26 October 2016

On Hermits and "Going it Alone"

[[Dear Sister,
      I have always had the impression that hermits "go it alone" with God and don't need the assistance of others in day to day matters. I mean I guess they need doctors and things but for other kinds of healing need to turn to God alone. But you seemed to say that you turned to your director and not to God over the past few months. Isn't this contrary to your vocation? Shouldn't you have been able to dwell with God alone to find the healing you needed?]]

Thanks for your questions. I think they represent a somewhat stereotypical idea of eremitical life that may be quite common. I suspect that this idea is common among some hermits even. I am not sure of that. I will say that your impression represents a temptation for me sometimes, the temptation to "go it alone" and to convince myself that doing so means doing it with God in isolation when in fact God is calling me to get the assistance I need (including the assistance God desires to give me) from others who are a significant part of this ecclesial vocation. What I mean is this: God comes to us all, hermits and non hermits, in many different ways. God comes to us in solitary prayer of course, but also in liturgical prayer, the Sacraments, the daily readings, lectio divina, interactions with others, the privileged time with our spiritual directors, the directions of legitimate superiors, conversations with good friends, a simple hug from a fellow parishioner or our pastor, etc, etc. All of these point to the profound and paradoxical relatedness which characterizes eremitical solitude as codified in Church (canon) law.

The Hermit as Ecclesiola:

A hermit lives in the silence of solitude, of course. The work and prayer she does is solitary --- a matter of living from and for her relationship with God (in communion with God) in physical solitude. But even within this overarching and definitive context, one must also discern when God (him)self wills the hermit to turn more directly to others so that the life God summons her to can be embraced more fully and truly. This is another dimension of having an ecclesial vocation --- a vocation which is part of the Church's own patrimony --- and living a solitude which is embedded within a faith community, is integral to and lives from and for that community.

One of the things I have written about a number of times is that the hermit is not simply a lone person. S/he is an "ecclesiola" --- a "little church" to use Peter Damian's term, a paradigm, that is, of the praying Church. The canonical hermit especially is not simply a lone person trying to "go it alone" while spending time saying prayers or doing pious things. Of course she will do these things, but on a much deeper level the hermit lives a desert spirituality in Christ,  a spirituality dependent upon God alone within the Body of Christ in whose name she has been called and consecrated. Thus she will draw from the Church's life sacramentally, intellectually, emotionally and psychologically, and she will do this through the privileged mediatory channels the Church requires her to build into her solitary eremitical life: parish and diocesan life, Rule and spiritual direction, and the supervision of legitimate superiors (Bishop, Vicars, and delegate).

Spiritual Direction as Incarnational:

Bearing that in mind it is important that I correct one statement you made, namely, that I turned to my director and not to God in the past five months. Nothing could be further from the truth. Turning to my director as I did this last Summer on June 1st was a way of turning to God, a way of allowing the wounded parts of my heart to be opened to God and effectively transformed and healed by God through the mediation of a human heart and intellect, a divinized (that is, a profoundly humanized) presence expressed and realized in truly human hearing, address, love, and touch. In this work my director used her professional expertise and competence of course, and above all, she worked with me in light of her own relationship with God in all the ways God lives in and through her.

The work was therefore profoundly incarnational; in the person of my director, God assumed flesh --- just as is meant to be the case with any Christian who has responded faithfully to the call to truly embody Christ. This is not hyperbole. It is the very meaning of Christian existence. Let me be as clear on that as I possibly can. The relationship with my director is, as in all authentic direction relationships, a sacramental one; over the past few months, however, that became more subjectively true than ever. In these five months I poured out my heart to God (and to Sister Marietta!) --- more profoundly than I had ever managed before; I clung in growing and deepening trust and faith to God in the person of my director and through her (in addition to the ordinary and more solitary ways God comes to me) God effected a healing I truly could not have imagined. My very capacity to be this open was a sign of healing and growth --- not because I had purposely withheld myself from the work of direction (much less of prayer!), but because dimensions of my heart were not even accessible to me and could not be made so vulnerable in the past. Please understand that such vulnerability is itself the fruit of Divine Love and thus, a grace of God --- as is any person who loves us in a way which empowers such vulnerability, openness and trust.

Choose LIFE!

My vocation to eremitical solitude, as I mentioned a couple of months ago, is not in question, but what I am also even clearer about is the importance of making sure hermits have truly competent directors and that they make their commitments to the silence of solitude as decidedly ecclesial vocations. Hermits are part of the Body of Christ and while their lives differ from those of most people in embracing a solitary desert spirituality, the basic decision is for life within the Body --- not for the isolation of death. The transition from more contact with and dependence upon my director to more usual eremitical solitude once again is something she and I will both assume responsibility for just as we both assumed responsibility for a more intense and extensive contact in the first place.

So let me also be clear in the matter of this distinction. It is a call to LIFE, to ABUNDANT LIFE I am meant to live as a hermit; I am not called to a kind of half-life of external solitude which is merely labeled "eremitical" --- heroic as that may seem to others. When life itself requires the mediation of God through the assistance of others the hermit will reach out and accept that assistance and mediation --- though she will do so in a way which protects the essential solitude of her vocation more generally. "God alone" never means an exaggerated dependence on what is often mistakenly taken to be the direct or immediate presence of God without regard to the fruit of this dependence. That way lies narcissism and delusion. Instead hermits, like anyone else, choose LIFE and the God of Life in Christ; moreover they do so by paying attention to the fruit of the choices they make, both in the short and long term.

There are times when we all need the God mediated to us in relationships with other human beings. We need the God mediated in bread and wine and oil, in the proclaimed Word celebrated in human voice and broken open in human thought, or even in a kiss of peace, for instance, which sanctifies (or better maybe, expresses the sanctity of) human touch; in other words we each need the people required to realize all of these and so many more instances of God's sacramental presence. The hermit embraces a vocation which is ecclesial in this sense as well: her call is mediated to her by the Church in one way and another on a daily basis and she responds similarly as is appropriate for one committed to choosing life not death. I find canon 603 to be beautifully written in this sense as well as others I have mentioned in the past: that is, it demands the hermit be living an ecclesial life in every sense despite and because of  the accent on "stricter separation from the world" and "the silence of solitude". It provides for an approved Rule, for profession governed by the life and canons of the Church, for the supervision of legitimate superiors and (implicitly) spiritual director, for a local (diocesan) Church context and for the sacramental mediation of God's presence all of these provide and allow. Remember that in the Church's wisdom even vocations to actual reclusion require structures and relationships which underscore the mediated and ecclesial character of the recluse hermit's vocational call and response. These allow one to live a healthy anachoresis or "withdrawal" instead of an unhealthy isolation.

