19 September 2014

A Contemplative Moment: Finding the Face of God in Others


"St Teresa of Avila used to say that to pray is to treat God like a friend. The essence of prayer is to hear not only the voice of Christ, but the voice of each person I meet, in whom Christ also addresses me. His voice comes to me in every human voice, and his face is infinitely varied It is present in the face of the wayfarer on the road to Emmaus, in the gardener speaking to Mary Magdalen; and it is present in my next door neighbor. God became incarnate so that man might contemplate God's face in every face. Perfect prayer seeks this presence of Christ and recognizes it in every human face. The unique image of Christ is the icon, but every human face is an icon of Christ, discovered by a prayerful person."

by  Evdokimov cited by Catherine de Hueck Doherty in Poustinia

17 September 2014

Letting go of Childish Things

Today's reading from Paul is one of the most beautiful passages about love in all of the Old and New Testaments. But the point of the reading is especially important for hermits who seek to live in solitude or others who find themselves otherwise isolated and alienated from the faith community of their local Church. The very first line of 1 Cor 12:31-13:13 sets the lesson: [[Brothers and Sisters: Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way!]] Paul then goes on to list a number of recognizable spiritual gifts including speaking in tongues, knowledge (including mystical knowledge), and faith (including the faith to move mountains!) but reminds the Corinthians that without love these gifts and indeed, the person herself, are nothing at all. (Despite medieval attempts to aggrandize being "nothing." Paul is clearly disapproving of being nothing here.) Paul's argument through the rest of the passage is clear, if one truly loves then one has every other thing as well; in truly loving, all the spiritual gifts, which are partial and finite, find their completion and eternity. Moreover without love these gifts are empty, void, possibly illusory (or worse), and disedifying.

One of the most salient criticisms of eremitical life is the observation that the hermit has no one around to love or be loved by in the truly demanding and concrete ways human beings require to grow in Gospel love and authentic humanity. This observation has caused some Church Fathers to deny the validity of the eremitical life. It is true that I, for instance, can write moving blog posts, articles, and chapters about eremitical life as essentially loving and about eremitical solitude as essentially dialogical or covenantal, but, as Paul clearly says, [[If I speak in human tongues or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.]] I might get some attention with and even praise for what I write, but unless it is clearly informed by genuine love, it will be empty and ultimately meaningless. Moreover, the validity or at least the quality of my vocation itself, including the mystical dimensions of my prayer, would need to be seriously questioned in such an instance. As Paul says, [[if there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing, if tongues, they will cease, and if knowledge [referring to mystical knowledge], it too will be brought to nothing for each and all of these will pass away.]]


We hermits may err in our vocations in many ways but it seems to me that given today's reading and the criticism of some Church Fathers (and the affirmations of all genuine hermits!), our focus, even in maintaining appropriate degrees of physical solitude and silence, must be on our growth in our capacity to love others effectively and concretely --- even should we sometimes err against solitude in doing so. This tension is always present in the hermit's life. It is certainly not acceptable to speak about loving humanity while one fails to love the individual persons sitting in the pews next to or around us --- much less claiming such a love while eschewing their company.

The emphasis on loving others in concrete ways and circumstances is one reason every hermit maintains the importance of hospitality --- whether that means opening one's hermitage to others in specific ways or participating in the local parish community in limited ways; it is also the reason hermits form lauras or are associated with parishes and communities; these are not optional but, even when necessarily limited, essential to the eremitical life itself and certainly to the lives of those who are privileged via their professions and explicit commission by the Church to call themselves Catholic Hermits. In other words, community and the commitment to concrete forms of loving are critical dimensions of ANY authentic eremitical vocation, even those to complete reclusion; loving effectively and fully is, according to Paul, the truest sign of human wholeness and holiness, the truest sign of genuinely spiritual gifts. (The would-be recluse who is incapable of loving others effectively will be unlikely to be allowed to embrace reclusion.This is one of the reasons the Church requires serious vetting and supervision of eremitical recluses).

Part of the reason for this emphasis on concrete human loving is the ease with which a hermit (or other solitary person) can fool themselves about their own degree of spiritual growth or the nature of the spiritual gifts they have been given. Paul has chosen not to take the Corinthians to task over the authenticity or inauthenticity of their spiritual gifts in today's reading despite their tendency to self-delusion. Instead of calling them frauds he calls them children; to motivate them to change and grow he speaks to and captures their attention by focusing on the thing which seems to motivate them, namely, their drive and desire for more and more excellent spiritual gifts. He wants them to understand that love is the greatest divine gift, but also that it is the criterion by which all other gifts are truly measured and then brought to completion. Prophecy without love is not of God. The ability to speak in tongues without love is empty and essentially godless; mystical experiences or knowledge without love is not authentic. One may have all kinds of moving and extraordinary experiences in solitary prayer, but  in terms of the spiritual life these are, at best, often "childish things." At other times they are simply delusional:  they may simply be ordinary dreams (which can be be insightful, no doubt) treated simplistically as visions, empty visions which, tragically, lead to nothing more than self-satisfaction and navel-gazing, and the psychological projection of one's own problems, conflicts, and struggles. Spiritual maturity implies the ability to love those persons who are precious to God and to do so as they truly need! Divine gifts, whatever the type, are meant to allow us to do this.


These mystical and other prayer experiences and psycho-logical manifes-tations, like everything else in our spiritual lives, must be tested or proved --- words which mean several things including measuring, fostering maturation, and helping to make stronger and truer. They must be integrated into one's everyday life and growth; they must be transformed into personal maturity and wisdom. They must lead to or be associated with the ability to love in concrete situations and relationships. Therefore they must, to the degree they are authentic, lead to patience and kindness. They must not lead to or be associated with arrogance or rudeness nor to a sense that one's spiritual life is somehow "superior" to that of "ordinary" parishes and people! They must be associated with other-centeredness and to genuine humility and they must not allow one to brood over injuries done to one nor to rejoice when evil befalls others. Any authentic hermit, indeed any person who finds that their prayer lives (and especially what they call mystical experiences) do not lead to these manifestations of genuine love must surrender them for (or at the very least complement them with) the demands of community which do lead more surely to these manifestations. One must let go of the manifestations of spiritual childhood for the spiritual wisdom of adulthood. (cf, On Discernment With Regard to Prayer.)

Paul's letter to the (perhaps) spiritually precocious community in Corinth reminds us especially then that spirituality, even and perhaps especially eremitical spirituality is not a "me and God" only enterprise. That is NOT what God alone is enough means! Canon 603 is very clear that hermits in the Catholic Church, particularly those that live the life in the name of the Church embrace eremitical solitude for the salvation of others. The love a hermit cultivates in the hermitage and in her relatively limited encounters with those in her parish, diocese, monastery, etc is not a facile abstraction, an exercise in empty piety, much less a matter of meaningless if superficially impressive verbal expressions. What makes her vocation divine is the authentic love which motivates and empowers it. The moment a hermit forgets this or chooses isolation over eremitical solitude, she has embraced something which is not truly of God no matter how frequent or vivid the supposed mystical experiences that accompany it. Real union with God involves communion with others. It is the very nature of being a member of the Body of Christ and stands at the heart of Paul's concerns with adult faith and the community in Corinth.

