29 April 2016

Lay Diocesan Hermit???

Dear Sister, what is a diocesan lay hermit? How do they differ from consecrated diocesan hermits?

Thanks for your question. From time to time folks search this site using various terms and one of those is "diocesan lay hermit". There is  simply no such thing. All diocesan hermits are professed and consecrated canonically under canon 603. What this means is that if one is publicly professed and consecrated as a diocesan hermit, they live as a hermit OF a specific diocese rather than merely living as a privately professed or non-canonical hermit IN the diocese. The distinction between being a hermit in a diocese and being a hermit OF a diocese seems like a petty distinction but it really is not. For instance, I lived for many years as a hermit IN the Diocese of Oakland; only when I was admitted to perpetual profession and to consecration as a canon 603 did I become a diocesan hermit OF the Diocese of Oakland. A document testifying to this fact was issued by the diocese and given to me on the day of profession; this "testimonial" is something similarly provided for many diocesan hermits over the years.

You see, once one attaches a term like diocesan or Catholic or consecrated or professed to one's eremitical life one is necessarily talking about being a publicly or legitimately committed hermit OF the diocese. The diocese must share in the individual's discernment and admit them to canonical profession and consecration. When this occurs the person so consecrated is a diocesan hermit, a hermit living her eremitical life in the name of the diocesan Church and too, the Church Universal. (Remember the diocese is a local Church and the publicly professed hermit lives her life in the name of the Church --- both local and universal; thus, she is diocesan and lives her life in the name of the diocese.) Through profession under canon 603 alone does one become a diocesan hermit. A lay hermit in a diocese, whether privately vowed or not vowed at all, is not a diocesan hermit.

Again,  the professed (canonical) hermit is not necessarily better than the lay (non-canonical) hermit. However, they differ in the rights and obligations they have assumed. Both live their baptismal promises in the silence of solitude. A canonical or consecrated hermit --- whether under c 603 or professed as part of a congregation like the Camaldolese or Carthusians, for instance, ---  is extended and embraces canonical obligations and rights which are additional to those associated with baptism alone. The word diocesan in your question points to an ecclesial vocation in which the Church admits one to canonical standing as a hermit under the direct supervision of the diocesan bishop.

Addendum, Followup Question: If I am a Catholic and a lay hermit don't I also live my life in the name of the Church? Why not as a hermit?

Lay persons do indeed live their lives and vocations as persons in the lay state in the name of the Church. The Church commissions them to do this not only at baptism but quite often during Mass (Go and proclaim the Gospel with your lives, etc), or at other times. Such a sending forth is something we may take for granted but it is an act of commissioning which serves to renew the call associated with one's state of life.

However, a lay hermit (with or without private vows) does not live eremitical life itself in the name of the Church. She has undertaken this life according to her own discernment in her own name. It is a private undertaking unless and until the Church commissions her to live it in her name. You, for instance, are entirely free to live as a lay hermit in this way, just as you are free to live your lay vocation in any number of ways with various  commitments (e.g., in the military, law enforcement, education, medicine, etc).  While all of these and many other similar commitments  are significant callings embraced by persons in the lay state they are not commissioned, or lived in the name of the Church. If you should also wish to live eremitical life in the name of the Church you (or any lay hermit) must submit to a mutual process of discernment and, should the Church determine you are called to this vocation, they will act to profess and eventually consecrate and commission you to live eremitical life in her name.

28 April 2016

Feast of Catherine of Siena


My Nature Is Fire
 
In your nature, eternal Godhead,
I shall come to know my nature.
And what is my nature, boundless love?
It is fire,
because you are nothing but a fire of love.
And you have given humankind
a share in this nature,
for by the fire of love you created us.
And so with all other people
and every created thing;
you made them out of love.
O ungrateful people!
What nature has your God given you?
His very own nature!
Are you not ashamed to cut yourself off from such a noble thing
through the guilt of deadly sin?
O eternal Trinity, my sweet love!
You, light, give us light.
You, wisdom, give us wisdom.
You, supreme strength, strengthen us.
Today, eternal God,
let our cloud be dissipated
so that we may perfectly know and follow your Truth in truth,
with a free and simple heart.
God, come to our assistance!
Lord, make haste to help us!
Amen.
 
 
To all of my Dominican friends, all good wishes on this feast day! 

23 April 2016

A Contemplative Moment: Courage

 
Courage
 
is a word that tempts us to think outwardly, to run bravely against opposing fire, to do something under besieging circumstances. . .
 
Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work, a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.
 
To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on. To be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.
 
The French philosopher Camus used to tell himself quietly to live to the point of tears, not as a call for maudlin sentimentality, but as an invitation to the deep privilege of belonging and the way belonging affects us, shapes us and breaks our heart at a fundamental level. It is a fundamental dynamic of human incarnation to be moved by what we feel, as if surprised by the actuality and privilege of love and affection and its possible loss. Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive. . ..
 
by David Whyte in
Consolations, The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

22 April 2016

Father Lazarus, Modern Day Desert Father

Probably folks reading here have already seen this video, but I wanted to post it here because so much of what Fr Lazarus says about his vocation resonates with my own experience despite the vast difference in our two physical deserts. This version of Lazarus' story is actually a whole series on a Monk's Life by the Coptic Youth Channel. It can be listened to in several sessions. Be sure and enlarge the screen to full size.

I hope Lazarus' sometimes profoundly isolated journey of seeking and his solitary journey of finding is profoundly intriguing, edifying, and a source of hope and even joy to all who watch. He is a wonderfully thoughtful, humble, and contemplative hermit who introduces us to the solitary world of eremitical prayer. As I am sure he would say, "Come and see."

18 April 2016

On Attachments, Detachment and Friendships in the Eremitical Life

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I have been thinking about attachments and detachment recently and I was remem-bering when nuns had to let go of family ties and "particular friendships". As a hermit do you give up family ties or particular friendships? If you are trying to live a life given to God alone can you have attachments to friends? I know you write about having friends so how does that actually work? As you grow as a hermit will you let these go? If I wanted to develop a strong spiritual life it means being stripped of attachments doesn't it? Should I be letting go of friendships or is that only for hermits?]]

Thanks for the questions. Let me start with the way friendships are viewed today in religious and eremitical life generally and then tackle the nature of detachment and the kinds of attachments we are called to eschew. Then maybe I can say something about the paradoxical nature of giving one's life to God alone and how it is friendships are ordinarily an indispensable part of that. Finally, I can say something about how it is hermit life changes this somewhat, what it retains, and what might be necessary in the recluse. What you should be doing is a separate question which I think (and hope!) will build on these things.

Friendships are Indispensable Gifts of God:

First it must be said that friendships are a gift from God to each of us and one of the primary ways God's own life and love is (for these are identical) mediated to us. Friendships are also one of those places we can learn to truly love as the great commandment requires. We tend to appreciate this a bit better than has sometimes been true in the history of spirituality. Religious today have friends and good friends. So long as this does not detract from the person's love for her Sisters and commitment to her community which will have priority, such friendships add to her own life and can add to that of her community as well. Especially I think, we see better today than sometimes that to genuinely love another does not prevent us from loving God with our whole hearts, mind, and strength any more than loving God in this way prevents us from loving ourselves or others. Love, which is a transcendent reality and of God, is not divvied up or divided into discrete units so easily as this.

