25 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

14 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 September 2016

A Contemplative Moment: The Silence of Solitude

The Silence of Solitude

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

Fr Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam: The Eremitic Life

11 September 2016

Parable of the Merciful Father (reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 September 2016

In God Alone Once Again: On Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

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

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

Prayer is not OUR Work but God's:

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

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

Exercise: Becoming Comfortable With Distractions

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

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

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

07 September 2016

Canon 603 English Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Temptation to Misuse Canon 603

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

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

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

Canon 603 and the Seriously Mentally Ill:

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

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

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

Canon 603 as a Stopgap solution:

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

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

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

Priests and the eremitical Life More Generally:

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

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


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

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

03 September 2016

When the Night Becomes Dark

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

02 September 2016

Anniversary Memories, Renewed Commitment

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

Profession of the Evangelical Counsels:

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

Religious poverty:

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

Religious Obedience:

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

Consecrated Celibacy:

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

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

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

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

31 August 2016

The Desert is a Dangerous Place, Eremitical Life is a Perilous Reality

 Dear Sister, usually when you write about the silence of solitude it is a positive thing but your last piece was pretty dark. I wondered if you were okay and if this was a new discovery you had made about the power of the silence of solitude? Someone else wrote about the suffering you were experiencing. Have I missed something (I ask because I care)!

Please don't be concerned. About three months ago I wrote about doing some inner work with my director which was demanding and challenging. I have continued with that and sometimes it has been reflected in my posts --- though generally it has meant fewer posts or posts which were poorly written and kind of rambling --- probably the result of putting these up before allowing my thoughts to mature and gel. I suspect the person referring to suffering was referring to some part of that constellation of posts. The piece I wrote a couple of days ago on Eremitical silence as harrowing as well as hallowing was not a new insight, no, but I certainly know it more deeply and extensively than I did from previous work. Moreover it is an important dimension of eremitical silence I have needed and now need to treat more explicitly --- especially in light of questions I am receiving about eremitical life and candidates with serious mental illness (I am working on one of these right now), or about topics like formation, the need for careful discernment, the indispensability of competent and regular spiritual direction, the danger of eremitical solitude, and so forth.

I have written before that eremitical silence and solitude are not easy and that the vocation itself is demanding. I have quoted Merton and others, noted that this is not a vocation generally suited for those with mental illness (though when it seems possible for someone who functions well and whose illness is stable this should be determined carefully by chancery, directors, therapists, etc on a case by case basis); I have explained that eremitical solitude is not the normal way to achieve personal wholeness and holiness, and I've described instances of individuals who were clearly decompensating as the result of living in an isolation they called "eremitical". I've even written a few times about battling with demons --- usually those of one's own heart! What I may not have done clearly enough is describe the way desert silence and solitude can strip away defenses and break open one's mind and heart to deeper and deeper levels of woundedness (some would speak of deeper or more foundational levels of sinfulness and alienation here but woundedness seems the better choice to me). This has always been implicit in posts referring to inner work, spiritual direction, and the other topics I have mentioned above and it was more explicit in the posts on battling with demons -- a perennial topic for the desert Abbas and Ammas --- but it needed to be made even more explicit I think.

The Desert is a Dangerous Place:

As I approach this anniversary of my perpetual profession as a diocesan hermit (02. September) I have looked back on some of the topics I have felt passionately (and sometimes written extensively) about. What is clear to me is that most of them have at their core the fact that this vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church (and only then to the individual) and thus requires the church to treat it with real respect for precisely the gift it is. This means (or has meant) codifying it in canon law, carefully discerning candidates for profession, demanding Rules be written only after a candidate has sufficient experience living the life under competent direction, continuing direction and regular supervision (legitimate superiors), and providing lists of or even access to resources an individual may draw from in order to get the initial formation she needs to live this life well "in the name of the Church". But the flip side to all of this, the reason the charismatic nature of the vocation must be recognized and adequate care taken in all of these ways is also precisely because solitary eremitical life in the silence of solitude is dangerous for one not truly called to it --- or for one who undertakes it without sufficient support and assistance!

