and require one engage in serious discernment with others who are also discerning the case.

While there is no way to be absolutely certain one has gotten this vocation stuff exactly right, one really has to listen to God and look carefully for the wisdom and fruitfulness of one's discernment (and one's life!) in all ways possible. In ecclesial vocations that means listening to the mutual discernment of Vicars, Bishops, Vocation directors and other superiors in one's life, as well as spiritual directors, psychologists, physicians, et. al., when these latter persons' input seems particularly pertinent. Otherwise one will be plagued by a sense that, with every difficulty or competing desire, one has substituted one's own ego for the will of God.

20 October 2014

What is LOH?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, in your next to last post you referred to LOH along with liturgy of the Word with Communion. What is LOH? Do only hermits do it?]]

Oops, my bad! I should have written it out! LOH is an abbreviation for Liturgy of the Hours. This is also called Divine Office, Office, the Hours,  and the Work of God in the Benedictine tradition. The Office is a series of 7 "hours" (referring to the hours of the day the prayer is done, not to the length of the Office) where psalms, readings, canticles, etc are prayed to sanctify the entire day. The LOH (Liturgy of the Hours) is actually the official prayer of the Church and the Church encourages everyone whether priest, religious, or lay person to pray the Office each day as a means of praying WITH the whole Church. After all, the Church is meant always to be the Church at prayer and one symbol of the Church is the person with upraised arms.

The number of hours one undertakes (there are 7 total) depends upon a number of factors including state of life, time available, personal preference in prayer types or forms, and so forth. Priests are required canonically to say their Office and most religious do some portion of the office each day. Laity are encouraged to do at least morning prayer (MP) and Evening Prayer (EP) and Compline or night prayer if they can. I find most lay persons can manage MP and NP more easily than they can EP. Compline, considered a "minor hour", is also the least variable of the hours as well as the simplest and can be incredibly comforting and calming before bed. It is the hour where we commend our spirits to God in preparation for sleep and for death. Lauds and Evening Prayer, along with the Office of Readings (OOR) or (sometimes still called) Matins are known as the major hours. Besides these there are three other "minor hours" which puctuate the day of work, etc so one my reconsecrate the day and make the whole of it prayer.

Monastics tend to pray at least five of the hours each day and many do all seven. I tend to do 3 or 4 of the hours during the Spring and Summer months and 5 during the Winter months when I am inside even more. (I also do more of the hours when I am ill, for instance because I do less of other forms of prayer or lectio, etc.) Otherwise, I find praying more of the Office fragments my day more than it assists it to be prayer. My personal favorite hour is Compline (which comes from the Latin for "complete" or completion). If someone is just starting to pray Office I tend to suggest they start with Morning Prayer (Lauds) and end their day with Compline. As one gets used to doing this one can add other prayer periods. This enables one to get used to really praying an hour before jumping into more of them and also to accommodate the other parts of one's schedule that are still quite demanding.

Some parishes include Morning Prayer or Lauds as a daily thing. Some do Vespers (EP) at least once or twice weekly. Some use this prayer only on major feasts or during Holy Week, Easter, and Christmas. It is great when this can happen -- to whatever extent. Some parishes and dioceses use a version of Morning Prayer with Communion for days when there is no priest. This also seems to work well. In any case since Office is the official prayer of the Church everyone in the Church who can reasonably do so is encouraged to pray at least some portion of the seven hours because it is not a private prayer but communal which unites one with the praying community everywhere. It is a consideration of this prayer, especially its dialogical portions like, "Dominus vobiscum" ("The Lord be with you"), which, because they were also prayed by hermits in physical solitude, caused Peter Damian to think and speak of the hermit as an ecclesiola and profoundly related (and responsible for remaining profoundly related) to the rest of the Church. The Divine Office helped ensure this for the hermit by instilling a truly communal sensibility.

15 October 2014

Reminder: Questions and Comments are Welcome and Valued


I just wanted to remind folks that questions, suggestions, (polite!) criticisms, and so forth are more than welcome here. Oftentimes the questions I get help me to consider aspects of my own life and this vocation more deeply or to see things in a completely new light. I write about what is important to me, or what strikes me in something I have read, etc, and while I didn't originally envision this as a question-answer format blog, more often it is the questions I receive which shape the posts I put up here.

