21 November 2014

Pro Orantibus Day (Reprise from 2013)

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary and also "pro orantibus" (i.e., "for those who pray") day --- the occasion on which the Church especially recognizes and honors the vocations of contemplative and cloistered religious. In light of that I am putting up the video of last year's visit by Pope Francis to the Camaldolese nuns on the Aventine in Rome where they sang Vespers and spent some time in silent prayer. Francis also toured the monastery and the cell of Sister Nazarena (cf, Pope to visit Camaldolese Nuns).

The Camaldolese chant (the music is Camaldolese as is that of the psalms) sung at the beginning of Evening Prayer is well-known to all Camaldolese in the US (though we sing it in English); typically it is sung at the beginning of Sunday or Festal Vespers. We pray that our prayer may rise to God like incense. The cantor appropriately raises her arms to God in the Traditional symbol of prayer within the Church as she sings, "Like incense, let my prayer come before you O God, the lifting of my arms like an evening oblation."

The above feed includes a period of silent adoration following Vespers accompanied by Benediction. I invite you to take the time to truly enter into the silence (the organ music will signal the end of this period so you will hear when it is time to bring this part of your prayer to an end); allow yourself to be accompanied into that silence by the prayers of contemplatives everywhere. This is, after all, the essence of our lives and the gift we bring to the Church and world.



Monastery of St Anthony the Abbot - Rome
Thursday, 21 November 2013 

Let us contemplate the one who knew and loved Jesus like no other creature. The Gospel that we heard reveals the fundamental way Mary expressed her love for Jesus: by doing the will of God. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt 12:50). With these words Jesus leaves us an important message: the will of God is the supreme law which establishes true belonging to him. That is how Mary established a bond of kinship with Jesus even before giving birth to him. She becomes both disciple and mother to the Son at the moment she receives the words of the Angel and says: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). This “let it be” is not only acceptance, but also a trustful openness to the future. This “let it be” is hope!

Mary is the mother of hope, the icon that most fully expresses Christian hope. The whole of her life is a series of episodes of hope, beginning with her “yes” at the moment of the Annunciation. Mary did not know how she could become a mother, but she entrusted herself totally to the mystery that was about to be fulfilled, and she became the woman of expectation and of hope. Then we see her in Bethlehem, where the One proclaimed to her as the Saviour of Israel and as the Messiah is born into poverty. Later, while she was in Jerusalem to present him in the Temple amid the joy of the elderly Simeon and Anna, a promise is also made that a sword will pierce her heart and a prophecy foretells that he will be a sign of contradiction. She realizes that the mission and the very identity of this Son surpasses her own motherhood. We then come to the episode of Jesus who is lost in Jerusalem and is then called back: “Son, why have you treated us so?” (Lk 2:48), and to Jesus’ reply that takes away her motherly anxiety and turns to the things of the Heavenly Father.

Yet in the face of all these difficulties and surprises in God’s plan, the Virgin’s hope is never shaken! The woman of hope. This tells us that hope is nourished by listening, contemplation and patience until the time of the Lord is ripe. Again at the wedding in Cana, Mary is the mother of hope, which makes her attentive and solicitous to human affairs. With the start of his public ministry, Jesus becomes the Teacher and the Messiah: Our Lady looks upon the mission of the Son with exultation but also with apprehension, because Jesus becomes ever more that sign of contradiction foretold by the elderly Simeon. At the foot of the Cross, she is at once the woman of sorrow and of watchful expectation of a mystery far greater than sorrow which is about to be fulfilled. It seemed that everything had come to an end; every hope could be said to have been extinguished. She too, at that moment, remembering the promises of the Annunciation could have said: they did not come true, I was deceived. But she did not say this. And so she who was blessed because she believed, sees blossom from her faith a new future and awaits God’s tomorrow with expectation.

At times I think: do we know how to wait for God’s tomorrow? Or do we want it today? For her the tomorrow of God is the dawn of Easter morning, the dawn of the first day of the week. It would do us good to think, in contemplation, of the embrace of mother and son. The single lamp lit at the tomb of Jesus is the hope of the mother, which in that moment is the hope of all humanity. I ask myself and I ask you: is this lamp still alight in monasteries? In your monasteries are you waiting for God’s tomorrow?

We owe so much to this Mother! She is present at every moment in the history of salvation, and in her we see a firm witness to hope. She, the mother of hope, sustains us in times of darkness, difficulty, discouragement, of seeming defeat or true human defeat. May Mary, our hope, help us to make of our lives a pleasing offering to the Heavenly Father, and a joyful gift for our brothers and sisters, in an attitude that always looks forward to tomorrow.

Questions on Formation of the Hermit

[[Apart from having a good spiritual director, study and of course prayer; how else can one learn the eremitic way? Do you suggest that someone discerning such a vocation put themselves under the tutelage of a professed hermit (this seemed to be the norm in the early Church and  Middle Ages. There are many stories of young anchorites being guided by holy women in their vocation) or perhaps spend time with a solid hermit community, like the Monastic Family of Bethlehem or the Carmelite Hermits in Texas, to learn this vocation?

As you've noted, Vatican 2 and the new Code of Canon Law revived this  vocation. While the hermit life is ancient, those reviving it are also pioneers in that they are at the forefront of reviving this call. My concern is that without being properly formed one could run into m[an]y (sic?) mental and spiritual difficulties. How do I learn to live this life? I'm trying to discern this and apart from reading, study and most of all prayer, frequenting the sacraments and solitude I have no idea if I'm doing any of this right. Are there support groups or something for those in discernment? What do you advise?]]

Hi there and thanks for writing again. First, the idea of being guided in this vocation by a professed hermit is a good one. It is traditionally the way most folks came to eremitical life and is ideal. However, opportunities for going to live with an eremitical community apart from seriously discerning a vocation with such a group do not really exist today. What I mean is that today a person cannot generally determine they are called to life under canon 603 (life as a solitary hermit) and also go off to live with a community like those you have mentioned. One can ordinarily do one or the other but not both (though one might, with one's diocese's help, arrange to stay occasionally for a number of weeks at a monastery or hermitage to experience certain values and realities which are a daily reality there; this differs from what you have described I think).

To ease this difficulty a little at least, members of the Network of Diocesan Hermits (perpetually professed diocesan hermits) will consider working with an individual if their diocese requests it. (While we may work informally with others, the fact is none of us has the time to mentor every person who comes along thinking it might be nice to be a hermit!) Ordinarily this means that someone who has lived solitude for a time, who is considered by a diocese to be, potentially at least, a candidate for canon 603 profession, and who is working with a spiritual director and meeting with diocesan personnel regularly, can also talk regularly with someone from the Network to be sure they are living an eremitical life, are well suited to it, and are growing in this. The Network also has a group/website set up for aspirants which gives them a chance to share with one another -- though at the present time no one is part of that group.

Remain in your Cell and Your Cell Will teach you Everything:

Even so,  these possible pieces of assistance aside, it is important to remember that the main teacher of any hermit is going to be God in and through the silence of solitude itself. The desert Fathers' and Mothers' wisdom about dwelling or remaining in your cell and your cell teaching you everything remains essentially as true today as it was in the 4-6th centuries. Add to this the main elements of canon 603, which define a life of assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels all lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world, and you will find set before you a way of living a profoundly Christian life in solitude which you and God together will live out in your own way. As you move more and more deeply into this life with the help of your director (who, it seems to me, functions as the desert mentors of old once did), you will find either it truly resonates with you or does not; you will also find that it is a means to abundant and mature life in Christ for you or is not. If this way of living leads you to abundant life in Christ, if in fact it makes you more loving, patient, longsuffering, compassionate, honest (humble), etc, then it itself is right for you and your response to God is, at least generally, also as it should be.

