12 December 2017

Primacy of Conscience and Voting in "One Issue Elections"

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I've been watching the Alabama election returns. One issue that comes up again and again is that of abortion. For many in this election their vote hinges on that one issue only --- abortion. I remember you put up a post about this at one point but I couldn't find it tonight. Would you mind reposting it? Thank you!]]

Yes, I am sorry you couldn't find it. It is filed under "conscience -- primacy of" as well as "Benedict XVI and voting" and just plain "voting". Here is the article you were asking about. I have cut some of it to limit it to the key points: 1) what it means to have an informed and a well-formed conscience, and 2) how one determines one is to vote in a situation which is ambiguous or (misleadingly) marked as a "one-issue" situation.


The Cave of the Heart
. . .Let me restate 1) the pertinent part of the Church's teaching on the nature and primacy of conscience, and 2) Benedict XVI's analysis of elections which involve, for instance, the issues of abortion and contraception when neither candidate or party platform is really completely acceptable to Catholics.

First, we are to inform and form our consciences to the best of our ability. This means we are not only to learn as much as we can about  the issue at hand including church teaching, medical and scientific information, sociological data, theological data, and so forth (this is part of the way to an informed conscience), but we are to do all we can to be sure we have the capacity to make a conscience judgment and act on it. This means we must develop the capacity to discern all the values and disvalues present in a given situation, preference them appropriately, and then determine or make a conscience judgment regarding how we must act. Finally we must act on the conscience or prudential judgment that we have come to. (This latter capacity which reasons morally about all the information is what is called a well-formed conscience. A badly formed conscience is one which is incapable of reasoning morally, discerning the values and disvalues present, preferencing these, and making a judgment on how one must act in such a situation. Note well, that those who merely "do as authority tells them" may not have a well-formed conscience informed though they may be regarding what the Church teaches in a general way!)

There are No Shortcuts, No Ways to Free ourselves from the Complexity or the Risk of this Process and Responsibility:

There is no short cut to this process of informing and forming our consciences. No one can discern or decide for us, not even Bishops and Popes. They can provide information, but we must look at ALL the values and disvalues in the SPECIFIC situation and come to a conscientious judgment ourselves. The human conscience is inviolable, the inner sanctum where God speaks to each of us alone. It ALWAYS has primacy. Of course we may err in our conscience judgment, but if we 1) fail to act to adequately inform and form our consciences, or 2) act in a way which is contrary to our own conscience judgment we are more likely guilty of sin (this is  actually certain in the latter case). If we act in good faith, we are NEVER guilty of sin --- though we may act wrongly and have to bear the consequences of that action. If we err, the matter is neutral at worst and could even still involve great virtue. If we act in bad faith, we ALWAYS sin, and often quite seriously, for to act against a conscience judgment is to act against the very voice of God as heard in our heart of hearts.

And what about conscience judgments which are not in accord with Church teaching (or in this case, with what some Bishops are saying)? I have written about this before but it bears repeating. Remember that at Vatican II the minority group approached the theological commission with a proposal to edit a text on conscience. The text spoke about the nature of a well-formed conscience. The redaction the minority proposed was that the text should read, "A well-formed conscience is one formed in accord (or to accord) with Church teaching." The theological commission rejected this redaction as too rigid and reminded the Fathers that they had already clearly taught what the church had always held on conscience. And yet today we hear all the time from various places, including some Bishops, that if one's conscience judgment is not in accord with Church teaching the conscience is necessarily not well-formed. But this is not Church teaching --- not the teaching articulated by Thomas Aquinas or Innocent III, for instance, who counseled people that they MUST follow their consciences even if that meant bearing with excommunication.

Benedict XVI's Analysis:

Now then, what about Benedict XVI's analysis of voting in situations of ambiguity where, for instance, one party supports abortion but is deemed more consistently pro-life otherwise? What happens when this situation is sharpened by an opposing party who claims to be anti-abortion but has done nothing concrete to stop it? MUST a Catholic vote for the anti-abortion party or be guilty of endangering their immortal souls? Will they necessarily become complicit in intrinsic evil if they vote for the candidate or party which supports abortion? The answer is no. Here is what Benedict XVI said: If a person is trying to decide for or against a particular candidate and determines that one candidate's party is more consistently pro-life than the other party, even though that first party supports abortion or contraception, the voter may vote in good conscience for that first candidate and party SO LONG AS they do not do so BECAUSE of the candidate's position on abortion or contraception.

In other words, in such a situation abortion is not the single overarching issue which ALWAYS decides the case. One CAN act in good faith and vote for a candidate or party which seems to support life as a seamless garment better than another party, even if that candidate or party does not oppose abortion. One cannot vote FOR intrinsic evil, of course, but one can vote for all sorts of goods which are clearly Gospel imperatives and still not be considered complicit in intrinsic evil. By the way, this is NOT the same thing as doing evil in order that good may result!! Benedict XVI's analysis is less simplistic than some characterizations I have heard recently; theologically it seems to me to be far more cogent and nuanced than these, and it is [an analysis] Bishops who are supposed to be in union with him when they teach as the ordinary Magisterium should certainly strongly reconsider and learn from. . . .

10 December 2017

On Eremitical Life: Advent, Movies, and Lectio Divina

 [[ Dear Sister Laurel, I'm thinking you may not be surprised by my questions. I saw what you said about going to the movies 2 or even 3 times during Advent and Christmas and it made me wonder how you could do that and be a hermit. I was even more surprised that your delegate went with you! So, could you explain to me how that all works? Does it fit into your Rule? Isn't Advent a period of greater solitude for you (hermits).  I can hear others saying, "The movies? She isn't a hermit!" I would also bet I am not the only one who wrote you wondering about this!]]

Well, I will say I expected people to write me about this but so far, you are the only person to do so! Now that's not bad. Your questions are, as I say, understandable. So let me give them a shot. First of all, this is not a regular practice but it could be (say once a month or every two or three months), especially if I choose good movies that are thoughtfully and artistically done, and more especially if they are based on a true story or a book that is recognized as inspiring. It is not surprising to folks that hermits do a kind of reading called lectio divina. What may be surprising though is that movies may also be good subjects for lectio. For instance, in 2011 I saw the movie "The Tree of Life" with my pastor. Initially we both hated it, but I found it working within me in the hours and days thereafter and decided it was really a beautiful, wonderful film which was suitable to contemplative prayer and life --- much to my pastor's (perhaps feigned)  irritation! In talking about all this with other religious I learned that a monk and hermit from a nearby monastery had seen this film 5 or 6 times and was "using it for his lectio"; he was planning on seeing it several more times.

Something similar happened for me with the movies Life of Pi, The King's Speech, Of Gods and Men and Into Great Silence; eventually we arranged a DVD showing/discussion of this last one at my parish. The simple fact is that God can speak to us in movies just as God does in passages of Scripture, theological books, or even some novels. For instance, I have long known that every time I read a Steinbeck novel something profound happens to me spiritually. The same was often true of AJ Cronin's novels which I read mainly in junior high school --- and again as an adult. The notion that some works are "spiritual" while some are "worldly" in a way which means they cannot mediate the Word of God to us and must be avoided is not only simplistic, it is counter the truth the Incarnation itself reveals to us; namely, our God comes to us in whatever ways we seek him; He makes holy whatever He will, whatever He touches. The "ordinary" and "worldly" (as this term is commonly used) are entirely suitable to mediate God's powerful presence to us. Christians know that with God nothing is ordinary. All is at least potentially sacramental. When a filmmaker or novelist, etc, creates a work of art meant to be beautiful, true, meaningful, and so forth, and when that work attempts to speak these with integrity, God will be mediated to the one who knows how to listen and to seek Him. One may therefore practice lectio with these as well as with other "texts".