After all, one vows to listen in silence and solitude to the voice of God dwelling in one's heart. Moreover, one vows to give that entire heart over to God to love into wholeness and holiness; in this way one comes to know and reflect the silence OF solitude. That is what obedience is all about. But at the same time, the journey into the depths of one's own heart, as I wrote in the last post, can be a harrowing experience, for though one's heart is meant to belong to God alone, very much more dwells and often has dominance there than God alone. Similarly, while God never abandons us, there are times when God's presence takes the form of darkness and distance precisely so we can come to know those parts of our hearts which war against (him) --- against love and life itself --- and which divide us as persons so that quite often we stand diminished, fragmented and at war with ourselves. I wrote recently that the Holy Spirit maintained (was!) the bond of communion between Father and Son, but that additionally it was the Holy Spirit that maintained distance between them as well --- especially during Jesus' descent into hell, for instance. And so it is in the hermit's sometimes dark silence of solitude. God is experienced as absence or remoteness but it is still God's presence we know in these challenging ways.

Journeying With a Competent Director:

The listening (hearkening, obedience) one does involves a breaking open of the hardened and well-defended heart or false "self", and leads to a kind of stripping away of the false and distorted as well as to a revelation of the fearful, fragile, and (thanks be to God) the rich potential living at the core of ourselves. The result is a vulnerability which is excruciatingly painful and which absolutely requires the assistance of a competent director who knows not only how to do this kind of spiritual or "inner" work, but also when it is time to do it as well as when the hermit is strong enough (in her inner covenantal life with God or Selfhood) to attempt it. At these times some parts of the hermit's Rule may be suspended and other changes made to accommodate differing needs for rest, prayer, food, recreation, direction or contact with one's delegate, etc.

Though one's director need not (and probably will not) be a hermit, it takes someone knowledgeable and personally experienced in the same kind of inner journey to assist and accompany the hermit in all of this. Otherwise one will have the equivalent of the blind leading the blind into the pit and tragedy will ensue. (It should go without saying that a "hermit" attempting to live in the desert without the assistance of a competent director with whom they meet regularly is, from my perspective, perhaps the greatest fool I could name. Unfortunately it happens.) In any case, it is also at this time that the hermit's own knowledge, experience and faith, all tested over time, prove their greatest worth.

On my Anniversary:

Despite all I have said here and in a few recent posts which may have seemed uncharacteristically "dark", let me also reiterate that I could not be happier in my vocation as a diocesan hermit. While the inner work in which I have recently been engaged has been difficult (harrowing) it has simultaneously been a clear source of abundant life (hallowing) as well. There is no doubt in my mind that the temporary suffering of this work itself is a grace of God, not simply a source of grace as much suffering is and can be, but a wounding and profoundly life giving touch of God (him)self and one that I might never have known but for this vocation and those who assist me in it.

Deep healing and growth in holiness is clearly something God is calling me to "in the silence of solitude" and apart from canonical eremitical life I would have neither the time nor the space for prayer, the access to sufficient direction or supervision, the commitment of profession which empowers and sustains the work, nor would I have the motivation or have been able to grow as sufficiently as I have needed in the commitment which make perseverance in this specific journey possible. God has truly blessed me in this and though there is some pain and a sense of great fragility right now, I approach this anniversary with even more life, strength, and gratitude than I have known in the past. The promise of the future, though still being worked out "in fear and trembling" as Paul might put it, is very full indeed.

Adequately honoring this Gift of the Holy Spirit:

Dioceses that fail to pay attention to the reality and perhaps the inevitability of this experience of God in the darkness and abject suffering of the silence of solitude will be unable to assist hermits they profess. Even more problematically they are apt to profess "hermits" who can neither negotiate nor thrive (come to the abundant life Jesus promises) in the desert of eremitical life. Outright illness or a lack of integrity marked by mediocrity and "vocations" which are thus disedifying to all involved will be the result.

To summarize, the desert is a dangerous place. Eremitical silence and solitude are perilous realities and dioceses professing hermits need to be keenly aware of these facts. Especially they must never believe they are merely entrusting individuals to some sort of prayer-filled life of mere peace and quiet! The eremitical contemplative life of prayer in the silence of solitude is wonderful, yes, but it is also a source of real and deep anguish. Becoming God's own prayer in this world is both hallowing and harrowing, often at the very same time. When Jesus said, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword!" he might very well have been speaking, for those called to it, of the significantly growth-full moments of eremitical life! Again, this is something of which dioceses and candidates to canon 603 eremitical life must be aware if they are to truly and adequately honor this rare, valuable, and mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit.

