25 July 2017

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Beethoven's 5th Symphony




One of the most personally important pieces I have ever played is Beethoven's fifth symphony. It is a piece everyone recognizes with its famous first four notes: dut dut dut DUH! These notes are an everpresent reality in most of the symphony; whether we are hearing the intervals involved, the rhythmic motif, the struggle to move from minor to major, etc., these four notes drive everything. When I was in Junior High School I was struck with the thought that "never was so much done with so little"! Remember, Beethoven was struggling to come to terms with his own deafness and the potential crippling of his own genius when he wrote this symphony. It seems appropriate that in situations of personal limitation, deficiency, and also potential, I have come back to this symphony in one way and another.

This last year, when working with my director on a number of areas of personal suffering, limitation, healing, and growth, a friend gave me four tickets to the SF Symphony. It was a lecture on and performance of Beethoven's 5th --- and a great grace for me. "Never was so much done with so little," was the refrain I heard again. Then, the Oakland Civic Orchestra did this same symphony for our last set this June, right at the one year mark of my own intensive work. Again and again, four notes, a simple rhythm, an almost unimaginable potential --- and the new refrain I heard was "Never was so much hidden potential revealed in such a focused way!" For me this is the symphony I associate most with the quality and virtue of hope. I have included OCO playing the first movement above; other movements to come as Carol gets them finished! I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed playing them! (Enlarge the screen for best visibility.)

05 July 2017

"When They Saw Him They Begged Him. . ." (Reprise)

I have to say that today's Gospel always suprises and delights me. At first. It is the story first of all, of Jesus' sending the demons which possess two men into a nearby herd of swine thus freeing the men from the bondage to brokennness and inhumanity which marks and mars their lives, and then, it is the story of what happens when he approaches the nearby town (Gadara) whose residents have heard of what he has done. Despite knowing how the story goes, I admit to being surprised everytime Matthew's last line which begins, "Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him. . ." concludes with, ". . .they begged him to leave their district."

Now, granted, Jesus just destroyed an entire herd of swine, and they must have been someone's livelihood --- perhaps many people's. Some unhappiness with this would have been understandable. And Jesus has healed a couple of men whose conditions had made travel along a certain route unsafe, so one would expect a mixed response to that perhaps -- though the route is now free from this danger, these men now will need to be accommodated in some real sense --- not simply treated as wild animals or aliens of some sort. I begin to have a sense why Jesus was not welcomed here. But I admit to still hearing in the back of my mind cheers of welcome, beseechings of Jesus to come and change lives, a positive and welcoming response like that in fiction stories where the conquering hero comes back from slaying the dragon, or like the narrative in the New Testament where Jesus is welcomed as King with waving palm branches and cries of Hosanna --- temporary as that moment was! In a way, perhaps the "back of my mind" wants a costless or "cheap" grace, a "good news" fit for escapist fiction or an incredibly naive reading of the NT --- but not for the real world.

But besides surprise and delight this lection also stops me with its claim and challenge. That is so because the Gospel is good news in a much more realistic, paradoxical, and problematical way -- especially in regard to the first example above --- and today's Gospel lection highlights this for us. As we have heard over the past few passages from Matthew Jesus reveals himself to be a man of extraordinary, even divine authority --- a man with authority over nature, illness, the hearts of men and women, and now over demons. He heals, feeds on a profound and lasting level, frees, and provides true meaning and dignity for those lost and bereft. He is the Son of God (a title Matthew has on the lips of the demons in today's story)--- very good news indeed --- but he acts with an authority which is genuinely awesome and which turns the everyday world of politics, religion, simple ordinariness, and comfortable respectability on their heads. The Gadarenes in today's Gospel see this clearly and they are unprepared for it. More, he terrifies them. Far from misunderstanding Jesus and refusing to welcome him on those grounds, like the Scribes and Pharisees they understand precisely who Jesus is and want no part of him. Far better to simply ask Jesus to leave the district than to have to come to terms with who he is and what that truly challenges and calls forth in us!

One of the current complaints by some traditionalists is that Vatican II gave us a God of love (they frequently spell the word "luv" to denote their disparagement of it) and lost the God who inspires fear, etc. They may well be correct that there has been some "domestication" of God and his Christ in popular piety --- but then this is not because of Vatican II; it is a continual temptation and sin besetting the Church. After all, how many of us when faced with the daily prospect of renewed faith recognize that acceptance of Jesus' authority -- expressed as an unconditional love which is stronger than death -- will turn our world upside down and call us to a radical way of living and loving which involves renunciation, self-sacrifice, and commitment to a Kingdom that is NOT of this world and often is at distinct odds with it? The equivalent of a herd of swine or the accommodation of the mentally ill is probably the least it will cost us --- precisely because it is unconditional. How many of us choose not so much to be loved exhaustively by God -- to really open ourselves to His Presence with all that implies for growth, maturity and responsibility -- but instead (at least with some part of ourselves) would prefer to cling to a relatively undemanding (and world-reinforcing) piety which falls short of the life of the Kingdom? How many buy into (and construct our lives around) a religion which is at least as much OF this world as it is IN it?

So yes, today's Gospel both surprises and delights me --- but it also gives me pause. It does both because of its honesty; and it does so because it is genuinely good news, rooted in the awesome authority of the Christ who loves without condition but not without challenging and commissioning us to the radically transformed life that comes whenever he meets us face to face or heart to heart. Such a Christ will never be really popular I think. Many of our churches and cities are far more like Gadara than not. Sometimes, I am sorry to say, my hermitage is as well. The authority of Jesus over illness, fear, meaninglessness, and the demons that beset us is an awesome and demanding reality and our hearts are more often ambivalent and ambiguous than pure and single. I suspect that domestication of our faith is something most of us are guilty of every day of our lives.

The Gospel lection requires that we ask ourselves what parts of our lives would we instinctively desire to protect from an encounter with Jesus were we to hear he was on his way to our parish this morning? What kinds of changes would we be unwilling to make --- though we might well suspect Jesus would require them of us if we are to be true to ourselves and him? We might want to be apostles, religious, or otherwise summoned to follow Jesus in some way we ourselves esteem, but at the same time we might not want to hear Jesus say to us, "No, go home and witness to all that I in my mercy have done for you there." Would we minister in the compelling world-changing way the "demoniac" in today's Gospel lection ministered in his "lay" or "secular" vocation [to the power and mercy of God perfected in weakness] or would we reject the call because it was not the vocation we thought we should be gifted with? With these questions and today's Gospel in mind, let us summon up the courage to beg Jesus to enter into our towns, homes, churches, and hearts, and remain with us; let us give him free access to move within, call us and change our world as he wills! That is my own prayer for today.

04 July 2017

Happy Fourth of July!


