29 August 2015

Questions on Prayer, Penance, Eremitism as Heroic and the Writing of One's Rule

[[Dear Sister, Given the fact that the full time "job" of a consecrated hermit is to offer prayer and penance on behalf of the Church and world, should the "plan of life" or "rule" of a consecrated hermit be that much more intense than that of your average devout lay person?

The history of eremitical life is full of ascetic feats. While one should not be masochistic about it, it seems to me that the hermit should push him or herself a far more than a devout lay person since a hermit does not have to put up with the daily mortifications that come with everyday life (i.e. Deadlines, commutes, super annoying work colleagues etc.) and they have the time to do extra in terms of prayer and penance. I think the hermit vocation should have a bit of heroism (so long as it doesn't turn into pride) in terms of the effort put forward. Otherwise, I think it could become a very self-indulgent life style (i.e. Stay quiet all day, say a couple prayers, meditate, do a little gardening or something...sounds nice...nothing wrong with it...but certainly not that big of a deal).

So my question is: when a hermit is developing his/her rule of life, what mortifications should he/she take into account? Should the hermit purposefully take on extra prayers and devotions on behalf of the Church and world? How does one discern this? Thank you. ]]

Offering prayers vs Being God's own Prayer:

Thanks for writing again. The first thing I need to say is that I personally would tend not to say the hermit is mainly meant to offer prayers on behalf of the world (though she will do this), much less penance, so much as she is called to embrace a life of prayer and penance on behalf of the world. The first is about doing things (and prayer and penance are necessary things). The second, however, is more primarily about being; specifically, it is about being someone  at once ordinary and extraordinary who is God's own prayer in our world. Hermits are more about who God makes them to be than they are persons who define themselves in terms of what they do. While we can't entirely separate these two dimensions of our lives, we do have to settle on whether we define a hermit in terms of who she is or in terms of the tools that help God achieve this in and with her.

I choose the former. This doesn't mean hermits do nothing or are called to do nothing at all, of course --- far from it! But at the end of the day I succeed or fail in this life only in terms of who I am as a result and in light of the love and mercy of God. Prayer and penance are at the heart of becoming this person but the real task of the hermit is truly to BE a person whose only salvation, whose life's only justification is God.  I am convinced that a lot of the talk of the hermit offering prayers, etc comes from either a world that esteems doing over being --- often as a distraction from the deeper questions of our identity, or from the hermit's own inability to state a deeper rational for his/her life. As I have also said to you, the Rules I see from "beginners" or those seeking to become diocesan hermits most often err on the side of cramming the horarium full of more and more prayers, etc. It seems to me these folks see praying as a matter of something they do rather than someone they are because God is allowed to work freely in them.

This doesn't mean intercessory prayer is not part of the hermit's life (As I note below it is a natural part of my own life), but it does mean this is neither the reason for her life, nor is it always appropriately motivated. A third reason, and one I will also mention below, is guilt --- guilt at the leisure of the life, at its joy and peace, guilt one is actually called to this and has been granted the freedom to follow such a call in the name of the Church. (Your last sentence, by the way, seems to resonate with a sense that surely these things couldn't be the real justification for or central characteristics of eremitical life. I'll talk about that below because I think it is very important. If we don't understand this then we don't understand eremitical life itself.)

On Comparisons and Competition:

The second thing I would say right off the top is we ought to be VERY careful of falling into the trap of comparing eremitical life with the life most folks live every day. There is no life without its mortifications and no vocation that is not called to exhaustive holiness. We need to be careful not to fall into a subtle kind of elitism here and especially not into a  (worldly) mindset which compels us to be doing things simply because we have the time to do them or (a common but hidden and often subconscious reason) because we now feel guilty we have a kind of holy leisure others do not!

It is not helpful to speak in terms of pushing oneself more than "a devout lay person" does. There are at least two reasons. First, while this life demands one's best efforts, it is not about pushing oneself to do extra feats of piety or asceticism. It is about responding fully to God's call to be loved by God and discerning the ways necessary for doing this. This takes effort, yes, but it also takes a kind of sacred leisure and a submission that is just the opposite of pushing. Secondly, neither you nor I knows what the life of this supposed "devout lay person" consists of really. Nor do we know to what God calls them or how. More often than not I am impressed with the degree of silence, solitude, prayer, penance, service, charity, Scripture reading (lectio), etc., is integral to the lives of many of the people I pray with regularly. Often it seems far more "intense" than my own life. We simply cannot judge in this way and we certainly ought not compete. Perhaps one of the real mortifications for the hermit is the recognition that in many ways, though our lives are not "cushy" (to quote Sister Victoria, OSCO), they are more ordered, qualitatively full, relaxed and leisurely than the lives of so many. But then, perhaps that is another of the things we are meant to witness to the importance of --- especially in a world so overburdened with doing at the expense of being and so incapable of genuine leisure, solitude, or silence!

Hermiting as an Heroic Vocation:

The third thing I should say is that the notion of "hermit as hero" (or eremitical life as heroic)  turns me off completely. I once read somewhere that the eremitical life is heroic (I don't remember now if it was Thomas Merton, Jean LeClercq,  Cornelius Wencel, Peter Damian, Paul Giustiniani, or just who it was who said it). I think in my early years and first attempts to write a Rule (which I guess rules Wencel out as a possible source) I may even have written the same thing. It embarrasses me today that I did that because I am now more attuned to the ways "the world" creeps into eremitical life in the heart of the hermit. It is true that we can speak of eremitical life as one of undeniable virtue, discipline, and faithfulness. One hopes that every hermit will become the whole and holy human being God calls him/her to be. That takes significant faithfulness and obedience.

If you choose to call the normal disciplines and daily faithfulnesses of an eremitical life which is truly obedient (open, attentive, and responsive) to God either inadequate or "heroic" you need to ask yourself why you find it important or necessary to do so. I remember the reasons I did the latter and they were pretty self-centered and otherwise disedifying. Now I am much more aware that the mom who gets up every day to take care of her family despite frequent migraines, or the adolescent who goes to school and studies every day despite living in a neighborhood that militates against these things in every way, seem no less heroic to me than the hermit who is faithful to her Rule.

Again, we are called and do our best to allow God to do with and in us what only God can do, no more, but certainly no less. If that is "heroic" then so be it. But more often than not, it seems to me the use of the term "heroic" in regard to this life is a way of buying into a destructive tendency to compare oneself or one's vocations with others or a way of impressing people who really might not understand this vocation otherwise.

(Personally, I seriously wonder if it is ever possible to say our own vocations or lives are "heroic". The very use of the word in this way seems to imply pride (or a justification of failure and bolstering of deep insecurity). I think it is also quite often a way of justifying a vocation one may consider (or at least fear deep down is) unjustifiable otherwise, and of course, it is a way of pointing to self and the things hermits do rather than to the persons they are called to be by the power of God. After all God has called me to this and fits me for it, just as God does with every vocation he gifts us with. There is nothing heroic in becoming the persons God calls us to be with the grace (the powerful presence) of God --- and yet, in our sin and brokenness, that is often the most heroic thing of all --- whatever the vocational path involved.)

Authentic vs Inauthentic Eremitical Life:

You wrote: [[ Otherwise, I think it could become a very self-indulgent life style (i.e. Stay quiet all day, say a couple prayers, meditate, do a little gardening or something...sounds nice...nothing wrong with it...but certainly not that big of a deal)]]

I will talk about other aspects of this sentence again in another post (especially the "stay quiet all day, meditate. . ." piece of things), if you don't mind, but for now, the truth is that in some ways, many ways in fact, eremitical life is no big deal at all. We live our lives so that, as Thomas Merton once wrote, people can be reassured of certain truths about human nature and the grace of God. That is one of the truest, simplest, and most significant things Merton ever said about the eremitical life. In this observation Merton has captured the heart of eremitical life and especially in what its unique witness consists. I have either said or implied this here any number of ways: God loves with an everlasting love, we are truly human only when we allow God to be God in and through us, our freedom is the counterpart of the sovereignty of God, most fundamentally we ARE a covenant with God, our hearts ARE the places where God bears witness to Godself, we are called to be transparent to the power and presence (love) of God, the silence of solitude is about communion with God, etc. The notion that God raises us to humility is linked to this observation of Merton as well.

