21 February 2017

Feast of St Peter Damian (reprise)

Today is the feast of the Camaldolese Saint, Cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, St Peter Damian. Peter Damian is generally best known for his role in the Gregorian Reform. He fought Simony and worked tirelessly for the welfare of the church as a whole. Hermits know him best for a few of his letters, but especially #28, "Dominus Vobiscum". Written to Leo of Sitria, letter #28 explores the relation of the hermit to the whole church and speaks of a solitary as an ecclesiola, or little church. Damian had been asked if it was proper to recite lines like "The Lord Be With you" when the hermit was the only one present at liturgy. The result was this letter which explains how the church is wholly present in all of her members, both together and individually. He writes:

[[The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love, so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church. . . .From all the aforementioned it is clear that, because the whole Church can be found in one individual person and the Church itself is called a virgin, Holy Church is both one in all its members and complete in each of them. It is truly simple among many through the unity of faith and multiple in each individual through the bond of love and various charismatic gifts, because all are from one and all are one.]]

Because of this unity Damian notes that he sees no harm in a hermit alone in cell saying things which are said by the gathered Church. In this reflection Damian establishes the communal nature of the solitary vocation and forever condemns the notion that hermits are isolated or "lone" persons. His comments thus have much broader implications for the nature of eremitical life than the licitness of saying certain prayers or using communal phrases in liturgy per se. In the latter part of the letter Damian not only praises the eremitical life but writes an extended encomium on the nature of the eremitical cell. The images he uses are numerous and diverse; they clearly reflect extended time spent in solitude and his own awareness of all the ways the hermitage or cell have functioned in his own life and those of other hermits. Furnace, kiln, battlefield, storehouse, workshop, arena of spiritual combat, fort and defensive edifice, [place assisting the] death of vices and kindling of virtues, Jacob's ladder, golden road, etc --- all are touched on here. Peter Damian's rich collection of images serves to underscore the classic observation of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: "Dwell (or remain) within your cell and your cell  will teach you everything."

16 February 2017

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Winter Set: The Bach Double



Every violinist in this (or any) orchestra has played this double violin concerto (universally known simply as "the Bach Double") --- and usually more than once so one plays both first and second violin at some point. Usually it is one of the first concerti violinists learn once they have moved beyond first to third and fifth positions. We don't all get to play it with an orchestra but we all tend to get to play it with our teachers or a mentor or friend at some relatively early point in our violin careers. And yet, like all such things it is an incredibly demanding concerto, not technically perhaps, but emotionally and musically. When violinists return to it as adults (if they have played it as younger students) they find a "new" piece entirely. What is most striking is the way the voices are so incredibly balanced as well as how they echo, blend, intertwine, and hand off passages. The second movement in particular remains the most beautiful I know for two violins.

When I prepared this movement with my own teacher and after we had gotten all the fingerings and bowings down (for I had not played this as a younger student so it was all new) we moved onto the task of  "making music" of the notes. The approach reminded me of some of the dimensions of spiritual direction and/or growth work. First we went through the entire movement deciding on what emotion we would like each passage or section to express, where it changed in intensity and how abruptly, what it changed to, where we were in tension with one another, and so forth. Though the musical term for much of this is "dynamics" our vocabulary was first of all that of feelings and nuances of feelings. Then we went through the music again and, as we stopped at the places we had noted emotions, each of us privately made a note about some memory which evoked those feelings for us. The memories remained private but the awe or tenderness or pain or whatever it was we poured into this music and expressed through it was communal and the intimacy of the experience hard to describe.

At every point we had to listen and listen profoundly in attempting to interpret this piece of music --- not only to be faithful to the truth Bach captured there in the manuscript itself, but to our own hearts and the hearts and voices of one another as we attempted to come together in a single unified performance. a single unified heart and voice. In the language of the Camaldolese we were "alone together" in this amazing process.  This was one of the most transcendent experiences I have ever had apart from formal prayer periods --- and one of the most potent experiences of the paradox of solitude in community.  In  some ways I am sure my own sensitivity to the communal nature of eremitical solitude is formed or at least heightened by my experience of learning and playing this concerto.

