28 March 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent

One of the ways our parish of St Perpetua comes together during this time of sheltering in place. Pastor, Father John Kasper, OSFS. I invite all readers to pray with us in this way. Pax et bonum!! Sister Laurel, Er Dio

26 March 2020

Watch, O Lord, With Those Who Wait

Give Us This Day posted the above prayer today. It represents Augustine's prayer and a consoling and challenging theology. For many it will be hard to understand a God who does not reach into the situation the world finds itself in and intervene by destroying the Corona Virus and healing all of those afflicted. But that is not the way the God of Jesus Christ works. Yes, Our God is a God of miracles, a God who breaks in upon us with an unimaginable and rarely-well-enough-anticipated Love, but, as God did with Mary and with Jesus, the truly miraculous, the moments when Love breaks through and changes everything occur when human beings, through the power of the Holy Spirit, allow themselves to be fully open and responsive to the dynamic God Who is the ground and source of all of reality.

In the New Testament there is no word "miracle". What we call miracles and think of as events which break all the normal laws of nature, were called "acts of power" and were events that occurred when the deepest law, dynamic, or living dimension of all reality, the "law" or reality of Love, broke through everything separating us from it producing new life and meaning. They were precisely what happened when the God who accompanies us, who watches and waits with us, who is the ever-continuing source, sanctifier, and salvation of all reality was allowed to truly be God. Miracles in this sense are not a breaking of the natural law, but its realization in fullness.

Some will pray for God to stop this pandemic. I join them in this prayer. But I do not look for God to intervene in some sort of  Deus ex machina way. The miracles I pray for involve the God who works in and through us to change the world, to renew hearts, and to transform reality. I pray that all people will accept the requirement to shelter in place because they come to see how intertwined we all are as a human family, and because they chose self-sacrifice and generosity over selfishness. That would be genuinely "miraculous" and reveal a deep truth Christ proclaimed that our competitive, consumerist world ordinarily militates against. I pray that every one of us uses our imagination and creativity to bring people together in new ways, to love and care for the hitherto forgotten, and proclaim the Gospel of the God of Life with our own lives. I pray that our medical personnel are given every bit of equipment they need to diagnose, treat, and ultimately to defeat this virus and prepare for the next pandemic. I pray that each of us learns the truth and power of God's Love mediated in the myriad small ways human beings are called on daily to do for one another. That would indeed be an Easter miracle as Life and hope is brought out of death and despair.

Our God accompanies us in every moment and mood of our lives if only we will open ourselves to this Presence. Jesus demonstrated this on the Cross. It is the very meaning of "obedience unto death." This same God brings good out of evil, meaning out of absurdity, and life out of death through this same Christological openness. This is the Good News of Easter, the mediated power made perfect in weakness that Christians recognize as the heart of what we call "miraculous".  And so, in Christ, we who are God's own saints open ourselves to this God as we pray, "Watch, O Lord . . ." 

25 March 2020

Feast of the Annunciation 2020 (Reprise)

Sometimes I reprise articles because they fit the feast and I have nothing really new to say, but today I am reprising this because it fits the unprecedented pandemic in which we find ourselves. It bears a message we each and all need to hear. It comes with my prayers for your comfort and encouragement. Blessings, Sister Laurel
* * * * * *
I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own mediated message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anguish and anxiety about what might be wrong, followed by 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!" Only over more time would come first the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her, and then, the assurance 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." (Both are good translations of the name sometimes translated, I AM WHO AM.)

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction (and in my own inner work as well), 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 own Word and Spirit (breath) calling her to a selfhood of wholeness and fruitfulness beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promise.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear and respond to 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 (or whatever the event is) 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. Do not be afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to hear, 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 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. (We bear this very much in mind during Lent and especially at the approach of Holy Week.) But our own fiat ("Here I am Lord, I come to do your will!") 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!"

24 March 2020

For the Beauty of the Earth

Many thanks to my Director for sending this video on to me this morning. In the midst of our struggles, insecurities, and the terrible uncertainties in front of us, we are called upon to recognize and praise God who dwells amongst us and in creation. For those, especially, who are shut in as part of a shelter-in-place arrangement, enjoy!

23 March 2020

Work in Progress from Worlds Within Worlds

The above picture is a work in progress (WIP); it is side 1 of a double page spread in Kerby Rosanes', Worlds Within Worlds.  Some have asked me if I have a hobby or what I do when I am not reading, writing, studying, or praying. About a year ago I put up some pictures I had done with colored pencils. Here is the one I am currently working on and started three days ago. (This represents about 8-10 hours of work.) I began coloring as part of the inner work I am doing, and it has become an important creative outlet for me which is both strengthening and healing -- especially since I cannot yet play violin. It is also very helpful in terms of contemplative prayer (I recommend folks desiring to learn to pray contemplatively engage in some activities which are genuinely engrossing for them) and in dealing with any anxiety related to this pandemic -- because yes, I definitely experience some despite a faith that trusts that ultimately, everything is in God's hands!