What I mean is we can't treat it in pre-cisely the same way we would some sort of finite resource like groceries in our pantry. While it may be we do not have enough bread and peanut butter and jam to feed every kid in the neighborhood and still have enough for our own children, we are more apt to find that love is like the loaves and fishes we read about last Friday --- there is enough to feed everyone with plenty left over --- simply because this is how genuine love really is. Even more, we tend to find with love that the more we give the more we have to give. To spend significant time with a friend listening, sharing, laughing, and loving is really to open ourselves to greater and greater love --- and that means opening ourselves and that relationship up more and more to the living God who is love. To do that, in fact, is to love God himself and to open our whole world to him is to love God in the way the great commandment calls us to.

Real Personal Love Involves Detachment:

I think the real problem comes when we are not really loving others (or letting them truly love us) but instead are relating to them for some lesser reason. To be "attached" to someone because we truly love them (and have been able to allow them to love us) really implies significant detachment. We are delighted to be with them; they console and challenge and inspire us, but at the same time we "hold them lightly" and may need to let go of them in the name of love. We cannot cling to them precisely BECAUSE we love them. This paradox I suspect was not always understood enough --- thinking in terms of paradox is not always easy for us, and often feels very unnatural. We tend to think in terms of either/or --- either attachment or detachment, but love introduces us to relationships that are variously intimate, fiercely loyal and committed ("attached") while at their heart being open to what is best for the other to the point of sacrificing our own needs and desires (detachment) in small ways and large for their sake.

The detachment we want is that of selflessness. The "attachments" we are allowed -- and in fact are commanded to embrace because they are uniquely human and humanizing -- are those of real and personal love. I don't think, by the way, I am meant to live a life which is given to God alone (nor is any hermit), but rather I am called to live a life given to God in all things. Moreover, I am called to live a life given to God in this way in the silence of solitude and which is thus lived for others. Specifically it is meant to witness to the fact that for each and every one of us God alone is sufficient for us, God is the ultimate source of life and love and meaning for each one of us, the source and ground which makes us capable of marriage and family, of friendship, ministry, etc, and the absolute future to which we are drawn. No one and nothing else completes or empowers us in the way God does. We are made for God and in that way we are made for community.

The Witness of the Eremitical Life:

The hermit's life is meant to witness to this fact --- not in an elitist way as though it is only true for her or for the rare vocation to eremitism but in a way which affirms this is truth for all of us. She does it in silence and solitude because, in fact, this strips away many of the things we might use to "complete" us falsely, to obscure our vision, or which we mistake either for God or for our truest selves. She does it in the silence of solitude (and with the silence of solitude as the goal and gift of her life) to reveal the truth of who God is and who we all are most fundamentally --- namely, persons who are always and everywhere in intimate dialogue with God. This is the primary reason, I think, why canon 603 does not define the vocation in terms of individual salvation but in terms of being something lived for the redemption of all. I think Thomas Merton saw this clearly when he spoke of the one first duty of the hermit. You may remember that he said,

[[The . . .hermit has as his first duty, to live happily without affectation in his solitude. He owes this not only to himself but to his community [by extension diocesan hermits would say Diocese, and parish] that has gone so far as to give him a chance to live it out. . . . this is the chief obligation of the . . .hermit because, as I said above, it can restore to others their faith in certain latent possibilities of nature and of grace.]] (Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 242) While I agree completely with Merton I would say that to live happily and without affectation in one's hermitage witnesses to the fact that the human being is made for and incomplete without God and therefore is defined by her potential and capacity for Love.

Maturing in Eremitical Life:

As I grow in my eremitical life I don't think I am going to "let go of friends". It may be that maintaining them will be done a bit differently than is done now, but generally speaking, I need friends to empower me to love --- and that means to love God too. My need for them is not a weakness or some form of inordinate attachment (meaning an improperly ordered attachment --- one that is not ordered to becoming more loving and holy); often I have thought some of my ability to live without them is the real deficiency --- though that is certainly less true than it might have been once upon a time. In any case relationships can make real selflessness possible and selflessness (meaning being God and other-centered in authentic love) is both the heart and the purpose of detachment. It remains true that I am open to being called to reclusion and if that happens the time and contact necessary for friendships will be even further significantly limited, but at this time I don't think this is where I am being called.

It should be clear from all that I have said that growth in the spiritual life does not necessarily mean letting go of authentic friendships. It is far more likely to demand their cultivation --- something we should be aware of in this time and culture of superficial and utilitarian "friending!" Sometimes the literature of exclusion and separation was simply selfish (and not particularly Christian); it failed to see that love of God and love of others are inextricably intertwined and in some ways it prevented even the genuine friendships that are so necessary for growth. That is as true for the hermit as it is for everyone else.  In fact it should be noted that the capacity for authentic friendships and relationships generally is presupposed in eremitical life; this is one reason it is considered a second half of life vocation or is perceived as being possible only after years of  formation in monastic life. For the hermit the relationship with God is always given absolute priority, and this must occur in the silence of solitude -- which limits and conditions the friendships which are possible. Still, so long as the hermit is faithful in observing these priorities she may very well find her vocation calls for a few really special friendships as well. The hermit may not see these friends often but their love supports and challenges her in ways a solitary vocation really requires.

16 April 2016

Followup Questions: Aloneness and the Experience of Transcendence

[[Sister Laurel, can you explain what you mean by experiences of transcendence during periods of isolation? Are you talking about mystical experiences in prayer? This makes sense to me but not for everyone and maybe for very few people. It wouldn't happen for younger children or for families (or persons) where there is no religion would it? I don't think you are talking about things used to escape the pain of such isolation so if I am right about that what do you actually mean? Also, when you speak of unchosen periods of isolation could this include solitary confinement in prisons? Could prisoners also have such experiences of transcendence? Could they become hermits? Lastly, if an experience of solitude is healing and inspiring why would a person still need therapy or other help to deal with the harm done to them by being isolated?  Thanks.]]

Yes, an experience of transcendence is one which 'comes from' beyond the person herself,  but ('works') through her and with her, and thus, also draws her beyond herself to some extent.* It may occur when we have reached the end of our own resources to lesser and greater degrees. I tend to identify such experiences with God but we can use the language of beauty, truth, depth, etc., as well. One of the best conversations on such experiences I have ever had was a brief exchange between my violin teacher (Laura Risk) and myself. We were working on the Bach Double and had talked about allowing the notes to be transformed into music; as part of preparing the piece we had gone through various passages and noted the emotions or feelings we wished to communicate and also planned the actual memories we would each access to allow this  to be realized. We were talking about transcending the notes and other instructions on the page by tapping into our own emotional and inner lives. At the same time that our memories and emotions gave a fresh life to the music some of these memories were redeemed (given a new value and meaning) by becoming part of this music. This too was part of the experience of transcendence --- though not the heart of it.