All a hermit can do with her life is witness to the essential truth that we are made for God, are incomplete without God, and are redeemed and transfigured by God's unfailing love. Doing so is what every person is called to but only the hermit does so in the silence of solitude; only for the hermit is this the single lesson or unique witness of her life. After all, the hermit really has no significant apostolic ministry to fall back on in this regard. Again, I think that while prayer periods and penance are essential to the life witnessing in this way, the hermit has to be particularly careful not to make these somehow extraordinary in the sense of making them especially onerous, especially uncomfortable, especially numerous, especially intense, etc. In today's world faithfulness and lifetime commitments are becoming extraordinary things. As tame and "ordinary" as this might sound when measured against the muscular asceticism of hermits throughout the ages, a lifetime of faithfulness to God in the giving of self over to God's love and purposes for the sake of others is, of itself, extraordinarily demanding.

Karen Fredette has described eremitical life as doing something ordinary with an extraordinary motivation. I have written similarly about the essential hiddenness of the vocation as a call to extraordinary ordinariness. One of the things a hermit needs to come to terms with is the utter ordinariness of the life. The paradox is, when such a life is lived in, from, for and through God's love/self, everything about it is extraordinary. But that requires this be an authentic eremitical life where everything the hermit is and does is meant to reveal God. (After all, that's the real meaning of glorifying God.) You are entirely correct that the life is not a self-indulgent one, but not because one has substituted an arbitrary penitential practice or series of mortifications. It is not self-indulgent because one REALLY, not just nominally, lives from and for the truth that God alone is enough.

(By the way, it has often seemed to me that some lives given over to the approach which is about piling on prayers, adding "heroic" or onerous mortifications, etc are far less about truly giving themselves over to God than many folks who only say prayers "a couple of times a day"! That is because such lives are often still mainly focused on self and what more one can do, omit, sacrifice, suffer, and so forth than they are about what God is seeking from and for them. Such a life may be as inauthentic an eremitical life as that being lived by someone watching 10-12 hours of TV everyday or never praying at all!)

Approaching the Question of Prayer and Penance: 

It seems to me that in writing a Rule one has to ask themselves "what are the ways God has most powerfully and regularly spoken to or worked in my life?" The corollary here is, "What tools, or forms of penance have most assisted me in giving my entire self over to God's love?" The second corollary is, "What ways am I most unable to hearken to or in what ways am I resistant to being wholly available to God's love?" (For those who who pray  this, one asks a similar question during an examen of consciousness, for instance: "How well have I lived this part of my day and what can I do to improve that?") When one writes down the main ways God speaks one will have a pretty good sense of what prayer forms are to be included in one's Rule or Plan of Life. The first corollary gives one the primary forms of penance which are important in supporting one's life of prayer. For the hermit these may include poverty, silence (which is a good deal more than simply "staying quiet all day"!), solitude, loneliness, fasting (all kinds), a regular life, journaling, writing, study, chores, regular exercise, and so forth.

The second corollary is a way of determining what further forms of mortification are really necessary. For instance, one might like to stay up reading and then be wiped out the next day; one is thus less attentive to the various ways God comes to one that day. Leaving the kitchen a mess before one goes to bed or otherwise frequently leaving regular chores undone means being unable to enter into a new day (or part of one's day) with the freedom and freshness necessary. Being irritable or grumpy closes one off to God in several different ways. In most lives these things might be okay but they could seriously detract from the hermit's life.

One would therefore add some form of penance (really, some form of discipline or order) in these instances which is tailored to deal with the problem. These are minor examples, of course, but the basic truth is that penance is whatever is necessary to assist or regularize one's prayer life. It involves whatever kinds of things are part of giving one's entire self and one's entire abode over to God. There is nothing heroic about making sure the house is tidy and relatively clean before you sing Compline and go to bed, nothing heroic about getting enough rest or eating a simple but nourishing diet, and nothing heroic or even very extraordinary about journaling to work through one's bad mood; but the commitment to these are significantly challenging for many people --- and perhaps for some hermits, especially day in and day out!

As I understand asceticism then, the kinds of things we build in as penitential need to be the kinds of sacrifices which should be organic to our lives, that is, the kinds of things which are not arbitrarily imposed and which open us to the presence of God or prevent us from being closed off from or too busy, tired, satiated, or distracted to be attentive and open to God in the normal course of our days. I think if you begin to pay attention in this way you will find the "mortifications" which are an organic outgrowth of your life will be plenty demanding! Moreover, they will represent a true witness to the kinds of relevant sacrifices every person is called to make in order to put God at the center of our lives.

Your Questions:

Do hermits take on extra prayers and penances on behalf of the world? Should we? How do we discern this?

It seems to me your questions are different from all the comments that prepared the way for them. Divorced from that context they are straightforward. Do hermits pray on behalf of the world around us? Absolutely. We pray all the time for others, for the state of the world, for persons who come to us with requests and concerns, for God's plans and purposes, for the Kingdom which is gradually coming to be a more extensive and pervasive presence, for family and friends and enemies and strangers.

I am not sure what it means to say "extra" prayers though. My experience is these prayers are simply a natural part of a life of prayer, a natural part of concerning oneself with the life and concerns of God, a natural part of hearing the anguished cries and the deep yearnings of the world God loves so profoundly. If I watch the news I am praying, if I read the newspaper I pray for the people and situations that enter my life in this way; if I travel on a train I try to pray for those traveling with me or those standing on platforms. If you mean are these written into my Rule, they are not. While I don't consider them to be "extra" neither are they "mandatory"in the sense of "binding in law"; they are instead,  a natural and necessary expression of love of God and of those precious to God.

Do hermits do penance on behalf of the world around us? I am sure some do. I do not except in the sense that my life is one of assiduous prayer and penance and that entire life is lived for others. But note well, it is the life I live which is for others, not the discrete penances I undertake. The concept of doing penance on behalf of others does not make sense to me personally except in this indirect sense. The only discussions I have heard which treat of doing penances directly for others sees penance as reparative (offered in reparation) and I simply do not understand the place of reparative actions in light of the achievements of Christ. I can certainly see the point of contributing acts of generosity to our world but beyond that adding acts of penance besides those needed to be truly open to the presence of God in my life or truly compassionate for others makes no sense to me. I believe I have answered the question of discernment in the section above. If this is not clear or raises more questions, please get back to me.

28 August 2015

A Contemplative Moment: On Perseverance in Cell



« Whoever perseveres without defiance in the cell and lets himself be taught by it tends to make his entire existence a single and continual prayer. But he may not enter into this rest without going through the test of a difficult battle. It is the austerities to which he applies himself as someone close to the Cross, or the visits of God, coming to test him like gold in the fire. Thus purified by patience, fed and strengthened by studied meditation of Scripture, introduced by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the recesses of his heart, he will thus be able to, not only serve God, but adhere to him. » Carthusian Statutes

Parable of the Ten Virgins (Reprised with tweaks)

Today's Gospel lection is the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the Bridegroom. Five are wise and five are foolish. While all of them fall asleep at some point after the bridegroom is delayed, half of them are still ready to greet him when he comes and also to serve him as they are meant to. Their lamps are full. The other half have not prepared so their lamps are either out or running out of oil. They ask the "wise" virgins to share oil with them, but are told  that if they were to do that they too might run out. The "foolish virgins" are sent out to buy some oil (it is after midnight, remember). In the meantime, the Bridegroom comes, the doors are locked, the party begins, and the foolish virgins are left out in the cold with the Bridegroom declaring, "I never knew you!"

Parables have a unique capacity to take us where we are and lead us to Christ. It doesn't matter that we are all in different places. We enter the story and thus enter a sacred space where we can meet God in Christ ourselves. For this reason, although I have written about this parable before, it had a freshness for me today. Themes may remain similar (waiting, covenant, consummation of a wedding, faithfulness, preparation, celebration, future fulfillment, etc) but what the parable calls for today differs from what it personally entailed for the hearer yesterday. It seems to me this parable describes and calls us each to a life of prayer, a life given over to another so that his own purposes may be fulfilled through our relationship. It is the story of a life given over to waiting; it is a waiting of disciplined preparation and attention, but it is also, for that very reason, waiting which is joyful and full of promise and hope. It is the kind of waiting which signals a life where, in terms of today's story, one especially prepares oneself to be surprised by the Bridegroom's promised and inevitable coming and by all he has done to prepare for us as his bride.

