14 June 2016

Followup Questions (and Objections) on Sources and Resources for Inner Work

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I read your article on what you call "inner work" and I have to say that I wonder what it all has to do with a hermit's vocation to union with God and the cultivation of personal holiness. Shouldn't you be praying instead of reading books by atheist psychologists and doing New Age psychobabble like PHR? Besides if you need that much help how can you claim to have a vocation anyway? Does your spiritual director push this bizarreness off on you? . . . That's why I would want a priest as a director. . .  Also, your personal notion of penance seems really strange to me. You don't mention fasting or asceticism but you mention this "inner work" and journaling. Is this part of an approved Rule of Life?]]

WOW! I hope you've said all you felt you needed to. Your first question is actually a really good one. The rest --- well, I'll take all that as I feel it is or at least might be helpful to other readers --- and as my own irritation subsides. The piece I put up on inner work was pretty clear I think. We are called to personal wholeness and holiness by and in God. Prayer is a huge part of that, of course, but spiritual direction and some forms of inner work can be incredibly important, even indispensable. They can also be forms of worship or prayer. God comes and calls to us in many ways. The yearning for wholeness, for fullness of being is the very essence of that call. Our response may require 1) assistance (as in spiritual direction and/or PRH), and 2) methodical inner work as part of that. We use the gifts God gives us. Since we are relational or dialogical at our core those gifts will often include avenues (including significant persons) which help God foster holiness and wholeness in us. If I find a methodology or approach to living life fully, a methodology which allows me to live the silence of solitude more deeply, intensely, and extensively, then I am going to consider using that and I will do it for the greater glory of God!

Your own opinions to the contrary my vocation is not in question --- not with God, the Church, myself --- not with my superiors nor anyone at all who actually knows me, and certainly not because I am still growing and/or healing. A vocational call is not issued once, answered with definitive profession and then left behind as a done deal. Such a call is issued every single day, sometimes many, many times a day and the dedicated response we call obedience is given in a similar manner --- usually with greater and greater perception and integrity as we grow in wholeness and holiness. No one with any vocation is without need for healing. Holiness may be real without being exhaustive. It is true that I advise someone seeking to live a canonical eremitical life to have their healing mainly in hand before doing so. I believe that and followed that advice myself. But my vocation IS a call to holiness and to union with God; both of those things mean reconciliation with all the parts of myself which may not have been appropriately recognized or honored throughout my life. Some of those parts may even be deeply wounded and require healing but it is because I am essentially whole and secure in my vocation that this kind of work would actually be undertaken at this point in time and, in fact, would be able to be undertaken. This kind of work, for instance, is part of my response to this vocation, something I commit to in order to live and to live it more fully.

Eremitical life (like any form of religious life) takes strength, personal integrity, and flexibility. It demands profound listening and the ability to be at home with God and with oneself --- for generally one lives with oneself with and in God alone. The inner work I described, whether that associated with spiritual direction, with Jungian analysis, or with PRH, for instance, help foster those things. They serve God, myself, and my vocation. I believe they serve my relationships in this stable state of life and the eremitical vocation more generally as well. Could I be wrong? I suppose. But given the fruits of the work I have done and am committed to continuing, fruits I will continue to attend to, I think it is extremely unlikely. And of course I would not be recommending inner work to others if I felt it conflicted with an essentially Christian and/or consecrated state of Life.

By the way, it's probably never a good idea to suggest one's spiritual director is foisting stuff off on a directee in a way which infringes on her freedom or judgment unless you truly know it to be the case.  You are, like anyone else, certainly free to go to a priest for spiritual direction but the simple fact is that most priests are not spiritual directors and are not trained to do direction. (On the other hand I suspect there are a number of priests  trained to do PRH should you ever want to try it.) In any case my director is really fine and has NEVER worked in a way which infringes my freedom or my judgment --- quite the opposite in fact. PRH is not something we use much in ordinary direction --- at least not in an explicit way --- but we do turn to it from time to time (e.g., for discernment) and we use it in an explicit and more or less intensive way for growth and healing work. (I use PRH tools frequently in my own personal work and in preparing for direction but the dynamics of spiritual direction per se are pretty different from the dynamics of PRH accompaniment, for instance. On the other hand,  my director listens and helps me to listen deeply to the voice of God and the call to abundant Life both within and around me in the same way whether she is doing SD or PRH; at all times she works to honor (and enhance!) my own freedom and judgment in Christ. This is what direction should be and do. As I have noted several times before, if a director tries to "bind in obedience", routinely commands the directee to act in one way and another, or otherwise fails to enhance her freedom and judgment in Christ then one should probably look elsewhere for a competent director.

On Asceticism and Penance:

No, I didn't mention either fasting or asceticism --- but I might well have. The work of personal growth in wholeness and holiness, what I called inner work, is precisely what the desert Fathers would have recognized as "ascetical" and fostering the work of ascesis. Remember that ascesis is a matter of "training" --- training the heart, mind, and body to act with a single focus or "purity". The disciplines associated with the forms of inner work I mentioned are explicitly involved with this kind of training. The difference is the impulse which unites and purifies, which makes single in God, comes from within, not from without. There is external discipline involved --- for instance the discipline associated with doing the writing or paying attention as one learns and is vowed and obligated by Rule to do, etc. Still, it is from the inner yearning, need, and Divine call to be whole that everything proceeds and which everything else serves. One comes, over time to attend carefully to the mind, heart, and the body in a way which serves God's will to reconciliation and holiness; the training in this "way of responsive attentiveness"  (obedience)  is profoundly ascetical.

I know you think my notion of penance is a strange one (yes, it is part of an approved Rule of Life; Archbishop Vigneron approved it in 2007), but, again, the inner work I am describing is ascetical in the best way possible. Meanwhile, what I describe as penance always refers to the tools and activities that serve prayer --- especially in the sense of allowing me to become the prayer God made me to be. Penance and asceticism are so closely related as to be indistinguishable to my mind. You may certainly object, but substantive questions might better help to clarify things instead.

11 June 2016

The Silence of Solitude and the redemption of Silences of Violence

Dear Sister, you wrote about silence being associated with some violence. I wondered if you could say more about that. Also, I am trying to understand what you mean by the redemption of silence and solitude and their transfiguration into the silence of solitude. Could you explain that for me? I understand they are different and that they overlap some but I am not seeing how a bigger silence redeems a smaller one (I know those are not your words exactly but I think you know what I am referring to and I am unable to cut and paste from your blog).

Thanks for the questions. I need to find the post you are referring to. I remember the reference to silence as violence and don't think it was more than a few months old, but I am not sure which specific post I included that in. Still, until then, let me give your questions a shot.

Sometimes folks use silence and maybe isolation as well as a kind of weapon. That is a form of violence which can be both painful and damaging. For instance there is a kind of shunning or exclusion that can work this way. We see this in certain religious sects and though the action is meant to serve rehabilitation it does not always work this way. We also see it, though, in society at large and even in families who punish by ostracizing and shunning. Jesus' culture had lepers and the otherwise "unclean"; India has its "untouchables," many countries and times have scapegoated Jews, etc. Dysfunctional families sometimes have the child on whom the anger and other tensions or dysfunctions  within the group devolve. How ever and whenever silence is used in this way and some version of shunning happens the person caught in such a situation must find a way of redeeming things. They must find a context which embraces and includes their own situation and transforms and revalues it in the process.