The question about "doing it right" for the hermit is at its heart, always really a question about what God is calling us to in solitude and how integral and generous our response to this call has been or is coming more and more to be. For instance, as part of praying my life I pray in several different ways each day; these forms of prayer allow me to respond to God with all parts of myself (heart, mind, body, etc). Over the years I have dropped certain ways of praying or adopted others, always in response to God's own call to be fully alive and fully myself in and as a response to God's summons and love. No one says I must pray in this way or that. Assiduous prayer and penance is the goal and means to living this life but no one spells out what this means in detail. Over a period of several years you will try all the forms of prayer which are central to a life of prayer and determine which of these are best for you at this time. Over a period of more years you will discern which ones are important for you during times of illness, which ones are especially helpful in getting you through periods of stress or tedium, which ones almost invariably speak to your heart or kindle the fires of your mind, or are most difficult for you or console you in loss and grief. Even more importantly you will come to know the ways God calls you to wholeness and in responding you will become God's own prayer in the world.

The same is true of penance and the other central elements of the canon. There are certain building blocks for a life of assiduous prayer and penance. One explores these and, in response to God's call to, life, truth, beauty, integrity, wholeness, holiness, justice, love, compassion, etc, discerns which of these building blocks lead one more and more to become an expression of these dimensions of God's own life. Of course, it is not merely a matter of learning to be a hermit but rather of discerning whether or not one is CALLED to be one. If one is, then the central elements of canon 603 will lead to greater and greater personal wholeness and holiness with all these entail. If not, then no amount of teaching can help a person embrace this life or move from external silence and physical solitude to the silence of solitude which is a matter of the heart. As I have written before while citing Thomas Merton, Solitude herself must open the door to the hermit. If she does not, then no degree of teaching, tutoring, direction, or supervision, etc, will help.

On the other hand, if one is truly called to this life (whether as a lay hermit or a consecrated hermit), then the chances of making serious mistakes provided one has a good spiritual director with whom one meets regularly and is assiduous in keeping her vows and other commitments (including to the personal work which stems from direction), is truly minimal. There WILL be difficulties to negotiate; that is part and parcel of any vocation leading to true growth in authenticity. Formation is an ongoing reality and for the hermit, unless she enters a community of hermits, even "initial" formation takes a period of many years (and certainly more than canon law calls for for those in formation with a community). The point is, however, the heart of this vocation is a solitary relationship with God in which one responds to God's love and mercy in all that one is and does. There is no cookie cutter pattern of what this looks like nor of what formation entails but to the extent it is authentic it all goes by the name "the silence of solitude" and one knows it when one sees it. (What I mean here is that the fruits of such growth in authenticity will be plain for all to see.) Neither does one reach a point at which one can say "I'm done with formation!" Instead the fundamental Rule, again, is to remain in one's cell and one's cell will teach one everything. (By the way, among other things, this can mean for one called to solitude that the cell will become a place in which new life is fostered and incredible growth nurtured; for one not called to solitude, life in cell will torment the unfortunate aspirant and leave them in misery, personal disintegration, and pain. God is not absent in such circumstances but he calls the aspirant to fullness of life elsewhere.)

Committing to a Spirituality of Discernment:

Because this is true all one can really do is commit to a spirituality of discernment which requires spiritual direction and regular frank discussion with others who accompany one in one way and another. (One's pastor, confessor, Vicar or Bishop --- if one is working with a diocese --- good friends who are honest with us, etc.) At every point one attends to the way life in solitude affects one and acts accordingly. Is one growing? Is one profoundly happy in Christ? Is suffering --- to whatever degree it is real, a subtext of one's life, not the main theme? Is one able to use the gifts God gives them and does one love better and more deeply in real concrete situations with real persons? Is the call of solitude herself something one experiences or does it seem that one has embraced an ascetical discipline which is merely external to oneself? I should note here, one's goal must not be to become a diocesan hermit but rather to be a hermit living the silence of solitude day in and day out. I cannot stress this enough. Over time one MAY find that one is called to be a diocesan hermit professed and consecrated under canon 603, but even if one does not find this to be the case, one has lived each day well as God called one to do. That is and always will be the measure of "success" for any hermit, whether lay or consecrated; for that matter it is similarly the measure of success of any Christian and any human being. In approaching questions of success and failure, or fears regarding serious mistakes, this is far and away the most important thing.

It occurs to me that perhaps you have questions about specific mistakes which I might address more particularly. If that is the case, please let me know what kinds of things you are thinking of; that would be helpful to me as well. In the meantime, all good wishes.

17 November 2014

Pope Francis Will Visit the United States in 2015

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Monday officially announced that he will visit the U.S. in September 2015, including a visit to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and New York City.

“I wish to confirm, if God wills it, that in September of 2015 I will go to Philadelphia for the Eighth World Meeting of Families.” he announced at Vatican City’s Synod Hall Nov. 17 during his remarks at an international colloquium on the complementarity of man and woman.

The Philadelphia World Meeting of Families will take place from Sept. 22-27. Even before the Pope’s announcement, the meeting was expected to draw tens of thousands of people. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia had told a gathering of Catholic bishops last week that a papal visit would likely result in crowds of about 1 million.

A global Catholic event, the world meeting seeks to support and strengthen families. St. John Paul II founded the event in 1994, and it takes place every three years.

Archbishop Chaput had previously hinted that Pope Francis would attend the 2015 meeting, although he cautioned that the visit had not been officially confirmed. In March 2014, a Pennsylvania delegation including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter visited the Vatican to help encourage the Pope to visit the U.S.

On Thursday, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the head of the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations, told the Associated Press “if he comes to Philadelphia, he will come to New York.” The 70th anniversary of the U.N.’s founding would be “the ideal time” for a papal visit, the archbishop said Nov. 13. Next year also marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to the U.N., the first such visit from a Pope.

In August, on his return flight from South Korea, Pope Francis said he wanted to visit the U.S. in 2015 for the Philadelphia gathering. He also noted that he had received invitations from President Barack Obama, Congress and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, as well as from Mexico.

However, despite the anticipation of the Pope’s possible visit to New York and Washington while in the U.S., Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told journalists shortly after the announcement that as of now nothing else is confirmed.

The Pope, he explained, “didn’t say anything about any other steps or moments in his trip to America. He guaranteed his presence to the organizers of the World Day for Families, but as for the rest, I have no concrete information.”

Pope Francis has visited the Holy Land and Albania as well as South Korea. He will visit France and Turkey in November, and Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January 2015. He will return to France for a longer visit in 2015. In June, the Pope accepted an invitation to visit Mexico, though a date for the visit was not announced. 

The World Meeting of Families will take place shortly before the October 2015 meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which will discuss the mission of the family in the Church and in the world. At the last World Meeting of Families in Milan, Italy, in 2012, more than 1 million people representing 153 nations attended a papal Mass with Pope Benedict XVI.

