15 April 2014

Can Dispensations From Eremitical Life be Avoided?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, thank you for answering my question about dispensating (sic) a hermit's vows. Why would a hermit seek to have their vows dispensated (sic)? Is this something that can be avoided?]]

The main reason for seeking to have one's vows dispensed would be that the person has discerned that they are either not really or are no longer called to this vocation. I said in my earlier answer that many people don't understand the difference between being a lone pious person and living eremitical solitude. That, as I have written here before, is sometimes true of dioceses as well and this will mean that some of the professions they allow will not be sound. When this is true, when the person is not called to eremitical solitude but is a lone pious person, or when a person otherwise desires to be a religious but has been unable to make it in community and seeks to use canon 603 as a stopgap way to make vows, the incidence of needing to ask for an indult of dispensation will be higher --- at least if the person is honest about their discernment that they are not really living as a hermit.

Similarly, a person might be called to solitude as a transition environment or reality. This means that they might believe they are called to be a hermit for the rest of their lives when in fact this is not the case. Dioceses that jump immediately to perpetual profession under canon 603 (something that was more common in the early years of the canon than it is today) may be setting the stage to find a person will need to have their vows dispensed in a few years. They may find the hermit living eremitical solitude less and less well as time goes by and when the situation is examined they will find the person feels increasingly called to more active ministry, greater frustration in solitude,  a slowing of personal growth in this vocation, etc. In such cases it may be hard for the hermit to admit she is really called to something else, to request a dispensation, and to leave the rights and obligations of the consecrated state. When this is the case the diocese and the hermit will need to work together to discern and make the best next step.

My sense is that some dioceses have not been careful enough in professing canon 603 hermits. They may not understand the history of the canon, they may not realize that eremitical solitude is not the same as simply living alone; others simply do not esteem the eremitical vocation and seek to use the canon to profess individuals who are not able (or are unwilling) to live religious life in community; they do this and allow a full-time active ministry to supplant eremitical solitude. Beyond this canon 603 does not specify a formation program, nor can it really do so since the formation of a hermit occurs in solitude and is individualized. Still, significant formation is necessary as is ongoing formation. The experience of successful hermits today will be able to assist dioceses in resolving the need for sound approaches to discernment,  formation, and readiness for vows. So will the experience of congregations who ordinarily require psychological assessments and sufficient recommendations to make sure the person is able to live eremitical solitude in the name of the Church.

Some of these situations can be avoided simply by understanding and truly esteeming the vocation itself. The eremitical life is a gift of the Holy Spirit, especially to the isolated who are reminded that the silence of solitude is possible as the redemption of isolation. When the vocation is esteemed and its charism understood, a diocese will take care to admit to profession only those persons whose vocation is clear. Dioceses will know that spending time in discernment will not hurt the vocation. The same is true of formation. When the vocation is genuine it will not hurt the candidate to spend time in formation and have profession located some years down the road. As I have noted here before, the diocese must be honest with the candidate and not merely stringing them along, but so long as everyone is honest with one another and are committed to the integrity of an eremitical vocation future dispensations can certainly be avoided as mature vocations are fostered. In other cases dispensations can be avoided by treating the solitary eremitical vocation as a second half of life vocation and asking young persons to pursue eremitical life in community. Similarly they can be avoided by making good choices regarding delegates, spiritual directors, demanding regular meetings with these persons, and  the Bishop who has taken the time to get to know the hermit, as well as by providing resources for the hermit's growth in the vocation.

14 April 2014

What if a Bishop Wants to "Revoke" a Hermit's Vows?

[[Dear Sister, what happens if a hermit is not living their vocation well and their Bishops wants to revoke their vows? Can he really do that? How often does this happen?]]

Well, canonical vows are not revoked exactly but they can be dispensed, yes. There is a process that must be observed. First, for a person in perpetual vows there is a list of serious or grave causes given in canon 696 (cf below), any of which are sufficient to begin the process of dispensation. Four conditions apply. The causes must be grave, external, imputable, and juridically proven. For a person in temporary vows, the causes need not even be this grave. However, the same conditions apply otherwise.

If the process is begun because of a good cause, canon 697 sets out the following process: the superior begins to collect or complete proofs of the causes for this action. (In the case of a diocesan hermit this could be their delegate, a Vicar or the Bishop.) The hermit is then warned in writing and in the presence of two witnesses of the causes leading to this intended action. Further, they are given an explicit warning of subsequent dismissal should they not reform their behavior, etc. The person being warned is given a full opportunity for self defense at each step of the way. If, after fifteen days have elapsed the [hermit] has either not made their case or they have failed to change in the ways required, a second written and witnessed warning is given. If necessary, the process is repeated  one more time so that if a person is not able to defend themselves sufficiently or they show themselves to be incorrigible the Bishop may act to dispense the vows. All rights and obligations cease with the granting of the indult. This means that the person may no longer wear religious garb, use titles like Sister or Brother or represent themselves as a Catholic or canonical (diocesan) hermit.

Ordinarily, problems with a hermit's responsible living out of her vows and Rule do not reach this level of course. Hermits meet regularly with delegates and also with their Bishops. Problems of any sort are raised in any of these meetings and solutions are found in a collaborative process. One assumes good faith on each person's part and a sincere desire to protect the eremitical vocation generally and this vocation more specifically. If Vicars, pastors and others can assist in this, they will be asked to do so. But canon 696 refers to: [[ habitual neglect of the obligations of the consecrated life; repeated violations of the sacred bonds, pertinacious disobedience to lawful prescriptions of superiors in a serious matter; grave scandal arising from the behavior of [the hermit]; pertinacious upholding or spreading of doctrines condemned by the magisterium of the Church; public adherence to ideologies infected by materialism or atheism; unlawful absence]] lasting six months, and other serious causes. Again, if the hermit is only in temporary vows the causes need not be as serious as they do in the case of perpetual profession.

I don't really know how often it happens that hermits are dispensed from their vows for grave cause. I think it is far more common that someone temporarily professed is simply not admitted to perpetual profession. (Of course it is even more common that persons who show interest in canon 603 are not admitted to temporary vows or even to a process of formal discernment. A lot of people simply don't know the difference between being a single person living alone and a hermit called to eremitical solitude.) I have heard stories of dispensations from c 603 profession --- one of these just recently, in fact --- but I have no facts about these cases and no idea how common they are.

08 April 2014

On Loneliness and Jesus' Descent into Hell

Because I will probably not be posting during Holy Week and because we are approaching Palm Sunday, I wanted to put up a post I wrote a couple of years ago for my parish's bulletin for Palm Sunday. It is also pertinent to some of this week's readings, especially as we see the terrible loneliness of Jeremiah and (at least implicitly) of Jesus in Friday's readings. As we move through Holy Week we will see Jesus' own loneliness and estrangement from those around him both grow in intensity and reach almost unimaginable depths.