Each year this day reminds me that Christians have much to tell America about the nature of true freedom, even while they are grateful for a country which allows them the liberty to practice their faith pretty much as they wish and need. Too often today Freedom is thought of as the ability to do anything we want. It is the quintessential value of the narcissist.

And yet, within Christian thought and praxis freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. It is the direct counterpart of Divine sovereignty and is other-centered. I believe our founding fathers had a keen sense of this, but today, it is a sense Americans often lack. Those of us who celebrate the freedom of Christians can help recover a sense of this necessary value by embracing it more authentically ourselves. Not least we can practice a freedom which is integrally linked to correlative obligations and exists for the sake of all; that is, it involves an obligation to be there for the other, most especially the least and poorest among us.

Today the United States is in danger of choosing to "protect" our freedom by refusing to open ourselves to "the other". We have forgotten that we are free only insofar as we are open to loving others, to sharing our lives and our freedom with the other, the alien. Like love, personal freedom is lost when we fail to extend it to others and make "neighbors" of them. Once we build walls against the other so too have we walled ourselves into the narrow confines of our own fear, ignorance, or selfishness. Authentic freedom always seeks the freedom of the other. It is expansive and, to  some extent, missionary in nature. While the boundaries of American freedom involve borders and finite resources which must be honored and husbanded, its heart is global and so must its vulnerability be. 

 All good wishes on this anniversary of the birthday of our Nation! May God empower us to live up to the obligations of the freedom, both personal and national, which we recognize as both Divine gift and human responsibility.

03 July 2017

Feast of the Apostle Thomas: What's that Doubt About? (reprise)

Today's Gospel focuses on the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, and one of the lessons one should draw from these stories is that we are indeed dealing with bodily resurrection, but therefore, with a kind of bodiliness which transcends the corporeality we know here and now. It is very clear that Jesus' presence among his disciples is not simply a spiritual one, in other words, and that part of Christian hope is the hope that we as embodied persons will come to perfection beyond the limits of death. It is not just our souls which are meant to be part of the new heaven and earth, but our whole selves, body and soul.

The scenario with Thomas continues this theme, but is contextualized in a way which leads homilists to focus on the whole dynamic of faith with seeing, and faith despite not having seen. It also makes doubt the same as unbelief and plays these off against faith, as though faith cannot also be served by doubt. But doubt and unbelief are decidedly NOT the same things. We rarely see Thomas as the one whose doubt (or whose demands!) SERVES true faith, and yet, that is what today's Gospel is about. Meanwhile, Thomas also tends to get a bad rap as the one who was separated from the community and doubted what he had not seen with his own eyes. The corollary here is that Thomas will not simply listen to his brother and sister disciples and believe that the Lord has appeared to or visited them. But I think there is something far more significant going on in Thomas' proclamation that unless he sees the wounds inflicted on Jesus in the crucifixion, and even puts his fingers in the very nail holes, he will not believe.

What Thomas, I think, wants to make very clear is that we Christians believe in a crucified Christ, and that the resurrection was God's act of validation of Jesus as scandalously and ignominiously Crucified. I think Thomas knows on some level anyway, that insofar as the resurrection really occured, it does not nullify what was achieved on the cross. Instead it renders permanently valid what was revealed (made manifest and made real) there. In other words, Thomas knows if the resurrection is really God's validation of Jesus' life and establishes him as God's Christ, the Lord he will meet is the one permanently established and marked as the crucified One. The crucifixion was not some great misunderstanding which could be wiped away by resurrection. Instead it was an integral part of the revelation of the nature of truly human and truly divine existence. Whether it is the Divine life, authentic human existence, or sinful human life --- all are marked and revealed in one way or another by the signs of Jesus' cross. For instance, ours is a God who has journeyed to the very darkest, godless places or realms human sin produces, and has become Lord of even those places. He does not disdain them even now but is marked by them and will journey with us there --- whether we are open to him doing so or not --- because Jesus has implicated God there and marked him with the wounds of an exhaustive kenosis.

Another piece of this is that Jesus is, as Paul tells us, the end of the Law and it was Law that crucified him. The nail holes and wounds in Jesus' side and head -- indeed every laceration which marked him -- are a sign of legal execution -- both in terms of Jewish and Roman law. We cannot forget this, and Thomas' insistence that he really be dealing with the Crucified One reminds us vividly of this fact as well. The Jewish and Roman leaders did not crucify Jesus because they misunderstood him, but because they understood all-too-clearly both Jesus and the immense power he wielded in his weakness and poverty. They understood that he could turn the values of this world, its notions of power, authority, etc, on their heads. They knew that he could foment profound revolution (religious and otherwise) wherever he had followers. They chose to crucify him not only to put an end to his life, but to demonstrate he was a fraud who could not possibly have come from God; they chose to crucify him to terrify those who might follow him into all the places discipleship might really lead them --- especially those places of human power and influence associated with religion and politics. The marks of the cross are a judgment (krisis) on this whole reality.

There are many gods and even manifestations of the real God available to us today, and so there were to Thomas and his brethren in those first days and weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus. When Thomas made his declaration about what he would and would not believe, none of these were crucified Gods or would be worthy of being believed in if they were associated with such shame and godlessness. Thomas knew how very easy it would be for his brother and sister disciples to latch onto one of these, or even to fall back on entirely traditional notions in reaction to the terribly devastating disappointment of Jesus' crucifixion. He knew, I think, how easy it might be to call the crucifixion and all it symbolized a terrible misunderstanding which God simply reversed or wiped away with the resurrection -- a distasteful chapter on which God has simply turned the page. Thomas knew that false prophets showed up all the time. He knew that a God who is distant and all-powerful is much easier to believe in (and follow) than one who walks with us even in our sinfulness or who empties himself to become subject to the powers of sin and death, especially in the awful scandal and ignominy of the cross --- and who expects us to do essentially the same.

In other words, Thomas' doubt may have had less to do with the FACT of a resurrection, than it had to do with his concern that the disciples, in their desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced, had truly met and clung to the real Lord, the crucified One. In this way their own discipleship will come to be marked by the signs of the cross as they preach, suffer, and serve in the name (and so, in the paradoxical power) of THIS Lord and no other. Only he could inspire them; only he could sustain them; only he could accompany them wherever true discipleship led them.

Paul said, "I want to know Christ crucified and only Christ crucified" because only this Christ had transformed sinful, godless reality with his presence, only this Christ had redeemed even the realms of sin and death by remaining open to God even within these realities. Only this Christ would journey with us to the unexpected and unacceptable places, and in fact, only he would meet us there with the promise and presence of a God who would bring life out of them. Thomas, I believe, knew precisely what Paul would soon proclaim himself, and it is this, I think, which stands behind his insistence on seeing the wounds and put his fingers in the very nail holes. He wanted to be sure his brethren were putting their faith in the crucified One, the one who turned everything upside down and relativized every other picture of God we might believe in. He became the great doubter because of this, but I suspect instead, he was the most astute theologian among the original Apostles. He, like Paul, wanted to know Christ Crucified and ONLY Christ Crucified.