The 2015 meeting’s theme is “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.” The meeting will include many speakers and breakout sessions. Keynote speakers include Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Professor Helen Alvaré, and Dr. Juan Francisco de la Guardia Brin and Gabriela N. de la Guardia.

The Philadelphia meeting will mark the first time that the event will be held in the United States. Registration for the 2015 World Meeting of Families began on Nov. 10.

15 November 2014

On the Commonality of Eremitical Experiences

[[Sister Laurel, I was reading about online hermits and I came upon the following comment. [[I yearn to read about the experiences of other hermits; but so much of what is written is about hermits not by hermits, or is so coated in Christian mythology that the experience itself is inaccessible to a non-believer (though i believe the experiences, as hermits, of hermits of all beliefs is approximately the same. ]] You have posted about anchorites from other traditions before so I know you consider them real hermits and see some commonality between yourself and them. Do you think the experience of hermits of all religions (or no religion) is about the same?]]

Well, this is a really interesting comment! Also your's is an interesting question and I am torn regarding the answer to it. On the one hand, it seems to me that while the external characteristics of hermits' lives tend to be similar, I don't believe the experience of a Christian Hermit can be divided up (compartmentalized) in terms of external and interior so easily as all that.

You see, they are Christian hermits and their experience is of Christ and Christianity --- though mediated by and within eremitical solitude and silence. It is true that the experience of the Christian hermit is probably somewhat inaccessible to someone who does not believe at all, but it is not true that this is because their experience is "coated" in Christian Mythology. (Never mind for the moment that if the author is using the term "Mythology" in the common rather than technical (theological) sense the characterization is rather offensive.) It is because the experience of Christian eremitical solitude is an integral one which is empowered by and focused on God in Christ. As I have said so many times here, eremitical solitude for the diocesan hermit (that is, the solitary Catholic hermit) is not simply a matter of being alone, but rather it is a matter of being alone with God (in Christ) for the sake of others. One cannot take away any of these elements and have the same reality nor be speaking of the same experience. They are not so much a bit of icing on the cake so much as they are like the egg or the oil in the batter. They cannot be teased apart.

People go off into solitude for many different reasons. When they do that their lives may look similar to one another, especially to the degree they embrace silence and stricter separation from the world (meaning here the world of activity, commerce, media, family, society, etc). There is physical isolation and silence, physical or manual labor, intellectual labor, recreation, other chores, etc. But these are not the heart of the eremitical vocation for the diocesan (that is, the solitary Catholic) hermit. The heart of the life for the diocesan hermit is "the silence of solitude" which is essentially an inner experience of communion with God sought in service of God and all those precious to God; it is largely the fruit of prayer (the conscious act of letting God be actively and effectively present within us) in all of its forms. A misanthrope might well do many of the things I do all day, but the motivation for her life would differ radically and so would the nature of her eremitical experience. So too the person who is agoraphobic, the introvert merely desiring time for herself apart from others, or the artist seeking a space and time to do her painting, composing, or writing, for instance. We might all be hermits but the eremitical experience is radically different (that is, it differs at the roots and so too at the "branches" and "tips") for each of us.

For me the "clothes" or "coating" of my life, at least to some extent, are the externals. The heart is precisely the Christianity I live through and within those. While I don't mean to suggest these externals are unimportant or peripheral (they are not!), it is the heart of my life which conditions and transforms the externals making them prayer and transforming them into mediators of the Good News. When I do chores it is with a mindfulness attentive to the gift of these things; it is intended to glorify God (that is to allow God to reveal Godself in and through my entire life), to express both the gift of my life and to celebrate the giver.

When I study, the same dynamic is at play -- though in a way dependent on my own curiosity, intellectual excitement, patience, and profound searching. At prayer I am aware of being at God's service, of waiting on and for him, allowing him to love me as he desires to, of delighting him, of being a part of the completion of God's will to be all in all and to love his world into wholeness. At meals I celebrate a God who nourishes us in unceasing, ordinary, everyday ways which are also, by their very nature, extraordinary. When I am ill or otherwise struggling and unable to do chores or sing psalms or concentrate on a page of theology or a bit of exegesis, I trust (and feel) that my weakness is transformed by the powerful Love of God into something of ineffable and inestimable worth. In sleep I celebrate a God who "gives to his beloved (in) sleep", who saves me from annihilation in death and pierces the darknesses of my life with his light. These experiences which each and all proclaim that God alone is sufficient for us are the very essence of my eremitical life, not trappings in which the life is "coated" or clothed. Again, I can no more tease the Christian apart from the eremitical than I can separate my body from my soul and remain a person.

On the Commonalities of all Hermit Lives:

On the other hand it must be clearly stated that God who is the ground, source, and goal of all meaningful existence goes by many names and that there are more partial experiences of God which are universally accessible, especially in solitude. We are all more and less human and yearn for that which fulfills, perfects, and completes us. We seek authenticity. We are in touch with our own weakness and smallness even as we sense the dignity we each possess or else, I suspect, we could not dwell in solitude without the supports and distractions of ordinary life. Discovering one's true self and personal integrity are high values for each of us, I think --- at least for hermits who are not using solitude as an escape.  Getting in touch with a higher or deeper reality which grounds us and the meaning of our existences I think is a common experience and even goal for hermits of all stripes  (this would include the artist, author, or composer, of course whose quest is also similar to the religious hermit's) --- with the exception, again, of those for whom solitude is escapist.  And yet, even when this is not a hermit's goal, I suspect that the horizon of life in solitude raises the question in a particularly acute way for each of us. (cf Anchoritism is not only Christian for an example of a Buddhist solitary whose quest and heart are similar to a Christian hermit's.) Similarly, I think most hermits find solitude healing; it is a way to let go of the various impersonations and insanities that we have assumed in our lives apart from solitude.

I speak of all of these things in Christian terms because Christianity reflects the  most acute form of these questions and their answers that I know. It allows me to plumb the depths of the question I am and the answer God is in the rarefied environment of solitude, and to do so with an ultimate assurance I think is necessary for such a radical exploration and quest. However I can, to some extent, also speak of these things in philosophical or non-religious terms, and perhaps this is what the person you cited was yearning for; perhaps it is the lack of this that she was bemoaning. For me it is a less adequate way to deal with my own eremitical experience; it is incomplete and to some extent, too abstract. Even so, while I assert that my Christian experience is the heart of my eremitical experience I believe that all authentic hermits who are not merely seeking to escape life and its questions and challenges experience a similar searching and finding as noted in the paragraph above.

By the way, I do agree with the person you quoted about so much stuff about hermits being written by non-hermits. Today it is often a word used to describe anyone who maintains an essential privacy or who is alienated in some significant way. It is also adopted by folks as a kind of "cool" description despite the fact that they know nothing of silence, solitude and most certainly "the silence of solitude." I regularly search the internet for blogs by and about hermits. Very few are written by real hermits -- of whatever stripe. Most are associated with wannabe's or those who think the reference is a kind of good joke on their readers. Many of the rest are by hermits of various religious and non-religious stripes who are still trying to validate isolation and a failure to love neighbor or even self and God. Only a handful are written by hermits for whom the silence of solitude is a divine call -- whether that issues in an explicitly religious eremitism or not.