Reminder: The Nature of Jewish Marriages in Jesus' Day

Jewish weddings took place in two stages. First came the betrothal in which the two were joined in a covenant of marriage. This was more than an engagement and if it was to be sundered it could only occur through processes called "divorce". After the betrothal the bridegroom went to his family home and began to prepare for his bride. He ordinarily began building an addition to the family home. It was understood that he would provide better accommodations than his bride had had until this point. (We should all be thinking of this situation when we hear Jesus say, "I go to my Father's house to prepare a place for you.) Meanwhile the bride also begins a period of preparation. There is sewing to do and lessons in being a wife. There is preparation for the day her bridegroom will come again to take her to his home where the two shall become one (in ritual marriage) and where the marriage will be consummated.


At the end of about a year (the groom's  Father makes sure his Son does not do a haphazard job on the new addition just so he can get to his bride sooner!), on a day and at an hour the bride does not know, the groom comes with his friends. They bear torches, blow the shofar, and announce, "The Bridegroom comes" --- just as we hear in Friday's Gospel. The bride's attendants come forth with their own lamps and, with the entire town, accompany her to her new home. The marriage of this bride and groom symbolizes (in the strongest sense of that term) the marriage of God to his people achieved on Sinai. Thus, the service the bridesmaids and groomsmen do for these friends is also a service they do for Israel and a witness to God's ineffable mercy and covenant faithfulness.

On Waiting and preparing to be Surprised: The Life of Prayer

We are each called to be spouses of Christ. Christ has gone to his Father's house to prepare a place for us and we are called to spend the time between our betrothal and the consummation of this marriage in joyful preparation and waiting for that day. In other words, everything we do and are is to be geared to that day. One response to this reality is to develop a prayer life and commit to a life of prayer. (I would argue we are all called to this but that a solid prayer life and even a life of prayer looks different depending on the context and our state of life. For instance, a life of prayer in a family looks differently than a life of prayer in a hermitage.) This parable describes very well for me the dynamics of a life of prayer. Simultaneously it describes the nature of genuine waiting because prayer implies both waiting for and waiting on.

We all know both kinds of waiting. Neither is always easy for us. We wait for our moment before the cashier in grocery stores lines and are unhappy we have to be there. We look at magazines in the nearby racks, shift restlessly from foot to foot,  fall prey to impulse buys of small items located in front of us for precisely this reason, and get more irritable by the moment. (Waiting is hard because it means some form of incompleteness and lack of control; thus we impulse buy to get a sense of completion, control, etc.) We tell ourselves we have better things to do, that our time is important -- often more important, we judge, than that of the person standing in front of (or behind!) us. (There's the specter of entitlement and narcissism that so plagues our culture. The whole dynamic of waiting reminds us we are not the center of the universe and it is not easy to take sometimes.) We fill our time, our minds and our hearts with all kinds of things to distract us from waiting; at the same time we thus prevent ourselves from being open to the new and unexpected.

Similarly waiting on others is not always easy either. Wait staff in restaurants sometimes resent the very guests they are meant to serve; work keeps them from their "real  lives".  And some of these wait staff take it out on those they are meant to serve. Whether this means allowing some to go unserved while waiters talk on cell phones, or arguing with and blaming customers, or actually doctoring the dishes served at the table, putting nasty comments on the bill, etc. waiting on others can be challenging and demanding; our own inability to wait on God is an important reason we fail to pray as we are called to. We may fail at this out of ignorance; we may not know prayer is about putting ourselves at God's disposal rather than expecting God to be at ours. We may be unwilling or resistant to putting ourselves at God's disposal or to order our lives around this relationship as fully as we know we ought.

Again, in prayer we both wait for and wait on God. We wait for God and allow him the space to love and touch us as he will. We wait in the sense of the bride, knowing both that she is betrothed and thus wed to her groom while recognizing and honoring as well that the consummation of this relationship (and the proleptic experiences we occasionally have while waiting) come to us inevitably but at moments when we do not expect them. The temptation of course is to do as we do in the Safeway checkout line: fill our time with unworthy activities, seek distractions which relieve the tension of waiting, allow entitlement and impulsivity to replace patience and perseverance. But when we do not succumb to temptation, in prayer we wait for God. We wait in the sense of those preparing for something greater which we cannot even imagine. In other words, we wait as persons of hope whose ultimate union with our beloved is already begun and remains promised and anticipated in everything we say and do. We wait to be surprised by the one we know will come. And when we do, everything and everyone entering our purview will fire us with anticipation, will look, at least for a moment as the one we are awaiting. Each one may be the bridegroom, or his messenger, or someone with word of him and his own preparations. Each one bears promise and becomes a symbol of our hope.

At the same time we wait for God in Christ, we wait on God. Our prayer is not merely a matter of seeking God, much less of asking God for favors --- though it will assuredly and rightly include pouring out our hearts to him. Still, we are called to leave behind the prayer that is self-centered and adopt that which is centered instead on God's own life and will. Mature prayer is first of all a matter of making ourselves available to serve God so that his own love may be fulfilled, his own plans realized, the absolute future he summons all of creation to may culminate in him and the Reign of sovereignty he wills to share with us is perfected. Again, in prayer we prepare to be surprised by that which we already know most truly and desire most profoundly. As in the Transfiguration we prepare to be surprised by that which has been right in front of us all along.

In the life of prayer and discipleship both waiting for and waiting on God take commitment, diligence, and attentiveness. Both require patience and persistence.  It is to this we are each and every one of us called. No one can do this for us. The fuel and flame of our hearts and prayer lives is something only we can tend, only we can steward this fire in patient and joyful preparation for our Bridegroom's coming. It is in this that the foolish virgins failed and the wise virgins succeeded. The question Jesus' parable poses to us is which will we ourselves be?

24 August 2015

On taking up our Cross: Accepting the Call to Kenosis and Authentic Humanity

The articles I put up recently on emptiness and the hiddenness of the eremitical vocation are profoundly linked, as I noted, to the theologies of the cross of Paul and Mark. Readers might remember that Mark's Gospel is often called a "passion narrative with a long introduction". But really, it is a passion narrative, a long story of self-emptying that climaxes on the cross. I was thinking about this recently because of one of our Friday gospel lections that had Jesus inviting and calling us to take up our crosses to follow him. Always before I have spoken of crosses as those difficult, challenging, and painful times we associate with suffering. We take up our crosses when we suffer well with the inspiration and empowerment of God in Christ. But I also understand more clearly that when we speak of Jesus taking up his cross it means his relinquishment of all of the ordinary ways to honor and success, power and prestige, relationships, family, even his own People, so that he may be completely transparent to the One he called Abba.

In Mark's Gospel the shadow of the cross marks the whole of Jesus' life. It stands as the summary and culmination, the most radical example of everything Jesus has been, done, said, and experienced until now. It is the symbol of the entire dynamic of self emptying which drove Jesus on as he ministered in compassion, prayed in the silence of solitude, felt the anguish of being rejected in so many ways or celebrated with his friends and disciples. Jesus is the one person in human history who did not only say yes to God, but who emptied himself (allowed himself to be emptied) so completely that in him God might be exhaustively revealed in the senses of both being made known and being made real with a human face in our world. Jesus allowed the will and purposes of God to so overshadow him, he opened himself so completely to the love and power that he perfectly fulfilled the human vocation to image God. Our doctrine of two natures is one of the ways the Church has tried to speak adequately of this NT paradox that where Jesus was fully and exhaustively human there was God definitively revealed, and where God is definitively and exhaustively revealed there we see authentic humanity.

This is the dynamic Paul is speaking of when he talks of Jesus being obedient (open and responsive) to God even to the point of death, death on a cross. Jesus' entire life is one of taking up the call, task, and challenge to be fully human, and therefore to be imago dei --- not in the weak sense of mirroring God, but in the strong sense of allowing God's power and presence, his love and mercy, to flame up in him without obstacle, obscurity, or distortion so that Jesus is incandescent with God, and so, when we see Jesus' humanity we see Divinity face to face. This is the heart of the Eastern notion of "deification" and it is something we are each called to allow God to achieve in us in our own way. Humanity and divinity are not in conflict here. They are counterparts in genuine covenant existence.  This is why my most important (and beloved) theology professor (John C Dwyer) was fond of saying, "Human freedom is the counterpart of Divine sovereignty." What must lessen, what we must be emptied and stripped of is our false selves so that God may be entirely sovereign. And where God is sovereign we are most truly ourselves.

