09 February 2016

Memorial Service for John Dwyer on the West Coast

Last month I posted a piece about John  Dwyer's death and included information on the Mass of the Resurrection to be held at the Cathedral in Albany and the memorial service done at John and Odile's parish. (cf., In Memoriam, John C Dwyer) Unfortunately, the weather and other factors made attending either of those Masses difficult for many of us who knew John from Saint Mary's College (BA and MA programs) or the SAT program at the GTU.

For those who were hoping for such an opportunity, there will be a third memorial service at St Mary's College on March 12, 2016 at 2:00 pm. 

A Brief Look at the Episcopalian Canon 14 versus the Roman Catholic Canon 603

[[Dear Sister, you mentioned the difference between the Episcopal Canon and the Roman Catholic Canon 603. It seems to me that the Episcopal canon is more flexible than the Roman Catholic one. Roman Catholics living under c 603 have to be hermits but with the Episcopal canon they can live in many different ways as those consecrated to God.  They make public personal vows and are free to live as the Holy Spirit moves them. 

With c 603 an individual must shape their lives according to the requirements of the canon --- and from what you have said in the past, according to other canons as well. But what happens if the Holy Spirit calls a person to live differently than these canons allow for? For instance, with the Episcopal canon a person could live as a hermit some of the time and as an active religious at other times. I think this is a good thing. If you wanted to live as an active religious you would need to get your vows dispensed wouldn't you? I don't really have a question here but I do wonder what you think about this. Isn't the Episcopal canon a better option which ensures greater freedom than Canon 603?]]

Respect for Anglican Contributions to the Renewal of Eremitical Life:

Let me say that I greatly respect the place of the Episcopal Communion in the renewal of eremitical life in the contemporary Church and world. When I was first considering this life seriously after having read canon 603 and Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action one of the first contacts I made was with the Sisters of the Love of God in order to read some of the work they were publishing on eremitical life. This weekend I looked once again (after thirty years or so!) at a collection of essays entitled Solitude and Communion --- an anthology published by this same community and featuring essays by some of the really great Anglican, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic writers on eremitical life, especially on its communal dimension and the importance of the experience of redemption which must lie at its heart.

The work of these writers, folks like Sister Mary Clare SLG, AM Allchin, Dom Andre Louf, Kallistos Ware, Rolland Walls, and Sister Benedicta Ward SLG, represent genuinely pioneering work deeply rooted in the eremitical Tradition and responsive to the needs of the contemporary world. It was very gratifying to find many posts on this blog site mirroring the same conclusions on the nature of eremitical life represented in this particular collection of essays, but more importantly I was reminded again of the really seminal place the Anglican Communion has had in the renewal of eremitical life in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

And yet, I don't feel the same way about the Episcopalian Canon on solitary religious life. This is precisely because it does not define a specifically eremitical life in the way canon 603 does for the Roman Catholic Church. From my perspective this is an important deficiency, both for eremitical life and for religious life more generally, because it really makes individualism rather than true freedom the measure of all things. In the Episcopal Church anyone living under this canon may call themselves a hermit whether they are one or not. They only need to be living alone to do so. It is striking to me that the sharpest criticism I have heard about lives lived in this way was from an Episcopal hermit who recognized the very same problem. She noted that only a very small percentage (maybe 5%) of those calling themselves "solitaries" or hermits actually live anything remotely like that life defined in canon 603 or recognized from the eremitical tradition and desert spirituality. That means a large percentage of these "solitaries" are living neither the challenges or values of community life (which they do not feel called to) nor the radical aloneness and dependence upon God reflected in the kerygma of the Cross and typical of eremitism. The problem which is the focus of this post comes when these folks call themselves hermits.

Canon 14 Provides no Means of Discernment:

It seems to me the deficiency of the canon and of the discernment which necessarily accompanies and is defined by it, is directly responsible for this. Here is what I mean. Imagine that one advertises a job listing for a computer analyst and fails to spell out an adequate job description in doing so. One may get a ton of applicants with very different ideas of what it means to be a computer analyst in 2016 --- and as many differing levels of training, education, and competence as a result. Those doing the hiring also may not understand what is required and hire folks who simply are not prepared to do the job --- because they too lack an understanding of what the job entails. Remember, there is no job description, no listing of qualifications without which one can never succeed, and no spelling out of or screening for the dimensions necessary for real competence and fruitfulness! Supervisors and other team members may then find themselves unable to assist the new hires because the needs of the company cannot be met by people who do not have the capacity or the basis to be trained to do so. And of course, what happens in such a situation  to all those who need the fruit of competent analysts' work?

The question of Divine vocations to eremitical life is an even more difficult one; after all we are not dealing with a mere job. So imagine that a Church promulgates a canon which allows for solitary hermits but fails to spell out a vision of what that actually means. How will they or the people seeking to live as hermits discern such a calling?  And if they cannot discern this, then how in the world can they actually live it?  Whose vision of the life will guide in formation, both initial and ongoing? What prevents freedom from lapsing into license, solitude into isolation (or being replaced by just a bit of introversion), and what keeps flexibility from lapsing into distortion, mediocrity, or other actual betrayals of the tradition? What ensures withdrawal from misanthropy, depression, anti-social impulses, and selfishness do not replace the anachoresis of authentic anchoritism? And what of the radical Gospel of a power which is perfected in weakness, a mercy which does justice, and a redemption which brings life out of death and meaning out of meaninglessness --- lived out stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude?  What of those who need to hear this Gospel proclaimed as a hermit especially does this --- the marginalized, bereaved, isolated elderly and chronically ill? To whom do they look for evidence of the transfiguration of these things?

The Value of Canon 603 as a Normative Vision:

More than being a law, Canon 603 is a normative vision of the essence of solitary eremitical life. When I say I live my life under this canon I am saying I live my life according to this vision. The vision itself summons me to allow God to shape my life accordingly and it affirms that God has done similarly through the centuries in ways which hermits and those looking to them have found redemptive . I do what I can do to allow this shaping and I do that in order that the Gospel proclamation that is uniquely expressed in eremitical life might be proclaimed in my own. I do not mean that my life is or is meant primarily to be a kind of generic Christian witness (though it should also do this). Instead it is a much more radical kind of witness where a personally "noisy" (anguished) isolation symptomatic of sin and the consequences of this state of estrangement and alienation is transfigured into the silence of solitude; in this vocation the hermit's redemption is worked out in a loneliness and dependence on God which similar to that of Jesus' passion and death.

Perhaps it would help if I put the text of the two canons sides by side so to speak. The difference between the two is startling. First, the Episcopal Church's only canon speaking to the profession of solitary individuals: [[Sec. 3. Any Bishop receiving vows of an individual not a member of a Religious Order or other Christian Community, using the form for "Setting Apart for a Special Vocation" in the Book of Occasional Services , or a similar rite, shall record the following information with the Standing Committee on Religious Communities of the House of Bishops: the name of the person making vows; the date of the service; the nature and contents of the vows made, whether temporary or permanent; and any other pastoral considerations as shall be deemed necessary.]] As you can see there is absolutely nothing at all about the nature of eremitical life in the Episcopalian Canon. It simply requires the proper recording of an individual's vows, and generally specifies the rite used for profession.

Canon 603: Text of the Roman Catholic Vision of Solitary Eremitical Life:

Next, Canon 603 in the RCC's Revised Code of Canon Law: Can. [[603 §1. Besides 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 the 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 their own Rule or Plan of Life under his direction.]] Unlike canon 14, Canon 603 describes a recognizable and traditional eremitical life. It describes the central elements of the life including its positive motivation and ecclesial dimensions. It effectively combines these non-negotiable elements with the requirement of the hermit's own Rule --- a combination which assures the vocation's necessary flexibility and freedom in the Holy Spirit as well as helping protect from the potential decline into individualism and license.

When I think of Canon 603 I think of it as a kind of sacred space I can enter into for reflection, prayer, and exploration. Elements like "stricter separation from the world" or "the silence of solitude" provide doorways which both demand and allow the candidate to enter into the eremitical life more fully and see if from one perspective then another. Union with God itself shines its own light on these terms and allows one to truly understand them. Yes, these elements serve as constraints on my life but they also challenge to growth and signal vast regions of freedom which shape and are shaped by my silent dialogue with God. Canon 14:3, as far as I can see, neither invites nor inspires anything like this.

You ask if canon 14 isn't better than canon 603 because of the freedom associated with it. It seems to me that given c 603's universal vision of eremitical life and the protection of flexibility and personal integrity provided by the hermit's own Rule, canon 603 is less subject to the whims of individual Bishops and their personal visions of eremitical life than canon 14 might be. On the hermit's side of things canon 603 does not simply allow one to live any way at all and call it eremitical or solitary --- as canon 14 seems perhaps to do --- but it does provide a framework which empowers the hermit to plumb the depths of a life prayer and the silence of solitude in union with God and with the blessing and commissioning of the Church. Since I understand freedom as the power to be the ones we are called to be, and since I find the canon to be empowering, I experience canon 603 as incredibly freeing rather than constraining.