We should not trivialize Thomas' witness by transforming him into a run of the mill empiricist and doubter (though doubting is an important piece of growth in faith)!! Instead we should imitate his insistence: we are called upon to be followers of the Crucified God, and no other. Every version of God we meet should be closely examined for nail holes, and the lance wound. Every one should be checked for signs that this God is capable of and generous enough to assume such suffering on behalf of a creation he would reconcile and make whole. Only then do we know this IS the God proclaimed in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, the only one worthy of being followed even into the darkest reaches of human sin and death, the only One who meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place, the only one who loves us with an eternal love from which nothing can separate us.

23 June 2017

A Contemplative Moment: The Crimson Heart


 
"CRIMSON MYSTERY OF ALL THINGS"
 --- the Church speaks in a hymn by Gertrude von le Fort ---
"solitary Heart, all-knowing Heart, world-conquering Heart.". . .
 
The "heart" is the name we give to the unifying element in the human person's diversity. The heart is the ultimate ground of a person's being. Her diversity of character, thought, and activity springs from this ground. All that she is and does unfolds from this source. Her diversity, originally one in its source, remains one even in its unfolding and it ultimately returns to this unity.

The "heart" is the name we give to the inner ground of an individual's character, wherein a person is really himself, unique and alone. The human being's apartness, his individuality, his interiority, his solitariness --- this is what we call the heart. This characteristic of the heart reveals and at the same time veils itself in everything the person is and does. For the human being's total diversity in being and activity would be nothing if it did not blossom forth from the heart as from a living ground, and at the same time veil his hidden ground.It must be veiled because its water doesn't flow on the surface of what we commonly speak of as the human person's being and activity.

An individual's uniqueness, her individuality, is her heart. That is why one is always alone and solitary --- alone and solitary in the meaning that everyday life gives gives to the words, in the idiom of the marketplace, which no longer suspects the abysses concealed in human words. For there is a realm where the person is entirely himself, where he himself is his solitary destiny. In this realm where he can no longer bring himself and his fragmentary world to the marketplace of everyday life --- in the realm therefore where his heart is --- the person is alone and solitary because of this apartness. . . .
 
The center of our hearts has to be God; the heart of the world has to be the heart of our hearts. He must send us his heart so that our hearts may be at rest. It has to be his heart. . . .He must let it enter into our narrow confines, so that it can be the center of our life without destroying the narrow house of our finitude, in which alone we can live and breathe. And he has done it. And the name of his heart is Jesus Christ! It is a finite heart, and yet it is the heart of God. When it loves us and thus becomes the center of our hearts. every need, every distress, every misery of our hearts is taken from us. For his heart is God's heart. and yet it does not have the terrifying ambiguity of his infinity. Up from this heart and out from this heart human words have arisen, intimate words, words of the heart, words of God that have only one meaning, a meaning that gladdens and blesses.
 
Our heart becomes calm and rests in this heart, in his heart. When it loves us then we know that the love of such a heart is only love and nothing else. In him the enigmatic mystery of the world's heart which is God becomes the crimson mystery of all things, the mystery that God has loved the world in its destitution.
 
Excerpted from
 "The Mystery of the Heart" by Karl Rahner, SJ
The Great Church Year, the Best of Karl Rahner's Homilies
Sermons and Meditations
(Please read the entire essay! I have excerpted a text in which every word is important and none are wasted. Though not my intention it is a betrayal of Rahner's text.)

22 June 2017

On Rules, Bishops, and Finding the Way With Canon 603

Dear Sister, could you comment on the following? It is an excerpt from a post on Citydesert: A Hermit's Christmas . You have written about Rules and writing them. I wonder if you agree with what this hermit has to say. Also, could you comment on the portion about bishops? I wonder if this resonates with your own experience? [[She admits, that although she is guided by her rules (sic) of life, there are times when she has to make it up as she goes along. As she embarked on her new path, she sought the blessing of the Most Rev Malcolm McMahon, then the Catholic Bishop of Nottingham. “He said: ‘We don’t do hermits.’ He didn’t know anything about it – although he did grow to like having a hermit in the diocese: it gave him kudos with the other bishops.”]]

 Thanks for your questions! I have read this article and recognize the section you cited. Let me say that Sister Rachel's descriptions of "making it up as she goes" and of her bishop's initial response resonate with me --- big time!! One of the reasons I chose to write my Rule in the way I did and encourage others to do the same is precisely because when one puts Gospel and principles of eremitical life before one puts an emphasis on law one gets a Rule which is sufficiently structured but also allows the hermit the time and space to respond to the Holy Spirit in uniquely personal ways. In writing a Rule one simply cannot account for every contingency if one tries to write it in terms of "do's and don'ts". One needs instead the experience and insight to write a Rule which captures an authentic vision of eremitical life, states clearly the way one sees one's mission and charism, and then draws conclusions about specific do's and don'ts which are generally applicable. If one can do that the Rule will function well and also leave room for adjusting to unexpected situations and circumstances.

Another piece of all of this that helps the hermit to discern how she will act in such circumstances and situations is the feedback of her delegate. One of the reasons a canonical hermit has a delegate is because the hermit will need to discuss these kinds of things with someone who knows her and her life. For instance, last year I thought about doing something which my Rule could never have anticipated and I asked my delegate if she saw anything problematical with my doing what I was considering. She responded that so long as it was, 1)  consistent with my Rule, 2) consonant with my deep conscience, and was,  3) sensitive to my own health and/or physical needs, she could see no problem. She also noted that since I was thinking about a public action, I needed to consider whether or not I would wear my veil and/or cowl. And then, "Your decision." All of this was very helpful to me, especially since it defined what I had to consider and left the decision squarely in my own hands. (It also pointed up a couple of places my Rule could be more helpful in such cases --- exceptional though they might be!)

There is no way a Rule can anticipate, much less legislate every little (or big!) thing unless it is made to be essentially restrictive and contrary to the freedom of the hermit. At the same time it must be very clear about what the hermit is doing and why she is doing it. When it is clear in this way discernment will be needed, of course, but it will also be possible. The Rule and one's own internalization of its articulated vision and mission then serves as a significant guide for one's discernment. Beyond this the hermit's delegate (who, in my experience, has a copy of and knows the hermit's Rule) will assist in specific thorny instances of discernment and help her in living this Rule with a flexibility which serves genuine fidelity.