The kind of silence that does that must be a loving and inclusive silence, the kind of silence we associate with good friends who sit companionably together in mutual support; it will be the kind of silence that is necessary when words would be weak, futile, and insufficient --- and thus, intrude, distort, and betray; it will be the kind of silence that occurs when one person's love has no words or another's pain has none because these realities are simply too deep and exist in silent relation to  the ineffable. We know that Jesus' suffering during the passion was the most intense and extensive any human being could have experienced. We know that Jesus' emptiness and abandonment were as deep as they could conceivably be and that his Abba suffered a rupture or separation in his own life as well at this time. Our own experiences of abandonment and emptiness are always mitigated by God's presence and often by the presence of others who love us nevertheless. We also know that Jesus' cry of abandonment was an inarticulate cry and that otherwise he was generally reduced to muteness. And yet he remained open and responsive to his Abba; when sin and godless death swallowed him up in ultimate emptiness and final muteness, God, the very abyss of the "silence of solitude" embraced all of that and took it into his very self. This silent love transformed it all entirely and brought life and meaning out of death and absurdity.

At my parish with the daily Mass community I am hoping we will be trying an experiment in shared silence soon. We have begun to talk about cultivating a period of extended silence before Mass once a week and asking everyone who comes into the worship space (chapel) to take their places quietly and join us in this way of developing community. We are not trying to create little islands of mute isolation as once was enforced pre-Vatican II. Nor are we looking to deal with issues of noise and courtesy per se. Instead we are looking to allow each person to experience the freedom to go deep within their own selves to that Self beyond words and at the same time, to support one another in this. Because we will all be rooted deeply in the God who is the silent Ground of Being we will be joined together at the level of heart --- beyond words, beyond our individual pain, but also in a way which allows each person to pour out their hearts to God in silence.

My hope is that a dimension of the same kind of community will come to be that occurs in monastic communities which share this kind of silent prayer regularly. If we can do this my sense is people will find it a powerful medicine or balm for their souls when words cannot help --- and, over time, we will be creating ministers capable of being with others in their pain in ways we each often hunger for, but which our culture distrusts or simply is entirely ignorant of. I believe it will transform our already-very-fine community of faith into a greater image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Perhaps some will discover a call to contemplative prayer and living!

My director showed me the above picture yesterday which symbolizes one of the ways our own work together sometimes proceeds. I think it's a great way of thinking of the shared silence of solitude that can embrace and safely hold the various discrete silences, mutenesses,  emptinesses and overly-full griefs, fears, and other realities of our lives that cannot be fixed or (often!) even touched by words. Similarly it can transfigure them into a greater and silent song of love, friendship, and communion. We (my parish community) want to be that community that cares for and supports everyone without exception beyond the limitations and exclusion of words, noise, and futile activism. So we will try periods of shared quiet prayer to create a context similar to the greater and loving silence which can also bring the redemption of those often-damaging forms of silence and exclusion I mentioned in my earlier post. Our world desperately needs people who can bring this kind of silence (loving inclusion) to its pain.

Does this begin to answer your questions? If not please feel free to ask again and even to sharpen those questions I failed to answer.

07 June 2016

Sources and Resources for Inner Work

[[Hi Sister Laurel,
      You have referred a couple of times to doing "inner work" in relation to spiritual direction and recommended it for formation and discernment. I wondered what you meant. Is this something one could do if their spiritual director does not usually expect or use it or does one need to do it with someone? What you wrote about developing the heart of a hermit was very powerful for me, it resonated with some of my own experience so I was wondering if the kind of inner work you are referring to could be of any help to me. I am not sure about wanting to become a hermit but I think I might have "the heart of a hermit" as you describe it. Anything you could suggest to help with this would be appreciated.]]

Great questions and I am glad you appreciated the piece on developing the heart of a hermit. It's always special, I think, when something someone writes like that "resonates" with our own experience. Anyway, I think I have been asked about "inner work" one other time --- though it was a few years ago. The post might be of some assistance as background so I'll see if I can find it and create a link even though I am sure I will repeat a lot of it here.

When I speak of inner work I ordinarily mean the personal work that stems from and prepares for spiritual direction or from everyday situations or things that arise from prayer. In spiritual direction it often happens that I become aware of places where healing needs to happen or where significant growth is occurring which requires conscious attention not only to help things along but also to honor the way grace is present in my life. Some of this work means using the tools I learned or am learning to better understand and use from my director who is also an animator and/or facilitator in PRH (French for Personality and Human Relations). We also call this growth work but it provides a focused approach to healing and maturation with a significant spiritual dimension. The idea behind PRH as I understand it is that it provides a fairly systematic approach (PRH would say "methodical") to the very human task of becoming fully alive --- which is exactly the reason Jesus came to us.

What I most appreciate about it (something which is an essential part of its incredible power and contribution to contemplative life) is that it always begins in the present. It is not given to random or "feverish" (to quote my director) "emotional archeology" (my term). It can certainly lead to the past and help accomplish the healing needed there but unless that need is showing itself in and affecting one's present functioning one does not spend time and energy on this. As part of this work I do journaling using a number of really effective tools including "topographies" (a kind of written illustration of the emotional journey one makes in relation to situations which trigger disproportionate recurrent reactions) and occasionally my director will give me a specific question or set of questions which allow me to explore and "live into" what is "alive" in me at a given time. I also use dialogues (a way of learning to listen to and integrate my unconscious with my conscious mind as well as to resolve inner struggles with various parts of myself).

Inner work also thus includes the kinds of things Carl Jung found so beneficial to the process of individuation and to what he sometimes referred to as the "transcendent function", namely dream work or analysis and active imagination.  In doing this I tend to use the work of Robert Johnson and others as guides. (Johnson is a Jungian and writes clearly and practically about a four step process to work with both dreams and active imagination as tools to personal integration and transcendence. Others provide ways to work with our "shadow.") The book I have mainly referred to in this is Johnson's, Inner Work. I would recommend this. Jeffrey Miller's, The Transcendent Function, Jung's Model of Psychological growth Through  Dialogue With the Unconscious is not a how-to book but it is profoundly helpful in explaining what is going on in some of this inner work. Finally, of course, inner work involves prayer in all its forms, lectio divina, and any of the creative activities I might participate in including music, writing (especially journaling and some forms of blogging), and drawing. All of these allow or facilitate one entering into a liminal space where dialogue, healing, greater integration, and transcendence can occur.

By the way, both PRH and Jungian approaches are entirely consonant with theistic approaches to inner work and with Christian thought and spirituality. PRH especially has an underlying theology which some may choose to ignore or leave entirely implicit, while Jung's psychology seems to me to call for an explicit theology supporting the dialogical and teleological dimensions of the human being Jung honors and describes so well. The point is that one need not compromise one's faith to use these or some other methodologies (various approaches to journaling, for instance) and in many ways can enhance that faith with these approaches to inner work.

Working With Another:

Most of these approaches work fine as solitary enterprises. One can always journal, write, draw or paint, etc, and do so entirely on one's own. At the same time I have to say that spiritual direction is always helpful and too-little used today (it is not just for religious or monastics, for instance, nor only for the "super religious"). PRH works optimally when another can teach, guide you, and in particular truly hear (accompany) you in the work you do. Healing tends to be a function of being heard by another (ultimately we will rest or achieve quies in God who truly and exhaustively "hears" us but for some work one MUST have someone accompanying them); this is especially true when one has suffered alone and even carried the burden of trauma and woundedness with him/her for years and years without being able to articulate, much less share the pain and import of it all.  At many points PRH and  the other forms of inner work  can be done alone and then the results (which involve God working within us) can always be shared and further explored with one's director or another professional (including PRH accompanists), for instance. What all competent spiritual directors are really skilled at is listening and that means they will be able to discern the working of God and, through questions, etc, shape the conversation so you can also continue the work begun in the session itself.

