30 May 2016

A Contemplative Moment: Solace



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 entrance into a new world, a new way of seeing, a new perspective or set of values.

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!'

Summary:

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.

13 May 2016

Do You Love Me, Peter? Being Made Fully Human in Dialogue With God (Reprise)

Today's Gospel includes the pericope where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. It is the first time we hear much about or from Peter since his triple denial of Christ --- his fear-driven affirmations that he did not even know the man and is certainly not a disciple of his. After each question and reply by Peter, Jesus commissions Peter to "feed my lambs, feed my sheep." I have written about this at least three times before.

About four or five years ago I used this text to reflect on the place of conscience in our lives and a love which transcends law. At another point I spoke about the importance of Jesus' questions and of my own difficulty with Jesus' question to Peter. Then, about three years ago at the end of school I asked the students to imagine what it feels like to have done something for which one feels there is no forgiveness possible and then to hear how an infinitely loving God deals with that. The solution is not, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have termed it, "cheap grace" --- a forgiveness without cost or consequences. Neither is it a worthless "luv" which some in the Church mistakenly disparage because they hear (they say) too many homilies about the God of Love and mercy and not enough about the God of "justice". Instead, what Jesus reveals in this lection is a merciful love which overcomes all fear and division and summons us to incredible responsibility and freedom. The center of this reading, in other words, is a love which does justice and sets all things right.

But, especially at this time in the church's life, today's Gospel also takes me to the WAY Jesus loves Peter. He addresses him directly; he asks him questions and allows him to discover an answer which stands in complete contrast to and tension with his earlier denials and the surge of emotions and complex of thoughts that prompted them. As with Peter, Jesus' very presence is a question or series of questions which have the power to call us deeper, beyond our own personal limitations and conflicts, to the core of our being. What Jesus does with Peter is engage him at a profound level of heart --- a level deeper than fear, deeper than ego, beyond defensiveness and insecurity. Jesus' presence enables dialogue at this profound level, dialogue with one's true self, with God, and with one's entire community; it is an engagement which brings healing and reveals that the capacity for dialogue is the deepest reflection of our humanity.

It is this deep place in us which is the level for authentically human decision making. When we perceive and act at this level of heart we see and act beyond the level of black and white thinking, beyond either/or judgmentalism. Here we know paradox and hold tensions together in faith and love. Here we act in authentic freedom. Jesus' dialogue with Peter points to all of this and to something more. It reminds us that loving God is not a matter of "feeling" some emotion --- though indeed it may well involve this. Instead it is something we are empowered in dialogue with the Word and Spirit of God to do which transcends even feelings; it is a response realized in deciding to serve, to give, to nourish others in spite of the things happening to us at other levels of our being.

When we reflect on this text involving a paradigmatic dialogue between Peter and Jesus we have a key to understanding the nature of all true ministry, and certainly to life and ministry in the Church. Not least we have a significant model of papacy. Of course it is a model of service, but it is one of service only to the extent it is one of true dialogue, first with God, then with oneself, and finally with all others. It is always and everywhere a matter of being engaged at the level of heart, and so, as already noted, beyond ego, fear, defensiveness, black and white thinking, judgmentalism or closed-mindedness to a place where one is comfortable with paradox. As John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint, "Dialog has not only been undertaken; it is an outright necessity, one of the Church's priorities, " or again, "It is necessary to pass from antagonism and conflict to a situation where each party recognizes the other as a partner. . .any display of mutual opposition must disappear." (UUS, secs 31 and 29)

But what is true for Peter is, again, true for each of us. We must be engaged at the level of heart and act in response to the dialogue that occurs there. Because of the place of the Word of God in this process, lectio divina, the reflective reading of Scripture, must be a part of our regular praxis. So too with prayer, especially quiet prayer whose focus is listening deeply and being comfortable with that often-paradoxical truth that comes to us in silence. Our humanity is meant to be a reflection of this profound dialogue. At every moment we are meant to be a hearing of Jesus' question and the commission to serve which it implies. At every moment then we are to be the response which transcends ego, fear, division, judgmentalism, and so forth. Engagement with the Word of God enables such engagement, engagement from that place of unity and communion with God and others Jesus' questions to Peter allowed him to find and live from. My prayer today is that each of us may commit to be open to this kind of engagement. It makes of us the dialogical reality, the full realization of that New Creation which is truly "not of this world" but instead is of the Kingdom of God --- right here, right now.

