09 October 2015

On the Validity of Defining Solitude in terms of Community

[[Dear Sister, if you define solitude in terms of communion with God I can understand that but I am not sure how you move from there to communion with others. I am having a hard time seeing the difference between life in solitude then and life in community. If both are communal then what is the difference? Why don't you just say that the eremitical vocation is about being alone with God?]]

Good questions, thanks for these. Remember that I (and most of the theologians I know) define God not as A Being but as the ground and source of all being and meaning, and therefore too, the ground and source of all that is truly personal and all relatedness. In God, with and through God, we are related to everything and everyone else. If we live in communion with God then to some extent we are in communion with the rest of reality. And of course this works the other way around -- though not in the same way. If we love others, honor creation, are stewards of reality, we also love and honor God.

Thus, when I think about eremitical solitude and especially when I think about the difference between eremitical life and isolated, alienated, or estranged life the difference is in relatedness in and through God. To describe this I talk about the communal dimension of life in the silence of solitude. Still, this does not make my life one of cenobitical or community life since from 85-95% of my life is spent in solitude. Moreover, the time I spend with others is either in direct service to them (spiritual direction) or in order that I might live a richer and completely healthy solitude (occasional time with good friends). For a Trappistine Sister living, working, eating, praying, and recreating with others --- though often silently --- there are also periods of solitude: silent prayer, lectio, study, etc, but the context for everything is life in (and for) community and the search for God that community makes possible.

I don't speak about eremitical solitude ONLY as being alone with God for a couple of reasons. First my experience is that even (and perhaps especially) in the most profound prayer experiences I have had --- those where there was an undoubted union with God and even ecstasy where I was "taken up into" an experience of God in a way which led to physical effects, either others were present supporting me (in one case simply praying and watching out for me) and/or there were reminders in my prayer itself  of the fact that in God I was related to all others and all else. (I have noted before that in one prayer period I experienced having the entire attention of God and the moment I noted that --- with a kind of awed "This is so but how can this be so?" --- I was reassured that everyone ALSO had God's entire attention; no one was being shortchanged here.) It was another of those great paradoxes that underscored the truth of the experience. While I was not really aware of others per se, I was aware of them in a general sense through their relationship with God. In other words, at those times I was most completely taken up in God I was also clearly concerned with and reassured about others. I was aware of them more than at other times, in part because God, who never ceased being wholly or exhaustively concerned with each and all of us, directed my attention there as a consequence of his immeasurable love.

The second reason has to do with canon 603 itself. It describes this vocation as one of stricter withdrawal or separation from "the world" (which is resistant to Christ), the silence of solitude, the evangelical counsels, assiduous prayer and penance under a rule I write and the supervision of my Bishop. But it also says this vocation is one undertaken for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. By definition, I do not live it merely alone with God but for the sake of all those God holds as precious. So far as I can see this essential element of the canon is no less important or central than any other element. It implies and perhaps demands that my life is not merely absorbed in God as a life of personal piety, but that it is also is concerned with witnessing to some basic truths every person needs to hear and know. It is also, then, a life of prayer for others --- though I consider this secondary to the witness it offers. (Some hermits clearly consider this primary instead of secondary and are entirely free to do so.)

 Moreover, canon 603 says that to the extent my life is absorbed in God it will necessarily be concerned with all God calls his own. While I am certainly concerned with my own salvation, eremitical life is not simply a solitary quest for my own salvation, my own perfection. It is not some form of pious navel gazing or self-centeredness. The focus in not on me but on God and allowing God to be God, not only for myself, but for the whole of creation. Thus, while on one level I can speak of the eremitical vocation being one of being alone with God I think generally this is misleading to others, whether they be other candidates, Bishops and Vicars for Religious, or simply those looking into what a contemporary vocation to eremitical life is all about in the face of a culture taken up with individualism or given over to "cocooning". For all these reasons I have tried to be careful to define eremitical life as one of "being alone with God for the sake of others." Now I may need to say instead that it is "being alone with God in communion with as well as for the sake of others." If any of these elements is missing, then we don't have authentic eremitical life as the Church defines it. We do not have the silence of solitude but instead a life of dumb isolation and individualism.

In either solitude or community the aim of religious life (or of the lay eremitical life) is the same, namely, to seek and give ourselves over to God for God's own sake (for this is God deepest desire) and that of God's entire creation. But the contexts are different. In my hermitage I mainly do this while physically alone and linked to others through my relationship with God. In community Sisters or nuns mainly do this while physically together and more directly dependent on the environment created by others to facilitate every Sister's quest for God. There is a communal dimension to my solitude (or that of any authentic hermit) but physical solitude is primary. For cenobites there is naturally a strong solitary dimension to their life in community but the context of community is still primary or definitive of the life they live.

08 October 2015

An Empty House is a Vulnerable House (Reprise with tweaks)

Tomorrow's Gospel includes the small pericope about the house cleansed of a demon and then left vacant. The overall context is somewhat different than when I first wrote the following piece [we are not reading through Galatians this year] and I am hoping to put up something more completely relevant to tomorrow's reading from Joel and the responsorial psalm. (These focus on the need for repentance and the justice God does by loving us.) But until then. . .here is the post I put up three years ago.

The pericope of the house exorcised of a single demon from [tomorrow's] Gospel passage by Luke provides some real spiritual wisdom. It also serves to illustrate Paul's own concern in what he is is writing to the Church in Galatia and is especially meaningful when read within the context provided by Paul's letter to the Galatians. Remember, the passage from Luke speaks of clearing a single demon from a house; the demon then wanders around arid spaces looking for a place to inhabit. Eventually it returns to the original dwelling and finds it all swept clean and in order, but yet uninhabited. The demon thus  goes out to find seven more demons and they all move into the now clean and orderly but empty house.

The first part of the context for hearing this Gospel passage is provided by Paul's own theology and is summarized by the first lection: namely, the Law, a Divine gift,  functions as a curse apart from Christ. It provides rules on the way we are required to be and persist in being but it cannot empower us to do what it requires. The law instructs us regarding what is truly human, it can convict us of sin and point clearly to the demons which occupy our own divided hearts  but it cannot actually bring about Communion with God. The Law is important, especially as a schoolmaster preparing us for adult life in faith, but it cannot be thought to replace faith.

The second part of the context is provided by Luke's theology itself. A major theme of the Gospel is hospitality. Luke is concerned not only with our call to provide hospitality to strangers of whom we make neighbors, but with providing hospitality for God in our world, and further, with becoming ourselves God's own guests dwelling within the Kingdom of God's own sovereignty. In  the stories we heard this week from Luke's Gospel hospitality figures largely, and so does law to some extent. On Monday we heard the story of Mary and Martha, both offering hospitality to Jesus. Martha adopts a kind of legal maximization and busies herself going beyond the strict requirements of the Law (to provide a single dish for the guest) and  in the process, avoids actually providing the guest what he most desires --- her own hearkening (obedient) company. Mary, on the other hand, sits down at Jesus' feet and "hearkens" to him. What Martha seems to do is something Paul associates with the "curse of the law,"  namely she assumes that if x is required, 5 times x will be even better.

On Wednesday we heard the Lord's Prayer, which itself is about being taught to pray and thus 1) coming to allow God a place where he may be powerfully present in our world, and 2) becoming participants in the Kingdom of Divine Sovereignty where all dwell in communion with God and one another. What the pericope makes clear is that Law has NOT taught the disciples how to pray. Only Jesus (God's own empowering presence) can do this. On Thursday, there was the story of the importuning guest banging on his neighbor's door for bread to feed an unexpected guest. It is unclear whether or not all in this story eventually act as the Law requires them to act (the entire village is responsible for hospitality) but one can hardly praise the attitude of heart or spirit of hospitality demonstrated by (or lacking in!) the man who was sought out to supply the bread, for instance!

And [tomorrow we will hear] the story of Jewish leaders who are concerned with the Law and presumably keep it faithfully as God's gift, but who refuse to receive Jesus as God's own definitive presence in their lives and world. They even accuse Jesus of acting by the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons. Jesus confronts them with their inconsistency by asking what power it is by which they themselves exorcise demons; he then tells today's parable of the demon exorcised from the house with the house then being left uninhabited and vulnerable.