This is not exactly "making it up as one goes" in a way which suggests the hermit is free to do anything at all at such times, but I think it is "making it up as one goes" in the way Sister Rachel was speaking of. Remember that in Sister Rachel's case, a diagnosis of cancer required significant changes in her schedule, degree of social contact, etc. Accommodating these kinds of needs while still keeping one's Rule in some essential sense demands flexibility and discernment but it demands these within the context of the vision, mission, and gift of solitary eremitical life the hermit has spelled out in her Rule. When I wrote my own Rule I chose very specifically to focus on spelling out who I was and was called to be in terms of canon 603 and only thereafter, what specifically I was called to do or not do. I think this corresponds generally to the distinction between Gospel and Law. What I find to be true is that so long as a hermit knows, both intellectually and deep in her heart, who she is, discerning what she is to do will follow more easily --- even in difficult situations and circumstances like those Sister Rachel faced.

What Sister Rachel writes about her Bishop is certainly familiar to me. When I first began becoming a diocesan hermit and was petitioning for admission to public vows, I was working with the Vicar for Religious in a process of discernment. During this process because of another situation which "left a bad taste in his mouth", the bishop decided not to allow any professions under canon 603 for the foreseeable future. He did not communicate this to the Vicar however. I personally think the Bp had forgotten Sister Susan was working with me in regard to c 603 and innocently failed to communicate the matter to her. Whenever the decision was made it was only made known to Sister Susan after we had met for about five years and she was ready to recommend me to the bishop for profession; it was a difficult decision for both of us. In any case, I eventually petitioned again (or renewed my original petition) and was accepted for admission to vows. The time it took from the day I knocked on the chancery door, so to speak, to the day I was perpetually professed was 23 years.

Other dioceses have recognized that canon 603 is too-easily misused today or that it does not provide adequately for the solitary hermit's initial or ongoing formation. Some have decided the vocation itself (along with c 604) is not real, is merely a "fallback" vocation and do not allow for it. Some recognize that requiring hermits to be self-supporting is a double-edged sword: it is necessary to prevent those merely seeking a sinecure, but it may be unjust to those with genuine vocations to solitude --- especially as they age and become infirm. Some have had many would-be-candidates seeking admission to profession but found none of them suitable -- and they may be entirely correct in this! In the space of the last 34 years my own diocese has had only one person they professed specifically as a diocesan hermit; in the last 10 years (since I was perpetually professed) I know they have had many people knocking on the door about this (perhaps averaging one a month by one account) but none have been admitted to perpetual vows. In reviewing my own petition Archbishop Vigneron was very clear he needed to learn a lot before any decision could be made. Fortunately, he spent time doing that! So, what Sister Rachel writes about this is not unusual and something I definitely can resonate with, yes.

I can't comment on the second observation Sister Rachel makes about other bishops regarding her bishop because he decided to consecrate a diocesan hermit. I do know that Bishops seek out those with experience of hermits whom they have professed and consecrated in order to get a feel for how things work with the canon. Vicars, canonists, and diocesan hermits themselves may also be contacted for insight and information. But whether or not and how other bishops may regard those among them who have professed and consecrated c 603 hermits is not something I have any knowledge of.

I can say that it is my impression that some bishops "like" having hermits or like using canon 603 for "special cases" and profess more persons than they really should. Especially it is problematical when bishops have a number of hermits the majority of whom 1) have no formation,  and 2) are really just solitary individuals but not hermits; (some of these are active in terms of ministry and life rather than contemplative, and some are simply misfits who cannot live in community). Equally problematical are,  3) those who are unsuitable because of some psychological defects or defects in personality, and 4) those who desire to use the canon as a stopgap solution to beginning their own communities. The root of these problems come from bishops not having a clear idea of what constitutes eremitical life and most especially what constitutes the charism of this life. When bishops are clear in their own minds about the nature and gift this life represents to the Church and world they are much more likely to admit to profession those who show real understanding of these things and live them with a sense of mission. Without a clear sense of the charism ("the silence of solitude") of the vocation especially, bishops will continue to admit those without an authentic eremitic vocation to profession or, alternately, refuse to admit anyone to profession.

In any case, this recent history of misuse and abuse coupled with a long pre-canon 603 history of stories of eccentrics, stereotypical nutcases and misanthropists, is instrumental in making canon 603 something bishops eschew and shun learning anything more about. It is good that bishops turn to their confreres who have had experience with solitary diocesan hermits, not least because the vocation is rare and when there are "success" stories to hear bishops should be made aware of them. Problematical areas need to be clarified, discernment and formation issues dealt with in ways which allow for better and wider recognition of genuine vocations., and stories of failures need to be analyzed so that bishops know what kinds of things are danger signs. Again. in all of this Vicars, canonists, and diocesan hermits and their delegates can be good sources of information as well.

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 June 2017

Solemnity of Corpus Christi: Celebrating a Power Made Perfect in Weakness

Because Sunday is the Solemnity of Corpus Christi and because tomorrow's first reading is Paul's "earthen vessels" text (2 Cor:4:7-14) I am reprising the following post from two years ago. I am hoping to get another piece up on tomorrow's readings --- a version of a reflection I will do for my parish community -- but that might not be until tomorrow or Saturday some time.

[[Dear Sister, if a person is chronically ill then isn't their illness a sign that "the world" of sin and death are still operating in [i.e., dominating] their lives?  . . . I have always thought that to become a religious one needed to be in good health. Has that also changed with canon 603? I don't mean that someone has to be perfect to become a nun or hermit but shouldn't they at least be in good health? Wouldn't that say more about the "heavenliness" of their vocation than illness? ]] (Concatenation of queries posed in several emails)

As I read these various questions one image kept recurring to me, namely, that of Thomas reaching out to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. I also kept thinking of a line from a homily my pastor (John Kasper, OSFS) gave about 7 years ago which focused on Carravagio's painting of this image; the line was,  "There's Another World in There!" It was taken in part from the artist and writer Jan Richardson's reflections on this painting and on the nature of the Incarnation. Richardson wrote:

[[The gospel writers want to make sure we know that the risen Christ was no ghost, no ethereal spirit. He was flesh and blood. He ate. He still, as Thomas discovered, wore the wounds of crucifixion. That Christ’s flesh remained broken, even in his resurrection, serves as a powerful reminder that his intimate familiarity and solidarity with us, with our human condition, did not end with his death. . . Perhaps that’s what is so striking about Caravaggio’s painting: it stuns us with the awareness of how deeply Christ was, and is, joined with us. The wounds of the risen Christ are not a prison: they are a passage. Thomas’ hand in Christ’s side is not some bizarre, morbid probe: it is a  union, and a reminder that in taking flesh, Christ wed himself to us.]] Living into the Resurrection

Into the Wound, Jan L Richardson
My response then must really begin with a series of questions to you. Are the Risen Christ's wounds a sign that sin and death are still "operating in" him or are they a sign that God has been victorious over these --- and victorious not via an act of force but through one of radical vulnerability and compassion? Are his wounds really a passage to "another world" or are they signs of his bondage to and defeat by the one which contends with him and the Love he represents? Do you believe that our world is at least potentially sacramental or that heaven (eternal life in the sovereign love of God) and this world interpenetrate one another as a result of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection or are they entirely separate from and opposed to one another? Even as I ask these questions I am aware that they may be answered in more than one way. In our own lives too, we may find that the wounds and scars of illness and brokenness witness more to the world of sin and death than they do to that of redemption and eternal life. They may represent a prison more than they represent a passage to another world.