11 May 2016

Abba John Colobos and the Fruit of Obedience

In the apothegmata (sayings) of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, the story is told of Desert Abba John Colobos' elder (mentor) having taken a dry stick and planted it in the ground. He told Abba John to go every day and irrigate the stick. John did so even though water was a long way away and it meant John had to travel to the spring each evening only to return hours later at dawn. For three years John made this trip every day. At the end of this time we are told the stick turned green and flowered. John took the flowers to the Church, shared them with his brethren saying, "Behold the fruit of obedience!" We hear in this story a clear lesson on the importance and the fruitfulness of persisting in obedience, not merely in the sense of doing what one is told, but in the very much richer and more challenging terms of entrusting oneself to the wisdom and loving mentoring of an elder in a way which, over time, produces astonishing fruit despite the evident impossibility and apparent absurdity of the project undertaken.

Variations on the Original Story:

Unfortunately, today few are familiar with the original story but many have heard scaled down and skewed variations in which religious superiors demand something similar, usually in order to humiliate and bring to heel novices having difficulty submitting themselves to their superior's commands. In such stories obedience is less about entrusting oneself to the love of an elder as a necessary part of long term formation in life than it is about a blind "faith" which demands a subject check their intellect at the door or about breaking another's spirit and causing them to submit to one's will. It is less about opening oneself to a God one can trust to be present even in the darkness and more about simply saying yes to the absurd. It is far less about entrusting oneself to the wisdom of one who knows how to live eremitical life and who is immensely savvy in the ways of the human heart and far more about buying into a narrowly authoritarian notion of obedience.

It is not hard to see why believers and unbelievers alike ridicule the notion of religious obedience, and sometimes faith itself. We can hear them scoff: "Imagine someone persisting in the belief that a dead stick will one day flower! Imagine someone wasting their time, and even their entire lives in subjection to superiors (or a "gospel") that command such absurdities! Imagine such blind and entirely senseless 'faith' where someone submits to the punitive or at best misguided  commands of a superior moved by cruelty, ignorance, and even outright superstition!" We believers have not always done well with our foundational stories.

Desert Apothegm as Analogy of the Story of the Cross

I doubt that any of us today could imagine planting a wooden stick in the ground, watering it daily for years, and having anything fruitful at all come from such a project. Fewer still might listen to the story of Abba John Colobos and adopt such a stick as a symbol of profound hope, true wisdom, or supremely Good News. But it occurs to me that right at the heart of our faith is the story of a wooden stake planted in the ground  and watered with blood and tears to bring forth astonishing, even measureless  fruitfulness.  God takes the very symbol of barrenness, gratuitous suffering, senseless cruelty, hopelessness, and the despair of godless death and through the faithful obedience (the trusting, persevering, openness and  responsiveness) of his Son, redeems and transforms reality. Through this event God destroys sin and death, brings about the reconciliation of all creation, transfigures it into a new creation which shares intimately in his own divine life and prefigures the day of fulfillment when God will be all in all. In other words, it is through Jesus' own obedience that a barren stake of death is transformed by God into what Christians call today The Tree of Life.

And yet, we have not always done well in conveying this rock bottom foundational story of our faith either. As with Abba John's response to his desert elder, Jesus' obedience was not simply a matter of doing what he was told; it was a matter of faithfully entrusting his entire life --- every moment and mood of it --- to the One whose wisdom was greater than his own and whose powerful and kenotic love he would, over time, come to embody or incarnate exhaustively. Obedience here would mean becoming the actual counterpart of the One he called Abba just as it would mean Jesus' committing his whole self to the service of all those whom this One loved and yet loves with an everlasting love. I am sure there were many times when such openness to his Father's will tempted Jesus to see his mission as marked and marred with futility. I am positive that working with his disciples and with the religious leadership of his day felt like trying to teach brainless and heartless chunks of wood to explode in cascades of flowers and fruit. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so upset by the barren fig tree.