The Contemplative Life: Dealing with What IS:

One final word on your last question, "Shouldn't I have been able to "dwell with God alone" and find the healing needed?" Contemplative life is about dealing with reality. I cannot say whether I "should have been" able or not. The fact was I was NOT able to "achieve" the healing necessary without this very specific and intense assistance at this time. I was being called to greater or more abundant life in Christ and that meant working with my director in the way we have for the past five months. We both discerned the truth and necessity of this work. We both paid attention to signs of healing, greater life, shifts in prayer, signs of increased spontaneity, creativity, wholeness, recovered gifts, etc as we engaged in this work. We both understood and were committed (in differing ways) to my eremitical vocation and were clear that paradoxically it was the authenticity of this vocation which made this work possible and even necessary at this time. And, at those many difficult times when I was simply so immersed in the work itself and could not hold a wider perspective, I counted on my director (and my delegate, by the way) to do that for me --- and for the Church who has entrusted this vocation to me and to our work together. 

 Again, this is part of the giftedness an ecclesial vocation involves. While this may be a surprise to some, it means I and other canonical hermits are called and empowered to respond to God in the unexpected but very real way God comes to us and less to some more abstract notion of what "should" be the case. The structures and relationships codified in canon law (c 603 etc) are established to serve love and the choice of life by the solitary hermit. It does so by empowering the ability of diocesan hermits to live in the present moment and to avoid significant mistakes in discernment which occur in the absence of competent direction or religious leadership and supervision as we attempt instead and misguidedly to "Go it alone".

I hope this is helpful.

22 October 2016

Oakland Civic Orchestra 23. October.2016

One of the things I have looked freshly at over the past few months is the place of music in my experiences of the Transcendent throughout my life. From the fourth grade on, but especially from 6th grade through high school, music was the principle way in which God's unceasing presence was mediated to me. Music was a sustaining and empowering reality, a source of coherence, order, beauty, and personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth.

Last year I didn't play with Oakland Civic Orchestra at all, not only because an injury made walking almost impossible at times, but (and more importantly) because of various concerns re eremitical life and some work I needed to do with regard to eremitical solitude. It was a good choice and in some ways I think that work in the Fall and Spring eventuated in the inner work undertaken over the past 4.5-5 months. It has been a challenging, painful, and also wonderful number of months and though there is probably more work to be done, the essential healing seems to be completed. (My injury too is almost entirely healed so that is also pretty cool.) So this year I am back with OCO and our first concert is tomorrow afternoon.

It seems one of those amazing bits of timing I associate with this period that, just a week after completing  a very significant chunk of essential healing, life should be marked by a concert with long-time friends and colleagues. God, of course, is immensely --- infinitely--- good and gracious. And in my life the ability to play orchestral and chamber music with others from diverse backgrounds is most often a kind of eighth Sacrament which nourishes and sustains me and my prayer in the silence of solitude. I am looking forward to the concert and the season as a whole (not least because in the final set we will do Beethoven's 5th symphony once again after a number of years) though I must say I am only just getting back up to speed in terms of playing.

The program this set includes Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and A Life for the Czar Overture by Glinka as well as a set of "Five Fragments" by Shostakovich --- which, it seems to me. were never meant for public consumption and should have been left in whatever cupboard in which they were found! (Just saying!) I am not ordinarily much of a fan of contemporary music and this piece is one of my least favorite ever. But the Glinka and Scheherazade are terrific --- typically Russian pieces folks will relate to! Meanwhile, the video of Finlandia above is from last season's "Sibelius set". Some of the video, especially of the right side of the orchestra, is quite dark but persevere --- it is a backdrop for the light that is also present.

In the words of Dag Hammarskjöld, "For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, YES!" (Markings)

12 October 2016

Religious Profession: Challenges to one vow are a Challenge to all of Them

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I saw your vows from the first part of last month. Could I ask you which of these is the most difficult to live?]]

Thanks for your question. I am honestly not sure which single vow is most difficult because I rarely think of them as entirely separate from one another. You see, they overlap substantially and in fact, the way they are written is meant to create a single profession in which they build on and contribute to one another in a way which allows me to give my whole self. What I would like to do is indicate how this is so and provide an example of how personal challenges make ANY vow difficult from time to time. Please note that my focus in not on external elements so much as it is on the elements of my inner life that may distort the way I use or turn to those things outside myself whether these are material possessions (poverty) or involve the distortion of relationships (obedience and chastity).

Religious poverty:

I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.

There are definitely times when this vow is the most difficult. It is ALWAYS the most fundamental one for me though I see consecrated celibacy as the vow which defines the goal and purpose of my life. Poverty demands a way of approaching and seeing reality which is counter intuitive; it is a sacramental way of seeing reality even when it is painful, terrifying, dark, distorted, and destructive. You see, it demands I truly trust in the God who comes to us in both brokenness and wholeness, the God who is with us precisely when we are experiencing those things which are terrifying, dark, distorted, and even potentially destructive as well as when we are experiencing their opposite.  It is easy (or at least it is easier I think) to close up or shut down at these times, easy to make ourselves less vulnerable, less stripped of those personal defenses which close our hearts and smother the pain or stifle the fear or terror we might otherwise experience.

It is easier to turn to things which distract and in some ways numb or deflect attention from  the pain and therefore from the challenging act of faith and the commitment to God I am called to make in such moments. (I think that is true for all of us. At these times especially I can understand why some people become shopaholics, watch TV 10 hours a day, immerse themselves in mystery novels or computer games, or even turn to drugs, etc.) Thus, while it is true that poverty requires letting go of many things and while it is true most folks think of poverty primarily in these terms I see the letting go of things or distractions as a means to an end (a faithful vulnerability) and I see the vow primarily in terms of that end more than I do the means.

In all of this my vow of poverty also overlaps significantly with a commitment to obedience. I am vowed to allow God to be the sole source of strength and validation in order to be a gift to others so while that means letting myself stand with a kind of nakedness psychologically or emotionally as well as materially it also demands an openness to the One who is the ground of existence and meaning (this openness is the very essence of obedience). Still, in order to hear and to orient my life around the commitment to seek God, to listen to and for God in the silence of solitude, to embrace God's call in the myriad ways it comes to me every day and to see everything as a sacramental source or mediator of grace, a certain personal, material, and emotional or psychological poverty, stripping, or breaking open is required. 

In this context, vulnerability is another word for the poverty I am vowed to embrace. Whether the value is cast in terms of simplicity, poverty, or any of the other contemporary formulations which are common today the real heart of the vow is vulnerability. This means vulnerability on a number of levels: to my inner life and to my personal history, vulnerability to the work it takes to move through any pain or trauma associated with this history and each present moment as well --- whether this is done alone or with assistance --- vulnerability to the even deeper and richer truth I carry within myself which may have gone unrecognized and undeveloped, and at all times a vulnerability to the God who summons me to more and more abundant life and wholeness in union with him. Sometimes I don't think I am capable of it, sometimes I do find it really terrifying and demanding of more courage, trust, energy and persistence than I believe I can muster. At  these times poverty (and the faith which it requires, calls for, and in some ways makes possible) is the most challenging counsel for me.