One caveat: I do not always answer some questions immediately (though I will email you a quick reply nonetheless), Sometimes I will hold them with others of the same tenor and post them all together in a single composite "question." If you need an immediate answer please indicate that, and of course, if the question you ask is a confidential one which is not meant for this blog please indicate that. (You may find your own question here at another time in another form. Please understand that that is because it related generally to the subject at hand and was asked by others as well as yourself!)

One of the beauties of having a blog is, as I have written before here, it is very like the anchorite's window-on-the-world which allowed folks to approach her and talk. For the most part I, like most anchorites, keep the curtain drawn on my life here in Stillsong only opening it at certain times to reveal what is pertinent to the questions or topic at hand, but like the anchorite who lived in the midst of her town my choice of having a public blog means that folks have a right to approach me; that is, you are able to read me, question me, object to what I say and hear my response, and so forth. I sincerely hope readers will continue to do this; your questions, comments, etc are of immense value to me and I have grown in my understanding and appreciation of canon 603 and this vocation as a result of them.

While I have disabled comments on the blog itself (it makes the boundaries between things too porous and would intrude on my solitude) anything you would like to say or ask me about should be emailed to SRLAUREL@aol.com. Thanks again.

12 October 2014

Diocesan Hermits and Community, part 2

In On Community and the Hermit I began an answer to a questioner asking about friendships and the shape of community in the hermit's life.  In one way and another I have been dealing with that question for the past several weeks --- even prior to receiving the question. It may have been that fact that prompted the reader's question in the first place! In any case, the first part of my explicit answer I focused on those friendships and relationships which were essential to the well-being of my vocation because they fulfilled my own needs. In this second part I want to say something about the shape of community in my life because of the diocesan hermit's responsibility that her solitude be a fruitful reality and a gift to the Church and world.

Diocese and Parish as Ordinary Community of the Solitary Hermit

For any diocesan (c 603) hermit the diocese and parish within which they finds themselves, and from which they have actually been called to live the silence of solitude is ordinarily their primary faith community. It is usually here they celebrate or receive the Sacraments, here they are nourished on the proclaimed Word of God, here they meet the people they are praying for and with, and here they come to understand the complex challenges which are currently facing those living life outside the rarefied environment of the hermitage. I meet truly holy persons here whenever I come for liturgy. It is also here though, that the hermit witnesses to the contemplative and eremitical life and the gift (charism) of the silence of solitude lived in their midst! Personally I find it a significant, if complex, relationship and presence in my life. I am sure that my presence and involvement in the parish is both somewhat other than straightforward and yet fruitful as well!

You see, I cannot take on the responsibilities or ministry that a ministerial Sister can and does ordinarily take on. While I am actually part of the parish staff (pastoral assistant) I do not generally attend Staff meetings nor retreats, nor do they look to me to fill staff roles at parish events. They know I cannot do that and that my real ministry is contemplative life and prayer in solitude. I do minister otherwise in a limited way when I attend Mass (I rotate in as Sacristan, cantor, lector, EEM, etc), and I lead Communion services when we have no priest. Occasionally too I will write a reflection on the day's readings, do a presentation for Lent or Advent or for the school kids (on prayer and being a hermit).

So, I am present and active and certainly personally integral to the parish. People actually miss and pray for me when I am spending more time in solitude and cannot be at daily or Sunday Mass, but at the same time this means there are very real limitations which my parish generally understands (or tries to understand!) and respects! (One small but telling way they show me they understand and regard my vocation, for instance, occurs when they quietly slip a small note with a particular prayer request into my hand because somehow they know it will go into a handmade bowl near the Tabernacle in my hermitage where it will be held in prayer. That the story of the "prayer bowl" has gotten around the parish and to members I don't really know yet suggests, I think, that my presence is discussed and valued.) When I speak of a diocesan hermit belonging to a parish it is this integral yet "eremitically" limited relationship I am speaking of.

On Being a Bit of a Mystery

I suppose for many in my parish I am a bit of a mystery and of course, that is okay! If my presence sparks questions or real curiosity then that is well and good! If people admit they don't understand what a hermit is or how there can be such a thing as a hermit in the 21C. much less right here in this relatively well-to-do suburban parish, then also well and good. (If they ask me about these things directly and we have an opportunity to get to know one another a little and (among other things) dispel a few stereotypes or misperceptions, then even better!) If our school kids hear me cantor or lector and wonder about me singing and reading Scripture even at home, if they have questions about my habit or cowl, if they ask their teachers what the heck it means to be a contemplative or pray all day, if they ask me to come to talk to them about all that occasionally or sometimes also slip me notes with their most urgent prayers on them, and if they can see that I am a pretty joyful person who likes to laugh even while I am also pretty serious (humor can be serious business!), then I think my presence is an effective one and over time will bear real fruit in addition to that which already comes from prayer itself.