Of course I believe that God has called me to be a hermit and that doing that well (that is, in a way which witnesses to the redemption of the cross) for the rest of my life is part of that calling.  It seems to me that moving from one calling to another, one form of religious life to another, as you describe c 14 allows, is really to fail to live any life vocation as fully as is needed. One of the tensions I deal with and have written about here in the past is that between active ministry and the withdrawal required by eremitical silence and solitude. But that tension has been helpful to my growth as a hermit precisely because I am professed to live the vision and grow in the wisdom of canon 603 for the rest of my life.

For instance, had I, despite my perpetual eremitical profession, been able to be an active religious at one point and then a hermit for a while and then an active religious again, as I think you describe, I would never have come to see that letting go of discrete gifts and talents so that the redemption God achieves in eremitical solitude IS the real gift of one's life. That special kind of "seeing" --- and the witness to God's own faithfulness that must flow from it --- would never have occurred precisely because it required long term stability in the eremitical vocation to come to. In a day and age when "part time vocations" are being touted as an option to cope with this ministerial shortage or other, we need the witness and wisdom of those who persevere for the whole of their lives and know the freedom that comes precisely from life commitments.

07 February 2016

On the Validity of Conversations Regarding the Vocations of Catholic Hermits

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
       Is there a lot of squabbling about who should be a canonical hermit and who should not? One consecrated Catholic Hermit (?) says there is a lot of judging going on regarding who should and who should not be, what is and what is not eremitical life. Apparently some have also said that Bishops who have consecrated some hermits ought not to have done so and should withdraw these people from their vocations. I think she is talking about you in some of this and also a canonist who is a friend of yours.  She writes: [[What are the judges accomplishing in taking it upon themselves to be authorities--not just writing out conditions and specifications which can be a good exercise if done for their own consecrated life reminders, but in doing so with the intent and purpose of determining who is valid or not, who should be withdrawn from the vocation by his or her bishop, who is or is not credible or living the life of a consecrated Catholic hermit according to these very persons' own judgments--based a whole lot on personal opinions, not fact.]]

Ah, yes, some of that is familiar but it was written about a year ago when a friend of mine who is a canonist wrote a blog piece about full-time work, especially outside the hermitage being contrary to the nature of eremitical life and to the canon which governs  it for solitary hermits (c 603). I don't recall what part of the blog you are citing was actually asked about then or whether someone asked about Therese Iver's article on full-time work itself, but I have written about the legitimacy of canonists opining about what is a contradiction of canon law at the time. (cf, On the Deadly Sin of Individualism in Eremitical Life)

I have also written about 1) how it is that anecdotal wisdom based on lived-experience of the eremitical life provided by canon 603 hermits is something bishops hear regularly, and 2) that the Church as a whole either benefits or suffers and is disedified by those hermits claiming to live eremitical life in the name of the Church.  This will naturally mean that is some ways the Church approving such lives as instances of genuine and well-discerned eremitical vocation becomes disedifying or even scandalous to others as well. When that happens the credibility of both eremitical life, the Church, and the Gospel itself are impugned. That is what we are concerned does not occur. Stated more positively, we hope that through our eremitical lives and our reflection on them (and on counterfeits or distortions of them), the Church has what she needs that God may be glorified and the good news of God's Christ be powerfully proclaimed by all hermits, both consecrated and lay.

Canon 603 is both relatively new (October 1983) and used relatively infrequently.  Partly this infrequent use is rooted in  1) the absolute rarity of the vocation itself, 2)  heightened cautious-ness due to the episcopacy's general lack of familiarity with authentic eremitical vocations, 3) stories about dioceses' bad experiences with hermits in their purview, 3) the practical problems accompanying the implemen-tation of the canon in a diocese (formation, discernment, material needs, role of Bishop, etc), and 4) from a misreading of canon 603 (or candidates knocking on the chancery door) which seems to support vocations to heightened individualism and a spirituality of selfishness. Since the very word hermit comes freighted with associated stereotypes and problematical connotations (misanthropy, eccentricity, narcissism, isolation --- including from the Church herself), and since the canon itself must be read from within the desert eremitical tradition (it cannot be read merely by looking up the words used in an ordinary dictionary in the vernacular), the only solution to all of these difficulties requires dialogues between the episcopacy, canonists, canonical hermits living the life defined in canon 603, and others who are expert in the eremitical tradition. 

So, no, there is not a lot of squabbling going on about who should be a canonical hermit or not. So long as the general intentions and specifi-cations of c 603 are honored by dioceses whenever they implement the canon, the discernment is entirely their's. However. in these early years of the canon's history there is also no doubt that dioceses have used the canon for a number of persons who showed no sign of having or sincerely discerning an eremitical vocation and they did so because they neither understood the life nor appreciated the charism it described, or because they didn't care about believe in the specific vocation being described therein. (Personally I believe the failure to understand the specific gift represented by eremitical life is the key to inadequate discernment and formation and the tendency to use canon 603 as a stopgap means of professing individuals apart from religious congregations.)

The simple truth is Canon 603 is different than its Episcopalian counterpart. It does not merely outline characteristics of a solitary religious life vowed to discipleship through profession of the evangelical counsels lived outside of community. (In the Episcopal Church only about 10% of those professed under their canon for solitary religious are thought by some to be living a truly eremitical life.) Instead it defines a specifically eremitical life, a desert spirituality of stricter separation from "the world", assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude (a rich phrase which represents not only the external context of the life, but its goal and charism as well) lived for the sake of others.  In other words, c 603, unlike its Episcopal counterpart is not meant to be used as a stopgap means to profess individuals who either cannot or desire not to be professed as part of a religious community but who at the same time, are not called to true eremitical life. And this makes c 603 more demanding, not only in the lives of hermits living its vision, but in its implementation by dioceses.

Thus, mistakes have been made --- most often in complete good faith, but sometimes in what seems a serious disregard for the nature and requirements of the canon itself. Without experience of successful and genuinely edifying solitary eremitical vocations the Church will not be able to avoid significant mistakes in the future. These will mainly be of two types: 1) dioceses will refrain out of a surplus of caution from professing and consecrating anyone as a solitary hermit, (we already have seen this in a number of dioceses) and alternately, 2) they will continue to profess and consecrate some authentic hermits and more individuals who are not truly called to an eremitical life of the silence of solitude. What is really startling is the degree of disedification associated with these latter lives. 

When one tries to live a truly human life in full-time silence and solitude despite not being called to this, the result is often and understandably tragic. Not only will one be missing the vocation to which God actually does call them, but they may well decompensate to pathological degrees. Destructive stereotypes will be underscored and distortions of both one's humanity and the vocation itself will occur while the spiritualities and implicit theologies which can result from such situations are at least equally pathological and dangerous. While every person needs some degree of silence and solitude we are social beings who come to genuine humanity only in society and communion with others; it requires a Divine and relatively exceptional vocation to come to fullness of humanity and communion with God and all that is grounded in God while living one's life in the silence of solitude.

The conversations going on on various levels in the Church today regarding canon 603, as I have noted before, are meant to nurture and protect the eremitical tradition which stands as part of the Church's great heritage. They are meant more immediately to assist dioceses to discern and accommodate genuine solitary eremitical vocations which themselves are instances of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the redemption the Christ Event brings through the mediation of the Church. From my perspective they are meant to explore canon 603, to see how it can best be understood and implemented in the 21st Century so that that Gospel is proclaimed with integrity and relevance by those truly called to this profoundly compassionate and ecclesial life of the silence of solitude.

For instance, it is not unusual for canonists to draw on the work of hermits and the history of eremitical life to come to a fuller understanding of dimensions of canon 603 and to ensure better implementation. The canonist criticized by the blogger you cite is doing a dissertation for her doctorate on a central element of the canon (viz., the silence of solitude) and drawing on some of the Rules produced by diocesan hermits as well as work done on the nature of the canon itself (including, I suspect, some of the occasional writings found in this blog).  All of this will become part of the ongoing conversations ultimately protecting the proclamation of the Gospel by those seeking to live solitary eremitical lives which truly glorify God.

Meanwhile, let me note that those claiming publicly to be a consecrated Catholic Hermit, whether they are doing so legitimately or not, are apt to find themselves drawn either directly or indirectly into the Church's own conversation about this vocation. This will especially be so if they write or speak publicly about canonical eremitical life, the significance, wisdom, and prudence of c. 603, if they approach parishes as Catholic Hermits or otherwise represent themselves in this way on social media, etc. Still, through the observations of bishops, delegates, and others who know and supervise legitimate vocations and keep something of an eye on those which are not, even hermits living relatively hidden lives will be part of the conversation to the degree their lives witness or fail to witness effectively to the redemption mediated by Christ.  

