[[Dear Sister, have you heard of the books referring to drawing a circle around one's biggest dreams or needs and then standing there until the prayer is answered? They are based on the Jewish legend of Honi who drew a circle and prayed for rain. He stayed inside the circle until it rained and it did! God answered Honi's Prayer! I just wondered what you thought of this approach to prayer.]]
Hi there. I have heard of the books and seen them advertised on Amazon, but I have not read them. The legend of Honi, however is one I am somewhat familiar with. Honi, a first century BC scholar who is sometimes called the "one who draws circles", was faced with the need for rain during a drought. He eventually drew a circle and announced to God that he was not going to move until God sent rain. It was Winter, the rainy season, when he did this. When a smattering of rain came Honi announced to God that that was not enough and reiterated his intention to remain there until there was real rain. There was a downpour and at this point Honi told God he wanted (or the people of Israel needed) a quieter, less destructive rain; he said he would continue to stay in the circle until God sent that instead. At this point there came a quieter rain which the ground could drink up and which would not be destructive because of flooding, mudslides, etc.
What is important to remember however are the two responses this action drew from Jews. Some excommunicated Honi because he had indeed blasphemed God by his actions. Others (a Queen) excused him saying he had a special relationship with God. There is ambiguity in the story and both wisdom and very real danger in the lessons we draw from it about prayer. Sometimes the line between the two is exceedingly fine; I personally believe Honi crossed the line despite also showing us some of the things necessary in a life of prayer and despite his special relationship with God. So let me say something about that and what I believe the author of these books on "drawing a circle of prayer" as well as what his readers must be cautious about.
The positive lessons on Prayer Honi gives us:
All prayer is meant to allow God the space to work in our lives. We open our hearts to God so that God may enter those spaces, know us more profoundly (in the intimate Biblical sense), and accompany us in every moment and mood of our lives. That means opening ourselves in ways which reveal our deepest needs and dreams and doing so in a way which lets those dreams and needs be molded, qualified, transformed, and answered by the presence of God and his own will or purposes. In other words we hold our dreams and needs open to God's transforming and fulfilling presence. We take them seriously; we claim and honor them, but we also hold them somewhat lightly because God's presence can cause us to reevaluate and even redefine these in light of his love and purposes. For instance, my own dream to become a teacher or to transform the world is rooted in gifts coming from a really profound place within me which I must hold onto and express, but I must also be open to the possibility that I am not going to be teaching in the ways I thought I might nor transforming the world in the way I dreamt I might. The Kingdom of God comes through our attentiveness to our deepest needs and dreams; we must not ignore these, but at the same time, that Reign rarely looks like what we thought it might.
Drawing a circle around my desire to teach, etc, allows me to get and stay in touch with the profound gifts within me, while praying about this allows me to open these spaces to God and to collaborate with God in becoming the teacher (or whatever else) he may desire me to become. Standing in this circle allows me to remain trusting in God's love and determined that the best use of my gifts be made, but I am neither defining (drawing) nor standing in this circle in order that God might be "informed" about who I am, what I feel, dream, or need, nor that his will be shaped accordingly. I stand in such a circle so that I may consciously and faithfully bring these things to God and allow their potential and promise to be realized in ways I may not have even imagined myself. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to me because it requires 1) a conscious claiming of gifts, needs, dreams, etc, 2) a faithfulness and deep trust in their potential and in the power of God to bring all things to fullness or completion despite ostensible signs otherwise, and 3) a commitment to watch for the ways in which God brings things to fulfillment even when these are contrary to my own plans and conceptions. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to the degree it demands and facilitates attentiveness and perseverance in prayer.
The Negative or Dangerous Elements in Honi's Approach to Prayer:
However, as I say, it is my opinion that Honi crossed the line which the leadership of the Jewish People considered blasphemous and worthy of excommunication. He moved from persevering prayer to blackmail or extortion, and he did so by treating prayer and the drawing of a circle as a way of leveraging God. When I think of what Honi did with the circle it sounds a lot like a child saying to their Mother, "I want cake for dinner and I am going to lie here in the middle of the floor until you let me have that! Not only that, it had BETTER be a chocolate cake!" Despite the vast difference between this and what I described in the last section, the line between these two is often a very fine one indeed and we need to be very careful never to cross it!
Prayer is always about intimacy with God but it is not the intimacy of peers, much less of persons who can dictate to God what their needs are and the ways in which they expect these needs to be met. Honi crossed this line as well. He forgot that in prayer he was dealing with the Master of the Universe, the One whom he was called to serve in persevering prayer, not one we can call on to serve us in a demanding and willful piety. Perseverance is necessary in prayer, but stubbornness is a different matter. In prayer we do indeed open our hearts to God, but we do so in a way which allows our dreams and needs to accept the limitations of reality and shaped by that. We continue to hope, but the certainty of our hope allows a flexibility and demands docility as well; God's purposes and will always ultimately eventuate in a fulfillment of what we dream of and desire or need most deeply. We need to trust that that is the case even as we allow ourselves to be instructed in the fact that we cannot always see or imagine the how or the shape of this fulfillment. We do not EVER dictate terms to God. It seems to me that Honi forgot most of these things in his own prayer.
Similarly, it is important not to think that God is outside the circle. We must understand that drawing the circle of prayer circumscribes a space where God is intimately present with us in the very circumstances we ourselves are suffering. We draw the circle and say effectively that we will stand here WITH God and trust in his lifegiving presence despite all the difficulties and ridicule that may entail. Honi's actions seem very different to me than this. He seemed to be drawing a line in the sand (dust!) which separated himself from God and turned the situation into a "me vs God" struggle rather than allowing it to define Honi as an I-Thou covenantal reality. It is important in prayer to recognize that our truest needs and dreams are God's as well, and that we stand together as covenant partners committed to the unfolding and fulfillment of creation. Even so, this is never the same as allowing prayer to become a kind of martyrdom (witness) against a God who finally capitulates to our demands.