In the case of Wonder both I and my director (a word I use in place of "delegate" more and more) knew the story and the story of the person on whom the movie is based. Both of us had heard from other Sisters, et. al. that the movie was excellent and well worth seeing. It was not until I saw it though that I saw how clearly it fits with Advent and some of the early readings in this season. Only then did I recognize its capacity to inspire and shape my own heart with courage, compassion, and empathy. While I am unlikely to see the movie again (unless it becomes available on DVD), I am likely to read the book and use that for lectio along with the movie that now (still) lives within me.

When you consider this I think you can understand how it is possible to see movies not only because they are recreational in the usual sense, but because they can be prayed and are meant to be prayed (that is, attended in a way where one "seeks God"). With good films one opens oneself to the story (just as one does with one of Jesus' parables), is drawn in some way, and then one finds one's mind and heart engaged by the God of truth, beauty, love, challenge, courage, consolation, death, (monastic) stability, martyrdom (witness or parrhesia), and so forth. Let me say that when one attends a movie in a theatre, it remains a fairly solitary event. The reflection done on it may include others at points thereafter, but there is little or no conversation during the film and afterward one brings it all to God in solitary prayer. So, to answer your initial questions, yes, this comports with my Rule. My director usually leaves decisions re what comports with my Rule in my own hands of course, but at the same time I don't think she would have worked out the accommodations she did if she had had misgivings about my decision. So, was seeing this film (and the others as well) appropriate for a canonical (consecrated) hermit? Yes, it was; and given all the conditions already stated it could make a significant contribution to one's eremitical life.

Regarding Advent, no, it is not a season of stricter or greater solitude. I simply live my Rule as I would during ordinary time or Pentecost. Advent is not a penitential season; the focus is not on sin, forgiveness, ascesis, and so forth, but on preparation and waiting in joyful expectation. Yes, there is an aspect of penance, but strictly speaking Advent is not a penitential season. I understand the season as a time to focus on listening, preparing, and responding with all the small "fiats" embodying the God of the Incarnation may require. I approach it as a season focusing on the sacramentality and therefore, the transfiguration of the ordinary. It is a season marked by pregnancy --- thus my reading of Haught's The New Cosmic Story; it tells the story of an unfinished universe unfolding and evolving into something (a new heaven and new earth) we cannot even imagine, a pregnant universe burgeoning with potential and grace. And, as it turns out, in my own inner work this is a theme I need especially to focus on right at this time.

I hope this answer your questions and is helpful to you. All good wishes for Advent, and too, for Christmastide.

Addendum: Those interested in the use of Lectio Divina with icons, movies, and other forms of media --- or even with one's life experience (!) might be interested in Lectio Divina: Contemplative Awakening and Awareness by Christine Valters Paintner and Lucy Wyncoop OSB.

09 December 2017

Sunday #2: Preparing the Way of the Lord, A bit of Advent Reading and Writing

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths: All flesh shall see the salvation of God.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
 
We all choose what is important for celebrating Advent well,--- what is necessary to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, to ready ourselves to see (i.e., to receive, understand, and to be transformed and transfigured by) the salvation of our God in Christ. This year I am going back to focus once again on the Lord's Prayer as one key to this preparation. I am spending my mornings doing lectio, study, and writing on this prayer. It has always been an incredible source of life, insight, and strength for me; two of my favorite authors, Tom Wright and Gerhard Ebeling write especially about the prayer in terms of Advent and waiting on the Lord.
 
One of Ebeling's most striking observations in his work, On Prayer, The Lord's Prayer in Today's World is an insight that transformed my own theology and understanding of prayer when I first read the book as an undergraduate @ 1973. Ebeling was writing about the petition, "Hallowed be Thy name," and said: [[. . .we ought not to tone down its amazing, and indeed offensive, aspect or reduce it to a mere act of reverent adoration before the glory of God. For this is the most necessary petition. In other words it is concerned with the greatest need, God's need. . . .we must pray to God on behalf of God: that he would take up his own cause, that he would assert himself as God, that he would come, that he would appear, that he would reveal himself, that he would arise as God, that he would in very truth become God. This is the deepest source of prayer: God himself compels us to this intercession for God, to this passionate longing, that God will become God.]] In this passage I think Ebeling captures two senses of the meaning of waiting on God: 1) looking forward to God's coming and to the fulfillment of God's purposes with anticipation, and 2) serving God and allowing our lives to be defined by this service.
 
I am reading two other books for Advent. The first is a new book by John Haught, The New Cosmic Story, Inside Our Awakening Universe. As we hear in some of the readings of Advent, we look forward to a new Heaven and a new Earth, not merely to going to an otherworldly Heaven. Theologically this means that we must look at ourselves, our religion, and our world very differently than we have in the past. It is the Christ event, the exhaustive Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, that is the key to understanding what this means, namely, that we human beings are embodied Spirit and that our ultimate hope is that the entire cosmos will be fulfilled in Christ. Human beings are not meant or made to be disembodied Spirit. Our souls yearn to be embodied and our ultimate form of existence will be embodied. As Ratzinger once explained in his book, Eschatology, as our souls are the form of our bodies, so do they "build a body about (around) themselves," and, after death, yearn for what our creeds affirm as the resurrection of the body. Meanwhile, science has "given us" a universe which is unfinished; our faith tells us that in Christ human beings play a part in helping creation be brought to fulfillment as a "new creation", "a new heaven and earth" --- just as we have a part in God becoming God!
 
The second book is Pagola's,  Jesus, A Historical Approximation. I first read this five or six years ago and return to it from time to time, rereading a section or two, and sometimes more. It is a beautiful book in every sense; it introduces us to the historical Jesus and his world without being either heavily academic or skeptical. It reads like the book of someone in love with Jesus even as it is informed by contemporary scholarship; certainly it can help with the preparation of one's mind and heart for the coming of Jesus. Especially, as I pray and work with Jesus' prayer, it is a book that can remind me of who Jesus was/is and how he related to his Abba --- it is a work that helps me see what the fulfillment of embodied Spirit (or embodied Word) is and does --- and thus, by participation in Christ, to the incarnation I am called to realize during Advent and beyond.
 
Meanwhile, Advent and Christmas are seasons when I sometimes do more outside the hermitage --- specifically, every couple of years or so I go to the movies two or even three times if there are good things showing or to a concert or ballet. (Sometimes I will go alone, but more often it is something I do with friends as a holiday celebration.) A week ago Friday my delegate and I met for about an hour and a half, had a light lunch, and then we went and saw the movie Wonder. We stopped for hamburgers (well, fillet o' fish) on the way home --- all (except for meeting together) things we do very rarely; it was an excellent day! I will try to write more about the movie separately, I think, but let me say here it was wonderful: inspiring, moving, and incredibly appropriate for the beginning of Advent (the scandal of the Incarnation and Isaiah's, "A little child shall lead them," comes to mind here!). My delegate's characterization was exactly right, I thought; she commented that what she most appreciated, "was everyone had their journey to make because of the presence and impact of this unique child!!!" And so, this wonderful story helped set the tone and prepare our hearts to meet Christ anew as we entered the season of Advent.