Our conversation morphed into one on what it was like to play and compose music and especially to combine these skills to improvise (because both of us were talented in this and did a lot of "just playing" apart from written parts and scores). In doing so we drew upon our own inner lives in the same way, but we recognized something more as well. Laura commented that for her playing in this way was about "tapping into the music of the universe" --- something that was ever present there beyond and all around us, but also something which could sound within and through us. I commented that in my language (theological or spiritual) I would describe this experience as being in dialogue with the Transcendent or even touching into the Divine and allowing that to work in and through me. I said I might even call this prayer.

Whether we used the language of "music of the universe" or of "God" and "prayer," we were both describing an experience of mediating the Transcendent through our own minds, hearts, spirits, and muscles --- for we, with all our limitations and gifts, were still the ones playing and improvising. Both of us, I think, had a clear sense of something "living", something greater than ourselves sounding and singing itself through us and doing so in ways which challenged and stretched us musically and as persons. We both knew in an intimate way this reality which could sustain us even as it transformed and let us transcend the concrete circumstances of our lives --- even  as it inspired us to create amazing music and in the process empowered us to become more than we were. A somewhat similar experience is associated with art and literature of all kinds. In How Does a Poem Mean? John Ciardi once referred to a piece of this experience of empowerment and transcendence when he wrote that (reading and writing) poetry, like karate, had the power to save us as we wandered some night through a dark alley. The transformation of our lives from those of inarticulate suffering (when that is our experience) and struggle, to amazingly articulate expressions of beauty, truth, and meaning is at the heart of genuine experiences of transcendence.

Mystical Prayer?

While I am not speaking of mystical experiences of prayer per se I am certainly speaking of the dynamics and reality of prayer itself. Although I never really thought of the improvisational violin playing I did through Junior High and High School as prayer, there is no doubt in my mind that it was during these years that I learned something absolutely fundamental about prayer.

Today I speak of that by saying God worked or spoke (or sang!) Godself in and through me --- though in no way did it cease to be my own playing! I was open to that for many reasons --- some having to do with talents and gifts and others with yearning rooted in great need and deficiency. I was disposed toward "obedience" in our Christian language and the result of all that was the prayer God accomplished within me via violin. Of course, I experienced the Transcendent in many ways during those same years --- just as most of us do. Only later did I learn to pray in more explicit ways and only much later did I experience what might be called "mystical prayer". But at bottom, from violin, to lectio divina, to study and writing, to contemplative or mystical prayer, and all the ordinary moments in between, it was the Transcendent experienced mainly in silence and solitude that defined all of these.

While I don't think children (or the majority of adults for that matter) will have mystical experiences per se, I do think every child experiences the Transcendent, knows what it means to transcend their everyday lives, and can understand the mediation of transcendence through experiences of play, storytelling and reading, imagination, art, etc. As children the experience of transcendence is central for us. Everyone who has watched (or tried to deal with!) the incessant "WHY?" of children has been watching little explosions of transcendence and the drive to transcendence. The same is true of watching the rapt face of a child hearing her first Dr Seuss or (later maybe) reading a Harry Potter book, or a small child humming to herself as she colors. Such experiences use the deep resources of our own minds and hearts, the capacity for joy and play and spontaneity we have, as well as our own talents and skills, but they also can come from beyond us just as they lead us beyond ourselves.

As children (and as adults!) we read stories, we imagine ourselves in different worlds and different roles; we see and are inspired to see ourselves as capable of great feats of courage and creativity, of love and generosity. We develop the skills to bridge the gap between the "real world" and the world of our imagination and to create a different future for ourselves and others. We write symphonies and novels, create and test scientific hypotheses, develop new medicines to vanquish old enemies, build cities (starting with the ones we made of dirt and toy cars), and philosophical systems, and homes, and families and in every conceivable way we become witnesses to and mediators of transcendence. It is what we are made for, after all.

On Prisoners and Solitary Confinement:

I have written about solitude and prisoners once before a number of years ago now in Notes From Stillsong: Prisoners as Hermits. I did not write specifically about solitary confinement and am ambivalent about the possibilities of experiences of transcendence within solitary confinement or in regard to some there becoming hermits. While I do not want to limit God and either his will or power to bring life out of death, meaning out of the absurd, or, in this case, solitude out of isolation, it remains true that the person requires certain resources to help this process. Transcendence  implies not just being open to the Transcendent but also having some means to express this and to develop our openness further. Access to books and Bibles, paper, writing implements, a musical instrument, art materials, etc, are just some of the tools (resources) I have in mind here. Ordinarily God works in and through such things.

Prayer is a privileged way to the Transcendent but usually this develops in stages. We see this when we move from meditation to contemplative prayer. It is usually a mediated reality. Entering the biblical story frees our minds and hearts to some extent and opens us to the Word of God. It provides characters, values, relationships, and situations we can imaginatively interact with --- interactions which both encourage the growth of the light and help check the darkness in our own hearts. Drawing, Writing, and Reading all do something similar. Occasional conversations with others is also usually an important and even indispensable resource here as well --- especially when that someone has the capacity to help us negotiate the trap of living in our own heads and hearts, and thus too, of believing everything we think or experience is the voice of God.

Solitary confinement of itself is certainly an example of an enforced and unchosen isolation, and God can certainly move through the walls and bars of this cell as through any other. Some few may well need little else and be gifted with relatively unmediated or direct experiences of God. Generally, however, such confinement must also have some minimal resources which allow for both the mediation of the Transcendent and for our own  experience of transcendence. When this is true, when there is both physical solitude and sufficient even if minimal resources allowing for mediated reception, response, and expression, then yes, it is entirely possible for the prisoner to find him or herself transfigured into a hermit or someone with the heart of a hermit.

The Continuing Need for Healing and Therapy:

One of the indisputable truths of physical solitude, especially as isolation, is that it tears down before it builds up. When that isolation is forced on us then it becomes doubly damaging. Consider what happens when someone's family shuns them, especially if that is an extended event. Not only are they cut off from the ordinary source of formation and education as a person capable of real intimacy, but they have been rejected and hurt by those who, more than any other (except God) are meant and assured to love them. Even when one discovers and experiences the Transcendent in a way which redeems the experience of shunning, the hurt and pain are real and will need to be dealt with. Often, it will take serious healing before one can even understand the extent and import of the experience of transcendence that was also involved. The pain and loss is simply too great.

Moreover, genuine experiences of the Transcendent take time to bear recognizable fruit. Unless healing occurs, this fruit may never be fully realized or realizable. One may survive the immediate experience and have been transformed by it, but whether that is more ultimately for the better or worse will ordinarily take time to really manifest --- not least because the capacity for good and bad are both contained in the experience of physical solitude or isolation. I can speak of developing the "heart of a hermit" in some essential or fundamental sense during (for instance) a period of enforced and extended isolation. Such a heart is ultimately necessary for any genuine hermit.

But whether that heart will lead to the life of a self-deceived and self-deceiving individualist, that of a misanthrope, or a narcissist with room for no one but herself, or whether it will mature into the edifying heart of a true hermit who responds to God's call and chooses the silence of solitude because she loves God, herself, and others --- the heart of one who (appropriately) persists in that response with courage and fidelity --- is a question only time and real healing will answer. As with the parable of the weeds and wheat or better maybe, the parable of the soils, we simply can't see or know what the tender green shoots of that heart will grow into; we do not know whether they will be truly nourishing to others or merely weeds, whether they will prove to be rootless or deeply rooted in God. We must let (and assist) them grow to maturity and for that to happen care of all sorts, often including therapy, is necessary.