Risk and Ambiguity are Always There in our Prayer:
Finally, it seems to me that the Legend of Honi the circle drawer reminds us that there is always risk in prayer. Prayer requires a boldness and a steadfastness which can easily deteriorate into presumption and stubbornness. It requires an intimacy which runs the risk of devolving or being distorted into actual blasphemy. After all, it is one thing to say, "Here I stand, I can do no other" WITH and for God; it is quite another to do so as though God was simply another person on the parish council who needed to be convinced and prodded into action. And of course negotiating this risky business is part of what it means to learn to pray and to live a prayer life. As we mature in this we become better at a kind of "holy boldness" and an intimacy which is never presumptuous but which instead reminds us of Mary's part at the Wedding Feast of Cana. There she spoke directly, even boldly, to her Son about the needs of the host and she clearly knew her Son could do something about the situation. But Jesus drew limits as well and while Mary stood back a bit in light of these, she continued to trust in her Son and counselled others to do as he commanded. It seems to me that Mary's interactions with Jesus in that story are a more accurate image of the ambiguity of prayer than Honi's legend manages to give us.
I hope this is helpful to you.
08 March 2014
[[Dear Sister, have you heard of the books referring to drawing a circle around one's biggest dreams or needs and then standing there until the prayer is answered? They are based on the Jewish legend of Honi who drew a circle and prayed for rain. He stayed inside the circle until it rained and it did! God answered Honi's Prayer! I just wondered what you thought of this approach to prayer.]]
07 March 2014
When I was a very young sister, I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another Sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then:
Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister H Kelly)
The readings from the Thursday after Ash Wednesday both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accommodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."
The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]
I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are CALLED to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.
God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.
The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us PARE DOWN all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.
It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose DEATH instead.
Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 3:20 PM
02 March 2014
The year before last I posted the following idea during the latter part of Lent. This year I wanted to put it up in time for folks to use it for the whole of Lent if they desired. It was given to me by my Pastor.
The idea is to choose 40 people who have been significant in your life and faith journey. Perhaps these are folks who have helped you "choose life." (If one has a smaller circle of significant friends and family, then one would list how ever many that really is.) Each of the 40 days of Lent one writes one of these people a note thanking them for who they are and what they have meant or do mean to you. (If your list is more modest, you could break the 40 days up and write notes at regular intervals.) During that day (or that period), you also pray for that person especially.
My thanks to my pastor for such a wonderful idea. How ever you decide to adapt the practice, I hope you will give it a try yourselves!
28 February 2014
[[Dear Sr Laurel, I am trying to build more silence and solitude into my life so that I can become a hermit. You and canon 603 speak of the silence OF solitude though. What is the difference? Does this have to do with what you mean when you refer to having become a hermit is some essential way before contacting my diocese?]]
Relatively speaking I have written a lot in this blog about the silence of solitude as context, means and goal of the eremitical life. I have tried to convey how and why the phrase "the silence of solitude" an originally Carthusian term means so much more than silence AND solitude, especially merely external silence and solitude. Your question helps me build on the blog article I wrote a little while back on why my vocation is not the personification of selfishness. (cf, Notes From Stillsong, A Vocation to Selfishness?) Especially it lets me add to what I have already said about this defining element of canon 603 and the charism of the vocation. Thank you for that. As your question notes, the silence of solitude is indeed a key to understanding what I mean when I say that someone must become a hermit in some essential way before approaching their diocese with a request to be admitted to a process of discernment, much less to public profession of eremitical vows.
I have cited the following paragraph a couple of times here: [[As a hermit I am not silent (or solitary) for instance, because woundedness and pain have rendered me mute and cut off from others, but because silence and solitude are the accompaniment and context for profound speech and articulateness. Silence is part of the music of being loved completely by God; it is a piece of allowing the separate notes of one's life to sound fully, but also to be connected to one another so that noise is transformed into a composition worthy of being heard and powerful and true enough to be inspiring to others. It is an empowered silence and solitude, the silence of solitude, which finds its source in God's love and reflects relatedness to God and others at its very core. Something similar could be said of all of the elements which comprise the life described in Canon 603. The eremitical life, especially in its freedom, is one of relatedness and love in all of its dimensions.]]
The silence of solitude is what results when we are loved profoundly by God and are healed sufficiently to love ourselves, God, and all who are precious to God as well. When this is the case an individual stands silently alone with God, at peace, herself, free of bondage or destructive enmeshment. She is herself but that self is a covenantal or dialogical Event with God as ground and counterpart because that is the very nature of the human self.
To understand this I think we might start by reflecting on the fact that eremitical solitude is a torment for the person who cannot love herself and therefore cannot trust or must continually contend with the inescapable love of God. Unfortunately, this is such a prevalent affliction, that the early Desert Fathers and Mothers battled demons --- usually the demons of their own hearts --- in a way which made doing so emblematic of desert spirituality. Every hermit I have ever read or spoken to knows that the torment of the hermitage stems from our own inability to love ourselves or exorcise the resultant demons of our own hearts. Whether we are speaking of the need for distractions, the inability to pray, actual violations of our vows, deviations from our Rule or excesses in penitential practices, bitterness and misanthropy, or even narcissism, the source is some form of discomfort with ourselves which, often, is a form of self-hatred. In such instances we are isolated or solitary, but the silence of solitude is far far from us.
When I speak of being a hermit in some essential sense then, I mean that one is a person who has, to some real extent, come to this quies or peace of heart marked by compassion, generosity, and relative selflessness. Further, they have been brought there by living a life of physical silence and solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, poverty and chastity, all geared to hearkening to the Word of God and they feel called to continue living in this way for the sake of the glory (revelation) of God and the salvation of others. Silence and solitude are elements contributing to a person's coming to and living out the silence OF solitude but it is the silence OF solitude which is especially characteristic of the eremitical life; it is the charism or gift hermits in particular bring to the Church and world. One may build all kinds of silence and solitude in the physical and external senses into one's life, but it is the silence of solitude rooted in communion with God for the sake of others which is the goal and defining characteristic of the genuine hermit.
[[Dear Sister O'Neal, isn't it really the case that pastoral theology has more to do with making people feel good than it does with being faithful to doctrine and moral theology? Bishop D. Sanborn has remarked, accurately in my estimation, that when the supposed Pope Francis speaks of concerns being pastoral he really means that the Church will be more concerned with a feel-good "theology" than the truth of the faith. I know you won't admit this but isn't it the case that putting pastoral concerns first means putting truth second?]] (cf, The Revolution Speeds Up for the context in which these comments were made. Link supplied and added after this post was written.)