I like Kerby Rosanes' later work, but especially some of the drawings in Mythomorphia, and now in his new book, Worlds Within Worlds. This is the first one I have done in WWW. One of the things Rosanes does is the morphing of images into new ones; he is very imaginative. In this book the pictures include more than one world combined. Here the fins and tail of the fish morph into waves and there are surfers on those waves. Each picture is an invitation to see reality in new ways --- something those of us believing the Kingdom of God is already part of our everyday life and world will understand! The colors shown above are a little redder than the real thing (there is more yellow in the fish, in some of the greens, and there is greater variation in tones than my camera captured).  As you can see the page on the right side is similar to this one; together they form a single "full spread" picture which, when complete (at least two to three weeks), I'll post.

Can Diocesan Hermits Become Diocesan Priests -- and Remain Hermits?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have read on your blog about priests becoming Diocesan hermits. My question is could a Diocesan hermit become a priest? and remain a Diocesan hermit. ]]

The answer is no. One would need to make a choice as to whether one is called to be a diocesan priest or a diocesan hermit. It is one thing for an older priest to discern a call to eremitical life in the second half or late in his ministerial life and quite another for a hermit to decide he wants to become a priest. The first is actually allowed very very rarely. Remember that the training and education in seminary for diocesan priests is ministerial; moreover seminaries accept those who psychologically and personally feel clearly called to active  ministry. Dioceses foot the bill for the education of such seminarians and, in a church now marked by a serious shortage of clerics it makes no sense at all to educate a diocesan hermit as a priest when what they really want is to remain a hermit.

There is a second dimension to this negative answer, namely, a diocesan hermit is professed and commissioned to live stricter separation from the world, a life of assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude according to a Rule of life written by the hermit and approved with a Bishop's Decree of Approval. None of this could be maintained while studying full time in the seminary, doing appropriate pastoral work, etc. This means again, a choice needs to be made and if one chooses to enter the seminary (and is accepted for this), then one's vows would need to be dispensed. Another problem crops up here even if the hermit is not accepted or even found suitable for seminary: a diocese would have a very significant reason to doubt the validity of the person's hermit vocation if he took serious steps to discern and follow a call to diocesan priesthood. Dispensation from vows might well be a prudent step in such a case. If a person wishes to be a hermit and a priest he would do better to enter a semi eremitical congregation or community.

One of the questions bishops ask a would-be c 603 hermit is why this vocation and not another? At this point a person is being asked to be entirely honest regarding their own discernment and desires. Were a person to accept profession and consecration according to c 603 and then request admission to a seminary within a few short years, their honesty in accepting profession and consecration might be questioned and the validity of their vows as well. (This would be especially true if there was evidence they had questioned the matter in the external forum.) In any case, in the situation you describe, one would never admit a diocesan hermit to a diocesan seminary. The two vocations are different and, in this situation, even incompatible because either one will never work or serve as a diocesan priest (and may never be suited to it) or one will not live (for at least several years or more) as a hermit. In any case, there is no intrinsic reason for a hermit to become a priest, no essential need for this. Yes, we do need access to the Sacraments, but there is no indication hermits must (or even should) be made priests in order to have such access. Better their ecclesial vocations call them to be part of the Church community in a way which allows these needs to be met by others.

22 March 2020

4th Sunday in Lent

Sunday's Gospel, homily, prayer and blessing. John Kasper, OSFS (Fr John is pastor of St Perpetua's Catholic Community, Lafayette, CA.)

19 March 2020

Feast of Saint Joseph (Reprise)

For today's feast of St Joseph, I wanted to repost something I put up a couple of years ago during Advent because it reflected an important step in my own appreciation of St Joseph. Though it refers to Advent in the last paragraph, I think it is especially pertinent today during this world crisis.

[[Friday's readings (December 2015) focused on the coming of the One in whom justice will be done and creation set to rights. Jeremiah speaks of this in terms of the Davidic line of Kings --- a line which often profaned and betrayed God's sacred promise and hope. The psalmist sings wonderfully of the promise of the Lord bringing all things to rights in the love of God.

But especially poignant is the Matthean story of Joseph as the icon of one who struggles to allow God's own justice to be brought to birth as fully as possible. It is, in its own way, a companion story to Luke's account of Mary's annunciation and fiat. Both Mary (we are told explicitly) and Joseph (we are told implicitly) ponder things in their hearts, both are mystified and shaken by the great mystery which has taken hold of them and in which they have become pivotal characters. Both allow God's own power and presence to overshadow them so that God might do something absolutely new in their world. But  it is Joseph's more extended and profound struggle to truly do justice in mercy, and to be a righteous man who reveals God's own justice in love, God's salvation, that was at the heart of yesterday's Advent story.

The Situation:

I am a little ashamed to say I have never spent much time considering Joseph's predicament or the context of that predicament until this week. Instead I have always thought of him as a good man who chose the merciful legal solution rather than opting for the stricter one. I never saw him making any other choice nor did I understand the various ways he was pushed and pulled by his own faith and love. But Joseph's situation was far more demanding and frustrating than I had ever appreciated! Consider the background which weighed heavy on Joseph's heart. First, he is identified as a just or righteous man, a man faithful to God, to the Covenant, a keeper of the Law or Torah, an observant Jew who was well aware of Jeremiah's promise and the sometimes bitter history of his own Davidic line. All of this and more is implied here by the term "righteous man". In any case, this represents his most foundational and essential identity. Secondly, he was betrothed to Mary, wed (not just engaged!) to her though he had not yet taken her to his family home and would not for about a year. That marriage was a symbol of the covenant between God and his People Israel. Together he and Mary symbolized the Covenant; to betray or dishonor this relationship was to betray and profane the Covenant itself. This too was uppermost in Joseph's mind precisely because he was a righteous man.