Meanwhile some will eschew healing (including therapy and spiritual direction) and play at being hermits while their woundedness keeps them psychologically and personally crippled. The "witness" they give to the Transcendent is superficial at best and entirely unconvincing. Others will avoid such pretense but, no less crippled, act out their loss, anger, and pain on the world around them in other ways. And some will seek healing in all the ways it is necessary so that their own witness to the God who transfigures a disedifying and barren isolation into an edifying and fruitful solitude is profoundly convincing and helpful to others.

* One of the most profound and cogent analyses of "the transcendent function" in the human person is Karl Jung's. I am not unaware of this analysis but my focus here is a specifically theistic model or notion of transcendence and experiences of "the Transcendent". In fact, I think the two models, especially with their similar notions of dialogue and teleology may be profoundly complementary. Jung himself used the words numinous or holy to speak about dimensions of the experience of transcendence and "the transcendent function"; I do so in a deliberately and explicitly theological sense to describe the dialogical nature of the "communion with God" whom we know as the truly human being.

15 April 2016

Alone a Lot: A Call to Eremitical Life??

[[Dear Sister, if a person is alone a lot in their life or have been alone a lot, does this mean God is telling them they should become a hermit? As an older adult I am dealing with chronic illness but I have also been alone a lot in my life because of a dysfunctional family and other circumstances. It never occurred to me that living as a hermit was something I could do, and honestly I never would have wanted to do that, but now I am wondering if maybe I haven't missed God's call and that maybe he is saying, "I want you to be a hermit!"]]

Thanks for your questions. They are important. I may have answered something similar in the past so look through posts on discerning an eremitical vocation for further responses. (I have definitely written a lot about chronic illness so I will not do that here.) The first question has to be answered no. If a person has been alone a lot, especially in the circumstances you describe (dysfunctional family and chronic illness) this does not necessarily mean they are being called to be a hermit. Most of the time it will mean just the opposite. In the case of a dysfunctional family it may well be that what God is really calling a person to is healing from the trauma and woundedness occasioned by the family dynamics and from there moving forward to real family life and a strongly social life of generosity and compassion. Certainly God is calling such a person to healing and wholeness, to the capacity to really love others and to receive love. Where that is to be achieved and what one is called to do once that healing is largely in hand is another question which will need to be carefully discerned.

The point is that God did not will the family dysfunction nor does it automatically point to a vocation to be a hermit. God can and will use the circumstances of one's life to create something wonderful and unexpected but what that is in any individual case is not always easy to discern. It is not necessarily obvious. What has to be discerned in determining whether one is called to be a hermit or not is how one thrives or fails to thrive in physical solitude and external silence. For instance, in some cases where family dysfunction leads to the isolating of children and adolescents, physical (and emotional!) solitude itself becomes mainly or primarily a destructive force in those persons' lives. It also becomes self-reinforcing: isolation leads to personal dysfunction in relating to others which leads to further isolation, etc. etc. Short periods of solitude may be helpful as in anyone's life but in such a case as this, to choose a life of eremitical solitude would be contrary to what God wills; it would lead to the further crippling and stunting of the person's human capacities.

In some instances of serious family dysfunction and related isolation, however, individuals may find that despite the isolation (which will still be harmful in such a situation), they somehow also managed to thrive in their physical solitude --- typically through experiences of transcendence which sustained and even inspired in profoundly creative ways. In such cases some healing will still need to be secured and some therapy will probably be necessary, but should such a person feel inclined to embrace eremitical solitude it will be because, to some extent, they developed "the heart of a hermit" during those difficult years at home and have a sense that they can and might well even be called at some point, to thrive in solitude as a result. Again, at the heart of such a sense is the fact that Solitude herself (solitude as hermits understand it) has opened her door to them and that physical solitude is a (and perhaps the) privileged place where God will speak to them and love them into wholeness. Some of these folks might well discern other vocations which require long periods of prayer, thought, study, solitary work, etc without ever becoming (or wanting to become) hermits. But to some extent or other, they will still have "the heart of a hermit" --- just not the actual vocation to eremitical life itself.

Eremitical solitude is neither a way to avoid the healing work needed when one has experienced serious occasions of unchosen and extended isolation, nor a way of validating these (much less extending them) and the harm they do; neither are these periods of themselves signs of a call to eremitical solitude. Because eremitical solitude is not the same as isolation, because it involves a profound (sense of) community and communion with God, a call to eremitical solitude must come to one in spite of such experiences of isolation and can only build on and further occasion healing from the damage done by such experiences. Again, the criterion for discernment in such instances is that the person thrives in eremitical solitude; it is an essentially creative environment or context where the person's capacity for creativity, and even more especially, for loving others and living in communion with God and all that is precious to God grows and matures.

When we ask what God is calling us to, the specific state of life and pathway (religious life, priesthood, marriage, dedicated singleness, lay or consecrated eremitical life, teaching, writing, etc) is heard only after we hear God say, "I want you to be whole and loved and capable of loving others with your whole self! I want you to be yourself and supremely happy in that!" Only then does God "say" (so to speak), "I want you to do this AS A hermit (etc)" The bottom line is the same: if a person does not achieve holiness, personal wholeness and deep happiness and joy in eremitical solitude, if they do not truly thrive there as compassionate and generous human beings, then that is not where God is calling them.

10 April 2016

Do You Love Me Peter? Being Made Fully Human in Dialogue With God (Reprise)

Today's Gospel includes the pericope where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. It is the first time we hear much about or from Peter since his triple denial of Christ --- his fear-driven affirmations that he did not even know the man and is certainly not a disciple of his. After each question and reply by Peter, Jesus commissions Peter to "feed my lambs, feed my sheep." I have written about this at least three times before.

About four or five years ago I used this text to reflect on the place of conscience in our lives and a love which transcends law. At another point I spoke about the importance of Jesus' questions and of my own difficulty with Jesus' question to Peter. Then, about three years ago at the end of school I asked the students to imagine what it feels like to have done something for which one feels there is no forgiveness possible and then to hear how an infinitely loving God deals with that. The solution is not, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have termed it, "cheap grace" --- a forgiveness without cost or consequences. Neither is it a worthless "luv" which some in the Church mistakenly disparage because they hear (they say) too many homilies about the God of Love and mercy and not enough about the God of "justice". Instead, what Jesus reveals in this lection is a merciful love which overcomes all fear and division and summons us to incredible responsibility and freedom. The center of this reading, in other words, is a love which does justice and sets all things right.

But, especially at this time in the church's life, today's Gospel also takes me to the WAY Jesus loves Peter. He addresses him directly; he asks him questions and allows him to discover an answer which stands in complete contrast to and tension with his earlier denials and the surge of emotions and complex of thoughts that prompted them. As with Peter, Jesus' very presence is a question or series of questions which have the power to call us deeper, beyond our own personal limitations and conflicts, to the core of our being. What Jesus does with Peter is engage him at the level of heart --- a level deeper than fear, deeper than ego, beyond defensiveness and insecurity. Jesus' presence enables dialogue at this profound level, dialogue with one's true self, with God, and with one's entire community; it is an engagement which brings healing and reveals that the capacity for dialogue is the deepest reflection of our humanity.