08 December 2017

Mary, I Will Overshadow You. Be Not Afraid!

I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anxiety about what might be wrong, and then a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! I can be killed for this!" while only over more time comes the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her and that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real, parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's Word and Spirit calling her beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promises.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God dwells within us and only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you. Be not afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to embody Christ and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the coming Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. But our own fiat will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

03 December 2017

First Sunday of Advent

 All good wishes on this first Sunday of Advent! "Adventus" is a season where we prepare to see the surprising ways God works in our lives, where we are especially cognizant of the choices which allow God to be active deep within our own hearts and within our larger world; it is where we learn to look more closely and attentively at everything within and around so that we are prepared to respond as fully as possible to this God of newness and surprises.

For many of us there is a paring down to the essentials in order to make all this possible. We also take greater care and time with our own self-inventory, our own inner work --- especially as that allows the life of God to move through and fill us. And of course, we make sure there is sufficient silence to truly hear the movements of our own hearts and the God who would be Emmanuel by taking up complete residence there. These are the really essential "preparations for Christmas" which put shopping and other things we also must do in their proper place.

I find it awesome to consider that the God who would "tent" among us has chosen my own heart and soul, my own mind and body --- with all of their flaws and weaknesses --- to reveal the fullness and perfection of Divine love made manifest in Christ. But through the past months I have watched the greening of new life nascent within me; I have seen it where I thought it could never be and sometimes where I thought it had been quenched forever. Ours is a God of newness and life and we are called to allow these to spring up within us wherever they will. He is faithful beyond telling and does not disappoint. So I am reminded that the season begins with a single candle in the darkness. It will end with a blaze of light and warmth -- and especially that of the light of Christ within us --- if only we allow it.

 May these weeks of preparation see the kindling of new life and light even when it begins with a small and sometimes stuttering flame in the midst of great darkness. Especially may we all come to know more intimately the surprising God of newness who takes up residence and "tents" within and among us in Christ; He is the God who treasures our poverty and weakness and transforms and transfigures them into the mangers and lamps of his life and love.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

01 December 2017

On Merton, Suffering, Solitude, and the Making of the Hermit

[[The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating his own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] [Merton's ideal solitaries] are thus, [[the paradoxical, tormented solitaries for whom there is no real place; men and women who have not so much chosen solitude as been chosen by it. And these have not generally found their way into the desert either through simplicity or through innocence. Theirs is the solitude that is reached the hard way, through bitter suffering and disillusionment.]]

[[Dear Sister, I have wondered for some time what makes a person want to be a hermit. It just never made sense to me unless the person was broken and embittered by life and needed to withdraw from that by giving up on people and even on God. It's the solitude that I can't justify. Community made sense but not solitude unless hermits were people who were unable to participate in community for some reason. When you have written about the creation of the hermit heart in your own life it sounds like it involved a lot of suffering but you don't come across as bitter or broken. Thomas Merton has written about this very thing (please see what I quoted from "The Hermitary" site); have you seen this already? But I wondered what makes your heart a hermit heart and not the heart of an embittered survivor of suffering. Is the answer in what Merton wrote about mercy?

Do you think Merton is correct in characterizing the "ideal solitary" as he does? If this is true it must be really difficult for dioceses to "discern" this kind of vocation. Do you know what I mean? In religious life candidates are screened for their health and wholeness and backgrounds involving suffering raises red flags for the vocation personnel. But if ideal hermits are "tormented solitaries" what does a diocese look for in determining authentic eremitical vocations?]]

Thank you for your observations and questions. I have written recently again, though briefly,  about fraudulent hermits; what you are asking about is really one of the more significant ways people betray the eremitical vocation or substitute an inauthentic version of the life for the real thing. What Merton was saying first of all, as I read him, is that solitude must open the door to the one wishing to live an eremitical life; one cannot simply decide to live solitude and do it without such an opening. The second thing I believe Merton is writing about is how the door of solitude is often opened to a person. One of the main ways is through suffering that isolates in any of the many ways this occurs. But I agree with you that suffering is not sufficient to truly discern an eremitical call; it is a beginning and might be suggestive but it is not definitive.

On Unredeemed Suffering and the Door to Solitude:

Moreover, if a person has nothing but her suffering and if that suffering  remains unredeemed or un-transfigured by the grace and love of God, she will never be a hermit in the proper (Christian) sense; instead she will remain an isolated, broken, and possibly embittered person but one who is largely, if not entirely incapable of proclaiming the Gospel with her life. Such a person ought not be admitted to profession as a canonical hermit because while she may "not have a place" --- one element of Merton's description --- neither can she live out the mission or charism of the canonical hermit. Genuine solitude is redeemed and transformed isolation. It is marked or characterized by its relational tenor, a unique but very significant and paradoxical form of relatedness, of ecclesiality and community. The place the hermit has is unusual but very real. The door solitude opens to us is unlocked in part by significant and long-term suffering a person experiences through the first half of her life, but at the same time the door of Solitude can only said to be opened if the person has come to know the potential healing and transformation of her woundedness by the unqualified love and eternal life of God.

While persons whose first half of life may be marked by significant suffering are sometimes important and illustrative of the way some eremitical vocations are born, as you say they are sometimes also difficult cases in regard to discernment by dioceses. This is especially true if suffering remains the defining dimension of the person's life.  When I began this blog more than a decade ago I wrote about one needing to be a hermit in some essential sense before one approached a diocese with a request to be professed. What I meant then and still hold is that one has to move from being an isolated person for whom physical solitude may merely mirror or even exacerbate the alienation that can come from and be a source of suffering to being one for whom solitude is a relational reality which heals isolation and is the context for real reconciliation. Hermits know more than physical solitude; they know communion -- with God and others. And this means they can (and in fact must) know the healing of whatever suffering marked their earlier years. When dioceses work with potential candidates for profession they must look for those persons for whom physical solitude is a unique form of communion and symptom and source of healing.

My Own Healing and Growth Work:

In my own inner work I have become even more convinced of this truth.  Both of the quotations you cited are important but in regard to becoming the hermit I am called and consecrated to be I especially resonate with the first one. [[The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the Divine mercy transforming and elevating [her] own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] This is the one which mirrors my profession motto, [[(God's) power is made perfect in weakness]] --- a motto I chose precisely because it reflects first the nature of the Christ Event and then my own story with and in light of the grace of God. My own story involves suffering, yes, but far more than that it is the story of God's grace, a grace which, as I have said here many times, brings light out of darkness, life out of death, and meaning out of senselessness and absurdity. What Merton says, what Paul says, what the Christ Event makes real in space and time, and what authentic hermits of all sorts also say is that suffering plunges a person into the depths of isolation and readies her to hear God's invitation to depend on God alone. When, and to the extent that invitation is accepted one's life is entirely transfigured into one of wholeness and holiness, one is defined in a new way. Suffering may not ease entirely and may even increase is some ways, but it will no longer be the thing which drives and defines the person.

 And this means, of course, that one whose defining experience is the mercy of God will show this to those discerning her vocation. The one who wishes to become a diocesan hermit will reveal the mercy of God as the ground and source of her suffering's redemption and her life's transfiguration. Without this her solitude will be nothing more than physical and maybe spiritual, and emotional isolation. She will be a lone individual --- her suffering will have made her this on a number of levels, but she will not be a hermit in the sense the Church uses the term. On the other hand those individuals who have made the journey that Merton describes, the journey through serious suffering and into the mercy and love of God, may well have discovered the eremitical world solitude herself (and only "Solitude" herself) admits them to.