Over the past 40 some days we have heard a number of similar stories rooted in the power and model of Jesus. Paul's own story is one of a man converted to what must have seemed like a futile project and who persevered in his own obedience nonetheless. Certainly some of the original Apostles in Jerusalem thought his mission to the Gentiles made as much sense as John Colobos' apparently absurd stick-watering --- especially since they lacked the roots of the Jewish Law and covenant to build on. And yet, Paul and his pastoral assistants brought incredible fruit from what was considered to be Gentile's religious rootlessness and barrenness. Paul in particular entrusted himself to the crucified Christ, rethought Judaism in light of the cross and resurrection and forever changed the face of Christianity from a sect of Judaism to a worldwide faith with a mission to proclaim the Gospel to everyone without limits or boundaries. Every story of martyrdom, every witness to the Gospel, every call to forgive and be forgiven, every commission to minister to others in the power of the cross, reminds us that what we proclaim is a scandal to religious folks and foolishness to the wise of this world. It is our own revealed version of the stick-watering story of Abba John Colobos.

Applying the Story of Abba John Colobos Today:

In today's readings both Paul and Jesus entrust the story of the barren-stick-turned-fruitful-bough to us. This is the proclamation or kerygma we are entrusted with by God, a bit of Christian foolishness many will simply deride, the proclamation we call Gospel. This Friday we will hear the story of Peter's "rehabilitation" by the risen Christ and his call to "feed Christ's lambs, feed Christ's sheep." Because he entrusted himself to Christ's reconciling love we have a Church whose highest leadership is summoned to be a model of obedient love and servanthood.

The mission we are given, the obedience to which we are called -- a responsive commission ratified and empowered at Pentecost ---requires perseverance and trust in a love and wisdom greater than our own.  It means being asked to do great things in our world but often it means saying a trusting yes to small, ordinary acts of faithfulness which -- at least in the short term -- seem to be worthless and of no great moment at all. Especially it means opening ourselves daily so that the Holy Spirit of both the Father and Son together may empower a responsiveness that brings life out of death, hope out of despair, and an often pervasively barren world to flower in faith and new life.

Like Paul and Peter, like John Colobos and armies of Desert Abbas and Ammas, like Christians of every age and culture we are each called to labor daily to water all of these tasks and many others with ourselves, with our tears of love, joy, grief, and sometimes even with our very blood; more, we are asked to embrace and persevere in our commitments of self gift so that the scandal and foolishness of the Cross may continue to cause the whole creation to sing in joy, "Behold the New Creation, behold the fruit of obedience!"

04 May 2016

Developing the Heart of a Hermit


[[Hi Sister, when you write about having the heart of a hermit and moving from isolation to solitude do you mean that someone comes to this through some form of trauma or serious personal wounding and alienation? Is this necessary? Can a person who has never been hurt or broken develop the "heart of a hermit"?]]

Hi and thanks for your questions. When I think of someone with the heart of a hermit I am thinking of someone who has entered a desert, been emptied in all the ways a desert does, and learned to depend upon God for her very life as well as for the meaning of that life. When I speak of God I mean what the Christian creeds mean, what the NT means and who Jesus reveals, but I also mean being dependent on the One Tillich called the "Ground of Being and Meaning", namely a transcendent ground which both surpasses and comprehends our own emptiness and incapacities and is the source and guarantor of life and meaning.

When I speak of a desert I mean the literal wilder-nesses we know as deserts (the Thebaid, Scetes, Mojave, Sonoran, Sahara, etc), but I also mean any extended situation which demands  or forces a person to plumb the depths of their own personal resources --- courage, intelligence, creativity, sense of security, personal  gifts and talents, sense of self, faith, hope, love, etc --- all the things we need to negotiate the world fruitfully and independently. In such a situation, which may certainly include childhood traumatic situations, a person brings all they have and know to the situation and over time are emptied or reach the limit of these resources. At the same time one can, and hopefully will, experience a sense of empowerment one knows comes from beyond themselves, sometimes radically so. When this happens such a person continues to live with a fresh courage and sense of meaning and hope. They embrace their own weakness honestly as they humbly and gratefully accept the life which is received as complete gift in such situations.