Thirdly, he loved Mary and was entirely mystified by her pregnancy. Nothing in his tradition prepared him for a virgin birth. Mary could only have gotten pregnant through intercourse with another man so far as Joseph could have known --- and this despite Mary's protestations of innocence. (The OT passage referring to a virgin is more originally translated as "young woman". Only later as "almah" was translated into the Greek "parthenos" and even later was seen by Christians in light of Mary and Jesus' nativity did "young woman" firmly become "a virgin".) The history of Israel was fraught with all-too-human failures which betrayed the covenant and profaned Israel's high calling. While Joseph was open to God doing something new in history it is more than a little likely that he was torn between which of these possibilities was actually occurring here, just as he was torn between believing Mary and continuing the marriage and divorcing her and casting her and the child aside.

What Were Joseph's Options?

Under the Law Joseph had two options. The first involved a very public divorce. Joseph would bring the situation to the attention of the authorities, involve witnesses, repudiate the marriage and patrimony for the child and cast Mary aside. This would establish Joseph as a wronged man and allow him to continue to be seen as righteous or just. But Mary could have been stoned and the baby would also have died as a result. The second option was more private but also meant bringing his case to the authorities. In this solution Joseph would again have repudiated the marriage and patrimony but the whole matter would not have become public and Mary's life or that of the child would not have been put in immediate jeopardy. Still, in either instance Mary's shame and apparent transgressions would have become known and in either case the result would have been ostracization and eventual death. Under the law Joseph would have been called a righteous man but how would he have felt about himself in his heart of hearts? Would he have wondered if he was just under the Law but at the same time had refused to hear the message of an angel of God, refused to allow God to do something new and even greater than the Law?

Of course, Joseph might have simply done nothing at all and continued with the plans for the marriage's future. But in such a case many problems would have arisen. According to the Law he would have been falsely claiming paternity of the child --- a transgression of the Law and thus, the covenant. Had the real father shown up in the future and claimed paternity Joseph would then have been guilty of "conniving with Mary's own sin" (as Harold Buetow describes the matter). Again Law and covenant would have been transgressed and profaned. In his heart of hearts he might have believed this was the just thing to do but in terms of his People and their Covenant and Law he would have acted unjustly and offended the all-just God. Had he brought Mary to his family home he would have rendered them and their abode unclean as well. If Mary was guilty of adultery she would have been unclean --- hence the need for ostracizing her or even killing her!

Entering the Liminal Place Where God May Speak to Us:

All of this and so much more was roiling around in Joseph's heart and mind! In one of the most difficult situations we might imagine, Joseph struggled to discern what was just and what it would mean for him to do justice in our world! Every option was torturous; each was inadequate for a genuinely righteous man. Eventually he came to a conclusion which may have seemed the least problematical even if it was not wholly satisfactory, namely to put Mary away "quietly", to divorce her in a more private way and walk away from her. And at this moment, when Joseph's struggle to discern and do justice has reached it's most neuralgic point, at a place of terrible liminality symbolized in so much Scriptural literature by dreaming, God reveals to Joseph the same truth Mary has herself accepted: God is doing something unimaginably new here. He is giving the greatest gift yet. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed Mary and resulted in the conception of One who will be the very embodiment of God's justice in our world. Not only has a young woman come to be pregnant but a virgin will bear a child! The Law will be fulfilled in Him and true justice will have a human face as God comes to be Emmanuel in this new and definitive way.

Joseph's faith response to God's revelation has several parts or dimensions. He decides to consummate the marriage with Mary by bringing her to his family home but not as an act of doing nothing at all and certainly not as some kind of sentimental or cowardly evasion of real justice. Instead it is a way of embracing the whole truth and truly doing justice. He affirms the marriage and adopts the child as his own. He establishes him in the line of David even as he proclaims the child's true paternity. He does this by announcing this new Son's name to be Jesus, God saves.  Thus Joseph proclaims to the world that God has acted in this Son's birth in a new and way which transcends and relativizes the Law even as it completely respects it. He honors the Covenant with a faithfulness that leads to that covenant's perfection in the Christ Event. In all of this Joseph continues to show himself to be a just or righteous  man, a man whose humanity and honor we ourselves should regard profoundly.