Beyond being constantly misunderstood, not really heard or seen clearly by those around him (a source of genuine pain), not only is Jesus rejected and betrayed by his own People (including he Pharisees and Scribes who understood him all too well!) and even his most trusted disciples, but in the end he experiences abandonment by the One he called Abba, the one on whom everything he has and is and proclaims relies. This terrible loneliness or estrangement is simply part and parcel of taking on the human condition of sin and godless death so that ultimately all may be reconciled to God. It is a large piece of what Jesus was referring to when he said, "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".

Reflection:


During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing – the gospel proclaims -- will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us! (Rom 8)

It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.

To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and potentially responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!

The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love and bring us to abundant Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.

Afterword:

Throughout Lent we have been admonished to take up our crosses, to choose life (God!), to become the disciples we are called to be. I have written about the idea that taking up our crosses means living every moment and mood of ordinary life in openness to God, just as Jesus did. Today I need to note that one of the primary forms of suffering this kind of decision occasions is that of loneliness --- the loneliness of standing in the truth and being out of step with most of the rest of the world, the loneliness of waiting for God to bring life out of our situations --- whatever they are, the loneliness of being misunderstood and even reviled and rejected by those closest to us, the loneliness of loving and being loved by God.

Jeremiah clearly knew this loneliness and expressed it in ways which were sometimes problematical for his hearers and for us today as well. Jesus certainly knew such loneliness. When we reflect this week and next on the suffering of Jesus, when we consider the immensity of the powers and principalities he faced --- powers that finally rendered him mute in his encounter with them, when we consider the Word made flesh being rendered  first inarticulate in pain and then silent in betrayal  and death by our inhumanity and cruelty, let us not forget the obedience (openness) and loneliness of Jesus' vocation nor the power and will of God to penetrate even this abyss with his presence and love.  In this is real hope for each and all of us.

How the Cross Works #2

Here is the second post I mentioned I would put up on how the cross works.

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, how does Jesus' suffering save us or the world? I mean how does it work?I just can't understand this. Does God need this for some reason?]]

Thanks for your question.  I want to deal only with the question of Jesus' suffering in this post. For more about how the cross works please check out other articles on the theology of the cross.

First, Jesus' sufering per se is NOT salvific; it does not "save". Neither of itself does it reveal God to us nor make God exhaustively present in our world. (Jesus' suffering does reveal something of what it means to be truly human and it also points to the self-emptying compassion of God, but by itself it does not make the Triune God present in power.) However, this is absolutely not to say his suffering is unimportant or dispensable. It is not. What is true and what I will focus on here is that suffering calls for something in Jesus and allows for that which IS salvific. Jesus' suffering is a critical part of the incarnational weakness in which God's power will be made perfect and exhaustively revealed. To understand this it helps to think about how suffering works usually and what it calls for from us; then we can look at how it actually functions in Jesus' life but especially at his passion and death.

All of us know suffering, some very great suffering, and we know as well therefore that it pulls us in two directions. The first is fairly instinctive. We try to defend against the pain. We attempt to make ourselves less vulnerable in whatever ways we can. For physical pain we may use analgesics --- and, I would add, this is ordinarily entirely legitimate, especially in cases of severe chronic pain or when we need relief to function in important ways the pain would prevent. At the same time we may short circuit the growth in courage, endurance and openness suffering calls for. Finding a balance here is not always easy. Still, the point is the same, suffering per se is an evil in our world which can threaten our well-being, and, when severe, our very humanity (severe pain dehumanizes or at least has the potential to do so). Our first response is to try to ease it or end it in order to protect ourselves and the life we know and value. Prayer here (meaning our own pleas to God), especially in the beginning, may actually be an expression of this tendency to self-protection and resistance to being truly vulnerable. This entire response (or reaction) can itself, though in a different way, be dehumanizing,

The second response is NOT instinctive. It is an expression of something transcendent in us; it recognizes that to some extent suffering can be a source of growth and maturity, especially of our larger or true self. Significantly, suffering can help open us to our own weakness, helplessness, and poverty. Further it can open us to allowing ourselves to be more profoundly known by others, by ourselves, and ultimately by God. It calls for courage, endurance, a wider perspective than we usually entertain, and an openness to a meaning which is greater than we can even imagine. This response to suffering, this opening of ourselves to realities which lie beyond us and sustain and empower us beyond our own very real limitations allows the redemption of suffering and sometimes the healing of its causes. Prayer here may begin as a praying OUT OF our suffering, but when it reaches maturity and even fulfillment it becomes a praying OF our suffering --- that is a living out our suffering with and in the power and presence of God.

Jesus' Passion and Death:

Here we begin to understand why Jesus' suffering could be both essential and salvific. It is not, as you say, because God needs our suffering  --- for instance, in reparation for sin and offenses against his honor. It is not that there is some sort of cosmic quota of pain required, nor that some abstract notion of distributive or retributive justice requires it. Jesus is called to be the Incarnation of the Word of God in all of human life's moments and moods. He is called and commissioned to embody that Word exhaustively. He is called to be obedient, that is to hearken and respond to that Word so completely that call and response cannot be teased apart in him. He is called therefore to be prayer and to implicate God fully in a world dominated by the powers of sin and death. Part of coming to this perfect incarnation is suffering and doing so in ways that allow God into that "space" of  ultimate weakness, emptiness, and helplessness so that he may transform it (and us) with his presence. In a sense, especially to the degree we allow it, suffering hollows us out and intensifies our openness to the reality which can redeem it and everything else.



But what happens if Jesus' cry of aban-donment and his own admission that it is finished are the last words of the event we call "the cross"? What happens if godlessness and the powers of godlessness are the real victors? What happens if Jesus's descent into hell in abject openness and vulnerability to the emptiness, meaninglessness, and inhumanity of his suffering are the last word, the thing allowed by God to stand? What happens if the universally dehumanizing effects of Jesus' suffering were the final word? (After all,  he was dehumanized and those that tortured him were also dehumanized by their actions; the same is true of those who called for such shameful torture, betrayed Jesus' friendship or as Religious leaders administering the "Law of God" were otherwise complicit in this)?

It should be clear that without the resurrection there is nothing redemptive or salvific in Jesus' suffering. It is necessary, essential in fact as a condition of possibility, but it must be done in obedience (meaning without closing oneself to it in any way nor attempting to save oneself even while one remains open) to the One who CAN save and redeem this suffering. Further, God must respond to this obedience, enter into the abyss created by sin, death, and by Jesus' personal vulnerability and continuing openness. God must,  as a result, bring life out of death, meaning out of absurdity, ordered, fruitful reality out of chaos and nothingness, and communion (reconciliation) out of ultimate isolation and alienation or Jesus' suffering witnesses not to victory over these things but instead to foolishness, failure, arrogance and man's inhumanity to his fellows.