14 September 2014

Exaltation of the Cross (reprise)


Recently I listened to a sedevacantist priest teaching about the Cross. In that presentation this cleric said that the only reason for the resurrection from the dead was to prove that Jesus was God. In fact, he asserted that Jesus proved himself to be God by raising himself from the dead! I admit I have heard the notion that Jesus raised himself from the dead before (though not for about 40 years or so) but I have never heard the meaning of the cross or the way it "saves" turned into such a complete bunch of Docetist twaddle or so thoroughly eviscerated and robbed of meaning.

Let me say this very clearly: Had Jesus stayed good and dead, had there been no resurrection, sin and death would have had the last word and resulted in an ultimate and absurd silence. While Jesus' death could have been considered noble and generous (like that of Socrates and many others, for instance), Jesus' death would and could not have been SALVIFIC had there been no resurrection. Similarly, had Jesus raised himself he would not have truly surrendered to the powers of sin and godless death in an exhaustive way as he actually did on Good Friday nor would he have been totally vindicated by God in a victory over these. He would not have shown us that the way to life in God is to open ourselves completely to his love so that it may prove itself stronger than even sin and godless death. The cross might have made good theatre but the only lesson it could have provided apart from resurrection is that genuine love and goodness will inevitably be crushed by the powers of evil, corruption, ambition, and cruelty and even God is powerless to prevent or change this state of things.

As we [celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and also look ahead to Friday's reading from Paul to the Church in Corinth] I wanted to post this question from a friend once again; it deals with how the cross works and why it is appropriate to exalt what was really an instrument of oppression and torture.

[[Dear Laurel, I feel sort of negative about the crucifix and communion. Here are the reasons: I know the church teaches that Christ died for our sins, but the crucifix also represents a very violent and bloody act. What kind of example is that to set in front of our already troubled youth? What can you say about this? Now that I have had my say, how are you and what is going on in your life? Love and Peace,]]

Hi there!
Regarding your questions: It is important to remember that in the events of the cross the violence and evil done were human acts (or, more accurately, literally inhuman acts unworthy of God or humankind). They tell us what happens when the sacred (and truly human) is put into our sinful hands. Part of the redemption God achieves on the cross is the redemption of our horrific treatment of one another and of God himself. Part of it is the redemption of our inhumanity and the making possible of authentic humanity in Christ.

Secondly, it is important to remember that Jesus' physical and psychological suffering per se was not salvific. What was salvific was that in the midst of this terrible suffering, injustice, shame, failure of mission, and betrayal, he remained open to God (the One he called Abba) and to whatever God would bring out of it. The word we use for this openness and responsiveness is "obedience". It does NOT mean that God willed Jesus' torture by venal, cruel, ambitious, and frightened human beings. What God DID will, however, was to enter into all of the moments and moods of human life including sinfulness and death so that he could redeem and transform them with his presence. Jesus allows God to do that by remaining open (obedient) to him even in such extremity. (He does not shut down, nor does he try to assume control, for instance. He is open to whatever God can and will do with these events.)

Neither is Jesus' death by itself salvific. Again, even in death and beyond natural death in what the NT calls "godless" or "eternal death" Jesus remained open to what God would bring out of this. Because he did, God was able to enter into these godless realms and for that reason they no longer are signs of God's absence. Instead, because of Christ's obedience unto "death, even death on a cross" as Paul puts it, even in sin and death we will meet God face to face and God will bring life not only out of the unexpected place but the unacceptable place --- the place where human reason says God should never be found.

God never changes his mind about us. He loves us --- actively, passionately, without reserve. (He IS love-in-act; this creative, dynamic, unceasing love is God's very nature!) What God changes through the events of the cross is reality itself. Unless once we are face to face with God we actually choose eternity without God there is no longer sinful or godless death. Even should we choose this I think it will mean we choose an eternity facing  a Love we have been offered without reserve, but which we have definitively refused. (It is hard for me to think of a worse situation than to be locked inside one's own hatefulness while faced with a Love which frees and gives eternal life.)  What we have to teach our youth is exactly what Paul says in Romans 8: neither life nor death nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, etc etc will EVER separate us from the love of God. God has made sure that he is present in even the unacceptable place (in this case, the realms which were heretofore properly called godless); he has assured the truth of what Paul asserts in Romans 8 and it is Jesus' openness and responsiveness to God in the face of human evil of unimaginable lengths and depths that spurred Paul's profession of faith.

One other note: The NT speaks of divine wrath. This does not mean anger in the sense we know it ourselves. It means something akin to a respect that allows the consequences of our choices to catch up to us. God respects our choices even if he does not respect WHAT we choose. He allows the consequences of our choices to catch up with us. However, at the same time, if we choose sin and death (knowing we cannot fully conceive what we are choosing in this way), he makes sure we will find him even there. 

The Church has never asserted a single interpretation of the cross nor a normative theology of the Cross. Unfortunately what we hear too often is Anselm's interpretation. Anselm's world was a feudal one where notions of shame and honor were driving forces. Thus he saw God as infinitely offended by human sin and wrote that an infinite price had to be paid for God's honor to be regained. Further, that price had to be paid by a human being since human beings had caused the infinite offense while only someone divine COULD do so. The biggest problem though was that he saw God as needing to be reconciled. This is exactly the opposite of what Paul says in 2 Cor 5:19: [[God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.]] In other words, it is the world which needs to be reconciled to God.

The Good News according to Paul and Mark, for instance, is that in Christ God brings everything home to itself and to himself. He sets all things right. This is the nature of divine justice. He asserts his rights or sovereignty over a broken creation by letting nothing stand between us and his creative love (himself). It is not God's honor that needs to be appeased but a broken and estranged world that needs to be healed and made one with God (the ground of existence and meaning). That is what happens through Jesus' crucifixion, death, and resurrection. In Christ God takes the worst human beings can do and brings divine wholeness and life out of it.

Exaltation of the Cross (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 September 2014

Death, New Life, and Continued Displacement for the Dominican Sisters in Iraq

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Dominican Sisters, Iraq, in Better days -- 2013
September 9th, 2014
“ A Time to give birth and time to die”
Ecc 3:2
We often hear the powerful words of Ecclesiastes that remind us of the inevitability of birth and death, that these realities come upon us regardless of whether we are prepared for them or not.  No doubt we must accept and embrace them, but rarely, however, do we experience them both on the same day. Yesterday at Mass, though, we did just that.

We celebrated the birth of our Lady and committed one of our elderly sisters into the hands of God. The sister, whom we buried yesterday, is among the elderly sisters whom we had promised to take to Karakosh after the construction of our general house. Unfortunately, our unforeseen displacement and journey to Ankawa/Erbil was a shock for them, for they were eager to return back to Karakosh. Although they were not able to help out in the camps and centres with the young sisters at Erbil, they were diligently following the news on TV. This doubled their heartache and worry over people’s suffering. So heavy was their burden that three of them passed away within ten days.