I have one caveat here. If you have not really worked with a therapist or in some other way done enough work to have gotten your own healing (whatever that may be) relatively well in hand, I think it is best to work with someone on a regular basis. Spiritual direction itself is a stand alone discipline which can also be a fantastic complement to therapy, for example, but generally speaking it will not and should not be used to substitute for it. For this reason most directors will assess the person they are directing to see if their needs include therapy. Spiritual directors do not make diagnoses nor do we usually have the capacity to do this but we can ordinarily tell whether a person is going to be able to benefit from direction and do the work associated with it, or whether therapy will be necessary to achieve this --- either prior to beginning direction or in conjunction with it. (Sometimes a directee needs medication (usually for depression and/or anxiety); once they are medicated appropriately they will make normal strides in direction; in these cases therapy itself may not be necessary and a physician is needed simply to monitor the medication. The inner work  can be undertaken on one's own in conjunction with spiritual direction or with PRH or something similar.) Similarly, Jungian psychologists recognize the work can be done on one's own but that sometimes one's unconscious can "get out of control;" at these times it is important to have access to someone who can help one negotiate the situation.

Relating this to the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

This may all sound far removed from the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the spirituality of hermits, for instance, but I don't believe it is. I have always been intrigued by the accounts of battles with demons in these stories and believe me, when we deal with the parts of ourselves left unhealed, distorted, or broken in childhood and throughout life, the process of healing can be as fierce, demanding, and messy as stories of Desert ancestors battling all day and night long with demons then coming out of their caves torn and bloodied but exultant in the morning! The same is true of the story of Jacob wrestling with God (God's angel) and, painfully wounded though he was, refusing to let go until God blessed him. We enter the desert both to seek God and to do battle with demons; it is a naïve person indeed who does not anticipate meeting themselves face to face there in all of their weakness, brokenness, and giftedness as well! We may well know that God is profoundly involved in what may eventuate into the fight (or struggle) of and for our lives but it can take time, faith, and perseverance before we walk away both limping and blessed beyond measure.

Sometimes the healing or inner work required by faith and grace is significant; we cannot honor or truly glorify (manifest) God with only half our hearts, half our lives, half ourselves; as we go through life however, for any number of reasons we leave (and often must leave!) parts of ourselves behind --- neglected and for all intents and purposes abandoned; reclaiming these, reuniting and reconciling with them can take incredible energy and be painful beyond believing. Similarly, healing the distortions within us which have arisen precisely because we left parts of ourselves behind -- whether in defense against trauma, or in a number of other circumstances --- requires work as well as grace, and often, the assistance of competent persons. (In such instances the impulse and power to undertake the work IS an act of grace!) Only then can a long struggle end with God truly blessing us as we have deeply desired and needed and God has profoundly willed to do --- sometimes for many, many years. This "work" is a fundamental part of growth in wholeness and holiness in the desert. It is a necessary part of forming the heart of a hermit and an essential dimension of coming to true quies as a hesychast resting in the heart of God.

Inner Work as Penance in Service to Prayer and Obedience:

I personally count this work as part of the "assiduous penance" I am committed to under canon 603. Because I understand penance as any activity which complements prayer (including the prayer I am called to be) and which helps to prepare for it, regularize it, or extend the fruits of it into my everyday life, inner work has always functioned that way for me --- or at least has done so since the mid 1980's.

When canon 603 calls for a life of assiduous prayer and penance I think it calls first of all for a LIFE, and moreover, a life which is lived as both gift and task. In prayer I am loved by God and empowered to allow God to love his whole creation through me; in penance I deal with those things which prevent that from happening with my whole heart, and soul, and body (because sometimes the stuff we need to work through deprives us of energy, the capacity for appropriate bodily expression, and even the ability to care adequately for ourselves physically). For me penance has nothing to do with arbitrarily creating abnormal corporal practices, punishments, arcane disciplines, etc. Instead it involves doing all that is necessary to allow for prayer -- and for my becoming God's own prayer in the world; it therefore involves the freeing of the spirit so the body too might be as whole and free as possible in and with the grace of God.

Romuald receives the gift of tears
Similarly, this kind of work seems to me to be called for by my vow of obedience. In professing (or dedicating ourselves to) obedience we commit ourselves to listen attentively and to respond appropriately to the voice or will of God with our whole selves. Obedience is the vow of the one committed to attending to God and therefore to Life and Love, Truth and Beauty, Meaning and Wholeness wherever these imperatives occur. It means being fully engaged both with and on behalf of these realities. Thus, the tools I use (or am still learning to use) are a necessary part of being truly obedient to God --- especially to the God who, though beyond me, dwells within me and summons me to himself. To be reconciled fully with that God, to be entirely obedient to that God, means being reconciled fully with myself as well --- something that also means healing in the ways I have already described. Inner work is an act of obedience, not because someone says "you must do this" as some arbitrary act of discipline or submission to an external norm or Rule, but because my own vocation to holiness (wholeness in and with God) summons me to hearken to the call to abundant life in this precise way.

I am aware this may have raised more questions for you, so if that's the case please get back to me. Meanwhile I hope I have given you some sense of how rich are the sources and means of an inner work that serves one's journey with and within God.

03 June 2016

Feast of the Sacred Heart (Reprise)

Today we celebrate a feast that may seem at first glance to be irrelevant to contemporary life. The Feast of the Sacred Heart developed in part as a response to pre-destinationist theologies which diminished the universality of the gratuitous love of God and consigned many to perdition. But the Church's own theology of grace and freedom point directly to the reality of the human heart -- that center of the human person where God freely speaks himself and human beings respond in ways which are salvific for them and for the rest of the world. It asks us to see all  persons as constituted in this way and called to life in and of God. Today's Feast of the Sacred Heart, then, despite the shift in context, asks us to reflect again on the nature of the human heart, to the greatest danger to spiritual or authentically human life the Scriptures identify, and too, on what a contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart might mean for us.

As I have written here before, the heart is the symbol of the center of the human person. It is a theological term which points first of all to God and to God's activity deep within us. It is not so much that we have a heart and then God comes to dwell there; it is that where God dwells within us and bears witness to himself, we have a heart. The human heart (not the cardiac muscle but the center of our personhood the Scriptures call heart) is a dialogical event where God speaks, calls, breathes, and sings us into existence and where, in one way and degree or another, we respond to become the people we are. It is therefore important that our hearts be open and flexible, that they be obedient to the Voice and love of God, and so that they be responsive in all the ways they are summoned to be.

Bearing this in mind it is no surprise that the Scriptures speak in many places about the very worst thing which could befall a human being and her spiritual life. We hear it in the following line from Ezekiel: [[If today you hear [God's] voice, harden not your hearts.]] Many things contribute to such a reaction. We know that love is risky and that it always hurts. Sometimes this hurt is akin to the mystical experience of being pierced by God's love and is a wonderful but difficult experience. Sometimes it is the pain of compassion or empathy or grief. These are often bittersweet experiences, but they are also life giving. Other times love wounds us in less fruitful ways: we are betrayed by friends or family, we reach out to another in love and are rejected, a billion smaller losses wound us in ways from which we cannot seem to recover.