Thanks again for the quote and for your question. They are things I will be thinking about for some time to come and this means they will be a source of life and nourishment for me in approaching this vocation of mine. I am very grateful.

14 November 2014

Idolatry is Both Unavoidable and Must be Avoided!

[[Hi Sister Laurel! You wrote that "idolatry is a temptation and reality none of us [can avoid]. It strikes all of us." I don't think I have ever committed idolatry so could you say more about this? Oh, I wanted to say I am sorry about your computer. I hope you are getting it fixed! Thank you!]]

Important questions and objections! I am glad you asked. You may remember that I once gave an Advent homily: In What Story Will we Stand?. It referred to the capacity for story which is part and parcel of being human. More specifically it spoke of a place in our brains which is responsible for spinning stories. We are in search of meaning and are terrified by absurdity and chaos; a central piece of having a meaningful life or appreciating the meaningfulness of reality involves context. Most of the time the contexts we supply to events are forms of narrative or story. Stories are the way we supply the context which combats absurdity and chaos. They are the way we give ourselves a place to stand in a universe which might otherwise be frustrating, terrifying, and even a source of desolation or despair for us.

Human Beings as Storymaking and Storytelling Animals:

When a doctor makes a diagnosis, for instance, she will tell (or rehearse!) a story which wraps the symptoms up or makes sense of them in a neat and coherent way; it will be a story of anatomy and physiology, how x is working with y, how z has ceased to respond to w, how t has gone off on his own and is creating chaos, or v is entrapped by the inflammation of q, etc. But it will also have personal dimensions: "When patient x experienced y, the reason was z and she responded by doing a, b, and c --- only to find these were not helpful. Together we have to find a better approach to y." When a cosmologist or astrophysicist discovers a new particle or something like dark matter, they will invariably begin to work out a narrative or story of how this fits in the universe's own story. Theories are, in fact, good stories which fit the facts as we know them; they are most effective when they have room for the developments called for by new discoveries. No matter who we are or what field is involved we try without ceasing to make sense of things. In part this "making sense of things" is an act of discovery but in part it will also involve us in the creative act of story-telling as a part of this discovery process. Often it is in the process of working out the story that the discoveries are really made.

Theology is no different here. Moreover our religious quest for an ultimate meaning, our quest for a God who will make sense of everything and in whom everything will cohere (hold together) is simply a deeper form of the process described above for the physician or the cosmologist. (Insofar as cosmologists are in search of a grand unifying theory they echo the work of theologians who believe God is the ultimate reality which cosmologists pursue.) In any case, we are constantly taking the bits of revelation we have and spinning stories about God which, we sincerely hope, provide a theological context for what has been revealed. Similarly, we spin stories about ourselves, our universe, the nature of hope, justice, and any number of other things which lead to a more or less consistent worldview glimpsed through the lens of this revelation. Systematic theologians do this in a formal, educated, and conscious way by relating the pieces of revelation (and thus, of the faith) to one another as they search for and formulate a consistent framework in which all of the partial and disparate pieces of theological knowledge can mutually illuminate and make sense of one another. Moreover, we do this with our eyes on the Christ Event where we believe the fullest revelation of both divinity and humanity was made real among us. This event/person is the norm which challenges, contests, or confirms every piece of the theological narrative we create.

But, whether we have studied systematics or not we all do theology! We can't help it!! We do it every day whenever we draw conclusions about God or explain why something in our lives ultimately does or does not make sense. Agnostics do it when they question the consistency of religious beliefs or try to measure these against "objective reality". Atheists do it when they deny the existence of God! (That God does not exist is a theological assertion and atheism is a religious position.) There is no such thing as a naked, uncontextualized, uninterpreted, or completely anomalous  experience in our lives. We simply cannot leave things that way. It is too uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. We NEED to understand and that means we need interpretive contexts which make sense of things, first smaller or more immediate ones, and gradually more and more ultimate ones. If I am in pain, for instance, I immediately explain it (" Ah, must be tension; it's a passing thing. No problem!) and determine how to stop it; less immediately, especially if the pain returns or is not eased, I try to find answers and solutions from professionals. Especially my concern here is what I can do to avoid or minimize the pain in the future, what can I do to function normally and live fully? Eventually with ongoing or chronic pain my questions become more ultimate ones: I wonder what it says about me, how it will affect my life; I want to know why this has happened to me, what has God to do with it, is it the way things are meant to be and if not why are they this way, etc etc. Bit by bit, in my ongoing grappling with this problem or experience, I build a personal theology of suffering, a theodicy if you will.

Similarly, if something good happens to us we spin a narrative explaining that. Our "story" will reflect on the universe, on our worthiness or unworthiness for this good thing, on the place of God in this good thing, etc, etc. Wherever there are gaps in our understanding, wherever we are restless and feel incomplete, we will search for answers AND we will spin stories (e.g., theories, hypotheses, theologies, philosophies) to provide meaning, understanding, and intellectual and emotional rest. This does not mean there are no answers and we have to make them up; it does not mean that these are fictions or some sort of "opiate" for the merely insecure. It means rather that we open ourselves to the One who is the ultimate answer via these stories. We hold these stories lightly allowing God to change and expand them as they need to be changed and expanded. They are vehicles through which we pose the question of our existence. When they harden into certainties which cannot be changed by new revelations of Godself, certainties we grasp at in spite of these revelations, then we are in trouble. It is here that idolatry becomes particularly problematical.

The Place of Idolatry in all of this:

Our own incompleteness, our yearning for an ultimate story in which we can rest, an ultimate narrative in which everything in our lives is rendered meaningful and coherent coupled with our innate tendency to spin stories which give us temporary rest even as we search for something more final is the source of both our openness to God's own revelation of Godself, and our daily acts of idolatry. There is the additional fact that everything we say and think about God is entirely inadequate, always partial, and often downright wrong. Theologians know they are on the verge of committing heresy and betraying the very God they so love and serve with every word they write, every theological conclusion they come to, and so forth.

When I was first studying theology as an undergraduate I had a professor who allowed us to take a theological position and explore it by arguing for it as fully and convincingly as we could. He did this again and again through the years I studied with him. We held a position until we clearly saw its defects (usually because of the counter position someone else assumed) and then we took up another one --- often one which exaggerated its move away from the distortion or defects in the earlier one --- and the same process occurred. What my teacher was doing was a kind of recapitulation of the history of heresy. We would fall into an heretical position until we understood it from the inside out and then, in correcting the heresy, innocently fall into another one and so forth. Over time we adopted more and less sound theological positions which made pastoral sense but were measured against the norms (and especially the norma normans non normata) of theology as well. We came to understand the history of theological thought and the nature of heresy per se and specific heresies pretty well in all of this.

But we also came to understand very clearly that every position a theologian adopts and argues is inadequate to a transcendent and ineffable God. Our language is inadequate, our categories of thought and our understanding is inadequate, even our sense of the questions which human beings pose (and are), the questions which give rise to theology and the articulation of the ultimate answer which is God are partial and more or less inadequate. The images of God we draw or conceive are, to one degree or another, idols. This is always and everywhere true. They must always be submitted to the norm which is the Christ Event for correction, and they must be held lightly in a way which is open to clarification, correction, challenge, and purification. God is always greater than anything we can conceive. The prayer of the theologian is always, "God forgive us our theology, perhaps our theology most of all!"