 Despite the loss and pain our community is experiencing, we rejoice in the reality that our sisters have decisively chosen to live life, never letting despair extinguish the light within them, and in the midst of overwhelming hardship, two sisters renewed their vows yesterday evening and two postulants received the habit, becoming novices.

It was a day where the contradictions of life and death converged; we witnessed simultaneously death and resurrection. This was a sign of hope and God’s presence among us, and it gave us courage to continue our journey with our people who are still displaced, weakened, and impoverished.

We have entered the fifth week of displacement, and people are still living the same misery, which is only worsening, it seems, as our cries are ignored, and the world turns a blind eye to our sufferings. The challenges that threaten our people are now even greater as we face homelessness.  The refugees taking shelter in schools are told to leave, as the school year starts soon.  They do not know where to go, and there is a shortage of medicine, food, mattresses, blankets, and clothing. The dignity of the people has been utterly stripped away. Most painful of all is that we do not know when this ordeal will end. So far, neither the central government nor by the Kurdish forces have made serious actions to reclaim all the Christian towns from the IS.

Also, we would like to inform you that we have started setting up temporary housing for our sisters in the back yard of our convent, but the needs are great. We hope that the work will be completed within two weeks.

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers. Your help can make huge difference.

Dominican Sisters of Catherine of Siena –Iraq.

N.B., I have highlighted (italicized and emboldened) one portion of this letter. I ask that you especially remember these Sisters in your prayers, those who have died and are truly home, those who begin new lives as Dominicans at such a time of testing, and all of those professed who continue to choose life in Christ, no matter what.

All my best,
Sister Laurel, Er Dio
(Stillsong Hermitage, Diocese of Oakland.)

07 September 2014

Treat them as Your Would Gentiles and Tax Collectors

In today's Gospel pericope we hear Jesus telling folks to speak to those who have offended against God one on one and then, if that is ineffective, bring in two more brothers or sisters to talk with the person, and then, if that too is ineffective, to bring matters to the whole community --- again so the offended can be brought back into what we might call "full communion". If even that is ineffective then we are told to treat the person(s) as we treat Gentiles and tax collectors. In every homily I have ever heard about this passage this final dramatic command has been treated as justification for excommunication. Even today our homilist referred to excommunication --- though, significantly, he stressed the medicinal and loving motive for such a dire step. The entire passage is read as a logical, common-sense escalation and intervention: start one on one, try all you can, bring others in as needed, and if that doesn't work (that is, if the person remains recalcitrant) then wash your hands of him or, if stressing the medicinal nature of the act, separate yourselves from him until he comes to his senses and repents! In this reading of the text Matthew is giving us the Scriptural warrant for "tough love."

But I was struck by a very different reading during my hearing of the Gospel this morning. We think of Jesus turning things on their heads so very often in what he says; more we think about how often he turns things on their head by what he does. With this in mind the question which first occurred to me was, "But what would this have meant in Jesus' day for disciples of this man from Nazareth, not what would it have meant for hundreds of years of Catholic Christianity!? Is the logic of this reading different, even antithetical to the logical, commonsense escalation outlined above?" And the answer I "heard" was, "Of course it is different! I am asking you to escalate your attempts to bring this person home, not to wash your hands of her. To do that I am suggesting you treat her as you might someone for whom the Gospel is a foreign word now -- someone who needs to hear it as much or more than you ever did yourself." Later I thought in a kind of jumble, "That means to treat her with even greater gentleness and care, even greater love and a different kind of intimacy. Her offense has effectively put her outside the faith community. Jesus is asking that we let ourselves be the "outsider" who stands with her where she is. He is saying we must try to speak in a language she will truly hear. Make of her a neighbor again; meet her in the far place, learn her truth before we try to teach her "ours". After all, what I and others have said thus far has either not been understood or it was not compelling for her."

While I should not have been surprised, I admit I was startled by my initial thoughts! Of course I knew that Jesus associated with tax collectors and with Gentiles. The reading with the Canaanite women last week or the week before makes it clear that Jesus even changed his mind about his own mission in light of the faith he found among Gentiles. Meanwhile, today's reading is taken from a Gospel attributed to Matthew, an Apostle who is identified as a tax collector! Shouldn't we be holding onto our seats in some anticipation while listening for Jesus – as he always does -- to say something that turns conventional wisdom and our entire ecclesiastical and spiritual world on its head?  Maybe my thoughts were not really so crazy after all and maybe those homilies I have heard for years have NOT had it right! So I looked again at the Gospel lection from today in its Matthean context. It is sandwiched between passages about humbling ourselves as children (those with no status), not being a source of stumbling and estrangement to others, searching for the one sheep that has gone astray even if it means leaving behind the 99 who have not strayed, and Peter asking how often he should forgive his brother to which Jesus says seven times seventy!

I think Jesus is reminding us of the difference between a community which is united in and motivated by Christ's own love (a very messy business sometimes) and one which is united in and mainly concerned with discipline (not so messy, but not so fruitful or inspired either). I think too he is reminding us of a Church which is always a missionary Church, always going out to others, always seeking to reconcile the entire world in the power of the Gospel. It is not a fortress which protects its precious patrimony by shutting itself off from those who do not believe, letting them fend for themselves or simply find their own ways to the baptistry or confessional doors; instead it achieves its mission by extending its love, its Word, and even its Sacraments to those who most need them --- the alien and alienated. It is a Church that really believes we hold things as sacred best when we give them away (which is NOT the same thing as giving them up!). Meanwhile Jesus may also be saying, "If your brother or sister has not and will not hear you, perhaps you have not loved them well or effectively enough; find a new way, even a more costly way. After all, my way (the Way I am!) is not the way of conventional wisdom, it is the scandalous, foolish, and sacrificial way of the Kingdom of God!


I had always thought today's reading a "hard one" because it seemed to sanction the excommunication of brothers and sisters in Christ. But now I think it is a hard one for an entirely different reason. It gives us a Church where no one can truly be at home so long as we are not reaching out to those who have not heard the Gospel we have been entrusted with proclaiming. It is a Church of open doors and open table fellowship (open commensality) because it is a church of open and missionary hearts -- just as God's own heart, God's own essential nature, is missionary. Above all it is a church where those who truly belong are the ones who really do not belong anywhere else! We proclaim a Gospel in which we who belong to Christ through baptism are the last and those outside our communion are first and, at least potentially, the Apostles on which the Church is built.

When we treat people like Gentiles and tax collectors we treat them in exactly this way, namely, as those whose truest home is around the table with us, listening to and celebrating the Word with us, ministering to and with us as at least potential brothers and sisters in Christ! We treat them as Gentiles and tax collectors when we take the time to enter their world so that we can speak to them in a way they can truly hear, when we love them (are brothers and sisters to them) as they truly need, not only as we are comfortable doing in our own cultures and families. Paul, after all, spoke of becoming and being all things to all persons --- just as God became man for us. He was not speaking of indifferentism or saying with our lives that Christ doesn't really matter;  just the opposite in fact. He was telling us we must be Christians in this truly startling way --- persons who can and do proclaim the Gospel of a crucified and risen Christ wherever we go because we let ourselves be at home and among (potential) brothers and sisters wherever we go. We do as God did for us in Christ; we let go of the prerogatives which are ours and travel to the far place in any and all the ways we need to in order to fulfill the mission of our God to truly be all in all.