Justice is the way to Genuine Future:

Besides being moved by Joseph's genuine righteousness, I am struck by a couple of things in light of all of this. First, discerning and doing justice is not easy. There are all kinds of solutions which are partial and somewhat satisfactory, but real justice takes work and, in the end, must be inspired by the love and wisdom of God. Secondly, Law per se can never really mediate justice. Instead, the doing of justice takes a human being who honors the Law, feels compassion, knows mercy, struggles in fear and trepidation with discerning what is right, and ultimately is open to allowing God to do something new and creative in the situation. Justice is never a system of laws, though it will include these. It is always a personal act of courage and even of worship, the act of one who struggles to allow and mediate God's own plan and will for all those and that involved. After all, justice is really about coming under the sovereignty of God; where God is sovereign, where God asserts God's rights over reality, justice is done. Finally, I am struck by the fact that justice opens reality to a true future. Injustice closes off the future. In all of the partial and unsatisfactory solutions Joseph entertained and wrestled with, each brought some justice and some injustice. Future of some sort was assured for some and foreclosed to others; often both came together in what was merely a sad and tragic approximation of a "real future". Only God's own will and plan assures a genuine future for the whole of his creation. That too is something yesterday's Gospel witnessed to.

Another Look at Joseph:

Joseph is the star in Matt's account, the one who points to God and the justice only God can do. It is important, I think, to see all that he represents as Mary's counterpart in the nativity of Jesus (Son of David) who is Emmanuel (Son of the One who, especially in Jesus, is God With Us). Mary's fiat seems easy, graceful in more than one sense of that term. Joseph's fiat is hard-won but also graced or graceful. For Joseph, as for Mary, there is real labor involved as the categories of divinity and justice, law and covenant are burst asunder to bring the life and future of heaven to birth in our world. May we each be committed to mediating God's own justice and bringing God's future into being especially in this Advent-Christmas season. This is the time when we especially look ahead to Christ's coming and too, to his eventual coming to full stature when God will be all in all. May we never take refuge in partial and inadequate solutions to our world's problems and need for justice, especially out of shortsightedness, sentimentality, cowardice, evasion, or fear for our own reputations. And may we allow Joseph to be the model of discernment, humility, and courage in mediating the powerful presence and future of God we recognize as justice and so yearn for in this 21st Century.]]

17 March 2020

How Do I Deal With Enforced Solitude During this Time?

[[Dear Sister, I am one of those people who hates to stay in! I am an extravert and love to spend time with friends. But  now I am having to stay in and it is causing anxiety --- though I am sure part of that is being scared because of the Corona Virus. I wondered if you ever feel these kinds of things when you are alone? Do you have any suggestions on ways to lessen anxiety or spend my time in this enforced solitude?]]

Great questions. Thanks. What is striking to me, and has been striking to those I am in touch with, is what this Lenten season has plunged us into. We begin Lent with stories of Jesus being driven into the desert (wilderness) by the Spirit, and of the fundamental choice we are each called to make again and again, not only during this season -- choose life not death! And we are still in Lent -- a Lent which is being deepened and will be extended beyond what we ever expected. I say this because my first suggestion is to stay in touch with this season; it will help contextualize the situation in which we find ourselves and even normalize it to some extent. Above all it will provide a perspective which is more familiar and can make some sense of the novel and unfamiliar circumstances we are now experiencing. Allow the things we talk about all during Lent to be the categories through which you view what is being asked of you by this pandemic: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.

Fasting will take many forms as your normal routine and the normal ways of making sense of your life are taken away from you. If you are used to thinking of fasting in terms of food, that may still work, but it will be extended to time with friends, social activities, the availability of necessary items, etc. Prayer will also be extended and deepened for many people in light of the circumstances. I would certainly encourage this in your own daily life. It may be difficult to spend time in quiet prayer if you are not used to it (though I encourage you to try this by starting with limited periods (15 minutes) of simply being quiet with God), but you can sit and consider those people you most love, those you would be spending time with, family, etc and simply allow yourself to be with them as a supportive presence. Let whatever feelings you have for these people come up, let yourself love them, feel grateful for them and all they are for you, and ask God to be with them as they also are suffering in various ways. Almsgiving is certainly something we can deepen and extend during this Lenten period (and beyond it). One way is by refusing to become greedy or engage in hoarding or gouging behavior. Another is by doing errands for those who cannot get out or don't have transportation. Another is by giving what we can to those without housing, adequate heat, food, or hygiene. In suggesting these kinds of things I am aware I am really suggesting nothing more than the Church asks from us every Lent. The Pandemic is not the will of God, but at the same time it can be used as an opportunity for the Spirit to work in our lives.

Yes, sometimes I feel anxiety in solitude, though not usually because of the solitude itself. I expect a lot of people are going to be experiencing cabin fever. I would urge you to find indoor activities you can get truly engrossed in. If you are a reader then do more of that, if you like puzzles, set a table aside for this and begin a large puzzle you've been waiting on. If you keep a journal (or if it is time to start one!) consider doing that and write about your experience. How about coloring or painting or some other thing you've been wanting to try? What about an online class in something that interests you? There are many of these available including languages, Scripture, history, DIY projects, etc. And, speaking of DIY projects, I should definitely mention those big time cleaning and culling projects we all put off! Most of us have activities we complain we don't have time for. Well, now is the time. Please don't expect to ease all of your anxiety; if you can allow yourself to feel this is normal, uncomfortable as it is, do that. If you need to distract yourself in some way (taking a solo drive* or walk, or a walk with a single friend, watching TV, etc) then do that. Add these things to the essential Lenten elements mentioned above. Some of these can easily become prayer: simply ask God into whatever activity you are undertaking. Do this in a conscious way and renew the invitation or your thanks to God for being with you in this occasionally throughout.