We can speak of God "needing" this suffering because he needs to be able to enter the most godless depths of human life and death but we cannot speak of God needing this suffering to satisfy some sort of offense done against him. The godless depths I have referred to are depths and dimensions within us and our world created by our own choices to exclude God. God cannot simply enter into these spaces by fiat because they are personal spaces which God will not violate lest he violate us at the same time. God, who respects our choices, must be invited or allowed in here. However,  in speaking of Jesus' taking on our sin we say that Jesus died for ALL. His obedient suffering makes it possible for God to enter into the realm of sin and death (realms of godlessness) created by human acts of rejection without violating the freedom of human beings who (universally) choose these. That is, Jesus' passion and resurrection is God's answer to ALL human sin.  More and more you and I need to allow God into our own sinful lives, but the powers of sin and godless or eternal death themselves have been defeated through the cross of an obedient Jesus. It was suffering that assisted in the deepening of Jesus' obedience, but it was his obedience in conjunction with the will of God that actually brought redemption.

 *     *     *     *     *     *
...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

06 April 2014

Approaching Holy Week: How Does the Cross Work?

Recently I listened to a sedevacantist teaching about the Cross. In that presentation this priest said that the only reason for the resurrection from the dead was to prove that Jesus was God. In fact, this cleric 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" so thoroughly eviscerated. 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 silence. Jesus' death was NOT SALVIFIC apart from the 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. 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 even prove itself stronger than sin and godless death.

As we approach Holy Week and the Triduum I want to repost a couple of pieces on the Cross and how it works to redeem reality. The first was posted last year.


[[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 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 are 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 tough love 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; 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.

05 April 2014

"How Can Someone Pray all Day?"

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have a simple question. How can someone pray all day long? I mean is that even natural or healthy? I know it sounds like I am insulting your vocation or something. I don't mean to but I can't even begin to imagine praying all day.]]



Over the past several years I have described prayer in several basic ways. I have written that prayer is God's own work or activity within us. I have said that we pray when we are open and attentive to this ongoing activity. Similarly, I have suggested that prayer is that event wherein the question we are is posed and completed by the answer God is (though as I think about it, that is also not a bad description of redemption);  I have written about the human heart and what it means that we achieve singleness of heart where heart is that personal center wherein God bears witness to Godself.  In all of this I have said that human beings are dialogical by their very nature (just as the Trinity is a dialogical reality) and that prayer is an expression of this just as it is the expression of covenantal existence --- that existence in and with God we are all called to. 

In doing this I hope that one thing I have indicated is that many different activities can be truly prayerful or qualify as prayer. One has to be able to listen to one's own heart (again, where God dwells and speaks himself) and to the voice or Word of God as it comes to one from outside oneself. Deep speaks to deep. One learns to do this and does it in a privileged way in quiet prayer, lectio divina, journaling, praying Office (which builds on psalms, readings and canticles that both speak to and allow one to pour out one's own heart), etc. But beyond these things almost any activity can become prayer. As I think I have written before, some of my most profound prayer experiences have occurred as I enjoyed a hot cup of tea, washed dishes,  folded laundry, or took a walk. Conversations with friends can be profoundly prayerful as can meal times. The key in all of these is that we learn to listen both to and with our hearts and that we eschew distractions as much as we can or as is healthy for us.

Note well that I am not speaking of saying prayers all day long. These can certainly be helpful in listening to and expressing our own hearts, but they can also be a source of actual distraction and mere busyness.Thus, for instance, I don't pray more than three or four of the hours of the Liturgy of the Hours during a day because doing so is often more distracting and fragmenting than it is helpful to me in coming to pray my entire day. Nor do I simply fill my time with "saying prayers" instead of praying a pretty ordinary life. 

On the other hand, let's say I am out of the hermitage and the environment is noisy and distracting.  One of the things I do is to pray with regard to the people and events all around me. Here I ordinarily use beads and something like the Jesus prayer or the Hail Mary to help me as I look briefly at the folks nearby (say, on the train with me or in the doctor's waiting room) and pray for them.  Here rote prayers are really helpful in maintaining a connection between inner and outer dimensions of my attention. They help shape my attentiveness to others into something compassionate and generous rather than merely curious and distracted. The same is true when I am feeling distracted within the hermitage; then rote prayers serve as a means of maintaining focus and direction in my day. They also remind me of my own poverty in prayer, not only because of my own tendency to distraction per se, but because these words are "borrowed" from others and are a help when I am unable to pray otherwise.

How healthy or natural is all this? Given my understanding of the nature of the human person and especially of their relationship with and relatedness to God, prayer is the most natural activity we can undertake. I don't think that saying prayers all day is necessarily particularly healthy but praying our lives, doing all things together with and in God is both healthy and holy-making (because these two things are really one). Allowing our lives to be prayer means becoming truly or authentically human. It means becoming the dialogical realities real human beings always are --- both because of  and through our fundamental dialogue with God and because of and through our dialogue with others and the created world around us. We are made for this kind of life. It is essentially contemplative and serves as the the foundation of a compassionate life in which we can truly give ourselves to others and work towards the fulfillment of creation in justice. 

My question to you then is can you imagine living a life which is geared toward listening and responding to and from your own heart? Can you imagine allowing your heart to become "pure" or "single" in this way --- a single, focused, and compassionate "hearkening" to reality? Can you imagine living a life which is geared toward a love which does justice, that is, a love which makes all things right and brings them to completion or fulfillment? Do these things seem healthy to you? Desirable? If you say yes to these questions then you have affirmed what I describe as a prayerful life --- an essentially contemplative life in fact. If you add to these the affirmation that such a life requires one to spend time consciously listening and responding to the Love-in-act (God!) which is the source and ground of existence, and that one must do so daily as a very high priority in order to live  in the ways you have already affirmed to be healthy and desirable, then you have confirmed the place of a life of prayer as well  --- the very life whose naturalness and healthiness you questioned at the beginning of this post. Of course such a life is not nearly as common as a life of distraction and dissipation but I sincerely believe that it is upon such lives that our own authenticity and the future of our world depends.

30 March 2014

"You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul and your whole strength. . ."

I have to say that whenever I hear Jesus' statement of the Great commandment in Mark's Gospel --- as we hear it in last Friday's Mass, I feel a little stunned and my heart jumps into my throat. That is my immediate reaction.  I hear Jesus say to me, [[ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,]] and I am completely befuddled or confounded. Oh, of course I want to be able to say I do this but at the same time I know that I am completely unable to do so. More, I often am stopped by a sense that I don't even know what is being asked of me in this. after all, I am not being asked just to love passionately or "the best I can". More, it asks that I love God in this way. GOD! This commandment goes beyond anything I can even imagine. I wonder how many of us experience something similar when we hear this text proclaimed in Church or read it in private. Either this commandment is merely a constant goad to guilt and shame and has been given to solely us to remind us of what we can never accomplish, or it is truly a gift which points us to something almost unimaginable in its wonder.

Fortunately, over time, I have come to know that this commandment is indeed a remarkable gift; like so many things in the New Testament it is a paradox and the key to understanding what it means (at least the things that have helped me to understand it) are also paradoxes. The first key to understanding  what it means and calls for, I think, is the nature of prayer. It is entirely natural to think and speak of prayer as something we do, an activity we undertake. But more fundamentally, prayer is what happens when God is at work in us; it IS God's work in us. Our part in this is to allow God the space and time to do his work in us, to love us in whatever way he desires.  We are most truly "pray-ers" when we allow God to pray in us.