When the logic, drama, and tension of today's Gospel lection escalate it is to this conclusion, I think, not to a facile justification of excommunication. In this pericope Jesus does not ask us to progressively enlist more people to increase the force with which we strong arm those who have become alienated, much less to support us as we cut them loose if they are unconvinced and unconverted, but to offer them richer, more diverse and extensive chances to be heard and to hear --- increasing opportunities, that is, to be empowered to change their minds and hearts when we, acting alone, have failed them in this way. This is what it means to forgive; it is what it means to be commissioned as an Apostle of Christ. And if that sounds naive, imprudent, impractical, and even impossible, I suspect Jesus' original hearers felt the same about the pericopes which form this lection's immediate context: becoming as children with no status except that given them by God, leaving the 99 to seek the single lost sheep or forgiving what is effectively a countless number of times. Certainly that's how someone writing under the name of a tax collector-turned-Apostle presents the matter.

06 September 2014

On Anniversaries of Birthday and Profession and the Movie, "Calvary"

This last week I celebrated the anniversaries of both my perpetual eremitical profession and my birthday. For the past 7 years these days have been made incredibly special by what God has done in and with my life. I am immensely grateful for that but also so very grateful to members of my parish and other friends who have made these anniversaries so special during that time. One of the ways I celebrate with friends is to go to movies at this time. That was true this year and I wanted to recommend both of the films I saw (the first was When the Team Stands Tall, what is called around here, "The De La Salle Movie" and it is both entertaining and inspiring), but especially I want to say something about Calvary.

Let me begin by noting that it is a brilliant movie --- difficult, horrifying in some ways, inspiring, challenging, provocative, and often beautiful both in its simplicity and its complexity. The structure is both spare and profound. The characters are complex and are sometimes easy to both dislike and to empathize with. At the center of the story is a good priest. The antagonist is a man who is the victim or long term sexual abuse by clergy. This man enters the confessional where the priest is waiting and begins by saying (essentially), "I first tasted semen at the age of seven." After a series of exchanges the priest, who has not harmed the man (or anyone else in his role as priest), is told that at the end of a week, Sunday next, the man will kill him on the beach. Like Jesus who knows if he goes to Jerusalem he will be killed, the priest has no doubts about the man's sincerity or intention. Like Jesus the priest continues his public ministry right up until the last minute and like Jesus he has a choice to flee or to "go to Jerusalem". In the end he goes, but not without his own Gethsemane crisis and related decision.

I should also say that the parallels with Jesus' story are not drawn in an "in your face" way. They are present because the man is a priest and a good one who lives his life in Christ with integrity. The parallels are there because they are there in the life of any priest, or any religious, for instance who lives his or her Christian vocation in this way. Still, this is not an easy vocation to live in an integral way and the degree of harm that can be done by those who do not do so is absolutely incalculable; Calvary does a very effective job of expressing both aspects of this truth. When the Church, and that means those individuals who live and act in the name of the Church, betray their commission to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed lives are ruined. Faith, though it may be vital and strong, is ALSO a fragile thing and it and the capacity for it can be murdered by ecclesiastical hypocrisy and sin. Calvary is also the story of such hypocrisy and the resultant death of faith in Ireland.

There is no way I can do justice to this movie but I do want to say what struck me most about it. First, we live in a world where even priests and religious who have NOT done terrible things and have lived their vows with integrity are sometimes treated with contempt or otherwise tarred with the same brush reserved for perpetrators. Last month, for instance, I had a conversation over lunch with a priest who was visiting from Ireland. He asked me about the response I got from wearing a habit and wondered if I received much negative attention or denigration because of it.

While I have had some ugly encounters (including one where someone I had never seen before almost succeeded in pushing me down a train platform escalator while snarling, "F___ing nun!") generally people are positive in their reception and many see me as someone they can talk to because of the habit (I like to think they approach because I personally signal an openness and capacity for pastoral ministry but certainly the habit invites them to consider speaking to me). In any case, this priest noted that in Ireland it is very different for a priest wearing a collar in public. Similarly, I know of a case where a priest here in the US was tried and convicted, falsely, and according to "evidence" that was flimsy at best and simply incredible. He was convicted on this basis merely because he was a priest, not because he had actually hurt anyone.

Calvary brings out what it is like to be true to one's calling in a world where who one is as well as what one stands for is often despised, denigrated, or ridiculed. It also makes very clear how a public life of ministry to others means that quite often one cannot share things with another person who truly understands and must bear them alone.  (This can be especially true when there are no other priests or religious around!) The loneliness which is a counterpoint to the consolation and communion of faith was striking and something many priests and religious know well.

Similarly,  the role of clergy and religious is a critical one in our church and world. While I do not mean to suggest that the laity do not serve similarly in their witness to the Gospel, a public ecclesial vocation can invite genuine faith or make it seem hypocritical and the Gospel a farce in a very profound way. In Calvary we spend a week with a faithful priest (Fr James LaVelle) who ministers the Word of God to those who both love and hate him and are often cynical at best about "the faith" they either cling to in some desperate but still-superficial way, or outright despise and reject. The relative dearth or even absence of priests, religious, and others who minister the Gospel with their whole lives is a terrible tragedy in our world and the results are particularly sad to see.

At the end of the movie, for instance, we revisit a series of scenes from the preceding week. Where once this priest walked with his daughter, was a hearing and healing presence, etc, now there are voids: an empty road, a deserted field, the ruins of a church, etc. I often had the sense during the movie that the Gospel of God is suffering for lack of priests (et al) while the world is suffering from a lack of a credible proclamation of the Gospel. The image I saw in my mind's eye was of a single priest (and often a single religious woman or man) holding darkness at bay like a small child with his finger in the dike trying to keep it from disintegrating altogether and holding back flood waters which will destroy everything in their wake. I was struck forcibly by the weighty responsibility ministers of the Gospel hold today. For me this was a point of emotional "gravitas" and a lasting challenge.

When the film ends it seems at first that perhaps the assassin's bullets have allowed darkness to swallow up goodness or, perhaps worse, that Fr James LaVelle's life made no difference at all. But the priest's words have been heard by others; his observation that the lesson that needs to be heard more often and emphatically is that of forgiveness is picked up by his daughter (James became a priest only after the death of his wife). She in turn goes to visit his killer in prison. The killer's choice of a "good priest" was made so that people could be shocked --- just as Romans often killed people to shock and frighten the populace and deter revolution, etc. He was not looking for justice. Nothing, from his perspective, could be set right for him. He was angry and in pain and needed to scream as loudly as possible while exacting vengeance in some more-than-usually-inadequate way. And yet, his murder of this good, though imperfect, man of God does more than simply shock. It begins a call for forgiveness and a dynamic of reconciliation which the whole of Ireland (and anyone else dealing with the scandals of the church in our world) really needs in order to move forward. This obedient priest has taken on the darkness and the sins of his confreres in religion and the priesthood and at the very least has demonstrated a nobility grounded in his firm belief in God and his vocation. While I did not personally have the sense this priest went to his death in expiation for the sins of others, in fact he does suffer innocently for those who are guilty and slowly the integrity of his life and death appear to allow light to shine in and through the darkness.