29 August 2016

Eremitical Silence: Harrowing as well as Hallowing

[[Dear Sister, I appreciate what you say about silence as redemptive but I wonder if silence is always a comfortable reality for you? You have written that most folks find silence frightening and I am wondering if you ever do? Thanks.]]

Great questions! I have written about the silence of solitude most of the time to stress that it is not a matter of being isolated or ultimately alone and most of the time that fact is comforting and consoling. But there are certainly times when being in silence is neither comforting nor consoling. Moreover, while God is present during these times he is present more in a felt sense of absence or remoteness because during these times we are thrown back upon ourselves "alone". At these times even prayer can be anguish because during these times of focused quiet especially when we open the depths of our hearts to God, we are plunged into memories of our own deepest experiences of pain and abandonment in order to plumb them to their depths. At least that is how it seems to me at these times. In experiencing some forms of woundedness and trauma we did not have a sense of God's presence; we were (we thought and felt) wholly alone and helpless. Sometimes in order to re-experience those times we may also need to re-experience that felt sense of God's absence as well. It seems to me that silence carries and conveys these kinds of experience most fully and profoundly. At these times silence can be immensely painful and, as you say, even downright terrifying.

But, painful and terrifying or not, this is one very real dimension of eremitical silence. Anyone who has walked in the deep desert has not only heard this silence but felt it on their skin. It presses in from every direction. Our loudest yell or whistle are ineffective and merely momentary; they are small and weak things immediately swallowed up in the silence as though they had never been while the desert silence remains pristine and inviolable. The hugeness of the silence here seems to laugh at our efforts at making a mark or disrupting things and we are left with a sense of our own infinitesimal smallness as the silence humbles us with its seemingly infinite expanse and depth. There is a weight to such silence, a kind of substance or solidity we would like to hold at bay because in doing so we can sometimes temporarily hold our own deepest pain and anguish at bay as well.  But to enter the silence, especially to commit to live our lives there, is to commit not merely to the comfort and solace of the silence of solitude, but to the terrifying quiet and aloneness whose  weight breaks open our hearts and minds and reveals the unhealed woundedness and suffering we have kept repressed and submerged there for so very long.  At these times images of Jesus' saving descent into hell (which we now pray to know first hand) or the desert Fathers and Mothers' battle with demons in the depths of the desert (which we already know first hand) take on a new significance and poignancy for us.

Silence, especially the silence of solitude can be hallowing as the touch of God is holy-making and healing, but eremitical silence can also be harrowing as the fire of abject aloneness or hell is harrowing. The personal work silence makes possible and even necessary will eventually lead to the hermit's healing and holiness. Even so, there is no doubt that God is sometimes present in  what we experience as absence and a challenging remoteness; it is when this is true that eremitical solitude can become the kind of hell already described; it is occasioned by the weight of her desert's immense silence, solitude, and the hermit's own commitment to obedience. This harrowing quality of silence, especially the silence of solitude is something she assented to when the Bishop publicly and solemnly questioned her on her willingness to embrace the various elements of this vocation shortly before admitting her to perpetual profession; it is likewise something she knowingly embraced in her vows and in accepting consecration.

24 August 2016

Followup Questions on Silence as Redemptive

[[Dear Sr Laurel, referring to your article on the importance of silence to the hermit's witness, I just don't understand what it means to say that God speaks to us in silence or that silence can be redemptive. I think I also wonder if a person going into silence and solitude might not imagine God speaking to them. "Locutions" is a new word for me and I don't mean to offend but isn't it more likely that a hermit hears what they want or need to hear and it really just comes from themselves?]]

It's not always easy to understand silence, especially when we try to do so from the outside. While it may refer to the absence or relative absence of noise, Silence (with a capital S) is also and more truly the abyss and ground of all creation we refer to as God. More and more we each must learn to entrust ourselves to that silence, which, we will find embraces us and loves us without deficiency, limitation, or condition. When we do this we will find that over time (usually a lifetime) and layer by layer, we come face to face with ourselves and as we do that we will also encounter the demons and distortions of our own hearts, all of the ways life has wounded, distorted, and broken us --- and our profoundest gifts and potentials as well. As we do this a choice is always present: will we continue to be defined in this way or will we see ourselves in light of the loving embrace or gaze of God and allow ourselves to become all God calls us to be?