Probably very few of us are legalists in the strict sense, but how many of us tidy up our own hearts in a kind of spiritual housekeeping and fail to give those same hearts over to God to fully occupy? How many of us are intrigued by techniques and tools, workshops, etc, but resist actual prayer, that is, the giving of our lives over to [the active and dynamic presence of God?] I suspect this is a far more common problem in Christian living than legalism per se. Law of all sorts assists us in dealing with the demons which inhabit our own hearts: those of covetousness, greed, dishonor, dishonesty, anger, and so forth, but we have to go further and allow God to be powerfully present in whatever way he wishes. We have to allow our hearts to truly become Temples of the Holy Spirit. After all we are not called merely to be respectable (neat, clean, orderly, well looked after, with the right structure, facade, and all the right appointments), but to be Holy --- a new Creation, in fact. That means not merely being occupied WITH God or the concerns of his Law, but being occupied BY God in a way which transforms our hearts into God's own home.

Despite the humor present in Luke's picture of the returning demons the image is serious. [It reminds me of a commercial I once saw where a family of mucus blobs took up residence in a person's chest; that was somewhat humorous until one realized how sick and miserable such a sufferer would be.] We have all seen houses that were abandoned, and especially we have seen houses owners fixed up but left unoccupied; they become dens for animals, nests for squatters of all sorts, dump sites for lazy neighbors, sources for scavengers and thieves  drug houses, and so forth. In short, they are made unfit for human (or Divine) habitation. So too with our own hearts. Law helps us clean them of all those things mentioned above, and more. But Luke's Gospel also reminds us that God in Christ stands at the door and knocks. Unceasingly.

If we don't REALLY allow him to make himself fully at home, if we allow our hearts to be less than wholly hospitable to a God who desires [to share] an exhaustive Communion with us, then other and worse demons will replace the demons already exorcised: those of ingratitude, self-righteousness, complacency, fear, works-righteousness, arrogance, pride, and so forth. Houses are made to be inhabited and so is the human heart; an empty house is dangerous and vulnerable and so is an empty [ultimately uncommitted] human heart ---no matter how orderly and respectable. Law helps us ready our hearts for Communion with God, but at some point we really do have to allow God to move in as fully as He desires and take complete "ownership".

06 October 2015

Eremitism as a Vocation that Belongs to the Church: Sources of this Position

 [[Hi Sister! Thanks for your recent posts on reclusion and the relatedness that is part of that vocation. I read your post on Sunday obligations for hermits last year (I think it was last yea) so I realized that reclusion is more dependent on others than we often think but there was something new in the idea that the recluse reflects the interrelatedness of all of creation. I think you were also clearer about the idea that such a vocation "belongs to the Church", not to the individual. Can I ask what the sources of your ideas on this are? Your emphasis on community is so strong that sometimes I have to remind myself you are speaking about eremitical solitude or even reclusion. Does this come from your reflection on canon 603?]]

Thank you for the question and the observations. If there is greater clarity about the idea that vocations to eremitical solitude and even to reclusion "belong to the Church" and not to the individual, it is because I am coming to greater clarity myself. I spoke recently of the spiral movement of thought -- you know, where the same points come up but each time a bit closer to the center and deeper as well. I think this is mainly something similar. When I first got some clarity on the nature of  ecclesial vocations (about 20 years ago) I knew I had come to a realization that would change a great deal in my own perceptions and understanding. I had no idea I would be exploring the meaning of the term in one way and another for the rest of my life! And yet, this is precisely what has happened --- and I think will continue as a focus for my own reflection.

(By the way, I should note here that I use the term ecclesial vocation in two senses. The first is general, less usual, and means any vocation that "belongs" to the Church, is an expression of Church or necessarily serves the Church and the world through the Church. The second sense refers to "ecclesial vocations" in the proper sense of the term. This usage is much more specific and besides everything just mentioned refers to those vocations which are mutually discerned by the individual and Church leaders and are mediated juridically by the Church in rites of profession, consecration, and ordination. Ecclesial vocations in the proper sense are governed by canons beyond those associated with the lay state of life.)

Something similar happened 40 years ago with the work of theologians Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs and the notion of the human being as a "language event" --- which ties in here because this idea too stresses the interrelatedness of all life and the embedded nature of all vocations; people come to be in being addressed and called to be by others. They come to be in responding to these words and in addressing others. They are mutually responsible in these and other ways. Thomas Keating, as I have noted here before, calls human beings "a listening". Scripture speaks of the Christ Event, the fullest revelation of both God and Mankind as incarnate Word. Ecclesia (the Greek word for Church) is the reality of those called together to witness to the Word. Because of the theology of "language events" I came to see more clearly that none of these things exist in isolation; they cannot. It is not their nature. In any case I am coming to greater clarity regarding the profound relatedness of eremitical solitude and the vocation to reclusion myself so there is little surprise that it shows up here on this blog.

Your question is about the source of all this and I think there are five main 'streams': 1) theology (both systematic and historical theology including reflection on canon 603 and its history), 2) personal experience (including ongoing reflection on living canon 603), 3) sociology, 4) science (especially in regard to contemporary physics and biology), and 5) an increased sense of the prevalence of stereotypes and distortions of the truth. Not to worry, I am not going to list all of these in detail, but I do want you to see that each of these areas provides a kind of stream that feeds my own posts here. Sometimes I will focus on the theology involved, sometimes, on the counter cultural nature of the vocation, sometimes on the stereotypes I have encountered or the distortions of the eremitical vocation as the Church understands it, and so forth, but whichever the focus for the moment the other streams are also prevalent and feeding my thought.

A little more about canon 603:

You ask specifically about reflection on canon 603 and here I have to say that is a really great and terrifically perceptive question. You see, the one place where all the other bits come together, the one reality which combines all of these streams or threads is precisely canon 603 itself so it makes sense that it would become a kind of structural or formal center which demands a person eventually look at all these dimensions. Canon 603 is a norm for the solitary eremitical vocation in the Church. It is a bit of codified (normative) wisdom which is theologically compelling, culturally challenging, open to the findings of the sciences, and immensely respectful of the needs and experience of both the believing community and the person called to live this vocation in the name of that community.

Up until now I have said that this canon is an amazing blend of non-negotiable elements and flexibility. I hope I have conveyed that it is an amazing combination of formal structure and charismatic energy. (How often can we say a church law is an inspired gift of the Holy Spirit? I don't know -- I am no canonist! Neither am I generally tempted to approach canon law in this way but I definitely believe it is true in this case.) In any event, yes, more often than not it is my reflection on canon 603 that has been the source of insight into the eremitical vocation. At the same time that is because this canon is sort of lens which both reveals and reflects all these other streams and sources in a coherent illuminating and life giving beam.

For that reason my own experience and theological reflection, along with the lives and theological (or canonical) reflection of others illuminates this canon so that its depths and hidden contours, colors, and capacity can be more readily appreciated. If instead we see it only as a constraining norm, a law which is merely superficial or extraneous to the vocation it defines and governs, or if we treat it as a legalistic imposition which supposedly stifles the eremitical vocation, we will have failed to appreciate the nature and function of the canon itself and probably the vocation it codifies.

Personal sources, Theology:

I don't want to go into the theology involved at any length here since I think it is something I write about all the time. It is true that because I am a systematic theologian I look for the deep connections and theological underpinnings of a reality. That is just natural for me. With regard to the eremitical vocation and the call to solitude, both creation (where God is meant to be sovereign) and ecclesiology (the theology of Church) itself are foundational here. We talk of the Church as the Body of Christ and of this body having many members, all important, all necessary, all interrelated. It is hard to believe that God would call people to eremitical solitude or even to reclusion (as you say) if it meant truly being cut off from the Body of Christ in some significant way.