All kinds of situations result in "desert experiences." Chronic illness, bereavement, negligent and abusive family life, bullying, losses of employment and residence, abandonment, divorce, war, imprisonment, insecure identity (orphans, etc), serious poverty, and many others may be classified this way. Typically such experiences distance, separate, and even alienate us from others (e.g., ties with civil society, our normal circle of friends and the rhythms of life we are so used to are disrupted and sometimes lost entirely); too they throw us back upon other resources, and eventually require experiences of transcendence --- the discovery of or tapping into new and greater resources which bring us beyond the place of radical emptiness and  helplessness to one of consolation and communion. The ultimate (and only ultimately sufficient) source of transcendence is God and it is the experience of this originating and sustaining One who is Love in Act that transforms our isolation into the communion we know as solitude.

Thus, my tendency is to answer your question about the possibility of devel-oping the heart of a hermit without experiences of loss, trauma, or brokenness in the negative. These experiences open us to the Transcendent and, in some unique ways, are necessary for this. Remember that sinfulness itself is an experience of estrangement and brokenness so this too would qualify if one underwent a period of formation where one met one's own sinfulness in a sufficiently radical way. Remember too that the hermit vocation is generally seen as a "second half of life" vocation; the need that one experiences this crucial combination of radical brokenness and similar transcendence and healing is very likely part of the reason behind this bit of common wisdom.

In any case, the heart of a hermit is created when a person living a desert experience also learns to open themselves to God and to live in dependence on God in a more or less solitary context. One need not become a hermit to have the heart of a hermit and not all those with such hearts become hermits in a formal, much less a canonical way. In the book Journeys into Emptiness (cf.,illustration above), the Zen Buddhist Master Dogen, Roman Catholic Monk Thomas Merton, and Depth Psychologist Carl Jung all developed such hearts. Only one lived as a hermit --- though both Dogen and Merton were monks.

As I understand and use the term these are the hearts of persons irrevocably marked by the experience and threat of emptiness as well as by the healing (or relative wholeness) achieved in solitary experiences of transcendence and who are now not only loving individuals but are persons who are comfortable and  (often immensely) creative in solitude. They are persons who have experienced in a radical way and even can be said to have "become" the question of meaning and found in the Transcendent the only Answer which truly completes and transforms them. In a Farewell to Arms, Hemingway said it this way, [[The World breaks everyone and then some become strong in the broken places.]] The Apostle Paul said it this way (when applied to human beings generally), "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness."

Hermit hearts are created when, in a radical experience of weakness, need, yearning, and even profound doubt that will mark her for the rest of her life,  she is also transfigured by an experience of God's abiding presence. A recognition of the nature of the hermit's heart is what drives my insistence that the Silence of Solitude is the goal and gift (charism) of eremitical life; it is also the basis for the claim that there must be an experience of redemption at the heart of the discernment, profession, and consecration of any canonical hermit. While she in no way denies the importance of others who can and do mediate this same presence in our world, the hermit gives herself to the One who alone can make her whole and holy. She seeks and seeks to witness to the One who has already "found" her in the wilderness and found her in a way that reveals the truth that "God alone is enough" for us.

I Go to Prepare a Place for You: Ascension and Jewish Marriage Imagery (Reprised)

So much of what Jesus says about the event we call "Ascension" is meant to remind us of the Jewish theology of marriage. It is meant to remind us that the Church, those called and sent in the name of Jesus, is the Bride of Christ --- both betrothed and awaiting the consummation of this marriage. This Friday's Gospel passage from 16 John prepares the disciples for Jesus' "leaving" and the Church wants us to hear it now in terms of the Ascension rather than the crucifixion. Thus, it focuses on the "in-between" time of grief-at-separation, waiting, and bittersweet joy.

Thus too, especially with its imagery of labor and childbirth, it affirms that though Jesus must leave to prepare a place for us, the grief of his "leaving" (really a new kind of presence) will one day turn to unalloyed joy because with and in Christ something new is being brought to birth both in our own lives and in the very life of God. It is an unprecedented reality, an entirely New Life and too, a source of a joy which no one can take from us. Just as the bridegroom remains a real but bittersweet presence and promise in the life of his betrothed, so Jesus' presence in our own lives is a source of now-alloyed and bittersweet joy, both real and unmistakable but also not what it will be when the whole of creation reaches its fulfillment and the marriage between Christ and his Bride is consummated. The union of this consummation is thus the cosmic union of God-made all in all.