Religious Obedience:
I acknowledge and accept that God is the author of my life and that through his Word, spoken in Jesus Christ, I have been called by name to be. I affirm that in this Word, a singular identity has been conferred upon me, a specifically ecclesial identity which I accept and for which I am forever accountable. Under the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, I vow to be obedient: to be attentive and responsible to Him who is the foundation of my being, to his solitary Word of whom I am called to be an expression, and to the whole of His People to whom it is my privilege to belong and serve.

While poverty is challenging at times obedience is so closely related to poverty that it tends to  become challenging at the same times. Poverty means saying no to those things which keep us buffered, shielded, or otherwise protected from the demands of reality and especially from the call to life which comes to us from within as well as without. But poverty is something we embrace for the sake of obedience, that is, so that we might be truly open and responsive to God and God's call. We say no to some things and live that no in a general way so that we can say and live out a yes to the One who is far more important and in fact is (or is meant to be) the center of our lives. We allow ourselves to become and remain vulnerable in order to hear and to commit ourselves to the God who is the source of all life and meaning. Unfortunately, (or at least it seems unfortunate at times) our God's primary language is silence and additionally (he) often dwells in darkness --- or a light which is so bright as to seem as darkness to us. To embrace the vulnerability of poverty for the sake of obedience (responsiveness) in the silence of solitude can be painful, and thus terribly challenging as we desire something or someone to comfort us in more usual ways --- with a word or a touch or at least a gesture of recognition and affection. Obedience to God does not always allow this.

In my own life, obedience means learning to listen and respond to the God who speaks primarily in the silence of solitude and I find that especially difficult when I am challenged by vulnerability or am, for whatever reason, frightened by the circumstances of my life. The exact same things that I may sometimes use to distract myself from poverty are the things which can shield me from obedience: things --- especially new (neos) things which give the immediate but very temporary and sometimes false  sense of a newness (kainete) which only God can give (here books, which are often a means of genuine obedience, are instead an important culprit), activities which are meant to fill the silence or blunt the solitude rather than to be part of an environment which truly leads to recreation in Christ. Similarly, it seems to me that obedience per se is not a problem unless poverty in the sense noted above (poverty as vulnerability) is also problematical. At the same time obedience overlaps substantially with chastity (consecrated celibacy) because it is the fundamental attitude of one who is open to truly loving God and others.

Consecrated Celibacy or Chastity:

Acknowledging that I have been called to obedient service in and of the Word of God, and acknowledging that Jesus’ gift of self to me is clearly nuptial in character, I affirm as well that I am called to be receptive and responsive to this compassionate and singular redemptive intimacy as a consecrated celibate. I do therefore vow chastity, this last definitive aspect of my vocation with care and fidelity, forsaking all else for the completion that is mine in Christ, and claiming as mine to cherish all that is cherished by Him.

I think it is clear from the first sentence of this vow that I see consecrated celibacy as building on both poverty and obedience. The capacity to love as this vow calls me (or anyone else) to is predicated on the capacity to let myself be vulnerable, open to, and responsive to God. Likewise it is grounded in God's love sufficiently to meet others with that same love. For me the vulnerability and responsiveness called for and empowered by religious poverty and obedience are matched by a vulnerability rooted in a personal security one knows only because she is loved with an everlasting love by God. It is a bit of an irony: a creative vulnerability is possible only because of this transcendently grounded security. This security is the fruit of being loved and held securely by God which is only known in faith. In light of this it is possible to see that celibate love is the compassionate love made possible by all that poverty and obedience opens us to. Similarly it can and often will be hampered by the same things that hamper either poverty or obedience.

If the vulnerability which characterizes true poverty is difficult for me for some reason  I will generally be far less able to be present and truly responsive to others --- beginning with God. Even more, that failure in responsiveness will lead to and represent a failure to love generously and selflessly. It might well cause (or at least tempt) me to withdraw in ways which are unhealthy rather than being expressions of eremitical anachoresis. In each vow then there are symptoms of a more serious dis-ease and disorder. With poverty the most common symptom of underlying dis-ease or disorder is an unhealthy attachment to things which numb and distract as they claim (or maybe consume is the better word) our capacities for giving ourselves in love; I find the same tends to be true of obedience though willfulness or an insistence on controlling reality are also common symptoms of a disorder here. As just noted with consecrated celibacy the most common symptom (for me anyway) is an unhealthy withdrawal though the distortions of healthy relatedness, sexuality, and intimacy may also occur and are what we usually think of as violations of chastity or consecrated celibacy.

I hope this is helpful for you. I realize I can't simply say one of these vows is more difficult for me because of the way I understand them. I can say that they are each expressions of faith. For that reason any significant challenge to faith, any challenge, that is, to my capacity to be vulnerable or trust and thus too to be open, or to love generously and selflessly is a challenge to my vows and may affect my ability to live each and all of them in the same way pulling a single thread affects other threads and, in fact, the integrity of the entire fabric.

05 October 2016

You Raise Me Up

My director sent this on to me today. The talent of these two children is astounding and inspiring. The song itself is particularly appropriate because of some writing I have been doing on the vows and the vulnerability they cultivate (I'll be posting about this in the next couple of days). Additionally they are apropos of inner work I am continuing to do which involves getting in touch with and embracing the deeper levels of both vulnerability and faith called for and specifically shaped by the evangelical counsels. Every day men and women Religious embrace this same vulnerability and affirm this faith afresh.

Similarly, I think all of us can identify with the lyrics here and the commitment to vulnerability and faith they call us to. As the daily readings move through Luke's teaching on prayer and as we each sit in the various silences we experience while opening our hearts to God, we know the importance of entrusting ourselves to the One who raises us to authentic humanity as he empowers courage and persistence in faithfully seeking and witnessing to this. We praise God when we allow him to raise us up so we can stand on mountains and walk on stormy seas. We praise God when we allow God to make us more than we can even dream of being by ourselves alone.

04 October 2016

Feast of St Francis (reprise)

All good wishes to my Franciscan friends, brothers and sisters. The first two pictures here are taken of one of the small side chapel niches at Old Mission Santa Barbara. The first one shows the entire sculpture setting with statues of St Francis and St Clare along with the San Damiano Cross in the background. The second is a close up of a portion of this setting which I have used before; it was a gift given to me on this Feast Day three years ago and is my favorite statue of St Francis. The third stands in the (private) covenant courtyard of the Mission and is another contemporary rendering through which a Father worked out his grief over the loss of his son.

Today St Francis' popularity and influence (inspiration!) is more striking than it has been in a very long time. We see it animating a relatively new Pope to transform the Church in light of Vatican II and to live a simple Gospel-centered life just as Francis of Assisi was inspired by God to do. We see it in the renewed emphasis of the Church on evangelization and ecumenism where the One God who stands behind all true religious impulses is honored while he is proclaimed most fully and revealed with the most perfect transparency in the crucified Christ. We see it in a renewed sense of the cosmic Christ and in a growing sensitivity to the sacredness and interconnectedness of all creation. 