While it is true the relatedness between hermit and community is sometimes obscure there is no doubt it is real and critical --- just as so many of the life processes of the human body are hidden but real and critical nonetheless. This dimension is foundational and must be protected. Paul's theology of the charisms of the Holy Spirit and the way they serve and complete one another is also foundational here. We do not have people speaking in tongues without those God inspires as interpreters. We do not have individuals called to symbolize the Church at prayer without them being integrally related to that same Church. Meanwhile, as important as individual salvation and perfection might be the ministry handed onto the Church by God through the Christ Event is the "ministry of reconciliation". Through this ministry all people but also all of creation is to be brought to perfection (maturity and fullness) so that God is all in all. In all of this eremitical life is a gift of the Spirit to the Church and it is up to the Church to mediate God's call to those who live this vocation in the name of the Church. Of course Lay hermits too participate in the Church's ministry of reconciliation in this paradoxical vocation --- though as hermits they do do so in what are called "ecclesial vocations" in the more general sense of the term.

Personal Experience:

I have known both times when I was unable to participate effectively in church and her ministry due to illness and times when I was able to participate fully. I have lived as a hermit during both of these and there is no doubt in my mind that the first period was also one where something crucial was missing from my eremitical life while the second involves a richer and more paradoxical sense of the silence of solitude. This sense is a large part of what informs my reflections even though it is usually only implicit in my posts.

Reflection on canon 603 is something I have done in both periods of my life but the relational and ecclesiological sense of each of its elements was something I resisted (it was painful to embrace completely) so long as illness prevented my own participation in parish life. My relational standing in the People of God has helped me appreciate the history of the canon, the place of community in the growth of a call to solitude, the relational nature of the vows,  and the distinction between the isolation or estrangement of sin and the engagement with and on the part of others which is so characteristic of the silence of  eremitical solitude. One can live as a hermit both ways but there is no doubt in my mind that alienation and estrangement --- even that occasioned by illness --- only allows for a partial and somewhat distorted understanding of the canon 603 vocation.

Especially this can become clearer once the Church has admitted one to profession and consecration, when she has, in fact entrusted one with the canonical responsibilities and obligations connected to the public embodiment of this vocation. At that point one acquires a profound sense of being part of the handing on of a living Tradition. One acquires a more explicit sense of mission which differs significantly from mere purpose and this happens as the result of being publicly and canonically consecrated and commissioned by the Church. This is vastly different, and in some ways, a vastly richer experience of the ecclesial nature of an eremitical vocation than simply living as a hermit because one has discerned one is called to be a hermit apart from the Church's active participation in mediating this call.

Culture and the History of Eremitical Life:

Both the nature of our culture and the history of eremitical life underscores the importance of understanding eremitical life and even reclusion as relational vocations which in significant ways "belong" to the Church. Eremitical life has always been a prophetic way of life speaking the will of God into the contemporary situation with a uniquely arresting kind of power and vividness. In the days of the Desert Mothers and Fathers hermits reminded the Church it had allied itself too closely with the political and cultural environment and called it to conversion.

Today hermits remain a counter cultural reality in a world marked and marred by individualism (often expressed in materialism and consumerism) so long as solitude is understood in terms communion with God and all that is grounded in God. If solitude is defined in terms of estrangement and alienation eremitical life becomes complicit in these and betrays its own roots and nature. Similarly, to some extent eremitical life reminds religious men and women that though communion with those in the saeculum does not allow for a simplistic division between the spiritual and the secular or the sacred and profane, neither can religious buy too completely into the world of the saeculum; they must maintain an eschatological perspective and orientation even as they participate profoundly in the saeculum.

The place of stereotypes and frauds in affirming this vocation belongs to the Church:

And finally (skipping for now the place of the sciences) there are stereotypes and those who would distort eremitical life in ways which are obstacles to understanding the profoundly ecclesial and relational nature of eremitical or reclusive solitude. Stereotypes come to life in real people today and those who represent distortions of eremitical life make it much harder for others to leave stereotypes behind. This in turn could mean that eremitical life will continue to be neither understood nor appropriately valued by the majority of our Church and world. It can also mean that for those rare persons who have such a vocation, an eremitical life will be harder to consider seriously and harder for the Church to deal with. Prelates who are charged with discerning these vocations may instead dismiss them as too bizarre, too troublesome and time consuming, too difficult to discern, and too contrary to the Church's understanding of herself or her communal life to be considered healthy. This means especially that the major expressions of disaffected human existence today (misanthropy, narcissism, isolationism, etc) will be more easily labeled "eremitical" despite the fact that they are realities which are antithetical to the real thing.

In instances where the Church's own vocation to the consecrated eremitical life is misrepresented by actual frauds this situation is exacerbated and those without such a vocation may well be mislead to unknowingly adopt an equally inauthentic version of this vocation. What is especially difficult about these fraudulent vocations is the disparaging way the ecclesial dimension is treated. I believe there are relatively few outright frauds out there but because they write and otherwise represent disingenuous or perhaps "merely" delusional nonsense which is disedifying and seductive for those seeking a way to validate individualism and narcissism, they can cause significant mischief in people's lives and in the life of the Church itself. Moreover they can do so in ways far more powerful than lifeless stereotypes (which are powerful enough in themselves) can do.

I do feel real sympathy for those I am aware of --- and in some cases I feel or have felt significant pain -- both because of and for them. I sincerely believe these persons began pursuing eremitical life in good faith but failed in solitude precisely because of individualism, illness, and sometimes, outright narcissism. It is these cases especially that underscore for me the importance not only of humility in this vocation, but of a vital embeddedness in the faith community with competent direction and regular oversight. In the cases I am aware of some do seek admission to profession under canon 603 but when they are discouraged from this, or actually refused admission their disappointment has sometimes hardened into despair and disaffection. Once this occurs their relationship with the Church weakens and sometimes is transformed into actual disregard for her teaching, praxis, and members. I do understand the pain of such disappointment, but I also understand that one's identity as an integral part of the Body of Christ is too precious to jeopardize in this way.

The tragic irony in such cases is that the eremitical life that could have healed one's self-centeredness and transfigured one's marginalization itself becomes a victim of these. What could have been a path to significant integration, reconciliation, and fruitfulness becomes instead an example of a withered fig tree which may have lost any possibility of a verdant future. Once again though, this underscores the ecclesial nature of the authentic eremitical vocation. Such vocations, whether lay or consecrated, "belong" to and must be overseen by the Church. They are a signifcant part of her living Tradition, her Patrimony. In what may be the vocation's most significant paradox these persons demonstrate that authentic Catholic Hermits are never those who attempt to go it alone.

04 October 2015

Communal Vocations: Reclusion versus Isolation, Solitude versus Individualism

[[Dear Sister, you wrote that hermits should be open to greater degrees of reclusion should God call them to that. How does a person discern this and how does it differ from what you called "unhealthy " withdrawal or isolation instead of "eremitical solitude"? What if a mistake is made? Would strict reclusion make one less a "good" Catholic? I am assuming it would not but if a regular Catholic [a lay Catholic] thought they were called to reclusion would that look different than the reclusion of a diocesan hermit? It appears to me that if someone stopped attending Mass or receiving the Sacraments on the grounds that God was calling them to be a recluse they would be more likely deluding themselves and leaving the Church than discerning a divine call.]]

I have written about the caution and care with which the Church approaches reclusion here in the past so please check those posts. In them I discuss the congregations allowed to have recluses, the constraints and continuing obligations that pertain, and the legal (canonical) relationships which are necessary for a hermit to embrace reclusion. Above all I think these stress that reclusion requires mutual discernment and the support of the faith (including the religious) community. So please check those out for the stuff I don't cover in this post. Much of it is presupposed in any answer to your own questions and I will repeat some of it here for context.