Thanks for your questions. When you speak of Bishop Sanborn I take it you are referring to the sedevacantist bishop, is that correct? I am not going to write a lengthy response here, not least because I don't think Bp Sanborn's conclusions (assuming you have quoted him accurately) merit them (if accurate, they are a caricature and are disingenuous and lack nuance and subtlety), but also because you have indicated ("I know you won't admit this. . .") your own question is somewhat less than an honest one. More importantly though, there is plenty of material available on Vatican II and what it meant in terms of pastoral theology or its demands that all theology be pastoral at its heart. If you really are interested you can read up. Similarly, Pope Francis' positions on the pastoral needs of the Church (and that the Church BE pastoral in the whole of its existence) are significantly more nuanced and demanding than the caricature Bp Sanborn proposed and you cited; these are available to anyone really interested in what is a more demanding and complex truth than the version referenced. Still, the question of the pastoral nature of all theology is one I raised very recently and it is an important one; it is for that reason I am responding briefly here.
I think a better notion of "pastoral" is something like, "putting the truth Christ embodied at the service of people, " or "making the Good News of the Gospel of God in Christ available to our world in both word and deed." In such notions truth is not sacrificed for some sort of merely feel-good theology; instead it is recognized that people need the truth and the power of making true which lives at the heart of the Church and her Gospel if they are to be truly human and live in the peace of God. This truth is not an abstract reality or end in itself but a servant of authentic humanity and the glory of God. It is truth embodied and expressed in the form of love -- love for God, for ourselves in Christ, and for all that are/is precious to God. Remember that God is truth and love; God is the source and ground of both of these. Pastoral theology is a theology which allows that God to address, accompany, and empower those who need this God to be complete and, in fact, holy.
The greatest symbol of theology as essentially pastoral is the Incarnation. There the Word of God is enfleshed in a way which allows human beings to meet God with a human face and to be forever identified as "God-with (and for)-us." This messianic and salvific EVENT is the very definition and paradigm of pastoral theology --- a theology (speech about God) which also actually allows God to dwell with us in real and powerful ways. I don't see how we can speak of this as putting the truth second or being more concerned with a "feel-good theology". And yet, in the Christ Event God reveals himself exhaustively to people who need this event to really meet a God that heals, reconciles, and empowers. This Christ Event is the model and climax of God's self emptying --- a kenosis which is meant to meet human need (and in fact, the need of all creation) in the way all truly pastoral theology does. Note well that the truth is not sacrificed in such a theology; it is allowed instead to speak fully, to challenge, and to console persons in concrete historical circumstances. Further, one needs to ask if a theology is not pastoral at its very heart, then really, what good is it? Is God glorified by a theology which does not serve pastorally? Is he glorifed by a theology which fails to allow him to be "God-with (and for)-us"? Hardly.
Remember then, that Dogmas do not exist for their own sake. They are explicit summaries of divine truth in limited human language which allow us to come to a fuller faith, a more profound and complete trust in the God revealed in the Christ Event. Neither does the Church exist merely to enshrine some eternal principles or an abstract truth ABOUT God. Instead God's own life is a "for others" reality and Christians serve THAT truth, that way, and that life. Doing so, that is, making this God real and known in space and time is ALWAYS a pastoral project or it is an abject failure. The Scriptures remind us that, "They will know we are Christians by our love." Genuine love, the very heart of being Christian and itself always the result of God's grace, is itself quintessentially true and pastoral; it verifies or makes true that which is untrue and distorted and at the same time it makes them capable of loving. Can you imagine a love which is not essentially pastoral, which is not also aimed at others and at their increased well-being? Can you imagine a love which is like that of Jesus which is not also as challenging as it is consoling? I cannot and, from what I can tell, neither can nor does Pope Francis.
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 1:03 AM
25 February 2014
[[Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for your post on God as Master storyteller. Thank you also for linking it to other posts that refer to God as absolute future and to the idea that not everything that happens is the will of God but nothing is left outside his will. All these ideas are new to me but they make sense of events in my own life in a way other ideas have not. Have they done the same for you? I understand if that question is too personal but I felt I had to ask it. It seems to me that doing theology has to be driven by the effects it has in a theologian's life. If it is not then what good is it?]]
Thanks so much for your note. That particular piece was important for me both profes-sionally (theolo-gically) and personally. While the ideas are not entirely new to me, and especially are not new in theology generally, as a result of the game the parish staff played at Halloween they came together with a clarity and power I had not appreciated as even possible before. Especially I think they help us to make an even clearer sense of the ways in which suffering and death (including both "big" and "little" deaths!) are real in our lives while maintaining hope that these will never have the last word or constitute a final silence. Similarly they help us to come to terms with an evolving universe which is still unfinished, which includes elements of randomness, and which, at the same time is the creation of a God who will one day be all in all. Despite this being contrary to the way NT writers and the Fathers of the Church conceived of things it is also consonant with the central dogmas of Christian faith while respecting the findings of contemporary science.
Let me say that this perspective did not make sense of aspects of my life precisely, but it did strengthen and deepen the sense I have come to know in light of God and my faith in the Christ Event. Over the past 40 plus years I have had to let go of many dreams, hopes, interests, relationships, and so forth because of chronic illness. And yet, at the same time I have always (eventually!) found God there redeeming the situation so that it had a very real future and continued to have genuine promise --- especially the promise that I would and could serve both God and his Church in significant ways in spite of and even IN and through chronic illness. As I have written here before that led me to embrace Paul's statement that, "God's grace is sufficient for us; God's power is perfected in weakness," as my profession motto; it is also the key to my really understanding Paul's position more generally that weakness is not only transformed into strength by some shift in perspective we ourselves accomplish, but that to the extent we can humbly embrace it as our own truth it IS strength because it is a true counterpart to the grace and power of God. However, it still left me grieving the things I had lost, believing that they were irretrievable. The perspective in the post you mentioned demanded I go far beyond that.
Events in my life this last year and the several preceding it have prepared for my own appreciation of the perspective presented in the post on God as Master Story teller. Not only have I been reading (or thinking) a lot in the areas of narrative theology, the nature and power of parables, and the relation of faith and science but, for instance, while on retreat in August I found all kinds of threads from my past being brought together in ways which assured me that nothing had been or would be lost.