What is true of trained theologians is even truer of the rest of us who naturally and often unthinkingly carve out theologies every day of our lives. Is someone we know suffering? We spin a story, a theology in fact (the technical word for this kind of theology is theodicy), which explains and makes sense of it. Is our world chaotic? We spin a theological answer to explain it. Does something happen which seems unfair? Again, the reason we tell ourselves to explain the presence of injustice is a theological narrative, whether that is explicit or merely implicit. Are we aware of good things happening to us each day which are entirely undeserved? Once again the explanation we conceive is a theology. We may borrow bits of theology from those who lived before us, we may make these theologies up out of whole cloth (mistakenly thinking we have come up with something new!), but how ever we do it, we are idol-making factories because we are in search of and made for meaning. We are meant to be completed by and rest in the Ground of Being and Meaning we call God and until we do, we naturally work to make it true. This is the source of sin and to the extent it causes us to theologize endlessly about a God we can never truly comprehend, it is also the source of idolatry.

The Forms Idolatry Can Take:

Thus, I am not necessarily speaking of idolatry as adopting or making golden calves we can worship. Usually idolatry is much more subtle (and so, more dangerous) than that! Anything in our lives which pretends to offer us a sense of rest and completion apart from God, any image of God which falls short of the whole truth but which we embrace with an ultimate concern, anything at all which takes the place of the real God in our lives is, at least potentially, an idol.

In the post I put up about a week ago I was thinking about a situation in which some truths about God had been distorted by human ideas. Our God is a God of justice; in loving us and our world he recreates these in his image, he perfects them, completes them, and raises them to new and abundant life. He loves them into wholeness and makes them to be all they are meant to be. This is the very nature of Divine justice. To substitute distributive or retributive justice for the love that does justice by freely recreating things is a serious theological error and it substitutes an idol for the real God. Similarly, to take a theology of divine sovereignty and conclude that God wills us to be miserable or live less than fully human lives, to suggest or affirm that God authors or is the architect of the misfortune and tragedy in our lives. is to believe in an idol. Moreover, to adopt a piety which calls sadism love and cruelty justice may make one unable to hear the Gospel message of gratuitous love. When this occurs the enmeshment involved may rise to the level of unforgiveable sin, again, not because God will not forgive this, but because he has been shut out and made incapable of effectively forgiving it.

While idolatry is unavoidable it must be avoided (or, better said, perhaps, when we can't avoid it we must be rescued from it). That only occurs when we allow God to be God within our lives, when we let the God of life and love reveal Godself on his own terms and to do so again and again every single day! Our faith involves knowing but even more it involves being known. The cure for idolatry is a faith which is really an openness to being grasped and shaken by the eternal and always new and surprising God. This will involve us in attending to the spirits at work in our own lives. Do they make us deeply and truly happy, whole, and alive? Then they are good spirits even if they cause a bit of discomfort in the process. Do they make us miserable, less open to love, more concerned about the preciousness and meaningfulness of our own lives? Do they lead us to partial images of God which speak of his justice as retributive or distributive for instance? Then they are "bad spirits".

The dynamic of theology is one of searching and openness --- we are open to having our theologies changed by the real God, our certainties made uncertain and questionable by God's own truth. We keep our eyes on the cross of Christ because it is there that the deepest truth of ourselves, our capacity for idolatry and the cruelty, intolerance, homicide and Deicide associated with our incompleteness and terrible insecurity (as well as our idolatry!) are revealed. Similarly it is here that our capacity for sacrificial love and real obedience to God are most clearly revealed. Of course, it is also the events of the Cross which reveal the humbling depth of God's unconditional, gratuitous Love, and so, the very nature of God as Love-in-Act. God's own Self and presence is the only sure solution to idolatry. God must be allowed to bring us to rest in Godself. When that occurs our searching is really at an end, and so too is any grasping at false (or partial) gods, any profound unhappiness, any incapacity to love others, any fear that our lives are wasted or senseless, etc. That is also what we call the fullness of redemption.

12 November 2014

Thinking About (the) Sin Against the Holy Spirit

In my post on God humbling us by raising us up I said that the situation in which a person's friend found herself reminded me of what Scripture calls the Sin against the Holy Spirit or the Unforgivable Sin. Because I don't want to leave any reader with the sense that I was describing a single personal act of sin on that person's part but rather, a situation of enmeshment and bondage involving a piety so paradoxical and destructive that the real God could not get a hearing, I want to clarify some.

I have been thinking about this situation since I first read about it and I am feeling somewhat awed (in the sense of being appalled) by the bind this person was described as being in. It is one thing to think of someone who has repeatedly chosen and chosen again something which is anti-God in a blatant way. We can understand how a person doing that might empty themselves of the capacity to respond to love (and ultimately to that Love-in Act we identify as God) and thus be in a state of unpardonable sin or alienation from (the REAL) God. But it is very hard to think of someone embracing a form of piety which is replete with references to God and who does so desiring on some level at least to embrace God, but who is really only embracing an idol in the process. The upshot of this choice is what I described as an incredible downward spiral, a situation of enmeshment and self-will which God may not be able to effectively penetrate and redeem --- at least not this side of death.

I never thought I would hear myself say those words: a situation. . .which God may not be able to effectively penetrate and redeem this side of death --- at least not about someone embracing some form of piety or religion. But then neither had I thought enough about the importance of the commandment against idolatry understood in terms of distorted forms of piety. Neither had I reflected sufficiently on the fact that when we believe in an idol our hearts are formed similarly. We take on the characteristics of that in which we believe. The hardening of one's heart can occur in many ways but essentially it is always caused by giving our hearts over to something which is other than God or to attitudes which are not of God (e.g., ingratitude, fear, or bitterness, for instance). But, as I think about the situation of idolatry what is really terrifying for me is the fact that the name "God" is given to the idol and to accompanying attitudes or ways of seeing, and that these are likewise said to be "divine" or "of God, " when in fact they are not.

The idolater yearns for God; that yearning is innate because God is present as a constitutive part of our being and makes us "meant for" and capable of union with God. No idol can meet this yearning or complete the person in a foundational communion but it (falsely) PROMISES to do so. When one puts one's trust in THIS false god and this empty promise, idolatry can also effectively close the person to the real God who is vastly different than the person imagines or has "bought into". What happens then is understandable but truly terrifying: when one speaks of a God of absolute futurity, of a love that does justice, of an unceasing love which is exercised in mercy, to a person who has come to think of God as One who causes suffering "in reparation for sin" or whose justice is distributive or retributive, for instance, the message may not be heard. The God proclaimed may be rejected, not out of spite, but because the person really cannot "hear" this proclamation.

Such a person may speak of God incessantly, explain the events in her life in terms of this "god", pray often (in the sense of crying out to God), and even have what seem to be extraordinary religious experiences of some sort, but, unless there is genuine growth in love, in human wholeness, compassion, and the ability to see others with the eyes of God, that is, unless the person truly grows in the dynamic presence of Love-in-Act, then all of this is empty. I believe this is a piece of what Jesus meant when he said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'"And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness!"' (The Law of love, the Law which Jesus fulfills and is the incarnation of, the law which is truly written on our hearts is what is being referred to here.)