Saint Francis lived the truth of the Gospel with an honesty, transparency (poverty), and integrity which captures the imagination of everyone who meets him in some significant way -- something that happens for so many in Pope Francis --- his papal namesake. This saint inspires a hope and joy that only the God who overcomes death and brings eternal life through an unconditional mercy and love that does justice could do. He renews our hope in Christ that our own Church and world might well reveal the glory of this God as they are meant to do. Saint Francis is a gift to the Church in ways which are hard to overstate.

On this Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi I feel privileged to celebrate this great man (saint) and all those who go by the name of Franciscan . In particular I celebrate friends and Sisters like Ilia Delio whose book, Making All Things New . . . I highly recommend! [It is as readable as her books on Saint Clare, Franciscan Prayer, or The Humility of God  and explores some of the theological implications of an unfinished universe and the "new cosmology. What is "new" here is that she does so with regard to classic topics more typically associated with the whole history systematic or dogmatic theology (e.g., the nature of Catholicity and the Church, the last things, putting on the Mind of Christ, etc).]  I also especially [continue to] give thanks for Pope Francis, a shepherd so clearly inspired by Saint Francis and the Crucified Christ. . . . Our world is simply a better place with a more truly Christian presence, sensibility, and spirit because of Saint Francis and those who seek to live his way. Peace and all Good!

P.S., While I am recommending good reads associated with Saint Francis in some way I should mention Daniel Horan, OFM's book from 2014 The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton and also (for some, and certainly for Franciscans) Ilia Delio, OSF's much older book in the Studies in Franciscanism series, Crucified Love, Bonaventure's Mysticism of the Crucified Christ.

25 September 2016

Followup #2: On God Alone, Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

[[Dear Sister, Thank you for the exercise on contemplative prayer and distractions. (cf. On God Alone Once Again and In God Alone; links added to question.) I got a copy of the chant and have used it by listening to it at least four or five times in a continuous loop and then paying attention as you suggested. I had trouble listening to just one thing or the other but in time it became easier. What I liked best was that at the end of doing this several different times . . . I began to hear the lines that didn't seem to fit at first instead as part of the whole. I wanted them to be there and could hear them in my mind even when I listened to a different version of the chant. I missed them! But I wonder if this is a good thing. Could it encourage distractions in prayer?]]

Interesting question! First though, I am SO pleased you began to experience one of the things I also experience in listening in this way, namely, the improvisational strands that seemed to lose touch with the chant as they wander off seeming to do their own thing to some extent begin to be an integral part of the whole -- even in their moments of lostness -- and are missed when they are not actually there. I am especially glad you listened to another version of the chant and were able to experience this added dimension of things! It is definitely an important insight and points to some changes (growth?!!) in your own way of hearing. When I experience this kind of thing I begin to hear the whole piece in a new way; I begin to experience a unity which comes not only from the grounding chant itself but also from the improvisational line's yearning to remain related to and struggle (sometimes it is very clearly a struggle) to come to rest securely in that ground once again. Isn't this a pretty good picture of what our prayer is really like or our lives, for that matter? I notice too that listening in this way contributes to greater patience with allowing things to work out as they will in their own time and way. By listening in this way I practice trusting that the larger story not only in my own life but in that of all creation is that one day God will be all in all and nothing will be lost.

I think it is fine that you cannot simply hear the chant without the improvisational lines so long as you can shift your attention gently and slightly to hear the foundational theme or the improvisational lines when you need to do so. In prayer this is really what happens; we shift our attention slightly and gently to wherever we feel called. Again, you bring your whole self and sometimes those "distracting" lines may be a doorway, a musical "modulation" to awareness of a part of yourself you have withheld for some time -- from God, yes, but also, perhaps, even from yourself. What seem to be mere distractions may be or turn out to be important pieces of our life and prayer. I don't think you want to make this an exercise which, in its own way, reprises your original struggle to banish stray thoughts and empty your mind. What I was hoping for from the exercise was that it 1) demonstrate and assist in embracing a way of thinking about the relationship between contemplative prayer and distractions, and 2) provide a way to practice listening while you relaxed with regard to the "distractions". I think the "exercise" is good at helping us learn to listen or "hearken" in the way prayer demands we do. It helps one to be attentive while remaining relaxed and open to hearing/seeing everything (including distractions!) in a new way.

And here then is the answer to your question. I don't think this exercise encourages distractions, but distractions are real and usually unavoidable; they will, for most of us anyway, always be a real part of our prayer. We have to learn to hold them lightly, attend to them as they warrant (for they CAN be important), accept them as potentially sacramental as we do for everything else in our world, and shift our attention where it really needs to be at any given moment --- even as we also trust in the connectedness of the whole. We need to learn to hearken to God, to allow God's dynamic "Music" or Presence to take hold of us in the same way we do for symphonies or other music and songs we know and love --- or wish one day to truly know and love. We must be able to give ourselves over to God in the same way and let God grasp us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. For me music is a living reality that demands the same kind of attentiveness as prayer. In fact, some of the time, I would not hesitate to call this prayer so if listening to the Taize chant "In God Alone" (or any others!) helped you or others with this I am very glad.

14 September 2016

Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross --- On Humility vs Humiliation

[[Hi Sister, would you do me a favor and repost the piece you did on humilty vs humiliation and the cross. It was the one where someone disagreed with your distinction  between these.  On a day where we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross I thought it was important as part of understanding how we can do that --- celebrate the Cross I mean.]]

Now this is a new one for me --- a request to repost something for a Feast, but sure, here it is.

[[Dear Sister, when we look at the cross I don't think your distinction between humiliation and humility holds. Jesus suffers all kind of humiliation and is humbled. He shows real humility as a result of his humiliation.]] (cp. From Humiliation to Humility: Resting in the Gaze of God)

Thanks for your comment. I get what you are saying: it is in being humiliated that Jesus shows great humility, right? At the same time you are saying, I think, that humiliation leads to humility. In this you have actually put your finger on one of the most destructive confusions and interpretations of the cross ever imagined. You see, while I would agree that Jesus shows incredible humility in the midst of great humiliation, where we seem to disagree is that his humility is a result of his humiliation. Remember that Jesus possesses great humility throughout his life. He possesses it in spite of temptation, trial, and in spite of humiliation. Humiliation leads to or results in shame; humility, on the other hand, is a form of graced dignity.

Jesus knows who he is in light of God's love, "You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased", and he holds onto that sense of identity, that dignity we know as humility even in the midst of shaming torture and crucifixion. When others are betraying him, abandoning him, and trying him for blasphemy and betrayal of the God he knows as Abba, i.e., when others are shaming him, Jesus counters all of this by holding onto who he knows himself to be in the light of God's love.