Reclusion: Mutual Discernment for a Communal Vocation

A call to reclusion would have to be mutually discerned and supported by the faith community. It cannot be the result of a whim on the part of a hermit, much less a non hermit or novice hermit. It cannot even be merely individually discerned despite being much more than a whim. Partly this is because the diocesan hermit who seeks to become a recluse is changing the nature and, to some extent, the witness of her life. She has a responsibility to the Faith community in whose name she is commissioned; that reason alone would be sufficient to establish that her discernment must be serious and take place in the heart of the Church. Meanwhile, the faith community bears an important responsibility for the hermit's continuing ability to live an integral faith -- though not as directly as the hermit herself. The pastor (or other priest) will have a role in coming for the Sacraments of reconciliation, and anointing of the sick when needed; he will need to come to say Mass occasionally at the hermitage itself (once or twice a month). Extraordinary Eucharistic ministers would need to bring Communion from daily and Sunday Masses more frequently than they might otherwise --- though the hermit would likely continue to reserve Eucharist for the days in between these visits.

The hermit's spiritual director would need to visit regularly (though this might be a continuation of a standing practice) and possibly more frequently than usual --- especially early on in the discernment process. Provision for meetings with the hermit's delegate and the Bishop would also need to be made --- especially if the hermit cannot go to the chancery herself. (In my experience some Vicars and the hermit's delegate tend to come to the hermitage; annual meetings with the Bishop might be done the same way in the case of reclusion.) Meanwhile, it might be an important piece of the necessary arrangements to be sure the hermit is regularly present in the prayers of the community ---- just as she prays for them.  In my own parish I would probably find ways to write reflections, bulletin pieces, etc which would then be available to the parish at large while other forms of ministry would need to be curtailed. And of course practical concerns must also be taken care of: shopping, transportation to doctor's visits, errands, etc. This would all need to be worked out if the hermit-recluse was to live an integral faith life as a Catholic recluse.

Moreover, there needs to be initial agreement on the part of the hermit's delegate and Bishop. They will have needed to have heard the reasons the hermit believes she is being called in this direction and worked through any initial senses that the hermit is mistaken or misguided in this particular move. Similarly there must be a determination that this vocation will serve both the diocesan and parish churches without being an imposition on, much less a stumbling block for them. (Probably this can be assured by meetings to explain the vocation to those in the hermit's parish especially, and perhaps neighboring parishes as well.) The Bishop or delegate may need to speak to the pastor, and certainly the hermit will need to do so to request his cooperation and support. The point in all of this is that reclusion as lived in the Roman Catholic Church is a communal vocation. Yes, it focuses on the individual and God, on utter dependence on God and the completion that comes from one's relationship with God, but it is also lived in the heart of the faith community and with some very real spiritual and material dependence upon that community. In such a case mistakes are less likely, but they can also be easily discerned and rectified. The hermit who is not called to reclusion simply resumes and continues to live her normal eremitical life.

Why not simply go off and do it all oneself?

Your first question was whether or not reclusion would make one less than a "good Catholic". I have stressed the communal nature of the vocation to reclusion for the publicly professed and consecrated hermit because I think it is clear that when the vocation is lived in this way --- the way some Order hermits and any diocesan hermit would necessarily live the vocation in the name of the Church --- there is no question but that one would continue to be a "good Catholic". But notice that reclusion here is not an excuse for isolation, narcissism, or radical individualism. A vocation to reclusion has got to be a profoundly contemplative vocation but this means it must be a loving vocation --- one where God is loved, of course, but also one lived for the sake of the faith-commitments and lives of others.

The word often used in something like this is "edifying"; especially in a culture of exaggerated individualism where too often license replaces freedom, reclusion must be able to speak to the need as well as the made-for-community quality and profound interdependence of the entire creation. A vocation to reclusion must build up the Church and witness to the Gospel for the sake of the Kingdom while the perfection sought therein must reflect the completion to which God is drawing the entire creation. Since most of this is merely implicit in most hermit's lives the hermit must do what she does in conjunction with the whole church, but especially her pastors, theologians, bishops (teachers), and others who reflect on the profound but often obscure relatedness and prophetic witness of her vocation and make it explicit to the rest of the Church..

A hermit who chooses to go off on her own, to turn her back on her parish and diocesan church, to treat others as though their spirituality is of a different nature than her own, to live without the Sacraments or serious discernment with others, does God, herself, and the Church a serious disservice. (cf., Hermits and Sunday Obligation) If we live in union with God we will also live in union with those who also have God as their source and ground. If we have a vocation to essential hiddenness we can only honor such a gift in relation to others who will explain it, celebrate it, and make it known in a world which hungers profoundly for it. One way the church assures that this necessary mutuality and interrelatedness is maintained is by her recognition that baptized Catholics have canonical rights and obligations they need to honor --- whether as lay persons, priests, or as religious. A consecrated Catholic Hermit, whether diocesan or the member of an Order assumes new rights and obligations in addition to those embraced at baptism but she does not relinquish those that came with baptism.

These rights and obligations are not icing on the cake but the necessary rights and obligations for life in a faith community committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ --- whether we are speaking of the community of the larger world, the Universal Church, a Religious Order, or a diocese and parish. Thus, as you suspect, there is some difference in the way reclusion would look and work for the lay person living a private dedication and for the person living the silence of solitude in the name of the Church; however, both would be called to do this within the Church and with some degree of ecclesial assistance. For both, reclusion is something lived meaningfully and integrally only within the significant constellation of relationships constituting the Body of Christ. (For hermits who are not part of the Christian tradition we usually see reclusion reflecting a strong sense of the significant constellation of relationships marked by one's common humanity and one's place in nature. In fact, all authentic hermits tend to share this profound sense of relatedness to the whole of creation precisely in their solitude.)

A Matter of Deluding Oneself?

I think you are right that someone living a life of reclusion without at least some of the central structures and forms of relatedness mentioned here is likely deluding themselves. To say to oneself, "God is calling me to this; God is calling me to exile" (as I have recently heard this characterized) and to essentially turn one's back on the entire Church and her mediatory structures and relationships, one's baptismal commitments, rights, and obligations may be, potentially at least, delusional at best and arrogant to the point of apostasy at worst. Once upon a time this form of hermit life was acceptable but the Church's rules changed with continued reflection on the importance of a regular sacramental life in community with others.  Today it is a theologically and humanly incoherent response, especially by someone claiming to be a Catholic Hermit. It is one thing for a Christian to try significant reclusion for temporary periods with the support of the Church and entirely another to embrace it as a way of life when it means a form of churchless (and sometimes anti-Church) individualism.

Thus Paul Giustiniani wrote: [[Indeed this solitary way of life was considered more perfect (even if less safe) than that of the cenobites at the time when no law of  Holy Church forbade living a life in complete solitude. But at the present time ecclesiastical laws oblige all the Christian faithful . . .  to confess their sins often, to receive Holy Communion, and to celebrate or attend Mass frequently. . .Now since all these things are hardly possible in this [entirely solitary] kind of life, it would seem to be wholly prohibited. So it is held to be less safe (or rather completely illicit) for a Christian to attempt it, or more exactly, to persist in it.]] Rule of the Hermit Life.  "Three Types of Hermits"

God resides in and speaks to the human heart. Of this there is no doubt. But much of the time God's voice is not the only voice we hear.  Our own insecurities, vices, fears, ignorance, biases, and so forth make themselves heard there and often mimic or distort the voice of God in the process. Learning to hear the voice of God in the depths of our own hearts and achieving the healing that is required so this voice sings with a clarity which resonates throughout our whole selves takes time and requires the presence of others who know us well, know God in their own lives and hearts, and can be counted on to lovingly call us to accountability. Directors, pastors, Sisters and Brothers in the faith and in religious life -- as well those who serve as delegates and legitimate superiors -- all  assist the hermit to be truly discerning regarding how God is speaking and what God is calling the hermit to. To merely "go it alone" is foolishness --- and more importantly, it is apt to be uncharitable and ungrateful foolishness.