Because I had expected never to have these threads returned to me in a way which allowed their promise to be fulfilled (or new promise realized), it was an incredible gift from God --- full of serendipity, awe, and consolation. This was a bit different than what I had experienced in the past, namely, that God could and would bring good out of evil, life out of death, meaning out of senselessness, and so forth. It included that insight but was a broader or more comprehensive vision of things as well. It reminded me of a prayer I have sometimes used during communion services that we can come to see the way God's providence encompasses even the worst that happens to us (poor paraphrase). Because of the reading I mentioned earlier it also reminded me of the perspective recounted in the work of John Haught, Ted Peters, et al that treats God as absolute futurity working from "in front of" the story or drama of creation as well the way Jesus effects the coming of the Kingdom by cooperating with God and drawing us into the story which is God's own.
So, these things and many others have prepared me for seeing God as the weaver of an immense narrative where the future comes to be at every second while no threads of the past are ever ultimately lost or dropped. The new piece of things was the game the St P's staff played at Halloween and my own abject failure at it. I was intrigued and frustrated as the game proceeded. I started many different narrative lines in my own head (being ninth in line allows and calls for that!) and had to abandon most of them. At the same time I and everyone else had to create new narrative lines which allowed as many of the clues as possible to make an ultimate kind of sense; we had to continue to build on the work of those who preceded us and even (something which was much, much harder!) anticipate places for the clues (Halloween terms) others might also be seeking to use as they continued the narrative. My eventual solution was pretty awful and really desperate but it served to cement in my own mind the dynamics of the game and the immense demands of this way of telling a story. It stayed with me and focused my reflections --- even though I was mainly unaware that was the case.
But for instance, I could imagine God deciding to scrap the whole project and starting over (as he is said to have done with the story of Noah and the Flood) just as I could imagine him "taking a deep breath" and continuing his persistent storytelling/weaving until one day the finished "product" would be a creation where he was all in all. I could see clearly the immense risk God takes in loving and seeking to allow us to love or reject him freely (that is to weave our own narratives). I could begin to appreciate how constant and persistent his love must be for creation to continue, how patient and forgiving he must be to continually call us back to our places in the real story (GOD'S own story!), how immense his creativity and comprehensive his authority as well as how really important it is for each of us to commit to THIS same story and cooperate with God as love-in-act at every possible moment.
Many people commit to building an empire of sorts whether that be political, economic, academic, intellectual, domestic, or ecclesiastical. But each of us is really called to cooperate in the process of creation itself and in its completion or fulfillment in that reality we call the Kingdom of God; unfortunately, relatively few of us really do that. We are concerned with our own salvation and may certainly see an obligation to assist others, but participating with God in the fulfillment and completion of the drama of creation? Imagine coming from a position of chronic illness where weakness and incapacity are defining terms every day and discovering that embracing this truth meant being suited for Empire-building on an immensely, even inconceivably larger scale than I had ever thought about before! That is part of the fresh realization I came to because of the Halloween game and the work of contemporary theologians taking seriously what it means to be covenant partners with God and part of bringing an unfinished universe to fulfillment.
Theologians are passionate about their faith, of course; they are entrusted with this as a respon-sibility, but they are passionate because the theology they do mediates a message and presence to others which is ultimately healing and hope-filled. My major professor taught us right from the beginning that any theology worthy of the name is profoundly pastoral and he was completely correct in this. Similarly, in the Eastern Church theologians are recognized first of all as those who pray --- that is, they are not merely folks who are about some intellectual pursuit but are committed to the Life of God --- and committed to making this Life present and accessible to others both for their sake and for God's own. Just as physicians are concerned with science applied to lives in ways which heal, theologians are concerned with ultimate truth and mediating that in ways which heal and make sense of things more immediately. Of course the intellectual part of the theological enterprise is intriguing and even exhilarating (I can't describe the excitement I feel when reading some "hard-core" theology!), but ultimately we do this for the Glory of God (that is, for making God known and personally present in every part of creation) and for the well-being of his creation (which is, at best, incomplete and distorted without God).
Again, thanks for your note. I am glad you found the post helpful. A number of other people found a related piece similarly helpful so that was all very gratifying to me.
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 9:47 PM
21 February 2014
[[Dear Sister, thank you for answering my question on reserved seating for religious and other conse-crated persons. My interest came from reading a post which suggested Consecrated Virgins attending the renewal of ministers commitments as EEM's should either not attend or be seated with religious. The author was emphatic that they should not be seated with the laity who were renewing their commitments. She also made the point that Religious and CV's did not need to make or renew such commitments since they were serving the Church and acting as an EEM was a part of this already. The link to this post is: Real Life Scenarios.]]
Ah, thanks for the link. I know this blog and have some fundamental disagreements with its author about the vocation she writes about. Even bearing that in mind (for it and cultural differences in particular make me more cautious with my opinions), I'm afraid the entire story still makes me think of the presumption and squabbling that went on between some of the disciples regarding who would be seated at Christ's right hand and who at his left. (You recall the story. The Mother of James and John, Sons of Zebedee, asked if her Sons could occupy these privileged places and Jesus said it was not up to him to pronounce on this; that was God's purview alone.) It is precisely this kind of ambition and resultant squabbling that is encouraged by preferential seating: "If religious get preferential seating then CV's who are also consecrated should also have preferential seating, etc". (And of course there WILL be an etc in this as preferences within preferences establish themselves.)
Though I appreciate that it is entirely appropriate to be recognized within the church for the place one has in her life and ministry (something which is true for everyone, by the way), it also makes me wonder if those who argue for (or accept) preferential seating as a matter of course, etc, can really drink of the cup of kenosis, suffering, and humility that Jesus himself has offered all disciples. Jesus seemed especially to question whether his own disciples knew what was being asked for; the cup of privilege for the Christian is the cup of self-emptying. The idea, for instance, that a CV should simply not attend such a Mass rather than accept seating with the laity seems particularly wrongheaded to me. In the referenced blog piece the liturgy being described is a commissioning to ministry by the local Church, not merely a renewal of commitments; everyone has a part in such commissioning and in the reception of a minister's recommitment to this ministry. Surely a consecrated person with a public ecclesial vocation --- especially if they share in this ministry themselves --- is called to support and participate in such an action no matter where they are seated!
The author of the blog you are referring to raises some difficult and important questions then --- not least about the wisdom of routine preferential seating per se. Another of these, however, is the best way to gain recognition of the nature or essence of the vocation to consecrated virginity lived in the world in the given circumstances. Some might cogently argue that the CV's should be seated with the religious both because they are consecrated women and because they are not actually making a recommitment either. I don't agree. In part that is because I see elitism as counter productive to really being known and understood and in part it is because I understand a central piece of the vocation of the CV living in the world to be a prophetic call to all those living secular vocations to understand and accept that they are called to an exhaustive and eschatological holiness as well as to being a missionary presence in the midst of the world.