______________________________________________

A note of the OCO performance: In the performance by The OCO and soloists Christina Owens and Thomas Chow you might note that Christina is playing in the Baroque style as violinists would have played Bach's music. She uses little or no vibrato creating a characteristic sound. Thomas tends to be using a more contemporary style with less vibrato but still using it in many instances. Both are also using modern violins and modern bows. Finally the orchestra is taking their cues by attending to the soloists; there is no conductor. I can't remember another time OCO has played a piece in this manner --- also pretty typical of the Baroque approach to string orchestras and soloists.

12 February 2017

Followup Question on "Canonical Obedience"

[[Hi Sister! In your last post on canonical obedience are you saying that those with canonical vows are no longer free in the sense other Christians are free? If canonical vows mean one is no longer called to Christian freedom then why should anyone desire to make canonical vows? I am sure I must've misunderstood you somehow!]]

Thanks for this latest question! I tried using the phrase, "qualified but undiminished" to indicate I was not speaking of Christian freedom versus something else. Instead I was trying to describe an expression of Christian freedom that differed from expressions linked to the baptismal state and bonds alone. Remember that Christian freedom is always the power to be the persons we are called to be and it is that in spite of and sometimes even through the constraints which limit our lives. That is true whether one lives one's life in terms of baptismal bonds alone or whether one embraces additional canonical bonds. The essential point is that those admitted to canonical vows, to the public rights and obligations of such vows, are called to the same authentic freedom as any other Christian. However, they have participated in a mutual process of discernment and been formally and publicly admitted to a profession and consecration which involves elements defined by canon and proper law which further specify their baptismal commitment and the shape of their freedom.

We might consider these elements to be constraints on the individual's authentic freedom but this is not so. Because the Church herself along with the candidate has mutually discerned  the presence and nature of the call involved, both Church (hierarchy or congregational leadership) and the one petitioning to be admitted to public profession and consecration have determined as best they are able that such admission actually serves the candidate's authentic (Christian) freedom. While discernment processes may sometimes be mistaken it is critical that we understand the point of mutual discernment in ecclesial vocations is the determination of what is truly and Divinely ordained as a source of freedom for the candidate and a gift of the Holy Spirit to and for the whole Church. Private vows may be both or neither but this is not ascertained by the Church because such a dedication is an entirely private act. Even when such private vows are both a source of freedom for the person making the vows and a gift to and for the Church, the private nature of the act means this cannot be adequately discerned or celebrated --- much less extended to others in what must be a mutual act of discernment.

For some the constraints of public profession, canonical structures like vows, a Rule and constitutions, canonical relationships like legitimate superiors and congregations or communities along with the public expectations associated with these will really constitute an impediment to authentic freedom. For the one called to these things they will instead help to create the space for the perfection of authentic freedom and true selfhood. My own life, for instance, is constrained in many significant ways by the requirements of canon 603 (the silence of solitude, stricter separation from the world, etc.) and my public profession and consecration; at the same time these constraints generally create the circumstances necessary to empower me to be the person God calls me to be. Should I have moments when I doubt this is true I can fall back to some extent on the discernment of the Church and my relationships with legitimate superiors for reassurance or encouragement. This also means, however, that should I begin to seriously question if I am insufficiently free in this way or that, I will need to discern whether I am perhaps mistaking license for authentic freedom in the given instance and what I need to do at this point in order to embrace authentic freedom.

Another look at Canonical Obedience

Several weeks ago or so I was asked about a private vow of obedience that was described as one of "canonical obedience" and I wrote that this was an incoherent usage, an usage which literally "does not hold together or cohere" when applied to private vows. There is such a thing as canonical obedience. It is obedience professed and rendered generally and ecclesially meaningful according to specific canon laws. It is obedience defined by and associated with certain canonical rights and obligations which apply to those admitted publicly to canonical vows but not otherwise. On the one hand one may make a private vow of poverty which does not bind under penalty of canon law and which does not share the same rights and obligations as a public vow, for instance, or on the other hand, one who is admitted by the Church through various canonical avenues, may make a canonical (public) vow which obligates in specific ways under penalty of law. Of course canonical vows are also protected and nurtured under law; they are supported by other canonical structures and supervised by legitimate superiors because they are public and not private bonds. Meanwhile, legitimate superiors are also bound by canon (and often by proper) law in specific ways to supervise those under their authority by virtue of these persons having made and been allowed to make canonical vows in the legitimate superior's hands.