To claim a public vocation (and the use of the designa-tions Catholic Hermit, consecrated hermit, professed religious eremite, etc, represents such an act) is to claim the rights and obligations of such a vocation as well. If one does not want to become part of the examination of such vocations done by chanceries, canonists, bishops, theologians, other hermits reflecting on the life, and the faithful more generally, one should not embrace, much less illegitimately claim an identity which will naturally (as part of its very nature) be scrutinized and reflected on by the whole Church. To sharpen this point even further, those claiming to be Catholic Hermits or a hermit in the consecrated state of life within the Church should be aware that their lives are likely to be looked at to see whether they are edifying examples of contemporary eremitical life or not.

If one illegitimately claims to have embraced a public vocation (even if one claims to have done so in a private ceremony) one cannot then complain that what is really a private matter is being examined and discussed by those in the Church with an established stake in the vocation itself. While none of us who are publicly professed and consecrated live this life perfectly, and while neither the Church or our  brother and sister hermits expect this of us, we each know that the witness and mission of our lives can generally become part of a completely valid ecclesial conversation regarding such vocations occurring at various levels in the Church.  To complain that such general attention to our lives is invalid or even somehow nefarious is to have missed part of the import of really being a Catholic Hermit.

01 February 2016

Pope Francis on the Feast of the Presentation (Reprise)

While this was Pope Francis' homily last year on the Feast of the Presentation and the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life, it is a wonderful homily for the whole Church. I wanted to reprise it here as a challenge not only to Religious and Consecrated Virgins, but to all of us.

Homily: Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
by Pope Francis

2 February 2015

[[Before our eyes we can picture Mother Mary as she walks, carrying the Baby Jesus in her arms. She brings him to the Temple; she presents him to the people; she brings him to meet his people.

The arms of Mother Mary are like the “ladder” on which the Son of God comes down to us, the ladder of God’s condescension. This is what we heard in the first reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews: Christ became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb 2:17). This is the twofold path taken by Jesus: he descended, he became like us, in order then to ascend with us to the Father, making us like himself.

In our heart we can contemplate this double movement by imagining the Gospel scene of Mary who enters the Temple holding the Child in her arms. The Mother walks, yet it is the Child who goes before her. She carries him, yet he is leading her along the path of the God who comes to us so that we might go to him.

Jesus walked the same path as we do, and showed us a new way, the “new and living way” (cf. Heb 10:20) which is himself. For us too, as consecrated men and women, he opened a path.

Fully five times the Gospel speaks to us of Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the “law of the Lord” (cf. Lk 2:22-24,27,39). Jesus came not to do his own will, but the will of the Father. This way, he tells us, was his “food” (cf. Jn4:34). In the same way, all those who follow Jesus must set out on the path of obedience, imitating as it were the Lord’s “condescension” by humbling themselves and making their own the will of the Father, even to self-emptying and abasement (cf. Phil 2:7-8). For a religious person, to progress is to lower oneself in service. A path like that of Jesus, who “did not count equality with God something to be grasped.”: to lower oneself, making oneself a servant, in order to serve.

This path, then, takes the form of the rule, marked by the charism of the founder. For all of us, the essential rule remains the Gospel, this abasement of Christ, yet the Holy Spirit, in his infinite creativity, also gives it expression in the various rules of the consecrated life, though all of these are born of that sequela Christi, from this path of self-abasement in service.

Through this “law” consecrated persons are able to attain wisdom, which is not an abstract attitude, but a work and a gift of the Holy Spirit, the sign and proof of which is joy. Yes, the mirth of the religious is a consequence of this journey of abasement with Jesus: and when we are sad, it would do us well to ask how we are living this kenotic dimension.

In the account of Jesus’ Presentation, wisdom is represented by two elderly persons, Simeon and Anna: persons docile to the Holy Spirit (He is named 4 times), led by him, inspired by him. The Lord granted them wisdom as the fruit of a long journey along the path of obedience to his law, an obedience which likewise humbles and abases – even as it also guards and guarantees hope – and now they are creative, for they are filled with the Holy Spirit. They even enact a kind of liturgy around the Child as he comes to the Temple. Simeon praises the Lord and Anna “proclaims” salvation (cf. Lk2:28-32,38). As with Mary, the elderly man holds the Child, but in fact it is the Child who guides the elderly man. The liturgy of First Vespers of today’s feast puts this clearly and concisely: “senex puerum portabat, puer autem senem regebat”. Mary, the young mother, and Simeon, the kindly old man, hold the Child in their arms, yet it is the Child himself who guides both of them.

It is curious: here it is not young people who are creative: the young, like Mary and Joseph, follow the law of the Lord, the path of obedience. And the Lord turns obedience into wisdom by the working of his Holy Spirit. At times God can grant the gift of wisdom to a young person, but always as the fruit of obedience and docility to the Spirit. This obedience and docility is not something theoretical; it too is subject to the economy of the incarnation of the Word: docility and obedience to a founder, docility and obedience to a specific rule, docility and obedience to one’s superior, docility and obedience to the Church. It is always docility and obedience in the concrete.

In persevering along along the path of obedience, personal and communal wisdom matures, and thus it also becomes possible to adapt rules to the times. For true “aggiornamento” is the fruit of wisdom forged in docility and obedience.

The strengthening and renewal of consecrated life are the result of great love for the rule, and also the ability to look to and heed the elders of one’s congregation. In this way, the “deposit”, the charism of each religious family, is preserved by obedience and by wisdom, working together. And, along this journey, we are preserved from living our consecration lightly and in a disincarnate manner, as though it were a Gnosis, which would reduce itself to a “caricature” of the religious life, in which is realized a sequela – a following – that is without sacrifice, a prayer that is without encounter, a fraternal life that is without communion, an obedience without trust, a charity without transcendence.

Today we too, like Mary and Simeon, want to take Jesus into our arms, to bring him to his people. Surely we will be able to do so if we enter into the mystery in which Jesus himself is our guide. Let us bring others to Jesus, but let us also allow ourselves to be led by him. This is what we should be: guides who themselves are guided.

May the Lord, through the intercession of Mary our Mother, Saint Joseph and Saints Simeon and Anna, grant to all of us what we sought in today’s opening prayer: to “be presented [to him] fully renewed in spirit”. Amen.]]

"And When they saw him they begged him. . ." (Reprised with revisions)

I have to say that today's Gospel always suprises and delights me. At first. It is the story of first, Jesus' sending the demons which possess two men into a nearby herd of swine thus freeing the men from the bondage to brokennness and inhumanity which marks and mars their lives, and then, it is the story of what happens when he approaches the nearby town (Gadara) whose residents have heard of what he has done. Despite knowing how the story goes, I admit to being surprised everytime Matthew's last line which begins, "Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him. . ." concludes with, ". . .they begged him to leave their district."

Now, granted, Jesus just destroyed an entire herd of swine, and they must have been someone's livelihood --- perhaps many people's. Some unhappiness with this would have been understandable. And Jesus has healed a couple of men whose conditions had made travel along a certain route unsafe, so one would expect a mixed response to that perhaps -- though the route is now free from this danger, these men now will need to be accommodated in some real sense --- not simply treated as wild animals or aliens of some sort. I begin to have a sense why Jesus was not welcomed here. But I admit to still hearing in the back of my mind cheers of welcome, beseechings of Jesus to come and change lives, a positive and welcoming response like that in fiction stories where the conquering hero comes back from slaying the dragon, or like the narrative in the New Testament where Jesus is welcomed as King with waving palm branches and cries of Hosanna --- temporary as that moment was! In a way, perhaps the "back of my mind" wants a costless or "cheap" grace, a "good news" fit for escapist fiction or an incredibly naive reading of the NT --- but not for the real world.

But besides surprise and delight this lection also stops me with its claim and challenge. That is so because the Gospel is good news in a much more realistic, paradoxical, and problematical way -- especially in regard to the first example above --- and today's Gospel lection highlights this for us. As we have heard over the past few passages from Matthew Jesus reveals himself to be a man of extraordinary, even divine authority --- a man with authority over nature, illness, the hearts of men and women, and now over demons. He heals, feeds on a profound and lasting level, frees, and provides true meaning and dignity for those lost and bereft. He is the Son of God (a title Matthew has on the lips of the demons in today's story)--- very good news indeed --- but he acts with an authority which is genuinely awesome and which turns the everyday world of politics, religion, simple ordinariness, and comfortable respectability on their heads. The Gadarenes in today's Gospel see this clearly and they are unprepared for it. More, he terrifies them. Far from misunderstanding Jesus and refusing to welcome him on those grounds, like the Scribes and Pharisees they understand precisely who Jesus is and want no part of him. Far better to simply ask Jesus to leave the district than to have to come to terms with who he is and what that truly challenges and calls forth in us!