And of course, find ways to maintain contact with friends, Skype, Zoom, or Facetime conversations, phone calls and texting could be very helpful here. Schedule some of these so you have something to look forward to. Expectations are an important piece of dealing with solitude, especially when one is not used to it. (In prayer it is important not to have expectations re what kind of experience it will be, for instance, but at the same time it can help to build in things you really enjoy at specific times so you can look forward to them as you move through the tedium of the day.) I should add here that it is often mainly the tedium of days in solitude which really gets to folks**; we all experience this. Sometimes we forget that our need for novelty does not satisfy our need for genuine newness. What monastics/hermits know is that our lives with God are filled with genuine (qualitative) newness each day even when there is not a lot of novelty. That requires real patience and trust in God. I have written about this in the past so you might check for articles on this if you are interested. cf., Always Beginners as a start. Getting used to fasting from novelty and opening ourselves to qualitative newness is something this time might allow you (and others) to do -- something that is especially important given the fact that this situation is going to be longer-lasting than we have yet let ourselves realize. As time goes on I may suggest other things to assist with enforced solitude. For now I sincerely hope this is helpful.

*Except for necessary trips such drives are not allowed in the SF Bay Area. (I admit I don't understand this limitation if one is alone.)

** Though I have not written about this before, I should mention that another issue in solitude is finding that one simply doesn't like oneself very much. I can't address that here of course, but it is something folks should be aware of since it raises all kinds of feelings, irritation, fear, anxiety, anger, etc. For those who simply don't trust themselves or their own inner resources in such a situation as this pandemic, solitude can also be quite difficult. Again, these folks can use this period as a Lenten period of growth and new experience calling for patience and trust. Whether we like ourselves well or not, we will need to trust that our own inner capacities and resources are greater than we might have imagined otherwise. Above all we trust in the love of a God who accompanies us in everything.

16 March 2020

Oakland Diocese Directive: the New Normal in a Global Community

Just received a copy of the new directive from Bishop Barber for the Diocese of Oakland. All public Masses, both daily and Sunday are suspended. All other activities, classes, etc are also to be postponed, suspended, or cancelled until further notice, Those who can work remotely are to do so. The chancery is closed. Those who cannot work remotely are to stay in touch with their team leader or supervisor. All are being compensated as normal. Priests are receiving special directions for administration of Sacraments, weddings, funerals, etc. Churches are to remain open for prayer, solace, etc. Social distancing is to be observed.

I suspect this is typical of what is going to be happening all over the world but seeing it in black and white hits me hard. I am not touched as much as some will be, of course. I have classes I cannot teach, services or homilies I won't be able to do, but my Director (and many other Sisters, et al) are planning personal retreats or "mini-vacations" and will have time to do some reading, writing, study, and prayer, we don't have time for usually -- at least until we see what the next weeks look like. I will continue to work with several clients online, but suspend face to face meetings. My trip has been cancelled so I won't be attending the profession I wrote about at the beginning of Lent. That is a real disappointment but I am also at peace in this regard. Traveling at this time is simply imprudent at best, careless and uncharitable at worst.

Should anyone have doubted we are a global community, should anyone have thought we could wall ourselves off from the world around us COVID19 certainly reminds us of the truth. We have all heard stories how the movement of butterfly wings in the Southern hemisphere can lead to a major storm in the Northern hemisphere. It sounds ridiculous to us, but here we are. The analogy is compelling. In the middle of what will be a long term situation begun in a wet  market in China and contact with a single bat and is now a raging pandemic, we have to find our way together! We must find ways to protect and support one another. Here in the SF Bay area and the Diocese of Oakland we are beginning to do that in new and challenging ways. I hear the question, "How will you be Church?" It will take all our creativity and courage, all the compassion and charity we can muster, but especially it means keeping our eyes focused on the truth of our membership in a global community.

15 March 2020

In Gratitude and Requesting Prayers

I received this image this morning along with thanks for this blog from Bro Jerry Cronkhite, a canon 603 hermit of the Archdiocese of Seattle. A few months ago I posted requests for prayers for Jerry so I wanted to let folks know Jerry is doing well, but given the situation with COVID 19, especially in Seattle, I hope you will keep Jerry and all those with any sort of physical susceptibility or immune fragility in your prayers.

Also, I wanted to thank several others who have written about becoming solitary Catholic hermits and/or lay hermits recently including one who will make private vows after Easter, another who will make profession on March 25, and another who is just beginning his journey in the UK and who struggles with chronic illness. I am grateful for your trust and that you have found this blog a significant resource. I sincerely hope readers will keep each and all of you in prayer.