This blindness or deafness to the real God, this inability to accept a God of unmerited love and mercy coupled with a person's own need to justify themselves with their own accomplishments (even when these are paradoxically spelled out in terms of victimhood and failure) constitute a blindness and deafness the Lord may not be able to effectively penetrate this side of death. In effect they may represent a degree of enmeshment in something which is not of God which is so substantial as to be considered the sin against the Holy Spirit. Whether the choices for the idol were driven by fear or personal woundedness or the bitterness which attached to circumstances in life through which this woundedness occurred, they have resulted in a state of bondage in which the person finds it impossible to accept the gratuitous, unmerited, and life-giving love-in-act which is the God of Jesus Christ.

It is the fact that this state of bondage is caused and exacerbated by numerous choices for an idol which matches what the person already calls justice or mirrors her own woundedness, and further, that this is supposedly done in the name of various partial or even outright heretical pictures of God found throughout the history of Christianity which makes it so truly terrifying I think. One can say to such a person, "The God of Jesus Christ NEVER wills the suffering, much less the personal decompensation of those he loves," and in response she can point to the literature which insists God punishes us as an instance of tough love or something similar. One can say that God's love always results in greater human wholeness, profound happiness and stillness (shalom, hesychia), and never in despair or profound depression, and the response might then be, "But God gives both consolation and desolation; St Ignatius says as much" ---inaccurate as is this interpretation of what St Ignatius supposedly teaches!

 (N.B., One problem in this case, besides the assertion that God gives us desolations --- desolation is the work of "bad spirits" not of God --- is the fact that St Ignatius taught that consolations (like the pain sometimes associated with healing) may be associated with a somewhat uncomfortable experience so long as they bring us closer to God and thus increase our capacity for love and our growth in human wholeness; a desolation, on the other hand, was associated with anything that leads us away from God --- even if it is or was a relatively blissful experience. The measure in each of these is not the affective quality of the experience per se so much as it is the degree to which it makes us greater lovers and truly holy in the manner of the God who is Love-in-Act. It would be hard to argue, in such a case, that God causes experiences which are made to move us away from Him. It would similarly make discernment impossible if both consolations and desolations were from God; how would we discern what was right and best for us if misery, selfishness, and personal deterioration were as authentically Divine as growth in human wholeness, the capacity for love, and profound  and genuine happiness?)

Idolatry is, of course, a temptation and reality which strikes each of us. None of us escape it. Our hearts are the places where God bears witness to Godself and this is the defining reality of what it means to be human. But our hearts are ALSO the places where a battle for ourselves goes on as we create idols to console and sustain us only to turn to the real God more fully and exhaustively as these fail us again and again. I have written here before that a vacant house is a perilous place and that a heart not given over entirely to God will be given over to that which is not God. When this ongoing battle is given over not to money or materialism or other "simpler" forms of idolatry but instead to a distorted piety which reshapes one's entire personal reality, both inner and outer, then one's heart is indeed "hardened". As a result our enmeshment in this distorted idolatry may prevent the Holy Spirit from truly empowering us or shaping our hearts in God's own image. When this is true we may well be dealing with a form of the Sin against the Holy Spirit. Again, it is not so much a single act as it is a state of enmeshment or bondage which keeps us estranged from God despite our yearning for communion with God.

Recommendations for Reading: Beale, GK,  We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, Meadors, Edward P, Idolatry and the Hardening of the Heart: A Study in Biblical Theology

09 November 2014

Ransomware Strikes Stillsong!!

It is probably not the common lot of hermits to be struck by Eastern European terrorists but this week it happened here at Stillsong. On Tuesday my laptop became infected with a virus known as CryptoWall 2.0, a form of malware known as "ransomware." That means that all of my files (documents, pictures, music, etc) have been encrypted with a two part code key. One key was left on my computer but to unlock or decrypt the files takes the second key as well. One is required to PAY the terrorists to get this second key --- though of course there is no guarantee that a key would truly be forthcoming much less that it would not unlock and unleash some other virus or Trojan horse, etc! (Besides, one DOES have to HAVE the money, which I do not! Neither do I have the inclination to pay, however.) What I see on my computer when I try to open documents is a clear list of the documents in whichever folder I open (100's of them!); they show up fine and the list is pristine and promising. But when I click on a file Word tells me the file is unreadable. If I persist beyond this error message Word opens the document window with editing tool icons, lists of recent documents, etc, but the main window in the frame, the window where the document should be is grey. Nothing shows up there at all. Meanwhile my access to dropbox, etc is blocked so files there are inaccessible on this same computer. (The contents of storage options like Dropbox are accessible from other computers and the files are apparently fine --- though I have read there is danger in the virus taking over such storage options too.)

So here is the deal. . . after speaking to a technician at a company that does virus removal and disinfection and unsuccessfully trying one of the Spyware solutions they use for a computer in safe mode the files that were infected are a complete loss! The computer itself can be saved, the HD reformatted, the OS and other programs reinstalled but everything else on that computer is lost. Of course, many of those files are backed up, either on an external HD or in cloud storage. While I may have lost some recent writing (or, more likely, some from a couple of years ago) I am not apt to have lost a whole book, for instance, nor the work from my Rule (done over a period of years) or even many of the articles I have written. I am relatively okay in all of this, relatively unscathed. But really, at this point I don't know how much writing has been lost, nor how much other stuff either. That part of things makes my stomach go a little queasy with the uncertainty.

And, though I am relatively okay in all of this, I am also angry! You see, I am careful in my use of the computer. I do NOT click on unknown links or download suspicious materials. I have clicked on popups representing themselves as Java or Adobe for instance and announcing it is time to upgrade or that an upgrade is available; as far as I can tell, that is how my computer got infected. (That means I will not do that any more; instead I will check with the program's creators directly on their own website and see if it is time for an upgrade.) The anti-virus computer technician I spoke to said that one family had been away on vacation and when they returned their computer was ruined! The point is one does not need to be doing anything dangerous or reckless, or even anything at all for this virus to gain entry and, in a short time, ravage through your system. Similarly I use well-known anti-virus software which I trust but this virus apparently can sneak in under the radar. Even in safe mode an anti-virus program may be prevented from doing its work (as was the case with my own computer today).

How people can do such a thing is beyond me. Greed, of course; it's all about money but the level of sociopathy required is startling. I heard several stories from the technician about lost libraries of music, years of writing, etc as he spoke of cyber warfare and this new war which is worse than the "cold war".  All of that work still exists. It has not been changed or corrupted but the key to unlock/decrypt and look at it or play it is in some criminal's hands in Russia or Eastern Europe and will stay there until the desired ransom is extorted by those same thieves. Of course the lesson is a simple one: BACKUP everything! Do it regularly. flash drives, external hard drives, cloud storage, whatever it takes! Corollaries exist too: always check before clicking on a link or popup, even if you have clicked on the same (?) popup before. Use the websites instead if you can. This particular virus is a really nasty one (I have been told a number of times by people fighting it!).

One interesting thing all this occasioned for me was my first ever "report to the FBI"! I did indeed report the infection and how I thought it had been contracted and though I don't expect a response beyond the acknowledgement the complaint was received, it was still kind of "cool" as well as not-so-cool to be contacting the FBI with something like this.