After all, this is the vocation of the Church herself and consecrated virgins living in the world exemplify it in a vivid way. Similarly, and this is my third reason, if religious misguidedly insist on (or accept) the anachronism of preferential seating, then someone has to begin to break down this barrier to unity; Consecrated virgins, it seems to me, might well be the ones to do so. It would be a particular service to the local and the universal Church in and for which they serve as icons. During special liturgies they might well wear the veil (and perhaps the garb) they wore at their consecration along with the wedding band they wear every day to mark their state of life, and they should probably request and continue to request that local clergy appropriately recognize their presence and service; but these things said, they should sit in the assembly with everyone else --- just as religious should. I don't see this as a betrayal of the public nature of the vocation, but an expression of it. It does, however, refuse to confuse notoriety or elitism with the vocation's public rights and obligations. It seems to me that this is also one of the things Pope Francis has been modeling for us so clearly.
While it will take time for the Church to fully recognize and appreciate canon 604 vocations a veiled (or not-so veiled) elitism will not help in this. Instead it can only encourage resistance to yet another vocation which suggests (or seems to suggest) that lay life is an "entry level" or second class vocation which is somehow inferior to vocations to the consecrated state. This would be a serious disservice to the Church and is what I referred to above as counterproductive. From my perspective what is needed, besides continued efforts to instruct clergy (and all they minister to) regarding the nature and charism of this vocation, are consecrated women who live this vocation out by humbly bringing the special graces attached to their consecration to the very situation in which they live and are also called to embrace --- namely, the everyday world.
It is true that vocationally speaking consecrated women and men are not lay persons, but hierarchically speaking unless they are clergy they ARE lay persons. Religious are not a third level of vocation standing between the laity and the priesthood. One of the graces I suspect CV's are called to bring to the Church is the grace which levels distinctions signifying differences in SOCIAL status. (N.B., This is NOT the same thing as differences in legal standing or "canonical status.") It is part of witnessing to a universal call to holiness, and, again from my perspective, is part of the mission and charism of CV's living in the world and committed to God in both the things of the spirit and the things of the world.
20 February 2014
[[Dear Sister, does your parish or your diocese use reserved seating for religious? How about for visiting priests or other consecrated persons? If there was the renewal of a commitment to serve as an EEM, would your parish ask all those renewing their commitment to sit apart from the rest of the assembly? Do you have an opinion about this kind of practice?]]
What a surprising series of questions. I am curious about what prompts them for you! In any case, neither my parish nor others I know of in my diocese generally use reserved seating for religious, priests (i.e., for those who are not concelebrating), or other consecrated persons except of course in special Masses (Ordinations, installations of Bishops) where all ordained are expected to be present, or in funeral, profession, or jubilee Masses for religious; in these cases members of the person's congregations or the Presbyterate sit together and their seating is reserved. It is true that in our parish the first 2-3 pews are reserved for families and friends when a child is being baptized, for instance. For First Communions each child sits on the aisle of one pew and the rest of the pew is filled with immediate family and friends. (Each pew is marked with a banner with the child's name.) The rest of the assembly sits behind the section with the children and their families. However, in daily, Sunday, or otherwise normal Masses everyone including visiting priests (who are not concelebrating), deacons, and religious or other consecrated persons sit dispersed throughout the assembly as equally significant members of the Church by virtue of their baptism.
Renewal of commit-ments to serve as EEMs (or other ministries for that matter) are handled in my parish by calling all EEMs to come forward and stand together facing the altar. Every person who serves in this way, lay, consecrated, or religious, does this and renews their commitment in front of the entire assembly while the assembly prays for them as well. They then return to their original seats with friends, family, Sisters or Brothers, etc. Generally this means they are scattered throughout the assembly. I am unaware of any parishes in my area that reserve seating for religious or other consecrated persons as a matter of course though there tends to be an informal similarity with seating as folks take the same seats week after week and folks accede to this. This is not the same thing of course.
You may recall that in today's first reading James speaks compellingly of God showing no preference or partiality for persons and noted that if we do this we are guilty of sin. This position is emphasized in Romans as well. In these texts the immediate reference is to giving the wealthy priority over the poor, but remember that wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor in the society in general so it can be extended to imply we cannot treat persons as though one vocation is more favored over another. In the Church in Corinth this destructive, disedifying, and entirely worldly approach to persons and status led to the wealthy receiving Eucharist (or eating) before the poor. Paul denounced the entire practice as contrary to the will of God and the example of Jesus.
Meanwhile, throughout the Gospels we are told that the Kingdom Jesus proclaims turns on its head our tendency to measure reality in terms of status and social distinctions. In a world where it was entirely inconceivable that the last should be first, or the poor should be privileged in any way, the Kingdom represents the inconceivable. It does not substitute a new social hierarchy for an old one but instead does away with social organizing on the basis of status. When Scriptural texts use paradoxical statements like the first will be last or blessed are the poor, we are speaking of something inconceivable, not setting up another hierarchy. In its place is a new equality based on love and unity which is rooted in the chosenness of Baptism. Eucharist is the place where we celebrate this in a paradigmatic way; it simply does not allow for preferential seating of the kind you are asking about.
16 February 2014
As a result of the piece I put up on God as Master Story teller weaving together all the disparate threads of the story of the Kingdom out of the myriad threads of our own individual stories, and indeed, the story of the entire cosmos, I received a question about how hell fits into this schema. I said I would write something about that in a few days and I want to try to do that. This post reprises what else I have written on the topic, especially on the descent of Jesus into hell and should serve as preparation for what else needs to be said in light of a Master storyteller that leaves no threads unimportant, forgotten or dropped. My next post on this will try to answer the question a lay hermit in Seattle asked.
Post #1 The Nature of Hell
The post I put up on whether religious vows are binding beyond death spoke of purgation as a way of bringing in the harvest of a life, and as a cleansing, or claiming --- where God's love summons all that is true and real and good in us and says "no" to or strips away whatever is distorted, unreal (merely potential), untrue or false. I also referred to a final or definitive choice we make at the moment of death when we says yes or no to God's own Self/Love. Ordinarily we have prepared for this final moment by every choice in our lives and so we affirm ourselves, our relationship with God and with the whole of creation, or we deny and reject these things --- this time finally and irrevocably. During our lives we have a chance to become truly human. To whatever extent we achieve this through the grace of God, that Self is welcomed into eternity. Purgation is a combination of the final choice we make for this, and the love of God which welcomes all that is real and true into his own heart while letting go of all that is unreal or merely potential, etc.