Or not.

When I write about discerning an eremitical vocation and the importance of the critical transition that must be made from being a lone pious person living physical silence and solitude to essentially being a hermit living "the silence of solitude," I am speaking of a person who has moved from the prison of illness, for instance, to illness (or any form of brokenness) as passage to another world through the redemptive grace of God. We cannot empower or accomplish such a transition ourselves. The transfiguration of our lives is the work of God. At the same time, the scars of our lives will remain precisely as an invitation to others to see the power of God at work in our weakness and in God's own kenosis (self-emptying). These scars become Sacraments of God's powerful presence in our lives, vivid witnesses to the One who loves us in our brokenness and yet works continuously to bring life, wholeness, and meaning out of  death, brokenness, and absurdity.

To become a hermit (especially to be publicly professed as a Catholic hermit) someone suffering from chronic illness has to have made this transition. Their lives may involve suffering but the suffering has become a sacrament which attests less to itself  (and certainly not to an obsession with pain) but to the God who is a Creator-redeemer God. What you tend to see as an obstacle to living a meaningful profoundly prophetic religious or eremitical life seems to me to be a symbol of the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It also seems to me to remind us of the nature of "heavenliness" in light of the Ascension. Remember that one side of the salvation event we call the Christ is God's descent so that our world may be redeemed and entirely transformed into a new creation. But the other side of this Event is the Ascension where God takes scarred humanity and even death itself up into his own life --- thus changing the very nature of heaven (the sovereign life of God shared with others) in the process.

Far from being an inadequate witness to "heavenliness" our wounds can be the most perfect witness to God's sovereign life shared with us. Our God has embraced the wounds and scars of the world as his very own and not been demeaned, much less destroyed in the process. Conversely, for Christians, the marks of the crucifixion, as well therefore as our own illnesses, weaknesses and various forms of brokenness, are (or are meant to become) the quintessential symbols of a heaven which embraces our own lives and world to make them new. When this transformation occurs in the life of a chronically ill individual seeking to live eremitical life it is the difference between a life of one imprisoned in physical isolation, silence, and solitude, to that of one which breathes and sings "the silence of solitude." It is this song, this prayer, this magnificat that Canon 603 describes so well and consecrated life in all its forms itself represents.

Bowl patched with Gold
We Christians do not hide our woundedness then. We are not ashamed at the way life has marked and marred, bent and broken, spindled and mutilated us. But neither are woundedness or brokenness themselves the things we witness to. Instead it is the Sacrament God has made of our lives, the Love that does justice and makes whole that is the source of our beauty and our boasting. Jan Richardson also reminds us of this truth when she recalls Sue Bender's observations on seeing a mended Japanese bowl. [[“The image of that bowl,” she writes, “made a lasting impression. Instead of trying to hide the flaws, the cracks were emphasized — filled with silver. The bowl was even more precious after it had been mended.”]]  So too with our own lives: as Paul also said, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing power will be of God and not from ourselves."  (2 Cor 4:7) It is the mended cracks, the wounds which were once prisons, the shards of a broken life now reconstituted entirely and transfigured by the grace of God which reveal the very presence of heaven to those we meet.

12 June 2017

On What Spirituality Really Means

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
       When you write about the inner work or "growth work" you have been engaged in, how important is it that you work with someone else? Doesn't this mean you are not living solitude? I was bothered by your saying you thought the Church had "implicitly commissioned" you to do this work. Could you say more about this? I am asking because I don't understand how some sort of pseudo-psychological work can be considered part of the hermit's life which is supposed to be a spiritual life and I really doubt the Church would support it much less commission it! Can you explain this?]]

Thanks for your questions. I don't know if you have misunderstood me but you have made it clear that I have not been clear in recent posts and need to say a bit more to clarify. I have answered similar questions in the posts, Followup Questions and Objections on Inner Work as well as Sources and Resources for Inner Work. I do recommend you look at those; they were written just a year ago and allowed me to outline how it was I saw this work as intrinsic to the life of a hermit. In those posts I discuss asceticism, the desert Fathers and Mothers, the importance and appropriateness of working with another, and several other topics. Without repeating everything there let me touch on a couple of topics raised by my last post and your questions which I may not have dealt with explicitly in those earlier posts.

The first issue I think is that I am called to a spiritual life but that that seems to you to disallow attention to psychological, emotional, and similar health or growth. My own understanding of spirituality does not cut those things out of the picture. Spirituality primarily has to do with the Life of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and where the Spirit is active nothing is (or should be!) untouched. A spiritual life is a life in which the Holy Spirit is allowed to act as she will; it is one where the person embraces this action, prepares for its continuation, and acts from it. It is one where the Holy Spirit is allowed to touch, heal, and empower every dimension of the person so that she grows in wholeness and/or holiness. In other words, spirituality is not merely about matters of my own spirit or soul, it is about what God's Spirit does with my whole Self.

When a client tells me about their spiritual lives they pay attention to where the Holy Spirit has been allowed to act, where she has been resisted or ignored, and just generally where the Holy Spirit seems to be moving in her/his life. When I work with my own director, especially in the PRH work we are doing together, we work through all those forms of woundedness which, over the years, have prevented the Life of God which resides deep within me to truly inform, empower, inspire, transfigure and transform my life. It may be that Spirit has been unable to adequately inform and move my will, or my intellect, or my sensibilities (including emotions. sensations, and feelings).

What I need to become is vulnerable to the Holy Spirit, vulnerable to Love-in-Act, and this vulnerability (from the L. root vulnus for "wound") only comes from working through my own woundedness and the scarring that has "hardened" my own heart! We all know people who can't feel their feelings, or those who are incapable of acting on what they know, or even those who are incapable of showing the curiosity, creativity, or critical power of their intellect. Whenever these things happen, and in whatever degree, it means a truncated, relatively impaired human life which is unable to respond adequately to the movement of the Spirit. Even when significant or deep healing is unnecessary we have to learn to respond fully, exhaustively.