Summary: A Note to Dioceses on the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life

To reiterate then, Dioceses which are careful in their discernment will not eschew a person whose life is full of suffering so long as that life is also one defined and clearly transformed by the grace of God experienced in eremitical solitude. Such a diocese is careful to look not only at the suffering but at the fruits of that suffering which would  demonstrate it has been transfigured by the mercy of God. When the latter is not clearly present, when for instance, the person's message is self-centered and full of expressed pain but little else, when, that is, her life is defined by her suffering and not by the grace of God, the diocese will have to wait and watch to see what kind of vocation is actually present. They will give the person some reasonable time in physical solitude to see what changes occur. Generally speaking, if the person is called to be a hermit, isolation and a focus on suffering will be transformed by the love of God into genuine solitude (a unique but very real expression of reconciliation and community in Christ)  and the proclamation with her entire life of the healing and redemptive love of God.

Generally speaking, all of this reflects the way the heart of a hermit is created and the door to eremitical solitude is opened when there is a background or history of significant suffering. It reflects the way a life comes to reveal the charisma or gift to Church and World c 603 calls "the Silence of Solitude" in such cases.  Suffering of all sorts can hollow one out and make one yearn for answers to the question of self that only God can provide. One lives the questions associated with meaning: does my life make sense? Is it meaningful? Is it moved by love, both as giver and receiver? How can I make sure my life is meaningful by ministering to others in a way which is redemptive for them?  Why have or am I suffering in the apparently gratuitous way I have or am? Where is God in all of this and how can I live for God and others? As important as living the questions is, through the grace of God mediated to one in all the ways it comes to us, one will also come to live the answer: namely, I have lived/am living all of this so that the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ is proclaimed loudly and clearly (or silently but with clarity and poignancy!) and the God whose power is perfectly revealed in weakness resonates within my heart causing it to sing a Magnificat of gratitude and praise.

23 November 2017

Happy Thanksgiving (partial reprise)



Personally speaking, I have had an amazing year and more, especially the past 18 months. For me, the work of those months is reaching some greater healing just at the end of the liturgical year and I can hardly say how grateful I am for it all. It has not been pleasant much of the time; it was downright painful for weeks on end, and at the same time it was a grace of God which healed, freed, and summoned to new life at every moment. Especially I experienced the consolation and challenge of a divine and humanly mediated love which has mainly supported me at every moment as it called me to leave behind ways of thinking, feeling, and being which had defined --- and sometimes crippled --- me and made me unable to respond adequately to God's call to abundant life. I think we are each called to know and to mediate this kind of love to others; it is the essence of any Christian vocation. For the hermit who is given time to focus on this kind of inner work as part of her growth in prayer and holiness it is especially an occasion of thanks.

Last year at this time my delegate sent me a copy of Nimo's song "Grateful". I had never heard it before (and I was a little surprised she would send me a "rap" song --- until I actually listened to it!) but it is truly wonderful and I want to share it here. Whether it is  because our liturgical year is coming to a close with thoughts of the creative act of God we know as judgment, because that same calendar is gifting us with Advent and the preparation for new beginnings, fresh commitment, and new birth or because some of us are US citizens celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the midst of national turmoil and anxiety, we have each been given today and the blessings it holds. Even in the midst of life's struggles and concerns, this day is a time to be grateful for all we have and are. Once again, as Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings, "For all that has been, Thanks. For all that will be, Yes."

On Thomas Merton and Monastic Garb

Dear Sister Laurel, I read the following quotation from Thomas Merton which I thought was terrific. I wondered what you would say about it since you wear both cowl and other monastic garb. Would you mind commenting on it? I guess I also wonder if you agree or disagree with Merton's practice. [[I am deliberately discarding everything that can conjure up the artificial image of the monk in a cowl, dwelling in a medieval cloister. In this way I intend obviously, not to disparage or to reject the monastic institution, but to set aside all its accidentals and externals, so that they will not interfere with my view of what seems to me to be deepest and most essential.]] Thomas Merton, "Notes on a philosophy of solitude," Disputed Questions.
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Thanks for what is indeed a truly terrific question from one of the Merton texts I personally love the best. Let me say I agree completely with Merton's intention or aim in structuring his discussion. I also generally agree with the way he has chosen to illustrate this intention; insofar as this was the way that worked best to allow Merton so explore what is deepest and most essential about the eremitical vocation I agree completely with his choice. It is important to remember that Merton remained a Trappist living on monastic grounds, supported by his Trappist community at Gethsemane. I think this strictly monastic context allows Merton to deal with anything that struck him as artificial or a matter of mere "externals", especially in the portrait of contemporary eremitical life. But more than this, as I recall, the entire discussion including what you have cited is part of a long note introducing the topic of a philosophy of solitude; it was meant to point to the fact that contemporary solitaries need not be monks at all, but might be lay persons.

Thus Merton's comments, when read in this specific context were not contributions to a discussion of whether or not one should wear a habit and/or cowl. Instead Merton wanted to examine the essence of a call to solitude where the individual lives the most basic or essential existential isolation and loneliness common not only to every person but to God as well. More, he wanted to do so in a way which demonstrated its enormous and universal challenge and meaningfulness. To do this he did indeed eschew those things which are "accidentals" or mere externals and which pull the discussion in the direction of monastic life alone so that he might also include folks like Thoreau. Solitude as Merton portrayed it, is a fundamental existential characteristic of human and Divine life. To embrace it as vocation is to serve both God and Mankind in a radically significant way. So Merton stripped his discussion of artificial elements which would only speak to and of a monk in his cowl or a Medieval cloister.

But your question to me broadens the discussion some to include the notion of wearing monastic garb like a habit and/or cowl. Does doing so indicate one is more concerned with accidentals and externals than with those things which are most essential and of greatest import? Depends, of course. My own sense is that this is much more a problem at the beginning of vocations when wearing a habit is a novelty, when one is not really comfortable in it yet (and perhaps not even in one's own skin!), and before one has had the time to take seriously the essentials or that which is deepest. After all it takes time for one to begin living any vocation in a way which plumbs and reveals the depths of that call. Reflecting on what is deepest or essential  demands time and some intellectual formation and focused attention. One needs to become acquainted with the thought and lives of those who have gone before in whatever tradition is involved; additionally one needs to have lived and struggled with this same tradition enough to discover the depths of one's own faith and identity in Christ.

If you notice Merton's own practice you will see that he wore a habit at times and ordinary monastic work clothes at other times. I don't think he rejected monastic garb, nor do I think he was all that concerned with what he wore --- and this would include not eschewing the Trappist habit as something external as much as it might have included embracing it as something merely external. Merton was a Trappist and part of that tradition and life was the Trappist habit. Diocesan hermits today may or may not wear a habit and/or cowl. Those coming to c 603 life from some form of religious (cenobitical) life  will tend to wear a habit  which is a modification of what they already wore.