Of course there is SO much more to this movie: layers upon layers of structure and meaning and significant pieces and characters I have not even mentioned. It is a movie I am sure I could see at least a couple more times without "getting it all". More accurately perhaps, it is one of those movies which could be used for lectio over an extended period just as it is like one of Jesus' parables where we enter and reenter the story at different points with every hearing not in order to "get it" exactly, but to be changed by it so that we can see things in a new way. I recommend folks see it as soon as they can, especially since it is unlikely to be in theaters much longer --- it was slated for a limited engagement and was released on August 1.

05 September 2014

When is a Laura not a Laura for a Diocesan Hermit?

Hi Sister Laurel, I read the following online and wondered if you could comment on it. It is several years old but I am sure it refers to you and to something you are supposed to have written. [[Also Sister Laurels defintion of laura is deeply flawed. A good example of this are the carthusians, early Carmelites and Camaldolese of Monte Corona who are a direct split off from the OSB Camaldolese and started as a Camaldolese laura with the same spirit and rule reformed for a stricter observance of the Camaldoli rule. They did away with the cenobial common house aspects so when they enter the community go straight into the hermitage not as individual hermits but as a laura community with strict enclosure. They can be found here in the United States in Ohio. Also sister's saying that you have to be separate in spirituality to be a laura is also false. I have never argued it openly with her because I felt it would only upset the group and bring more heat than light. (Indwelling Trinity/Emmanuel)]]

Sure.  First, this person (Emmanuel is a screename only; this is not the BC diocesan hermit) has mistaken a general definition of laura which is any colony of hermits for the discussions I have had about lauras of canon 603 hermits. The two differ in a number of ways where the laura of the diocesan hermit is a special case within the general category. She is entirely correct that the Camaldolese constitute a laura and the same with the other groups she mentions. They also tend to represent semi-eremitical communities where all are bound by the same Rule, constitutions, and customs. They are governed by superiors from within the community, share a common purse and their vow of poverty is interpreted in terms of this. But when I write here that a laura of DIOCESAN hermits must not rise to the level of a community and therefore may not have many of the elements that these communities do, for instance, I am merely re-stating what experts and canonists on canon 603 like Rev. Jean Beyer have clarified because of the solitary eremitical nature of the life canon 603 defines. (cf Canon 603 Misuses and Abuses pt 1)

Remember that when one enters one of the lauras or com-munities Emmanuel mentions above they are making their eventual profes-sion AS A MEMBER OF this community or congregation. They are not, as is the case with diocesan hermits, solitary hermits responsible for their own upkeep, writing and living their own Rule, and so forth. If the congregation dissolves then these religious hermits will find that their own vows will also cease due to a material change in the circumstances in which they were made (c. 1194) unless they can transfer these to another institute. (They could not simply transfer their vows and become a diocesan hermit by the way.)

But diocesan hermits are formed  as solitary hermits and make their vows directly in the hands of the local Bishop; should a laura they have formed thereafter dissolve for some reason or another, the individual hermit's vows do not cease. They retain these and the obligation to live as a solitary hermit within the diocese continuing under the supervision of the bishop and their own delegate. In other words, in the examples Emmanuel mentions we are dealing with communities or congregations and hermits are professed as members of a community. These communities can certainly be called lauras because they are colonies of hermits but they are not colonies of SOLITARY hermits as are c 603 hermits and they are therefore different in kind than lauras of c 603 hermits. For diocesan hermits a laura, helpful as it might be for mutual support in solitude, is incidental to their vocation; for hermits professed in community the laura is an essential part of the vocation.

Regarding separate spirituality, once again Emmanuel has misunderstood what I have affirmed, namely, that if diocesan hermits come together in a laura each hermit has every right to maintain his or her own separate spirituality and not have a single one imposed on them as happens in a group of Camaldolese or Carmelites, for instance where those entering the congregation are formed in this specific spiritual tradition. I suspect this is the place where Emmanuel misinterpreted what I was saying. Thus, in a single diocese when several diocesan hermits choose to live together in a laura for the mutual support of life in solitude, one may have embraced a Franciscan spirituality, one a Camaldolese, and a third, Carmelite. Because this is not a community reflecting one specific spiritual tradition one need not relinquish one's own identifying or representative spirituality, nor to wear one single representative habit, etc. Since the hermits here remain solitary hermits they have every right to live out their own expression of this according to the spiritual tradition that best fits them and to continue doing so according to their own Rule or Plan of Life. (Guidelines and minimal communal organization and structure will likely be necessary in this laura but it does not rise to the level of structure of a community in the canonical sense.)


Conversely, therefore, if a laura of diocesan hermits begins to move in the direction of a single spirituality, a single habit, a common purse, a single Rule rather than the hermits' own Rules, or if there are uniform horaria imposed, or limitations on the work a hermit may or may not do (one "laura" does not allow its hermits to do spiritual direction for instance), or the laura begins to dictate who the hermits may have as confessors and directors, when they  may see friends or family, how they may use media, etc, in contrast to the individual hermits' own Rules or Plans of Life, chances are pretty good that the laura has crossed the line into becoming a community of semi-eremites rather than a colony of solitary diocesan hermits.

In any case my point has been that individual characteristics including spirituality are to be retained as well as possible in lauras of diocesan (solitary) hermits. After all, diocesan hermits are first of all solitary and diocesan, not Carmelite or Franciscan or Camaldolese, for instance; their vows are made as solitary hermits within the context of the diocese NOT within a Carmelite or other Order or congregation. The tradition they are committed to live out is that of solitary hermits who may also but secondarily embrace some specific spirituality to assist in that. Like community a specific spiritual tradition is intrinsic to formation and profession for hermits who are part of congregations. It is far less so for diocesan hermits whose charism transcends any specific spirituality.

By the way, this is one of the reasons a number of us in various dioceses and countries have adopted Er Dio or some other version of Eremita dioecesanus (including Erem Dio, and ED) instead of post-nomial initials which can be mistaken for congregational initials. We say clearly in this way that we are vowed as diocesan hermits, not as Franciscans or Camaldolese, and so forth. This is quite different than the cases Emmanuel mentions and also quite different from the position she attributes to me. Please do check the labels included below. They will link you to some of what I have written about this before and enlarge on what constitutes a community rather than a laura in the case of diocesan hermits. Again, you might also check the following article for a better summary: Canon 603 Misuses and Abuses pt 1

04 September 2014

Periods of Shared Stillness Before Mass

I love my parish. It is vital (it is both alive and essential to my own life) and liturgically one of the best I know. Generally I appreciate the catching up that goes on before Mass --- especially prior to daily Mass in our lovely chapel. People genuinely love and care for one another here and the community that is fostered and cemented during these periods before daily Mass is important. I realize and support that. But one day last week I made a decision I have not made before. I chose to get up and return home instead of staying for Mass. Sometimes the noise level gets too high for me. Sometimes I just need there to be greater quiet before Mass, not because I don't have it at home (I certainly do!), but because the noise level arising from competing conversations in our little chapel is sometimes simply too much. This day was one of those days.