05 November 2014

God Humbles us by Raising Us Up

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have a friend who attributes every bad thing that happens to her to the will of God. She claims that God humbles us and that sometimes he "brings us very low indeed" through all kinds of catastrophes, persecutions, and disasters. Somehow this humiliation is supposed to move the person away from sin and even let them make reparation for sin. It helps them to deal with pride and other things, but I admit that I don't really understand it. Surely God is not One who teaches lessons in this way; surely God does not will disasters and catastrophes in our lives! What kind of God would that really be? And yet, what else might be the source of unremitting tragedies and disasters in my friend's life? Is there any way to help her let go of the theology she has embraced? She reads your blog by the way.]]

God Humbles Himself and Raises Us Up:

Thanks for the question. Let me assure and reassure you both of my prayers in this situation then. I will keep both you and your friend in prayer. I admit, I do not believe that God wills catastrophes and disasters. I don't believe God humbles us by bringing us low in pain and torment. I don't accept that evil of any sort is the work or will of God. You see, God has a much more effective way of humbling us and "bringing us low". (Note the difference in the word here; humbling and humiliation are different realities.) He does so by loving us, by reminding us how precious we are to him, how there is nothing we must or even can do to change that. God humbles us by asking us to set aside all of our own preconceptions about God, our own autonomous goals and projects, our own brief forays into the world of power and influence, of status and prestige for God's own Kingdom, God's own Lordship, God's own projects and commissions. In effect God says I love you with an inalienable, exhaustive, and unconditional love; I want the best for you; you will have that by serving me; you will serve me by letting me love you and treat you as infinitely precious. This is a humbling which raises up, not a humiliation which demeans even as it brings torment and catastrophe in its wake.

In yesterday's first reading from Paul's letter to the Philippians we listened to the great Pauline kenotic hymn: God empties himself to create the world; God empties himself even further by taking on sin-stained and broken human existence (flesh) out of love for us and commitment to the coming of the Kingdom. He empties himself by accepting death even death on a cross (that is, sinful, godless death) and he does all of this so that one day all might be redeemed, reconciled, and God might be all in all. In none of this is there a sense that God's work is inadequate or that reparation for sin is something you or I must or even can make. God reveals his very nature in all of these ways, but especially in Christ via the Incarnation, passion, and resurrection. These events are not contrary to God's nature. They are the paradoxical way he exercises his divinity --- not as something to be grasped at but as something lived for and freely given to others so that they might share God's life and he theirs.

Now, it is true that God's victory over sin and death is not complete. We experience relative godlessness in many ways for God is not yet all in all. I wrote about this just recently. Sin and death, chaos and catastrophe are still present and effective in our world but not in the same way they were before or apart from the Christ Event. They have been defeated in an ultimate way and no longer have ultimate power. They will never be the bottom line (or the final word or final silence) in our world or our lives and because they cannot be these things, they have lost much of the power they had to frighten, control, and destroy. God's love has proven more powerful. That is the new bottom line, the new and definitive last word we so needed to hear. God's love has penetrated the deepest darkness imaginable and has raised Jesus to new life; it has subsequently taken humanity into itself in the Ascension. It has entered into the unexpected and even the unacceptable (the literally godless) place and established the truth of the hope that one day the victory of God over sin and death will be complete and God will be all in all.

God's Justice is Neither Distributive nor Retributive

But what we must also hear in all of this is that God's justice is NOT retributive. He does not overcome sin by punishment but by love. He does not demand we pay the price for sin, whether that which besets us or that which we commit as a symptom of the sin that besets us. The price paid for sin is God's own price, the price God himself pays; God gives himself so that things may be set right, so that justice may be accomplished. He quite literally loves death and sin out of existence just as he does with nothingness and chaos in creating all that is. Not least, he does so by taking death within his own life without being destroyed by it, but (when the Christ Event is seen from another perspective) he also does so by transforming godless reality into a sacrament of his presence among us. He does this in the world at large, he does this in our own hearts, he does it in his own heart of hearts. God's love is a love that does justice; it destroys sin and death and the demeaning violence associated with these and replaces them with God's own love and life in abundance. Wherever this happens, and to whatever extent it occurs, the Kingdom of God has arrived and we have a new heaven and a new earth which one day will be a single seamless reality.

Of course, we must allow ourselves to be loved in this way, sinners though we are. We cannot instead make ourselves judge, jury and executioner in this matter. Human beings mainly think of justice in retributive and distributive senses. We think in terms of giving others what they deserve or of exacting (retributive) punishment in the name of "rehabilitation" for instance. We even project such notions of justice onto God so that God becomes the one who punishes us for our sin, demands reparation for it (impossible though that would be -- in this Anselm was surely correct!), gives us only what we truly deserve, etc. The God of Jesus Christ, however, does not think or act in these terms, and for this reason one of the things we must let go of, one of the bits of "dying to self" we must accomplish (so to speak) involves our renunciation of the idea of a God who exacts retribution or reparation from us for sin. Again, it is humbling to think that there is nothing we can do to "make things up" to God. It is humbling to be faced with a love which is eternal,  inalienable, and unconditional. But this is the humility Christianity calls for and it is the foundation for everything else in Christian life.

This is the source of real contrition. When we realize that the only good we do is the result of a grace we can never earn while the evil we do is the result of needing to justify ourselves (which includes the need to punish ourselves or refuse God's free gift of love), we are empowered to repent, to let God be God, to accept God's love even more fully and to hand it on to others who are as helpless to help themselves as we are. The turn from self to God in this matter is the essence of conversion. We let go of the various idols we have created for ourselves (or been given by others): the God of vengeance, of course, but also the God of a justice different than one rooted in unconditional love. We allow our minds and hearts to be remade in the name of THIS merciful God, the God who empties himself and suffers for us so that sin might be healed rather than asking us to suffer in reparation for sin.

The Source of the Catastrophes and Disasters:

I don't know the immediate source of the catastrophes in your friend's life except to point in a general (and less immediate) way to sin and death, which, because of the many ways human beings choose that which is not of God, are powers still at work in our world. As Bonhoeffer pointed out during his struggle with Nazism, and as I have posted here before, [[ Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably nothing that happens does so outside the will of God.]] It becomes crucial that your friend not blame God for things which are destructive or personally harmful. She must understand that there are powers and principalities still at work in this world in which God is not yet all in all. Similarly, she must understand that attributing evil to God, suggesting that God demands retribution or reparation for sin from us, substitutes an idol for the real God revealed in the Christ Event. That way would produce a terribly dark and deadly spiral in a person's life --- a spiral in which the Holy Spirit is actually rendered powerless to redeem the situation. Not only would such a position make of God a kind of Golem, (or, as one friend suggested, a Mafia Godfather kind of figure), but it would make the person who saw God in these terms far less open to the message of the Gospel of unconditional love and mercy. It would also cause the person to be open to attitudes and acts of self-sabotage and other forms of capitulation to or collaboration with the powers of sin and death in the name of a false piety.

I hope your friend trusts and listens to you, especially to your own knowledge of God because to be honest I  don't believe you will be able to get through to her otherwise. I also expect this to take time and real patience on your part. You are asking her to let go of an entire "theological" vision and to embrace a very different one --- one where she is not a victim and where the meaning in her life does not come from victimhood. Let me be clear, you (or I, in any case) use the name God in a vastly different way than your friend apparently does. You say the same sounds (God, love, justice, dying to self, conversion, humility, etc) but signify antithetically different things by them. Moreover, the God your friend believes in allows her to blame God for things which may truly be her own fault or at least the result of choices she has made which collude with death and chaos.