Am I "like" these folks? Well, no, in many, many ways I am not; but in some much more fundamental ways I am VERY like them; my sense of that fundamental sameness is a grace that I thank God for almost every day! The bottom line here though is that I belong to this community because we are a Christian faith Community. (cf Belonging vs Fitting In) Different as most of our lives are, I truly love them and they love me as well. We make it work because that's what Catholics living in and for Christ do; love transcends differences and builds community! It is significant, I think, that our parish motto is "All are welcome." So long as I allow it to be so, that is true even (and, I think, especially) for a hermit! 

A Slight Detour and Return

I remember when I was in Graduate School in Theology. The Catholic students and faculty (which meant a LOT of religious, priests, theologians, liturgists, and ministers from all over the Diocese were converging on "Holy Hill" on Sunday mornings and celebrating some of the most fantastic liturgies I have ever attended. The St Louis Jesuits were "in residence" at that time (they were also students, but attending JSTB) and every Catholic theological school had some group that sang during the week for their school's Mass and came together as part of this more general Mass on Sundays. The assembly naturally participated fully, were knowledgeable and were inspired by this Sunday liturgy. But there was also something wrong with this picture! It was elitist in a certain way but more to the point, it deprived all the parishes in the Diocese of Oakland of the liturgists, theologians, homilists, musicians, religious, and priests those parishes could have used as resources so their own liturgies and the music, homilies, and other aspects there were equally participative and  perhaps more genuinely inspiring. So, Bishop John Cummins decided to let us all know that he wanted us in those parishes so that the liturgical and faith life everywhere might be enhanced and he closed the Sunday morning GTU Mass down!

Originally I was disappointed by this action but over time it is the wisdom of what John Cummins did that has stayed with me. Vatican II renewed the importance of the local community, first diocese and then parish! Every Catholic is related to the local Church in some way and that means that every hermit is as well. As has been said many times in the history of eremitical life, Catholic hermits live our lives of solitude in the heart of the Church; each hermit is an "ecclesiola" --- but not in some form of independent solitary splendor. In other words, we live eremitical solitude in real, concrete circumstances within the heart of real, concrete faith communities. We may be seen but rarely; our lives may not be understood, nor may we even "fit in" (or seem to "fit in") all that well in some things, but I, for instance, know without question that the profound questions that drive my life and quest for union with God are the very same questions the rest of the people in my diocese/parish pose with their lives and this means to the extent we hermits are in touch with these and the God who grounds us all, we are more the same than we are different!  That too is an important witness the hermit can give to those who focus more on differences than on what unites us or what we hold in common.

In conscience, but also theologically and spiritually I believe it is both right and necessary for the hermit whose vocation is ecclesial to find ways to be a gift to her parish --- even and especially if a large part of that gift is the silence of solitude so many seem to fear and resist (but which we all need to learn to embrace as we age and come up against other liminal experiences in our lives)! The paradox is that to do so we have to belong! (cf Belonging vs Fitting In) In any case, in my own eremitical life, I have to belong in this way, limited though it is, or I cut myself off not only from one of the main ways my life of solitude bears fruit, but from one of the main sources of Divine presence and spurs to personal growth in holiness and authentic solitude in my life. All the diocesan hermits I know or know of live in eremitical solitude and "stricter separation" but that means they do so in relation to (and relationship with!) a parish or monastery or other religious community. Eremitical solitude, once again, is not isolation. As I noted in earlier posts from last week, even actual reclusion requires we be profoundly and mutually related to a faith community of some sort. Thus it is with ecclesial vocations!

Ways to Assist the Dominican Sisters in Iraq

Recently I was asked by a regular reader here how she might assist the Iraqi Dominican Sisters both in their lives and in their ministries. I inquired of a number of Sisters on a listserve I belong to and got responses from three members of different Dominican congregations. If you are looking to help the Dominican Sisters of Catherine of Siena financially or otherwise (suggestions are included below) here is how you do it!

1) On the Dominican Sisters Conference [DSC] webpage - there is a link where you can download a document with several options. It is on the RESOURCE page http://dominicansistersconference.org/DSCresources.html click on the last icon on the very top.