On the walk home I thought about what had prompted my decision and I thought a lot about the need to build community and to catch up before Mass. I took an inventory of what was happening inside me to ascertain whether my decision to simply leave was due to my own "hang up" or something more. Was I just irritable today for some reason? For instance, was I in pain on some level or other, was I subconsciously worried about something which made my need for greater quiet more acute, or was I actually responding to some movement of the Spirit which could contribute to my own prayer life and to the communal life in my parish --- especially with regard to the daily Mass community? Was it a combination of these things and, if so, in what way? After all, I have been attending Mass here, sitting in the same chair surrounded by a core of the same people for almost 8 years and the noise level does sometimes climb in ways which are difficult to take --- or justify. Sometimes I contribute to that and participate fully in the conversations, sometimes I ask for a greater level of quiet, sometimes I read to distract myself from the noise, and so forth. I think the reasons for today's decision are complex --- more complex than would be helpful to outline here. 

But despite that complexity one issue which predominated in my analysis no matter my momentary mood or personal needs is that of the importance of occasional shared stillness in creating real and profound community. This is something communities of loving persons need and need to be able to support one another in -- especially when that shared stillness is chosen consciously and grounded in God. 

Sue Monk Kidd and the Need for Stillness

Sue Monk Kidd tells the story of being together with her children when they hear a loud thud. She looks up from folding laundry in time to see blue feathers sliding down the window. A bird had flown into it and was injured. Kidd and her children walk outside to see what can be done. The bird's wing is injured but not broken; the bird is frightened and in pain and needs to be still in a safe place. Kidd sits down next to it, strokes the wing very gently with her little finger and then lets the bird just rest. The children, seeing that there is nothing "to do" and hearing that the bird needs to be still return to their TV. Kidd sits quietly in stillness herself and senses the amazing healing power this has. Time passes. The children come to ask if the bird "is done being still" and Kidd says no. They return to their TV again and Sue continues to sit in stillness with the bird. Twenty, thirty, fifty minutes go by. At some point, she says, "The bird was done being still, cocked its head, and flew away." After this experience Kidd was more aware of both the power of stillness and her own need to share it with others. She had waited with the bird and both had been healed in the process. Now she asks friends sometimes to simply come and be with her, to be still with her, and she does the same for and with them. It is an important part of truly loving one another! She concludes with the following comment, "I have regrets in life, but waiting with that wounded bird is not one of them. I learned her stillness and her flight. She taught me prayer." (cf., When the Heart Waits, Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions, Harper, San Francisco, pp 143-144)

Anyone who has spent time in a monastery or hermitage or on silent retreat has likely sat in silence with others. The silence at these times is like a living thing. There always seems to be a point where one feels the invitation to let the silence deepen and take over. It can be scary; one feels on the edge of something immense and dynamic.  It is like everyone has taken a readying breath at the same time and realizes that something new is on the verge of occurring. I have felt this moment in parishes occasionally and one of two things will happen then, either people will embrace it and allow it to embrace them, or they will fidget, laugh, cough, whisper to the person near them, greet the next person who comes in, etc. Others will then either remain in silence or join in --- usually the latter because it is an uphill battle to remain in silence with noise all around. If they do the latter, then the moment is broken and an incredible means for forming community will have been lost entirely. But if people return to the silence, allow it to deepen, if they get in touch with the Mystery they have begun to encounter and the related communal reality which is forming there, if they commit to the deep connection coming to be as stillness links them in ways conversation cannot, they will experience something awesome and profoundly healing and unifying.

We Have Lost (or Missed out on) Something Important!

I think we have generally lost a sense of the need for real and communal silence, for shared stillness. (I am not directly addressing any lack of reverence in parishes for the reserved Eucharist in this post, however real it may be. Neither am I talking about simple lack of thoughtfulness for the needs of others -- though this may also sometimes be part of the dynamics involved.) There is a very great difference between the stillness and silence I have just described and the enforced silence that used to occur before Mass as everyone sat in their little island of quiet and avoided everyone else. There is a great deal of difference between the silent but profound engagement with God and one another I have just described and simply waiting silently as a group of relatively isolated persons locked in our own "solitude" for Mass to start! When the school children attend Mass with us once a week during the school year we expect them to be silent before Mass, but why? Is this just the proper way to wait for something else (the adults, rightly I think, often seem not to believe this is the case) or are we asking them to participate in something already present, already happening, something special occurring  with us in God which they may never have really experienced before or elsewhere? Are we inviting them to enter WITH US into a realm of amazing intimacy where words fail us and silence transcends all differences (including those of age!) or is this just a means of quieting them down until the priest enters and the "real" event (Mass) begins?

I am sure it is clear I believe we are asking them to join us in something which is, potentially at least, incredibly powerful, intimate, and transcendent. Of course, this kind of silence has to be something members of the parish have shared, an experience they know,  expect, commit to and at least occasionally consciously enter into more intensively together. It must be a way in which they build community in addition to the more common "catching up" that occurs before and after Mass. But how often do parishes or groups within parishes actually experience the period before Mass in this way? Periods of shared silence are simply not encouraged. I am afraid most folks have not experienced or even imagined this even when they pray silently by themselves regularly. Even more problematical is the fact that silence itself is frightening to people and seems unnatural in today's world. I am convinced that if parishes encouraged regular periods of shared stillness prior to daily Mass it could change a great deal --- including increasing a sense of reverence for the reserved Eucharist, for one another and the Holiness which resides within each of us, as well as our sensitivity to the needs of those among us for greater stillness and silent support).

A Proposal For Parishes:

This leads me to make a proposal for parishes to try perhaps once a week prior to daily Mass. I want to suggest that they try implementing a period of shared silence or stillness for a period of 15-20-30 minutes; the purpose is for all those present to enter a state of quiet prayer and to do so in a way which supports one another in this. Those who cannot or do not wish to join in this could be reminded as they enter the chapel that it is a "silent day" and asked to enter as quietly as possible. In our noise-saturated world learning to do this, taking one's place while being careful and attentive to the needs of others for silence would itself be an important practice. At the same time the communal commitment to maintaining the silence required for contemplative prayer can ease the group past any small disruptions so these do not become outright distractions which shatter the silence and shared stillness. A few minutes prior to the beginning of Mass a small bell or chime could be sounded to signal the end of this period and give folks a chance to gently transition back, greet one another briefly and quietly, and prepare for the entrance antiphon. In some parishes the priest could do this for the assembly as he enters the sacristy to vest for instance.