In such cases our hearts are not only wounded but become scarred, indurated, less sensitive to pain (or pleasure), stiff and relatively inflexible. They, quite literally, become "hardened" and we may be fearful and unwilling or even unable to risk further injury. When the Scriptures speak of the "hardening" of our hearts they use the very words medicine uses to speak of the result of serious and prolonged wounding: induration, sclerosis, callousedness. Such hardening is self-protective but it also locks us into a world which makes us less capable of responding to love with all of its demands and riskiness. It makes us incapable of suffering well (patiently, fruitfully), or of real selflessness, generosity, or compassion.

It is here that the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus' is instructive and where contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart can assist us. The Sacred Heart is clearly the place where human and divine are united in a unique way. While we are not called to Daughterhood or to Sonship in the exact same sense of Jesus' (he is "begotten" Son, we are adopted Sons --- and I use only Sons because of the prophetic, countercultural sense that term had for women in the early Church), we are meant to be expressions of a similar unity and heritage; we are meant to have God as the well spring of life and love at the center of our existence.

Like the Sacred Heart our own hearts are meant to be "externalized" in a sense and (made) transparent to others. They are meant to be wounded by love and deeply touched by the pain of others but not scarred or indurated in that woundedness; they are meant to be compassionate hearts on fire with love and poured out for others --- hearts which are marked by the cross in all of its kenotic (self-emptying) dimensions and therefore too by the joy of ever-new life. The truly human heart is a reparative heart which heals the woundedness of others and empowers them to love as well. Such hearts are hearts which love as God loves, and therefore which do justice. I think that allowing our own hearts to be remade in this way represents an authentic devotion to Jesus' Sacred Heart. There is nothing lacking in relevance or contemporaneity in that!

30 May 2016

A Contemplative Moment: Solace

is the art of asking the beautiful question, of ourselves, of the world or of one another, in fiercely difficult and un-beautiful moments. Solace is what we must look for when the mind cannot bear the pain, the loss or the suffering that eventually touches every life and every endeavor, when longing does not come to fruition  in a form we can recognize, when people we know and love disappear, when hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.
Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp or make sense of.
Solace is a beautiful, imaginative home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated. When life does not in any way add up, we must turn to the part of us that has never wanted a life of simple calculation. Solace is found in allowing the body's innate wisdom to come to the fore, the part of us that already knows it is mortal and must take its leave like everything else, and leading us, when the mind cannot bear what it is seeing or hearing, to the birdsong in the tree above our heads, even as we are being told of a death, each note an essence of mourning; of the current of a life moving on, but somehow, also, and most beautifully, carrying, bearing, and even celebrating into the life we have just lost. A life we could not see or appreciate until it was taken from us
To be consoled is to be invited onto the terrible ground of beauty upon which our inevitable disappearance stands, to a voice that does not sooth falsely, but touches the epicenter of our pain or articulates the essence of our loss, and then emancipates us into both life and death as an equal birthright.
To look for solace is to learn to ask fiercer and more exquisitely pointed questions, questions that reshape  our identities and our bodies and our relation to others. Standing in loss but not overwhelmed by it we become useful and generous and compassionate and even amusing companions for others. But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light, and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?

by David Whyte in
Consolations, The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

27 May 2016

Who Do You Say That I am? Jesus and the Cursing of the Fig Tree

This week I spent time "walking around" in the enacted parables which comprised today's Gospel. It was the wonderful Markan construction involving the cleansing of the Temple sandwiched between the first and second halves of the parable of the cursing of the fig tree. As often happens with Jesus' parables I heard Jesus asking the really critical question which is at the heart of all faith or, depending on our answer, all unfaith: "Who do you say that I am?"

Introduction, Parables once again:

Like all parables, spoken or enacted, today's were meant to provide us with a sacred space in which we can enter in and meet Christ and the question of who he is face to face. Remember the word parable comes from two Greek words, para = alongside of (like paralegals and paramedics who work alongside attorneys and physicians), and the verb ballein = to thrown down. Jesus' parables work by laying down a world view, a way of understanding or seeing, a certain perspective or set of values which are familiar and allow us to enter in to the story comfortably and without fear or other baggage. Then, Jesus says or does something which off-foots us; it may disturb, disorient, shock or, as is the case in today's Gospel, even offend us and cause us to cry out, "UNFAIR!" in objection. Ordinarily this thing Jesus says or does represents our way into  a new world, a new way of seeing, a new perspective or set of values. It presents us with a choice: the status quo or this new way of being.

At bottom our choice is always between "the world" as common sense sees it (for instance) and the Kingdom Jesus proclaims. In today's Gospel since it is an enacted parable rather than one Jesus tells us directly, that bottom line question is about Jesus himself, "Who is he really? Is he just another person whose expectations are unreasonable and who can't handle the disappointment that is sure to come when he is faced with reality? Is he a short-tempered, impatient religious zealot who can't handle the fact that God (or the dominant religion and its leadership) are not really in his control? Or, is he something very much more and more mysterious than these things? And if the latter, then what or who is he? When I regain my balance within this parable and return to my ordinary reality, on what ground will I take my stand? In what soil will my heart and mind be rooted? Who, in fact, will I say that he is?

The Cursing of the Fig Tree: Expecting Fruit in Season and Out

Two parts of this Fig Tree--Temple--Fig Tree sandwich were especially important to me this week in answering that question afresh. The first was the section on the cursing of the fig tree which, admittedly, I never have "gotten". What Jesus does in this section always strikes me as unreasonable, unfair, and maybe even unworthy of someone we claim to be God's Messiah. To approach a fig tree in leaf expecting fruit when it is not the time for fruit is silly enough, but to then curse the fig tree so that no one will ever eat from it again when it is simply being its natural self is simply outrageous --- even if Jesus DOES have such a power (and at this point in the story, as well as with Jesus' apparent tantrum in the Temple, that question is still unanswered).

But then, along with reminding myself of how parables work, I recalled something I had read a few years ago: Namely, in Jesus' day it was thought that when the Eschaton arrived fruit trees would bear fruit all year around. From there my mind made the simple leap to Paul's exhortation that Christians be persons who proclaim the Good News with their lives, "in season and out".  And I thought about Jesus (in whomever this occurs) approaching me because he was hungry. I thought of all the times folks have come to me because they needed food of various sorts and, for whatever reason, I simply could not give them what they needed. Sometimes it was because of insecurity or fear; sometimes it was because my own woundedness needed healing. Sometimes it was because I couldn't translate the theology I knew into the heart-touching nourishment it was meant to be. And sometimes it was because I let prayer or lectio or Scripture slide for a time and tried to feed them today on what was days or even weeks old.

Because we are empowered by an ever-faithful God we Christians are those who feed the persons who come to us hungry whether it is a time of plenty for us or a time of famine, whether it is a good day or a bad one, whether we are insecure or confident, are immensely talented, lack a discrete talent, or whatever constrains us. The Gospel of the God who brings life out of death, light out of darkness, and multiplies the meagre loaves and fishes of our lives into Eucharistic abundance makes that possible. So, this week when I heard the question, "Who do you say that I am?" I knew that part of the answer was that Jesus was the One who made me more capable of being that person I am called to be in him --- the one who is both challenged and empowered to bear fruit in season and out, the hermit who bears witness to a love that transforms isolation into the covenantal reality called "the silence of solitude". It's not very commonsensical maybe but it is the wisdom of the Kingdom.