Too often I hear about notions of spirituality which involve a limited dimension of the person (their spirit or soul) and leaves the rest as though it is uninvolved in spirituality. Thus, there are all kinds of dualism involved in these: the temporal vs the eternal, the bodily vs the spiritual, the spiritual vs the ordinary "profane" world, etc etc. But these notions are antithetical to genuine spirituality which begins with the Spirit of GOD -- not the spirit of the person per se -- and then attends to that in ways which allows the Holy Spirit to move where she will! The corollary to this kind of division is that only some parts of us and only some activities are seen as "spiritual" while others are not (e.g., praying is spiritual, playing in an orchestra supposedly is not, etc). 

Excursus:

Laura Risk (friend
 and renowned fiddler)
As part of this, we must remember that human beings are embodied Spirit, that our souls (the very breath of God which literally inspires our bodily existence) "builds our bodies around it". The soul, as Aquinas reminded us so well, is the form of the body and works towards this embodiment always and everywhere. (This, by the way, is one reason "heaven" will ultimately never be about disembodied souls; the soul yearns for embodiment, yearns for resurrection, and that is what we ultimately hope for!)  But the upshot of all this is a spiritual life cannot avoid attending and paying attention to the WHOLE of our lives. (And here I will note that the act of playing a violin can be one of the most prayerful acts in my entire life because it is a fairly sophisticated form of the Holy Spirit's embodiment. There are times, of course, it does not rise to that level, but the yearning to play and the empowered act of pouring myself into the instrument to produce music is the very definition of the Holy Spirit at work in me and in our world.)

Embodiment, quite obviously, involves our whole selves. That means the psychological or emotional as well as the physical. It especially means paying attention to anything that stands in the way of the Holy Spirit's activity in our lives. During Advent we hear the admonition to "make straight the paths of the Lord!" We are to make our lives ready in ways which allow the Spirit of God to fill the valleys and level the mountains. And now during Pentecost we cry out in both supplication and great joy, "Come Holy Spirit! Enkindle the hearts (the deepest core) of the faithful (those who trust you, those you will set afire with your love!)" In all of this the Scriptures affirm that we seek and are sought by the God who wills we allow the Holy Spirit (the Life and Love of God) to inspire every part of our being: body, mind, heart, spirit, sensibilities, emotions, ordinary and extraordinary dimensions of our lives. Everything is meant to be shot through with the power and love of the Spirit of God. When I speak of  everything being potentially sacramental this is part of what I mean. With the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost God affirms actively and effectively that NOTHING will be left untouched, unembraced, unloved, unreconciled or not wholly taken up into the very life of God himself.

The work I have been doing with my director is meant to allow the Holy Spirit to move freely within and through me --- as She is meant to do. It is meant to allow me to be the person in whom that Sprit lives and moves freely, a person who is whole, coherent, and holy --- a person in other words, who is truly inspired by the Spirit and who "holds together" in Christ and the love he and His Father share -- just as we are each called to do. For that reason we work through everything that stands in the way of that. We work through woundedness, both old and more recent, allowing love to heal these. We work through memories, allow for the experience and expression of emotions, and at every point reappropriate these from the perspective of God's unceasing presence and love --- as these are present not only in my hermitage, but in my deep Self and in my director as well. (It is the role of my director to mediate God's love in all of this and this means this love's critical, attentive, challenging, consoling and empowering character!) There is literally no part of my life that goes untouched in all of this. If spirituality means a praxis which leads to holiness then this is how it must be. After all, God has been at work during the whole of my life and in this work we [[lay it all out and trace the hand of God that somehow ordered all things. . .]]

On Being Commissioned to do this Work:

My consecration and commission by the Church has charged me with living my Rule, canon 603, and solitary eremitical life in the Church's name. She has given me permission to turn from other things including active or apostolic religious life, family life, and any number of other things to live with, from and for God alone in the silence of solitude. She has provided me the freedom to turn from the world's definitions of success, etc, and has allowed me the space and time to attend to God in all the ways God calls me to. This means I do not have to justify my life in the same terms most of those I know have to do.
But, the Church has also prayed that God would bring to completion in me what was begun on that day of consecration. When she granted me the cowl she prayed that I would carry out the ministry of prayer she had entrusted to me. Both of these mean the Church expects and prays that I would fully allow God to be God within and through me in my contemplative solitary eremitical life. I am free to do whatever is necessary to allow this to happen and become the truth of my life. I am free, in other words, to "put on Christ" and to do so as a diocesan hermit --- to allow my mind and heart to be remade in his image by the Spirit. I am obligated in the same way.

This means I am responsible for doing whatever I can to fulfill this obligation. I am responsible for working toward my own conversion in the power of God. My director and I decided together on the kind and degree of work we would undertake because while entirely complementary, it also goes beyond the usual work or commitment of spiritual direction --- though now it is entirely integrated into spiritual direction in our work together. What must be clear is that the aim of our work together is everything I have described throughout this post. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to work in and through me as exhaustively as possible. Both of us are committed to God and to allowing God full reign in our lives and the lives of those we touch. Both of us are consecrated by God through the mediation of the Church for this purpose. Both of us are committed to holiness --- to the life occasioned and brought to fullness by the Holy Spirit. That is what spiritual life is about and I think when you ask questions about the wisdom or prudence of this work for a hermit it is important that you consider we both act with all of this in mind.

Addendum: sorry, I missed a couple of questions, so briefly: the work I have spoken of requires the assistance of another who is trained to accompany persons in this way. The majority of the work is done on one's own but meetings with the accompanist are absolutely essential and often critical since part of healing often requires speaking one's truth to another who will really hear this. (Being heard in this way is a complex dynamic of love, trust, and acceptance, but it also means trusting, accepting, and expressing one's own truth in a way which might not have been possible before.) To summarize, this kind of work must be done with another person, a person who knows how to listen deeply, to respond compassionately, and to speak the words of truth and love which can cut through our personal "deafness" and incapacity to empower a full and loving response to God and to those whom God holds as precious.  It is especially important to remember that the work we are doing together (and with the grace of God!) increases my already-established capacity for healthy solitude. It does not detract from this.

08 June 2017

Cowl as Symbol: Once Again on Becoming the Hermit I Am

About three or four years ago I wrote a piece about God as the Master Weaver/ Master Storyteller God as Master Storyteller . It represented a way of coming to terms with the notion that "There is a reason for everything," without also buying into the na├»ve notion that God wills everything that occurs or happens to us. It was also a piece of integrating the fact and relatively new theological consideration that we belong to an unfinished and evolving universe; this involves the idea that God creates by summoning or drawing us into the future, into fullness of being and that God represents what theologian Ted Peters calls Absolute Future. Finally it was a way of affirming that in our lives everything can be transfigured by the love of God; no threads will be dropped, none lost or forgotten because, as we celebrate especially with the Feasts of Resurrection and Ascension, we rest securely in the hands and heart of God.