The emptying of self happens throughout Jesus' life and reaches its furthest points, its most radical form, in his crucifixion. Because Jesus embraces the godlessness of sin and death while trusting his Abba completely this kenosis is similar to that of the rest of his life. For this reason, although it is especially true that we can speak of taking up our crosses to refer to those times of significant suffering we might have in our lives, taking up our cross also means taking up the task, challenge, indeed the very vocation we have to be authentically human. We take up our cross every time we consent to being emptied and to allow God to be God, every time we allow the mercy of God to transform us or the love of God to empty and strip us of all falseness --- as well as to fill and make us whole and true with Divine meaning and purpose. To take up our cross daily is to take up the continuing call to become the persons God wills us to be whether this process is marked by the suffering of various forms of emptying and being made true, or the joy of completion and personal fulfillment we know in union with God. Taking up our cross is simply the task of embracing a life entirely committed to trusting and mediating the love of God as imago dei.

22 August 2015

Our Lady of the Redwoods Monastery

I have mentioned "Whitethorn" here both recently and in the past. I am speaking of Redwoods Monastery (now Redwoods Abbey) in Whitethorn, CA. While I can't get there anywhere near as often as I would like, and while this is not "my" community in the way the Camaldolese are, it has an important place in my heart. The people and place move to or reflect the same rhythms and model the same values I live (and learn to live more deeply!)  here at Stillsong while the memory of time spent there is part of the grace that empowers me to be who I am called to be right here.

A few years ago I was there on retreat with a friend and Dominican Sister. Early on I was introduced to the community as a diocesan hermit of the Diocese of Oakland. However, given the fact that I was on retreat, as well as because of the place of silence in this house, nothing more was said.

A week later we sat down for Sunday dinner (a celebratory meal not taken in silence and eaten with the individual refectory tables made into a squared circle so real conversation with everyone was possible); the noise and small talk ceased once everyone was seated and grace was prayed. Suddenly I found several Sisters and a couple of Trappist monks looking at me; one of the Sisters said, "So, we've been waiting all week to ask you . . . How did you come to be a hermit?!" I tried to explain briefly the answer to a question which went to the heart of me. From there the conversation was wide ranging as it moved from my life specifically to comments from a monk who had known Thomas Merton (I had noted Merton's work was instrumental in my becoming a hermit), the silence of solitude, being made into a witness of something our world thirsts for, and many other things.

It was a delightful and amazing experience. And typically monastic. How counter cultural such an approach is to a world addicted to cell phones, Facebook, tweeting, and instant communications of all kinds!! How contrary to a world where, increasingly, no question is patiently pondered and every query requires an instant answer --- so much so that conversations are halted while someone checks the internet for this piece of data or other! How counter cultural in a world where superficial pleasantries and constant conversation (or some other diversion) replace the silence and patience which is the necessary and deeper context for real relationships and the reverence and charity which mark them. And how gratifying to have been held in this community's hearts during a week of silence and relative solitude. We had mainly come to know one another some in silent meals, prayer, and in liturgies. And now they sought to know me and to let me know them in this way too. Their question was an expression of curiosity, yes, but pervaded by and tempered with charity. That too is typically monastic and especially, I think, it is characteristically Cistercian.

The following is a vocational video the nuns at Whitethorn created; it is a really good introduction to the Sisters and the Trappistine lives they live. Enjoy.


19 August 2015

Hermits: On Being Lonely and Misunderstood

[[Hi Sister Laurel, does it ever bother you that people don't understand your vocation? Some hermits write about this as though they are misunderstood by everyone including their own families and that it is very painful but understandable. These others live in the world and may not even be Catholic and the hermit is completely separate from all that. Still, I wonder if this doesn't bother you. Isn't it lonely to live this way where no one understands you?]]

On the distinction between not being understood and being misunderstood:

Thanks for the question. I think I have said myself a few times here in the past 8 years that folks don't really understand my vocation or that they see me as a contemplative nun but don't know what to do with the hermit part of things. That, I think, is a little different than misunderstanding it. It is true that a lot of folks do not understand my vocation, but that is completely understandable; no one has explained it to them and we live in a world where its central characteristics and values are increasingly alien. I am thinking here of silence and especially the silence of solitude lived for the praise of God and the salvation of others which is so contrary to the individualism and isolation that infects so much of what we know today as "contemporary culture".

Moreover, I am growing in my own understanding of this vocation. For instance, the writing I did recently on hiddenness and on its linkage to kenosis and the hidden activity of God was a new connection for me. The pieces have been there for a long time; not only is this described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par 921, cf below at bottom of article), but I have written about all of them. Still, the direct connection was something I saw clearly (or perhaps, experienced as my own truth) only just recently. Its place in my own life is profoundly rooted in my own lived experience but I could not have explained that in the same way before last month. My point is that the very hiddenness of the life is a deep mystery and if it takes time for the hermit herself to understand and imperfectly articulate, how can she (I) be surprised when people who have never met another hermit nor spoken to me about the deep realities of my life do not understand it? That is particularly true when the external or observable elements of the eremitical life are so easily misunderstood to reflect or at least support selfishness, isolation, and misanthropy.

However, for those who actually know me one thing that becomes very important is that they understand me and see the good that has come from my life of the silence of solitude. Of that I have no doubt and it is gratifying. I never get the sense, for instance, that people find me bizarre or eccentric even when they do think being a hermit is these things. Nor do I have the sense that people find my choices or the constraints of my life strange. They may not choose such things for themselves nor may they understand what motivates me to make the choices I have made and make daily, but they know me and regard me; for that reason my experience is rarely one of being misunderstood simply because I am a hermit. That only tends to occur with people who do not know me at all; in those cases it is often the effect of biases and stereotypes being applied. Since I know I am no stereotype (!) it becomes a pastoral task to introduce myself to these folks --- to let them see me and not to simply play a role! When I fail at that it is THEN I may feel misunderstood --- and at those times --- though I have also known a handful of times when people have willfully misunderstood me --- it may well be my fault for "playing hermit" rather than being myself -- the one who is a hermit!

What most bothers me personally, what IS a cause of pain besides those uncommon times folks have willfully misun-derstood me, is the rarity of being able to explain and even more importantly, being unable to share with others what is at the heart of my life. That creates an ongoing loneliness which I accept as an integral dimension of this vocation. The ability to share the silence of solitude with others who also know what it means to live this reality daily happens relatively infrequently in my life and it is especially valuable to me --- something I both need and consider precious. Time away with a friend where we work silently on our own projects (e.g., reading,  my writing and her lesson plans and math problems), or time shared in quiet prayer, meals, etc, with Sisters who live substantial silence and solitude all the time (time at Whitethorn, for instance) become tremendously important to me and to my ability to be faithful to my own Rule. These times involve an experience of  the silence of solitude which nourishes me and which I carry with me at all other times. These rare but privileged times in shared solitude mean that my loneliness never becomes a malignant loneliness from which I must seek distraction or for which some sort of "therapy" or special direction is needed. They mean that my solitude is really a shared reality, with God, of course, but also with others. These times allow me to feel deeply understood, deeply known --- even when these particular kinds of times with others are rare.

A life of Being instead of Doing is Counter Cultural:

Otherwise though, living as a hermit in a suburban setting can be difficult. We are all used to explaining our lives to others in terms of what we do. That is important, but it is also a real problem that exacerbates our tendency to validate ourselves in terms of what we do rather than who we are in light of God's love. Even hermits fall into this trap; we are seen as (and sometimes accept the label) "prayer warriors" whose lives are explained in terms of intercessory prayer or some great  "talent" for contemplative prayer or mysticism; too often we collude with these explanations of our vocations despite knowing full well that prayer is always God's gratuitous work within us to which we only bring our emptiness. In my own life one of the most difficult and perennial temptations I face is to explain my life in terms of active ministry.