The Teaching On Prayer and the Power to Move Mountains:

The second part of this Markan theological sandwich that challenged and posed the question "Who do you say that I am?" this week had to do with Jesus' teaching on prayer. Things in this part of the reading moved along relatively smoothly for me until Jesus said, [[Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in her heart but believes that what she says will happen, it shall be done for her.]] This line represented one of those classic Jesuan "parable moments" that off-foot and disorient, trouble and challenge. It stopped me in my tracks. And so, as I was praying with this text I heard myself saying (in shades of Peter!), "Lord you know I believe, you know I trust you, BUT. . ." There's a whole world of doubt locked inside that single word, BUT: "But I don't believe I can just pluck up and toss mountains into the sea, but I don't know if I will ever be without doubt, I know your language is symbolic BUT. . ."  Whether it was the puckish part of my own heart or whether it was Jesus speaking with own his characteristic gentleness and wry humor, I heard in response, "Laurel, who ever said the mountain had to be moved in one fell swoop?!"

And in response I looked back at what was the landscape of my life and was freshly awed to find that most of the mountains I thought were insurmountable obstacles that could never be moved, climbed, or otherwise overcome --- much less handily tossed into some sea or other --- had dissolved. Oh sure, it took work, and patience;  it took innumerable  small acts of faithfulness and some larger ones as well, but especially it took the grace of God mediated in so many ways that empowered and let me transcend my own powerlessness. And in this way, stone by stone, tree by tree, piece by boulder by piece, those mountains had gone. They had been thrown into the sea. So, when it came time to answer Jesus' implicit question, "Who do you say that I am?" my new answer had to be, "You are the One who teaches me to pray, the One in whom my heart sings with freedom; you are the One with and in whom I have moved mountains!'


Parables are powerful language events capable of giving birth to faith and transforming our minds and hearts in an encounter with God. If we are off-footed, disturbed, or even offended by the second set of values, the new perspective, the counterintuitive world view Jesus throws down for us --- if we conclude it is a "difficult word" or "hard saying" we just "don't get", we should be reassured that Jesus' parable is doing exactly what his parables are meant to do. Like the Pool of Siloam that must be stirred up to heal, the parable stirs us up; it breaks open our minds and hearts so we may embrace the new way of seeing and being that is associated with the Kingdom of God. In today's Gospel Jesus may be an irascible, impatient, idealist with messianic delusions and an unreasonable and impossibly demanding set of religious beliefs. Or we may just have met the One who brings the Eschaton and welcomes us into very Life of God. One way or the other once we enter the space  created by Jesus' parables, the question of faith, the question of who we say Jesus is, is one we will not be able to leave unanswered.

23 May 2016

Pentecost Fire 2016

Over the past weeks and months readers will know I have been pondering and celebrating the God who brings new life and creates and sets our hearts on fire with his love. Especially I have been thinking about the hermit heart created when God brings one from a heart shaped by experiences of  weakness and emptiness to a heart which sings the silence of solitude as an expression of the fullness of Divine communion and transcendence. For me the above picture (a small image of a larger piece) is a symbol of the potential power which resides in each of us by virtue of the Holy Spirit's presence there.

You see, as part of my contemplative practice, I have been trying my hand at the paint program on my tablet and tonight I combined something I did there with a bit of calligraphy. This was the result --- my very first "creation". (I admit I feel a little like a kid who brings home her first school painting to be hung on the refrigerator door!) I am calling it, Pentecost Fire 2016 --- partly in honor of Pentecost and partly in honor of yesterday's Feast of the Holy Trinity.

May we each cooperate with the Spirit's gentle but insistent and compelling summons to an abundant life that will set our world afire with God's Kingdom-creating love!! In this way too God reveals Godself as Emmanuel!

21 May 2016

On Prayer Postures and Prayer "Furniture"

[[Hi Sister, This is probably not a serious question, but I was looking at some of the pictures on your blog and I noticed a number of them have people praying while kneeling or sitting on the floor. I also see you use a podium. Do you recommend these ways of praying for others or are they only for religious? Is it more helpful to sit on the floor to pray than in a chair? Why do the people in the pictures you use choose not to use a kneeler?]]

Thanks for your questions. I think they really are serious ones and relate to something we don't always consider enough in learning or helping people learn to pray. Recently the importance of prayer position was brought home to me in a way that was surprising. A couple of years ago I was knocked down by a man with a grocery cart. He backed into me and I fell onto the concrete with both knees. They were seriously bruised and that meant that I was unable to use my prayer bench. (This is a small bench that fits across one's ankles and allows one to sit back while in a kneeling (or seiza) position. It takes weight off of one's knees but not completely. Cf next two pictures.)

I moved to using a chair for quiet prayer and I stand to sing office using the lectern or ambo (reading desk). Standing has been excellent for singing Office so long as I am okay with not pausing for more than brief periods of quiet prayer during the hour; meanwhile this arrangement seemed to work pretty well for quiet prayer --- though not as well as with my prayer bench. Still, I thought it was necessary until my knees healed completely. Well, after more than two years and apparently incomplete healing, I decided finally to try using a zafu (a "sewn seat" or sitting cushion) with a memory foam pad (instead of an actual zabuton) beneath it. I could not use my prayer bench even with the memory foam pad nor sit seiza (my knees were still painful with this kind of pressure) but the zafu turned out to be really excellent; it allowed me to sit in an entirely relaxed but alert and attentive position which is a lot like using the bench.

Immediately I noticed a significant difference in my prayer. Once again I was able to center in more quickly than in a chair, but much more importantly, I was able to remain relaxed without getting sleepy or slouching. This meant that using the zafu I remained alert and attentive while completely relaxed --- something sitting in a chair did not always allow --- and my prayer improved as a result. That this seemingly simple change in posture could make such a meaningful difference was a sort of surprise because I hadn't sufficiently recognized the persistent effect of not using my prayer bench (that is, of not sitting seiza) over the past couple of years. (I had attributed occasional sleepiness, etc to other things.)

The pictures I have included in this blog indicate that we each find the very best postures for personal prayer because it is the most important activity we participate in for several hours each day, day in and day out. Whether one sits upright and relaxed in a chair or decides to use a prayer bench, zabuton, and/or zafu is important only insofar as whatever one chooses 1) allows one to be comfortable for long periods of stillness, 2) allows one to be both relaxed but alert and attentive, and 3) allows one to breath without constraint. Every person I know experiments with what works best for them. Sometimes age, illness, or injury means adapting and adopting new postures. As I noted, it is possible to find a comfortable position which does not also foster alertness or attentiveness so one may need to experiment, try other alternatives, speak to others who have done the same and see if there is something available that works better than what one has been doing for this reason too. This experimentation is absolutely not just for religious but for anyone who prays regularly --- and especially for contemplatives who spend significant time in quiet or contemplative prayer.

Unless their health does not allow them to get up and down in this way, or injuries or disability causes pain or discomfort, most of the contemplative Sisters I know tend to use prayer benches, Zafus, and/or zabutons (a cushion for sitting or kneeling which can be used alone or beneath the others) for longer periods of quiet prayer.  But all of these Sisters spend at least an hour at a time in such prayer a couple of times a day. Other religious and non-religious I know pray similarly but usually for somewhat shorter periods. (Those persons doing Centering prayer  sometimes use these aids and postures for 20-30 minutes at a time at least twice a day.)