It is important in reflecting on the cross that we distinguish between the judgment and activities of a sinful body-and-soul-murdering mankind and what is of God. The humiliation and arena of shame is created by human beings who see Jesus' incredibly wonderful works and deem him demonic and blasphemous. When they raise a person up it is to the heights of degradation and shame. But at that same point God sees most clearly his beloved Son, loving and obedient even unto death on a cross. From THAT vantage point what is revealed to us, what empowers Jesus even in his dying, is the epitome of humility --- a transcendent dignity [which is rooted in human and divine truth] and perfected in weakness.

Again then, when you look at the cross and find humiliation you can trace that to the soul-killing judgment of men and women and to their murderous "execution of judgment." As I wrote recently, God NEVER humiliates. NEVER! Human beings lift or hold us up to shame. God raises to humility. When you look at the cross and find genuine humility you must trace that to the graced knowledge of self that comes ultimately from God. It would be an incredibly destructive reading of the events of the cross to see humiliation as the cause of humility. Humility is the incredible dignity Jesus possesses in spite of the shaming humiliation human judgment subjected him to.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

Feast of the Exaltation/Triumph of the Cross (Reprise)

Today's Feast is the Exaltation (and the Triumph!) of the Cross. I will be putting up a post based on a talk I prepared for some of our school children regarding the readings used at today's Mass but until I can get that written up here, let me mark this significant feast with a piece I wrote in a response to a reader's request several years ago.

[[Could you write something about [today's] feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

 The above question which arrived by email was the result of reading some of my posts, mainly those on victim soul theology, the Pauline theology of the Cross, and some earlier ones having to do with the permissive will of God. For that reason my answer presupposes much of what I wrote in those and I will try not to be too repetitive. First of all, in answering the question, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative.

(Crucifix in Ambo of Cathedral of Christ the Light; Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Cathedral Sunday in the Diocese of Oakland)

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was ALSO a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph ONLY because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in ALL of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they are miniature instruments of torture, yes, but also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the asistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exult in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we MUST bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace ALWAYS results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will REALLY be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In ALL cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives IN SPITE of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in ANY situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We MUST do whatever it is that allows us to not close off to God, and to remain open to growth AS HUMAN. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act in ways which changes that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life) then we must act in ways which change that.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others TO THE GRACE OF GOD. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in Sunday's Feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the cross empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in THAT Cross in embracing our own.

I am certain I have not completely answered your question, but for now this will need to suffice. My thanks for your patience. If you have other questions which can assist me to do a better job, I would very much appreciate them. Again, thanks for your emails.

12 September 2016

A Contemplative Moment: The Silence of Solitude

The Silence of Solitude

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

Fr Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam: The Eremitic Life

11 September 2016

Parable of the Merciful Father (reprise)

I am hoping to put up another post on today's readings from a different perspective with a focus on lostness and being found and brought home --- but in case I am unable to finish it today forgive this reprise from several years ago. (I know you will and thank you for that!!)

Commentators tend to name today's Gospel parable after the Merciful Father, because he is central to all the scenes. It is his story and in every scene both younger and elder Sons are who they are only in relation to him. Moreover the Father is foolishly prodigal in his time and love. Even when the younger Son is in a far off place, the Father waits silently, implicitly, in the wings. We should notice too that it is his foolish generosity that predominates; in this sense, he too is prodigal. Perhaps then we should call this the parable of the Prodigal Father. The younger son squanders his inheritance, but the Father is also (in common terms and in terms of Jewish Law) foolish in giving him the inheritance, the "substance" (literally, the ousias) of his own life and that of Israel. His younger Son treats him as dead (a sin against the Commandment to honor Father and Mother) and still this Father looks for every chance to receive him back.

When the younger son comes to his senses, rehearses his terms for coming home ("I will confess and be received back not as a Son, but as a servant,"), his Father, watching for his return, eagerly runs to meet him in spite of the offense represented in such an act, forestalls his confession, brings his Son into the center of the village thus rendering everything unclean according to the law, clothes him in the garb of Sonship and authority, kills the fatted calf and throws a welcome home party --- all heedless of the requirements of the law, matters of ritual impurity or repentance, etc. Meanwhile, the dutiful older son keeps the letter of the law of sonship but transgresses its essence and also treats his Father with dishonor. He is grudging, resentful, angry, blind, and petty in failing to recognize what is right before him all the time. He too is prodigal, allowing his authentic Sonship to die day by day as he assumes a more superficial role instead. And yet, the Father reassures him that what is the Father's is the Son's and what is the Son's is the Father's (which makes the Father literally an "ignorant man" in terms of the Law, an "am-haretz"). Contrary to the wisdom of the law, he continues to invite him into the celebration, a celebration of new life and meaning. He continues to treat him as a Son.

The theme of Law versus Gospel comes up strongly in this and other readings this week, though at first we may fail to recognize this. Paul recognizes the Law is a gift of God but without the power to move us to act as Sons and Daughters of God in the way Gospel does. When coupled with human sinfulness it can --- whether blatantly or insidiously --- be terribly destructive. How often as Christians do we act in ways which are allowed (or apparently commanded) by law but which are not really appropriate to Daughters and Sons of an infinitely merciful Father who is always waiting for our return, always looking for us to make the slightest responsive gesture in recognition of his presence, to "come to our senses", so that he can run to us and enfold us in the sumptuous garb of Daughterhood or Sonship? How often is our daily practice of our faith dutiful, and grudging but little more? How often do we act competitively or in resentment over others whose vocation is different than our own, whose place in the church (or the world of business, commerce, and society, for that matter) seems to witness to greater love from God? How often do we quietly despair over the seeming lack of worth of our lives in comparison to that of others? Whether we recognize it or not these attitudes are those of people motivated by law, not gospel. They are the attitudes of measurement and judgment, not of incommensurate love and generosity.

At the begining of Lent we heard the fundamental choice of our lives and present in all choices put before us, "Choose life not death." Today that choice is sharpened and the subtle forms of death we often choose are set in relief: will we be Daughters and Sons of an infinitely and foolishly Merciful Father --- those who truly see and accept a love that is beyond our wildest imaginings and love others similarly, or, will we be prodigals in the pejorative sense, servants of duty, those who only accept the limited love we believe we have coming to us and who approach others competitively, suspiciously and without generosity? Will we be those whose notions of justice constrain God and our ability to choose the life he sets before us, or will we be those who are forgiven to the awesome degree and extent God is willing and capable of forgiving? Will we allow ourselves to be welcomed into a new life --- a life of celebration and joy, but also a life of greater generosity, responsibility, and God-given identity, or will we simply make do with the original prodigality of either the life of the younger or elder son? After all, both live dissipated lives in this parable: one flagrantly so, and one in quiet resentment, slavish dutifulness, and unfulfillment.