Partly I do this because folks can easily understand this dimension of my life, partly it is because what happens in prayer is literally inexplicable and mainly too intimate to talk about in any case. Partly I do it because it is a way of connecting with others, fitting in, being less eccentric in the literal ("out of the center") sense of that term so that others may be comfortable. Partly it is the normal way of answering a friend's question, "What have you been up to?" In other words it is a way of relating to others, establishing common ground --- certainly a good thing of itself. Unfortunately, this can also represent a kind of distortion of my life and it tends to underscore the human tendency to see and justify ourselves (and judge others) in terms of what we do rather than who we are made by God to be --- the very thing hermits do NOT want to do.

So you see, I do understand the pain the hermits you refer to speak of. It is always difficult when we cannot talk about the things which are most important to us, the things from and for which we live, the things which make our lives truly meaningful, the relationship we would most like to share with others and invite them to share in as well. It is especially difficult when those others are our family or those who have no interest in God or what we identify as spirituality. But I also have to take responsibility for some of the continuing mystery (obscurity) and lack of understanding of this vocation. I can't simply bemoan that lack, much less blame others; to do that is more likely to be a matter of self pity (that is, a way of saying look how this vocation God has called me to makes me suffer),  or self-aggrandizement (look how special, unique, rare MY vocation is) than it is anything else.

Hermits must know we are the same as others:

Another source of difficulties stems from the related tendency of some hermits and would be hermits to treat everything outside the hermitage door as "the world" and to believe the folks who represent this part of God's creation cannot understand our lives, have nothing in common with us, are simply not spiritual enough, and neither understand the mystical nor the things of God more generally. This form of elitism and denigration is especially to be despised by the hermit. As I have written here a number of times "the world" the hermit is called to stricter separation or withdrawal from is defined as "that which is resistant to Christ". I would add that it is anything which promises fulfillment apart from Christ. Canon 603 requires stricter separation from the physical and social world outside the hermitage more generally, but even more significantly it demands stricter separation from the things which are resistant to Christ (whether or not the term Christ is ever explicitly involved).

This understanding of "the world" monastics or eremites "flee" is critical because otherwise we at least implicitly deny the deep commonalities shared by every human being, especially the very real and dynamic relationship with God which grounds and makes all authentic human existence a reality. We deny the pervasive spiritual dimension of all reality and the activity of God appreciated (even anonymously) in transcendent realities like beauty, depth, meaning, truth, love, freedom, etc. Hermits are engaged in the profoundly human and solitary search for meaning and the Source and ground of meaning.

We do that in a focused and relatively stark way. But we do what every person does in the ways they know how. More, we are the search for meaning every person is most fundamentally. To embrace a kind of elitism which divides reality into those who seek God and those who do not falsifies reality --- hardly something a hermit should be guilty of! To sharpen this dichotomous approach by asserting 'they are not even Catholic' is especially shortsighted. It is spiritually shortsighted as well as theologically and humanly naïve. One of the ways Catholicism is a real gift is its sacramental view of all reality. Another is its insistence that every person is profoundly related to God, that God is actively present summoning each person to themselves, and that these things are true whether or not the word God is ever used.

On the other hand, the hermit is not completely separated from "the world" in another way. "The world" is a reality the hermit carries within her heart and it is something that can make the hermitage itself an outpost of that rather than of the Kingdom of God. This is especially true if the hermit tries to deny this by labeling everything outside the hermitage door "the world" as though she has simply closed the door on it. I have written about this before so I encourage you to look at those posts. What I may not have noted is that our tendencies to create dualisms like this may stem from our discomfort with the fact that our vocation is a lonely one, almost by definition. A hermit's job, it seems to me is to bear witness to the existential solitude we share with every human being. If it becomes a source of self pity, then perhaps we are not called to eremitical solitude. If we find ways to distract ourselves or try to escape it then the conclusion may be the same. If we blame others, label them "the world" in a theologically unnuanced way, subscribe to elitisms that really mean we are generally failing to love everything and everyone in God or see them as God sees them then perhaps we are more at home with isolation than with eremitical solitude.

Trying to Summarize:

How can I bring this all together for you? Some people say hermits never feel lonely. My experience says that a hermit who really loves God and others will feel lonely simply because love cries out to be shared and poured out for others. Moreover hermits need community; this does not change because she is called to solitude --- though in my experience the form this community takes is usually one which stresses shared solitude. I have said in the past that loneliness is part of the penitential dimension of eremitical life. I will say now that it is part of the emptiness a hermit is called to embrace for God's own sake. As we bear witness to the completion and fullness of life that is ours in union with God, so too do we bear witness to the fundamental loneliness of the human person this side of eternity. However, in my experience, this has relatively little to do with being misunderstood. On the other hand it can certainly be sharpened by not being or not feeling understood. Misunderstanding, which is something else again, can occur and is often the result of stereotypes being misapplied.

It seems to me that  hermits can minimize such problems by letting folks (fellow parishioners, neighbors of all sorts, etc) know us for who we are. To insist, as some wannabe hermits do, that on those rare occasions when we dine or stay with friends or family for instance, we can only speak of "spiritual things," that we must eat dry bread and boiled lentils (or their stereotypical equivalent) while we don a mask of barely-contained suffering or grim forbearance, is pretense and unChristian pretense at that. To refuse to simply enjoy or delight in the other and listen to them in whatever terms they choose to share themselves, may well be more about playing hermit than being the hermit one truly is (assuming, of course, one really is a hermit in the first place!). In such cases it is the hermit him/herself who is guilty of assuring the vocation will be misunderstood and dismissed as eccentric and irrelevant at best! We may not be able to share the silence of solitude with these people we love nor the deepest and most truly mysterious parts of our lives rooted in that specific silence, but we can show them lives which are essentially loving, joyful, and full. That is, after all, the essential witness we are called to give and the the only thing which will correct any misunderstanding.

Catechism of the Catholic Church par # 921: "[Hermits] manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is the silent preaching of the Lord, to whom (she) has surrendered (her) life simply because [the Lord] is everything to (her). Her's is the particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One."

16 August 2015

Entrusting our weakness to the Love of God

My thanks to a reader for sending this video on to me. She thought it was a great symbol for some of what I have been writing about during the last two weeks and more. I am struck by the degree of trust the finch in this video achieves (apparently finches are shy and skittish) --- and the joy that comes from that trust.

Canticle of the Turning

Occasionally Sunday liturgies seem especially tailored for me. It is as though God has sneaked into the places of preparation and hearts of the ministers and whispered in peoples' ears, minds, and hearts what songs to choose, what homilies to give, what prayers of intention to offer. Today there were several things that made me feel that way but this song was one of them. My thanks to Sister Michelle Sherliza, OP for her arrangement in this video. Enjoy.


When only Weakness and Incapacity are Enough

[[Hi Sister Laurel, you wrote a paragraph about Jesus recently but I am not sure which post it was in. Would you mind reposting it here all by itself? It was about him being stripped of all his individual gifts and talents so God could be the entire source of his honor, and value. I thought it was excellent --- and was intrigued by the idea that Jesus' miracles were not enough!]]

Sure, I think I have only written one paragraph on Jesus in the past week or so; here is the one I remember. It fits what you describe. I have broken it in two to make it a bit easier to read. I have written before about Jesus' miracles (in the NT these are really called "works (or acts) of power") not being enough to bring about the reconciliation of all reality so that God might be all in all. cf Madman or Messiah?

What stands out in light of this paragraph and the events of the cross (and the life of Maximillian Kolbe too) is that the greatest thing we can offer the world is our own emptiness made precious and transfigured by the presence of God. When acts of power aren't enough our own emptiness, weakness, and incapacity can be. Another way of thinking of this is that our own stripping and emptiness are themselves the greatest gift we bring, the basis of anything truly miraculous. God can and does work through these more powerfully and exhaustively than he can through anything else. That's one reason Paul says, "My [God's] grace is sufficient for you. My [God's] power is made perfect in weakness." This is, perhaps the Gospel's greatest paradox and the reason at Easter we sing, "O happy fault".