It is this deep place in us which is the level for authentically human decision making. When we perceive and act at this level of heart we see and act beyond the level of black and white thinking, beyond either/or judgmentalism. Here we know paradox and hold tensions together in faith and love. Here we act in authentic freedom. Jesus' dialogue with Peter points to all of this and to something more. It reminds us that loving God is not a matter of "feeling" some emotion --- though indeed it may well involve this. Instead it is something we are empowered in dialogue with the Word and Spirit of God to do which transcends even feelings; it is a response realized in deciding to serve, to give, to nourish others in spite of the things happening to us at other levels of our being.

When we reflect on this text involving a paradigmatic dialogue between Peter and Jesus we have a key to understanding the nature of all true ministry, and certainly to life and ministry in the Church. Not least we have a significant model of papacy. Of course it is a model of service, but it is one of service only to the extent it is one of true dialogue, first with God, then with oneself, and finally with all others. It is always and everywhere a matter of being engaged at the level of heart, and so, as already noted, beyond ego, fear, defensiveness, black and white thinking, judgmentalism or closed-mindedness to a place where one is comfortable with paradox. As John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint, "Dialog has not only been undertaken; it is an outright necessity, one of the Church's priorities, " or again, "It is necessary to pass from antagonism and conflict to a situation where each party recognizes the other as a partner. . .any display of mutual opposition must disappear." (UUS, secs 31 and 29)

But what is true for Peter is, again, true for each of us. We must be engaged at the level of heart and act in response to the dialogue that occurs there. Because of the place of the Word of God in this process, lectio divina, the reflective reading of Scripture, must be a part of our regular praxis. So too with prayer, especially quiet prayer whose focus is listening deeply and being comfortable with that often-paradoxical truth that comes to us in silence. Our humanity is meant to be a reflection of this profound dialogue. At every moment we are meant to be a hearing of Jesus' question and the commission to serve which it implies. At every moment then we are to be the response which transcends ego, fear, division, judgmentalism, and so forth. Engagement with the Word of God enables such engagement, engagement from that place of unity and communion with God and others Jesus' questions to Peter allowed him to find and live from. My prayer today is that each of us may commit to be open to this kind of engagement. It makes of us the dialogical reality, the full realization of that New Creation which is truly "not of this world" but instead is of the Kingdom of God --- right here, right now.

A Contemplative Moment: Aloneness

 
Alone
 
is a word that stands by itself, carrying the austere, solitary beauty of its own meaning even as it is spoken to another. It is a word that can be felt at the same time as an invitation to depth and as an imminent threat, as in 'all alone', with its returned echo of abandonment. 'Alone' is a word that rings with strange finality, especially when contained in that haunting aggregate, 'left all alone', as if the state once experienced begins to define and engender its own inescapable world. The first step in spending time alone is to admit how afraid of it we are.
 
Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment. To find ourselves alone or to be left alone is an ever present, fearful and abiding human potentiality of which we are often unconsciously deeply afraid.
 
To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin. The body is inhabited in a different way when we are alone than when we are with others. Alone, we live with our bodies as a question rather than a statement.
 
The permeability of being alone asks us to reimagine ourselves, to become impatient with ourselves, to tire of the same old story and then slowly hour by hour, to start to tell the story in a different way as other parallel ears, ones we were previously unaware of, begin to listen to us more carefully in the silence. For a solitary life to flourish, even if it is only for a few precious hours, aloneness asks us to make a friend of silence, and just as importantly, to inhabit that silence in our own particular way, to find our very own way into our own particular and even virtuoso way of being alone.
 
To inhabit silence in our aloneness is to stop telling the story altogether. To begin with, aloneness always leads to rawness and vulnerability, to a fearful simplicity, to not recognizing and to not knowing, to the wish to find any company other than that not knowing, unknown self, looking back at us in the silent mirror.
 
One of the elemental dynamics of self-compassion is to understand our deep reluctance to be left to ourselves. Aloneness begins in puzzlement at our own reflection, transits through awkwardness and even ugliness at what we see, and culminates one appointed hour or day, in a beautiful unlooked for surprise, at the new complexion beginning to form, the slow knitting together of an inner life, now exposed to air and light. . . .
 
from Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte 


08 April 2016

Do Catholic Hermits Seal Their Vows With Blood?

[[Sister Laurel, do Catholic Hermits seal their vows with blood? I've heard of blood vows (something about the Mafia) and blood oaths but before today I never heard of a Catholic hermit sealing his or her vows with blood or a Catholic priest allowing it. Is this part of canon 603 or the ritual of consecration?]]

Assuming this is a question prompted by an actual situation and not by an old (or new!) Sister Fidelma mystery, I should say that the entire situation you describe completely creeps me out. However it also raises the serious question of the use of normative rites for profession.

One of the things I don't think I have written much about here is the idea that public professions and consecrations are done according to approved rites and liturgies. This, I think, is part of the truth of the traditional saying "as we pray, so we believe" ("Lex orandi, lex credendi"). Let me also say that it goes almost without saying that the approved rites for religious profession in the Roman Catholic Church (including the profession and consecration of the c 603 hermit) or the consecration of Virgins do not EVER use blood to seal the commitment.

The idea of doing so smacks of pagan sacrificial or esoteric rites which attribute mystical powers to blood or think in terms of a kind of crude physicalism and magic. (This is the kind of mistaken and unsound physicalism that talks about hosts spurting blood or speaks of munching on Jesus' bones or fingernails when one is consuming the Eucharist! Too often have Catholics been accused of believing such nonsense. Too often have theologically or spiritually naive Catholics contributed to this judgment --- something which has needlessly inflamed anti-Catholic sentiment over the centuries.) In any case, this notion of sealing vows in blood certainly ignores the fact that Jesus' death and resurrection, something celebrated anew in the Mass that contextualizes a public profession, has done away with such things forever.

Contrary to what you describe or at least imply has occurred, I honestly can't imagine a Catholic priest allowing such a thing either --- and of course in the profession and consecration of diocesan hermits we are also dealing with diocesan bishops and canonists who absolutely would never allow such a thing to happen. As alluded to above, hermits in such situations are ordinarily professed using either the established Rite of Religious Profession approved by the Vatican or a version of profession for anchorites which is vetted by the hermit's Diocese beforehand. Whichever is used, the insigniae given, the vow formula and forms to be signed and witnessed, and the liturgy more generally are all approved beforehand. (Any individual accommodations are prepared and submitted to the diocese prior to the day of celebration.) The necessary forms are embossed or stamped with the diocesan seal and signed by the Bishop, the Ecclesiastical notary and/or Vicar for Religious, the one professed, and witnesses (pastor, delegate, etc). Barring an inadvertent paper cut or something similar blood plays no part at all.

While all of this may seem to be nit-picky and legalistic it really does serve the foundational truth of "Lex orandi, lex credendi." We Catholics do not make blood oaths and no Catholic Hermit professed by the Church to live eremitical life in her name uses such a gesture with her vow formula because it does not comport with our faith. Could you please let me know where you heard of or read about such a thing? I am actually feeling a bit stunned or off-footed by the question; the notion that anyone might do such a thing, especially a Catholic hermit in a Roman Catholic liturgy is offensive.