Those without any history in religious life may or may not wear a habit and if this is a first-time thing they will go through the same "stages" as anyone else: initial novelty and self-consciousness (often with a misplaced pride or sense of specialness), loss of self-consciousness and increasing identification with the tradition represented by the habit (often with an increased internalization of the values which transmute "specialness" into mission), and finally, the gradual or eventual making of the habit truly one's own (which may involve a sense that by the grace of God one's life embodies a special gift or charism to Church and world). Each of these "stages" represents a kind of deepening of one's appreciation of the vocation and the way one lives it. Each represents a shift to greater humility and communion.  The last stage (which is not really last but accompanies the other stages) emphasizes the way one's life imbues the habit with one's own story, while the penultimate stage (again not really a separate stage but a dimension present in each) emphasizes the way one's own story is shaped and sustained by a specific eremitical (or spiritual) tradition.

Eduard Schillebeeckx, a 20th C. Dominican theologian describes this same process in his essay entitled "Dominican Spirituality" in God Among Us.  [[For the most part people live by stories. I myself live by my own story. When I became a Dominican I linked my life story with the family Story of the Dominicans; as a result, my life story took on a new orientation and I picked up the thread of the story of the Order in my own way. So my own life has become part of the Dominican family story: a chapter in it. Through the story of the Order I have attained my own identity. Stories of the Dominican Order keep us together as Dominicans.

Without stories we should lose our memories, fail to find our own place in the present and remain without hope or expectation for the future. Thus as Dominicans we form a group by virtue of being our own storytelling community, which hands down its own traditions within the wider story of the many religious communities, within the all embracing story of the great community of the church, and within the even greater community of humankind. This makes us our own special family, recognizable from all kinds of family characteristics. Some are major, some are minor, but none of them can be hidden. 


In saying this, I have already said something about Dominican spirituality. The story of my life can be my own life story only in so far as it has become a chapter of the Dominican family story. The story of my own life extends and enriches the history of Dominican spirituality, while as a small almost infinitesimally small – almost infinitely small – chapter in it, it is at the same time relativized and criticized by the already older and wider story of the Dominican family. This makes me ask whether I really am not distorting this family story. So I am already others as a norm for Dominican spirituality. Furthermore, thank God, there are still Dominicans alive today. In other words, our story is not yet exhausted, completely told; there is still something to be said.]]

I understand the wearing of (and often, the well-considered choice to relinquish the habit in certain circumstances) is part of this process of making a particular story one's own and assuming responsibility for being a living chapter in that story. It is only a part of the necessary deepening of an ecclesial vocation such as c 603 eremitical life, but in such a process when lived well it is certainly more than something which is merely an external and superficial element of living out one's call. For the solitary canonical hermit who must live "stricter separation from the world" in the midst of the world, the habit can be an especially challenging as well as indispensable piece of embracing both the mission and charism of her vocation. Those who choose not to wear a habit (and lay hermits who may not do so anyway) embrace characteristics like the call's hiddenness differently and  tell the eremitical story in a different way. So long as each hermit is acting in considered and prayerful ways they are an important part of the essence of the call and an expression of the depth such vocations demands.

I hope this helps as a start on this topic of habits.

17 November 2017

Pretense, Fraud, and the Transparency of Faith

I admit that I get a lot of questions by readers wondering about various online hermits and whether they are fakes or frauds. Recently my attention was drawn to a highly developed website constructed by a "hermit" who includes a similarly developed and self-serving philosophy of tithing allowing people to pay this person's living expenses, internet presence, "ministries", etc. Of course the person is dressed in a habit (he has never made canonical vows), has a number of "advanced degrees" listed all from a correspondence school he runs himself (listed at a residence he once used), etc. The immediate impression is weighty, especially given the liberal sprinkling of Latin phrases, papal symbols, references to canon law, and the included photo of a "doctorate" in Theology from his unaccredited "school"  --- but it all falls apart with a little bit of examination. Others call themselves "Catholic hermits" or "consecrated Catholic hermits" despite the fact that their only vows are private acts of dedication and the Church has not commissioned them to live eremitical life in the Church's name --- something only She can do. Some of these folks have worn a habit for so long and used titles so facilely that folks wonder how they can not be genuine (authorized canonically by the Church to live as hermits or religious). But they are not.

I remind myself that these people may be doing very good things with their lives. They may be splendid examples of God's power perfected in weakness and they may even be living exemplary eremitical lives in some senses. The problem for me is there is so much pretense involved that it is hard to excuse or even understand such lives as instances of grace winning out over weakness and incapacity. When there is outright deception and fraud it gets harder still to give the benefit of the doubt in this matter. And when I run into such persons or am asked questions about them, it is simply hard not to hear echoes of Jesus' warning about scandalizing the little ones and having a millstone hung around one's neck as one is thrown into the sea (cf Monday's Gospel lection). In any case I am reminded that pretense can give scandal and that it is a sure way to drown in a Christian life. However, there is a time and a place for me to answer queries and even to take appropriate action regarding such fraud. Generally speaking, my attention cannot be focused there except to hear these stories as cautionary tales about the danger of pretense and fraud in any eremitical (or Christian) life! And so should we all.

Our current lections from the Gospel of Luke have been challenging, especially to those unused to language designed to harpoon our complacency and outline what we are obligated to by our call from God. The Gospel lections from Monday and Tuesday were particularly challenging, as was last Friday's parable of the prudent Steward. In Monday's lection, as noted above, we are warned that we ought not give scandal to God's "little ones". Our faith is meant to be exemplary --- not a matter of show but of complete transparency to the life and power of God. When I was at St Mary's College (CA) in the 1970's I did my Major's senior project on Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology. In the process of reading Tillich I learned that he understood faith as, ". . .das Ergriffensein von dem, was uns unbedingt angeht,"**  or "A state of being grasped by an unconditional concern." (It is a sentence I still know better in German than I do the English!) In other words, faith is a matter of being taken hold of by a transcendent hope and need beyond all others. Pastorally speaking it means being grasped by God's own will and purposes, God's love and mercy; it means being shaken to our core by that which is ultimate rather than passing and superficial, and it means revealing this state and what makes it possible to others so that they too may be grasped in the same way. In such a life no pretense is possible much less outright fraud. Our lives are meant to be marked by miracles --- even if we are not aware of them ourselves. We are to live from a faith which moves mountains or pulls up densely rooted trees and tosses these into the sea.

In Tuesday's Gospel passage Luke's Jesus addresses any attitudes of self-congratulation or (again) complacency. Luke recounts the question of how his hearer would behave if a servant came in from the field and we were waiting for lunch. He has Jesus ask us if we wouldn't insist the servant get busy and fix and serve us our meal rather than allowing him to get washed up and rest a bit first --- and the text reads that of course we would insist in this way! It's on a par with the question about going off to save the lost sheep while leaving the 99 to fend for themselves! We are supposed to agree when Jesus asks us these kinds of  rhetorical questions but deep down we really think he's a bit crazy to think, much less ask us to think  like this. In this way Jesus manages to uncover our deepest selves; he troubles us and makes us reflect on who we are and how we believe and act. With Tuesday's lection the lesson cuts in a surprising way; we are asked to recognize that we are called to serve God in the same way a servant in Jesus' day was called to serve their Master. If we do this we are not doing anything worthy of congratulation or kudos. We are merely being the persons we are meant and made to be --- and made to be ceaselessly. (The fact that we are called unprofitable servants does not mean we are worthless; it means that what miraculous things we have done with our lives in light of our faith are only what we are made to do; there is no profit above and beyond that that we can bring to our account with God.)