2) There are three ways you can get funds directly to our Dominican sisters in Iraq to start saving lives and reliving suffering right now:


1. Donate online at https://www.adriandominicans.org/Donate/index.htmlClick “Other” and designate “Iraq.”
2. You may also mail a check marked "Iraq" to Adrian Dominican Sisters, 1257 East Siena Heights Drive, Adrian, Michigan 49221
3. Catholic Relief Services provides an online means of offering through their relief efforts via: http://emergencies.crs.org/iraq-crs-caritas-reach-displace…/
You may also help by contacting your elected leaders in Congress and urging them to make sure that every action taken by the US regarding Iraq considers these basic principles of human rights:
· Includes the protection of human rights and religious freedom in Iraq
· Provides maximum humanitarian assistance to Christians, Muslims, and other minorities displaced by the Islamic State and those who have remained displaced since the war
· Rejects more U. S. military intervention and convenes a conference to establish a comprehensive arms embargo to Iraq and the region
· Brings the threat posed by the Islamic State to the UN Security Council and seek a united global response that identifies the group as an international terrorist threat to peace and security
· Considers actions that need to be taken to speed the resettlement of Iraq’s persecuted minorities in the U.S. and provides adequate funding to meet the needs of those refugees upon their arrival.

10 October 2014

Prayer Lessons Learned on a Bike Path

There's a sort of strange phenomenon that happens sometimes when one is riding a bike. If one is riding on a bike path, for instance, and comes to the place where the path crosses a road there will be posts which signal to the biker that they need to be wary. In the paths around my hermitage anyway, it takes real skill and more importantly, a particular perspective, to ride a bike through these posts without crashing into them! (They seem more narrowly spaced than in the above picture.)

You see, the interesting phenomenon is that if one focuses one's attention on the posts themselves and tries to avoid them in this way, if, that is, one looks from right to left and back again and again while thinking something like, "I must steer away from that post, and I must do the same here on the right," one merely ensures one will crash into them! But if the biker keeps focused on the place where the wheel meets the path, one will move forward smoothly and sail right through the posts. We heard the Biblical version of this dynamic last Wednesday when the Gospel from Luke had Jesus admonishing folks that, "One who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is unfit for the Kingdom." Jesus' point was also about perspective. To plow a straight furrow, to make a field fit for a huge harvest, one has to keep one's eyes on a distant point; otherwise the furrows one plows will veer off and leave the field unready and fallow. So much of the spiritual life is about maintaining a truly human (and divine!) perspective!

In today's Mass readings ** this whole problem shows itself again. In Paul's letter to the Galatians the Apostle is telling the story of  the making of Israel into a People of faith and a blessing to the nations. Abraham is the Father of faith and for him and for the rest of the OT and the NT as well we come to understand that real faith is about allowing God to be God and keeping a longer perspective; in that way of seeing things we trust that if we keep our focus on God while we remain open to his living presence within us God will then draw us beyond any obstacles and make of us a People who are a blessing (that is, who mediate God's presence and power) to all of the world! A piece of Paul's story is about keeping our eyes (and our hearts) focused on or centered in God. This is a lesson we ought to hear very clearly, especially if we seek to be people of prayer! For in the main, prayer is not something we do; it is something God does in us and something he MAKES of us! Often our only job in prayer is to sit down, shut up, fold our hands quietly (some of us fold them into our cowls to make the point more acute!), and allow God the time and space to do whatever it is God desires to do with and in us.

This attitude of prayer is really the heart of the Covenant. Remember its term and essential dynamic: "You shall be my people and I shall be your God!" This does not refer merely or perhaps even primarily to an external contract between God and Israel (though this, of course, is involved) but rather to the God-Events they will become if they allow God to really BE GOD within them.  In other words, let me be the fire that moves and empowers you, let me be the love that makes you whole and impassions your love for others, let me make you missionaries of MY presence and we will transform the world with my touch! The symbol of this covenant is the Law and it truly does indicate what such human beings look like: they love God above all else, they are other-centered and do not covet or steal or commit adultery or bear false witness or do murder, and so forth. In a sense the tablets of the Law are a bit like the posts on the bike path. They signal caution and mark when we have gone off course, but they are not supposed to draw our entire attention or become the focus of our spiritual perspective and efforts. That way lies disaster, just as it does on the bike path --- or in the field we are trying to plow!