When I left prior to Mass the other day I especially needed there to be greater quiet. There were several reasons that made this more urgent that particular day. (All is well; I was and am fine!) I know that I am not alone in needing this occasionally and that many days some try to pray quietly with noise all around. Some persist, some give up, and some cease to attend frequently at all. My sense that day was and remains that we have lost (or never developed) a sensitivity to the importance of shared silence in building community and that consequently, we fail to keep the noise level down at all. We think that building community requires speech, that silence isolates us from one another, that it is unnatural and even destructive. We fail to see it as significantly community-building when chosen consciously by the group and as central to our lives of shared faith and prayer.  In other words we have lost (or never had) something important and need to make an effort to bring it back or to inculcate it if it was never there at all. Sue Monk Kidd reminds us of the natural and transcendent healing power of shared stillness; it is certainly one of the things we should practice for those times when we can give another nothing else --- and more, when no words will be sufficient. If we cannot do so in a small chapel where the community is relatively intimate and we celebrate and pray for one another regularly then where can it happen?

03 September 2014

"Personal Noisiness" and the Silence of Solitude

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I thought your reference to forms of "personal noisiness" in your post on the destructiveness of physical solitude was intriguing. You said, [[ The personal "noisiness" (physical, emotional, and spiritual) of your isolation is NOT what canon 603 is talking about when it refers to the silence of solitude.]] Could you please say more about this? I am used to thinking of external and inner silence and solitude but I have never thought in terms of "personal noisiness" as being contrary to the solitude of a hermit. Makes sense though.]]

I have written here before about human beings as language events and I may once have referred to times in our lives when we are screams of anguish rather than articulate words. I have also written in the past about not only the Word becoming flesh, but flesh becoming word in Christ. (When this occurs a person becomes authentically human and a living embodiment of the Gospel of God.) When I wrote the comment you cited I was thinking about someone I experience or perceive as a scream of anguish and often, one of outright despair. A person who has reached such a place in their lives seems to me to be "noisy" rather in the way Pigpen carries a ubiquitous cloud of dust around himself. Their pain and whatever else is part of the anguished "scream" they are oozes out of them no matter what they do. Even sitting silently in prayer or other pious practices may be about or at least involve calling attention to themselves and their needs. The problem with a scream is that it cannot be tolerated by others for long; it calls attention to one's pain and anguish and people will initially try to assist the anguished person in some way but it also pushes people away --- not only because they cannot communicate with the one in pain to determine what is needed, but because it leaves them truly helpless to resolve this in any meaningful way.

When I write, therefore, about "the silence of solitude" I am speaking first of all of the physical environment of the hermitage. The normal "air" a hermit breathes is first of all that of the physical silence of being alone. But it is far more than this as well. On another level it involves being silent with God, listening to and for God, learning to attune oneself to the voice of God both within one's heart and in the various other ways that voice comes to one in solitude.

Scripture, Eucharist, silent prayer, spiritual direction, friends and parishioners at Mass and those special times when the hermit socializes or recreates with these important people in her life --- all of these are ways God speaks to the hermit in her solitude; the silence of solitude here refers to the absence of distractions from this dialogue between oneself and God as well as to one's commitment to refrain from unnecessary distractions (some recreation is necessary to the vitality of the dialogue). On a final level then, the silence of solitude refers to what is created within the hermit, or better put perhaps, it refers to the person (hermit) who is created by the dialogue with God in the hermitage.  This is what I referred to when I spoke of shalom, or the wholeness, peace, and joy that is the fruit of an eremitical life. Much of the "noisiness" of human yearning and striving is silenced; so is the scream of self-centeredness and the inability to listen to or hear others. One is at peace with God and with oneself; one is at home with God wherever one goes.

In the past I have also said that the silence of solitude is the environment, the goal, and the charism of eremitical life. What I have just described in the above paragraph is what I mean by environment and goal. When a person is made whole in solitude, when their life breathes (sings!) a resultant sense of peace and the security, joy, and rich meaning of communion with God, then that life is also a gift to the Church and world. This gift (charisma) is what canon 603 calls the silence of solitude; it contrasts radically with the personal noisiness that is linked to the alienation and brokenness of sin. It reminds us all of the completeness we are called to in God. But this is not achieved in the hermit's cell for one not called to eremitical solitude. Instead the personal disintegration which is already present is exacerbated and the scream of anguish one was (if in fact that was the case!) becomes either more explicit or more strident, more expressive of neediness and greater self-centeredness, as well, therefore, as becoming even less edifying for others. In such a case flesh (sinful existence) remains scream and never rises to the level of Word (graced and articulate existence); that is, one never effectively proclaims the Gospel with one's very life nor reaches the goal of the silence of solitude (the silent dialogical reality we are in union with God) either. Instead the false self and one's own woundedness remain the center of one's life and the content of one's putative 'message'.

I hope this serves as a beginning to explaining my reference to "personal noisiness."

30 August 2014

Dominican Sisters report Breaking Point Reached, Despair is Setting in for Some Iraqis

The following weekly update from the Dominican Sisters in Iraq is terribly sad. Please keep them in prayer and if you have the capacity to help Iraqi Christians (and others!) in any other way, please do so!

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Dominican Sisters in Better Days -- 2013

August 30th 2014

                                    Weakened and Impoverished

We entered the fourth week of displacement. Yet, there is nothing promising at all. The Iraqi government has not done anything to regain the Christian towns back from the IS. Likewise, the Kurdish government, apart from allowing us to enter their province, has not offered any aid, financial or material, leaving us in the streets, and making the church take full responsibility of us all. Thanks to the Church of Iraq in Kurdistan, who opened their halls and centres to provide shelters. Yet, the number of refugees was so large that the Kurdish government had to face the stark reality and open their schools to provide additional shelter for refugees.

We hear a lot about world governments and organizations sending financial aid to Iraq, but the refugee gets the least –we do not know or understand why. People lost almost everything; they cannot even afford to buy milk or formula for their children. What saddens us most is that, only one month ago, these people were the most educated in the country and among those most likely to build a life for themselves and their family, and now they do not have enough money in their pockets to survive the day. Christians became accustomed to investing their money in businesses, shops, fields, buildings…etc, to build their communities. Leaving their towns meant leaving everything they had been working for all their lives.

Yet, amidst losing everything, accepting their lost dignity, is the most difficult loss they may experience. Some have found shelter in tents, others in schools, still others in church halls and gardens. They wait to be fed, or given food to cook; elderly are not being taken care of properly; children are living in unhealthy conditions; families have lost their privacy; women are exposed in these places; men have no jobs in a culture where a man is expected to support his families. Refusing to live without dignity, more and more people think of immigrating. Whoever owns a car or gold, sells them to buy a plane ticket out of the country. Needless to say, the buyers in Kurdistan are taking advantage and do not take into consideration the devastation these refugees face.

Christians in Iraq are known for their faithfulness and peaceful way of living among others. They do not believe in violence or in war as a way to solve problems. Now, they feel that they are victims because other religions and political parties are dividing the country on the account of the innocent. Of course, none of us is a political analyst, but it is obvious that Kurdistan is the only beneficiary: economically, militarily, and provincially, while they were obliged to protect the Nineveh Plain. The Peshmerga pulled out of the plain of Nineveh in no time, without a clear reason, and without warning the civilians; we knew we were living in a war zone, when we trusted that at the very least, in a time of danger, they will warn us but, did not –so how can we trust them now (government and people)?