I don't think this is hard to understand: those who make canonical vows are bound by (additional) canon law(s) in ways those who make private vows are not. Neither do the canon laws applying to such things apply to most Catholics. There are sections of the Code of Canon Law which apply to all baptized persons (cc204-231 and sections of the code on sacraments, on liturgy, etc.) but there are many more that apply to more specific segments of the Church: to clergy, to the married, to institutes of consecrated life and in some ways to canonically consecrated hermits, to consecrated virgins, to the teaching office of the church, etc, etc.  Not every section of the law is of interest much less do they actually apply to every person in the Church. So imagine my surprise when the person who claimed a private vow of obedience was one of "canonical obedience" wrote the following:

[[A hermit colleague was upset by my mentioning that I render canonical obedience. Yes, I do. Any practicing Catholic ought render obedience to the various and multitudinous Canon Laws developed over the years. At least we ought to try just as we try to be obedient to civil laws on the books. Why not? The inclusion of my being obedient to my bishop in whatever diocese I may reside and to obey canon laws should not be a source of upset to others. Rather, we should rejoice at our human and flailing attempts to canonical obedience but even more so to obedience to Jesus' precepts, particularly that of God's Law of Love.]]

Of course "canonical obedience" does not mean simply being obedient "to the various and multitudinous Canon Laws developed over the years" (were that even possible or reasonable). It means being bound by the specific canons applying to those admitted publicly (i.e., canonically) to a vow of obedience. No more, no less. Those with private vows do not owe and are not bound by the canons applying to those with canonical (public) vows anymore than those publicly professed as religious are bound by the canon laws applying to marriage or vice versa. For that matter diocesan hermits are not (generally speaking) bound to obey canons applying to priests, or even all of those canons which apply to religious. Similarly, apostolic religious (again generally speaking) are not bound by canon 603 any more than they are bound by the canon law that applies to priests, those that apply to married persons or those that apply to bishops, to theologians, etc., etc. 

Beyond the issue of canon law per se, every Catholic owes obedience to their diocesan bishop in a general or Scriptural sense of the term. This means they are required to listen to their bishop, to consider what he has to say and to act in ways which honor what he teaches and wills just as they would any pastor. However, this is NOT what has been called "canonical obedience". In such a case the bishop is NOT the legitimate superior of any persons except those who are specifically and canonically vowed (to him) in religious obedience --- nor can he expect or attempt to require such obedience from the majority of those in his diocese. The specific nature of Christian freedom and the obligations to personal responsibility in these other vocations DO NOT ALLOW THIS. 

The bishop is the legitimate superior of diocesan priests and diocesan hermits, for instance, because a qualified but undiminished expression of Christian freedom which is spelled out in both canon and proper law (e.g., the hermit's Rule) and which each has publicly embraced in either the rite of ordination or religious profession, exists between them. It is together that they will do the will of God within a specifically ecclesial vocation. Because there is no carefully delimited and mutually defined relationship where rights and obligations are similarly spelled out (in Rule and/or Constitutions) and embraced via public rite, the bishop is not the legitimate superior of lay members of the diocese and is not owed "canonical (or religious) obedience", nor should he be. This is so because such carefully limited and explicitly defined public relationships do not come to be through baptism alone, not even when entirely private vows are added to the mix.