And this is what Paul is describing in today's reading from Galatians. The Jewish leadership and through them much of the People of Israel have lost their perspective. They are not focused on simply allowing God to work in them or trusting that he will make of them a blessing to the nations. Their gaze has been drawn from God's presence to the Law he gave as a gift and like the biker who becomes focused on AVOIDING the posts and so inevitably crashes into them, they do the same with the Law. They are so focused on avoiding sin that they are drawn straight into it because they cease to trust sufficiently in the power of God and the perspective this faith gives them to move forward in their journey. In fact, so blinded have they become in all of this, so narrow and constricted their perspective, so concerned with the strictures of the law and the achievement and protection of an isolating personal holiness rather than the vision of life the Law celebrates, that when the very fulfillment of the Law, the living Covenant-with-God comes up to them from their midst, they condemn him for blasphemy and murder him in the name of the Law!

It is this same blindness, whether willful or not, which Luke also describes in today's Gospel. The Jews do exorcisms. Jesus does exorcisms. When Israel does them they consider this to be the power of God at work through them, but when Jesus exorcises demons, Israel considers that he does so by the power of evil! They see him clearly through the lens of the law, but it is this lens which prevents them seeing he is the fulfillment of the law; he is the human being who reveals covenant with God to be the essence of our humanity and covenant with us to be the fulfillment of God's will and Kingdom as well. Like bikers who get anxious about and focused on the posts in the bike path rather than the path, the distant goal, or the One who draws them inexorably to that goal, Israel's relation to the law ensures they crash big time! Christians. however, hold the cross and God's victory over sin and death before themselves at all times; we trust that precisely in Jesus' abject helplessness and openness to his Father's powerful presence, God has raised him from the dead, and therefore will continue to overcome every obstacle, every instance of sin and death. The cross is quite simply how Christians maintain a long view which allows them to move forward in justified confidence and the powerful love of God.

In our spiritual lives, especially, we really must keep focused on God, and not as a reality merely or even mainly external to ourselves. Like Abraham we must be people of faith, people who trust God to act within us and who allow God to do so in a way which will draw us past any obstacles that stand along our path. "Prayer" that is more focused on self than on God is not prayer; "prayer" that is full of effort and the need to achieve or control is not prayer. Prayer that is anxious and concerned with or focused on our own sin rather than simply mindfully bringing all that to the touch of God's powerful and transformative mercy, is not the prayer God calls us to! As Proverbs also reminds us: [[ 25 Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all (sideshow) distractions. 26 Watch your step, and the road will stretch out smooth before you. 27 Look neither right nor left; leave evil in the dust.]] If we do this the fire of God's life will be allowed to heal, empower, and inflame us so that we may transform the world with our presence! In short, we shall become the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, a People saved by grace received in faith, a People as innumerable as the stars who are a genuine blessing to the entire creation!

** Galatians 3:7-14, Luke 11:15-26

09 October 2014

Bishop Robert Lynch on the Synod for the Family and the LCWR

In the following article from Bishop Robert Lynch's blog his excellency uses the Synod on the Family as a lens and outlines the situation as it stands between the CDF and the LCWR; Lynch characterizes  the situation as an "internecine war" this Church family does not need. He proposes what, for me anyway, is a new solution, a solution which would allow Pope Francis to act without trespassing against his collegial perspective and way of doing business, and which would allow Abp Peter Sartain and the LCWR the freedom to truly forge a creative and appropriate solution in this matter. I think this is a great article; the pertinent section begins especially with paragraph three!

[[A “FAMILY” FEUD

 I write this from a Delta jet flying at 34,000 feet just west of the French coastline headed for Atlanta where I will surely miss my connection to St. Petersburg and an uncertain future on a Sunday night. This morning I awakened in Rome having spent a week there for the ordination to the diaconate of our Ryan Boyle, a resident of the North American College and a student this year at the Angelicum (last year he graduated from the first cycle of theology at the Gregorian University). My next blog, coming very soon, if not tomorrow, will give more details about my visits in the last ten days to three of the four seminaries where our men study. Even as Ryan’s ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica along with forty-two of his fellow classmates was a major moment, for him and for them, the major happening in Rome began last night with tens of thousands again gathering in St. Peter’s Square with St. Peter’s successor to pray for the Extraordinary Synod which began this morning, just as I was leaving.