One of the current complaints by some traditionalists is that Vatican II gave us a God of love (they frequently spell the word "luv" to denote their disparagement of it) and lost the God who inspires fear, etc. They may well be correct that there has been some "domestication" of God and his Christ in popular piety --- but then this is not because of Vatican II; it is a continual temptation and sin besetting the Church. After all, how many of us when faced with the daily prospect of renewed faith recognize that acceptance of Jesus' authority -- expressed as an unconditional love which is stronger than death -- will turn our world upside down and call us to a radical way of living and loving which involves renunciation, self-sacrifice, and commitment to a Kingdom that is NOT of this world and often is at distinct odds with it? The equivalent of a herd of swine or the accommodation of the mentally ill is probably the least it will cost us --- precisely because it is unconditional. How many of us choose not so much to be loved exhaustively by God -- to really open ourselves to His Presence with all that implies for growth, maturity and responsibility -- but instead (at least with some part of ourselves) would prefer to cling to a relatively undemanding (and world-reinforcing) piety which falls short of the life of the Kingdom? How many buy into (and construct our lives around) a religion which is at least as much OF this world as it is IN it?

So yes, today's Gospel both surprises and delights me --- but it also gives me pause. It does both because of its honesty; and it does so because it is genuinely good news, rooted in the awesome authority of the Christ who loves without condition but not without challenging and commissioning us to the radically transformed life that comes whenever he meets us face to face or heart to heart. Such a Christ will never be really popular I think. Many of our churches and cities are far more like Gadara than not. Sometimes, I am sorry to say, my hermitage is as well. The authority of Jesus over illness, fear, meaninglessness, and the demons that beset us is an awesome and demanding reality and our hearts are more often ambivalent and ambiguous than pure and single. I suspect that domestication of our faith is something most of us are guilty of every day of our lives.

The Gospel lection requires that we ask ourselves what parts of our lives would we instinctively desire to protect from an encounter with Jesus were we to hear he was on his way to our parish this morning? What kinds of changes would we be unwilling to make --- though we might well suspect Jesus would require them of us if we are to be true to ourselves and him? We might want to be apostles, religious, or otherwise summoned to follow Jesus in some way we ourselves esteem, but at the same time we might not want to hear Jesus say to us, "No, go home and witness to all that I in my mercy have done for you there." Would we minister in the compelling world-changing way the "demoniac" in today's Gospel lection ministered in his "lay" or "secular" vocation or would we reject the call because it was not the vocation we thought we should be gifted with? With these questions and today's Gospel in mind, let us summon up the courage to beg Jesus to enter into our towns, homes, churches, and hearts, and remain with us; let us give him free access to move within, call us and change our world as he wills! That is my own prayer for today.

31 January 2016

On the Redemptive Experience at the heart of Eremitical Life (Followup to last two posts)

[[ Thanks for answering my follow up question. What happens if a person has already had the kind of life-changing redemptive experience of God's love before they decide to become a hermit? Does your criterion for discernment still work? I am thinking of the way canon 603 came to be with the dozen or so monks you have written about who had to leave solemn vows in order to pursue eremitical life. It seems they must already have had a life-changing redemptive experience which happened prior to eremitical solitude don't you think?]]

Really great questions! In the case you mention, monks who come late to a sense of an eremitical call, it seems clear that while they had already had the central redemptive experiences which allowed them to be solemnly professed and consecrated as monks after years of formation, and then allowed them to live this life faithfully with patience and growing union with God, they must also have experienced something truly life changing in a very striking and compelling way if it led them to seek secularization and dispensation from their solemn vows. While the growth in wholeness and holiness which led to this compelling experience was not one of eremitical solitude it was very definitely one of the silence of solitude which is characteristic of monastic life.

There is some difference in these two forms of the silence of solitude but in my experience they are more alike than different and call for and complete one another. That is why monastics take regular "desert days" in order to have time and space for eremitical silence and solitude and hermits like myself take retreat time at places like Redwoods Abbey where the experience of shared silence and solitude is so very real. Monks and Nuns need desert days as an intensification of the silence, solitude, and freedom of the eremitical life which complement life in community. Hermits need the experience of shared solitude, values, communal prayer, and general monastic sensibility which complements and even completes the solitary eremitical life in the Church. The point, however, is that these two forms of the silence of solitude, while not identical, are profoundly related; they naturally complement and call for one another.

In the history of monastic life the solitude of the early desert Fathers and Mothers often led them to create communities; later in monastic communities monks and nuns saw eremitical solitude as the summit of the monastic life which is centered on seeking God. Even so, when monks like those whose lives led to the eventual establishment of canon 603, monks who have given their entire lives to God in monastic community decide to leave everything they have known and loved for decades in order to follow a Divine call to eremitical solitude, we must see that this is part of a vocation to a redemptive transformation. I admit I have only corresponded very briefly with one of these original monk-hermits in British Columbia (he wrote me to discuss an article I had published). Your question makes me want to renew my correspondence and ask him about the character of the call he has lived as a hermit. What I am sure of is that sometimes a change in our vocational call (say from community to eremitical solitude, for instance) represents an intensification and deepening of the redemptive experiences we have already known. While I was not thinking about this in my earlier answers I was not excluding it either.

The bottom line in all of this remains that a hermit, to be authentic and credible, must demonstrate an experience of God's redemptive love experienced in the silence of solitude. If they have had such an experience they will be capable of witnessing to the gift that eremitical solitude is meant to be in the Church. If not, their eremitical life will be relatively empty, formalistic, and perhaps even fraudulent. Every vocation is a call to the redemptive love of God; every vocation is a way of sharing that same redemptive love and witnessing to it to others. Every vocation is a particular gift to the Church whose charismatic quality witnesses to the way the love of God meets concrete human potentials and needs. The way we discern a vocation is by attending to the gift of God's love and the concrete ways that love shapes our lives. If our lives are not shaped in a salvific way within a particular state of life we must, it seems to me, conclude either that God has not called us to this state or that we are somehow rejecting or avoiding God's call within this state.

When the Church must discern the nature of a vocation as rare, as counter cultural, and even as uniquely prophetic as is solitary eremitical life, she must be able to discern that this life shapes the candidate for profession, consecration, and beyond in a distinctly salvific way. While the process of discernment and formation allows for a diocese following a candidate or temporary professed hermit for a number of years in order to be sure this is the case before admitting them to perpetual profession and consecration, the history of eremitical life is also full of those who call themselves hermits as a validation of individualism and self-centeredness. It may well be the Church does not find a convincing redemptive experience at the heart of a candidate's life and will need to refuse to profess or consecrate them.

Followup Question on Being a Hermit in an Essential Sense

[[Sister Laurel, are you saying that although you wrote about being a hermit in some essential sense you didn't really know what that meant? What is the difference between being a hermit in an essential sense and being one in a proper sense? Thanks.]]

Good question. I guess it could sound kind of like that was what I was saying, but no, that is not quite it. What I was trying to say is that I have had a sense of the possibility and necessity of someone being a hermit in some essential sense but not yet actually being either that or a hermit in the proper sense for some time now --- at least 20 years. It was something I had experienced and something others I have spoken to have also experienced, but at the same time it was not an experience that was easy to define specifically. As I have had more experience of those who are counterfeit hermits and also as I have struggled from time to time with temptations to betray my own vocation, I have come to see more clearly what this somewhat indefinable reality is, namely, the experience of God's redemption of our lives in the desert silence of solitude. It is this redemption received in the context c 603 describes, and the increasing fullness of this redemptive experience the hermit comes to live out which is also both the goal and the gift or charism of her life.

If one is living a life marked by significant silence and solitude and in this silence and solitude one comes to know the redemptive power of God in a way which utterly transforms one's life to one of profound compassion, wholeness, meaningfulness, joy, etc; if one is compelled to continue to seek God in this same context and in even more radical expressions of this context --- something we find in forms of desert spirituality --- then I would argue that this person may well be a hermit in an essential sense.  If, on the other hand, silence and solitude are merely a way one recharges one's batteries, so to speak, or the way one gains a respite from the everyday world of active ministry, then I would argue they are not hermits in this or any sense.

When I was asked by my Bishop (then Allen H Vigneron) why I was seeking admission to profession as a canonical hermit rather than consecration as a virgin or some other vocation, my answer was rather cryptic. I started by saying, "Well, it is who I am." I also noted that years earlier when I first read canon 603 I had the sense that this might be a way of making sense of my entire life, strengths and weaknesses., education, contemplative life, vows, etc --- and indeed, that had been what happened --- and much more than I might ever have imagined as well.