Postscript: Perhaps I should rewrite this whole post instead of writing a postscript but I have now seen what brought this issue up for you yesterday. It was a post by "joyful hermit" on the A Catholic Hermit blog. The author writes:

I admit the profession ceremony was intimately holy, beyond anything I could ever have dreamt nor asked for. God provides! I yet have the vows written, signed by the priest and myself, my blood spread inside a small heart drawn at the bottom--a seal that only my spiritual father has seen.
 
Please remember that according to her blogs the author of this description is Catholic and lives as a dedicated lay hermit. She is not professed or consecrated by the Church to live this life in the Church's name nor does the Church supervise her eremitical life. (In this situation it is particularly important that we understand this lay hermit was not making or living her commitment in the name of the Church! To do so in this specific instance could actually give scandal.) While I have no idea if the blood-filled heart on the vow formula was added during or after the ceremony anyone reading about this should remember that however it happened it did not occur at a public liturgy nor does this action reflect Catholic theology, belief, or praxis in this specific matter. (I personally expect the blood had to have been added afterwards in an entirely personal and sentimental gesture because again, I don't believe the priest witnessing the vows would ever have approved or allowed it himself)

In any case this action illustrates one reason it is sometimes especially important to distinguish those persons who make and live their professions in the name of the Church  from those who make dedications which are not --- why it is sometimes critical to distinguish between Catholic hermits who live a public profession and Catholics who may live as hermits as part of a private commitment. It also helps illustrate my concern with individualism and sufficient formation in eremitical life with a commensurate theological or catechetical education prior to any formal commitment. While hermits, whether lay or consecrated, will generally never err in the way described above, the Church does indeed supervise the professions and lives of those living eremitical life in her name. She does so in order to make sure that these persons reflect the Faith and are edifying in all the ways they are called to be by God through the ministry of the Church. This includes ensuring that liturgies celebrated as instances of Catholic worship truly are Catholic in every sense. Again, lex orandi, lex credendi!!

03 April 2016

Touching the Wounds of Christ: Proclaiming a Power Perfected in Weakness (Reprise)

(Please note that while I am writing about eremitical and consecrated life in this article because of the questions posed, most of what I am writing here is completely applicable to lives transformed by and living the consecration of baptism. Similarly, while I am referring explicitly to chronic illness the same dynamics can apply to many aspects of our lives whether or not one is chronically ill.)

[[Dear Sister, if a person is chronically ill then isn't their illness a sign that "the world" of sin and death are still operating in [i.e., dominating] their lives?  . . . I have always thought that to become a religious one needed to be in good health. Has that also changed with canon 603? I don't mean that someone has to be perfect to become a nun or hermit but shouldn't they at least be in good health? Wouldn't that say more about the "heavenliness" of their vocation than illness? ]] (Combination of queries posed in several emails)

As I read these various questions one image kept recurring to me, namely, that of Thomas reaching out to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. I also kept thinking of a line from a homily my pastor (John Kasper, OSFS) gave about 7 years ago which focused on Carravagio's painting of this image; the line was,  "There's Another World in There!" It was taken in part from the artist and writer Jan Richardson's reflections on this painting and on the nature of the Incarnation. Richardson wrote:

[[The gospel writers want to make sure we know that the risen Christ was no ghost, no ethereal spirit. He was flesh and blood. He ate. He still, as Thomas discovered, wore the wounds of crucifixion. That Christ’s flesh remained broken, even in his resurrection, serves as a powerful reminder that his intimate familiarity and solidarity with us, with our human condition, did not end with his death. . . Perhaps that’s what is so striking about Caravaggio’s painting: it stuns us with the awareness of how deeply Christ was, and is, joined with us. The wounds of the risen Christ are not a prison: they are a passage. Thomas’ hand in Christ’s side is not some bizarre, morbid probe: it is a  union, and a reminder that in taking flesh, Christ wed himself to us.]] Living into the Resurrection

Into the Wound, Jan L Richardson
My response then must really begin with a series of questions to you. Are the Risen Christ's wounds a sign that sin and death are still "operating in" him or are they a sign that God has been victorious over these --- and victorious not via an act of force but through one of radical vulnerability, compassion, and solidarity? Are his wounds really a passage to "another world" or are they signs of his bondage to and defeat by the one which contends with him and the Love he represents? Do you believe that our world is at least potentially sacramental or that heaven (eternal life in the sovereign love of God) and this world interpenetrate one another as a result of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection or are they entirely separate from and opposed to one another? Even as I ask these questions I am aware that they may be answered in more than one way. In our own lives too, we may find that the wounds and scars of illness and brokenness witness more to the world of sin and death than they do to that of redemption and eternal life. They may represent a prison more than they represent a passage to another world.

Or not.

When I write about discerning an eremitical vocation and the importance of the critical transition that must be made from being a lone pious person living physical silence and solitude to essentially being a hermit living "the silence of solitude," I am speaking of a person who has moved from the prison of illness to illness as passage to another world through the redemptive grace of God. We cannot empower or accomplish such a transition ourselves. The transfiguration of our lives is the work of God. At the same time, the scars of our lives will remain precisely as an invitation to others to see the power of God at work in our weakness and in God's own kenosis (self-emptying). These scars become signs of God's powerful presence in our lives while the illness or woundedness become Sacraments of that same presence and power, vivid witnesses to the One who loves us in our brokenness and yet works continuously to bring life, wholeness, and meaning out of  death, brokenness, and absurdity.

To become a hermit (especially to be publicly professed as a Catholic hermit) someone suffering from chronic illness has to have made this transition. Their lives may involve suffering but the suffering has become a sacrament which attests less to itself  (and certainly not to an obsession with pain) but to the God who is a Creator-redeemer God. What you tend to see as an obstacle to living a meaningful profoundly prophetic religious or eremitical life seems to me to be a symbol of the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It also seems to me to remind us of the nature of "heavenliness" in light of the Ascension. Remember that one side of the salvation event we call the Christ is God's descent so that our world may be redeemed and entirely transformed into a new creation. But the other side of this Event is the Ascension where God takes scarred humanity and even death itself up into his own life --- thus changing the very nature of heaven (the sovereign life of God shared with others) in the process.

Far from being an inadequate witness to "heavenliness" our wounds can be the most perfect witness to God's sovereign life shared with us. Our God has embraced the wounds and scars of the world as his very own and not been demeaned, much less destroyed in the process. Conversely, for Christians, the marks of the crucifixion, as well therefore as our own illnesses, weaknesses and various forms of brokenness, are (or are meant to become) the quintessential symbols of a heaven which embraces our own lives and world to make them new. When this transformation occurs in the life of a chronically ill individual seeking to live eremitical life it is the difference between a life of one imprisoned in physical isolation, silence, and solitude, to that of one which breathes and sings "the silence of solitude." It is this song, this prayer, this magnificat that Canon 603 describes so well and consecrated life in all its forms itself represents.