"The Paragraph" (From On Bringing our Entire Availability)

[[When we think of Jesus we see a man whose tremendous potential and capacity for ministry, teaching, preaching, simple availability and community, was stripped away. In part this happened through the circumstances of his birth because he was shamed in this and was seen as less capable of honorable contributions or faithfulness. In part it was because he was a carpenter's son, someone who worked with his hands and was therefore thought of as less intellectually capable. In part it was because he was more and more isolated from his own People and Religion and assumed a peripatetic life with no real roots or sources of honor --- except of course from the One he called Abba.

And in part it was because even his miracles and preaching were still insufficient to achieve the transformation of the world, the reconciliation of all things with God so that God might one day truly be all in all. Gradually (or not so gradually once his public ministry began) Jesus was stripped of every individual gift or talent until, nailed to a cross and too physically weak and incapable of anything else, when he was a failure as his world variously measured success, [or shamed and dishonored as his culture variously measured dignity and honor] the ONLY thing he could "do" or be was open to whatever God would do to redeem the situation. THIS abject emptiness, which was the measure of his entire availability to God and also to us (!), was the place and way he became truly and fully transparent to his Abba. It also made the effectiveness of his ministry and mission global or even cosmic in scope]] as it fully transformed him from Jesus of Nazareth to being the Christ of Faith.

14 August 2015

Reflection for the Feast (Memorial) of Maximillian Kolbe

N.B., I gave a version of this reflection at a Liturgy of the Word with Communion service today at my parish. The sections in italics were borrowed from the post I wrote earlier for this Feast day and reprised yesterday.

We may think of our humanity as something we possess, a given which cannot be lost, but Christians recognize that our humanity is more a task entrusted to us than it is a possession or simple given. Most specifically humanity is the living reality that comes to be when God who is a constituent part of our very being shines forth within and through us. We are truly human to the extent we image God, not in the weak and inadequate sense of imitating his love and mercy, but in the strong sense of letting these heal and transfigure us. We are truly human to the extent we ARE a covenant with God. Covenant for us is not a mere agreement or arrangement we have undertaken with God as some sort of business partner but something we embody and come more and more to embody over our lifetimes.

In Douglas Steere's Together in Solitude, I read the following passage last night. (Steere is a Quaker who writes marvelously on the topics of solitude and community, as well as on silence, prayer and the challenge and task of becoming human.) Here he writes of a story he heard which illustrates part of the task of becoming our truest selves, selves which allow the fire of God's love to flame through us and bring light and warmth to our world. Steere recounts, [[During WWII, a Quaker artist friend of ours who lived in East Berlin painted a water color of three men standing some distance away but in clear view of Christ on the Cross. Each man was holding a mask in his hands and looking up at the crucified one with a mingled gaze of longing and fear: of longing to follow the way to which Christ beckoned him, and of fear both at the loss of his mask which the sight of Christ on the Cross had struck from him and at the price that following the new way might exact of him.]]

Today is the Feast of St Maximillian Kolbe. As I noted in an earlier post his story is as follows: [[Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered in Block 13 (see illustration below) by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright. ]]

[[The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Auschwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modeled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ

Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.]] This was a man with no masks at all, no obstacles to the God who lived within and was mediated by him to others. He was authentically human only to the extent he revealed the God who is Love-in-act to others

In today's readings the accent is on our God, his mercy and what he does with human weakness and the stripping that life brings our way. In Joshua, for instance, the lection is a litany of verbs contrasting human need and the dynamic of Divine mercy: You were captive, lost, hungry, threatened, homeless and childless, and I delivered,  fed,  gave to, assigned,  brought you, led you, planted for you, etc. In every instance God is revealed as the merciful one who gifts us in our weakness and incapacity. The real fruitfulness of our lives is God's work in and through us. The passage comes to a climax in the following reminder: [[I gave you a land that you had not tilled and cities that you had not built, to dwell in; you have eaten of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.]] As difficult as some of the examples might be for us Israel struggled to affirm the truth that genuinely fruitful lives are reflections of the unmerited mercy and love of God.

In the gospel lection Matthew speaks of two of the main ways human beings are made increasingly ready and able to image and mediate God's love to others. The first is marriage where to some degree husbands and wives set aside their own agendas and honestly embrace their own strengths and weaknesses for the sake of spouse, of children, of their children's children, the church, the world around us and, of course, for God's own sake (for the sake of Love itself) as well. It is a life demanding profound honesty and sacrifice if it is to be the sacramental reflection of the union between God and the Human Person it is meant to be.

The second is religious life where Sisters and Brothers commit to stripping the masks we might adopt and wear otherwise and eschewing the things which might mark us as valuable in ordinary terms: the mask of financial success and wealth, the mask of power and influence, and finally, even the mask of our own will and agenda --- our own identity as director of the course of our own inner and outer worlds, however great or small we perceive these to be. Through this renunciation and a life of prayer we also open ourselves to allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in our lives. In this life too we embrace both joy and sacrifice for the sake of Love itself.

In my own vocation, what is true is that the hermit commits to laying aside many of her gifts simply so that she may witness to God's love and who that makes her to be; she commits to being a revelation of the covenant each person is with God, to the completion that we each know in God even when stripped of all of the talents we associate with ourselves and apostolic ministry. And that is really true of each of us as well. Our humanity is our most fundamental vocation and the greatest task of our lives. Whatever the vocational path we take to that union with God we are each called to be, it is humanity itself that is "our" (God's) greatest achievement and the single most important gift we can bring to the inhuman situations still so prevalent in our world. That is one of the lessons of Maximillian Kolbe's life and the real nature of any call to holiness.

13 August 2015

Saint Maximillian Kolbe (Reprise)

Tomorrow is the feast day of Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered in Block 13 (see illustration below) by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright.

The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Aushwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modelled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ. Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.

I think it is easy to forget this fundamental vocation, or at least to underestimate its value and challenge. We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people! (And this is as true for hermits and recluses as it is true for anyone else.) Likewise, we may think of vocation as a call to religious life, priesthood, marriage, singleness, eremitism, etc, but always, these are "merely" the paths towards achieving our foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Of course, it is not that we do not need excellent priests, religious, husbands and wives, parents, and so forth, but what is more true is that we need excellent human beings --- people who take the call and challenge to be genuinely human with absolute seriousness and faithfulness.

Today's Gospel confronts us with a person who failed at that vocation. Extended mercy and the complete forgiveness of an unpayable debt, this servant went out into his world and failed to extend even a fraction of the same mercy to one of his fellows. He was selfish, ungrateful, and unmindful of who he was in terms of his Master or the generosity which had been shown him. He failed to remain in touch with that mercy and likewise he refused to extend it to others as called upon to do. He failed in his essential humanity and in the process he degraded and punished a fellow servant as inferior to himself when he should have done the opposite. Contrasted with this, and forming [part of] the liturgical and theological context for hearing this reading today, is the life of Maximillian Kolbe. Loved with an everlasting love, touched by God's infinite mercy and grace, Father Maximillian knew and affirmed who he truly was. More, in a situation of abject poverty and ultimate weakness, he remained in contact with the Source of his own humanity as the infinite well from which he would draw strength, dignity, courage, forgiveness, and compassion when confronted with a reality wholly dedicated to shattering, degrading, and destroying the humanity of those who became its victims. In every way he was the embodiment of St Paul's citation, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness!"

Block 13 where the "starvation cells" were

In Auschwitz it is true that some spoke of Kolbe as a saint, and many knew he was a priest, but in this world where all were stripped of names and social standing of any kind, what stood out to everyone was Maximillian Kolbe's love for God and his fellow man; what stood out, in other words, was his humanityHoliness for the Christian is defined in these terms. Authentic humanity and holiness are synonyms in Christianity, and both are marked by the capacity to love and be loved,  first (by) God and then (by) all those he has dignified as his image and holds as precious. 

 In a world too-often marked by mediocrity and even outright inhumanity, a world too frequently dominated by those structures, institutions, and dynamics which seem bigger than we are and incapable of being resisted or changed, we need to remember Maximillian Kolbe's example. Oftentimes we focus on serving others, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and the like, and these things are important. But in Kolbe's world when very little of this kind of service was possible (though Kolbe did what was possible and prudent here) what stood out was not only the crust of bread pressed into a younger priest's hands, the cup of soup given gladly to another, but the very great and deep dignity and impress of his humanity. And of course it stood out because beyond and beneath the need for food and shelter, what everyone was in terrible danger of losing was a sense of --- and capacity to act in terms of -- their own great dignity and humanity.