Additionally, during this COVID 19 pandemic some of us with chronic illnesses are praying our lives remind people of what can be done when they are forced to a solitude which is (at least initially) not very comfortable! Solitude and solitary lives of prayer and penance are a significant part of Christian life; learning to be in community at the same time is challenging but something the world is looking to be able to embrace just now. Hermits are a resource in several ways, but especially by their abilities to live profoundly ecclesial lives in the silence of solitude -- lives which are full, marked by happiness and focused on God while being lived for others. Let us pray for our world and that it may truly become a global community. Protect us from selfishness, greed, and any sense that we are entitled to do as we wish while others look out for one another. After all, whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, that we do unto Christ.

12 March 2020

Catholic Sisters Week

I should have posted this earlier, but we celebrate Catholic Sisters this week as part of Women's Week. The Church we know today would be vastly different without the influence of Religious Women, their love, commitment, fidelity, compassion, and leadership. If you are in contact with Sisters this week (or, if you have been out of touch for a while), please thank them for their lives and the gift they make of them for the whole world and Church! Thanks!

11 March 2020

From Humiliation to Humility: Resting in the Gaze of God (Reprise)

I had a brief conversation this weekend with Sister Susan Blomstad, my co-Director on the difficulties of the language of unworthiness when we speak of God. Sister Susan and I talked a lot about a number of things as we caught up with each other, and didn't get a chance to follow up on this specific topic, but it reminded me of a piece I had written several years ago I will send on to her. It is appropriate for Lent (I may have first written it during Lent), especially in light of what I wrote re transfiguration and authentic humanity so I am posting it again today.

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I was intrigued by something you said in your post on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, namely, that our senses of worthiness and unworthiness are not even present until after shame enters the picture. If that is so then what are we to make of all the writing in spirituality that stresses our unworthiness of God's love or the extensive literature on humility that associates it with the sense of being "nothing" or with practices of humiliation? A lot of this was written by saints and spiritually gifted people. Is your observation about worthiness and unworthiness based on the readings from Genesis alone or does it comes from other places too?]]

Several really great questions! Let me give them a shot and then perhaps you can help me follow up on them or clarify what I say with further questions, comments, and so forth. Because shame is such a central experience it truly stands at the center of sinful existence (the life of the false self) and is critical to understanding redeemed existence (the life of the true self). It colors the way we see all of reality and that means our spirituality as well. In fact, this way of seeing and relating to God lies at the heart of all religious thinking and behavior.

But the texts from Genesis tell us that this is not the way we are meant to see ourselves or reality. It is not the way we are meant to relate to God or to others. Instead, we are reminded that "originally" there was a kind of innocence where we knew ourselves ONLY as God himself sees us. We acted naturally in gratitude to and friendship with God. After the Fall human beings came to see themselves differently. It is the vision of estrangement and shame. This new way of seeing is the real blindness we hear of in the New Testament --- the blindness that causes us to lead one another into the pit without ever being aware we are doing so. Especially then, it is the blindness that allows religious leaders whose lives are often dominated by and lived in terms of categories like worthiness and unworthiness to do this.

Religious Language as Shame Based and Problematical

The language of worthiness and unworthiness has been enshrined in our religious language and praxis. This only makes sense, especially in cultures that find it difficult to deal with paradox. We are each of us sinners who have rejected God's gratuitous love. Doesn't this make us unworthy of it? In human terms which sees everything as either/or, yes, it does. This is also one of the significant ways we stress the fact that God's love is given as unmerited gift. But at the same time this language is theologically incoherent. It falls short when used to speak of our relationship with God precisely because it is the language associated with the state of sin. It causes us to ask the wrong questions (self-centered questions!) and, even worse, to answer them in terms of our own shame. We think, "surely a just God cannot simply disregard our sinfulness" and the conclusion we come to ordinarily plays Divine justice off against Divine mercy. We just can't easily think or speak of a justice which is done in mercy, a mercy which does justice. The same thing happens with God's love. Aware that we are sinners we think we must be unworthy of God's love --- forgetting that it is by loving that God does justice and sets all things right. At the same time we know God's love (or any authentic love!) is not something we are worthy of. Love is not earned or merited. It is a free gift, the very essence of grace.

Our usual ways of thinking and speaking are singularly inadequate here and cause us to believe, "If not worthy then unworthy; if not unworthy then worthy". These ways of thinking and speaking work for many things but not for God or our relationship with God. God is incommensurate with our non-paradoxical categories of thought and speech. He is especially incommensurate with the categories of a fallen humanity pervaded by guilt and shame and yet, these are the categories with and within which we mainly perceive, reflect on, and speak about reality. In some ways, then, it is our religious language which is most especially problematical. And this is truest when we try to accept the complete gratuitousness and justice-creating nature of God's love.