 The second, and related key to understanding it, I think, is Paul's observation in Galatians 2:20, [["I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.]]  Just as we are most truly ourselves, most truly human, when it is Christ who lives and acts in us, so too do we "keep this command" when we have become people whose entire hearts, minds, souls, and strength are open to, come from, and mediate the God who is Love-in-act. This commandment is, most fundamentally, not about something we do ourselves --- and certainly not something we do ourselves alone, but rather the persons we are in and with the power of God. It is a commandment that we allow God to truly be God for us and through us in an exhaustive way, that we let him gift us with his presence and make us into truly human beings.


Remember that the first part of this quote is Paul's explanation in Gal 2:19: [[For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for (or to) God.]] In other words, the Law taught Paul about his own inadequacies so that he might allow the Grace (that is, the powerful and active presence) of God  to be the source of his life. Like Paul we live for and to God (and that means loving God) when we allow ourselves to be opened to God's presence, power, and action in our lives. After all it is God who is Love-in-act. As we think about this commandment during Lent we are apt to hear a commandment to change in our lives. We are called on to allow God to dispose us in ways which open us to God's love, to make us into people whose hearts, minds, spirits, and all of our strength are given over to God's own life and purposes.

The final key, then, has to do with our understanding of what it means to be human. As I have written here before: [[We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people!]] Scripture calls human beings Temples of the Holy Spirit or speak of God as "dwelling in our hearts." Theologians note that heart is actually a theological term defining where God bears witness to Godself. The bottom line here, as with all the other paradoxical expressions of this truth is that we are truly ourselves only to the extent we live life within, with, and from the power and life of God.

The Great commandment is exhaustive in what it asks from us. It requires nothing less than the whole of ourselves. There are many ways to trivialize it: we can suggest it involves a bit of Semitic exaggeration (like Jesus' comments about hating our Father and Mother); we can argue that our feelings of inadequacy make us hear it as more emphatic than it really is so we just need to work through these personal issues of ours. We might read this commandment as simply asking us to do our best and nothing more. We might even collapse this commandment into the second one given in Friday's Gospel, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," and read these as a single commandment requiring only that we love others to fulfill it. While the two commandments are inextricably intertwined however, and while love of God inevitably includes love of neighbor, these two commandments are not one. Still, if we allow the first commandment to truly be as exhaustive as it sounds, it will function just as Law is supposed to do. Eventually it will lead us to call out to God to assist us in our complete inability to keep it ourselves --- and that, as Paul well knew and taught throughout his letters, is truly the first gift of a grace that saves.

25 March 2014

Feast of the Annunciation (reprise)

I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anxiety about what might be wrong, and then a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! I can be killed for this!" while only over more time comes the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her and that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real, parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's Word and Spirit calling her beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promise.


This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear and respond to the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God dwells within us and only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy (or whatever the event is) for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you. Do not be afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to hear, embody Christ, and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. (We bear this very much in mind during Lent and especially the approach of Holy Week.) But our own fiat ("Here I am Lord, I come to do your will!") will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

24 March 2014

Cyril of Jerusalem on Espousal to Christ

I have written a few times now on the fact that the vocation lived under canon 604, consecrated virginity of women living in the world, is a specification of a universal vocation to espousal that every Christian receives in baptism. I have tried to deal with misguided arguments which make this vocation elitist, which posit for instance, that Religious do not have the right to call themselves Brides of Christ unless they also receive this specific consecration in conjunction with solemn vows and that CV's have a right to ask them to stop doing so! I have argued that marriage and religious life as well as the life form of CV's serve to remind us all of our own baptismal espousal to Christ -- though they do so in different ways. I have argued that consecrated virginity serves as an icon of the eschatological fulfillment of this espousal and its secularity makes it clear that heaven and earth will interpenetrate one another. In saying all of this in the main I have merely been repeating a theology which has been present since the earliest years of the Church's life.

Much of this was underscored in the Office of Readings (Vigils) last week. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (d. 386) speaks in a way which should be instructive to every CV who desires or attempts to make of their own consecration something elitist and completely unique.  The text is included below. Please attend to whom Cyril is addressing  ("My brothers"!); the wedding language or imagery is emphatic and unequivocal without exclusive gender reference. Neither is espousal in this matter linked to sinlessness or physical purity prior to baptism. Cyril says just the opposite. It is linked instead to the recreation by the Holy Spirit and new relationship with God that occurs in Baptism.


I will be writing more about some questions I recently received re canon 604 and what constitutes virginity or precludes one from receiving the consecration just as soon as I can (perhaps a week or so). However, after rereading what I have already written, I have decided that for the moment there is little I can add to either my own posts or to Cyril's instruction here regarding the universality of the call to espousal:


[[From the Instructions to Catechumens by St Cyril of Jerusalem
Prepare for the Holy Spirit


Let the heavens sing for joy and the earth exult! For these people who are about to be sprinkled with hyssop will be cleansed spiritually. His power will purify them, for during his passion the hyssop touched his lips. Let the heavenly angels rejoice! Let those who are to be wedded to a spiritual spouse prepare themselves. [N.B., as noted, Cyril is speaking of those who are preparing for Baptism, not for another consecration.] A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord And so, children of justice, follow John’s exhortation: Make straight the way of the Lord. Remove all obstacles and stumbling blocks so that you will be able to go straight along the road to eternal life. Through a sincere faith prepare yourselves so that you may be free to receive the Holy Spirit. Through your penance begin to wash your garments; then, summoned to the spouse’s bedchamber, you will be found spotless.

Heralds proclaim the bridegroom’s invitation. All mankind is called to the wedding feast, for he is a generous lover. Once the crowd has assembled, the bridegroom decides who will enter the wedding feast. This is a figure for baptism. Give your name at his gate and enter. I hope that none of you will later hear the words: Friend, how did you enter without a wedding garment? Rather may all of you hear the words: Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in small things, I shall put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.

Up to this point in the history of salvation you have stood outside the gate. Now I hope you will all hear the words: The king has brought me into his chambers. My soul rejoices in my God. He has clothed me in the garment of salvation and in the cloak of joy. He has made me a bridegroom by placing a crown on my head. He has made me a bride by adorning me with jewels and golden ornaments. I do not say these things so that your souls will be found without stain or wrinkle or any other defect. Indeed, before you have received this grace, how could this happen to you who are called to receive forgiveness of sin? Rather, I ask that once you have received his grace you do nothing to deserve damnation. Even more, I ask you to hasten toward the fulfillment of his grace.

My brothers, this is a truly great occasion. Approach it with caution. You are standing in front of God and in the presence of the hosts of angels. The Holy Spirit is about to impress his seal on each of your souls. [It is important to remember he is speaking here of a sacramental seal.] You are about to be pressed into the service of a great king. And so prepare yourselves to receive the sacrament. The gleaming white garments you are about to put on are not the preparation I am speaking of, but rather the devotion of a clean conscience.]]