The choice before those living the latter kind of Christian life is no less significant, no less one of conversion than the choice set before the younger son. His return may be more dramatic, but that of the elder son demands as great a conversion. He must move from a quiet exile where he bitterly identifies himself as a slave rather than a free man or (even less) a Son. His own vision of his life and worth, his true identity, are little different than those of the younger son who returns home rehearsing terms of servility rather than sonship. The parable of the merciful Father puts before us two visions of life, and two main versions of prodigality; it thus captures the two basic meanings of prodigal: wasteful and lavish. There is the prodigality of the sons who allow the substance of their lives and identities to either be cast carelessly or slip silently away, the prodigality of those who lose their truest selves even as they grasp at wealth, adventure, duty, role, or other forms of security and "fulfillment". And there is the prodigality of the Father who loves and spends himself generously without limit or condition. In other words, there is death and there is life, law and gospel. Both stand before us ready to be embraced. Which form of prodigality will we choose? For indeed, the banquet hall is ready for us and the Father stands waiting at this very moment, ring, robe, and sandals in hand.

09 September 2016

In God Alone Once Again: On Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

[[Dear Sister, When you pray contemplatively do you ever have trouble with distractions? I would like to do quiet prayer but just can't get quiet. I want to empty my mind of thoughts and worries but I just can't seem to do it. Everyone talks about centering or centering down and getting quiet but I don't have the slightest idea of how that happens. Can you help me? Give me some advice? What do I do?]]

Whew! In some ways a really difficult question --- but in other ways simple. I can't give you "how to" kinds of advice really, but maybe I can give you a way of thinking about the relationship of prayer and distractions that will be helpful. First of all though I think you have to get rid of the idea that in prayer you empty your mind of thoughts. I suppose it is possible after years of practice. Eastern thought seems to have elements of this approach but I don't think this is the same as Christian prayer, even contemplative Christian prayer. In Christian prayer we bring the whole of ourselves, all our concerns, joys, thoughts, feelings, etc., etc., and we turn all of this over to God to love into wholeness. In contemplative prayer we do this in a single (continuing) relatively wordless action. (A word or one line prayer may be used as a refrain occasionally to renew our commitment and focus throughout the prayer period or they may be mainly unnecessary.) Sometimes folks describe contemplative prayer as our wordless gazing on God. Maybe. (I rarely find myself gazing on God.) But for me the definition that works better is "silently resting in the gaze of God." We pray contemplatively when we allow ourselves to rest in the loving gaze of God. It is about allowing God to look on, "touch", and work in us in whatever way God wills.  God is the one doing the work; we "show up" and quietly commit to allowing "God's work" to occur.

Prayer is not OUR Work but God's:

But we have to let go of the notion that prayer is OUR work and that includes working to stop distractions or empty our minds. You asked if I experience distractions and the answer is yes, of course, absolutely, without doubt! I am human and I cannot turn off my mind! However, I can and do focus on the greater reality here and now while those thoughts spin around on another level. Recently I posted the Taize chant "In God Alone" and I spoke about the theme grounding the music while individual players and instruments improvised all around the theme. When I listen to that cut I am reminded of contemplative prayer. I hear and mainly focus on the chant itself, the deep and continuing theme and Presence that relates to, shapes, and causes everything else to cohere. Implicitly I give permission (so to speak) to that chant to fill me and take over my thoughts, feelings, etc so that I am taken more and more deeply into its true meaning. I give this permission, an expression of my deepest yearning, so that I am always listening to or for it, so that, in fact, I rest in it as it lives and sings in me. I desire for its truth to be MY truth as well and I am open to allowing it to be a chant that sounds deep within me at all times, prayer period or not.

At the same time however there are the improvisational lines which spin off from the theme and, for brief periods, seem to take on a life of their own. I follow them with part of my mind while I continue to hold onto the chant "In God Alone" with the rest. I watch as they veer away, come back, and eventually rest once again in the main chant. In contemplative prayer these might be similar to distractions. I hold these distractions lightly with my mind as I focus more completely on allowing God to work within me. In time the improvisational lines cease to be distracting and though our minds do not stop working in this way we will find our prayer is really about being grounded in that larger unceasing chant. We have been listening to that right along so long as we hold the distractions lightly. Even more importantly, whether we heard it or not it has continued to sound right along carrying us with it, speaking or singing (to) us in ways that affect us below the level of consciousness. So it is with God in contemplative prayer. We have to learn to trust that.

Exercise: Becoming Comfortable With Distractions

So, I have a suggestion for you -- a kind of exercise in this dimension of contemplative prayer. Listen to the chant above several times. (If you have or can find a copy of the longer version which you could loop automatically it would definitely be more helpful for several reasons.) Commit to doing this seriously in a quiet environment. Sit quietly, close your eyes and just listen. Focus on the chant itself ("in God Alone") and DON'T worry about the improvisational lines. They are there and there's nothing you can or should do about them. Let the chant take hold of you, bring more and more of yourself to it as it speaks to you more and more deeply. Then, hold onto this main focus (continue listening to the chant per se) and listen to the improvisational lines AS WELL. Let yourself be taken by them even to the extent of detaching attention from the foundational chant if that's what happens but then, quietly and calmly refocus your mind and heart on the chant. Find it and settle into listening to it once again. Try this several times and be flexible --- always listening for and trusting in the Presence of the chant which grounds, structures, and unifies everything else.

Again while this is not a "how to" lesson in praying contemplatively it might give you some greater measure of comfort with distractions which occur despite and in addition to our deeper focus and commitment, our deeper "hearkening," -- this deeper and sustaining act of entrusting ourselves to the loving gaze of God "come what may"! Obviously this example is only analogous but I have listened to this chant in a repetitive way myself and felt it functioning as I described. It reminded me not only of living our lives with God and in light of God no matter how far from God we wander at times, but also the dynamics of contemplative prayer as we allow the the dynamic, singing, Love-in-Act we call God to call to us, to silently shape and empower us even as we return to it again and again because we have wandered away.

Let me know if it is of any help to you or if I have completely confused you here!

07 September 2016

Canon 603 English Text

[[Hi Sister, you naturally speak of canon 603 all the time but I can't find it quoted anywhere here. I know you have quoted it in various posts so that makes it my bad but would you mind posting it separately? Thanks!]]

Sure, great idea. Because of your question I looked for it in some posts here myself and couldn't find it! (I was going to add the label "canon 603 -- text of" as an easy solution to the problem of locating the canon and ran into the same problem you had;  in this case MY BAD, not yours!)

Can. 603 §1. In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.

§2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.