Yesterday I was reading Paulsell's Letters From a Hermit, the story of how Cistercian monk Matthew Kelty became a hermit and I came across the quote found below. It reminded me not only of that article, but also the way God has worked in my own life to create the heart of a hermit and especially during this last year of intense inner work: [[He chose to be alone, "not to nurse his wounds, not to count his victories, but rather quietly to take all the mysterious fabric of [his] life and there [in the hermitage] lay it all out and trace the hand of love that somehow ordered all things, the good and the bad, the crooked and the straight, the bitter and the sweet, the whole of it. . . and then to take the whole thing and throw it over [himself] as a garment woven in love."]] Letters From a Hermit, William Paulsell.

Eremitical life is not the only context in which we can learn to look at our lives in a truly reverent way,  with a truly human and thus, graced perspective. Any person who has worked regularly with a really competent director will be reminded of and confronted with the truth that deeper than any discrete pain or joy, any specific moments of suffering or solace, any individual moments of darkness or light, meaning or senselessness, we are participants in a Mystery which "contextualizes" and makes an ultimate sense of all of these more particular historical realities. A lot of the time what a spiritual director does for us, for instance, especially when we are in the midst of darkness and suffering is to maintain the perspective we lose or cannot adequately maintain at these times. Those of us who have someone who can and does remain in a relatively unobscured contact with the Mystery that grounds us both as we work together through more immediate difficulties, limitations, and yearnings of our life is blessed indeed. In any case, contemplatives of all stripes, hermits, religious women and men (cloistered and apostolic), laity, priests, all know this.

My own sense, however, is that eremitical life especially is ordered to give the hermit the opportunity to do as Matthew Kelty described so well; namely, it provides the very dedicated time and space to remember (and here I mean a deep and active remembering where we actually relive and reappropriate) events from a new perspective --- the perspective of one who knows the eternal and unconditional love of God which is constantly at work to bring good out of evil, life out of death, and meaning out of absurdity. This is the Love-in-Act who undergirds and accompanies us and has always done so, the God who has worked to redeem every moment and mood of our lives and bring us to fullness of existence in and through Christ. The hermit is one who has given everything in order to allow this God to be fully revealed in her life in and through the silence of solitude; she has given everything so that she might "clothe herself" in the Risen Christ without whom her life would be an absurdity and waste, but with and in whom her life is an infinitely valuable reflection of the Gospel. This is the work and witness of eremitical life, the gift the hermit gives to the Church and world in the name of Christ.

As readers here know, a year ago (June 1st) my director and I began an intense form of inner work which allowed a methodical approach to doing precisely this kind of remembering, healing, and growth work. I was clear that in professing and thus commissioning me to live eremitical life in her name, the Church had also implicitly commissioned --- as well as given me the privileged time and space in the silence of solitude --- to undertake this very work. At every point it was my director's "job" to remind me of and help me get or remain in touch with the fact that in spite of every particular period or instance of suffering, pain, darkness, and apparent senselessness we worked through (as well as those of light, profound meaning, and joy) we each stand up out of and embody a deeper source of life, truth, and love that constitutes a foundational or constitutive part of our deepest selves and is our ultimate destiny and absolute future as well.

My director's "job" has been and remains not only to help me heal in the ways I have needed, but above all, to accompany me in this process of journeying deep into memory, deep into self, and help me learn and continue to trace the hand of love that somehow ordered all things; her "job" was to assist me to "trust the process" (give myself over to a process where the hand of love, though often obscured, is and will become, evident) and to grow in my capacity to do that with every part of my Self --- whether in the midst of deep suffering and pain or profound consolation and joy. What I learned anew time and again in this work, what I came to know (in the intimate biblical sense!) and therefore, to trust more and more deeply, was the truth of the Ascension: we rest securely in the hands and heart of God. In Christ we always have been given and always have a place in the very life of God. If we can allow that truth to be the fabric of our lives --- not just their ground and source, but the thread which weaves throughout to structure, and inspire, the cloak with which we are embraced and clothed --- those lives will be utterly transformed and transfigured.

Sometimes putting on my cowl is especially challenging. That is not only because I stand alone in a parish setting where it is probably not well-understood by most people, or because few other Religious I know wear anything remotely similar. More truly, it is because it represents so much eremitical and monastic tradition and history, so much ecclesial trust and responsibility. It is never a garment I take for granted! And now I associate it freshly and more deeply with all of this work. It has become a symbol of it all, and of God's long process in creating the heart of a hermit. During this process my director and I have discerned and been moved in a variety of ways by the Mystery present in, embracing, and also transcending every particularity of my life. Together throughout this privileged time we have traced the hand of Love that orders all things.

My cowl is a smooth, white, wool blend --- and so it will remain. But it is also freshly woven and shot through with all kinds of new colors and textures --- some I never thought could belong to such a garment. Not a thread has been lost, forgotten, or rejected. All of them have been closely and tenderly handled and transfigured by the Mystery I (and my director) know as God. All of them have been worked into what is a sacred garment marking a life which is equally sacred. Through the whole of my life God has been working to create the heart of a hermit and this is a hermit's garment. Each time pull it on now I will remember Matthew Kelty's challenging: [[. . . and then. . .take the whole thing and throw it over [yourself] as a garment woven in love.]] Each time I pull it on I will be reminded that every moment of my life has been grounded in and embraced by Mystery. Meanwhile this work of healing and "reeducation" --- this process of metanoia! --- continues in response to the call to put on Christ and the Scriptural imperative to [[Remember how for forty [I read sixty-eight!] years now the LORD, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert. . .]] ***

While in gratitude to God I may see my own situation as privileged, isn't all of this merely one way of undertaking the task we are each given at baptism when we are clothed with a white garment and each day after this challenged to "put on Christ"? Aren't we each grounded in and called to know intimately the Mystery which is the foundation of the universe? Of course. And thanks be to God!!

*** This reading is from the opening to Lection #1 from the Solemnity of Corpus Christi; on Corpus Christi at San Damiano Retreat Center I will don my cowl for Mass where I have the great joy of reading this Lection for the celebration of Franciscan Sister Susan Blomstad's 50th Jubilee. Susan was Vicar for Religious and/or Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Oakland in the first years of the mutual discernment process related to my becoming a c 603 hermit (@1985-1990); later (@ 2006) -- though living and working in another diocese --- she added her recommendation those of Oakland's Vicars re: my admission to perpetual profession and consecration as a Diocesan Hermit of the Diocese of Oakland (Sept 2007).