 To summarize the point here then, one cannot simply pretend to be bound to religious or canonical obedience in this way by referring either to the common obedience owed to one's bishop or to a host of laws one neither understands      and which do not even apply to their lives. These members have the right and obligation to honor Christian Freedom in any way they discern in good conscience and so long as they do not transgress into areas of the Church which bring them under the direct purview of the bishop's authority, they are obligated to do so without the permission of the bishop or someone he delegates to oversee their activity. They have an obligation to submit their own wills to Christ's but neither is this is canonical obedience because these persons are NOT canonically vowed to the specific expression of Christian freedom and responsibility associated with public profession. To call it canonical obedience is analogous to calling a year of some sort of initial formation in a non-canonical community a "canonical year".  In either case this usage is mistaken and literally incoherent.

The Relevancy of Canon 603:

Ms Joan McClure, the author of the position being discussed here and a privately vowed hermit and (vocationally as well as hierarchically speaking) a lay member of the Archdiocese of Seattle, does not owe Archbishop Sartain "canonical obedience" and I am sure he would be the first person to explain to her that she does not. Ms McClure also wrote about my response regarding "canonical obedience": [[ If we get upset over desire to obey laws of the land and laws of the Church, or laws of God especially--this upset is an example of not letting Christ's peace control our hearts.  I do not think the person who was upset by my mention in my professed eremitic vows to include canonical obedience fully understood but rather got the meaning and intent confused with canonical approval of hermits by one's specific diocese bishops according to Canon Law 603. ]]

The Church's own position on the difference between public profession (which includes a canonical vow of obedience) and private dedication and vows is clear: the first involves additional canonical rights and obligations beyond those granted with baptism, the other does not; the first thus means the individual embraces canonical or religious obedience, the other does not; the first means that the person so professed acquires certain legitimate (canonical) rights and obligations which play a part in publicly defining the person's life and Freedom (ecclesially approved Rule, legitimate superior(s), etc.), the other does not. Profession under Canon 603 (or profession under the canons applying to religious life more generally) are specific instances of these general distinctions. Both differ from the private dedication of the lay or clerical hermit in all of the ways just listed, but canon 603 professions are particularly illustrative of these distinctions. Thus, when a Bishop admits an individual to canonical profession under canon 603 he admits the person to an ecclesial vocation which further specifies the way their freedom must be lived out  and he does so on behalf of the entire Church, not as an instance of his own private desires or individual eccentricity.

 In such an act the subject making their profession becomes a "Hermit of the Diocese of x_________" and they do so not merely because they are a hermit living in that diocese but because they represent the eremitical life in the name of both the local and the universal Church. With private vows --- which, again, do not rise to the level of profession as the Church understands this term --- the hermit involved does not become a "Hermit of the Diocese of x____" and is not bound to canonical obedience despite the fact that she may live eremitical life in that diocese. It is too bad some with private vows feel a need to conflate these with canonical vows. It is always important that those with canonical vows do not embrace a notion of superiority vs inferiority when comparing public profession to private dedication, but at the same time it is crucially important that those who are privately dedicated do not mislead or confuse by misapplying terms like "canonical" when characterizing their own vow of obedience, etc. This is a source of serious confusion and does not serve the Church or the differing expressions of the eremitical life particularly well.

10 February 2017

Creation of Adam, Chartres: Image of the Desert Vocation to New Creation (Reprise)

 A friend returned from a trip to France (etc.) with about 32 other Dominicans from various congregations and brought me a picture of this statuary from Chartres Cathedral. It is a favorite of hers and is called God Creates Adam; it is a small piece, only about a foot and a half or two feet high and is located on a Northern portal to the cathedral.

While I had never seen it before, I loved it instantly. It recalls for me so many prayer times when I had the sense of having God's entire attention or of being held securely and loved into wholeness. It speaks to me of the place of God in each of our lives --- even when we fail to realize how inextricably wed our lives are with one another. There is an amazing combination of strength and gentleness, quiet joy and determination, as well as dependence and independence here. God looks completely sure of himself and quietly pleased. Adam --- who looks neither male nor female to me --- looks content and at peace.