Because of this post I wanted to say something about hell. It is not a topic I usually write about or that fits in well here (I find the appearance of the article on this page absolutely jarring!) but a reader asked me to say something about it a while back and this is really the first sense I have had that it would link with other posts. So, what is hell in this whole understanding? First, many people consider that souls are immortal and that hell is simply the separation of the soul from God for all of eternity. This would make sense except that souls are only immortal insofar as God continues to breathe them forth. Souls (and of course we ourselves) are immortal because God's love for us is immortal and he will not forget us or leave us to decay! Because of this whether we are speaking about heaven or hell, so long as we are speaking of a form of existence, we must be speaking of the active and effective presence of God because God is the ground and source of all that is to whatever extent it is.
My own sense of hell then (and this is absolutely my own provisional sense, nothing more) is that it is a form of radically alienated existence where one is faced with a love one was but no longer is meant for and can never be human without, but which one has also rejected definitively. What is hellish then is the presence of God, the presence of love in conjunction with a fundamental untruth, emptiness, and even radical inhumanity of one's existence. Untruth and emptiness call for truth (or verification and making true) and fullness. Hell, I think is the state of existence of eternal and unfulfillable yearning (which now assumes the form of nagging regret and disappointment) coupled with the inchoate knowledge (guilt) that one has irrevocably rejected these things and the God who, even now loves and sustains one --- though wholly from without and in a way which says "No" to all the nothing one has chosen. The fire of God's love can be many things to us: consoling, awesome and even terrifying, empowering, painful, purifying, illuminating, blinding, warming, creative, destructive, and so on. We are made for this love and we experience it in all these ways as part of its power to unlock the potential of our lives, a bit like a forest fire unlocks the seed cones of a redwood and enables new life to spring forth. But what kind of experience is this fire when we have been emptied of true (realizable) potential and the fire cannot inspire awe, or console, or illuminate, or purify, or create??? This I think is the experience of hell.
Post #2 Jesus' Descent into Hell
The following piece was written for my parish bulletin for Palm Sunday. It is, therefore, necessarily brief but I hope it captures the heart of the credal article re Jesus' descent into Hell.
During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing – the gospel proclaims -- will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us!
It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.
To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and potentially responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!
The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love and bring us to abundant Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 12:35 PM
03 February 2014
[[Dear Sister, I am discerning a religious vocation and thinking about entering in a couple of years. I also think I am in love with someone. I was told I should not date him though because I am in the process of discernment. But it is so hard just to cut off contact with him. I saw your post about discernment recently and wondered if you had an opinion? Thank you.]]
Thanks for your question. I think it is important to be clear about language so let me get a bit picky about some of what you have said. You say that you are discerning a vocation to religious life, but really, you are deciding at this time whether you will try a religious vocation and enter into a formal process of mutual discernment with a community or congre-gation. While discernment of course comes into play for you right now, you are not "discerning a religious vocation"; instead you are deciding whether or not TO DISCERN a religious vocation. Until you actually enter a community you may (and should) be discerning many things, but you are not (yet) discerning a religious vocation.
Too often today I have read people speaking on Catholic bulletin boards of this pre-discernment period as though they have already entered. Often they have not even been accepted for entrance while others have been rejected several times. Nevertheless, they tend to put the rest of their lives on hold in the process. Some advise them not to date, not to get involved in social situations, begin living as informal candidates or postulants, dress the part, etc --- and unfortunately they do this --- all under the rubric of being in the process of "discerning a religious vocation". For many, this pre-discernment process stretches on, is transformed into a kind of limbo which is supposedly dignified with the title "discernment" and life simply stutters to a stop as these folks neither enter nor discern anything else which demands a life commitment. They are not religious and may never be religious but somehow being in this "process of discernment" gives them a kind of cachet and status which they seem loathe to leave --- fictitious as it has actually become.
I don't want you falling into this trap. Once you enter a congre-gation, if in fact you ever do, there will be plenty of opportunity to discern a religious vocation. The period from entrance to reception to first vows to final vows extends for up to nine years and all of these are specifically regarded as years of mutual discernment. But at this point you need to discern where God is (or rather, might well be) calling you more generally and that may be marriage just as well as it might religious life. It may be dedicated single life or the life of a consecrated virgin, for instance. It may be as a lay associate with a religious congregation --- which means you could well be married or single and serve God in many many significant ways. Since I don't know your age or education level let me point out that education (college and graduate school) is also something you need to consider pursuing as part of ANY vocation to which God might be calling you.
Regarding dating, you say you believe you are in love with this person. Date him! You are still called to chastity and to developing an affective maturity which a vow of celibate love also demands. Love him as a good friend. Share this time with him. Be honest with him and be open to where God is truly calling you --- including to marriage. I would suggest you find someone near you you can talk occasionally with about all of this to help you maintain perspective. It could be a counselor, a campus minister, an actual spiritual director, your parish priest or a religious there, a parent, etc. (With some religious congregations their vocation personnel would be a good choice for this.) Continue to develop your spirituality and maintain your active religious praxis at the same time, get the education you require, and above all pay attention to your heart and the voice there that calls you to maturity, responsibility, real joy, and a fullness of life you might hardly be able to imagine.
Let me know occasionally how things are going for you! I hope this has been helpful.
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 9:13 PM
27 January 2014
Reading through the book of 1 Samuel has left me feeling a bit like Alice falling through the rabbit hole. I mean really! There are stories of lies and deception, murderous intent, jealousy, ambiguous motives, secret anointings, etc., and so long as these help David achieve Kingship they are identified as the will of God! David, as much as we might like to idealize him as a beautiful young shepherd, gifted musician, healer, and noble King, and as often as the Scriptures tell us he has a "good heart," also has some pretty dark aspects to him and sometimes I find him profoundly unlikeable! But somehow all of this, including the machinations, deceptions, lying, etc, "is the will of God." How can this be??? Do the ends justify the means? Do we simply accuse Israel of a primitive and simplistic faith? Do we want to be accused of being naive and credulous ourselves?