The degree of humility and self-emptying required of her for letting go of all of this is immense. The grace of God is present seeking to empower and heal her in this, but she seems caught (trapped or bound) in a way which reminds me of what Scripture calls the sin against the Holy Spirit. In that sin the person cannot be forgiven, not because God withholds it (he does not), but because they can no longer hear (or they otherwise refuse to ask for) the graced word of forgiveness God makes present there. When the word justice, for instance, speaks to us of retribution and the demand for personal reparation rather than of a Divine love that is entirely sufficient and sets everything to rights (thus bringing heaven to earth) then the Holy Spirit has been rendered mute and powerless by our own deafness.

Choosing Life, not death: The choice of humility rather than humiliation, victory instead of victimhood:

Unfortunately it is possible to find older theologies of reparation and retribution that support your friend in her victim stance. These tend to be psychologically and theologically discredited today. Today when we read the Scripture about "making up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings/cross" we understand that Paul is referring to allowing God's love and the new life of resurrection and ascension to fill and transform us. That work still needs to be done and if we don't allow it through the grace of God, it will not happen. The Christ Event changed reality; God can now be found in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place --- but knock, call, invite, attempt to seduce us, etc, as God might, if we are really saying yes to a different God, if we are embracing the Golem that accompanies and grounds our ultimate victimhood, then we are rendering God's Word void and making Christ's Cross of no account. It must always be remembered that Christianity is built on a singular victimhood embraced by God so that NONE OF US would EVER have to be victims again!!! Especially, we would never need to be the victims of a vindictive God whose idea of justice is that of human retribution-writ-large!!

The choices before your friend are those of humility versus humiliation or victory instead of victimhood. We are humbled and made victors (raised up to new life) in Christ by a God who loves us without condition or limit as Jesus' Abba does; we are humiliated and made victims (cast down into the depths) by a "God" (Golem) who demands retribution and reparation for our sin and thus sends catastrophes our way regularly. Here is another version of the choice put before us during Lent: Choose life not death!!! Today,  it must be said clearly, victimhood is truly the way of the world, the way of "worldliness" in all its tragedy and distortion; those who reject that which is worldly, and choose instead the Kingdom where God is sovereign, reject victimhood and any false theology that tends to make them victims rather than victors. It is my sincerest prayer that your friend can find the courage to reject the ways of the world and embrace those of the Kingdom and that you might have some small place in helping this occur!

I wish you both God's own peace, hesychia (stillness), quies, shalom!

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 and responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit in her life. The SD 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 and the dynamics which dominate there.

On Friendships and Soul Friends:

While a Spiritual director may indeed develop a friendship with a directee, especially over a period of years, 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 whose focus is the relationship between the directee and God, a friend whose focus is the directee's heart where this relationship is centered and which is the truest core of the directee. She serves to guide the person's journey into this realm of the heart, that sacred place where God bears witness to Godself, and stands in silence and prayer, watching and listening as the journey takes place. Ordinarily, therefore, the director tries to convey a reverence for the person's self and intimate journey; this implies she maintain some conscious 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 off the focus of the work (namely, the much more central  and personally constitutive relationship which exists between the directee and God) if it becomes the aim or even an aim of the relationship.

Personally, I have dealt with a number of persons who expect (or hope) 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. This initial expectation or hope is pretty normal, especially in someone who has not participated in a formal SD relationship before. In time they usually come to understand that my refusal to change the dynamics of meetings in this specific way 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 or is unable 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. (Whether or not a more usual form of friendship subsequently develops via another avenue is another question.) Similarly, when a person who has come for spiritual direction expects to accompany the director and persists in this expectation, the relationship is destined for failure. People come to a SD for many reasons, some thinking it's a good place to discuss books and ideas or to talk "about God" in a general sense, some in search of a friend and others in place of a needed therapist; none of these, however, is what spiritual direction is really about and a good director will not allow the relationship to be redrawn in these ways.

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 points when they come to the Bay Area so we can meet face to face. This usually means that we will go to lunch first and talk about what's happening in our lives in a general way. Then we return to the hermitage and meet for spiritual direction per se. Yet, the period of meeting for direction is, by definition, not a period of equal sharing. I am there to listen in a specifically discerning way to both the directee and the Holy Spirit at work in the situation (and in myself), to suggest ways of moving forward, or to offer some resources for prayer based on what I hear. Sometimes I will share part of my own story if I think it can be helpful, but only if it seems it will be illustrative, etc.

Regarding mutual accompaniment: when two 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 themselves, mutual accompaniment can be something which is helpful and wonderfully enriching. 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 (at least occasionally) 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 whom 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 --- even if you are an experienced and skilled director yourself. Neither, then will a director expect or encourage a directee to function as an accompanist to herself.

While I understand your difficulty with terms here (it is indeed hard to characterize the inequality along with the equality of the relationship without thinking in terms of superior and inferior polarities); but I think we must find ways to do this. 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, her prayer and her expertise. At the same time, she necessarily sets her own story, desires, and needs aside (including the desire or need for friendship in the usual sense if it exists) for the benefit of the directee and her relationship with Christ. Everything that occurs in SD must serve Christ and his desire to love and be loved by the directee and it must do so in a focused  and self-deferential way.

While some directees may want the relationship to be more like two violins playing the Bach double together, the work of direction makes the relationship more like that of a solo violin accompanied in her attempt to play Bach's A minor concerto with passion and integrity. In this situation the accompanist serves both the soloist and composer and/or the composition by stepping back. Her work requires a strong sense of what Bach wrote and what the soloist desires the music to be to reveal that fully. As accompanist she also needs technical virtuosity (and a psychological capacity) of a different kind than required in solo work; she may be a soloist in her own right, but in this situation she is there to facilitate the expression of a kind of union between artist and composer and/or composition. Her role is indispensable but unless she is able to work skillfully as an accompanist rather than someone playing a principal part of a duet, the entire theological dramaturgy will be damaged and the revelation that was meant to occur will be prevented or at least significantly impeded. Most directees come to understand such limitations on the director's part are part and parcel of a significant form of reverence and love.

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, knowledgeable re Scripture, etc. She should be skilled in human psychology, knowledgeable regarding mystical prayer, and be able to gauge or discern whether something is of God or not, as well as skilled in finding ways to help facilitate the movement of the Holy Spirit in those situations which are, for the most part, not of God. She will also work to help and encourage the directee to draw wisdom from extraordinary experiences which are of God. In  every case she must be patient and grounded in the sense that God as Love-in Act is profoundly and, to some extent, inalienably present within the directee; she must be aware that this presence takes time to grow and reveal itself ---  just as a tiny mustard seed 1) is present despite its near invisibility (or similarity to other seeds) and 2) takes time to grow.

She must trust in the God who is profoundly 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 (for instance) to listen with both compassion and empathy to the way these condition a person's spiritual life, but she does need to understand both the potential and the drawbacks of these realities in a 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 rendered 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 her and see why it is she accepts fees. You and others need to understand that SD in the Western Church, especially, is a ministry which requires training, education, supervision and regular work with a director; this means that even when it is carried on by religious it is often the primary way the individual helps support her extended religious family with many retired Sisters. 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 --- I suspect most directors would love to be in this position --- 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 even 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 the need arises, 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."