22 March 2014

Ursuline Sister Cristina Evangelizes in her own Way



Perhaps you have seen this! It was posted on my Facebook page yesterday. Ordinarily I would be put off by this kind of thing. It can be undignified and seem gimmicky while it also can contribute to destructive stereotypes of nuns and religious life, but in this case I was quite moved by Sister Cristina's genuineness and the effect that had on everyone. (The coaches on the program kept referring to her energy, but it seems to me what they had encountered was simply the truth of abundant life of Christ.)

Sister's voice is really fine (she does indeed have a gift), but what was even more impressive to me was the way she spoke of sharing that gift, of Pope Francis, of God and how natural it is to have decided to participate in the competition this way (see especially how Sr Cristina points out that Francis is always telling us that God takes nothing from us but only gives us more), of evangelizing (the reason she was doing this!), and hoping that perhaps Francis would telephone her to let her know what he thought of her performance. (It is, from all that I have heard, entirely conceivable that he would call her and THAT is astounding! Yes he is a busy and important person with a universal Church to govern, but he is also Francis, the Vicar of Christ who DOES call ordinary folks on the phone; that means that in a single year he has changed what we expect from our religious leaders and the institutional Church! He has changed the face of the Church and challenged us to do so as well.)

Meanwhile, Sr Cristina's Ursuline Sisters and her parents supported her from and celebrated in the wings. (They were in tears in places; their own shared excitement and joy was also infectious.) There was, in my estimation, nothing gimmicky or undignified about this. Bridges were built, unnecessary walls and stereotypes were broken down --- at least temporarily; the yearnings of our world and culture for just such a thing were revealed. Sr Cristina effectively spoke truth, not to power precisely, but to popular culture, and she did so with an intelligence, integrity, and joy we should applaud. For instance, one of the coaches joked that had he met Cristina when he was a child he would have attended Church faithfully (paraphrase) and would be Pope now! Cristina didn't miss a beat and --- serious as a heart beat, replied, "Well, you have met me now." Indeed! "J-Ax" was confronted with a choice to act on this encounter (and the kernel of truth in his own jest) in the present; really, isn't this what evangelization (and especially what we are calling the "New Evangelization") is all about?

Watch the video on full screen and turn on the closed captions; you will be able to read the actual dialogue that takes place between Cristina and the coaches on the show.

18 March 2014

Traveling With the Word of God, Becoming People of the Word



Pope Francis made a "small" but very far-reaching suggestion in yesterday's homily, namely that we carry a small Bible or New Testament with us wherever we go and read a little whenever we have the time. I could not second that suggestion more enthusiastically if I tried. I have written that as human beings we are dialogical at the core of our selves, We are covenantal beings who live from, for, with, and within the Word of God. We should truly take the time to read regularly in the Scriptures. In my own life it is grappling with these (a reverent grappling!) that is one of the most formative things I do, and one of the most important forms of prayer.

For those with Kindles or other e-readers there are a number of good translations available for these; one benefit is the font can be enlarged without carrying a larger book. Many have good indexing now which allow one to find the precise text they want to read. In a regular sized book, one of the more interesting translations available now is by Marcus Borg called, Evolution of the Word. It is arranged in the order the New Testament was written (as close as scholars can determine) and has a decent introduction to each book. Whatever choice you make, please take Francis up on his suggestion. It can change your life in major ways --- and of course it can change the world in which we live as well.

17 March 2014

Happy St Pat's ! (Reprise)

All good wishes on this "high holy day" (well, High Irish Holy Day, anyway)! Of course, it does seem that everyone is Irish on this day, so I guess that makes it a universal high holy day! It is a great thing to be Irish --- even if it is Scots-Irish!

It also seemed to me that McGinley's poem captured the fun as well as the seriousness of this Saint and his day so I am reprising it from last year. Enjoy.

St Patrick the Missioner, by Phyllis McGinley


Saint Patrick was a preacher
With honey in his throat.
They say he could charm away
A miser's dearest pence;
Could coax a feathered creature
To leave her nesting note
And fly from many a farm away
To hear his eloquence.

No Irishman was Patrick
According to the story.
The speech of Britain clung to him
(Or maybe it was Wales).
But, ah, for curving rhet'ric,
Angelic oratory,
What man could match a tongue to him
Among the clashing Gaels!

Let Patrick meet a Pagan
In Antrim or Wicklow,
He'd talk to him so reachingly,
So vehement would pray,
That Cul or Neall or Reagan
Would fling aside his bow
And beg the saint beseechingly
To christen him that day.

He won the Necromancers,
The Bards, the country herds.
Chief Angus rose and went with him
To bear his staff and bowl.
For such were all his answers
To disputatious words,
Who'd parry argument with him
Would end a shriven soul.

The angry Druids muttered
A curse upon his prayers.
They sought a spell for shattering
The marvels he had done.
But Patrick merely uttered
A better spell than theirs
And sent the Druids scattering
Like mist before the sun.

They vanished like the haze on
The plume of the fountain.
But still their scaly votaries
Were venomous at hand.
So three nights and days on
Tara's stony mountain
He thundered till those coteries
Of serpents fled the land.

Grown old but little meeker
At length he took his rest,
And centuries have listened, dumb,
To tales of his renown.
For Ireland loves a speaker
So loves Saint Patrick best:
The only man in Christendom
Has talked the Irish down.

12 March 2014

A little Girl tells the Story of Jonah

Every once in a while someone sends me something truly wonderful. I think this video is one of those. In case you haven't heard the story of Jonah recently and would like to hear a wonderful dramatic "interpretation" from someone who has clearly thought long and hard about it; give it a listen!! I am posting it again in honor of today's first reading! (In this video we hear the first part of the story, where Jonah runs from God's call to go to Nineveh; today's reading only deals with the second part of the story where Jonah finally goes to Nineveh.)


The story of Jonah from Corinth Baptist Church on Vimeo.

11 March 2014

"Zacchaeus come down! I am dining with You Today!"

[[Hi Sister Laurel, your approach to Lent sounds complicated. How possible is it for people who don't live contemplative or eremitical lives?]]

Great question. I think the approach sounds more complicated than it actually is. While I am doing a lot of individual things they are meant to assist me to do one main thing, namely, to allow both my heart and my hermitage to be more truly places where God finds hospitality while I rest in God. If you think about having a guest visit you for Lent and making your house and your life ready for that guest, you might find a lot of things need doing (or need to be sacrificed), but really the focus of your efforts is simple: make your place theirs and put yourself at their disposal. If you have hosted this guest before you will probably know what s/he needs and desires from you. In that case you may simply need to improve a little here and there on the arrangements you have made in the past --- though you will also have learned more about yourself and your guest and will find ways to honor that in the present. In a sense that is really all I am doing and all I have really described in What Do You Do for Lent?.