Retreat centers and monasteries often have a variety of options for sitting in quiet prayer. (If you want to "sit" in your room rather than in a chapel, or if the retreat place has none in their chapel, prayer benches, zafus, and zabutons have the added benefit of being entirely portable so one can bring these along wherever one goes.) In a lot of this we have borrowed from Buddhists for whom sitting is something of an art form. Attention to posture is incredibly important and this is an element of prayer monastics take care to attend to. Another element here is simplicity and aesthetics. Using these aids (bench, zafu, zabuton, etc) allows greater simplicity in one's prayer space, and that will also mean less distraction and greater "silence" or quies and beauty there as well. Still, that is a matter of taste so if one chooses a chair with a small table for prayer (a very typical setting), one can work out the rest of the space's aesthetics to best serve one's prayer.

There's certainly nothing wrong with using a kneeler if 1) you have the space, 2) can afford one, and 3) find it works well for you. My sense is that Carthusian monks often use a kneeler or stand/sit on their "misericord(ia)" (a seat used for leaning which is allowed as an act of mercy!) but I don't know if they do so for long periods of quiet prayer. They well may, especially when they are younger --- and this may be a form of penance for them as well. (For me the two things, prayer and this kind of penance, seem to conflict in this context.) I know some older monks sit in a relatively straight backed chair where they are more comfortable and also are able to remain alert and attentive. Carthusian nuns will use a prayer bench or zafu in cell so maybe there's a gender thing involved here as well --- but it's entirely possible many Carthusian men use prayer benches for quiet prayer (and probably make them themselves!). I just don't know.

However, the Carthusians aside, for longer periods of quiet prayer I simply never found using a kneeler really practical. Since I can no longer easily kneel myself, and although I still own a Prie Dieu (kneeler), I just don't use it anymore. Instead for lectio divina (which often includes periods of quiet or contemplative prayer) I use either a comfortable chair or the zafu combined with a small bench or table for my Bible or Office book (or whatever I am reading). I suspect the folks in the pictures you are talking about have tried a variety of things and find the pictured approaches and postures most helpful for comfort, reverence, and attentiveness, as well as for simplicity and aesthetics. You or anyone committing to periods of contemplative prayer should absolutely feel free to do similarly.

Followup Question:  [[Sister Laurel, thank you for writing about this. I wondered if someone with a serious back condition could use either a prayer bench or a zafu? Which one would you recommend?]]

Well, as with most things it depends on the person and the condition involved. I have a friend in my parish who has a severe back condition that makes sitting in a chair during Mass difficult at least some of the time. She once used a zafu for quiet prayer but cannot do that now. She transitioned to using a prayer bench (though I am not sure what kind she eventually chose) and can sit seiza using one of these. She confirmed that the prayer bench allows her spine to be in proper alignment and is much more comfortable than the zafu. If you can kneel comfortably a prayer bench may be a good choice for you; it will take the weight off your knees. If you can sit comfortably with your legs loosely crossed in front of you a zafu may be the choice for you --- though some also sit seiza using the zafu.

19 May 2016

Followup Questions on Forming the Heart of a Hermit

[[Dear Sister, when you write about the making of the hermit heart I begin to understand more why it is some people become hermits. I had not realized that a hermit was meant to witness to an experience of redemption. I agree with you that the formation of hermits really cannot be done by a diocese. A diocese cannot engineer such an experience of redemption! Yet you argue that significant discernment and formation is necessary. What does this really mean and how can someone make sure they get the formation they need? Does formation ensure an experience of redemption or how does that work?]]

Your question and observation are important because the hermit must bring something to the formation process beyond a desire to make vows or dedicate herself to God. What I mean by saying this is that a person might want to dedicate themselves to God very sincerely but the silence of solitude is neither the context,  the content, nor the charism they are called to in making this dedication. It is simply not the way they experience God's redemptive grace in their life, nor, therefore, can it be the unique way they witness to God's redemption. And yet, a hermit must say with her life that silence and eremitical solitude (which implies a life of penance and prayer in communion with God) lead to that redemptive quies or hesychasm canon 603 refers to as the silence of solitude.  Moreover,  the hermit must be able to say with her life that the grace of God is sufficient for us. She must be recognizable as a loving, generous, humble person who has been made truly human and truly happy in her eremitical solitude.

What may not have been clear in what I have written until now is that formation and redemption overlap. To the degree one is formed in the silence of solitude (again, in the solitary quies of communion with God) as a hermit so too will the person experience conversion and thus, redemption. When I describe the kind of person the hermit must be and the witness she must live I am also describing who she becomes by the grace of God in the silence of solitude. That means I am describing the person who is formed in the conditions laid down in canon 603. Dioceses that are discerning canon 603 vocations have a right to expect that over the period of five years or so a person will come not only to be comfortable in silence and solitude but that they will grow as persons of prayer in the same context. This means the person will thrive as a loving human being, a human being in whom the Incarnation is clearly imaged. Formation is an ongoing reality in the life of any hermit and/or religious; so is conversion of heart and redemption. We grow more and more deeply united with God in Christ throughout our lives. Still, several years of eremitical solitude will produce unmistakable signs of an experience which is healing and sanctifying or one will need to discern this is not the vocation to which they are called.

You are correct that dioceses cannot engineer such experiences of redemption. All they can really do is supervise how a person is living the terms of canon 603 and discern whether or not the person is truly thriving in this context, whether or not they are growing in holiness and wholeness and becoming the kind of person I have already mentioned. There are ways of assisting the person in both discernment and formation --- not least by requiring the candidate to write and revise Rules of Life which, over time, reflect where they are in terms of living the canon and their own personal growth. Occasional meetings with vocation personnel, regular spiritual direction, therapy to assist with unexpected or traumatic life circumstances, etc are all helpful or even indispensable in the process of formation and discernment. A diocese can thus also ensure that sufficient time is given to discernment and formation without drawing it out inordinately. Vocation personnel can decide more easily than the candidate might be able to do, either when more time is needed or, for that matter, when the candidate is mistaken in thinking she has an ecclesial (or canonical) eremitical vocation.

What Will Formation Entail?

That said, the responsibility for formation falls to the hermit in canon 603 vocations. These are vocations to solitary eremitical life and that means there is no community, no novitiate, no formation director, etc. (Hermits formed in lauras need to be clear that c 603 requires they live as solitary hermits should the laura fail or be suppressed; thus, formation for c 603 is generally entirely dependent on the hermit's own initiative in cooperation with the grace of God alone.) The spiritual director can be extremely helpful here but she does not assume the role of formation director or some sort of superior; the hermit herself must take the initiative. She must be sure she reads about eremitic life, especially contemporary eremitical life, but also the desert Fathers and Mothers, Urban anchorites in the Middle Ages and later, and communities of hermits like the Camaldolese and Carthusians.

This will allow her to begin to see what she is living that is consistent with the tradition and what she is not. (If something seems inconsistent with the tradition she will work to discern its place in her life and the life of the Church; she will discern whether such modifications can and should be made for herself personally, but she will also do so as part of determining whether or not this represents a legitimate adaptation of a tradition which is Divinely inspired and a gift to the Church. What is discerned to be necessary for her may not be a legitimate adaptation of eremitical life.) Knowledge of the eremitical tradition and the history and nature of canon 603 is indispensable because this is the vocation she must negotiate as a solitary hermit living her call in the name of the Church.