Today we are friends and share a number of other significant dates, interests, and pieces of background (including Saint Francis and Franciscanism). Not surprisingly we both know the challenges and consolations of the desert and the ways God lovingly weaves and reweaves the threads of our lives into something at once mysterious and miraculous. I hope you will all keep Sister Susan (and the other Jubilarians) in your prayers and thank God for their lives and commitment!

04 June 2017

In Appreciation: Jason Oestenstad





Today the Oakland Civic Orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary. Founded by Enric Zappa in part so he could practice conducting, 20 years ago the job of Conductor/Artistic Director was taken over by Marty Stoddard who auditioned and won the position. Since then we have grown musically and in numbers. With more than 65 amateur musicians today there are still six of the original members who sat through those auditions and hired Marty; we (yep, I am one of them!) made an incredible choice and it has been really exciting to share the journey of  that growth. I am really pleased to call Marty a friend and exceptionally grateful to have been able to play under her direction. Through the years we have played a repertoire I think few community orchestras can match; we never played arrangements or abridgements of classical pieces. Though carefully chosen with our capacities in mind, we played music we never thought we could handle and more often than not we surpassed ourselves in the process.

One of the ways Marty has helped us grow is by bringing in associate conductors both to learn their craft  and to work with us in ways which stretch our perceptions and broaden our musical experience. In the video above Jason Oestenstad, the sixth associate conductor in these last two decades, conducts Dvorak's, In the Realm of Nature. Jason, who moved here to work with Marty and this orchestra, has just completed his fourth and final year with us and at the same time is completing his Master's in Conducting from San Francisco State.  As part of the requirements for his degree Jason will lead us again in this piece next Saturday (we played it last set). For the rest of the recital he will also conduct the remainder of the program we performed today** for this season's final set: Delius,  The Walk to the Paradise Garden,  Sibelius,  Valse Triste, OP 44 No. 1,  and Beethoven,  Symphony #5.

Congratulations and thanks to Jason for his work with Marty and the orchestra these past several years. I am personally grateful for the few times Jason (a really fine violinist) was able to be my stand partner. I learned a lot at those times and wish him well in whatever professional paths he takes.

** Today's videos will be available shortly. I'll probably put something up when that happens.

03 June 2017

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

 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.

02 June 2017

Questions On the Place of Silence and Solitude

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I read you blog occasionally throughout the year. I am interested in learning how you think lay people can live solitude and silence given your experience as a Roman Catholic hermit. I am a single woman who feels called to live with more solitude and silence. Recently, I was reading a book that spoke about how lay people can live with a sense of enclosure in the Benedictine sense. A sense of guarding our time with God and having sacred space. It really spoke to me, not because my life is so busy but because more of who I am. So I would [ask] how solitude and silence figures into this?]]
 
Hi there! Thanks for writing! There is a lot of literature available these days about silence and solitude. Most of the books out there do not expect readers to become hermits. They recognize that God dwells in silence and that silence is necessary for any person to hear the voice of God. You are sensitized to guarding time and space to create a sacred place to be with God; silence is an essential part of  such a space. Otherwise it would be like carving out time and space and then filling the resulting "place" with boxes of junk while turning on a TV, radio, and stereo at the same time. We carve out sacred space (or create what is called a "cell" in monastic literature) so that we can 1) meet God, and 2) meet ourselves. But more than dedicated time and space this requires an environment of silence and solitude. We practice silence and solitude so that over time we maybe changed into persons who know how to listen to and believe in the profoundest content of or presence within our own hearts; we practice these things because we are made for them and are shaped into whole and holy persons by the love-in-act that comes to us and claims us in them.
 
Of the books available on Silence and Solitude, a number approach the matter from the phenomenon of noise. Most recognize that noise is ubiquitous in our world and in our own lives. Just in terms of external silence, for instance, we cannot seem to work without "multi-tasking" and having ambient noise in the background. We cannot be with others without filling the time with conversation --- including our time in Church or chapel! Beyond this our being-in-the-world is usually noisy and careless. Marketers fill the environment with music meant to distract and make us stay and shop or buy more. When noise seems to overwhelm  the "muzak" (or whatever it is called today) the usual solution is to add more noise to cover that. I am always surprised that even our prayer tends to be incapable of real silence; it is all about talking. Don't misunderstand me; pouring our hearts out to God requires words but words are required until we reach that place beyond all words and can only wait and worship in silence.

Robert Cardinal Sarah has a relatively new book out which refers to "the power of silence against the dictatorship of noise". It's a good description of the place noise holds in our world, and it is a dictatorship which makes us less and less human or capable of being human --- especially when we understand that we are meant to be "hearers of the Word." Sarah's major thrust seems to be the insight that unless we practice and achieve silence and solitude at points in our lives we will not be able to hear or respond to God.
 
So how does anyone in this world begin to live silence and solitude? First, learn to cultivate outer silence and attentiveness. Silence is meant to allow attentiveness; it has a purpose, especially early on as one learns to embrace it. Begin to turn off sources of ambient sound. Cut out multitasking and attend to the thing at hand; give it your entire attention. Learn to move and act quietly. Create space for attentiveness; for instance, try not to fill time with activities meant to distract. (For me the big temptation there is to read in order to distract myself; sometimes this is acceptable, but other times I just need to be attentive to whatever is going on, including the noise that is abounding!) I think you get the idea here. Take time walking in nature when you can. When you turn on the stereo or TV and choose what will play attend to it as fully as you can. The idea is to learn to be present to the music or program, to engage with it, enjoy it, and then, to turn the TV/stereo/computer off!

The next thing (there is overlap of course) is to learn to listen to our own hearts. Besides outer silence we need to cultivate an inner silence which is typical of recollectedness. From that place you will come to know yourself and the God who holds you in existence with his love. The purpose of enclosure and of silence and solitude is to ensure the place and necessary conditions for an encounter with God in the depths of our own hearts. Especially one turns to lectio divina in this context, the meditative reading of the Scriptures and some other books. If you have not learned how to do lectio I cannot recommend more emphatically that you take the time to do so. If you do lectio I can't recommend more emphatically that you make it a center of your daily practice. In my own hermitage this is the heart of any spiritual praxis apart from quiet prayer and often it is linked to or foundational for much of the day's quiet prayer. Additionally, one tool which is very helpful in this process of cultivating an inner silence  and ability to attend to God in us is journaling. Journaling helps us to listen to the voice(s) of our own hearts. It can assist us to express the more superficial "noise" of our lives, but more significantly it can help us hear and claim the deeper voices, including the silence of God. Using journaling in conjunction with spiritual direction can be an important element of any life of prayer and I highly recommend these. The purpose of all of this is to create an environment in which you and God can meet and embrace one another.