We still wonder why the world cannot petition the UN to take serious action toward the IS, and save the people from their misery, knowing that the IS is the most dangerous group in the world. Is the world deaf and blind? People are almost convinced that the only way out of this crisis is to immigrate and leave the country, if it is even possible.  It is certain, many have reached their breaking point and despair is setting in.  Maybe immigrating is the only way to stop living in such a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. People cannot endure this persecution, marginalization, contempt, and rejection anymore. If there is any other way, besides immigration, please let us know. Otherwise, please help people get out of the country, by seeking asylum, according to the UN law.

Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena –Iraq.

Physical Solitude as Destructive

[[Sister Laurel, how do what you have called the central or non-negotiable elements of canon 603 rule out people from living an eremitical life? Everyone is supposed to pray assiduously, live more or less penitential lives and I think everyone needs silence and solitude as a regular part of their spiritual lives. Wouldn't you agree? So what is it about canon 603 that helps a diocese determine someone is NOT called to be a hermit? Am I making sense? Also sometimes people say that solitude is dangerous for people. Have you ever seen a case where a person is harmed by living in physical solitude? What happened?]]

Yes, I think this is a sensible and very good question. While all the elements of the canon would suffer in one who was not really called to the life the one that comes to mind first and foremost for me is "the silence of solitude." I have treated it here as the environment, the goal, and the charism or gift of the eremitical life to the Church and world.  I have also noted that it is the unique element of canon 603 which is not the same as silence AND solitude and also distinguishes this life from that of most Christians and most other religious as well.  Just as I believe the silence of solitude is the environment, goal, and gift of eremitical life, I believe it is a key piece of discerning whether or not one is called to eremitical solitude. Perhaps you have watched the downward spiral of someone who is living a form of relative reclusion and who has become isolated from his/her family, friends, and from his/her local parish. Often such persons become depressed, angry, bitter, self-centered and anguish over the meaning of their lives; they may try to compensate in ways which are clearly self-destructive and/or which lash out at others. Some turn to constant (or very significant) distraction (TV, shopping, etc) while others use religion to justify their isolation and wrap their efforts at self-justification as well as the self-destruction, bitterness, and pain in pious language. One expression of this is to consider themselves (or actually attempt to become!) hermits.


Whatever else is true about their situation it seems undeniable that such a person is NOT called to be a hermit, does not thrive in physical solitude and gives no evidence of living what canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude." In its own way it is terrifying and very sad to watch what isolation does to an individual who is not really called to eremitical solitude or actual reclusion. There is plenty of documentation on this including from prisons where such isolation is enforced and leads to serious mental and emotional consequences. At the very least we see it is ordinarily destructive of personhood and can be deeply damaging psychologically.

Regarding your questions about whether I have ever seen such a situation and what this looked like, the initial answer is yes. Over the past several years (about 7), but especially over the past 3 years, I have watched such a downward spiral occur in someone who wished and attempted to live as a hermit. Besides the signs and symptoms mentioned above, this person's image of God is appalling and has become more so in response to the difficulties of her now-even-stricter isolation; in trying to make sense of her experiences she has come to believe that God directly tests her with tragedies and persecution, causes her to suffer chronic, even unremitting pain, supposedly demands she cut herself off from friends, family, clergy, et al (which, at least as she reports it, always seems to happen in a way which is traumatic for all involved) and seems to encourage her to cultivate a judgmental attitude toward others whose souls she contends she can read. Tendencies to an unhealthy spirituality and self-centeredness in which this person considers herself to be directly inspired by God while everyone else is moved by the devil, where she is right and everyone else is wrong, where she is unhappy and feels persecuted when concern is expressed, etc, have hardened as she holds onto these "certainties" as the only things remaining to her to make any kind of sense of her life.

It is, for me at least, both saddening and incredibly frustrating. I want somehow to shake this person and say, "Wake up! When everyone else disagrees with you, when every parish finds certain regular occurrences disruptive and divisive while you contend these are of God, consider you may have gotten it wrong!! You would not be the first nor will you be the last! When the fruits of these occurrences are negative for everyone else and seem to lead to increased isolation and unhappiness for you, please at least consider they are are NOT of God!! When physical solitude is a source of misery and desperation rather than joy and profound hope, when it leads to a "me vs the world" perspective rather than to finding oneself belonging profoundly --- even when apart from others, consider that what you are living is not right for you. God wants you to be complete and fulfilled in him; he sent his Son so that you might have abundant life, that you might know his profound love and experience true peace and communion -- even and perhaps especially in your daily struggles! Eremitical solitude can be destructive; it is not the way for you! The personal "noisiness" (physical, emotional, and spiritual) of your isolation is NOT what canon 603 is talking about when it refers to the silence of solitude. Please!


One of the things this ongoing situation has under-scored for me is the wisdom of canon 603's choice of "the silence of solitude" rather than "silence and solitude" as a defining element of the life. It also underscores for me the fact that eremitical solitude is a relational or dialogical reality which has nothing to do with personal isolation or self-centeredness. (Obviously there is a significant degree of physical solitude.) Especially too it says that "the silence of solitude" is about an inner wholeness and peace (shalom) that comes from resting in God so that one may be and give oneself in concrete ways for the love of others. One lives in this way because it is edifying both to oneself as authentically human, and to others who catch the scent of God that is linked to this gift of the Holy Spirit.

A hermit, as I have said many times here, is NOT simply a lone person living an isolated life; neither is eremitical solitude one long vacation nor an escape from personal problems or the demands of life in relationship. In Christianity a hermit lives alone with God in the heart of the Church for the sake of others and she tailors her physical solitude so that her needs (and obligations) for community and all that implies are met. Moreover, not everyone CAN or SHOULD become a hermit any more than anyone can or should become a Mother or a psychiatrist or parish priest or spiritual director. Most people do not come to human wholeness or holiness in extended solitude; further, since extended solitude always breaks down but builds up only in rare cases, embracing it as a vocation can be harmful for one not truly called to it. As I have also written before, the Church recognizes the truth of this by professing very few hermits under canon 603 and by canonically establishing only a handful of communities which allow for either eremitical life or actual reclusion. (Only the Camaldolese and the Carthusians may allow reclusion.) In all of these cases the hermits or recluses are closely supervised and made accountable to legitimate superiors. Medical and psychological evaluations are generally required for candidates and are certainly sought in the presence of unusual or questionable and concerning characteristics.

Please note that the situation I described is unusual in some ways and generally extreme. In every case however, whether extreme or not, a diocese will use the characteristics of canon 603, but particularly "the silence of solitude" understood as Carthusians and other hermits do to measure or discern the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them. They will not use the canon to baptize mere eccentricity or illness and they will look for deep peace, joy, and convincing senses of meaning and belonging which have grown in eremitical solitude over at least several years. Similarly they will look for personal maturity, spiritual authenticity and the ability to commit oneself, persevere in that commitment, and love deeply and concretely. Perhaps I can say something in another post about the other central characteristics of canon 603 and the way they are used to discern when someone does NOT have a vocation to diocesan eremitical life. Assiduous prayer and penance and a life lived for the salvation of others, for instance, can certainly assist the diocese in this way.