Were I to elaborate on that first piece of my answer now I would say, "You see, it is in the silence of solitude and life as a hermit that God has transformed my life from one where chronic illness made my life meaningless, empty, relatively fruitless, etc, into one which makes a profound sense, is full and fruitful, and which can be, and in fact is, a gift of that same God to  both the Church and world." I might also have explained, "It is in the silence of solitude that God redeemed my life from one of irrelevant marginality and made it into one of prophetic liminality --- a significant and paradoxical way of standing at the very center of things. Because of this I am seeking canonical standing in order to live these realities in the heart of the Church as one ministering the Gospel in my weakness and not merely as one ministered to because I am ill."  In all of this I would have been describing the fact that apart from canonical standing God had made me into a hermit in an essential sense and that I further believed that it was God's will that this vocation be celebrated within the Church to which it truly belongs so that my life could be eremitical in the proper and public sense."

In this response the distinction between being a hermit in an essential sense and being one in the proper or even the public sense begins to be clearer I think. To be a hermit in the essential sense means to be a person whose life has been redeemed in the silence of solitude so central to eremitical life. It means to continue living in that context because one needs to do so in order to be as responsive as one can to the God who comes to one most powerfully in this way. It means to do so not merely because one is an introvert or has fulfilling hobbies, or avocations associated with time in solitude, nor because one needs to recharge one's spiritual or emotional batteries in solitude, and emphatically not because one cannot cope in society or has failed at life, but because one has experienced a meaningful and in fact, a salvific union with God precisely in this way of living. (One does not need to be chronically ill in order to experience God's redemption in a clear and convincing way, of course, but one still needs this to happen in the silence of solitude.)

To then adopt this way of living in a conscious and deliberate way, to structure one's life according to canon 603 for instance, whether or not one is ever professed and consecrated accordingly, is to then become a hermit in a "proper" sense. Here one begins to see one's abode as a hermitage, begins to think of oneself as a hermit in a conscious way, and may even begin to feel responsible for being a living part of the eremitical tradition which belongs so integrally to the Church --- whether one is a lay hermit living the life by virtue of one's baptism or is consecrated by God through the mediation of God's Church. A number of persons who have written me over the years seem to be at this point in their eremitical lives --- though they may not yet have experienced the radical redemption that is also necessary if one is to really be a hermit --- especially one called to a public vocation under canon 603.

In any case, this is why I say that one must be a hermit in some essential sense before one contacts their diocese to petition for admission to profession and (then) to consecration as a diocesan or solitary canonical hermit. Not only will there be little for the diocese to discern, but there is nothing the diocese or anyone overseeing the hermit's formation in solitude can do for the person if the "redemptive experience" piece of things is not present. One's eremitical life is meant to be a reflection of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and unless it really is this, unless this saving Gospel has especially transfigured one's life --- and done so in solitude, one simply cannot live or represent the real gift of eremitical life effectively nor witness to those who are marginalized or isolated regarding the gift their lives are and can become to others in similar situations. This is also why I say the silence of solitude is not only the context of the hermit's life, but the goal and charism as well.

The silence of solitude is a description of the life transfigured by God in silence and solitude where one moves from being a noisy (estranged, restless, driven), and perhaps even an anguished scream of suffering and longing to being a joyful canticle of the grace of God at rest (and thus, thriving!) in external silence and physical solitude. It is the gift or charism the hermit especially is meant to bring to the Church and witness to others in effective ways so that those others may know the possibility and (we hope) the eventual realization of God's saving love --- even, and perhaps especially, when their life circumstances cause them to have nothing to offer otherwise but their emptiness and the apparent absurdity of their lives. In the solitary eremitical life this is precisely what God transfigures into a precious gift of infinite value; it is especially such radical marginalization and devaluation that God redeems to make the most radical witness to the truth of the Gospel of the Crucified One in the silence of solitude --- whether one does so as an "essential hermit" or eventually as a "proper hermit" of some sort!

On Being a Hermit in "Some Essential Sense"

[[Dear Sister when you have spoken of readiness for formation and even temporary profession as a solitary hermit you have said it is necessary for a person to be a hermit in some essential sense. Could you say more about what you mean by this phrase? I think maybe I know what you are talking about but I also find the phrase difficult to define. Thanks!]]


That's such a great and important question! For me personally, articulating the definition of this phrase or the description of what I mean by it has been a bit difficult. It is a positive phrase but in some ways I found my own senses of what I meant by this come to real clarity by paying attention to examples of inauthentic eremitical life, individuals who call themselves hermits, for instance, but who, while nominally Catholic, are isolated and/or subscribe to a spirituality which is essentially unhealthy while embracing a theology which has nothing really to do with the God of Jesus Christ.  To paraphrase Jesus, not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" actually  has come to know the sovereignty of the Lord intimately. In other words it was by looking at what canonical hermits were not and could or should never be that gave me a way of articulating what I meant by "being a hermit in some essential sense." Since God is the one who makes a person a hermit, it should not surprise you to hear I will be describing the "essential hermit" first of all in terms of God's activity.

Related to this then is the fact that the hermit's life is a gift to both Church and world at large. Moreover, it is a gift of a particular kind. Specifically it proclaims the Gospel of God in word and deed. When speaking of being a hermit in some essential way it will be important to describe the qualities of mission and charism that are developing (or have developed) in the person's life. These are about more than having a purpose in life and reflect the simple fact that the eremitical vocation belongs to the Church. Additionally they are a reflection of the fact that the hermit precisely as hermit reflects the good news of salvation in Christ which comes to her in eremitical solitude. If it primarily came to her in another way (in community or family life for instance) it would not reflect the redemptive character of Christ in solitude and therefore her life could not witness to or reveal this to others in and through eremitical life. Such witness is the very essence of the eremitical life.

The Experience at the Heart of Authentic Eremitism:

Whenever I have written about becoming a hermit in some essential sense I have contrasted it with being a lone individual, even a lone pious person who prays each day. The point of that contrast was to indicate that each of us are called to be covenantal partners of God, dialogical realities who, to the extent we are truly human, are never really alone. The contrast was first of all meant to point to the fact that eremitical life involved something more, namely, a desert spirituality. It was also meant to indicate that something must occur in solitude which transforms the individual from simply being a lone individual. That transformation involves healing and sanctification. It changes the person from someone who may be individualistic to someone who belongs to and depends radically on God and the church which mediates God in word and sacrament. Such a person lives her life in the heart of the Church in very conscious and deliberate ways. Her solitude is a communal reality in this sense even though she is a solitary hermit. Moreover, the shift I am thinking of that occurs in the silence of solitude transforms the person into a compassionate person whose entire life is in tune with the pain and anguish of a world yearning for God and the fulfillment God brings to all creation; moreover it does so because paradoxically, it is in the silence of solitude that one comes to hear the cry of all in union with God.

If the individual is dealing with chronic illness, for instance, then they are apt to have been margin-alized by their illness. What tends to occur to such a person in the silence of solitude if they are called to this as a life vocation is the shift to a life that marginalizes by choice and simultaneously relates more profoundly or centrally. Because it is in this liminal space that one meets God and comes to union with God, a couple of things happen: 1) one comes to know one has infinite value because one is infinitely loved by God, not in terms of one's productivity, one's academic or other success, one's material wealth, and so forth, 2) one comes to understand that all people are loved and valued in the same way which allows one to see themselves as "the same" as others rather than as different and potentially inferior (or, narcissistically, superior), 3) thus one comes to know oneself as profoundly related to these others in God rather than as disconnected or unrelated and as a result, 4) chronic illness ceases to have the power it once had to isolate and alienate or to define one's entire identity in terms of separation, pain, suffering, and incapacity, and 5) one is freed to be the person God calls one to be in spite of chronic illness. The capacity to truly love others, to be compassionate, and to love oneself in God are central pieces of this.

The Critical Question in Discernment of Eremitical Vocations:

 What is critical for the question at hand is that the person finds themselves in a  transformative relationship with God in solitude and thus, eremitical solitude becomes the context for a truly a redemptive experience and a genuinely holy life. When I speak of someone being a hermit in some essential sense I am pointing to being a person who has experienced the salvific gift the hermit's life is meant to be for hermits and for those they witness to. It may be that they have begun a transformation which reshapes them from the heart of their being, a kind of transfiguration which heals and summons into being an authentic humanity which is convincing in its faith, hope, love, and essential joy. Only God can work in the person in this way and if God does so in eremitical solitude --- which means more than a transitional solitude, but an extended solitude of desert spirituality --- then one may well have thus become a hermit in an essential sense and may be on the way to becoming a hermit in the proper sense of the term as well.