On the “street” where I live on the fifth floor of the North American College were to be found Cardinals Wuerl, Dolan, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, our current President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, all members and participants in this papally called “Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family Life in our Day.” A great deal of print has been spilled in the secular and Catholic media in the last week about the event beginning today and being there among all these “heavy hitters” gave me pause to reflect and pray for this first exercise by Pope Francis in the “Synodality” envisioned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council and for the gift of the same Spirit inspired wisdom in their deliberations

In those reflective moments, I thought about what I might say, had I the opportunity to speak to the Holy Father and those gathered around him for the next two weeks. Slowly this thought came to me and I could not put it away. Our beloved Church is itself a family – a family of faith, of practice, of divine creation. And like most modern families, we have our share of disfunctionality (sic) at times, disagreements at other times, digression at times, and differences of opinion at times. The synod fathers are going to be talking about real challenges to marriage and family life in our time and culture. I would love to see at least an hour devoted to a dispute, which has taken far too much energy in our Church in this country than I think it deserves. While praying during the ordination of the 43 men in St. Peter’s last Thursday, I asked what Peter would have done and what Peter now might do with the current disagreement between certain Roman offices of our Church and the religious sisters of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (hereafter “LCWR”). The thought occurred to me that if Pope Francis could coax the leaders of Hamas and Israel to meet for prayer in the Vatican Gardens during which each side spoke respectfully of each other, could not the family of the Church try a little harder to settle something of a “border dispute” between the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (hereafter “CDF”) and the major branch of religious women in the US?


In popular Catholic opinion in the United States, I think clearly that the sisters in LCWR have conducted themselves quite admirably in avoiding the same heated rhetoric which came a couple of weeks ago from CDF. They are facing a mandate that they find very hard to swallow which is at its base, “Shape up or ship out.” In the late eighties the USCCB had a similar mandate come down from another Roman office and we politely ignored it and it went away. While the sisters have largely remained cool, calm and collected, the other side in what was perhaps a momentary (one might hope) peak (sic) of anger or frustration responded by saying “we are not misogynists” – a principle I would not wish to defend for the universal Church at large. Then there is the preposterous proposition that the LCWR does not represent American religious women. Had CDF said “all religious women” I would have had no qualms. But LCWR sure has a heck of a lot more religious sisters in its communities than any other body of religious women. As a local bishop, I love my sisters. Most could have retired to the motherhouse long ago but they long to help in many ways. And while I am at it, while my own USCCB was bound up for the last decade in liturgy and culture wars, those same members of our family, the sisters, kept the social justice agenda alive for which their leaders seem to now being blamed. These women are neither terrorists nor heretics and while some of the older sisters may not follow the drift or direction of some of the major speakers at the LCWR annual leadership assembly, they hang tough for their leadership and the most of the rest of the “Catholic” family supports them. Ask most of our priests about whether or not they support our sisters and the response will be positive. Ask the same group if this wing of the family ought to be taken to the woodshed for introducing topics of interest to them, and most of the rest of the family would likely say no. The Church at this moment in time does not need an internecine war between two respected bodies that love the same God, serve the same mission, as did our Lord.

I said at the time that the secret to success in getting this matter to go away was found by Pope Benedict XVI in the person of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, a good, fair, nonideological man. Sadly, he is required to take his marching orders in this family feud from CDF. So if I had five minutes on the Synod Floor to talk about families and the Church in the next two weeks, I would ask the Holy Father when he has time to empower Archbishop Sartain to find a way to gain a truce on his own which the Pope could himself embrace which respects the interests of both but resolves disputes before they become, at least by one side, a soapbox gone too far. This seems in the political world to be a time of truce and peacemaking, why not also within our family. If the battle continues, there will be no winners, and I would opine that the Church may well lose more respectability and credibility.

Much of this extraordinary synod’s time is going to be devoted to best practices in keeping people within the family circle. How then about the good sisters who worked for decades at less than subsistence wages, taught us about God, bound up our hospital wounds, ran free clinics for the poor and homes for the aged. Let’s love them to death, not beat them to death. Please, Fathers of the Synod and Holy Father, take this contretemps for yourself and solve it for all. The Church as family would rejoice. +RNL]]

More on Hermits and Private vs Public Obligations, Relationships and Witness, etc.

[[Dear Sister, am I right in saying you are in charge of determining how much solitude is healthy for you, or how much is allowed while maintaining other ecclesial obligations? What if you wanted to spend three months or more in absolute reclusion? Could you do that? How does that work? Your own life is governed by a Rule which you wrote. Could a lay hermit (I mean a hermit who is not a canonical hermit) write a Rule which allowed her to be completely reclusive and not go to Mass regularly? Would this be an example of the competing obligations you spoke of earlier today? My guess is this wouldn't work even though she is doing it to be a hermit --- a good thing and pleasing to God as the Catholicam blogger wrote! I say that because it seems kind of elitist to me.]]