Silence as Redemptive:

In the article you mentioned I implied that there are many silences --- some of pain, anxiety, grief, mutenesses of all sorts (embarrassment, shame, ignorance, fear, prudence, discretion), etc. No doubt you have experienced many if not all of these. Imagine what these are like when they are met with a refusal of another to hear you during these times --- when they are met with the silence of rejection or abandonment or even of hatred. These silences are exacerbated and even transformed into an existential scream of anguish --- a silent but noisy scream that may express itself in all kinds of attitudes and behaviors. But now, imagine that a person who has been transformed in such a way meets a deeper silence, a silence capable of embracing the entire person they are and truly hearing them. What would happen?

Imagine when someone simply sits with a person in need, perhaps for hours at a time, and listens to and also gazes at them in loving silence. They provide a welcome, healing, empowering silence, a silence of safety and personal summons. Imagine a therapist doing this, or a spiritual director --- regularly over time. Imagine a similar silence when two friends choose simply to be with one another because they love and delight in one another. Imagine a person gradually entrusting herself to the silence of prayer again and again, first pouring out her heart in words and tears and then, giving even more of herself, including the parts of herself she cannot understand much less articulate, to a deeper silence which embraces the whole of herself --- and imagine that as a result of entrusting herself in this way she finds herself comprehended and loved --- that, in fact, she is returned to herself as newly coherent because she is loved beyond imagining.

We have all had experiences like this, experiences of silence in which we meet ourselves more honestly and clearly than life usually allows, experiences of silence that quiet the unceasing noise of our own pain and strivings, and softens the fear associated with them as it allows us to take a step back from these; we've all had experiences of silence that are affirming and accepting of all we bring to them, experiences of silence which re-contextualize the facts of our lives and allow them and us to make a new kind of sense, experiences of silence which somehow quiet and transform the chaos of our lives or the cacophony of our minds and hearts into songs and symphonies expressing a compassionate creativity at work both in and through us --- even while it transcends us utterly. We have each and all had very much smaller but similarly redemptive experiences of silence as well: times of play and relaxation and concentration when the silences gave birth to poetry and music, to images and insights, perceptions and inspirations of truth, beauty, and meaning in myriad degrees and forms.


Occasionally (even very infrequently) in the profound silences of prayer or of our environment we may hear a word or phrase or even a complete sentence which addresses us in the deepest parts of our being.These words and sentences tend to speak to us in our deepest needs as well --- which may mean they address us and reveal our deepest potentialities and gifts too. In my experience, limited as it is, these come from within us but also transcend what we know or can allow ourselves to imagine. One might hear the special name God calls them by or an affirmation of the value one has to God. One may hear a commissioning, a sending forth to serve, and so forth. I want to stress that these kinds of events happen "from within"; we hear them inside our own heads and while this is so there is usually a profound sense they come from God, not from ourselves.

I do not personally trust supposed or reported locutions which are either very frequent or consist of long speeches, for instance, and I can understand why you might distrust the phenomenon as a whole. But I know Sisters I trust profoundly who have had "locutions"  (they tend to be highly aural persons) and I have experienced a relatively small number of them myself of the type I described. If one prays regularly and lives in a constant dialogue with and attentiveness to God chances are pretty good there will be (very) occasional locutions. I believe these kind of "come with the territory" --- they are not necessarily signs of great holiness or spiritual advancement. Still, given the limits I mentioned, they tend to be of God, the God who bears witness to Godself in our hearts.

By the way, the locutions I have experienced or heard described have a uniquely memorable quality. They function a bit like a refrain in a song but in this case they are a refrain in our lives which punctuate and underscore the songs we are. There is no need for them to be frequent or numerous because they communicate something central which, like ecstatic experiences in prayer, can speak to us for the rest of our lives and never really be exhausted of meaning.

God Speaking in Silence

Just to be sure I have explained a little more of what I mean by God speaking in silence let me say that I do not mean locutions. Instead what I mean is that the immense or infinite Silence which is God --- a silence which contextualizes our lives, wraps us in love, and transforms our noisiness into quiet and our isolation into solitude is the very speech of God. One who dwells in silence learns to "hear" it. It is experienced as an accompanying and empowering music which allows one's life and, in fact, the whole of creation to achieve articulateness. It is the condition of possibility of the Word being made flesh and flesh being made Word. I know this can sound like nonsense --- the notion of "hearing silence" is difficult to convey. I hope you will trust me that this is real even when my explanations are completely inadequate.