Bowl patched with Gold
We Christians do not hide our woundedness then. We are not ashamed at the way life has marked and marred, bent and broken, spindled and mutilated us. But neither are woundedness or brokenness themselves the things we witness to. Instead it is the Sacrament God has made of our lives, the Love that does justice and makes whole that is the source of our beauty and our boasting. Jan Richardson also reminds us of this truth when she recalls Sue Bender's observations on seeing a mended Japanese bowl. [[“The image of that bowl,” she writes, “made a lasting impression. Instead of trying to hide the flaws, the cracks were emphasized — filled with silver. The bowl was even more precious after it had been mended.”]]  So too with our own lives: as Paul also said, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing power will be of God and not from ourselves."  (2 Cor 4:7) It is the mended cracks, the wounds which were once prisons, the shards of a broken life now reconstituted entirely by the grace of God which reveal the very presence of heaven to those we meet.

01 April 2016

Living in the Name of Emmanuel: Embracing Lives Empowered and Made Fruitful by the Resurrection

I noted in preparation for the Triduum that during these days our God would reveal Godself as Emmanuel in an exhaustive way; he was the One who took the entire scope of human existence into himself in Christ, including its greatest darknesses and senselessness, and made these the places and ways of God. Then, as the days of the Triduum came in their turn I asked on Good Friday and Holy Saturday whether Jesus was  madman or a Messiah. I said we waited in the darkness to learn the answer to that question. Was our God really one who would be with us even in sin and death and abject lostness or could these separate us from God eternally --- thus revealing God (or his "Christ") as a powerless fraud or fiction?

The liturgy of the vigil of Easter answers this question with the lighting of the new fire, the paschal candle, Exultet, and the proclamation that Jesus is Risen from the dead. In all the symbols we have, light, warmth, community, song, prayer, and even darkness, it proclaims Jesus as the one who was completely vindicated by God, the One whose revelation of God as Emmanuel is entirely, even exhaustively true. This God is the One from whom nothing at all can separate us, not sin, not death, not even the depths of lostness or hell. He has made these his own and in Christ they therefore become sacraments of his power and presence which, rather than plaints of grief and loss, can occasion the cry Alleluia, He is risen, alleluia! Paul says the same when he translates this affirmation into a triumphant and rhetorical question, "Death where is thy sting?"

The readings during this first week of Easter focus on the change that took place in light of the fact that Jesus did not simply stay good and dead, that God's love did not allow our sin or even godless death itself have the final word or become a final silence. They focus on the changes that took place when the disciples encountered the risen Lord who had taken these things into himself and remained open to the Love of God at the same time. There is some indication of the struggle involved in understanding the fact of resurrection as contrasted with ghosts and other common explanations of their experience of this risen Christ. The timing is truncated, abbreviated, and we have no idea how long it actually takes for the disciples to process all of this --- though the Scriptures give us the impression that the change that occurred in the disciples was fairly immediate and even miraculous. The focus is not on the disciples' internal struggle so much as it is on the transformation occasioned by their meeting with the risen Lord.

Today's readings center attention on a particularly powerful way of speaking of this transformation. The first is through reflection on the name or powerful presence of Jesus, In the first reading the disciples who engage in a healing ministry  do so in the name of Jesus and affirm they are doing so when the source of their authority is demanded of them by the high priests and member of the high priestly class. The shift from being frightened, helpless, and powerless disciples of a fraudulent messiah crucified for blasphemy and treason by the religious and political powers of his world to being disciples of that same one now "risen from the dead" and showing his presence through their powerful works is compelling; thousands of people are baptized and added to the rolls of Jesus' disciples. What is critical to this story is that the disciples are very clear they do not act in their own names, nor in the name of Judaism, but instead in the name of the rejected and crucified Jesus and the God he revealed through his sinful and godforsaken death. They act in the name of the God who is Emmanuel and stands in solidarity with us in our most abject lostness and incapacity.

The responsorial psalm and antiphon help interpret this first reading: the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Now, cornerstones or foundation stones established the pattern and foundation of the entire edifice. As the cornerstone went, so did the entire building. If the placement was off, the strength of the stone deceptive or the stone flawed, etc, then the building itself would be flawed and potentially at least dangerous. In Middle Eastern (and later European practice as well), sacrifices were buried under cornerstones or the blood of offerings were poured upon the stones to imbue it with power and stability. (Later practices could involve taking the measure of a person's shadow, an effigy of the person, and burying that in place of the person or the person's shadow or soul.) Frazer (2006: p. 106-107) in The Golden Bough charts the various propitiatory sacrifices and effigy substitution such as the shadow, describes the practice as follows:

[[In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram, or a lamb, and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried. The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building. But sometimes, instead of killing an animal, the builder entices a man to the foundation-stone, secretly measures his body, or a part of it, or his shadow, and buries the measure under the foundation-stone; or he lays the foundation-stone upon the man's shadow. It is believed that the man will die within the year.]]

(Remember that in speaking of the notion of the shadow as an effigy of the person and actually possessing the power of the person the Acts of the Apostles (5:12-16) tells the story that when Peter and the other Apostles were coming by in the Portico of Solomon folks lined up all the sick on palettes and cots so the even "just the shadow of Peter might fall upon" at least some of them and they would be healed by its touch.)

[[The Romanians of Transylvania think that he whose shadow is thus immured will die within forty days; so persons passing by a building which is in course of erection may hear a warning cry, Beware lest they take thy shadow! Not long ago there were still shadow-traders whose business it was to provide architects with the shadows necessary for securing their walls. In these cases the measure of the shadow is looked on as equivalent to the shadow itself, and to bury it is to bury the life or soul of the man, who, deprived of it, must die. Thus the custom is a substitute for the old practice of immuring a living person in the walls, or crushing him under the foundation-stone of a new building, in order to give strength and durability to the structure, or more definitely in order that the angry ghost may haunt the place and guard it against the intrusion of enemies.]]

Something new has come to be, a new edifice, a new Temple  and Kingdom is being established upon the life, death, and resurrection of the Crucified One. A stone marked by abject weakness, and godlessness, a stone rejected as entirely unworthy of such an edifice is now the foundation stone. Everything Jesus' disciples do which is dependent on this cornerstone will succeed with the power of that stone and the resurrection life with which it is imbued. Yesterday's and today's Gospel readings both affirm that this has nothing to do with ghosts or crude superstitions but instead with an entirely new and puzzling form of life or presence, namely, the resurrected Lord who lives and mediates the  powerful presence of God to our world just as he takes the whole of human experience into the very life of the Eternal and Living God (him)self. The temple that will be built on this foundation will be built with living stones, stones which are themselves empowered by a life and love proven stronger than sin and godless death.

Today's Gospel also refers to the nameless disciple whom Jesus loved, the nameless one who believed when he saw the empty tomb or who stood at the foot of the cross with the women. Some commentators believe the point of this namelessness in the Gospel of John is to invite each of us who are called by name by the risen Lord to take our places in the continuing story we know as the Christ Event. I find that suggestion compelling but today I think we also have to hear the fact that we are called to live our lives in the name of Christ, not in our own names; we are called to live our lives in the power of the living God who makes living stones of us and gives us fleshly hearts to replace the stony, hardened hearts of the past --- not in our own power. 