Secondly the questioner for the post I put up lives in a parish where the triad prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are stressed. The same is true in my own, and in fact in the universal Church. This triad runs through all the readings we have throughout the season. My own preference is first of all not to see these as three separate or discrete things we might do but instead as three facets of every genuinely human life, one which is: 1) rooted in and open to God (prayer), 2) concerned with and committed to the really essential while letting go of the inessential --- especially if these latter things bind or make us unfree in some way (fasting), and which is 3) compassionate and generous to others (almsgiving). We are called to be people who receive our lives from God, detach ourselves from that which is inessential or less truly lifegiving to assist in providing both the inner and the outer space needed for both prayer and almsgiving, and go out to share what is lifegiving with others --- on whatever level that is needed. The penances we do during Lent are meant to awaken us to the promise and demands of these three dimensions as well as to make them more alive and real in us the rest of the year.


If you look again at the list of things I mentioned were involved in Lent this year you will see they all fall under things necessary to put my guest first, to be there for God, to really be a person in whom these three dimensions are real and integrated in eremitical terms. Since I do limited ministry it is sometimes easy to forget the purpose of the hermitage itself and to treat it as a merely private place where I relax apart from ministry or the place where I get ready to do ministry. Instead, the hermitage itself is a ministry both to God and in order to remind us all that every home is meant to be a place of hospitality to God and to those precious to God. Archbishop Vigneron referred to this in the homily he gave at my perpetual eremitical profession when he spoke of giving my home over to God. Of course there is great privacy here at Stillsong and relatively few people actually enter here, but even so it remains a quasi public place which is meant to witness to eremitical life and the meaning of the silence of solitude. The life within the hermitage is a relatively relaxed life but not a lax one and sometimes I have temporarily lost sight of this, either in anxious work, or in "just kicking back". I suspect this is often a challenge in contemplative houses and one the Rule and horarium help members to meet --- especially in Benedictinism. In my own case the solution, it seems to me, is a renewed focus on allowing God to find rest here in my home and in my heart while I truly rest in God. That is really what Lent seems to be for me this year.

For those not living in hermitages and not living contemplative lives I think some of the same approach can be adopted, whether with the Lenten triad itself, or in making of one's home (both heart and hearth) a place of hospitality to God and those who are precious to God (one will do so in ways which will involve the Lenten triad). Those who cannot seem to function without bringing work home with them and who, unfortunately, never really rest in the love of their families or create space where their families may rest in their love could certainly find a few things to do which would make life better all around. Those who come home from work, turn on the TV or computer and never spend real time with their families could do similarly. Those who rarely eat together or treat their homes as momentary pit stops along the route of real life could find ways to change this. (Mealtimes are an especially privileged time to be hospitable to God together.) Those for whom spirituality is compartmentalized and is thought to, "belong in Church but not here," could find ways to celebrate Lent which changes this misguided approach to reality (spirituality).

The bottom line questions for the hermit are, 1) are my heart and home places where God always finds a welcome and a place to rest while I find real rest in the heart of God? and 2) How do I allow that to be more and more true each day? It is certainly true that I am not worthy to have the Lord stay under my roof, but as was the case with Zacchaeus, Jesus has called out to me and said that he will be dining with me this day; I try to take that seriously every day I repeat the Centurion's response to Jesus' announcement, "O Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. . ." but I am doing so in a renewed way this Lent. Given the frequency with which we each repeat the Centurion's response to Jesus (Matt 8:8) --- it is done at every Mass and is a summary of a sound Eucharistic spirituality --- I don't think the hermit's question is one which should be foreign to any Christian --- though I suspect it definitely is!

Naked Theology Blog and Modern Day Anchorites

[[Hi Sister, I read a piece from a blog called Naked Theology. It was about "modern day anchoresses" and featured you. The author's conclusion about you and your life was, "I find Sister Laurel interesting, but also interesting is the fact while she believes that she lives a life of a hermit, she is on the internet. I guess things have changed." The link is Naked Theology and Modern Day Anchoresses. I think the author doubts you are a hermit. Could you comment?]]

It's an interesting piece from several years ago. Thanks for sending it on to me.

As noted, anchorites ordinarily had a window on the world which allowed them to interact in significant ways with folks in their village, etc. They also often had a window on the altar of their church which allowed them to participate in Mas in the same way as the rest of their community. They were significant, often honored persons in their towns and served their neighbors in important ways -- whether as spiritual guides, counselors, and sometimes too, preachers of the Gospel. Because of this there were were guidelines on managing one's time and activities at the window and in the anchorhold and the same is true in my own life. Today our human village is a bit more global than was once the case while our lives in suburbia or in cities are actually more isolated from our neighbors than is healthy. My computer is a window on the church and world around me and the church and world I live my life in God for. Times have changed, but the hermit life is not really that different --- even with computers.  But of course real limits and care are required with this window --- as has always been the case.

Still, few hermits are actual recluses nor were they traditionally. Most of the Desert Fathers and Mothers seem not to have been. (It is a minority who went into the deep desert fleeing all contact. Most lived on the margins of inhabited areas and were sought out for various reasons.) Anchorites in the Middle ages were certainly not. Oftentimes religious figures (St Francis, St Peter Damian, et al) lived for a period in strict physical solitude and then spent time evangelizing (or in other ways of serving the church in a more active ministry), then returned again to strict solitude for a time, etc. We each find different ways to embody this basic spiritual rhythm of contemplation/ministry or prayer/fasting/almsgiving. This is part of the freedom and the flexibility of eremitical life so long as the essential element of "the silence of solitude" is lived with integrity.

Remember that physical solitude is only one dimension of eremitical life --- though it is certainly indispensable and a defining dimension. The same is true of physical silence.  The "silence of solitude" which is richer than mere physical silence and solitude (and a central element in canon 603), has more to do with communion with God and the heart which is formed by that than with isolation; it is a complex reality, and for that reason, as simple as a hermit's life is, it is also more complex than stereotypes allow. While I don't think this is true of the author of the blog mentioned above, too often folks hold stereotypes of anchorites and hermits when in fact, the picture was (and still is) more diverse or nuanced than they realize.

09 March 2014

What Do you Do for Lent?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, would it be okay if I asked you what you do for Lent? In my parish we focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and I try to do something I don't usually do. Like this year I am spending time helping in a soup kitchen. Your life is already one of "[assiduous] prayer and penance" and I guess you can't help in a soup kitchen so what do you do?]]

Hi there and thanks for your question. It is actually one I get asked most every year but I don't think I have ever really answered here.

Each year is a bit different and that is true this year as well. Let me say first of all that whatever I choose to do for Lent usually fits in an organic way with the rest of my life. It is rarely the case that something of our lives cannot be improved upon or more attention given to this or that aspect of our Christian commitment. In my own life there is no doubt that I can improve my prayer life, my life in the hermitage more generally, the way I approach parish commitments, the way I structure my time, my commitment to the values which are central to eremitical life, etc. My own preference for Lent, therefore, is not to do one disparate or disconnected thing (like saying extra prayers, giving up some food item, etc) but instead, to look at the entire scope of my life and renew the basic commitments which are part and parcel of that. When I do that a number of things may change, whether permanently as the fruit of discernment, or temporarily and experimentally as a means to this discernment. So let me start by describing some of the things which changed for me this Lent and then I will describe the bottom line which made those changes necessary.