Again, Luke's Gospel can be challenging and even downright difficult; the readings over the past week have certainly been that! What is true though is that Luke recognizes that we are each called to be afire with faith in a way which casts sparks in every direction and allows others to catch fire with that same faith (cf Tuesday's lection from Wisdom). Discipleship is a demanding reality; it has room for neither pretense nor fraud. It calls for  the gift of our entire life so that we might be the source of God's life to all we meet. But the life of real discipleship is also a life of joy and incredible satisfaction --- if only we will allow God to grasp and shake us to our very foundations, and remake us in the image, truth, and beauty of His Christ!

** Tillich, Paul, Wesen und Wandel des Glaubens (or Dynamics of Faith)

16 November 2017

The Crisis Parable of the Shrewd Steward: "What Should I do?"

Awhile back I wrote that the evangelical counsels apply to all the baptized, though not in the same way. For instance religious men and women make vows of religious poverty and religious obedience while other Christians are responsible for a praxis of poverty and obedience appropriate to their state of life. Those not in the religious or consecrated state must live simply and attentively as befits a disciple of Christ but must also take on all those responsibilities the laity is expected to assume whether those of raising a family, building and running a business, participating in public office, etc etc. Especially they  must learn to handle material wealth of all sorts appropriately. The parable in last Friday's Gospel reiterates this lesson in the same language as we hear in the affirmation that we must be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents. Because of the unlikeable nature of the characters in the story and a tendency to treat this as an analogy we might miss this fact.

The parable of the prodigal (and prudent) steward (sometimes called the dishonest steward) is known as one of the most difficult and "off-putting" parables in the entire corpus. Scholars note that more ink has been penned in regard to this parable than most all others. The situation it describes is seemingly straightforward. A property manager is accused of being prodigal with the wealth of his Master. He is found out and told by his Master that he will be sacked. Upon looking at his prospects he realizes that since he is too weak to work as a manual laborer ("too weak to dig") and too proud to beg he needs to do something to secure his future. In a culture where one who is done a favor by another is strictly indebted to the other to return the favor, the manager goes to each of the Master's client villages and has them cut the amount they owe the Master by a substantial degree. To the one owing  100 measures of wheat he has them cut it to 80. To the one owing 900 gal of oil he has them cut it to 450 gal. To his own prodigality it seems he has now added inciting to forgery and fraud. And yet, is this really the way things stand?

A few things we should pay attention to before we leap to judgments: First, the amounts "owed" have likely had a degree of interest added up front to skirt the legal prohibition against usury. Thus, if a village owed 83 measures of wheat and the Master wanted to gain 20% interest he (and his manager or steward) would have written the contract for @100 (99.6) measures and no interest in order to "honor" the Torah. Thus it may be (and a number of commentators assert) that the manager is only cutting off the interest on the principal. Secondly though, we need to understand that the steward (manager) has complete authority to act in the name of the Master, and that means that whatever he does is valid --- including cutting the amounts owed. (The furtiveness of his action belies this in this parable but it remains "the way things were" when one acted in the name of another.) Thirdly, while he has been accused of "scattering" the Master's property, there is nothing he does which makes him guilty of illegality from the get go. Structurally this parable mirrors Luke's parable of the merciful Father or prodigal Son; he is prodigal at first but no more or less. Fourthly, while we may not like to hear that God is like the Master or Jesus like the steward, we need to remember that the parable is not an allegory. Instead it is an analogy and compares at only one point, namely, what shrewdness the children of this world have and how like them the Children of Light should be but using the values of the Kingdom of God to guide and inspire!

Once these things have been considered and once we pay attention to the fact that the Master never applauds the steward's dishonesty but rather his shrewdness or prudence we may have a better sense of how the parable instructs us. If we look very carefully we must see that the Master may lose nothing because he regains a prudent steward with an "in" with the tenants or client villages. It is unclear he actually loses any of the principle (goods) owed him (commentators disagree on the matter). The steward has the same kind of "come-to-Jesus" moment the prodigal Son does. It is not a wholehearted conversion experience any more than is that of the prodigal Son, but he seeks to secure himself in a humbling way and may improve his lot with the Master as well. We simply don't know this but given the Master's praise for the steward's shrewdness it is a possibility. Finally the tenant farmers benefit by having a large amount of the property owed forgiven them. If the steward is taken back by the Master they are also unlikely to have to pay on the favor done them. In other words everyone wins!

If we Christians use a similar shrewdness but as driven or motivated and informed by the principles of the Gospel and Reign of God, we will be doing well indeed! We are told to be gentle as doves and clever as serpents in other texts. Here we are reminded to use our wealth prudently and to make friends of others so that we might have heavenly friends. In this regard I admit I am always stunned to see folks depend upon financial managers, go to school for MBA's, and so forth even while they tend to embrace a theology or approach moral theology and prayer in a way which is no more sophisticated than a grade school education allows. But in light of this "crisis parable" the steward's question, "What should I do?" must also be our own. Our Christian lives are meant to respond to this very same decision or "krisis (κρισις)" and reveal an even greater shrewdness in regard to possessions and the way we structure our world which is rooted in and reflects the reign of God. It is one of the primary ways the baptized Christian without a public vow of religious poverty is attentive to the evangelical counsel of "poverty".

03 November 2017

Apologies and Thanks!

[[Dear Sister Laurel, where are you??? No pressure. I just wondered if you are okay or have been on retreat or something. I miss your posts.]]

Thanks to a number of readers who asked after me in the past week or so. I have not been on retreat nor am I directly affected by the horrific wildfires in the North Bay; even so the past six weeks or so have still been difficult for me and writing is one of the things that suffers as a result. This last month is the first time I have been unable to put up at least a few posts. So please accept my apologies. I am certainly not abandoning this blog and plan to continue writing as I have done for more than ten years. Hopefully that will be in the very near future! Meanwhile if you have questions or if I have not yet posted a response on a question, could you be sure and email me again at SRLAUREL@aol.com? Also please keep me in your prayer as I will do with you. That would mean a lot to me. As St Francis would have closed, Pax et bonum!

04 October 2017

Feast of St Francis

 
Pax et bonum, peace and all good to all my Franciscan Sisters and Brothers on this Feast of St Francis!!

Divine Judgment as a Missed Opportunity for Receiving Grace (Reprised)

In tomorrow's readings, there is one of the most chilling images of judgment I have ever read. No, there is nothing about God's anger, or the fires of hell, or other dramatic and apocalyptic images of such scenes we so often imagine. Instead there is a picture of opportunities lost, of a word unheard, a response ungiven, an apostle unrecognized, and the brief ritual of someone looking on and shaking the dust from her sandals while saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you." How often does the worst judgment against us come in terms of our simple failure to recognize and respond in the present moment to the God who comes to us in this person proclaiming the very best news we could ever be offered?

I imagine a village (or a city) full of people going about their work, restless in all the usual ways people are restless, concerned in all the normal ways people are concerned in everyday life, busy in all the varied ways people will and must be busy. Most are completely unaware of the apostle who has shown up on their "doorstep" so-to-speak. They will never hear the words, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you today!" and they will not even be aware as the apostle leaves again, having shaken the dust from her sandals! Yet in that moment of unawareness, that "non-moment," judgment has come and gone, and indeed, even Sodom will not be in as much trouble as the one who has simply missed God's overture on this day. It is so easy to picture --- it is so simple, so quiet, so routine, so unremarkable --- yet, it is a moment of judgment (the Greek word KRISIS, or decision, fits SO well here). The image chilled me deep down precisely because of this complete ordinariness.