This God has made even our alienation and godforsakenness his own and now empowers us to make his ways our own. As a result, we will say by our lives, then, that Jesus was Messiah rather than madman. We will say by lives founded on the Cornerstone we know as the Risen Christ and lived in the name of Emmanuel that our God does indeed draw all things to (him)self. He is indeed the one Paul proclaimed in Romans 8:37-38  as the One from whose love neither life nor death, neither heavenly or earthly realities, nor powers or principalities, nor things present or future, nor anything at all can ultimately separate us. Established in the strength and authority of the risen Christ we will become fishers of men and the living stones of the new Temple of God's Kingdom; established in the strength and authority of the God who in Christ reveals Godself exhaustively as Emmanuel, lives which are empty, absurd, and fruitless apart from Christ's resurrection are entirely transfigured to become mediators of this very same God. That is, after all, what it means to live our lives in the name of this God rather than in our own names.

29 March 2016

Why is Silence so Important to a Hermit's Witness?

[[Dear Sister, why is silence so important for the witness of a hermit? One hermit's blog writes a lot about hearing God speak to her and getting messages from Saints so I was wondering if that was typical? My pastor has spoken of silence being necessary to hear God speak to us in the depths of our hearts but that seems pretty different to me than having God send messages and making "assignments". Is silence part of the "experience of redemption" you recently said was so central to the hermit's life?]]

Really excellent questions --- especially the last one about the experience of redemption and silence. I think that silence is central to the hermit's experience of redemption and that it is an important piece of the witness she gives for precisely this reason. One of the really difficult experiences accompanying and often intensifying people's sufferings is the apparent silence of God. Folks who leave the Church often complain that their prayers went unanswered, that God was silent and unresponsive. They conclude either that God is unloving or uncaring, or perhaps that God is simply too remote, truly impersonal, and thus too, entirely irrelevant. They may similarly conclude that God is powerless or simply non-existent and that prayer is useless and the result of juvenile or at least naive wishfulness.

Novelists write powerfully about the silence of God and the way God is indicted by this. In the work, Silence, Shusako Endo pits the incredible suffering of the people against the apparent silence of God. Survivors of the Holocaust put God on trial because their prayers were apparently met with silence; they accused God of having failed to keep the covenant God had made with his people. They had been his People but the evidence of the holocaust's millions murdered indicated God had failed to be their God. The silence of God is one of those realities which challenges us most profoundly and to which our faith is most vulnerable. It is also a reality which is central to the eremitical life both as a challenging and penitential context expressing our yearning for God, and as a consoling element reflecting our wholeness and completion in God. Silence can be an expression of isolation, meaninglessness, and the seeming unresponsiveness of God or it can be an expression of the covenantal solitude in which we are completed as persons and come to quies, or shalom.

I can't say that God speaks TO me directly very often but I can say that God is frequently, even continuously speaking me, that is, calling my name and summoning me to fullness of life and wholeness. I have learned that most profoundly in silence and in the life that comes in silence. So many times silence reflected my own emptiness and incapacity, and for long periods, even a kind of violence done against me by others. At one point before I became a hermit I had reached the end of my strength, the end of my ability to see any meaningfulness in my life, any potential for serving God or his People. I had nothing to say except the single question, "WHY?!" and in asking this, I expected no real answers. It was most usually the silent cry of anguish I myself was. Only rarely was I able to pose it directly, to speak it aloud or claim it as my identity which called for an Other. Silence in those times was a terrible trial; but it was also a gift which opened me to a transcendent truth and love beyond anything I could have imagined.

In my own life I needed a God who would not simply answer my facile or sometimes desperate prayers but would instead embrace me in all of my poverty, emptiness, and inarticulateness, a God who would love me enough to bring life and  wholeness out of these. That required entering into these realities in silence to plumb their depths --- depths beyond words, thoughts, images, even beyond my more usual cries of anguish, apparent yearnings, etc both to meet God there and to open these realities to God. Isn't this the very nature of prayer Paul speaks of in Romans 8:26: [[the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;]] In time it (silence) became a necessary condition for the gift God would make of my life and the circumstances of that life. It became a piece of what my life witnesses to --- namely the importance of entering silence in all of its depths and painfulness precisely so that God can bring life out of death and an articulate and meaningful "word" even out of complete muteness. All of this is something that happens in silence.

As a result I generally distrust the notion of a spirituality which is or seems to be little more than a series of "messages" from God or "assignments" or "locutions," and "visions." I distrust this especially in one claiming to be a hermit. Not only are these seductive and potentially idolatrous, but, except in rare instances which are truly of God, they seem to me to be distractions from the silence of solitude. I don't think they are typical of eremitical spirituality at all. Hermits grapple with silence; more importantly though, they grapple with their own frailty and poverty in silence. They allow the absolute Silence and cosmic Song we know as God to embrace even their life's worst and most painful silences, and transfigure these so that they too may sing their part in what hermits call "the silence of solitude" --- the covenantal "quies" and communion with God the authentic hermit (indeed, the authentic human being) truly is.

As noted above, out of our personal and external silence and physical solitude comes EITHER what the tradition refers to as "the silence of solitude" and the achievement of quies or hesychasm which result when human emptiness and divine fullness meet one another and powerless muteness is embraced by the Love we know as God, OR our lives are and remain a searing indictment of God and God's silence. It is, I think, a terrible temptation in such circumstances to "hear" God speaking to us in locutions, to find God in visions and in the facile assurances of some fraudulent spirituality or shallow form of piety, but it is my experience that the revelation of God's presence and power generally comes in silence. (That is, it generally comes silently in a way which embraces and transfigures our own deepest silence.) Redemption itself comes in the meeting of our own profoundest silence which is deeper than, but encompasses all the joy and anguish, all the poverty and potentiality we know, and the incredibly fecund silence of the Love-in-Act which grounds and summons the cosmos into existence out of nothing.

Because the encounter of these deep silences is redemptive, then yes, silence is a central part of the redemption to which a hermit witnesses. This is so just as entering the terrible inarticulateness and even muteness of apparently meaningless suffering or the silence of senseless death while encountering the terrible silence of God is part of the redemption achieved in the Christ Event. In that event what could have been the most damning indictment of God's silence becomes instead the most profound witness to the scope and power of Divine Love's embrace.

As I have noted here before, our culture knows little of dwelling in silence. It fears it, considers it fruitless and perhaps significant of failure; knowing it is both associated with suffering and can unmask and occasion suffering, we generally fill it with sound of every kind. We deflect it and distract from it and when noise becomes too great we layer more noise on top of it rather than embracing  greater silence. We all know the truism that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God --- or to meet ourselves in the silences of our own hearts, much less to plumb these to their depths. We also know, I think, that as a result shallowness and superficiality mark our lives and relationships.

In our relationship with God we may fill our side of things with prayers and should we somehow meet the silence of God during a prayer period, we are apt to claim instead that God was absent or uncaring or simply failed to hear us. But hermits witness to the need for silence and solitude in becoming truly human --- in becoming the prayer God has made us to be. Beyond the need for external silence and physical solitude they witness to the silence of solitude that results when we allow ourselves to struggle with(in) and fall through these lesser silences deep into the hands of the Silent, Living God whose Word we are meant to enflesh and whose counterparts we are meant and called to become.