Add to all this a really marvelous homily my pastor gave on Sunday in which the affirmation, "Everything happens for a reason" was a central point and refrain and you have something of a snapshot of what I have been meditating on and grappling with this last week.
I believe two things profoundly: 1) not everything that happens is the will of God, and 2) everything happens for a reason. I know these statements seem contradictory but they are actually coherent. How can that be? They come together in a third statement --- the statement Dietrich Bonhoeffer made to complete the first affirmation, namely, "but inevitably, nothing that does happen happens outside the will of God." It is this truth, that nothing happens outside the will of God that allows me to understand and accept the second affirmation, "Everything happens for a reason". However, for me this is not an affirmation that rules out senselessness, absurdity, evil and the powers of sin and death that are NOT of God. Instead it is a statement of faith in God's ultimate capacity as creator and redeemer. It is an affirmation of my belief in God's identity as a Master storyteller and that the unfinished cosmos (including every detail of our own relatively little but infinitely precious lives) are part of his story and are encompassed by his providence.
Theologians speak of God telling the story of creation where his "telling" is a creative act of course. Usually we think of God standing "behind the story" and it spreading out before him, but because we are dealing with an evolutionary and "unfinished universe" tending toward the day when God will be all in all, a number of theologians today speak instead of God standing "in front of the story" drawing the story towards its future and completion in him. In other words God creates first of all by summoning something out of nothing and then he summons reality to greater and greater levels of complexity and relatedness in himself. In this perspective God is identified as absolute futurity. Even with this perspective it was very difficult for me to agree with the refrain of my pastor's homily, "Everything happens for a reason!" Again --- until last week.
Staff Lunch and a Halloween Game:
What happened was that as I was meditating on some of this I remembered a game the parish staff had played at the end of a lunch at my pastor's last Halloween; because of this image and along with the theology I had been reading regarding evolution and the unfinished universe, everything fell into place for me. Even more, it added exciting dimensions to my image of God as creator, as Master Storyteller, and as a lover who protects our freedom even as he works to do justice in mercy. The game went like this: every place setting had a slip of paper with a number on one side and a Halloween-related item on the other. The person who was #1 had to begin a narrative and weave their item into it at which point a bell was rung and the person who was #2 had to pick up the threads of the narrative and weave their own item into all of that --- and so on through all 9 or 10 of us.
Now some of the staff were diligent and creative and did as required. They listened, respected the story told by those who had gone before, and tried hard to build on it in a unified and unifying way --- even when their own loosely-planned narrative was now made impossible and had to be sacrificed because of what had come before. Others essentially said to heck with the larger story and used the clue in whatever way they could think of. Some resisted playing altogether. In all cases (except that of the first person's narrative!) threads were dropped and the narrative was fractured into uncounted pieces while each person, limited as we were, muddled through --- managing to link only a few things as we wove our clues into a more or less (usually less!) coherent narrative. To call this challenging, especially after someone had gone their own way in an unrelated story is an understatement. (I was #9 in the queue and my own attempt was a complete and utter failure! However, it etched the game in my mind and is now a failure for which I will always be grateful.) On the whole our game was more like herding cats than weaving a tapestry or telling a unified story. But it was also reminiscent of a microcosm of sinful, finite humanity trying to "tell" our own stories both with and in spite of the overarching story God is trying to weave together with and through us.
And here is the essence of faith. We trust that God is truly the Master Storyteller who will drop no threads, leave nothing disconnected or senseless, treat nothing as insignificant or forgettable, and will redeem even the darkest threads by providing a context and future for them and all they touch, We trust that eventually all of these will glorify (reveal) God in the overarching story of creation's fulfillment which we call the Kingdom. It is in this way --- and I believe, only in this way --- that we can confidently and critically say everything happens for a reason. Something may be truly senseless or downright evil when it first occurs --- we do not naively deny this nor do we say it was God's will, but, for Christians there is an implicit promise in even these events that God will supply a "reason" for their having happened; God will make them meaningful and bring life out of them. Even the very worst and most godless reality that befalls us participates in this promise.
cf also, John Haught and a Metaphysics of Future and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bearing our Crosses
Postscript, 2/1/14. Tonight as I reflected more on this I was reminded of an old and wonderful folksong by Peter, Paul, and Mary: Weave me the Sunshine. Though not the source of my theology it is an apt bit of punctuation:
[[Hi Sister Laurel, How are you? I have been thinking about hermit life lately. Can anyone apply? Or is it only open to former nuns or those with an education in theology? I wonder how many monasteries there are nationwide that offer private apartments. I prefer more private residence than community residence. ]]
Hi there. Most of what I say here is written about in other posts as well so I suggest you look up some of the pertinent posts using the labels to the right.
While anyone can speak to their chancery personnel (Vicar for Religious, Vocations Director, Delegate for Consecrated Life, etc.) about becoming a diocesan hermit, it remains true that a person has almost no chance of serious consideration unless they have secured in some way the experience and formation in eremitical solitude along with the education or training which supports this life in terms of Scripture, prayer, and theology. These need not necessarily be gotten in a convent or monastery, nor do they require advanced degrees, but they are still necessary nonetheless. The ability to read commentaries and Scripture is especially important, I think, and some degree of solid theology is also critical. One will be reading and studying Scripture one's whole life so one needs tools to do that with. Similarly, one will be reading spirituality and related theology one's whole life so a basic education in theology will be essential. Some dioceses require their candidates for canon 603 profession to acquire a Master Catechist's certification to cover this need.
Monasteries generally do not have diocesan hermits living on their property nor do they have private apartments except, for instance, for visiting priests or others in leadership within the Order who are visiting the community. They do have guest houses for retreatants and diocesan hermits may go regularly (once or twice a year) on retreat to one community. Remember that monasteries are generally autonomous houses, not part of the diocesan system of institutions; a Bishop does not assign a hermit to live in a parish, etc, but were he to do so, a monastery would not be somewhere he could assign anyone. He might try to arrange temporary living space for a hermit with said monastery but this is not at all the way dioceses usually handle things with diocesan hermits (cf below). Occasionally a hermit may develop a relationship with a community of nuns or monks herself and be welcomed to live in a hermitage on the property, but she is not a formal part of the community and this arrangement is rare. In such a case the hermit would be responsible for her room and any board allowed her as well as her general upkeep just as she would if she were living in an urban parish (cf below). She could be asked to vacate her housing at any time should the monastic community require that.