If God saves in solitude (or in abject weakness and emptiness!), if authentic humanity implies being a covenant partner of God capable of mediating that same redemption to others in Christ, then a canonical hermit (or a person being seriously considered for admission to canonical standing and consecration MUST show signs of these as well as of having come to know them to a significant degree in eremitical solitude.  It is the redemptive capacity of solitude (meaning God in solitude) experienced by the hermit or candidate as  "the silence of solitude"  which is the real criterion of a vocation to eremitical solitude. (See other posts on this term but also Eremitism, the Epitome of Selfishness?) It is the redemptive capacity of God in the silence of solitude that the hermit must reflect and witness to if her eremitical life is to be credible.

Those "Hermits" not Called to Eremitical Solitude:

For some who seek to live as hermits but are unsuccessful, eremitical solitude is not redemptive. As I have written before the destructive power of solitude overtakes and overwhelms the entire process of growth and sanctification which the authentic hermit comes to know in the silence of solitude. What is most striking to me as I have considered this question of being a hermit in some essential sense is the way some persons' solitude and the label "hermit" are euphemisms for alienation, estrangement, and isolation. Of course there is nothing new in this and historically stereotypes and counterfeits have often hijacked the title "hermit".  The spiritualities involved in such cases are sometimes nothing more than validations of the brokenness of sin or celebrations of self-centeredness and social failure; the God believed in is often a tyrant or a cruel judge who is delighted by our suffering -- which he is supposed to cause directly -- and who defines justice in terms of an arbitrary "reparation for the offences" done to him even by others, a strange kind of quid pro quo which might have given even St Anselm qualms.

These "hermits" themselves seem unhappy, often bitter, depressed and sometimes despairing. They live in physical solitude but their relationship with God is apparently neither life giving nor redemptive -- whether of the so-called hermit or those they touch. Neither are their lives ecclesial in any evident sense and some are as estranged from the Church as they are from their local communities and (often) families. Because there is no clear sense that solitude is a redemptive reality for these persons, neither is there any sense that God is really calling them to eremitical life and the wholeness represented by union with God and characterized by the silence of solitude. Sometimes solitude itself seems entirely destructive, silence is a torturous muteness or fruitlessness; in such cases there is no question the person is not called to eremitical solitude.

Others who are not so extreme as these "hermits" never actually embrace the silence of solitude or put God at the center of their lives in the way desert spirituality requires and witnesses to. They may even be admitted to profession and consecration but then live a relatively isolated and mediocre life filled with distractions, failed commitments (vows, Rule), and rejected grace. Some instead replace solitude with active ministry so that they really simply cannot witness to the transformative capacity of the God who comes in silence and solitude. Their lives thus do not show evidence of the incredibly creative and dynamic love of God who redeems in this way but it is harder to recognize these counterfeits. In such cases the silence of solitude is not only not the context of their lives but it is neither their goal nor the charism they bring to church and world.

Even so, all of these lives do help us to see what is necessary for the discernment of authentic eremitical vocations and too what it means to say that someone is a hermit in some essential sense. Especially they underscore the critical importance that one experiences God's redemptive intimacy in the silence of solitude and that one's life is made profoundly meaningful, compassionate, and hope-filled in this way.

26 January 2016

On Living Under Obedience as a Consecrated Hermit

[[Hi Sister, I am wondering how a contemporary hermit lives obedience in the religious life?  Of course you are obedient to your vows, but in daily life, in choosing your occupation (or a decision not to have one), do you have a way of living under obedience.  If not, does this present problems in striving for holiness?  I don't want to bother with all the ramifications of the subject, as I am sure you are aware of them all, and we need not go into a lengthy theological discussion.  I was just wondering. Thanks,]]

Thanks for the questions. Remember that obedience means first of all hearkening to the will of God as it comes or is mediated to us in many ways. Those include not just one's vows, but also Scripture, prayer, liturgy and the Sacraments, the ordinary circumstances of life, one's Rule or Plan of Life, the discernments of one's legitimate superior (Bishop and delegate), other significant persons in our lives (pastor, spiritual director, physicians, good friends, et al) and of course, the voice of God in one's heart (which is usually involved in all of these others). It seems to me that contemporary consecrated hermits (and other religious) learn obedience and grow in their responsiveness to God by attending to God's voice as it is mediated in ALL of these ways (and some I may not have mentioned).

In other words, obedience is not limited to one or two channels, like vows and legitimate superior --- though of course these are privileged ways God can and does speak to us. Several of these many channels of God's will are not only privi-leged ways to living in obedience but they are also ways the hermit is bound in law; specifically, I am thus bound, both morally and legally by vows, Rule, and legitimate superior (the Diocesan Bishop and my delegate). (While in spiritual direction I feel called to an obedience every bit as real and life giving as with any of these others it is not a legal bond.)

I am not quite sure I understand your question about choosing an occupation or not to have one. I am a hermit and that IS my occupation. However, if you are referring to discerning a way of supporting myself as a hermit then it is certain that my state and form of life, and of course my Rule, limit significantly the kinds of occupations I may choose to engage in. Beyond this, of course, my bishop and delegate might have some significant input in certain situations, but generally the decision about forms of work I may undertake are limited to consideration of 1) the education and training I have for them, 2) whether I can continue to live my Rule with integrity and still undertake whatever form of work is being considered, and 3) whether this form of work is consistent with the life of a consecrated hermit and religious. It may be that in some special circumstances some kind of temporary dispensation or waiver may be needed in order to adopt a form of work I would not ordinarily do but in such a case it would need to clearly be temporary (I would argue a definite time frame and limits need to be specified) and I would need not only to have discerned the wisdom of such an accommodation but my Bishop and/or delegate would need to approve.

A c 603 hermit lives her entire life under obedience --- though this does not ordinarily mean under the micromanagement or detailed commands of superiors. It means under the sway of God as his Word and will come to her in Scripture and prayer, in the everyday circumstances of her life, and so forth. The hermit's Rule governs her entire life and, as already noted, she is bound morally and legally to honor and live that out with integrity. Personally, I reflect on my Rule a lot. It engages me on a number of levels; not only does it legislate but more fundamentally it inspires and reminds me who I am, to what I am called, and why I am committed in the way I am. From my perspective it is more deeply and extensively compelling in terms of obedience than even legitimate superiors. This is one of the reasons dioceses have to be sure that hermits have been given every opportunity over time to develop a mature and livable Rule before they admit a hermit to vows of any sort.

I hope this is helpful and gets to the heart of your question.

21 January 2016

Miserando atque Eligendo: A Mercy that does Justice as it Creates a Future

Quite often this blog is a way in which I work out theological positions, especially in terms of the nature and charism of eremitical life, the relation of Gospel and Law (often canon law!!), or of mercy and justice. In reflecting on Friday's readings from 1 Sam and Mark I was reminded of Pope Francis' jubilee year of Mercy and of his coat of arms and motto: Miserando atque Eligendo. In 1 Sam David shows mercy to Saul despite Saul's commitment to killing him and is deemed by Saul to be worthy of Kingship by virtue of this act. An act of mercy is presented as having the power to change Saul's heart as nothing else does. The lection from Mark deals with the calling of the twelve. Together they represent a single pastoral impulse, a single imperative, the impulse and imperative also marking the entirety of Francis' Episcopacy and Pontificate and this Jubilee year of mercy as well: Miserando atque eligendo.

Francis translates the first word of his motto as a gerund, "Mercifying". He sees his episcopacy as being about the mercification of the church and world; the motto as a whole means "To Mercify (to embrace wretchedness) and to Call". This can even be translated as, "I will mercify (that is, make the world whole by embracing its wretchedness in the power of God's love) and (or "and even further") call (or choose) others" who will be commissioned in the same way. Francis speaks of the meaning of his motto in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy . He writes, "So mercifying and choosing (calling) describes the vision of Jesus who gives the gift of mercy and chooses, and takes unto himself."  (Kindle location 226) This is simply the way Francis chose to be a Bishop in Christ's Church; it is certainly the face God turned to the world in Jesus and it is the face of the shepherd we have come to associate with the Papacy. It is the way the Church is called to address and transform our world, the way she is called to literally "embrace wretchedness" and create peace and purpose. Mercifying and calling. It is the Way into the future God wills for everyone and everything.

Paul too saw that mercy was the way God creates a future. He writes in his letter to the Romans, [[Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?]] In other words it is the kindness or mercy of God, God's forbearance and patience that will create a way forward --- if in fact we take that mercy seriously. What I saw as I read that line from Paul was that Divine mercy is always about creating a way forward when our own actions close off any way forward at all. Let me explain. Often times I have written here that God mercy IS God's justice. Justice is always about creating and ensuring a future -- both for those wronged, for society as a whole, and for the ones who have wronged another. Mercy, which (as I now see clearly) always includes a call to discipleship, is the way God creates and draws us into the future. Divine wrath is just the opposite --- though it can open us to the mercy which will turn things around.