I hear an invitation here: "Give yourself over to me; let me make you my very own creation, my very own image and counterpart! Let me truly make you what you are!" --- as God reminds me of the dignity and nature of my original creation and all the potential it holds. There have been times I have not known or remembered that God's creative presence was at work in me calling into existence, healing, molding, shaping, and summoning me into the absolute future of God's own life; there were times when I thought all potential had been spent or was lost forever. Yet I know very well now that this is an image of every day of my life as well as a picture of  the covenant reality I am most truly meant to let myself become. For me it is a wonderful image!!

Memorial of St Scholastica

On this Memorial of St Scholastica I think it is timely to remind readers of the famous story of St Scholastica and her brother St Benedict. That is especially true given the conversation here on the gift of tears  In the following account of this story the description of Scholastica's prayer when she is in need of profound consolation is particularly apt. In the meantime my very best wishes to all my Camaldolese, Cistercian, and Benedictine Sisters and Brothers on this feast!

[[Scholastica, the sister of our venerable Father Benedict, who was dedicated to the Lord Almighty from her infancy, was wont to come visit her brother once a year. The man of God went to her not far from the gate (of his monastery), at a place that belonged to it. Once, she came according to her custom, and her venerable brother with his monks went there to meet her, and they spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk, and when it was almost night, they dined together. As they were yet sitting at the table, speaking of devout matters, and the hour grew late, the holy nun, his sister, entreated him, saying, “I ask you not to leave me this night, that we may speak of the joys of the heavenly life until morning.” To which he replied, “What are you saying, sister? In no wise can I stay outside my cell!”
 
The final meeting between Ss Benedict and Scholastica, depicted in a 14th-century fresco in the Sacro Speco of Subiaco.   
At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The holy nun, hearing this refusal of her brother, joined her hands together, laid them on the table, bowed her head on her hands, and prayed to almighty God. And when she lifted her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their heads out of doors. The holy nun, having rested her head on her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears on the table, that she transformed the clear air to a watery sky.

After the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed; her prayer and the rain so met together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began. So it was that in one and the very same instant that she lifted up her head, she brought down the rain. The man of God, seeing that he could not, in the midst of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain to his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?” She answered him, “I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me; I have desired it of our good Lord, and he has granted my petition. Therefore if you can now depart, in God’s name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone.” But the good father, not being able to leave, tarried there against his will where before he would not have stayed willingly. By that means, they watched all night and with spiritual and heavenly talk mutually comforted one another.

The next day the venerable woman returned to her monastery, and the man of God to his abbey. Three days later, standing in his cell, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, he beheld the soul of his sister (which was departed from her body) ascend into heaven in the likeness of a dove. Rejoicing much to see her great glory, with hymns and praise he gave thanks to almighty God, and imparted the news of her death to his monks. He sent them presently to bring her body to his Abbey, to have it buried in that grave which he had provided for himself. By this means it fell out that, as their souls were always one in God while they lived, so their bodies continued together after their deaths. (From the Second Book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, chapters 33 and 34, read in the Roman Breviary on the feast of St Scholastica.)]]

09 February 2017

On the Desert Vocation to Metanoia

Jesus Meets His Mother**
 by Bro Mickey McGrath OSFS
[[Hi Sister, when you refer to inner work or the personal growth work you are doing with your director I wonder how this fits in with the life of a hermit. I also wondered if the tears you experienced were really less the "gift of tears" which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit and more the result of some therapeutic process involved in the inner work. No offense of course!]]

No offense taken; your questions are natural and good ones. I'm pretty sure I have spoken of the focus of the inner work I am doing with my director right now but let me restate it as I understand it in case some have not read past posts --- or in case I am mistaken!

We are made in the image of God but in our lives that image is sometimes distorted, often crippled, and almost invariably prevented from unfolding in all its glory due to our own woundedness. We are marked and marred by sin (a state of alienation from God, self, and others) and we ratify that sin ourselves -- often as we meet and react to the sin of others; and all of this has an effect on our being able to be our true selves. The project of our lives, the journey we are making is the journey to the revelation or realization of our true selves which only occurs to the extent we exist in communion and union with God. The goal of this ongoing journey is to become the covenantal persons, the relationship with God we truly are and in which our genuine individuality consists. In Christ, the One who is the very definition of union with God, we are called to become imago Christi: persons who are truly, fully and exhaustively human, and who thus reveal God (Love-in-Act) to the world.