Really great questions and points, especially because they tie into yesterday's posts and the discussion begun on two other blogs and continued here.

Yes, I am largely the one responsible for discerning how much solitude and what kind God is calling me to, what I need for a healthy eremitical life as well as what degree and kind of solitude honors other (sometimes competing) ecclesial and personal obligations. However, neither do I do this alone --- nor could I. I couldn't even say that God alone and I determine this without need for others because it is so easy to delude oneself about what is of God, what God is saying, etc. That was one of the reasons people like Peter Damian and Paul Giustiniani had a healthy caution when it came to the solitary eremitical life which they both esteemed; they saw this life as fraught with peril. One really does need to discuss things, consider what others see and hear (especially what they observe in terms of growth in the hermit's own life and the fruitfulness of her solitude), weigh the consequences, engage in mutual prayer, and so forth. The stable relationships canonical standing creates are necessary for truly discerning what God is calling one to. When a large change like that of reclusion is being considered (and even for a diocesan hermit already living substantial physical solitude reclusion is still a significant change and commitment, and not just for the hermit herself  --- more about that below).

You see, complete reclusion is difficult for a diocesan hermit because she really is responsible for her own upkeep, shopping, errands, and sometimes a limited degree of ministry. For me that means I do regular spiritual direction and assist at the parish for a brief time about one morning a week. However, if I were to determine that I really needed to do something like what you suggest, what I would be likely to do to begin anyway, is to 1) take one or two days a month to see clients during the three month period (I cannot responsibly stop working with people while I am discerning this matter), 2) ask for others in the parish to take on what I am doing there while I continued doing maybe one morning a month for that three month period (if someone can take over that day as well, then that would be fine), and 3) request parishioners to help me by shopping for me, bringing me Communion for the week (there are some alternatives to this but something needs to be worked out), etc. I would probably also elect to meet with my own director at least once or twice during this time. This would not be complete reclusion but it would be the closest to which I could responsibly come right now; if after this kind of period of discernment I determined I was being called to even greater solitude for a longer time then I would need to find ways to achieve that. But, again, all this needs to be discerned.

I have written here before that one of the things a diocesan hermit must be open to is the possibility that God is calling her to reclusion and I am quite serious about that. If I were to discern a call to reclusion, then my Bishop would need to agree and an arrangement with my parish and pastor made to ensure regular reception of the Sacraments, occasional Mass here in the hermitage, and some way to get provisions and have errands run. My expectation would be the diocese and parish would assist with some of this but, as you can see, a lot would need to be worked out and other people would need to make commitments to enable my reclusion. A hermit can never forget the love and faith of those who allow  and often help support and empower her to live solitude in their midst; the situation with reclusion is, again, even more dependent on others as she is given the freedom to explore communion with God. Remember that when, and to whatever extent, we are in union with God we will be called and empowered to regard and treat our brothers and sisters with greater love and solicitude, not with less, and certainly not with a mere abstraction of the word love (e.g., "I love humanity; it's people I despise!" "I love souls, but embodied historical persons are not my concern!") even as we spend our time navel-gazing in the "contemplation" of our own existences! Communion with God fires our hearts and focuses us outward even as it draws us in and requires a real and creative introspection. In my experience, that introspection is meant to be at the service of a greater outward focus toward real people.

Private vs Public Commitments, Rights and Obligations

I am sorry if I was not clear regarding what happens when a lay hermit takes on private obligations (as opposed to the public obligations assumed in public profession); let me repeat some and try to clarify as I go. Since a lay hermit is a baptized Catholic she will have assumed and been charged with the public rights and obligations associated with that commitment. The obligation to attend Mass (Sunday obligation) is part of this. These rights and obligations are legitimate ones meaning the person is bound in law to make them a true priority in her life. If a person makes a private dedication as a hermit she or he remains in his/her current state of life (whether lay or clerical) and assumes no additional (or potentially modifying) rights and obligations. Additional rights and obligations are extended to a person by the Church and assumed by that person in public professions and consecrations as well as in ordinations and marriages (!). In Public (canonical) vows the Church mediates God's call and the person's response in a way which binds both the person and the Church in a public act and a new ecclesial relationship.