21 August 2016

In God Alone

This may be a different and more challenging version of this chant than some are used to. The instruments improvising over the chant sometimes, even often, seem to miss the mark. And yet, under it all, grounding and giving coherence to every note --- if only we have the patience and trust to hear it --- is the profoundly stabilizing refrain or antiphon, [[ In God alone my soul can find rest and peace, In God my peace and joy, Only in God my soul can find its rest. Find its rest and peace.]]  As I listened this morning I found myself hanging onto the antiphon with a kind of fierceness during parts of this as I waited (and sometimes yearned intensely) for the improvising instrument to come to rest solidly again in the ground of the antiphon --- especially in the longer original recording.

So it is with us I think. We sing our lives improvising around this "theme" --- this internal antiphonal truth that sounds in our hearts; sometimes we seem to have journeyed so far as to have stopped listening and lost touch with it altogether --- though in our music-making we seek it still! And then, with patience, trust, and perseverance in our hearkening, we reconnect more clearly and come once again to that place of rest in God who alone makes sense of the whole of our lives --- even those bits which seemed to or may truly have lost touch with the Divine chant or "theme" grounding them.

For whatever else, the chant continues faithfully, unfailingly in a way which both shapes the improvisational journey and allows the player to finally come home once again despite the far and even foreign places to which they have traveled in the meantime: dissonances are resolved and the harmony of the whole is enriched with musical "stretches" and surprises that rather than troubling or disturbing us now delight and even move us with awe.

18 August 2016

On Loving God With Our Whole Heart and Mind and Soul. . .(Reprise)

I have to say that whenever I hear Jesus' statement of the Great commandment --- 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 us solely 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 speaks 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.

13 August 2016

On the Risk, Cost, and Promise of Gospel Faith

Domesticated Christianity gets no hearing in today's Gospel! The love of God is not merely comforting and consoling but makes true in a way which can set those closest to us at odds with us. Jesus says that Father will be set against Son and vice versa; Mother will be set against daughter, daughter against Mother, family member(s) against family member(s), and so forth. Who among us have not experienced this kind of conflict and challenge? My first sense that perhaps this could be true occurred when I was preparing for baptism as a Catholic while in high school. "Not while you're living in this house!" my Mother exclaimed emphatically. It was not the last time I sensed the truth of this passage. It's quite a risk: one has to understand and be pretty trusting of the worth of what they are embracing to let go of family and friends in the process.

Sister at First Profession sings the Suscipe
And of course, that is really what Jesus himself knew intimately and lived and died to incarnate (reveal) exhaustively --- a treasure beyond all price, a Kingdom which made ultimate sense of every absurdity, a Divine Love which could bring to fullness every partial and fragmentary love, a Gospel Truth which could verify every distortion and make whole every brokenness. But, as for Jesus himself, there is no room for equivocation. Nor can we stand comfortably with a foot in each reality and be authentically Christian. One chooses the Gospel and all it entails or one does not. One entrusts oneself completely to the power and promise of God's sovereignty and makes oneself entirely vulnerable to the hope and wholeness-making (hallowing) of God's love or one does not. There is no middle ground. Either God IS our God (meaning we allow God to BE God in every way and to whatever extent God wills) or (he) is not. Today's readings emphasize both the worth and the dearness, the consolation and the costliness of discipleship and we need to hear both dimensions.

Prophecy that Brings Conflict:

The first reading from Jeremiah is certainly clear about the costliness of being a prophet who speaks God's will into the present situation with integrity. Do this and you may find yourself tossed into a cistern up to your neck in mud and in danger of starvation! How many of us today have tried to speak of the morality and urgency of peace and been accused of "demoralizing" the soldiers among us? How many, for instance, have argued the case for gun control, smart weapons, the priority of life over "the (supposed) right to bear arms" outside the context of "a well-regulated militia" and found themselves cast out of a job or political position? Examples could be multiplied of course depending on which facet of the vision of the Kingdom of God one sees most clearly --- and each will involve conflict and cost. Jeremiah's vision is greater than that of those opposing him, and greater than that of King Zedekiah as well. And he commits to this vision, proclaims it, and ultimately suffers for it. Such is the life of an authentic prophet -- both then and now.