The task before us is, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to work through anything that prevents our communion and union with God. In the language of the desert and of monastic life in particular this is the life of repentance, of metanoia. As Hunt notes in Joy-Bearing Grief,  [[The experience of the desert monk is his most active work. "It is a contract [covenant] with God for a second life." according to Klimakos. Through it [the monk] takes responsibility for the exercise of his free will, the working out of his divinely given humanity. . . . The flight to the desert has at its heart relationships, primarily, those between the individual and God and the individual with him/herself. The physical journey may [and is meant to] give way to an interiorized one. . .]]

This approach to the desert rests on the profound relationship between repentance and prayer. The two are inextricably wed in a single dynamic towards authenticity which the Rule of Benedict and monastic and eremitical life more generally call "seeking God". In my own Rule I stress this sense that prayer and repentance are so closely allied in the journey to becoming the person we are called to be that they rely on one another and cannot be easily teased apart. Repentance is empowered and accompanied by prayer just as it also prepares for prayer. The task before the hermit is to become a person of prayer (a person in whom God is powerfully active and who is open to allowing this to be exhaustively true in every dimension of her life); this will also mean participating every day in a process of metanoia, of repentance and conversion. The inner work I have spoken of is one of the principal forms of embracing metanoia and becoming the person I am called to be; it is so central to my vocation that it is actually written into my Rule. It focuses in very specific and powerful ways on the imago dei which exists deep within and on the process of recovering and realizing the potential of that imago in order that I may actually become imago Christ.  

When you ask how inner work fits into the hermit life this is the answer. The hermit seeks God, she gives her live over to this seeking and to God's intimate seeking of her. She realizes she will only be the person she is called to be if her life is lived in obedience (open responsiveness) to the call of God. She is committed to embodying call and response in the single self who is a covenant with God. Only God can complete her. Only God is the source and ground of her human life. She is made in God's image and likeness, made to be a relational being just as the Trinity is relational in every sense. She is thus called to become imago Christi and this means living a life of prayer and repentance or metanoia.  Inner work is an integral part in responding to this vocation.

The Gift of Tears:

I am not sure it is possible to entirely tease apart or distinguish the gift of tears from "ordinary" tears that are the result of the inner work. Both are therapeutic; both can come from the deepest places within us and both are gifts of God. But, there is, I think, also a qualitative difference between "ordinary" tears and the gift of tears. I suppose that at this point --- with what is very limited experience --- I would say that "ordinary" tears are healing in ways which allow us to continue functioning as the persons we are; they express and ease our suffering, they express our joy.  The gift of tears functions to transform us and our hearts in more profound and extensive ways, and it does more as well. This gift opens our hearts to the presence and power of God in ways more "ordinary" tears do not. In a single moment it touches every part of our lives, memory, history and selves --- body, spirit and mind and results in their reconciliation, healing and integration. These tears make us into whole and holy human beings who, in Christ, are instances of embodied spirit, incarnations of the Word of God. My own sense is that the inner work I am doing, for instance, heals and opens me to the deep reality of God alive and yearning to live within me. The paradox here is that I am truly myself when God is allowed to live exhaustively in and through me. Perhaps what I am saying similarly then is that our "ordinary" tears reach their own fulfillment or perfection in what has been called "the gift of tears."

This is a very provisional and clearly basic answer on my part. As with all things this gift will be measured by its fruits --- and, while some will be immediately evident, fruits also take time to grow. I believe I have experienced something singular. I feel sure it is a charismatic gift in line with the penthos (weeping) and katanuxis (compunction) which are central to the desert tradition. I also feel sure that receiving this gift in fullness is something which takes time and that it will come. However, if it is the gift of tears it will need to do the kinds of things the desert tradition says such tears do; it will need to transform my heart into one entirely measured in terms of compassion and the courage, generosity, and self-gift compassion makes possible; in short it will need to allow me to see and relate to the world as Christ sees and relates to the world. It will need to help transform me from imago dei into the historical  embodiment and expression of the Risen Christ we know as imago Christi. It will need to empower me to see and love with Christ's own vision and love. By their fruits we shall know the gifts of God.