For those who experience "ecstasies," "locutions," and other possible signs of mystical prayer associated with "private revelations" the paradoxical truth is that they require even more contact with others, even greater oversight and mutual discernment. Private revelations must be measured by competent persons according to the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church as such.  Moreover, to whatever degree these experiences are genuine they belong to the Church as a whole, not to the individual. This is why "going it alone" especially over the long term is ungrateful foolishness. To whatever degree they are the voice of illness, an extravagant imagination, hypnosis, chemical influence, etc, they require others (and especially other contemplatives --- often with the help of professionals) to help discern what is actually going on. Eventually the Church herself may need to weigh in on the authenticity of such experiences and more, their edifying or disedifying nature. It requires others to look past the sensible experiences themselves to the growth and maturity of the person who experienced them. Besides the one experiencing these, others need to evaluate the fruits of these experiences or, at the very least, reflect back to their subject what they themselves are seeing. Otherwise, such experiences are worth little or nothing --- and perhaps worse than nothing.

The bottom line is that both eremitical solitude and reclusion in the consecrated state are ecclesial vocations; both are communal in their very essence and are lived in an ecclesial context. In a less formal way the same is true of lay reclusion. The ecclesial context and communal elements cannot be severed from the vocations themselves nor vice versa. To do so is to make a bad beginning and ensure continuing mistakes all along the way. Of course it also makes it much more difficult to rectify one's simple and sincere mistakes even as one is tempted to compound them because of embarrassment, pride, arrogance, personal dishonesty, and so forth. Because the consecrated Catholic recluse is a rare and powerful symbol of the Church at prayer, because s/he is a vivid symbol of the Church whose very heart is the dynamic presence of God who is at work perfecting reality by loving it into wholeness through the mediation of this same Church, again, the recluse's vocation belongs to the Church not to the individual alone. Outside the confines of the Church, and especially when there is an element of turning from or repudiating the Church to do this, the recluse may well become a symbol of sinful, and isolated existence instead. I don't think there is any middle ground here for the baptized Christian and especially for the Catholic Hermit who lives her vocation in the name of the church.

03 October 2015

Eve of the Feast of Saint Francis (Reprised with tweaks to update)

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 the year before last 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 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 am reading right now --- and which 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 give thanks for Pope Francis, a shepherd so clearly inspired by Saint Francis and the Crucified Christ --- and one whose trip to the US I am still processing (and recovering from!). 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!

02 October 2015

Is Vocation Ever Coercive?

 [[Sister Laurel, do you think God wanted you to be chronically ill so that you would become a hermit?  I am asking because one blogger on the eremitical life wrote that without her chronic illness she might well be tempted to live as other than a hermit and God told her he didn't want that. Here is what she said, [[perhaps the hermit would be drawn out from its vocational calling as a consecrated Catholic hermit. The temptation would be great to do so. The Lord has told it in the witnessed presence of [name] that if the physical pain were eased, this soul would be back out into the world--and the Lord did not will that.]] Do you think God would refuse to heal you so that you can keep on living as a hermit? I also wondered how the Church would deal with someone who was so tempted to leave a vocation as a hermit that God had to inflict her with serious pain and illness to keep her in the hermitage! I mean that sounds kind of depraved to me.

In what kind of God do we believe?

My answer is an unequivocal NO! I think it is always important to ask ourselves what kind of God would operate in this way. If we leave the character of such a God merely implicit we may never see that we have suggested God is some kind of monster responsible for the sufferings and tragedies of our lives. I think it is clear that the author of the comments suffers from serious pain and that that means she struggles to make sense of the dislocation that has caused. But to attribute all of this to a God who wants her to be a hermit and knows she would consider returning to "the world" outside her hermitage, and thus actually causes her to have terrible physical pain to prevent that is simply awful theology in any number of ways. Catholic faith's theology of vocation is skewed in this presentation, as is a theology of discernment. The same is true of our concept of free will, authentic freedom, providence, and of course, any other bit of theology that depends on an eternally faithful, self-emptying, creative, merciful God who is love-in-act itself.

Still, the questions you asked are important and the problem of theodicy (a theology of suffering) is one with which theologians and every individual human being struggles. But no. I do not believe God willed me to develop a medically and surgically intractable seizure disorder accompanied by chronic pain. Never! No God worth worshiping would will such a situation. Illness is a symptom of sin, the state of estrangement from the ground of being and meaning. We are all more or less subject to it, more or less threatened by it, and in many ways assured that one day we will know it intimately. Sometimes we are complicit in the illnesses that befall us or those near us. In any case illness is an enemy of God. Sin and death are intimately related and death, we are told in Scripture, is the final enemy to be placed under God's feet. We simply cannot buy into theodicies that make God complicit in these realities.

The Place of Chronic Illness in my Own Life:

But what do I believe about the place of chronic illness and God's will in my life? Clearly I believe that God called me to this life and I believe that chronic illness is an important source of my understanding of this vocation; in fact, I would argue that I am suited to this vocation in a unique way because of chronic illness and other life circumstances. I would even argue these elements of my life prepared me for this call and for living it ever more deeply and authentically. When I quoted the passage from The Hermitage Within recently (cf A Contemplative Moment on Entire Availability) I was pointing to something profoundly true in my own life, namely, that even when our lives are stripped of individual discrete gifts and talents, when all we have to offer is a kind of emptiness, God can and will make a gift of that (of us!). It is precisely this bottom line kind of situation the eremitical life witnesses to. As I have written here a number of times now, human beings ARE covenant realities, made for and of union with God. Their weakness is the counterpart of divine power and sovereignty;  unless a person's life evidences significant weakness and stripping or emptying how can they witness to the unmerited fullness of the grace of God?

At the same time, whether life has stripped the person in this way or they have renounced the use of so many of their gifts and talents in becoming a hermit, they MUST witness to the other side of the equation. When one looks closely at her life one MUST see a life defined not by the things that stripped and emptied that life of gifts and talents (or of the opportunities to use these) but instead a life defined by the grace of God that transfigures and redeems such a life. Here is one of the differences between a hermit and a failure at life, between a hermit and a curmudgeon, between a hermit whose life is truly one of the silence of solitude (the quies of a life in union with God) and one whose silence is merely a mute scream of anguish, between an authentic hermit and an isolated individual whose life is marked by deprivation and lack of real relatedness (which would include a superficial or nominal relationship with God).

For a long time I was unable to see various circumstances in my life as gifts which truly prepared me for answering this unique call of God with a commitment to eremitical life. They really seemed to be obstacles to the fullness God was calling me to instead. Today I see them as gifts, not because God willed them but because God transfigured them in ways which made an infinite sense of them. Thus, I am not saying I believe God always called me to be a hermit, much less that God willed the negative circumstances in my life that especially prepared me for the response I was to make to God's call --- circumstances like chronic illness for instance. Part of what I am saying is that God always called me to be fully alive and especially to be myself in union with Himself; the circumstances of my life tailored the kind of answer or response I could and would give.

They tailored or shaped the form which my response to God's love and promise of life would need to take just as they shaped the aspects of the Gospel I would be most responsive to. They urged me to respond to the Word of Life wherever it entered my life, in the smallest and most ordinary ways --- and in a few absolutely extraordinary ones as well. Especially all this defined my call in terms of weakness, emptiness, and stripping because it was these which were redeemed and transformed by the unfailing love of God. These were what needed to be transfigured so that they would not have the last word in my life, or better, so that they would speak of victory rather than of absurdity, defeat and destruction! The various vocations I felt called to (Religious life, teaching, writing, and music) served, both more and less well in the accomplishment of all that. As my director reminded me when we spoke about some of this last week, God's word (so Isaiah 55 promises) does not return to him void.

Vocation as collaboration:

The one "shaped response" which was truly adequate, to the circumstances of my own life and the necessary and unique witness to their redemption or perfecting is, in fact, eremitical life and beyond that, solitary eremitical life. In other words, my entire life prepared me to make this specific and radical response to the creative call of God. I have the sense that God's call and my response are a collaboration which makes my whole life an expression of Gospel truth and joy. Thus it seems to me that vocation is always a matter of collaborating (or, at the very least, cooperating!) with the creator God who brings life out of death and an awesome and infinitely complex cosmos out of nothing at all.Today I recognize that had the circumstances of my life been different  I would likely have still become a theologian and religious Sister with a bent for solitude, but my call to eremitism is more radical because the answer to the question of my life needed to be a truly radical one.