Divine Wrath, Letting the Consequences of our Sin Run:

Wrath is not Divine anger or a failure or refusal to love us. It is what happens when God respects our freedom and lets the consequences of our works run --- the consequences which cut us off from the love and community of others, the consequences which make us ill, insure our life goes off the rails, so to speak, the consequences which ripple outward and affect everyone within the ambit of our lives. Similarly, it is God's letting run the consequences of sin which  lead us to even greater acts of sin as we defend ourselves against them, attempt to control matters, and keep our hands on the reins implying we control life. But how can a God of Love possibly allow the consequences of sin run and still be merciful?

I wrote recently of the death of my major theology professor, John Dwyer. In the middle of a moral theology class focusing on the topic of human freedom and responsibility John said that if he saw one of us doing something stupid he would not prevent us. He quickly noted that if we were impaired in some way he would intervene but otherwise, no. Several of us majors were appalled. John was a friend and mentor. Now, we regularly spent time at his house dining with him and his wife Odile and talking theology into the late hours. Though we were not much into doing seriously stupid things, we recognized the possibility! So when John made this statement we looked quickly at one another with questioning looks and gestures. A couple of us whispered to each other, "But he LOVES us! How can he say that?" John took in our reaction in a single glance and explained, "I will always be here for you. I will be here if you need advice, if you need a listening ear. . . and if you should do something stupid I will always be here for you afterwards to help you recover in whatever way I can, but I will not prevent you from doing the act itself."

We didn't get it at all at the time, but now I know John was describing for us an entire complex of theological truths about human freedom, Divine mercy, Divine wrath, and discipleship as well: Without impinging on our freedom God says no to our stupidities and even our sin, but he always says yes to us and his yes to us, his mercy eventually will also win out over sin. John would be there for us in the same way the merciful God of Jesus Christ is there for us. Part of that was the way the prospect or truth of being "turned over" to our own freedom and the consequences of our actions also opens us to mercy. To be threatened with being left to ourselves in this way if we misused our freedom --- even with the promise that John would be there for us before, after, and otherwise --- made us think very carefully about doing something stupid. John's statement struck us like a splash of astringent but it was also a merciful act which included an implicit call to a future free of serious stupidities, blessed with faithfulness, and marked by genuine freedom. It promised us the continuing and effective reality of John's love and guiding presence but the prospect of his very definite "no!" to our "sin" was a spur to embrace more fully the love and call to adulthood he offered is. How much more does the prospect of Divine wrath (or the experience of that wrath itself) open us to the reality of Divine mercy?!

Thus, Divine wrath can serve Divine mercy; it can lead to a wretchedness which opens us to something more, something other. It can open us to the Love-in-Act that summons and saves. At the same time it is mercy that has the power to redeem situations of wrath, situations of enmeshment in and entrapment by the consequences of one's sin. It is through mercy that God does justice, through mercy that God sets things to rights and opens a future to that which was once a dead end.

Miserando atque Eligendo, The Way of Divine Mercy:

What is critical, especially in light of Friday's readings and Francis' motto it seems to me, is that we understand mercy not only as the gratuitous forgiveness of sin or the graced and unconditional love of the sinner, but that we also see that mercy, by its very nature, further includes a call which leads to a new life. The most striking image of this in the NT is the mercy the Risen Christ shows to Peter. Each time  Peter answers Christ's question, "Do you love me?" he is told, "Feed my Lambs" or "Feed my Sheep." Jesus does not merely say, "You are forgiven"; in fact, he never says, "You are forgiven" in so many words. Instead he conveys forgiveness with a call to a new and undeserved future.

This happens again and again in the NT. It happens in the parable of the merciful Father (prodigal son) and it happens whenever Jesus says something like, "Rise and walk" or "Go, your faith has made you whole," etc. (Go does not merely mean, "Go on away from here" or "Go on living as you were"; it is, along with other commands like "Rise", "Walk" "Come",etc., a form of commissioning which means. "Go now and mercify the world as God has done for you.") Jesus' healing and forgiving touch always involves a call opening the future to the one in need. Mercy, as a single pastoral  impulse, embraces our fruitless and pointless wretchedness even as it calls us to God's  own creative and meaningful blessedness.

The problem of balancing mercy and justice is a false problem when we are speaking of God. I have written about this before in Is it Necessary to Balance Divine Mercy With Justice? and Moving From Fear to Love: Letting Go of the God Who Punishes Evil. What was missing from "Is it necessary. . .?" was the element of call --- though I believe it was implicit since both miserando and eligendo are essential to the love of God which summons us to wholeness. Still, it took Francis' comments on his motto (something he witnesses to with tremendous vividness in every gesture, action, and homily) along with the readings from this Friday to help me see explicitly that the mercification or mercifying of our world means both forgiving and calling people into God's own future. We must not trivialize or sentimentalize mercy (or the nature of genuine forgiveness) by omitting the element of a call.

When we consider that today theologians write about God as Absolute Futurity (cf Ted Peters' work God, the World's Future, and Anticipating Omega), the association of mercy with the call to futurity makes complete sense and it certainly distances us from the notion of Divine mercy as something weak which must be balanced by justice. Mercy, again, is the way God does justice --- the way he causes our world to be transfigured as it is shot through with eschatological Life and purpose. We may choose an authentic future in God's love or a wounded, futureless reality characterized by enmeshment and isolation in sin, but whichever we choose it is always mercy that sets things right --- if only we will accept it and the call it includes!! Of course it is similarly an authentic future we are called on to offer one another -- just as David offered to Saul and Jesus offered those he healed or those he otherwise called and sent as his own Apostles. Miserando atque Eligendo!! May we adopt this as the motto of our lives just as Francis has done, and may we make it our own "modus operandi" for doing justice in our world as Jesus himself did.

19 January 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

13 January 2016

Update: Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena --- Iraq

January 7, 2016

Dear Sisters Brethren and Friends,

With the New Year greetings, I extend my gratitude for your continuous support and prayers. Also, I would like to share with you our highlights from 2015.

Thanks to the blessed efforts of people who are accompanying us, we have had an eventful year. In addition to accompanying the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at the camps, sisters were able to prepare 400 children for First Communion in ten groups in different cities and towns in the region of Kurdistan.

We are grateful to the Lord that our efforts to open a primary school were fruitful. Eventually, we managed to get all the licenses needed from the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Bishop Warda (the Chaldaean Bishop of Erbil) offered us a building that Catholic organizations built on property belonging to the Archdiocese of Erbil, and the Pontifical Mission furnished it thankfully. There are about 460 pupils -girls and boys-and all are IDPs. Seven of our Dominican sisters are working at the school, with other teachers and administrators, also IDPs. Studying at our school is free. The salaries of teachers and staff (about $18,000 a month) have been granted by the Pontifical Mission for this year. People are thankful and happy for this project, as the condition of other schools is really miserable. Because of the large number of the IDPs, some schools have three shifts a day, each shift for different groups, and the number of pupils in a class could number more than 80.

Also, we managed to open another kindergarten for the IDPs as there is more demand this year. The families prefer to send their children to be educated by the Dominican Sisters. Now there are 440 children attending our kindergartens in Ankawa. Additionally, in a town called Aqra with 250 IDP families, we opened a kindergarten for 50 children. The kindergarten in Kaznazan also has 130 children in attendance. These Kindergartens are free of charge for the IDPs.

In both projects, school and kindergarten, sisters have been noticing much improvement in children's behavior. They are more willing to listen to their teachers and it is easier for teachers to discipline the children. The schools are equipped with playground and a sport field, which gave the children a suitable environment to play and direct their energy.

However, people are still facing many challenges. As for the present condition in Iraq, it is still traumatic. We were shocked last month when seven individuals (parents with their 7 year old son, and 3 year old daughter and a lady with her 7 year old son and 13 year old daughter) who drowned in the sea as they were trying to flee to Greece.

Everybody is physically and psychologically exhausted. It does not seem that there is any solution. People risk their lives. Immigration is increasing in all directions. Just before the end of the year, families of 167 persons were placed in Slovakia (at once) as part of immigration program, and there are more to go in the coming month. That, of course, shook the confidence of people about the future of Christianity in Iraq. Add to that, there are other families who are leaving the country to the neighboring like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. In a matter of three months the number of children in our school lowered down from 520 to 460; also about 15 children from the kindergarten left with their families and more are planning to leave.

Although we are sad to see people leave, people who are living in prefabricated houses are facing tremendously hard time, especially now in winter as these houses (caravans) are not healthy at all -they are not made to comprise large families, neither are they equipped to such harsh weather. They are extremely cold in winter, extremely hot in summer.