Thus, she will reflect on Canon 603 and the terms of that. She will read and otherwise learn about the vows she proposes to make one day, especially from authors living those vows today and specializing in contemporary religious life. And of course she will pray, not just the Liturgy of the Hours (which will require some instruction from others), but quiet or contemplative prayer, lectio divina, journaling (which can be prayer and will support prayer and spiritual direction). She will learn to maintain Formative relationships in a life committed to the silence of solitude, and she will learn to love and serve others similarly. She will assure she lives a healthy and balanced life which includes appropriate recreation and exercise. Learning all of this and coming to the conclusion that she truly thrives in such a life is necessary as part of the candidate's formation. So is writing a livable Rule (a Rule which can be binding morally and canonically) --- something that cannot begin to happen until the hermit has learned how all of these pieces actually work in her own eremitical life.

The Rule: 

Writing a Livable Rule that one proposes to be both morally and legally (canonically) bound to observe is a demanding and complex project. It requires several steps because it has to combine experience in eremitical life  (including several years of learning and trying various prayer forms, etc), experience of living the values of the vows, experience in working with one's director to truly reflect the eremitical tradition and to grow in one's life with God --- with the canonical or normative requirements of c 603 and one's diocese. Thus one will have 1) an initial Rule which allows for considered experimentation in cooperation with spiritual direction, 2) a Rule which is less experimental but which still allows for necessary changes as one builds in all the elements of eremitical life and comes to see what one needs personally (e.g., more sleep, more quiet prayer, less study, time outside the hermitage for walks, attendance at parish Mass, etc), 3) a Rule which include the vows and can bind one in a temporary commitment, and finally, 4) a Rule which fulfills the requirement of c 603, has been lived for a significant period of time (1 year or more) and which will bind one after perpetual profession.

As I experienced the task of writing (and rewriting) a Rule it is an essential part of the hermit's formation. In some ways I see it as the most formative experience a canon 603 hermit can have precisely because in order to write one, one must reflect on every part of one's life and see how God is working in them. One then has to make decisions about what will allow for God to work as effectively as possible and in a way which corresponds to the canon's definition of eremitical life. Finally one must articulate all of this in a way which inspires one to live accordingly. It is for this reason I see the need for a hermit to write several Rules over time each of which corresponds to her level of knowledge, experience and need at any given point. Approaching the writing of a Rule in this way allows for discernment with the diocese as well as formation. In all of this though, I contend the person should be growing in wholeness and holiness and this growth should be recognizable. All of this means forming the heart of a hermit whose life witnesses to God's redemption.

I am not sure I have answered your questions. Most of these things I have written about before so please check the labels to see related articles. If I have missed answering something effectively please let me know and I will give it another shot.

16 May 2016

Reexamining an Earlier Suggestion: On Allowing Lay Hermits to Make Private Vows during Mass

[[Dear Sister Laurel, is it possible to celebrate private vows during Mass? I thought you wrote once it was and could be done as part of baptismal renewal, but in other places I see you don't accept such a practice. Did I misunderstand you or have you changed your mind?]]

On the Reasons I have Changed my Mind:

Yes, you are correct on both counts. I have been torn in the past by some lay hermits' sense of "not belonging" or having no real "place" or "context" for their private vows. I also wanted to stress that the lay hermit vocation is a significant one which needs better recognition. Because of that I argued for the possibility of making such private vows as a hermit within Mass at a general renewal of baptismal vows --- and ONLY there (that is, at no other place within the Mass). I tried to make clear why Mass was not ordinarily the place private vows were made and eventually hedged my suggestion all around with caveats. Unfortunately, since that post it has become clearer to me 1) that liturgically this was a bad idea, and even more perhaps, 2) it could not be done without significant confusion of the distinction between private vows and public profession or between the lay hermit living her life in her own name and the Catholic hermit living an eremitical and ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church. This was especially true for the assembly in general.

You see, I have since heard of or been asked about several situations in the US and elsewhere where lay hermits who did not make vows in a public situation would use vows made during Mass (if this were allowed them) to encourage or underscore the mistaken idea that they are "consecrated" or Catholic hermits; while I can understand why this occurs and sometimes sympathize with the person, the bottom line is the Church's general practice of not celebrating or witnessing  private vows during Mass is wise and prudent. Besides lay hermits who don't always understand or (sometimes) even accept the difference between lifestyles undertaken as private commitments and vocations lived in the name of the Church the simple fact is that the laity in general (and sometimes clerics as well) don't understand the difference or its significance either. Still, there is a difference and that has not only to do with the commensurate rights and obligations which attach to public profession and consecration, but even more importantly in this context, with the corresponding expectations the Church as a whole are given the right and even obligation to hold in regard to these hermits.

The Differing Witnesses and Expectations of Public vs Private Vows:

It is important not to give the impression that a person with private vows (dedication) is bound in the same way a person who is professed and consecrated. The expectations others in the Church and society more generally have a right to hold between those with either private vows or public profession differ and it would be unfair to everyone involved to confuse the situation. That way leads to disappointment and even scandal. As I have noted before, this is so because the graces which attach to  profession and consecration and necessary for living them out differ.  (Note that "profession" is not the same as "making vows" though it ordinarily includes making vows. Profession, a broader reality than this, is always a public (i.e., a canonical) act which initiates into a new state of life. Thus, despite common usage (or misusage!) private vows do not constitute profession; they are instead an act of dedication.)

Because of the differing public rights, obligations, and expectations, the Church has discerned the public or canonical vocation with the hermit herself and assured herself as best she can that this is a God-given and ecclesially mediated vocation which is a true gift of the Holy Spirit. She entrusts it and responsibility for eremitical life more generally to this person after mutual discernment and she expects this vocation to bear typical fruit not only for the hermit herself but for the whole of the Church. She expects and canonically binds the hermit to live the evangelical counsels in a way which is edifying to all who know her or otherwise hear of this vocation, and she expects all of this (and has a right to do so!) because the canonical hermit's vocation is public and lived in the name of the Church under her formal supervision.

But with individual private vows there is no actual discernment of vocation on the Church's part. The individual may certainly believe she is called by God to live this way (and she may be entirely correct in this!) but the Church as such has not discerned nor does she otherwise validate this belief. This is another reason why private vows are witnessed by someone but not "received." Reception is an ecclesial act (an act of the whole Church )which includes the public attestation that these vows are part of a truly Divine vocation the Church herself (whether through Bishops and Vicars or religious institutes and their legitimate superiors) has recognized through significant discernment and public ministry. The fact that reception binds the person professing vows as well as the one receiving these in an ecclesial relationship, while 'witnessing vows does not, is a dimension of the Church's discernment, attestation, and mediation of the presence of a Divine vocation.  Bearing this in mind it becomes even clearer that celebration within a public liturgy is not appropriate for private vows, no matter how carefully done.

Private Vows are Private Matters:

So, while I continue to believe the lay hermit calling is a significant one, and while I believe private vows are a meaningful way of structuring such a life and committing (dedicating) oneself to the freedom it entails, I do not believe it is appropriate to celebrate these at Mass. What always remains true is that private vows are a private matter. While generally trusting the maturity of a person to make such vows, the Church in no way verifies the vocational nature or soundness of such acts of dedication. Persons with such vows are neither professed nor consecrated, nor have they been extended nor accepted the rights and obligations attached to public and ecclesial vocations. To allow such (private) vows to be made in a public liturgy actually lays expectations on the person she may be neither able nor appropriately experienced, trained, or graced to meet.