Contemplative life --- something we are each called to, I believe --- is essentially one of dwelling in the present moment (this is almost a cliche today but most of the time I think people confuse it for being focused on today's agenda or today's "to-do" list!). But really, it means being obedient (attentive and responsive) to reality in all the ways we can, and with all the levels of our being. We are ALL called to be contemplatives in this sense of the word (that is, we are all called to this kind of obedience, this kind of "hearkening"). Sometimes our attention can be drawn away from the Word being spoken in our midst by activity, worries, other voices we DO attend to. Sometimes, we refuse to dwell in the present moment because we are disproportionately concerned with past injuries or future hopes --- our own bitterness over how things have unfolded in our lives, and our own frantic efforts to cause something to unfold in the way we envision it! Sometimes we are afraid of the Word (or the silence it requires to be heard), and we have distanced ourselves from it with activities full of their own noise (reading, TV, music, computer, etc). Most often, our own hearts are simply so full and noisy that the apostle (and the One she heralds!) walks through unnoticed, her peace remaining unshared, leaving unrecognized footprints and small drifts of sand as tacit testimony to the awesome judgment passed on us in this moment.

In today's first reading the people of Israel (or was it Judah?) have to be urged to recognize that today (this very moment, in fact) is Holy, and they are commanded to turn from their sadness to rejoice in the Lord. Eventhough it was the reading of the Law itself which reduced them to grief, they were not really hearing what was being said, or at least not ALL of what was being said. Repentance for sin, grieving for the past, amendment of purpose, and planning for the future are important, and the Word of God certainly occasions these, but with God's Word comes real rest as well, genuine joy. It is a Word which allows us to rest in IT, a word which makes a Sabbath of our busy lives, and a place to be ourselves when we have been, and often seem unable to create, any other. Of course, sometimes such rest may never come, the place we so yearn for can be lost to us because of the preoccupations of our minds and hearts, the Word spoken within or from outside us goes unheeded --- empty of issue, void --- and becomes instead a Word of judgment against us.

What I think the lections from today suggest is that as momentous as such judgment is, it happens routinely, moment by moment, and in mainly undramatic ways. And that is what is so very chilling for me in today's image of this. I can imagine being addressed tonight (or right now!): "The Kingdom of God was at hand for you today, Laurel, and you were simply too busy to listen, too preoccupied to attend to it, too full of your own thoughts and concerns, too caught up in what was "important" (or frightening, or disappointing, or exciting, etc.) to even notice! I sent an apostle to you today --- poor, [ordinary], in every way someone just like you --- and you never even saw her, much less gave her a hearing! Neither did you notice when she simply shook the dust from her sandals in judgment against you while still proclaiming the coming of My Kingdom for you!" More likely, despite the truth of all that, what I will hear when I FINALLY hearken is simply, "Laurel, I Love you!" (or just, "Laurel," said with unimaginable love) and there will be an accompanying sense of great (indeed, infinite!) patience along with an unabashed Divine joy that I have finally managed even this single moment of attention! It is the very same Word I more typically do not hear, the same word which turned to judgment on God's lips, in the face of my more usual deafness.

No, contemplative life (all truly attentive and prayerful life, is not mainly about peak experiences, ecstasies, and awesome insights (though it may certainly be sprinkled with these). It is about being truly present to the present moment, to the inbreaking of God's Future and the One who is its source. Neither is judgment awesome in its imagery of anger, fire, and destruction; it is terrifying in its ordinariness, in coming silently to pass within us without notice, without drama, even without appreciable affect --- except over time, as death, chaos, and meaninglessness replace life, order, and meaning. Indeed, in light of such ever-present judgment --- as the psalmist reminds us --- "If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?"

01 October 2017

Everyone is called to the Evangelical Counsel of Poverty

In the readings from two Fridays** ago one of the themes which stood out was that of poverty especially expressed in the phrase "the poor in spirit" of the responsorial psalm. In my own life I have recently been reminded of the various ways this crucial value has been embodied in the life of the Church. For instance, a cloistered nun may have a solemn vow of poverty and this means she is unable to own anything at all; even more it means she must get permission for anything she needs in order to accept gifts, etc. I was reminded of this recently because I am in contact with a cloistered nun who is discerning a vocation to eremitical solitude and wishes to discern a vocation to canon 603 or solitary consecrated eremitical life. One of the things which will need to change significantly should Sister make the transition to exclaustration and then eventual profession as a diocesan hermit is her theology and vow of poverty; this is just one of the things which will take real discernment, prudence, and courage on her part. I say this because diocesan hermits are self-supporting, have no religious community with communal resources or others to administer our property, and must shape the content of our vows of poverty and the way we approach material wealth  accordingly.

Apostolic religious also vow poverty but generally speaking they have greater freedom than cloistered religious to do what they determine is needed in making purchases and so forth. Communities work out budgets and something akin to allowances for each Sister and most will have credit cards which allow them to buy what they need with appropriate discretion. The Sisters I know include what is called a cession of administration which cedes the administration of any property, inheritance, etc. they may receive or be given to another (usually the community or congregation). This is required by canon law and some diocesan hermits have been required by their dioceses to do the same despite the fact that poverty seen in this way is an essentially communally oriented vow. Meanwhile for apostolic religious the major expenses of each Sister are taken care of by the congregation. Still, such Sisters today will require Medicare or Medicaid and other assistance because congregations are increasingly poorer while their Sisters get older. Even so, these Sisters too vow a very real poverty and though it is shaped differently than that of the cloistered religious it is embraced with joy as one of the "Evangelical counsels" it is.

My own vow of poverty must reflect the fact that I, as a diocesan hermit, have much greater responsibility for money, bank accounts, possessions, insurance and other expenses than the average Apostolic Religious. At the same time it must be a vow of poverty that is recognizable as such. Thus, I defined poverty therein first of all in terms of my own radical human poverty and my complete dependence on the Life and presence of God. Everything else in my life and in my Rule flows from that. I affirm both poverty and great wealth in my vow but these have little to do with day to day finances. On the other hand to live this vow is to ensure that I do not turn to material goods for a sense of wealth or wellbeing. It asks that I see all of reality with a reverence for its sacramentality as God's creation and that I use it with appropriate care. Because I am self-supporting I could not vow the kind of poverty cloistered monastics do; neither could I embrace the kind of poverty my director does, for instance --- though my life is much closer to hers than to my friend who is a cloistered nun. As noted above some c 603 hermits do have a cession of administration, especially if they own property, a hermitage, hold inheritances, or become a 501c(3), but I do not (I do not own a hermitage or property, have not  become a 501c3, and because I am a solitary hermit my diocese did not require it).

The vow reads:  [[I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.]] I wonder who among us could not embrace the values in or make such a vow in some way.

So why is all this important? It is important because the readings from two weeks ago were meant to give us all a strong sense that each of us is called to embrace some real and recognizable form of poverty. What may not be known particularly well is that every Christian is called to embrace poverty in some real sense. The Evangelical Counsels are just what they say they are: namely, Gospel counsels binding on every baptized person who is called to proclaim the Gospel with their lives. These Counsels are not just for religious but for every Christian! Now, granted, this does not mean that every person will make vows in the same sense that Religious men and women do. Those responsible for families could not possibly make a vow like my director or I much less like my cloistered nun friend. It would be irresponsible. Instead Such persons must earn money, buy property and pay for all the things involved in living a healthy family life which allows children to be adequately educated, clothed, etc. And yet at the same time such folks are responsible for living the Evangelical Counsel in some substantive way.