The following post reflects on another Johannine text, also preparing us for the Ascension. I wanted to reprise it here because the Gospel texts this week all seek to remind us of the unadulterated joy of Easter and the Parousia (the second-coming and fulfillment) as they prepare us for the bittersweet joy of the in-between time of Ascension and especially because they do so using the imagery of Jewish marriage. This Friday's childbirth imagery in John 16 presupposes and requires this be fresh in our minds.

The Two Stages of Jewish Marriage

The central image Jesus uses in [speaking of his leaving and eventual return] is that of marriage. His disciples are supposed to hear him speaking of the entire process of man and wife becoming one, of a union which represents that between God and mankind (and indeed, all of creation) which is so close that the two cannot be prised apart or even seen as entirely distinguishable realities. Remember that in Jewish marriages there were two steps: 1) the betrothal which was really marriage and which could only be ended by a divorce, and 2) the taking home and consummation stage in this marriage. After the bridegroom travels to his bride's home and the two are betrothed, the bridegroom returns home to build a place for his new bride in his family's home. It is always meant to be a better place than she had before. When this is finished (about a year later) the bridegroom travels back to his bride and with great ceremony (lighted lamps, accompanying friends, etc) brings her back to her new home where the marriage is consummated.

Descent and the Mediation of God's Reconciling Love:

This image of the dual stages in Jewish marriage is an appropriate metaphor of what is accomplished in the two "stages" in salvation history referred to as descent and ascent. When we think of Jesus as mediator or revealer --- or even as Bridegroom --- we are looking at a theology of salvation (soteriology)  in which God first goes out of himself in search of a counterpart. This God  'empties himself' of divine prerogatives --- not least that of remaining in solitary omnipotent splendor --- and in a continuing act of self-emptying creates the cosmos still in search of that counterpart. For this reason the entire process is known as one of descent or kenosis. Over eons of time and through many intermediaries (including prophets, the Law, and several covenants) he continues to go out of himself to summon the "other" into existence, and eventually chooses a People who will reveal  him (that is, make him known and real) to the nations. Finally and definitively in Jesus he is enabled to turn a human face to his chosen People. As God has done in partial and fragmentary ways before, in Christ as Mediator he reveals himself definitively as a jealous and fierce lover, one who will allow nothing, not even sin and godless death (which he actually takes into himself!)** to separate him from his beloved or prevent him from bringing her home with him when the time comes.

Ascension and the Mediation of God's Reconciling Love:

With Jesus' ascension we are confronted with another dimension of Christ's role as mediator; we celebrate the return of the Bridegroom to his father's house --- that is to the very life of God. He goes there to prepare a place for us. As in the Jewish marriage practice, that Divine "household" (that Divine life) will change in a definitive way with the return of the Son (who has also changed and is now an embodied human being who has experienced death, etc.) just as the Son's coming into the world changed it in a definitive way. God is not yet all in all (that comes later) but in Christ humanity has both assumed and been promised a place in God's own life. As my major theology professor used to say to us, "God has taken death into himself and has not been destroyed by it." That is what heaven is all about, active participation and sharing by that which is other than God in the very life of God. Heaven is not like a huge sports arena where everyone who manages to get a ticket stares at the Jumbo Tron (God) and possibly plays harps or sing psalms to keep from getting too bored. With the Christ Event God changes the world and reconciles it to himself, but with that same event the very life of God himself is changed as well. The ascension signals this significant change as embodied humanity and all of human experience becomes a part of the life of the transcendent God who is eternal and incorporeal. Some "gods" would be destroyed by this, but not the God of Jesus Christ!