The recent news about the policy in the Middle East is not encouraging at all, nether is there anything promising. Everything is unknown and uncertain. Therefore, it is not surprising to see people leave. We pray that the doors of divine mercy may open for our brothers and sisters that they may find people who could welcome them. As for us, we remain with the remnant here, to support the people intellectually and spiritually through educational projects and liturgical meetings.

Within the community, we are thankful for all those helped us purchase a house which provided a better environment for our young sisters in formation program. We have started preparing for our general chapter that is planned to be held in July 2016.

We ask your prayers that God may enlighten us and grant us His wisdom to discern in our reality despite all the difficulties and pressures we are living.

Sr. Maria Hanna OP
Prioress of Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena -Iraq

On Hermits and the Sacrament of Reconciliation

[[Hi Sister, how do hermits receive the sacraments if they are alone in a hermitage? One hermit wrote about just confes-sing to Jesus directly in the hermitage if she sins. It sounds like a Protestant-like rejection of confession to me. Are you (Catholic hermits) dispensed from the Sacrament of Reconciliation because you are a hermit?  If not, does a priest come to you? What about Mass?]] (This question represents a combination of several questions from several posters

Hi, and thanks for the questions. In the main I receive or celebrate Sacraments the same way anyone else in the Church does, namely I go to my parish and receive them. There are some exceptions some of the time. As I have written here before, many days I receive Communion at the hermitage during a Communion service and I reserve Eucharist here. (This also allows me to act as an EEM to others living nearby when I can't get to the parish to pick up Eucharist or am asked to bring Communion on unscheduled days and times.) I ordinarily receive the Sacrament of the Sick at the parish once or twice a year as well --- though in certain circumstances I would certainly ask my pastor to come here to anoint me. There is ordinarily no real reason to ask a priest to come and say Mass here since I take Communion from frequent Masses at my parish and celebrate Communion services as extensions of these as well as in union with the Mass the parish community is celebrating on that particular day. However were I to spend longer periods in actual reclusion and thus not get to the parish for several weeks or more it would be important to have Mass said here occasionally.

Ways of Dealing with Sin in the Church:

In the Church less serious sins are taken care of in many different ways. Every day I and most other Catholics, especially those who are Religious, deal with less serious sins during Office, examen, Mass or Communion services, and personal prayer --- just as the hermit you are referring to seems to do. (There need not be an actual rejection of the Sacrament of Reconciliation involved.) Lesser sins and the process of conversion these require are also dealt with, to some extent, in spiritual direction --- though in this relationship the focus is not so much on sins per se as on patterns of behavior which are unworthy of the person God has made and is calling me to be. (Serious sin is also dealt with in a limited way during spiritual direction with the same focus; usually whatever leads to serious sin needs more work and healing than lesser sins so working with one's director here is particularly important. It does not lead to absolution, however, unless one's director is also one's confessor.)

For the Sacrament of Reconciliation I have several possibilities --- as is true of any diocesan hermit or any Catholic, for that matter. First, as already mentioned there is the parish. I can arrange for the Sacrament anytime I need to do that. Until recently I had a regular confessor  who was not from my diocese; thus, I did not ordinarily go to my pastor or priests coming to fill in at the parish but that option was always open to me nonetheless and may be something I choose to do in the future. Priests have sometimes come here but ordinarily I have gone to them for reconciliation. Neither I nor any hermit is dispensed from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In some ways it is more important for us, not only because we are consecrated and vowed, but because of the temptation to "go it alone" in solitude or to minimize the degree of our transgressions. (It is sometimes too easy to say, "What happens here is small potatoes compared to what goes on in the world around the hermitage.")

Choosing to avail oneself of the Sacrament when sin is, relatively speaking, not particularly serious, much less grievous, is not necessarily a matter of scrupulosity; rather, receiving the Sacrament of reconciliation is one of the ways hermits recognize and proclaim most clearly, 1) that smaller transgressions are still significant and more easily grow into larger aberrations in solitude than in community, and 2), that our vocation to solitude is ecclesial as opposed to a individualistic approach to eremitism. Sin is never merely an individual matter and the Sacrament where we confess to God and receive forgiveness through the mediation of another human being representing the Church is clearly an ecclesial reality.

More on the Nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

While you didn't ask about the nature of the Sacrament of reconciliation it is important to remember this social and specifically ecclesial dimension.  Forgiveness is always a matter of personal encounter with social implications. While we can meet God in the intimacy of our own hearts, as human beings we need to admit who we are to another; we need to hear the word of forgiveness spoken to us through the reading of Scriptures selected for or by us for this Sacrament or made real in the prayer of absolution. These moments in the Sacrament are moments of Proclamation, moments when the Gospel is enacted not only in our own lives, but in the life of the Church. We need for someone to ask us about the circumstances which may have contributed to our sinning so we can truly speak them and claim the entire situation. We need to speak our own transgressions, not as a simple admission (though that is critical), but because in the context of the Sacrament we see clearly that we are part of a community of faith and are called to be more than we have been. Admitting our transgressions to God through the mediation of another acting in the name of the Church is part of claiming an identity and vocation within the Church which actually allows the Church to BE Church.

Of course it is always God who forgives sins; we can always turn to God privately or in solitude. Even so, in my experience, those confessions, especially when the sin is serious, may well be lacking something which is present when one confesses to God through the mediation of another human being. It is not merely that doing so is humbling in a way private admission to God usually is not -- though certainly this is an important dimension of the Sacrament. That is something we can appreciate as we consider the difference between praying to God in our own rooms, and speaking to God through the agency of another. We can feel the difference. However, this difference also has to do with the fact that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we entrust ourselves  in our brokenness to the One whose love and mercy was revealed fully and definitively to us in the risen Christ present in the Church. In other words, we do so because God's love and mercy comes to us through the mediation of the Church, especially through those who act in Christ's name in this specific way.

The ministry of reconciliation is given to all of us, priests and laity alike, but it is given in a paradigmatic way to the priest who celebrates the sacrament as a special gift to all of us. The faith, understanding, acceptance, challenge, and encouragement of one's confessor are a significant part of hearing the Good News of Christ within this sacrament. At the same time our reception of the Sacrament is part of the priest's own hearing the Good News of Christ. Together we are actively Church in this mutual celebration of Divine mercy and love. It is a profound and life-giving form of sharing in Christ in which each person experiences the mercy and call of God through the mediation of the Sacrament --- though in differing ways and to differing degrees. Still, this encounter with Christ through the agency of another is absolutely critical to truly receiving Divine forgiveness in the Sacrament and to the ministry of reconciliation as a whole.

Hermits and the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

Again, all of this is as true of the hermit as it is of anyone else in the Church. As already noted, hermits require the Sacrament of Reconciliation as much as any other member of the People of God. I especially like to use the Sacrament to celebrate periods where some clear growth has occurred. At those times it is also important to look at the ways I do not measure up to that growth --- because, after all, whenever we come to new senses of God's presence in our lives or new senses of who we are called to be, there will be ways in which we fall short of those realities. Sometimes that means a serious set of obstacles exist within us that should be recognized and worked through or a serious lack of virtue in this way or that. It really depends on how we measure sin and look at the Sacrament. It would be relatively easy for me, for instance, to say, I have only committed lesser sins --- because in fact I do not tend to sin grievously. However, because I am growing in my vocation and presumably in wholeness and holiness, it also makes the ways I fail or fall short of the love or grace of God stand out in significance.

Thus, I meet with my director regularly and every so often there will be a significant moment of growth or insight or integration. Direction may occasion them or allow me to recognize them clearly. At these times celebrating the Sacrament of reconciliation can allow me to celebrate all of this Sacramentally and therefore, with the larger Church through the mediation of the priest. When I do that both the growth which is a result of God's grace and the ways I still resist or fail to reflect that grace are really brought to the larger faith community both for healing and as a proclamation of hope. Thus the Sacrament allows me to celebrate the grace of God in both the way it bears fruit within me and in the ways I still need it to bear fruit. More, it allows me to recommit to my vocation and honor its ecclesial nature --- something that is important for me especially because it might otherwise be easy to fall into an attitude of individualism or outright complacency.

Like most Catholics today, I suspect I don't always make adequate use of the Sacrament, but again, that is not because I have somehow been dispensed or have less need than other members of the Church. It is certainly not because everything can be adequately dealt with by just confessing to Jesus in the solitude of the cell --- critical and healing as that is. For me, the knowledge that I can confess to Christ in the privacy of the hermitage can sometimes be as much temptation as it is consoling truth. I think that is generally true for Catholics in every state of life. Since the Sacrament is a great gift which is seriously underutilized today and since individualist approaches to faith and spirituality are a significant problem today, it seems to me that it is particularly important that hermits not encourage even greater failure to turn to this gift of God. To put that more positively, it seems important to me that Catholic hermits encourage an appreciation of the significance, gift-quality, and ecclesial nature of even such a relatively private sacrament.