This Lent I am primarily working through a process of discern-ment which allows me to get in touch in a fresh way with the really basic things God has called me to and to which I have publicly committed myself. I am doing this in a more focused and intense way than I would ordinarily be able to do the rest of the year, and thanks to the assistance of my director (and my own readiness), in a more effective way than I might have done in other Lents.

In order to do this specific changes have needed to be made in a number of areas: 1) I am more reclusive than ordinarily which means I don't get to Mass as frequently, 2) I am working through a book my director gave me to assist me in doing this work better than I may have in the past, 3) I have withdrawn until Easter from an activity I do once a week outside the hermitage, 4) I have changed my daily schedule to some extent so that I get rest more frequently, 5) I am doing a bit more journaling than I ordinarily do, 6) I am" fasting" in a way which allows my diet to change permanently in order to address several different things (health, commitment to poverty or simplicity, maintaining an attitude of celebration during  meals, different demands on my energy, etc.), 7) The first four hours of my day have changed some in the way I approach prayer or the practice of vigil, 8) I have changed (or am changing) the schedule on which I see clients so that I see them during fewer days during any week and also in a way which leaves  more weeks entirely free of appointments, and 9) I have gone through the hermitage to get rid of old files, papers, clothes, books, etc that accumulate through the year but are really no longer necessary. It may sound like a lot of stuff, but it all fits together into a single Lenten project and purpose.

The bottom line in all of this is that I am living Lent in a way which allows me to really pay special attention to making a prayer of everything I do and therefore, of making my ordinary, everyday life extraordinary in Christ. I have written about this in the past so it is not a new idea. (Besides, it is a key element in Benedictine spirituality.) Alone we live ordinary lives. When we live those with God in a conscious way everything is transformed into something extraordinary. (For the hermit this is a major piece of distinguishing between merely living alone and living in solitude.) This sense that even the most ordinary of lives (or parts of our lives) can be made extraordinary if only we allow God to share in every moment and mood is one of the real gifts which hermits bring to the Church and world. In fact it is part of the charism or gift quality which the vocation represents. Even so, while this is not a new idea for me, nor a new undertaking exactly, what tends to be true is that in a kind of spiral pattern I periodically come to it anew and with a fresh sense of awe and appreciation. At each turn of the spiral I return to this foundational truth with a deeper awareness of, appreciation for, and commitment to it, a commitment which engages me in progressively deeper and more extensive ways. The real newness in Lent, it seems to me, comes not from doing new things (though one may also need to do that just as I outlined above), but in doing things with a renewed commitment, with a heart which is broken open just a bit further than it was yesterday, in a more thoroughgoing way than one has done until now.

You see,as I understand it, the prayer, fasting, almsgiving triad refers not merely to three discrete activities we do, but to three dimensions of a faithful and authentically human life. Most fundamentally such a life is open to and rooted in the dynamic presence of God within and around us. It is lived in and with God in a way which provides hospitality to God both in one's home and in one's heart. A life which is prayerful is a life which is hospitable to God and lived with the sense of God as an everpresent guest. Because of this accent on hospitality to God, an accent on living in and with God, a prayerful life necessarily entails fasting since fasting (which means fasting from more than just food) involves  a commitment to the really essential things in life while it eschews the inessential. (Fasting is the flip side of feasting and hospitality to God calls for both.) We will find we eat differently, rest differently, use our time differently, and so forth when the accent is on hospitality to God. This must be so if everything we live is to be a prayer just as it is the result when everything IS a prayer.

Finally, such a life is a generous one which reaches out to others with the riches we have received; almsgiving is a symbol or expression of this. We live our lives first of all with and for God, but to the extent we really do this we will find ourselves both free and motivated to give ourselves generously to others. We will find ourselves commissioned to go out to others in some significant way. To my mind then, almsgiving is another way of describing the missionary impulse which is intrinsic to God-as-Trinity and to any Christian life lived with, in, and for God. It is the very essence of Church. Your own choice of helping in a soup kitchen is an expression of this dimension of your life. A huge part of my Lent this year is meant to assist me in determining the shape of this missionary impulse in my own life and the concrete forms it will continue to take when I am faithful to my call to be a diocesan hermit.

Lent is a time the Church gives us to allow this kind of reorientation (conversion) in all the dimensions of our life. In my own it has far reaching consequences for the rest of the year. It is not that I forget my commitments nor the central elements of the eremitical life during the rest of the year, nor that I am unfaithful to these, but several times a year (Advent, Lent, retreats, desert days, etc.)  just like anyone else, I need to tweak things and get in deeper touch with these and the God who empowers them; at these times it means getting back in touch with the surprise and awe I experience at being called in the way I am.  It means renewing the sense that everything done with, in, and for God transforms the ordinary into the really extraordinary and makes of the little I can give something of infinite worth. During the year a lot can happen to knock us out of our own spiritual centeredness or cause a bit of a wobble in the orbit of our lives. It is also the case that we each  grow incrementally (a little at a time) so that in time (say the space of a year or of several years) we may need to stop and take stock of what that period of time has brought in terms of growth; we do this in order that we may embrace that in a conscious way.  Though we never really know how Lent will go or what God will do with this time in our lives, this Lent seems to be one of those for me and in this it is a real gift.

08 March 2014

Miserere: We fall and get up, fall and get up. . .



This is one of my very favorite pieces, especially for Lent. I may have put it up here in past years. This miserere reminds us all that Lent is a time of conversion. In Benedictinism we are reminded that we fall and get up, fall and get up. In Christianity to be brought to our knees in repentance is to be raised to a profound dignity as human beings. Let us not be afraid or reluctant to be moved to our knees in this way. It is astounding how beautiful reality is from this position!

On Drawing Prayer Circles

[[Dear Sister, have you heard of the books referring to drawing a circle around one's biggest dreams or needs and then standing there until the prayer is answered? They are based on the Jewish legend of Honi who drew a circle and prayed for rain. He stayed inside the circle until it rained and it did! God answered Honi's Prayer! I just wondered what you thought of this approach to prayer.]]

Hi there. I have heard of the books and seen them advertised on Amazon, but I have not read them. The legend of Honi, however is one I am somewhat familiar with. Honi, a first century BC scholar who is sometimes called the "one who draws circles", was faced with the need for rain during a drought. He eventually drew a circle and announced to God that he was not going to move until God sent rain. It was Winter, the rainy season, when he did this. When a smattering of rain came Honi announced to God that that was not enough and reiterated his intention to remain there until there was real rain. There was a downpour and at this point Honi told God he wanted (or the people of Israel needed) a quieter, less destructive rain; he said he would continue to stay in the circle until God sent that instead. At this point there came a quieter rain which the ground could drink up and which would not be destructive because of flooding, mudslides, etc.