Summary

Mediation (or revelation) occurs in two directions in Christ. Christ IS the gateway between heaven and earth, the "place" where these two realities meet and kiss, the new Temple where sacred and profane come together and are transfigured into a single reality. Jesus as mediator implicates God into our world and all of its moments and moods up to and including sin and godless death. But Jesus as mediator also allows human life, and eventually all of creation to be implicated in and assume a place in God's own life. When this double movement comes to its conclusion, when it is accomplished in fullness and Jesus' commission to reconciliation is entirely accomplished, when, that is, the Bridegroom comes forth once again to finally bring his bride home for the consummation of their marriage, there will be a new heaven and earth where God is all in all; in this parousia both God and creation achieve the will of God together as it was always meant to be.
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** Note: the Scriptures recognize two forms of death. The first is a kind of natural perishing. The second is linked to sin and to the idea that if we choose to live without God we choose to die without him. It is the consequence of sin. This second kind is called variously, sinful death, godless death, eternal death or the second death. This is the death Jesus "takes on" in taking on the reality and consequences of human sinfulness; it is the death he dies while (in his own sinlessness) remaining entirely vulnerable and open to God. It is the death his obedience (openness) allows God to penetrate and transform with his presence.

The resurrection is the event symbolizing the defeat of this death and the first sign that all death will one day fall to the life and love of God. Ascension is the event symbolizing God taking humanity into his own "house", his own life in Christ. We live in hope for the day the promise of Ascension will be true for the whole of God's creation, the day when God will be all in all.

02 May 2016

The Paradox of the Prophetic Vocation to Eremitical Life in the Church

 [[Dear Sister, I wondered what you thought of the position in the following passage from another hermit; after all, you have status, position, and a role in the institutional Church, don't you? Do you feel that your own vocation is a betrayal of the traditional eremitical vocation? Can your vocation be prophetic in the way this passage suggests a hermit is meant to be?  Thank you.]]

[[Because the Hermit had (should still have) no status, position, authority, power or role in the institutional Church, and would usually be unknown by and not know those who sought her or his advice, such advice was free from any of the often complex subtexts, hidden agendas, personal preferences and prejudices, or politics that almost always intrude into conversations, especially those within institutions, and most especially within the institutional Church. The Hermit spoke freely and frankly, from the heart, always open to the guidance of the Spirit, and without (as it is often phrased) fear or favour.]] City Desert on Eremitical Service

Great question, and one I have approached here before in some ways. For instance, I have written about the supposed increasing  institutionalization of the hermit life as a possible betrayal of the vocation in On the Growing Institutionalization of Eremitical Life and about the eremitical life as prophetic in Hermit Life as Prophetic, etc. Feel free to check these out if you want. In any case, I entirely agree with the spirit of the statement as an ideal for hermits. On the other hand I don't think it is entirely accurate as far as history goes, and in fact, I think it is somewhat naïve in regard to the way anyone relates to their culture or church.

In saying this I don't mean that hermits did and do not speak freely, frankly, and without fear or favor in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, I do mean we have always addressed people with minds and hearts that to some extent are shaped by our families, culture, and general historical circumstances and that what we say and do always reflect these influences in one way and another. The Spirit frees us to speak honestly and without fear but we cannot be entirely free of the conditioning qualities and hermeneutics  which guide the way we pray, believe, think, read Scripture, relate to authority, etc. The kind of objectivity pointed to by this passage is simply not entirely possible. All reality is interpreted reality; it is always perceived through a multitude of lenses supplied by our upbringing, education, culture, and so forth. This is true even when we are speaking of spirituality or when the position we adopt vis-a-vis the Church and World is a counter-cultural one.

A second concern I have is that this passage makes it sound like the eremitical life is best lived not merely from a position of radical Christian marginality but from outside the Church. Since I don't know the context or source of the passage** it might well be the case that the author is thinking about the desert Abbas and Ammas when eremitical life was lived in a conscious opposition to the Church's too-complete accommodation of and assimilation to the culture and politics of the time. In those early centuries thousands of desert dwellers participated in a kind of eremitical protest movement and were indeed a prophetic presence challenging the Church to become her better self living in the world while not being of it. Geographically and socially this kind of movement was possible. I don't think that is true today.  Moreover I am a strong believer in the notion that authentic prophecy today is lived from a stance of profound love within the institutional Church, not from outside it. In this too the eremitical element of "stricter separation from the world" means one shuns enmeshment but remains profoundly (if uniquely) engaged; it means a kind of detachment associated with a love which is purified of inordinate attachments. (cf On attachments, Detachment, and Friendship in the Eremitical Life)