Marked above all as one loved by God, Father Maximillian lived out of that love and mercy. He extended it again and again (70 X 7) to everyone he met, and in the end, he made the final sacrifice: he gave his own life so that another might live. An extraordinary vocation marked by extraordinary holiness? Yes. But also our OWN vocation, a vocation to "ordinary" and true holiness, genuine humanity. As I said above, "In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell." In many ways this is precisely the gift we are called upon in Christ to be for our own times. Matthew's call to make forgiveness a way of life is a key to achieving this. May Saint Kolbe's example inspire us to fulfill our vocations in exemplary ways.

12 August 2015

Treat them as you would Gentiles and Tax collectors (reprise)

In today's Gospel pericope we hear Jesus telling folks to speak to those who have offended against God one on one and then, if that is ineffective, bring in two more brothers or sisters to talk with the person, and then, if that too is ineffective, to bring matters to the whole community --- again so the offended can be brought back into what we might call "full communion". If even that is ineffective then we are told to treat the person(s) as we treat Gentiles and tax collectors. In every homily I have ever heard about this passage this final dramatic command has been treated as justification for excommunication. Even today our homilist referred to excommunication --- though, significantly, he stressed the medicinal and loving motive for such a dire step. The entire passage is read as a logical, common-sense escalation and intervention: start one on one, try all you can, bring others in as needed, and if that doesn't work (that is, if the person remains recalcitrant) then wash your hands of him or, if stressing the medicinal nature of the act, separate yourselves from him until he comes to his senses and repents! In this reading of the text Matthew is giving us the Scriptural warrant for "tough love."

But I was struck by a very different reading during my hearing of the Gospel this morning. We think of Jesus turning things on their heads so very often in what he says; more we think about how often he turns things on their head by what he does. With this in mind the question which first occurred to me was, "But what would this have meant in Jesus' day for disciples of this man from Nazareth --- not what would it have meant for hundreds of years of Catholic Christianity!? Is the logic of this reading different, even antithetical to the logical, commonsense escalation outlined above?" And the answer I "heard" was, "Of course it is different! I am asking you to escalate your attempts to bring this person home, not to wash your hands of her. To do that I am suggesting you treat her as you might someone for whom the Gospel is a foreign word now -- someone who needs to hear it as much or more than you ever did yourself." Later I thought in a kind of jumble, "That means to treat her with even greater gentleness and care, even greater love and a different kind of intimacy. Her offense has effectively put her outside the faith community. Jesus is asking that we let ourselves be the "outsider" who stands with her where she is. He is saying we must try to speak in a language she will truly hear. Make of her a neighbor again; meet her in the far place, learn her truth before we try to teach her "ours". After all, what I and others have said thus far has either not been understood or it was not compelling for her."

While I should not have been surprised, I admit I was startled by my initial thoughts! Of course I knew that Jesus associated with tax collectors and with Gentiles. The reading with the Canaanite women last week or the week before makes it clear that Jesus even changed his mind about his own mission in light of the faith he found among Gentiles. Meanwhile, today's reading is taken from a Gospel attributed to Matthew, an Apostle who is identified as a tax collector! Shouldn't we be holding onto our seats in some anticipation while listening for Jesus – as he always does -- to say something that turns conventional wisdom and our entire ecclesiastical and spiritual world on its head?  Maybe my thoughts were not really so crazy after all and maybe those homilies I have heard for years have NOT had it right! So I looked again at the Gospel lection from today in its Matthean context. It is sandwiched between passages about humbling ourselves as children (those with no status), not being a source of stumbling and estrangement to others, searching for the one sheep that has gone astray even if it means leaving behind the 99 who have not strayed, and Peter asking how often he should forgive his brother to which Jesus says seven times seventy!

I think Jesus is reminding us of the difference between a community which is united in and motivated by Christ's own love (a very messy business sometimes) and one which is united in and mainly concerned with discipline (not so messy, but not so fruitful or inspired either). I think too he is reminding us of a Church which is always a missionary Church, always going out to others, always seeking to reconcile the entire world in the power of the Gospel. It is not a fortress which protects its precious patrimony by shutting itself off from those who do not believe, letting them fend for themselves or simply find their own ways to the baptistry or confessional doors; instead it achieves its mission by extending its love, its Word, and even its Sacraments to those who most need them --- the alien and alienated. It is a Church that really believes we hold things as sacred best when we give them away (which is NOT the same thing as giving them up!). Meanwhile Jesus may also be saying, "If your brother or sister has not and will not hear you, perhaps you have not loved them well or effectively enough; find a new way, even a more costly way. After all, my way (the Way I am!) is not the way of conventional wisdom, it is the scandalous, foolish, and sacrificial way of the Kingdom of God!


I had always thought today's reading a "hard one" because it seemed to sanction the excommunication of brothers and sisters in Christ. But now I think it is a hard one for an entirely different reason. It gives us a Church where no one can truly be at home so long as we are not reaching out to those who have not heard the Gospel we have been entrusted with proclaiming. It is a Church of open doors and open table fellowship (open commensality) because it is a church of open and missionary hearts -- just as God's own heart, God's own essential nature, is missionary. Above all it is a church where those who truly belong are the ones who really do not belong anywhere else! We proclaim a Gospel in which we who belong to Christ through baptism are the last and those outside our communion are first and, at least potentially, the Apostles on which the Church is built.

When we treat people like Gentiles and tax collectors we treat them in exactly this way, namely, as those whose truest home is around the table with us, listening to and celebrating the Word with us, ministering to and with us as at least potential brothers and sisters in Christ! We treat them as Gentiles and tax collectors when we take the time to enter their world so that we can speak to them in a way they can truly hear, when we love them (are brothers and sisters to them) as they truly need, not only as we are comfortable doing in our own cultures and families. Paul, after all, spoke of becoming and being all things to all persons --- just as God became man for us. He was not speaking of indifferentism or saying with our lives that Christ doesn't really matter;  just the opposite in fact. He was telling us we must be Christians in this truly startling way --- persons who can and do proclaim the Gospel of a crucified and risen Christ wherever we go because we let ourselves be at home and among (potential) brothers and sisters wherever we go. We do as God did for us in Christ; we let go of the prerogatives which are ours and travel to the far place in any and all the ways we need to in order to fulfill the mission of our God to truly be all in all.

When the logic, drama, and tension of today's Gospel lection escalate it is to this conclusion, I think, not to a facile justification of excommunication. In this pericope Jesus does not ask us to progressively enlist more people to increase the force with which we strong arm those who have become alienated, much less to support us as we cut them loose if they are unconvinced and unconverted, but to offer them richer, more diverse and extensive chances to be heard and to hear --- increasing opportunities, that is, to be empowered to change their minds and hearts when we, acting alone, have failed them in this way. This is what it means to forgive; it is what it means to be commissioned as an Apostle of Christ. And if that sounds naive, imprudent, impractical, and even impossible, I suspect Jesus' original hearers felt the same about the pericopes which form this lection's immediate context: becoming as children with no status except that given them by God, leaving the 99 to seek the single lost sheep or forgiving what is effectively a countless number of times. Certainly that's how someone writing under the name of a tax collector-turned-Apostle presents the matter.

09 August 2015

On the Question of Selfishness versus Hiddenness lived for Others

[[ Sister Laurel, are you saying it is unnecessary to use our gifts? Aren't hermits called to use their gifts? Also, how can one tell the difference between selfishness and the generous hiddenness of the hermit?]]

Thanks for your questions. I have been straining to speak of what is primary or most foundational in the hermit's life, what, above all, they witness to for the sake of others. To do this I have had to point to one dimension of the life --- although I think it is most basic, namely, that the hermit in her poverty and emptiness is called to live the relationship with God which is actually at the heart of every genuine act of ministry. Below all the gifts we are given to develop and use stands this relationship; it is, in fact, the very essence of what it means to be human. We ARE this relationship, this covenant with God, or we are simply not human. The hermit commits herself to a life of prayer, to the realization or perfection of this relationship. When we speak of human wholeness or holiness we are speaking of this fundamental covenantal relationship and its fullness and sufficiency in this person's life.