The Cross and the Revelation of the Paradox that Redeems

It is this entire way of seeing and speaking of reality, this life of the false self, that the cross of Christ first confuses with its paradoxes, then disallows with its judgment, and finally frees us from by the remaking of our minds and hearts. The cross opens the way of faith to us and frees us from our tendencies to religiosity; it proclaims we can trust God's unconditional love and know ourselves once again ONLY in light of his love and delight in us. It is entirely antithetical to the language of worthiness and unworthiness. In fact, it reveals these to be absurd when dealing with the love of God. Instead we must come to rest in paradox, the paradox which left Paul speechless with its apparent consequences: "Am I saying we should sin all the more so that grace may abound all the more? Heaven forbid!" But Paul could not and never did answer the question in the either/or terms given. That only led to absurdity. The only alternative for Paul or for us is the paradoxical reality revealed on the cross.
On the cross the worst shame imaginable is revealed to be the greatest dignity, the most apparent godlessness is revealed to be the human face and glory of Divinity. These are made to be the place God's love is most fully revealed. In light of all this the categories of worthiness or unworthiness must be relinquished for the categories of paradox and especially for the language of gratitude or ingratitude --- ways of thinking and speaking which not only reflect the inadequacy of the language they replace, but which can assess guilt without so easily leading to shame. Gratitude, what Bro David Steindl-Rast identifies as the heart of prayer, can be cultivated as we learn to respond to God's grace, as, that is, we learn to trust an entirely new way of seeing ourselves and all others and else in light of a Divine gaze that does nothing but delight in us.

This means that, while the tendency to speak in terms of us as nothing and God as ALL is motivated by an admirable need to do justice to God's majesty and love, it is, tragically, also tainted by the sin, guilt, and shame we also know so intimately. It is ironic but true that in spite of our sin we do not do justice to God's greatness by diminishing ourselves even or especially in self-judgment. That is the way of the false self and we do not magnify God by speaking in this way. Saying we are nothing merely reaffirms an untruth --- the untruth which is a reflection of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is the same "truth" that leads to shame and all the consequences of a shame-based life and is less about humility than it is about humiliation. God is ineffably great and he has created us with an equally inconceivable dignity. We may and do act against that dignity and betray the love of our Creator, but the truth remains that we are the image of God, the ones he loves with an everlasting love, the ones he delights in nonetheless. God's love includes us; God takes us up in his own life and invites us to stand in (his) love in a way which transcends either worthiness or unworthiness. Humility means knowing ourselves in this way, not as "nothing" or in comparison with God or with anyone else.

Contemplative prayer and the Gaze of God:

My own sense of all this comes from several places. The first is the texts from Genesis, especially the importance given in those to the gaze of God or to being looked on by God vs being ashamed and hiding from God's gaze. That helps me understand the difference between the true and false selves. The focus on shame and the symptoms of shame (or the defensive attempts to avoid or mitigate these) helps me understand the development of the false self --- the self we are asked to die to in last Friday's Gospel lection. The second and more theologically fundamental source is the theology of the cross. The cross is clear that what we see and judge as shameful is not, that what we call humility means being lifted up by God even in the midst of degradation, and moreover, that even in the midst of the worst we do to one another God loves and forgives us. I'll need to fill this out in future posts. The third and most personal source is my own experience of contemplative prayer where, in spite of my sinfulness (my alienation from self and God), I rest in the gaze of God and know myself to be loved and entirely delighted in. While not every prayer period involves an explicit experience of God gazing at and delighting in me (most do not), the most seminal of these do or have involved such an experience. I have written about one of these here in the past and continue to find it an amazing source of revelation.

In that prayer I experienced God looking at me in great delight as I "heard" how glad he was that I was "finally" here. I had absolutely no sense of worthiness or unworthiness, simply that of being a delight to God and loved in an exhaustive way. The entire focus of that prayer was on God and the kind of experience prayer (time with me in this case) was for him. At another point, I experienced Christ gazing at me with delight and love as we danced. I was aware at the same time that every person was loved in the same way; I have noted this here before but without reflecting specifically on the place of the Divine gaze in raising me to humility. In more usual prayer periods I simply rest in God's presence and sight. I allow him, as best I am able, access to my heart, including those places of darkness and distortion caused by my own sin, guilt, woundedness, and shame. Ordinarily I think in terms of letting God touch and heal those places, but because of that seminal prayer experience I also use the image of being gazed at by God and being seen for who I truly am. That "seeing", like God's speech is an effective, real-making, creative act. As I entrust myself to God I become more and more the one God knows me truly to be.

What continues to be most important about that prayer experience is the focus on God and what God "experiences", sees, communicates. In all of that there was simply no room for my own feelings of worthiness or unworthiness. These were simply irrelevant to the relationship and intimacy we shared. Similarly important was the sense that God loved every person in the very same way. There was no room for elitism or arrogance nor for the shame in which these and so many other things are rooted. I could not think of my own sinfulness or brokenness; I did not come with armfuls of academic achievements, published articles, or professional successes nor was this a concern. I came with myself alone and my entire awareness was filled with a sense of God's love for me and every other person existing; there was simply no room for anything else.

Over time a commitment to contemplative prayer allows God's gaze to conform me to the truth I am most deeply, most really. Especially it is God's loving gaze which heals me of any shame or sense of inadequacy that might hold me in bondage and allows my true self to emerge. Over time I relinquish the vision of reality of the false self and embrace that of the true self. I let go of my tendency to judge "good and evil". Over time God heals my blindness and, in contrast to what happened after the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, my eyes are truly opened! This means not only being raised from humiliation to humility but being converted from self-consciousness to genuine self-awareness. In the remaking of my mind and heart these changes are a portrait of what it means to move from guilt and shame to grace.