As I understand Christian poverty it means our affirmation that God is our treasure and the ONE who is necessary if we are to live reverently and treat all things, places, and persons as gifts and as sacred. I believe if we can accept our own very human poverty in light of the unconditional and gratuitous Love of God, we will use material wealth and goods with a similar reverence. We will hold these things lightly, use them carefully, and buy them only as needed. We will be generous with them as God is generous with us (remember the parable of the two servants we also heard recently). My own vow may be a kind of paradigm of a vow that allows individuals to shape what it means in concrete material terms. In a cloistered context the congregation's proper law as well as canon law will spell out what this means. In an apostolic Religious' congregational context the institute's constitutions will spell out the shape the Evangelical Counsel of poverty will take. In the life of a diocesan hermit, the hermit's own Rule of Life will include a theology of poverty and specific ways the counsel is shaped in order to honor both poverty and the need to be self-supporting. A family or a single person, a retired widow or widower will shape these things as they discern they are called to.

Again, as I have written here before, [[the heart of religious poverty for me is dependence upon God which issues in a reverence for all that is part of my life. This attitude shapes my approach to owning and spending, to using and having, to acquiring or giving back, but it also shapes the way I see myself and others. Because God is first and last in importance, because he is the source of my life's meaningfulness and richness, and because I am committed to allowing that to be more and more true as life goes on, this means that I really have less need to own things, less need for novelty instead of the real newness God brings to everything and less need to shore up my own poverty and brokenness with "stuff."]] We are each called to embrace the Evangelical Counsel of poverty and shape it as is appropriate for our state and form of life. We do this as persons who are rich in God, secure in Christ, and made capable of proclaiming this in the power of the Spirit.

N.B., I should note that there are a number of "Evangelical counsels" but the three we recognize immediately are poverty, chastity and obedience. While not everyone is called to  enter the consecrated state by making public profession of these with vows and are not called to chastity in celibacy, religious obedience with legitimate superiors, or religious poverty, every Christian is meant to live some version of these three Counsels as significant values.

** 1Tim 6:2-12, Ps 49:6-10, 17-20, Lk 8:1-3

25 September 2017

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (reprise)


Yesterday's Gospel is one of my all-time favorite parables, that of the laborers in the vineyard. The story is simple --- deceptively so in fact: workers come to work in the vineyard at various parts of the day all having contracted with the master of the vineyard to work for a day's wages. Some therefore work the whole day, some are brought in to work only half a day, and some are hired only when the master comes for them at the end of the day. When time comes to pay everyone what they are owed those who came in to work last are paid first and receive a full day's wages. Those who came in to work first expect to be paid more than these, but are disappointed and begin complaining when they are given the same wage as those paid first. The response of the master reminds them that he has paid them what they contracted for, nothing less, and then asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own money. A saying is added: [in the Kingdom of God] the first shall be last and the last first.

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values -- one well-understood or common-perspective --- and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance. This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

So what happens in yesterday's Gospel? Again, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and a master hiring workers. His readers know this world well and despite Jesus stating specifically that each man hired contracts for the same wage, common sense says that is unfair and the master MUST pay the later workers less than he pays those who came early to the fields and worked through the heat of the noonday sun. And of course, this is precisely what the early workers complain about to the master. It is precisely what most of US would complain about in our own workplaces if someone hired after us got more money, for instance, or if someone with a high school diploma got the same pay and benefit package as someone with a doctorate --- never mind that we agreed to this package! The same is true in terms of religion: "I spent my WHOLE life serving the Lord. I was baptized as an infant and went to Catholic schools from grade school through college and this upstart convert who has never done anything at all at the parish gets the Pastoral Associate job? No Way!! No FAIR!!" From our everyday perspective this would be a cogent objection and Jesus' insistence that all receive the same wage, not to mention that he seems to rub it in by calling the last hired to be paid first (i.e., the normal order of the Kingdom), is simply shocking.


And yet the master brings up two points which turn everything around: 1) he has paid everyone exactly what they contracted for --- a point which stops the complaints for the time being, and 2) he asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own gifts or money. He then reminds his hearers that the first shall be last, and the last first in the Kingdom of God. If someone was making these remarks to you in response to cries of "unfair" it would bring you up short, wouldn't it? If you were already a bit disoriented by a pay master who changed the rules of commonsense this would no doubt underscore the situation. It might also cause you to take a long look at yourself and the values by which you live your life. You might ask yourself if the values and standards of the Kingdom are really SO different than those you operate by everyday of your life, not to mention, do you really want to "buy into" this Kingdom if the rewards are really parcelled out in this way, even for people less "gifted" and less "committed" than you consider yourself! Of course, you might not phrase things so bluntly. If you are honest, you will begin to see more than your own brilliance, giftedness, or commitedness; You might begin to see these along with a deep neediness, a persistent and genuine fear at the cost involved in accepting this "Kingdom" instead of the world you know and have accommodated yourself to so well.

You might consider too, and carefully, that the Kingdom is not an otherwordly heaven, but that it is the realm of God's sovereignty which, especially in Christ, interpenetrates this world, and is actually the goal and perfection of this world; when you do, the dilemma before you gets even sharper. There is no real room for opting for this world's values now in the hope that those "other Kingdomly values" only kick in after death! All that render to Caesar stuff is actually a bit of a joke if we think we can divvy things up neatly and comfortably (I am sure Jesus was asking for the gift of one's whole self and nothing less when he made this statement!), because after all, what REALLY belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? No, no compromises are really allowed with today's parable, no easy blending of the vast discrepancy between the realm of God's sovereignty and the world which is ordered to greed, competition, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, nor therefore, to the choice Jesus puts before us.

So, what side will we come down on after all this disorientation and shaking up? I know that every time I hear this parable it touches a place in me (yet another one!!) that resents the values and standards of the Kingdom and that desires I measure things VERY differently indeed. It may be a part of me that resists the idea that everything I have and am is God's gift, even if I worked hard in cooperating with that (my very capacity and willingness to cooperate are ALSO gifts of God!). It may be a part of me that looks down my nose at this person or that and considers myself better in some way (smarter, more gifted, a harder worker, stronger, more faithful, born to a better class of parents, etc, etc). It may be part of me that resents another's wage or benefits despite the fact that I am not really in need of more myself. It may even be a part of me that resents my own weakness and inabilities, my own illness and incapacities which lead me to despise the preciousness and value of my life and his own way of valuing it which is God's gift to me and to the world. I am socialized in this first-world-culture and there is no doubt that it resides deeply and pervasively within me contending always for the Kingdom of God's sovereignty in my heart and living. I suspect this is true for most of us, and that today's Gospel challenges us to make a renewed choice for the Kingdom in yet another way or to another more profound or extensive degree.

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it. We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and disheveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

To do so means to decide for his reign now and tomorrow and the day after that; it means to accept his gift of Self as fully as he wills to give it, and it therefore means to listen to him and his Word so that we MAY be able to decide and order our lives appropriately in his gratuitous love and mercy. The parable in today's Gospel is a gift which makes this possible --- if only we would allow it to work as Jesus empowers and wills it!