Similarly, I believe that eremitical life itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and world which, because it lives from and for the Gospel, must be lived from inside the Church. Unless this is the case we are dealing with neither a truly prophetic lifestyle nor one which speaks from an authentically marginal position within the Church. It will have relinquished these and the legitimate authority necessary becoming instead an ineffective gadfly committed to one's own individualist perspective. It is, after all, possible to cease being marginal and simply become an alien. The hermit, it seems to me, is called to a significant marginality from within the heart of the Church. As "ecclesiola" she accepts a very unusual status and role within the Church for the sake of the Gospel and life of the Church herself. Because I believe the Gospel can only be effectively proclaimed and embraced from within the Church I believe an eremitical life witnessing to the redemption of Christ and the Gospel of reconciliation in Christ must itself be lived from a profound place within the Church.

Still, I think the ideal articulated in this passage has to be a guide to any hermit. We must strive to be as free from the kinds of prejudices, agendas, personal preferences and politics that prevent us from seeing clearly or fulfilling the prophetic role of the eremite in today's Church and/or society. So long as the author of the passage cited was stating an ideal perspective to be undertaken from within the Church we are in essential agreement (and probably strongly so). But this requires that the hermit accept she has a role in the Church and that, paradoxically, carrying out this role (which the Church herself actually honors and may even formally commission) may require she accept some kind of standing (canonical standing for instance) and limited authority (for instance, to live this life in the name of the Church as well as on her behalf).

Profound Paradox at the Heart of Eremitical Life:

Here is one of the profoundest paradoxes of ecclesial eremitical life; it is one of the things which makes this vocation so special, so rare, and also so risky and difficult for hierarchs.  Bishops are called to profess, consecrate, and supervise individuals living a Gospel truth and freedom which may necessarily lead to an occasional "butting of heads" or, at the very least a style of obedience some may not be comfortable with. Similarly it is profoundly risky and difficult for the hermit herself. She is called by God and by the Church to act with an integrity in the Spirit that will leave no one untouched by the challenge of the Gospel. This may mean acting in ways which have the potential (remote though that may be) of leading to the eventual dispensation of her vows --- a situation analogous to Aquinas' treatment of the requirements of conscience. Remember that Aquinas said that even should acting in good conscience lead to unjust excommunication, one must act as determined and bear the excommunication in humility. The solitary hermit who takes the prophetic character of her vocation seriously may well find herself in precisely such a situation because the requirements of living the Gospel radically and because the Church's own commission (which is also inspired by the Spirit) may place her there.

Because I recognize this dynamic and responsibility at the heart of my vocation --- a dynamic rooted in love and the summons of the Church and her Lord --- I do not think my vocation is a betrayal of traditional eremitical life. I believe I have embraced an essentially prophetic call which I pray every day I may be worthy of and live with integrity. It is possible, even likely, that most hermits will never be touched by the kind of conflict envisioned here; the prophetic character of our lives will be lived out in a radical witness to what it means to be truly human and thus, in a contemplative dialogue/union with God that consoles and challenges but without serious conflict with, for instance, the institutional Church. But occasionally, precisely because our vocations are ecclesial and because our talents and training serve God and the Church, the hermit will be called by the Church herself to witness to a truth which others in the Church who ALSO have ecclesial vocations will feel they must resist or reject.

It is here that the Love which empowers these persons and the humility which comes from God alone must clearly govern matters. It is here where life experience, competent spiritual direction, and practice in discernment becomes especially critical. It is also here where the relationship between a hermit and her legitimate superiors must be grounded in and seasoned with a mutual respect and trust that allows the charitable and wise negotiation of the situation itself for the good of all involved --- including the good of the eremitical vocation itself. I am convinced that such a prophetic role will not arise for hermits who place themselves outside the purview of the Church and I am absolutely convinced that it cannot be effectively embraced by such a hermit.

** Source was provided and added after I had responded to the passage.