Mentally Ill Priests as Hermits? Once Again on the Illegitimacy of Stopgap Vocations

[[Dear Sister,
      Our parish has a priest who has serious mental health issues. Because he does less pastoral ministry than other priests he says he is a hermit. This raises a number of questions for some of us here: 1) is hermit life a good option for the seriously mentally ill? 2) if a priest has a busy pastoral ministry how can he live as or call himself a hermit? 3) Do dioceses use canon 603 to profess and consecrate these priests? 4) How often does this happen? A number of parishioners have begun to think that hermit life is a kind of fallback "vocation" for when someone is unable to live their real commitments. I know you have written about "stopgap" and fallback vocations but also vocations to chronic illness so I wonder what you think about this. I think it detracts from the hermit vocation.]]

Thank you. Your questions are typical of those I sometimes receive from other diocesan hermits and also from priests who would like to maintain a full pastoral ministry but also live as hermits. Some are interested in building in a more substantial contemplative dimension to their pastoral and spiritual lives and (mistakenly I think) believe that eremitical life is the way to do this. Only occasionally have I heard about situations such as the one you describe where serious mental illness is involved and eremitical life really does seem to be a potential stopgap or fallback position for those who are unable to live their canonical commitments. (I say potential because in some rare instances a priest may well transition into eremitical life and do well at it when he cannot meet other obligations. Vocational paths can change and God can certainly call us to a new way which uses our very weakness as a revelation of graced strength.)

The Temptation to Misuse Canon 603

However, the accent there is on the word rare. I'm afraid the temptation to misuse canon 603 or eremitical life more generally is more common than some of us would like to think, not only because the canon (and the eremitical life it defines) is little understood but because these are not valued; the actual charism of the vocation is not appreciated. As a result some chancery officials and many faithful believe it is a kind of empty (contentless) category into which all kinds of "failures to fit in" can be poured or situated. Before discussing the different situations you named I think it is important to recognize this temptation or tendency and to make it very clear that canon 603 specifically and eremitical life more generally are defined in the Church in a very clear and definite way: it is a LIFE of assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence OF solitude, profession of the evangelical counsels lived according to a Rule of Life the hermit writes him/herself all lived under the supervision of the local bishop (and implicitly, regular and competent spiritual direction). It is not an avocation or way of validating mediocrity or simple inability. (The redemption of inability or weakness is another matter!!)

The elements of this life are important because the entire constellation comprises a life which can witness in a special way to the unique and fundamental truth that God alone is sufficient for us. In our world this particular message is a crucial one. So many are alone and alienated even as they yearn for love and completion. So many hunger to believe their lives are meaningful or of real value and have no way to do that if forced to compete merely in "worldly" terms. And of course whole cultures are built on the misguided drives to wealth and power, domination and individualism of every stripe including narcissism. The hermit reminds us that there is one basic truth that counters the anguish and anxiety associated with all of this, one foundational relationship that is the real wealth and source of power in authentic human living: viz., God alone is sufficient for us. To use canon 603 or the term "hermit" for any lone individual, especially as a way of creating a stopgap means to validate a failed or otherwise dysfunctional vocation is an essentially careless and dishonest usage of the canon and a trivialization of the term "vocation"; it is therefore also a way of denigrating the gift of the Holy Spirit solitary eremitical life represents.

I have been writing about the tendency of individuals and even some chancery officials to misuse canon 603 out of ignorance or a failure to appreciate its gift quality here for a large part of the last nine years. While I do see a lessening in the incidence of such abuse or misuse in a general sense, the temptation to use the canon to profess non-hermits or to consecrate lone individuals who sometimes actually show no knowledge of the canon much less experience of the life it defines and codifies is still alarmingly prevalent. The situations you asked about constitute some of the thornier instances that occasionally crop up. And yet we would not accept such an approach to any other form of consecrated life!

Canon 603 and the Seriously Mentally Ill:

In general I don't support eremitical life for the seriously mentally ill. In an earlier post I wrote the following which I still hold: [[My general answer to the first part of your question is yes, some mentally ill persons COULD be hermits, but not all and not most. Regarding the second portion of the question, those that COULD be hermits are those whose illness is well-controlled with medication and whose  physical solitude definitely contributes to their vocations to wholeness and emotional/mental well-being. There should be no doubt about this, and it should be clear to all who meet them. It should assist them in loving themselves, God, and others rather than detracting from this basic responsibility. In other words, solitude should be the context for these persons becoming more authentically human and maturing in that fundamental or foundational vocation for the whole of their lives. With this in mind I am thinking too that some forms of mental illness do not lend themselves to eremitical vocations: illnesses with thought disorders, delusions, hallucinations, fanatical or distorted religious ideation, and the like are probably not amenable to life as a hermit.

On the other hand, some forms of mental illness would (or rather, could) do quite well in an eremitical setting so long as the anachoresis (that is, the healthy withdrawal) required by the vocation is clearly different from that caused by the illness and does not contribute to it but instead even serves to heal it. Certain mood disorders, for instance, cause a defensive or reactive and unhealthy withdrawal, but it is not the same as the responsive anachoresis of the hermit. The person suffering from clinical depression who also wishes to be a hermit should be able to discern the difference between these two things and this requires a lot of insight and personal work. However, if a person suffers from clinical depression (or has done in the past) I would say it should be pretty well-controlled medically, and no longer debilitating or disabling before the person is allowed to make even temporary profession as a diocesan hermit. At the same time, provisions for adequate ongoing and emergent care and treatment should be written into this hermit's Rule of Life.

In any case, I think the decision to become a hermit when mental illness is a factor is something which requires the candidate and her spiritual director, her psychiatrist or psychologist, along with the diocesan staff to work together to discern the wisdom of. Mental illness per se should not always automatically preclude this vocational option, but there is no doubt that eremitical silence, solitude, prayer and penance can exacerbate rather than help with some forms of mental illness. Even in the completely healthy person eremitical solitude can lead to mental problems. Ordinarily we are made for a more normal type of communion or social interaction with others, and this is a particularly significant area for caution when dealing with mental illness.]]  Eremitical Life and Mental Illness

Canon 603 as a Stopgap solution:

But let me be very clear here. A diocese or individual must discern a vocation to eremitical life FIRST of all; they must be aware of how it is mental illness works against this discernment and vocation, how the vocation to the silence of solitude assists in personal healing and the special care required to deal with an illness which could otherwise thwart such a genuine eremitical vocation. WHAT THEY CANNOT AND MUST NOT DO is treat this canon on eremitical life as a way of disposing of a troublesome priest or situation, a way of isolating a difficult personality, or in any other way treating eremitical life as a stopgap solution which minimizes demands on the diocese or its presbyterate to truly care for this priest and find ways to allow him to minister as normally as possible. In this situation as in any other a hermit is NOT JUST A LONE individual much less an isolated one who doesn't fit in anywhere else! If a diocese must relieve a seriously ill priest of his pastoral role and/or faculties and allow him to live on his own, then let them do that BUT they MUST NOT facilely attempt to validate this by calling the man a "hermit." He is not. Instead he is a mentally ill priest separated from active priestly ministry and made to live alone.