Of course we are called to use our gifts. I believe we will do that effectively to the extent this relationship with God is really the heart of our lives. Otherwise our "ministry" will be an expression of self-assertion instead of the mission of God. But there are few vocations in the Church which point to this truth in quite the same way as that of contemplatives and especially hermits and recluses. Our lives speak to the primacy of our relationship with God. They especially do that if we are made more fully human in the silence of solitude, if, in fact, we come to greater wholeness, greater capacity to love not only God but ourselves and others.

To sit in prayer is a gift of self to God and it is really something we do for the sake of others (first God, then all human beings). It means giving one's time, energy, attention, hopes, dreams, questions and desires to God so that God might have our lives as a dedicated place of personal presence. To sit in prayer extends the Kingdom of God in our world in ways which transcend our own small lives. It can mean foregoing more obvious gifts of self to others in order 1) to worship the God who deserves our entire attention, and 2) to at least raise the God/Meaning question in others' minds in a way which affirms we truly believe the inescapable love of God is the foundation of and impulse behind everything --- including every gift, ministry, and service we do for others. If we live our lives well then they may effectively invite others to entrust themselves to God similarly --- whatever the individual vocation.

On the Distinction Between Selfishness and Generous Hiddenness:

How do we tell the difference between selfishness and a hiddenness which is lived for others? One fundamental way is by the hermit's living of the Rule she has written and the Church has approved canonically. It is important to understand that a Rule is approved with the sincere expectation and hope that it will lead to the generous living of an authentically eremitical life under canon 603. Canonists look at proposed Rules with an eye to their canonical soundness but bishops look at a hermit's Rule for the sense that it is a sound expression of gospel life lived in the silence of solitude. It is a document that reflects a sense of the life defined in the canon as well as the individual hermit's own unique way of embodying that. Moreover, when a Rule is approved the hope it will serve in the anticipated way is often explicitly mentioned in the Bishop's formal document of approval. One of the reasons Rules are rewritten occasionally is to be sure they really serve the hermit in her authentic living of an eremitical life which truly honors the vocation (including the public rights and obligations) the Church has extended to this person.

Perseverance in prayer in solitude even when there is no palpable return on this, persevering in the daily life of a hermit when it is tedious, when the temptation to "go and do" argues loudly in one's head and heart, when one questions why one should persevere in such solitude when so many people are hungry in so many ways requires the empowerment of God. For this reason, so long as other the signs we speak of here are also present, faithfulness to one's Rule is a real sign that one is dealing with a divine vocation. By definition a divine vocation means it is lived for others even when  the hermit herself cannot see clearly HOW this can be so. (When we truly live for God our life will be lived for others as well because God is, by definition, the One "for others".) Again, in the case of canonical hermits the church herself vets and supervises the vocation to be certain that this sign and the others as well are truly present in this person's life. In fact, this is part of the initial discernment of the vocation. Absence of this sign of perseverance "for the sake of God and others" is reason for not admitting the person to public profession and consecration as a diocesan hermit. The bottom line is that the first sign of a hiddenness lived for others rather than as a form of self-centered indulgence or mere individualism is fidelity to one's approved Rule (which includes the hermit's horarium).

A second sign of a hiddenness which is lived for others is that the silence of solitude really leads to a more generous, more loving person who is more fully alive and more truly a mediator of the presence of God than was the case in a different context. I think it is easy to find so-called hermits whose lives and language have a coating of piety but who, in general, are unhappy, misanthropic, unfulfilled, and selfish. It is not enough to persevere in fidelity to one's Rule if there is no joy, no more abundant life, no signs of genuine growth and increasing personal and spiritual maturity. Faithfulness to one's Rule is important, even foundational,  but it must produce characteristic fruit in the hermit's life or it is much more likely we are dealing with a distorted and crippled individualism disguised as faithfulness and perseverance.

A third sign that we are not dealing with selfishness is the well-grounded conviction that this person is living this life so that they may witness to the God who meets our emptiness with his fullness.The life leading to this conviction has a number of faces, some more distinct than others, some less developed or explicit. In general though it has two aspects which are central to the hermit's lived commitment: 1) the sense that God can only be God in our world if we are obedient (open and responsive) to God's call; 2) the sense that we can only give what God empowers us to give which requires both prayer and penance (together these lead to an, emptying in preparation for, an opening to, and also a filling with the dynamic power of God). This lived commitment may include an experience of profound emptiness and stripping by the circumstances of life which God makes sense and use of --- not because God wills or "causes these circumstances", but because God transfigures them with his presence. This is certainly the message of the Cross with Jesus' descent into hell and subsequent bodily resurrection.

For the person of faith, suffering leads to obedience not because it breaks us down and makes us do the will of God rather than our own, but because it opens us to the profoundest weakness, incapacity, and emptiness and therefore, to the most fundamental and neuralgic questions of meaning. Suffering opens us to the "answer" we know as God. When we are empty and incomplete we can be open to being filled and completed by the One who bears witness to Himself within us. We cannot actually be open to being completed by God if we already know ourselves as complete, nor to the answer God is if we refuse to pose the question of our own existence in as radical a way as is possible. I see hermits, therefore, as people who pose the question(s) of God and meaning as radically as possible.

This also leads us to a sense that our very emptiness and the things which cause them open us to the greatest gift others need as well. We must come to know our own pain and need as a miniscule fraction of the pain and need of a suffering world and thus we know that our own consolation and redemption point to something the world needs. Our lives, redeemed and transfigured, empty perhaps of usable gifts, strength, worldly wisdom or expertise, and the opportunities to use these as apostolic religious do, reveal the God who freely completes and empowers us nonetheless --- if we will only entrust our lives to him.

The focus here, however, is God. If the hermit or hermit candidate focuses instead on her own suffering, her own pain and yearning for meaning, or if she begins instead to distract herself from these and thus from the God who reveals Godself in such circumstances, she has shifted from the authentic dynamic of the eremitical life and substituted an ungenerous self centeredness in its place. I should note that this is the primary reason essential healing and personal work needs to be done before one retires to solitude. It is also a central reason this vocation is recognized as a second-half-of-life vocation. One needs to have experienced the kinds of stripping and maturing that ordinarily occur in adulthood --- and especially in the demands of life with others --- to become open to God in the radical way eremitical life represents. One then needs to learn over time in solitude to truly turn to God, truly open to God in ways which allow his ever fuller indwelling and one's own transfiguration.

The fact is that there are some hermits whose lives do not immediately reflect one or the other of these aspects of the dynamic outlined. Some have not been stripped by the circumstances of life; generally, these hermits will open to God more slowly as the rigor of the life with its tedium and routine do as they are meant. But there are others who have been stripped of many things by the exigencies of life but, for instance, whose spirituality does not allow them to really open to the transfiguring presence of God. They may, for instance, resent and grieve the various forms of stripping and emptying life has required or occasioned but never commit to or undertake the work associated with healing these. When this is true such persons find it difficult indeed to open (or let God open them) to the even greater stripping and self-emptying involved in giving their whole selves over to God. In such situations the "hermitage" is a refuge from change and "the world out there" while in truth the hermit carries "the world" she is meant to separate herself from so deeply in her heart that genuine transfiguration becomes nearly impossible. Because of its pious veneer and the self-delusion at its core such a life can actually become an instance of the sin against the Holy Spirit rather than an authentic eremitical LIFE which is more and more wholly given over to that Spirit --- and thus lived for others.

A Postscript on the place of canonical standing in regard to your question:

To reiterate, the Church is responsible for publicly professing hermits who live lives of generous hiddenness, not lives of selfish indulgence and individualism. This is because truly generous eremitical lives serve God and others precisely in their profound emptinesses and stripping --- when God is allowed to meet these with his fullness. There is, for the hermit, no middle ground here I think. Either one commits to live for God and those precious to God by one's openness to being redeemed and transfigured or one fails to do so. For instance,  there is little or no apostolic ministry to attenuate the starkness of the choice here. Nor does one retire from being a hermit whose entire life poses (and is given over to posing) this fundamental choice as radically as possible. Canonical standing not only attests to the authenticity of the vocation but the graced state (the consecrated state of life), the relationships (legitimate superiors, diocesan stability, etc), and the public accountability such standing both indicates and helps insure but it supports one in living this out exhaustively with and for the whole of one's life.  Again, canonical standing in this matter serves love on a number of levels.