A death that Brings Life:

The second reading from Hebrews reminds us of the struggle against sin, that is, the struggle against the brokenness, incompleteness, distortions, alienation, and untruths of our lives and world. It is clearly a difficult and costly struggle --- one, the author of Hebrews finds most clearly symbolized by the cross of Christ. But what is striking in this second reading is the emphasis on the joy and victory which comes from persevering in this struggle in the way Jesus did. Victory is always a matter of perspective and of maintaining perspective --- and maintaining perspective means courageously keeping an eye on Jesus and his life and death so that this "Christ Event" is first and last what defines us as persons. In every Catholic home, and often in every main room of every Catholic home (living room, bedrooms, dining room, study) there is usually found a crucifix. That  is certainly true in my hermitage.

And in whatever I am doing here, whether prayer or lectio, writing or study, personal work alone or with my director or delegate, resting or doing chores, struggling with illness and pain, eating alone or celebrating a rare meal with a friend, playing violin or meeting with clients, the crucifix is never more than a glance away so that I might be reminded of both the consolation and the costliness of faith while I silently reaffirm the Event and perspective that give meaning to everything I am and do. And when I believe my life is too difficult, the work too hard, the schedule too tedious, the "rewards" uncertain, etc, Hebrews reminds me as well that I have not yet resisted sin (that is, I have not yet embraced truth and life) to the point of shedding blood; in Christ I am yet stronger than I know and the victory is greater than I have yet witnessed to with my very life. I can and will maintain the truly human perspective of faith: I can and will persevere in this journey to wholeness for despite the cost, in this is my greatest joy and the victory of God's own will for the whole of his creation as well! Aren't we each called to know and commit to something similar whatever our vocational path?

A Love that Sets our Hearts and Creation Ablaze:

The Gospel lection brings all this home and sharpens it with an image of all things set ablaze. As inspiring as this image may be, for most of us it is also frightening. And so is the vocation of the Christian. Jesus' own vocation, his own humanity is defined in terms of suffering but also in terms of great joy. The baptism he speaks of is the baptism of kenosis, the baptism of a self-emptying which is exhaustive to the point of death and beyond into hell itself. But he undergoes and consents to this suffering for the sake of making known and personally real the Love of God that makes full and true and is (the source of) abundant life beyond all imagining. Jesus' empties himself and embraces abject weakness and shame so that he may be entirely transparent to the God he calls Abba and recognizes as the empowering source and ground of life. He gives and risks everything to gain everything really worth having; the Gospel we proclaim as Christians says that risk was entirely worth it for Jesus and is entirely worth it for us. At the same time then what we gain is not without cost --- for ourselves or for others! Jesus reminds us of the conflict that will inevitably occur even with those who love us as family member is turned against family member --- or even as parts of ourselves are brought into conflict with other parts and something trusted and even beloved MUST die so that something even more worthy of love CAN live!

The fire that Jesus brings and wishes were already blazing is the fire of God's love, the fire of the presence of Love-in-Act. We cannot even imagine a world/creation ablaze with the love and sovereignty of God but that is the promise of the Incarnation and of the Cross whose final word is resurrection and the place in God's own life associated with ascension. The Christianity we know and are comfortable with is an altogether tamer variety of faith, a domesticated version which allows us to stand with feet in the Kingdom and that which is antithetical to the Kingdom so that no one is very much troubled by it. It is all-too-often a compartmentalized faith which gives time to God on Sunday mornings (sometimes!) and uses the crucifix as a sign of our identity as Catholics. These may hang in every room of our homes but they do not define every space within our hearts. But what we are made for and called to is so very much more than this! And so very much more challenging! Today's readings call us to embrace the risk, the cost, and the promise of a faith like Jesus' own, a faith which asks quite literally for everything from us but also pledges everything we are made for in return.
A Prayer

My prayer is that we may each embrace and persevere in the promise of a love that will set first our own hearts and then all of creation on fire with the presence of God. May we make whatever sacrifices and give up whatever lesser securities we have to allow that to happen! May we trust that whatever price we are required to pay will be more than abundantly compensated by the love and grace of God. And may we live the truth that by "seek(ing) first the Kingdom of God all else will be added unto us" knowing and persevering in the knowledge that ultimately we cannot and will not lose anything because we are God's and God loses nothing at all!