What is important to remember however are the two responses this action drew from Jews. Some excommunicated Honi because he had indeed blasphemed God by his actions. Others (a Queen) excused him saying he had a special relationship with God. There is ambiguity in the story and both wisdom and very real danger in the lessons we draw from it about prayer. Sometimes the line between the two is exceedingly fine; I personally believe Honi crossed the line despite also showing us some of the things necessary in a life of prayer and despite his special relationship with God. So let me say something about that and what I believe the author of these books on "drawing a circle of prayer" as well as what his readers must be cautious about.

The positive lessons on Prayer Honi gives us:

All prayer is meant to allow God the space to work in our lives. Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit we open our hearts to God so that God may enter those spaces, know us more profoundly (in the intimate Biblical sense), and accompany us in every moment and mood of our lives. That means opening ourselves in ways which reveal our deepest needs and dreams and doing so in a way which lets those dreams and needs be shaped, qualified, transformed, and answered by the presence of God and his own will or purposes. In other words we hold our dreams and needs open to God's transforming and fulfilling presence. We take them seriously; we claim and honor them, but we also hold them somewhat lightly because God's presence can cause us to reevaluate and even redefine these in light of his love and purposes. For instance, my own dream to become a teacher or to transform the world is rooted in gifts coming from a really profound place within me which I must hold onto and express, but I must also be open to the possibility that I am not going to be teaching in the ways I thought I might nor transforming the world in the way I dreamt I might. The Kingdom of God comes through our attentiveness to our deepest needs, gifts, and dreams; we must not ignore these, but at the same time, that Reign rarely looks like what we thought it might.

Drawing a circle around my desire to teach, etc, allows me to get and stay in touch with the profound gifts within me, while praying about this allows me to open these spaces to God and to collaborate with God in becoming the teacher (or whatever else) he may desire me to become. Standing in this circle allows me to remain trusting in God's love and determined that the best use of my gifts be made, but I am neither defining (drawing) nor standing in this circle in order that God might be "informed" about who I am, what I feel, dream, or need, nor that his will be shaped accordingly. I stand in such a circle so that I may consciously and faithfully bring these things to God and allow their potential and promise to be realized in ways I may not have even imagined myself. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to me because it requires 1) a conscious claiming of gifts, needs, dreams, etc, 2) a faithfulness and deep trust in their potential and in the power of God to bring all things to fullness or completion despite ostensible signs otherwise, and 3) a commitment to watch for the ways in which God brings things to fulfillment even when these are contrary to my own plans and conceptions. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to the degree it demands and facilitates attentiveness and perseverance in prayer.

The Negative or Dangerous Elements in Honi's Approach to Prayer:

However, as I say, it is my opinion that Honi crossed the line which the leadership of the Jewish People considered blasphemous and worthy of excommunication. He moved from persevering prayer to blackmail or extortion, and he did so by treating prayer and the drawing of a circle as a way of leveraging God. When I think of what Honi did with the circle it sounds a lot like a child saying to their Mother, "I want cake for dinner and I am going to lie here in the middle of the floor until you let me have that! Not only that (once mom pulls out the vanilla cake mix!), it had BETTER be a chocolate cake!" Despite the vast difference between this and what I described in the last section, the line between these two is often a very fine one indeed and we need to be very careful never to cross it!

Prayer is always about intimacy with God but it is not the intimacy of peers, much less of persons who can dictate to God what their needs are and the ways in which they expect these needs to be met. Honi crossed this line as well. He forgot that in prayer he was dealing with the Master of the Universe, the One whom he was called to serve  in persevering prayer, not one we can call on to serve us in a demanding and willful pseudo-piety. Perseverance is necessary in prayer, but stubbornness is a different matter. In prayer we do indeed open our hearts to God, but we do so in a way which allows our dreams and needs to accept the limitations of reality and shaped by that. We continue to hope, but the certainty of our hope allows a flexibility and demands docility as well; God's purposes and will always ultimately eventuate in a fulfillment of what we dream of and desire or need most deeply. We need to trust that that is the case even as we allow ourselves to be instructed in the fact that we cannot always see or imagine the how or the shape of this fulfillment. We do not EVER dictate terms to God. It seems to me that Honi forgot most of these things in his own prayer.

Similarly, it is important not to think that God is outside the circle. We must understand that drawing the circle of prayer circumscribes a space where God is intimately present with us in the very circumstances we ourselves are suffering. We draw the circle and say effectively that we will stand here WITH God and trust in his lifegiving presence despite all the difficulties and ridicule that may entail. Honi's actions seem very different to me than this. He seemed to be drawing a line in the sand (dust!) which separated himself from God and turned the situation into a "me vs God" struggle rather than allowing it to define Honi as an I-Thou covenantal reality. It is important in prayer to recognize that our truest needs and dreams are God's as well, and that we stand together as covenant partners committed to the unfolding and fulfillment of creation. Even so, this is never the same as allowing prayer to become a kind of martyrdom (witness) against a God who finally capitulates to our demands.

Further, we must take care that the drawing of prayer circles not be allowed to deteriorate into a kind of magical thinking where if we do x (e.g., draw a prayer circle around my child), then y (e.g., his safety) will be the result. One of the real dangers of the idea of drawing prayer circles is that we begin to think that we have done what we need and therefore the result is assured. While this is similar to the extorting-God mindset (in some ways it seems like a "kinder, gentler, version") it is as contrary to the true dynamics of authentic prayer as is the demanding, self-centered, blackmail version of things. Since the author of these books has a version for children it seems to me that parents need to be particularly cautious in being sure they do not contribute to notions of prayer that have more to do with magical thinking than with prayer. Children outgrow magical thinking but if it becomes codified in their approaches to prayer this becomes a huge obstacle to developing a mature spirituality later in life and it contributes to unnecessary disillusion with religion and the practice of prayer.

Risk and tension are always there in our Prayer:

Finally, it seems to me that the Legend of Honi the circle drawer reminds us that there is always risk and tension in our prayer. Prayer requires a boldness and a steadfastness which can easily deteriorate into presumption and stubbornness. It requires an intimacy which runs the risk of devolving or being distorted into actual blasphemyAfter all, it is one thing to say, "Here I stand, I can do no other" WITH and for God; it is quite another to do so as   though God was simply another person on the parish council who needed to be convinced and prodded into action. And of course negotiating this risky business is part of what it means to learn to pray and to live a prayer life. As we mature in this we become better at a kind of "holy boldness" and an intimacy which is never presumptuous but which instead reminds us of Mary's part at the Wedding Feast of Cana. There she spoke directly, even boldly, to her Son about the needs of the host and she clearly knew her Son could do something about the situation. But Jesus drew limits as well and while Mary stood back a bit in light of these, she continued to trust  in her Son and counselled others to do as he said. It seems to me that Mary's interactions with Jesus in that story are a more accurate image of the dynamics of prayer --- especially the "holy boldness"  required --- than Honi's legend itself manages to give us.

I hope this is helpful to you. You might also check out, On persistence in prayer and other posts linked to the labels found below.