Thus, the vocation we eventually embrace is something which frees us; it makes sense of and answers or completes the questions we are. It is a supreme act of love on God's part and our embrace is an act of worship only we can make or become. Our whole lives we listen for that God who calls each and all of us to life and freedom in the midst of even the worst circumstances. We listen to the deepest yearnings of our heart, to the cries of anguish that result when those yearnings are frustrated, denied, and damped, to the potential and talents we hold and develop as signs of the promise of our lives, and the words of encouragement we cling to as part of what motivates and gives us hope. The response we will one day become is shaped in all of these ways and more by the God who is with us in all things. Each of these is a face of vocation, an aspect of the creative and loving call of the God who, standing with us moment by moment, draws us more deeply into a genuine future --- and in fact, into our own truest future.

The only personally diminishing or coercive aspects of this picture are those supplied by sin and evil. So, no, I absolutely reject the notion that God willed me or anyone else to be ill so that we might be forced somehow to become a hermit. The notion that God might thereafter have refused to ease my (or anyone's) suffering much less made it worse lest I (or they) chose something else is absolute anathema and quite frankly, it is blasphemous anathema at that. Such a "God" is unworthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; this God would be a scandal and only worthy of our rejection. To believe in such a God is to apotheosize coercion and violence. It is to transform the idea of a vocation or call from an awesome gift into an oppressive, even crippling burden and to make ludicrous any attempts to speak of Gospel freedom or the covenant nature of human existence. As you have said so well, all this sounds "depraved."

The Church and the Discernment of Eremitical Vocations:

Your question about the church's approach to a person struggling in the way the person you quoted seems to be struggling is also a good one. I don't think anyone I know in vocations work would let a person who admitted such deep unhappiness with a vocational path to continue pursuing it. Above all, my sense is the Church (diocesan Vicars, Bishops, vocation personnel, pastors, etc) would encourage the person to embrace the world as sacramental and push her to seek God in those things she really loves and is drawn to. That is especially true if there is significant suffering; after all, God does not will suffering and there must be sources of life and inspiration which allow the grace of God to counter such difficulty. Since suffering and chronic illness tend to isolate one, unless there are strong indications that solitude is precisely this person's way to human wholeness and profound joy, I sincerely doubt any diocese would allow them to be professed or consecrated as a solitary hermit.

It is not easy to make sense of the suffering that exists in our lives and to some extent I can understand why the person you cited wrote what she did. After all, the Old Testament is full of stories which attribute the calamities of life to "the gods". But more and more what emerges throughout the OT is the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob and Israel who is revealed in terms of mercy and compassion. In the New Testament the revelation of just HOW exhaustively merciful and compassionate this real God is realized in our midst as he spends himself to rescue us from sin and death by becoming subject to these things in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus his Christ. It is here especially that love has the last word as reconciliation (wholeness) and life are brought forth from the depths of godless death and godless death itself is destroyed forever. To affirm that God refuses to ease a person's pain or even exacerbates it so that she cannot pursue another way of living is to implicitly reclaim the gods of the Old Testament at the expense of the God of Jesus Christ. Probably we all have pockets of such belief deep within us, but if we are to respond to the gifts our vocations truly are it is really imperative that we outgrow these and allow them to be replaced by the merciful and compassionate God of Jesus Christ.

29 September 2015

On Anonymity and Accountability for Hermits

v[[Dear Sister. What are your views on anonymity for hermits? I read an article today by a Catholic Hermit who has decided to remain anonymous since that helps her prevent pride. You choose not to remain anonymous so I am wondering about your thinking is on this.]]

It's a timely question and an important one not least because it points to the responsible nature of ecclesial vocations. The first thing to remember is that if one claims to be a Catholic hermit, that is one who lives eremitical life in the name of the Church via profession (always a public act) and consecration, then one has been commissioned to live a public ecclesial  vocation. If one claims the title "Catholic Hermit" or "consecrated hermit", etc., in creating a blog or other website, for instance, then one really doesn't have the right to remain entirely anonymous any longer. This is because people who read the blog have commensurate rights to know who you are, who supervises your vocation, who professed and consecrated you and commissioned you to live this life in the name of the Church. If they have concerns with what you write then they must be able to contact you and, if really necessary (something which is probably quite rare), your legitimate superiors.

Ways of Maintaining Appropriate Accountability:

One thing that is possible, of course, is to say that this blog (etc) is the blog of a "Diocesan Hermit of the Diocese of Oakland," for instance, without providing one's given name. In doing so I would still be maintaining accountability to the Church for this vocation and what comes from it.  If there is ever a serious concern, then the Diocese of Oakland (for instance) will know whose blog is being referenced. (In this case, they may not ordinarily concern themselves with my everyday writing because they do not micromanage my activities --- my delegate would tend to know more about my blogging, I think --- but they will know whose blog this is and deal appropriately with serious complaints or concerns that might arise.) However, it seems to me one still needs to provide a way for folks to contact one so the chancery isn't turned into the recipient of relatively trivial communications which are an actual imposition. (I, for instance, do not usually provide my hermitage address, but people who prefer not to email may write me at my parish. This would work even if I did not give my name but used "Diocesan Hermit" instead because the parish knows precisely who I am and provides a mailbox for me.)

A second solution is to blog or whatever the activity without claiming in any way to be a Catholic hermit, Diocesan hermit, consecrated person, professed religious, etc. As soon as one says I am a Catholic Hermit (or any version of this) one has claimed to be living a vocation in the name of the Church and the public writing one does, especially if it is about eremitical life, spirituality, etc, is something one is publicly accountable for as a piece of that living. So, the choice is clear, either write as a private person and remain anonymous (if that is your choice) or write as a representative of a public vocation and reveal who you are --- or at least to whom you are legitimately accountable. Nothing else is really charitable or genuinely responsible.

Some may point to books published by an anonymous nun or monk, books published with the author "a Carthusian monk" as justification for anonymity without clear accountability, but it is important to remember that the Carthusian Order, for instance, has its own censors (theologians and editors) and other authorities who approve the publication of texts which represent the Order. The Carthusians are very sensitive about the use of the name Carthusian or the related post-nomial initials, O Cart., and they use these as a sign of authenticity and an act of ecclesial responsibility. The Order is in turn answerable to the larger Church and hierarchy who approve their constitutions, etc. Thus, while the average reader may never know the name of the individual monk or nun who wrote the book, nor even know the specific Charterhouse from whence they wrote, concerns with the contents can be brought to the Church and the Carthusian Order through appropriate channels. This ensures a good blend of accountability and privacy. It also allows one to write without worrying about what readers think or say while still doing so responsibly and in charity. Once again this is an example of the importance of stable canonical relationships which are established with public profession and consecration --- something the next section will underscore.

The Question of Pride:

It is true that one has to take care not to become too taken with the project, whatever it is, or with oneself as the author or creator. With blogs people read, ask questions, comment, praise, criticize, etc, and like anything else, all of this can tempt one to forget what a truly tiny project the blog or website is in the grand scheme of things. But, anonymity online has some significant drawbacks and a lack of honesty and genuine accountability --- which are essential to real humility I think --- are two of these. How many of us have run into blogs or message boards which lack charity and prudence precisely because the persons writing there are (or believe they are) anonymous? Some of the cruelest and most destructive pieces of writing I have ever seen were written by those who used screen names to hide behind.

Unfortunately this can be true of those writing as "Catholic Hermits" too. It seems to me to be far more prideful to use one's supposed status on a relatively anonymous but public blog (which is open to everyone) in order to criticize members of one's parish, one's pastor (for instance, claiming he has no vocation to the priesthood and does literally hellish things during Mass), to suggest that Masses one attends are invalid, that one's former Bishop "whined and lied" and betrayed one to the new Bishop, etc. All of these and more have been posted on public blogs written by one claiming the designation Catholic hermit while touting the importance of anonymity to "avoid the temptation of pride". Any one of them might have legitimately occasioned a reader's decision to contact the hermit's chancery (or parish) out of concern for the hermit or the church itself. And what of using a relatively anonymous blog while fraudulently claiming the status of Catholic Hermit --- thus eschewing accountability or refusing to charitably provide for the concerns of readers? Doesn't this point to a kind of arrogance? 