Diocesan or solitary hermits professed under canon 603 generally live alone and are usually part of a parish. They are not part of a community otherwise (even a religious community of hermits) and are specifically called to solitary eremitical life. (Lauras of diocesan hermits are possible but these are not communities in the strict sense.) Some are fortunate enough to be able to live in rural areas or in the mountains and deserts, but most today are urban hermits. Thus, most hermits live in single family dwellings, apartments, condos, or something similar. Some few may have caregivers on the premises but the arrangement must not impede a life of the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance. In all cases (wherever the hermit finds a home to make into a hermitage) they are responsible for their own upkeep, insurance, living arrangements, education, retreats, spiritual direction, Rule of Life, provision for active ministry --- if any, burial expenses, food, clothing, transportation, etc.
During these first years, if in fact, you continue in this experimental living situation, you should begin to develop an initial sense of what the eremitical Tradition is about, its varied expressions, and the values it embodies and brings to the Church and world. As implied, you would meet regularly with your director and allow her to help you discern why you feel called to this as well as what other vocations you might also be called to with similar values. If your interest in this vocation continues more strongly and it seems the way God is calling you to human wholeness and a life of generous love lived for others, then it might be time to contact your diocese to have an initial discussion on the possibility of being professed as a diocesan hermit under canon 603.
One other thing should again be noted here. Dioceses ordinarily consider solitary eremitical life as a second half of life vocation. For those younger persons who have less life experience and may never have been formed in religious life, the better option is often to enter a community of hermits which allows for a structured formation and a formal balance between solitude and community.
Posted by Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. at 10:00 AM
25 January 2014
Today is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and my own feast day as well. We know Paul's story well. A good Jew, indeed, a scholar of the Law who saw the early Church as a distortion and danger to orthodoxy, one who understood that a crucified person was godless and shameful and could in no way be a faithful Jew or prophet, much less God's anointed one, persecuted the Church in the name of orthodoxy and for the glory of God. In sincere faithfulness to the covenant Paul hounded men, women and children, many of whom were his own neighbors. He sent them to prison and thence to their deaths. He, at least technically And according to Luke's version of things), colluded in the stoning of Stephen and sought to wipe Christians from the face of the earth.
While on a campaign to Damascus to root out and destroy more "apostates" Paul had a dramatic vision and heard someone call out to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Paul inquired who this voice was and was told, "I am Jesus whom you persecuteth." In that moment everything Paul knew, believed, and practiced, was turned upside down. God had vindicated the One whom Paul knew to be godless acording to the Law. He was alive rather than eternally dead, risen through the power of God as the Christians had claimed. For Paul nothing would ever be the same again. So it is with conversions.
Perhaps it is a matter of faulty perception on my part, and if so, I apologize, but it seems to me that conversion is not something most Catholics regard as pertinent to their lives. Conversion is something non-Catholics do when they become Catholics (or vice versa!). It is a onetime event that those "born into the faith" don't (it is thought) need to worry about! Those "born Catholic" may think in terms of "growing in their faith" or "becoming a better Catholic" (and there is certainly nothing wrong with thinking this way!) but "conversion" seems to be a word that is simply little-used for these processes. Somehow (perhaps because of the story of Paul!) conversion is too dramatic and messy a process it seems. It disrupts and is marked by difficult and abrupt discontinuities and conflicts or tensions. It demands a spiritual praxis which sets one apart from the norm, a prayer life which is central, engagement with the Word of God which is profound and more extensive than usual -- not minimal or nominal, and a faith life which does not tolerate compartmentalization. Growth, becoming, etc, are safer words --- demanding, yes, but somehow less total and more socially acceptable than references to "conversion."
In monastic life, and especially in Benedictine monastic life the primary vow is to conversion of life. This vow includes those ordinarily made in religious life, the vows of poverty and chastity. One commits oneself to continually allow God to remake one into the image of Christ (and into one's truest self). There is a sense that such conversion is a gradual and lifelong process of growth and maturation, yes, but there is also an openness to conversion as dramatic and all-consuming. Here conversion is something which does not allow the monastic to divide their lives into sacred and profane or to compartmentalize them into the spiritual and the non-spiritual. Here the Word of God is expected and allowed to convict, challenge, transform, and empower. Here the Spirit of God is accepted as the spirit which moves within us enlivening, edifying, consolidating, and purifying --- the Spirit which humanizes and sanctifies us into the covenant reality we are most truly. It is a pattern which should be true of every Christian.
Paul's initial conversion experience was dramatic by any standards, but drama aside, it did for Paul what encounter and engagement with the Word of God is meant to do to any of us. It caused him to see his entire world and life in terms of the risen and Crucified Christ. It put law completely at the service of love and made compassion the way to accomplish justice. It made human weakness the counterpart of divine strength, mercy and forgiveness the way God's will is accomplished, and in every other way turned the values of this world on their head. May each of us open ourselves to the kind of conversion of life we celebrate today.
In my own life I recognize that a hermit has to be open to being called to greater and greater degrees of reclusion as we witness to the truth that God (Love-in-act) is the foundation of the being and meaning of our lives and so too, as we also witness to the fact that communion with God is the one necessary thing. It results in a quies or hesychia which is the singleness and peace of a compassionate heart resting in God. Everything comes down to this; everything else, every other relationship and authentic form of love and active ministry flows from it. In my own Camaldolese tradition we have Nazarena who lived as an anchorite in the Motherhouse (St Anthony's) in Rome in the 20th Century as a model of what this might mean.
Other faith traditions also have anchorites who witness to this same foundational truth; in this brief clip you catch a glimpse of a Buddhist solitary who lives as anchorites have lived for centuries and centuries. Despite her intense physical solitude, she is dependent upon others bringing her food and providing medical care. She too speaks of everything coming down to one essential reality, a singleness of mind, and of a peace and compassion which flows outward to all creation from this. There is also a strong and natural element of hospitality in her life as she opens her window to these unique guests. Christian monastics, especially Benedictines, would certainly not be surprised by this!
We are not the same, of course, not in our beliefs or even our spiritual praxis but our hearts are similarly formed in the silence of solitude and I would wager they speak to one another in the same language of spiritual maturity --- that of compassion for the whole of creation. Whether formed in the silence of solitude or in some other way I believe this is the heart we are each called to have.