Moreover, it necessarily leads members of the Church generally to see this as ecclesiastical approval of the act; it is simply too difficult, I think, to prevent people from thinking the Church has approved this "vocation"  (if vocation it actually is) or that she is professing this person and commissioning her to live the life in her name when such a celebration is done at Mass. This would be true even if it were done as part of a renewal of baptismal vows and promises and it was naïve of me to think otherwise.

Additionally there is the entire liturgical dimension which must be considered: is an entirely private act (even this act of dedication) appropriate at a public liturgy? We do not allow others making private vows to do so at Mass; why would we do so for a lay hermit? Private commit-ments do not typically belong to a public celebration. Again, doing so would invite confusion which could be harmful or even lead to offense. I don't think this could be avoided --- whether in the mind of the one making the commitment or in the minds of the rest of the assembly. Later on when the person identifies themselves as a hermit "who made her vows during Mass" there would be no way at all of recognizing the entirely private nature of the commitment and, once again misunderstanding and unreasonable expectations would be created. The bottom line here is the Church's praxis in this regard has been prudent and must be retained.

I have considered removing the earlier post. The caveats added are not sufficient, especially given the existence of lay hermits who continue to mistakenly claim they are "consecrated" and the widespread (even if understandable) ignorance of the Church's teaching on initiation into the consecrated state of life. At the same time the post reflects esteem for the lay hermit vocation and life. It also attempted to answer questions by at least two people so I think allowing those to stand is important. I am sorry though if my opinion at that point was premature or insufficiently considered, and I hope it did not mislead anyone.

14 May 2016

Eve of Pentecost: A Tale of Two Kingdoms (Reprise)

 One of the problems I see most often with Christianity is its domestication, a kind of blunting of its prophetic and counter cultural character. It is one thing to be comfortable with our faith, to live it gently in every part of our lives and to be a source of quiet challenge and consolation because we have been wholly changed by it. It is entirely another to add it to our lives and identities as a merely superficial "spiritual component" which we refuse to allow not only to shake the very foundations of all we know but also to transform us in all we are and do. 

Even more problematical --- and I admit to being sensitive to this because I am a hermit called to "stricter separation from the world" --- is a kind of self-centered spirituality which focuses on our own supposed holiness or perfection but calls for turning away from a world which undoubtedly needs and yearns for the love only God's powerful Spirit makes possible in us. Clearly today's Festal readings celebrate something very different than the sort of bland, powerless, pastorally ineffective, merely nominal Christianity we may embrace --- or the self-centered spirituality we sometimes espouse in the name of "contemplation" and  "contemptus mundi". Listen again to the shaking experience of the powerful Spirit that birthed the Church which Luke recounts in Acts: 

[[When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.]]

Roaring sounds filling the whole space, tongues of fire coming to rest above each person, a power of language which commun-icates (creates) incredible unity and destroys division --- this is a picture of a new and incredible creation, a new and awesome world in which the structures of power are turned on their heads and those who were outsiders --- the sick and poor, the outcast and sinners, those with no status and only the stamp of shame marking their lives --- are kissed with divinity and revealed to be God's very own Temples. The imagery of this reading is profound. For instance, in the world of this time coins were stamped with Caesar's picture and above his head was the image of a tongue of fire. Fire was a symbol of life and potency; it was linked to the heavens (stars, comets, etc). The tongue of fire was a way of indicating the Emperor's divinity.  Similarly, the capacity for speech, the fact that one has been given or has a voice, is a sign of power, standing, and authority.

And so Luke says of us. The Spirit of the Father and Son has come upon us. Tongues of Fire mark us as do tongues potentially capable of speaking a word of ultimate comfort to anyone anywhere. We have been made a Royal People, Temples of the Holy Spirit and called to live and act with a new authority, an authority and status which is greater than any Caesar. As I have noted before, this is not mere poetry, though it is certainly wonderfully poetic. On this Feast we open ourselves to the Spirit who transforms us quite literally into images of God, literal Temples of God's prophetic presence in our world, literal exemplars of a consoling love-doing-justice and a fiery, earth-shaking holiness which both transcends and undercuts every authority and status in our world that pretends to divinity or ultimacy. We ARE the Body of Christ, expressions of the one in whom godless death has been destroyed, expressions of the One in whom one day all sin and death will be replaced by eternal life. In Christ we are embodiments and mediators of the Word which destroys divisions and summons creation to reconciliation and unity; in us the Spirit of God loves our world into wholeness.

You can see that there is something really dangerous about today's Feast. What we celebrate is dangerous to a Caesar oppressing most of the known world with his taxation and arbitrary exercise of power depending on keeping subjects powerless and without choice or voice; it is dangerous if you are called to live out this gift of God's own Spirit as a prophetic presence in the very same world which kills prophets and executed God's Anointed One as a shameful criminal --- a traitor or seditionist and blasphemer. Witnesses to the risen Christ and the Kingdom of God are liable, of course, to  martyrdom of all sorts. That is the very nature of the word, "martyr", and it is what yesterday's gospel lection referred to when it promised Peter that in his maturity he would be led where he did not really desire to go. But it is also dangerous to those who prefer a more domesticated and timid "Christianity", one that does not upset the status quo or demand the overthrow of all of one's vision, values, and the redefinition of one's entire purpose in life; it is dangerous if you care too much about what people think of you or you desire a faith which is consoling but undemanding --- a faith centered on what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace". At least it is dangerous when one opens oneself, even slightly, to the Spirit celebrated in this Feast.

A few years ago my pastor (John Kasper, OSFS)  quoted from Annie Dillard's book, Teaching a Stone to Talk. It may have been for Pentecost, but I can't remember that now. Here, though, is the passage from which he quoted, [[Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.]] Clearly both Fr John and Ms Dillard understood how truly dangerous the Spirit of Pentecost is.

We live in a world where two Kingdoms vie against each other. One is marked by oppression, a lack of freedom --- except for the privileged few who hold positions of wealth and influence --- and is marred by the dominion of sin and death. It is a world where the poor, ill, aged, and otherwise powerless are essentially voiceless. In this world Caesars of all sorts have been sovereign or pretended to sovereignty. The other Kingdom, the Kingdom which signals the eventual and inevitable end of the first one is the Kingdom of God. It has come among us first in God's quiet self-emptying and in the smallness of an infant, the generosity, compassion, and ultimately, the weakness, suffering and sinful death of a Jewish man in a Roman world. Today it comes to us as a powerful wind which shakes and disorients even as it grounds and reorients us in the love of God. Today it comes to us as the power of love that does justice and sets all things to right.

While the battle between these two Kingdoms occurs all around us in the way we live and proclaim the Gospel with our lives, the way, that is, we worship God, raise our children, teach our students, treat our parishioners, clients, and patients, vote our consciences, contribute to our society's needs, and generally minister to our world, it is our hearts which are ground zero in this "tale of two Kingdoms." It is not easy to admit that insofar as we are truly human we have been kissed by a Divinity which invites us to a divine/human union that completes us, makes us whole, and results in a fruitfulness we associate with all similar "marriages". It is not easy to give our hearts so completely or embrace a dignity which is entirely the gift of another. Far easier to keep our hearts divided and ambiguous. But today's Feast calls us to truly open ourselves to this union, to accept that our lives are marked and transformed by tongues of fire and the shaking, stormy Spirit of prophets. After all, this is Pentecost and through us God truly will renew the face of the earth.