Likewise, over the past several years I have been asked about another's posts which have left readers concerned regarding the welfare of the lay hermit involved. One blogger, who moved from a Midwestern diocese to an old farmhouse on the West coast, writes about the interminable suffering (chronic pain) she experiences as well as the lack of heat and serious cold she lives in in Winter months which causes her to spend entire days in bed and under blankets and left her with pneumonia last Winter; she writes of the terrible living conditions involving the ever present excrement of vermin --- now dried and aerosolized, holes in walls (as well as complete lack of drywall and insulation), continuing lack of plumbing (no toilet) or hot water despite her marked physical incapacities, the complete lack of support by her local church and the fact that she cannot afford doctors or medicines or appropriate tests and may need eventually to live in a shelter when her dwindling money runs out. Unfortunately, all of this is purportedly written by a "consecrated Catholic Hermit" living eremitical life in the name of the Church. Thus it raises questions not only about the welfare of the person involved but about the soundness and witness of the eremitical vocation itself --- something which is especially critical when the vocation is struggling to be understood and the word "hermit" already conjures images of eccentric, bizarre, and misanthropic individualists.

While it is true diocesan hermits are self-supporting and have vows of poverty which raise serious questions for some older hermits especially, is this really the way the Church's own professed and consecrated hermits live? Does the Church profess and consecrate its solitary hermits (or facilely allow them to transfer to another diocese) and then leave them to struggle in such circumstances without real oversight or assistance? Is this the kind of resource-less candidate the Church commissions to represent solitary consecrated eremitical life? Would this be prudent? Charitable? Is it typical of the way consecrated life in the church works? All of these questions and more have been raised because of this person's blogging. Readers, who have every right to be concerned for her well being and that of the vocation itself, have written me (and probably others) to wonder if this person's Bishop isn't responsible for her and how they might help her (she does not accept comments or questions on her blog so they cannot write or assist her directly). Since the person involved is NOT a consecrated or diocesan hermit, her Bishop is not her legitimate superior nor are he or his auxiliaries responsible for supervising or somehow ensuring her well being beyond what he owes to every lay member of his local church and this has had to be explained. In such cases, the combination of relative anonymity and lack of accountability (or prudence and discretion)  is a serious issue on a number of levels.

In other words, what is the greater problem, a person who writes honestly but may sometimes be tempted to take themselves too seriously, or a person who takes refuge in anonymity while writing irresponsibly and without prudence, discretion, or real accountability?  Which is more prideful? More humble? Anonymity can be helpful so long as one allows for real accountability, but one needs to determine the real motives behind choosing anonymity. If one is merely wrapping one's self-centeredness, judgmentalism, and a lack of charity in pious rhetoric to disguise the fact that one's motives are less worthy, choosing anonymity could actually be seriously sinful. If one chooses anonymity to prevent others from learning they are not professed in the name of the Church, have no legitimate superior and are not a Catholic hermit with a public vocation then this is similarly problematical.

On the other hand some authentic Catholic hermits choose to let go of their public vocational identities for a particular limited project (like participation in an online discussion group or the authoring of a blog) and write as private persons. This is a valid solution --- though not one I have felt justified in choosing myself. And of course some decide simply to be up front with their names, not because they are prideful, but because for them it is an act of honesty, responsibility, and charity for those reading their work or interested in the eremitical vocation. The bottom line in all of this is that anonymity may or may not be a necessary piece of the life of the hermit. For that matter it may be either edifying or disedifying  depending on how it protects solitude or privacy and allows for true accountability or is instead used as an excuse for irresponsibility, disingenuousness,  and even outright cowardice. The hiddenness of the eremitical life is only partly that of externals. More it has to do with the inner life of submission to the powerful presence of God within one's heart. Sometimes that inner life calls for actual anonymity and sometimes it will not allow for it.

25 September 2015

Vespers Comments: Francis and US Women Religious

The following comments were made by Pope Francis during Vespers at St Patrick's Cathedral last night. They are like those made during the virtual meetings of US cities and Francis a couple of weeks ago, but they are stronger. One sentence I remember at the end of this passage said something like "Move forward!!"  Deo Gratias!

[[In a special way I would like to express my esteem and my gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say “thank you”, a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much. (Pope Francis Sept 24, 2015)]]

18 September 2015

On Contemplation, Regard for Contemplatives, and Science and Contemplation

[[Dear Sister, thanks for the post on the theological points which have been central to your life. I was able to see a little more clearly how these things are linked together. Well anyhow I was able to see THAT they are closely related and interrelated. One thing that was interesting was the [centrality] of paradox. I liked what Henri de Lubac said about only being able to contemplate paradox and that we can't resolve it. Oh, by the way, thank you for your explanation of docetism and arianism. I had never heard anyone explain these as a loss of the [paradoxical] nature of truth. That was pretty cool.

But anyway, my questions are about contemplative life and prayer. I know the Church regards contemplative life highly in some ways, but I wonder if you think they REALLY regard it highly? I read somewhere about a hermit not feeling contemplatives had a real place in the Church and that no one understood contemplative prayer or mystical prayer and experiences. She wanted to write for her diocesan paper but I think they had no space for something on these topics. Do you feel like your life is really regarded?

If what you say about paradox and contemplation is true then shouldn't everyone become a contemplative? But most people don't. Are scientists contemplatives or are they anti-contemplatives? I mean sometimes they seem to be contemplating the paradox of nature or reality and other times they are tearing things apart and seem to be incapable of contemplating things. How do you define contemplation anyway? Is it gazing at God and if it is, then how do we do that? I can't see God and I don't think you can either.  .  .]]

Definitions of Contemplation:

LOL!! No, I can't see God and yet I do consider myself a contemplative! Let me start with your last questions, not because they necessarily lead to the others, but because they have me laughing and because they are based on an important truth, namely, we can't talk about anything unless we are all on the same page regarding definitions. There is a sense in which contemplation has always meant gazing on the face of God. It involves a profound look at reality and especially at the depth dimension of reality. I think that when we talk about the contemplative stance of artists, writers, scientists (more about that later!), composers, etc, we are speaking about people who do look reverently on reality and let it grasp and shake them to the core with its beauty, order, relationships, structure, power, fragility, meaning or value, and so forth. I believe that those who are known in the Church as "proper" contemplatives "possess" such an attitude towards reality, but especially towards nature and towards other persons. These people, in one way and another, are concerned with gazing on the face of God.

But I think that there is a second and more fundamental sense to the term contemplation which has less to do with looking on the face of God than it does with allowing God to gaze at us. When contemplatives sit in prayer they often see and feel nothing at all --- except the deep quiet that comes from surrender to the silence of solitude. If you ask what they saw the only answer is often, "darkness" or "nothing", and there can be the sense that the darkness, as the silence and solitude, are living realities which, though too great to be seen or comprehended by us, somehow grasp or take hold of us instead. In these moments we are known in the biblical sense of that term, that is, with an intimacy which is almost sexual in its comprehensiveness. We know ourselves as known and loved by God and one of the better metaphors for this prayer speaks in terms of being gazed at and delighted in by God. In such a view contemplation is less something we do than it is our submission to the dynamism of God being God. Occasionally these experiences might be translated into visual imagery or other sensible experiences --- wonderful when it happens --- but also not really necessary for the profound sense of being seen, touched, and known.