What is important to understand I think is that a hermit dealing with some form of mental illness is not the same thing as a mentally ill person separated off from social contact and active ministry either by their illness or by their superiors. That is true even when the mentally ill person is asked to continue a life of prayer --- though in such a case an eremitical call might eventually be revealed. Eremitical life is defined in terms of the character and quality of one's life with God in the silence of solitude. The question which must be asked is, "If someone (a non-priest or lay person) came to the chancery seeking to live as a hermit under canon 603 because they have bi-polar disorder or a form of psychosis, for instance, and cannot function well, would the diocese profess and consecrate them as a canonical hermit on these grounds?"

My sense is in the vast majority of such cases a diocese would refuse --- and rightly so. In that remaining small fraction of cases it is possible the person will discover he is really called to a desert life of the silence of solitude, but this discovery takes significant time, discernment, and formation. The Church recognizes the eremitical life as a significant gift of the Holy Spirit, one which is capable of producing profound fruit at every level of the Church and in the world. To thumb one's nose at this truth while treating eremitical life as though it were the ecclesiastical equivalent of a back ward of a psychiatric hospital into which one might shunt all manner of difficult or problematical characters is not merely an injustice or abuse on every level (not least for the individual suffering from mental illness!) but, in its dishonesty and lack of genuine charity, a blasphemous one as well.

Priests and the eremitical Life More Generally:

I do get emails relatively regularly from priests with very full pastoral lives who would like to become hermits. In general they seem to use the term hermit to describe a contemplative or at least more contemplative life than the one they are managing to live now. What they must remember is that while all hermits are contemplatives, not all contemplatives are (nor are they called to be) hermits! It is very rare for dioceses to allow diocesan priests to become consecrated hermits and generally speaking these cases require a significant degree of additional discernment before a chancery would allow them to do so. Remember that priests undergo a significant degree of training and discernment prior to ordination. Dioceses are pretty clear that someone they are admitting to Orders has a call both to priesthood and to active ministry. Psychological testing and interviews are part and parcel of the discernment process and while some kinds of disorders might be missed, serious mental illness ordinarily would not. Even for situations in which the diagnosis is missed prior to ordination medical management and appropriate trials of psychotropic meds combined with therapy would be a first line of treatment long before considering perhaps someone has a vocation as a hermit. (And notice I am speaking of discerning a VOCATION as a hermit, not to shunting someone off into an isolated residence and "calling it" a hermitage!)

Occasionally newly ordained and entirely healthy priests have difficulty adjusting to the demands of parish vs seminary life, for instance. This does not mean they are called to become hermits though any more than it means a graduate student who has difficulty  transitioning from years of more solitary research and dissertation writing to a full-time teaching position is really called to be a hermit. The newly-ordained priest certainly needs to find assistance to manage his time and provide for adequate prayer, study, and recreation; he may also need the support of other priests and perhaps even therapy or counseling to assist him make the transition, but generally the seminary personnel will have discerned carefully with the seminarian and finding he is really called to be a hermit within a few years of ordination is unlikely in the extreme. What is true for the healthy newly ordained is actually even truer for the mentally ill priest.


The bottom line in all of this is the same as I have written before and as you yourself have concluded. Eremitical life in the Church is a divine vocation with a character and value which are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it is a radical, demanding, and dangerous vocation for those not called to it. It is not a "stopgap" or "fallback" vocation for those unfit or unsuited to vocations in which they have been ordained or professed, nor is it a label given to those MERELY living prayerful lives alone --- especially if they are also mainly active or apostolic. Eremitical vocations are desert vocations, calls to the silence OF solitude. Such vocations must be discerned and formed with all the care and dedication given to any other ecclesial vocation. A number of us with chronic physical illnesses, for instance, have discovered and embraced a vocation to eremitical life but this discovery and the discernment it required was genuine; it was not a way of validating our inability to undertake lives of active ministry (or a way of dignifying our illness-rooted isolation!) but instead a way of fully or radically revealing the truth that "God's power is perfected in weakness" as well as that "God alone is sufficient for us" and embodying these in our Church and world.

In a world which needs especially to hear the latter truth ("God Alone is Enough") and which thus needs to see that hermits live and are called to live radically full, whole, and holy lives in the power of God, it would be a disservice to all involved and an offense against the Holy Spirit to misuse eremitical life as a stopgap. Better solutions must be found for cases like the one you mentioned --- more honest solutions which do justice to the persons and to the vocations involved and which witness unequivocally to God and the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. Either we believe in eremitical vocations or we do not (and some chancery personnel do not). If we do believe God calls people in this radical way then we do not betray the reality or our own belief by trivialization and destructive compromise. If we do not believe in eremitical vocations then we certainly must not trivialize the lives of the ill or relatively incapable by facile equivocations. To do either in the name of the Holy Spirit strikes me as immoral.

03 September 2016

When the Night Becomes Dark

When the night becomes dark,
Your love, O Lord, is as fire;
Your love, O Lord, is as fire.

02 September 2016

Anniversary Memories, Renewed Commitment

Rev John Kasper OSFS (Pastor), Archbishop Allen H Vigneron, and Sister Marietta Fahey SHF (Delegate) during my 2007 profession of perpetual eremitical vows at St Perpetua's Catholic Community, Diocese of Oakland.

Profession of the Evangelical Counsels:

 I earnestly desire to respond to the gift of vocation to the eremitical life and freely follow the inspiration of grace to a hidden apostolic fruitfulness in a life of prayerful contemplation as a solitary hermit. I, Sister Laurel M O’Neal, come before you, God --- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit --- to make my profession to live out my baptismal commitment more fully.

Religious poverty:

I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.

Religious Obedience:

I acknowledge and accept that God is the author of my life and that through his Word, spoken in Jesus Christ, I have been called by name to be. I affirm that in this Word, a singular identity has been conferred upon me, a specifically ecclesial identity which I accept and for which I am forever accountable. Under the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, I vow to be obedient: to be attentive and responsible to Him who is the foundation of my being, to his solitary Word of whom I am called to be an expression, and to the whole of His People to whom it is my privilege to belong and serve.

Consecrated Celibacy:

Acknowledging that I have been called to obedient service in and of the Word of God, and acknowledging that Jesus’ gift of self to me is clearly nuptial in character, I affirm as well that I am called to be receptive and responsive to this compassionate and singular redemptive intimacy as a consecrated celibate. I do therefore vow chastity, this last definitive aspect of my vocation with care and fidelity, forsaking all else for the completion that is mine in Christ, and claiming as mine to cherish all that is cherished by Him.

I ask you, Bishop Allen H Vigneron, as Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, to accept my vows in the name of the Church, and to grant me your blessing. May the Word of God which I touch with my hand today be my life and my inspiration, this I pray.

Understanding these vows to be perpetually binding, I pronounce them in the name of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Made on this 2nd day of September, 2007 at Saint Perpetua Catholic Church, Lafayette, California.