This means that if a non-canonical or lay hermit decides to write a Rule which demanded she miss Mass on Sundays, for instance, she would be putting an entirely private commitment over a public and ecclesial one she has already accepted as a life obligation. One could not do this apart from other really significant extenuating circumstances and remain a Catholic in good standing --- at least not without seriously deceiving oneself. In such a case, the extenuating circumstances would themselves need to be serious enough to permit the person to miss Mass; being a lay hermit who is privately dedicated to solitude simply wouldn't be sufficient in this way.  In other words, public rights and obligations trump private rights and obligations and legitimate or canonical rights and obligations trumps non-canonical rights and obligations in this regard. Because of the differing weights or seriousness of the person's commitments (that is, some that are public and canonical or legitimate, and some which are entirely private) this would not be a good example of what I was speaking about when I mentioned competing obligations; in my usage about that I was referring to competing public and canonical or legitimate obligations all of which publicly bind the canonically professed hermit.

Public Commitments, A Matter of Relationships and Witness

The reason public vs private are "weighted" in this way is important because of the correlative relationships and witness which attach. Private commitments are, while not unimportant, of less social consequence. They are, after all, called private for a reason!  Public commitments issue in public responsibilities to live one's ecclesial commitments in an edifying way and thus, with integrity and with an eye toward how one's actions affect others; this is true even of the hermit whose life is essentially hidden! They involve others, not least in the expectations they allow others to necessarily hold in the committed person's regard; further they are either a witness to others or they represent a betrayal of one's responsibility to witness appropriately to those others. If an avid soccer fan (and a Catholic) sincerely believes God is calling her to watch every game of the World Cup no matter her obligations to spouse, or children, or parish (Church) or God via these other relationships, and decides she is justified in this way, she is lying to herself in one way or another.  Nor is the example she is giving particularly edifying.

To take a  more serious example, if a wife decided she no longer wished to take part in marital relations, nor to care for her family because God was calling her to embrace celibacy and live as a hermit, once again she would be lying to herself and others and failing to witness to the sanctity of marriage and sexual love as she has PUBLICLY committed herself to do. The Church no longer effectively devalues the Sacramental and legal state of marriage nor profanes marital love in the name of religious life or celibacy as higher values. What then of someone who is legitimately allowed by the Church to call herself a Catholic Hermit and who, without the mutual discernment or approval of legitimate superiors, thereafter claims that God has blocked her way to participate in any significant way in normal ecclesial life (including Mass and the Sacraments) or who contends that the abstract (bloodless) "love of souls" takes the place of concrete love of others? Is this really the message of the Gospel entrusted to the Church? Does this constitute an edifying example of Christian witness? Does it even witness to the vocation of the Catholic Hermit and the way the Church understands that today?

You see, what is also true is that the public commitments in each of these situations is presumed to be an expression of God's will! This is especially so because, as ecclesial realities, they are sanctioned and blessed by the Church. That means there must be pretty significant indications when one proposes changing them for what one privately experiences as the will of God! It also means in some way these private experiences and determinations need to be corroborated or affirmed by others in the Church (meaning pastors, Bishops and their delegates, etc) as well. In the situation you referred to --- a privately dedicated hermit determines she is called by God to reclusion and to cutting herself off from the Sacramental and ecclesial life of the Church symbolized in the minimal obligation of Sunday Mass -- I  was not struck so much by the elitism of the determination (though I certainly agree this person would never allow other Catholics to make the same determination in the name of private revelations and discernment) as I was struck by the extreme individualism, and even narcissism of the situation.

Canon 603 allows for the first time ever in universal law for individuals who are not part of religious communities and congregations to live and explore the depths of the vowed life within the realm of eremitical solitude (communion with God), that is, a life which says God alone is sufficient for us human beings. But it does this with ecclesial vetting, oversight, and support. Far from getting in the way of the individual's relationship with God the structures and relationships set up in canonical standing create a realm of freedom where the individual may truly live a life of assiduous prayer and penance without real concern that she ought to be about something else, some more active ministry, some money-making project for the sake of others, etc.

But the paradox is that this solitary enterprise is taken on for the sake of others and as a specifically ecclesial reality. While other people do not occupy the hermitage with the hermit, their faith and support make this life possible; moreover they look to the hermit for a witness which illumines some dimensions of the Gospel in a particularly sharp or compelling way. The Church has given the faithful this right when it called, professed, and consecrated this hermit from their very midst and then established her hermitage there as well. The bottom line truth here is that the hermitage is a still point in an often chaotic world and this is not for the hermit's benefit alone! She is there at the service of God and others. Not all hermits' lives are good and pleasing to God. A misanthrope's (or other individualist's) isolated shack is not the same as the hermit's dwelling which is always situated in profound relationship to God and others in the heart of the Church.