On Science, Scientists and Contemplation

Both dimensions are present in the properly contemplative life, that is, in the lives of those who are, properly speaking, contemplatives. At the same time though, probably every person knows something of these two dimensions of the contemplative life and of contemplative prayer. This leads me to your great question about scientists. My sense is that generally scientists are contemplative without being contemplatives. They are capable of being grasped by reality in a way which compels them to do science, to explore, analyze, experiment with, hypothesize, test, and then repeat the process or parts of the process again and again. They are passionate and "ultimately concerned" in the way any person of faith is concerned in an ultimate way. They submit to the truth that grasps them and thus too to order, depth, beauty, structure, and so forth. They are, to a certain degree, reverent about the reality which is the focus of their work --- and often about the greater reality we all know. And some, are contemplative in the theological sense of that word; they are aware of the necessity and reality of something transcendent which grounds and is the source of even their own science, and they reverence and submit to that reality in the way of any person of faith.

But there are some scientists who insist on divorcing the world around them from depth, meaning, and so forth. For these scientists what Tillich called "technical" reason is enough. So long as they can dissect, analyze, explore, hypothesize, test, and in general "know" and exploit or use something which is finite and no greater than the human mind, they believe this is enough. In fact, they believe this is all that is possible. Some of these scientists are called scientific naturalists. I honestly don't know if these folks never feel as though they have been grasped by something bigger than they are, much less by something which is living, but those I have read seem to rule out any ultimate or truly transcendent dimension to things. My point is simply that there is more than one kind of scientist and we can't lump them together too easily.

One of the really great things about contemporary physics with its notions of entanglement and the sense that some things only really exist the moment they are observed, for instance, is that scientists are coming to see more clearly that paradox and relationality lie at the heart of reality. This means that though they are free (and perhaps called) to explore science even more deeply and rigorously, they are coming to suspect that, by its very nature, reality cannot be pried apart and "objectively known" as was once thought. Instead, one must give oneself over to it, let oneself be taken hold of by it, apprehend it with oneself as an integral part of the equation. Really objective knowledge is also profoundly subjective.

Meanwhile, for instance, the discovery of fractals lets us imagine an infinite depth to reality, a depth which is clearly reflected and imaged again and again and again in all being. In some ways fractals are the face of the infinite. These discoveries, and others as well, open the door to contemplation to the scientist precisely as scientist. It's an exciting time for them but also for theologians and contemplatives (in the proper sense of the term) because in significant senses we know this depth dimension of all reality and have known and been known by "him" right along. This means that while science cannot replace religion and while religion cannot replace science, they can and are called to approach reality with the same reverent sense of awe;  the knowledge we each possess has never been more clearly complementary or capable of enlivening and illuminating one another.

Are Contemplatives regarded in the Church?

I think I read the same piece you did by the hermit bemoaning the state of the contemplative in the Church and world. I both agree (and sympathize) and disagree with her. First, are contemplatives regarded in the Church? Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that they are. What is not properly regarded is the universality of the contemplative experience in not just the life of faith, but the life of the arts, sciences, music, and so forth. We are still suffering under the notion that contemplation is a rarefied form prayer to which very few are called. Several years ago a diocese stopped all Centering prayer meetings and one of the diocesan officials (a priest and possibly a Monsignor) explained that "contemplative prayer takes years to develop and is really for a relative few religious." (I don't think he realized how serious the criticism was he was leveling at his own prayer life with this judgment!) In any case while we (the Church per se) esteem contemplatives I am not sure folks generally regard contemplative prayer or contemplative living. Of course it is hard to really regard what you do not understand or see the value in and the thing about contemplation is that it is hard to point to its value.

I have to say that it also doesn't help any when those who call themselves "mystics" define contemplative prayer in terms of experiences few will ever have, ecstasies, locutions, visions, etc, or in terms of a spirituality which is so "world-hating" and incapable of seeing the sacramental character of ALL reality that no honest or healthy person would WANT to be associated with it. It is important to remember that the truly miraculous, like the truly contemplative, is rooted in something both transcendent and immanent. (It is not "supernatural" in the way we ordinarily think of that word so much as it also transcends the natural.) To associate contemplative prayer with the "paranormal", for instance, is to make it elitist, and for most of us (including most genuine contemplatives), irrelevant as well. So, my answer is that among those who really know what it is, contemplation is esteemed. Among those who do not know what it means or those who mistakenly believe it is elitist and meant for the favored few it is not really esteemed either.

I do feel my own life is regarded despite the fact that I suspect it is not generally understood. That I and the life I live are regarded is true on the parish level especially, but also on the diocesan and then too on the level of the universal Church. My pastor, for instance, is careful to invite me to special staff occasions and does not expect me to attend the more routine meetings (to which I would have little to add anyway since I am far less involved in the day to day staff concerns). At these and many other times he often suggests a way I can contribute which is reflective of my contemplative life. I am able to lead services three times a month and there is no doubt people appreciate what I bring to them. If I suggest trying a period of silence people enter into that and the kids at our school (the few times I have done some of this for them) certainly are open to learning quiet prayer. One of the things I really appreciate is that I am invited to everything at the parish even when I am unable to say yes. It is rather special to have folks continue to make sure I am specifically invited though they know my life as a hermit may not really allow me to accept the invitation. In any case, all of these people respect my own need for silence and solitude so my sense is they do indeed regard contemplative life.

Why is Contemplative Prayer NOT regarded?

Part of the problem which your questions and the comments made by the hermit you mentioned circle around is that we do not teach contemplative prayer or even introduce people to the environment in which it can flower. We teach prayers and have a few moments of quiet, but we simply do not allow for the silence needed for prayer itself. Some of this comes from folks being insecure with "teaching" (mentoring) others in this way. Part of our resistance to doing this, I think, comes from the sense that we are wasting time doing this; we really should be teaching a more "practical religion" some would say, or we should be teaching about social justice, or generally doing something more constructive with clear goals and ends, but sitting in silence to learn contemplative prayer? C'mon! (Both are actually necessary!) Adults know this to some extent, but this points up the third part of the problem, namely, it takes time and commitment with no tangible results for contemplative praxis to deepen and bloom in a person's life. Today folks tend to make (and desire their children to make) commitments to things that give more immediate returns  (including the capacity to get a good job and earn money!) --- and those which the Church has encouraged is a more "proper" part of "their" vocations!

On Contemplation and Contemporary Society:

I wonder if diocesan papers get offers from contemplatives to write about the importance of contemplative prayer in the lives of families, children, people struggling in all the ways contemporary culture brings on. It would not be enough to write about contemplation using examples from past centuries, for instance. There would need to be some compelling stories about the way contemplation affects people, the way they live, see, hear, appreciate life, etc. For instance, several years ago I did a class in prayer for one of our grade school's classes. We practiced silent prayer at the end and I asked the kids to practice this once or twice each day. (Before bed was one of the times I suggested.) The class wrote me letters to thank me for coming and also to tell me what the visit meant. Several spoke of praying silently each night before sleep. A couple of the students wrote unintentionally humorous comments, to wit: "I really like praying before bed this way. It really works; I go right to sleep!!" but one young man wrote the following really perceptive comment (a budding contemplative in the making, perhaps): "I have been praying silently each night before going to bed. It really helps. When I wake up the next morning I feel different!"

Of course the purpose of prayer is to let God be God; we don't want to turn it into the latest anti-anxiety treatment, or the newest alternative therapy for ADHD, but the simple fact is, when we allow God to be God for us and in us, we really are different. We are completed as persons and as a result we approach life with more patience and perseverance, greater empathy and compassion, and a greater capacity to risk ourselves for others when we don't see any immediate return for ourselves.  There is a generosity and a wider perspective that comes with contemplation. Certainly silence and the simple practice of waiting on God and learning to listen to one's own heart have their effects as well, but even so, quiet prayer is about letting God be God and becoming the persons we are in relation to the sovereignty of Love-in-Act. What we are seeing with a new freshness today is that in a sacramental world increasingly understood as fundamentally paradoxical and relational, the capacity for contemplation is important and often the only adequate approach to truly human forms of knowing whether these are associated with faith and theology or with the sciences.

Postscript: I realized I did not answer the question about everyone becoming contemplatives. I answered a similar question once before but from the "other direction". That one asked why we needed contemplative nuns if everyone was meant or called to pray contemplatively. For that post, please see, Why do we need Contemplative Convents? Though from a different direction I think it answers your question as well. If not, please get back to me.