So, again, the sources of my conviction about the calculus of worthiness and unworthiness and the transformative and healing power of God's' gaze comes from several places including: 1) Scripture (OT and NT), Theology (especially Jesus' own teaching and the theologies of the cross of Paul and Mark as well as the paradoxical theology of glorification in shame of John's gospel), 2) the work of sociologists and psychologists on shame as the "master emotion", and 3) contemplative prayer. I suspect that another source is my Franciscanism (especially St Clare's reflections on the mirror of the self God's gaze represents) but this is something I will have to look at further.

08 March 2020

On Transfiguration and Authentic Humanity

I am thinking about transfiguration and what the story of Jesus' transfiguration tells us. The story I have posted many times here regarding Jesus' transfiguration involves the main point that we don't see what is right in front of us; we see what we expect or are conditioned to see. Especially we don't always see the dignity of every human person or the profound potential which resides at their core. We sometimes speak of the human person as imago dei and we may recognize the vocation each one has to become imago Christi, but my sense is that most times folks don't quite know what to do with these references. How seriously are we meant to take them? Are they just a form of poetry or do they say something about the literal truth about our nature?

During Lent our focus tends to be more on the penitential, on our own sinfulness or "falling short" of the great potential and call that does exist at the core of our being than it is on that potential itself. We locate God outside of ourselves as judge, but can neglect the truth which the human heart reveals, namely that the human heart is the privileged place where God bears witness to Godself, and that the source and center of human life is divinity itself. During Lent then, while we attend to a need to do penance, to pray more regularly, and to develop the generosity of those who are loved unconditionally by God, we must not neglect the underlying conviction of the season, namely, we do these things because the person we are most truly shines like the sun and mediates the life and light of God to our world. Lenten penance is not merely about tidying up our moral lives or cleaning up the minor deficiencies or failings which mark and mar those lives; it is about getting in better touch with the incredible potential we carry within us and are called to embody exhaustively for God's sake and the sake of his entire creation.

To be a human being is to be the image of God. To be authentically human is to become imago Christi --- not as some pale reminder of a distant historical figure we admire a bit (or even love a lot), but as those who allow him to become the very shape and quality of the way we think and feel, approach and act towards our God, ourselves, and others. When the original disciples looked at Jesus they saw the Kingdom of God alive in our world; in him they saw human freedom as the counterpart of divine sovereignty and divine power made perfect (fully realized) in weakness. When we look at one another we should see the very same things. In Christ we see God, in ourselves we should see Christ. Transfiguration is at the heart of Lent, not only because conversion from sin is necessary, but because our deepest, truest selves yearn to shine through and remake us from our hearts outward. Transfiguration reveals what is truest, deepest, and lives right in front of us in every person and in ourselves all the time; it is a synonym for the conversion and reconciliation (the healing) of ourselves so that the divinity we know as "Love-in-Act," shines through and illuminates the whole. That is the essence of authentic humanity.

07 March 2020

Second Sunday of Lent: The Transfiguration of Jesus (Reprised)

Transfiguration by Lewis Bowman
Have you ever been walking along a well-known road and suddenly had a bed of flowers take on a vividness which takes your breath away? Similarly, have you ever been walking along or sitting quietly outside when a breeze rustles some leaves above your head and you were struck by an image of the Spirit moving through the world? I have had both happen, and, in the face of God's constant presence, what is in some ways more striking is how infrequent such peak moments are.

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. It depends upon our expectations. In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams in either white or black shirts, observers were asked to concentrate on the number of passes of a basketball that occurred as players wove in and out around one another. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest, and moves on. At the end of the experiment observers were asked two questions: 1) how many passes were there, and 2) did you see the gorilla? Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla. Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. Even more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of blindness and ignorance. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.

For the past two weeks we have been reading the central chapter of Matthew's Gospel --- the chapter that stands right smack in the middle of his version of the Good News. It is Matt's collection of Jesus' parables --- the stories Jesus tells to help break us open and free us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that we might commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout this collection of parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment which involves the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard last Friday. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the usual significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority they could not deny they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they decided they saw only the son of Mary, the son of Joseph and "took offense at him." Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and the God he revealed. Similarly, Jesus' disciples too could not really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refuses to accept this.

It is in the face of these situations that we hear today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain apart. He takes them away from the world they know (or believe they know) so well, away from peers, away from their ordinary perspective, and he invites them to see who he really is. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus' is at prayer --- attending to the most fundamental relationship of his life --- when the Transfiguration occurs. Matthew does not structure his account in the same way. Instead he shows Jesus as the one whose life is a profound dialogue with God's law and prophets, who is in fact the culmination and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the culmination of the Divine-Human dialogue we call covenant. He is God-with-us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. This is what the disciples see --- not so much a foretelling of Jesus' future glory as the reality which stands right in front of them --- if only they had the eyes to see.

For most of us, such an event would freeze us in our tracks with awe. But not Peter! He outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right here and now. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto amazing prayer experiences --- but in doing so, fail to appreciate them fully or live from them! He is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, consistent with his tradition while neglecting the newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has still missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!!!"

The lesson could not be clearer, I think. We must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through every believer and the whole of creation. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling we are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.