The inner work I have spoken of (part of my own work of spiritual direction) gives the Holy Spirit space to work in my life. This is another reason I am reticent to entirely distinguish between "ordinary tears" from those which are more clearly charismatic. As noted, I feel both are empowered by the love of God, both are the work of the Consoler. Finally, we often and too easily distinguish the "ordinary" from  that which is "super ordinary" or even extraordinary. The truth is that all-too-often we miss the God who comes to us in the ordinary so this is something I bear in mind as well.

** N.B. the picture of Jesus meeting his Mother is Bro Mickey McGrath's painting of the Fourth Station of the Cross. It is available in many different formats from Trinity Stores.

A Little Bit of Lectio (reprised)


The following thoughts were written several years ago but have clear resonances with recent posts and concerns published here. The nature of theology, the importance of it being rooted in out experience of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the notion that those who disavow the importance of the intellect are also doing some form of theology, etc. are all present here.

I was reflecting about tomorrow's first reading. It is the part of the Genesis account where Eve is seduced to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, where (perhaps at her urging and perhaps not) Adam does the same thing, and where "their eyes are opened" as a result. Of course this opening of their eyes is a form of self-consciousness which is rooted in only a partial truth about themselves, namely, that they are naked before God and each other. But it is a self-consciousness which blinds them to the greater truth of who they are with and through God, namely, persons of infinite worth with the very breath of God sustaining them at every instant --- even in their sinfulness.

From here my reflections moved in the direction of humility. I came to think that what passes too often for genuine humility is precisely the partial truth occasioned by alienation from God and the resulting self-consciousness that blinds us to the whole truth. What passes for humility is often nothing more than a self-centered view of our "nakedness" but without the broader perspective granted us by our relationship to and with God and the incredible worth that affirms. Without this other piece of the picture, we know only our own unworthiness, our own poverty and incapacity --- and we will rightly come to despise ourselves. Of course Adam and Eve fail at humility in other ways. They grasp at a knowledge they are not made for, they fail to trust a God who has given them no reason to fail in this, and they hide from him taking refuge in shrubbery and stuck-on fig leaves! But most fundamentally in all of this, I think, they only look at (or accept) part of the truth of who they are in relation to God and, for that very reason, fail in humility.

But my reflections also went in another direction (though I am pretty sure they link up at some point; it is just that my lectio has not gotten me to that point yet!). I was thinking about something Walter Brueggemann said about the hugely "over-interpreted" serpent in this narrative, namely, that he was not a symbol of Satan or evil, but a neutral character used to move the story along. This led me to think of the serpent as an externalization of what Eve comes to think in her heart --- a debate she has with herself, really: that God has somehow not told them the truth, that she knows what God is really like, that she knows what is best for her own life and is capable of determining what is good and what is not without reference to God!

Part of this sense that the serpent is the externalization of Eve's own thought processes were occasioned by something else Brueggemann said, viz, that the speech made by the serpent, indeed the whole conversation, is a matter of "theologizing" and that the serpent is the first "working theologian"!!! (I admit, I found this point really funny --- but because it was strikingly "right." It reminded me of the fear I felt regarding presuming to speak about God with any authority early in my years of studying theology. Somehow, doing "theology" seemed to be oxymoronic to me. Arrogant perhaps, probably presumptuous, and at least awfully risky. It is a fear which has never completely left me, and I mainly know it now as a kind of awe that I am a theologian.) Perhaps I need to recover some of that original "fear"! (Ah, can you sense these directions in my lectio beginning to link up?) At the same time then, it recalled the stress in Eastern Christianity on theology as an act of prayer, or at the very least, something which is never to be divorced from prayer.

But in tomorrow's reading, that is exactly what happens. As Brueggemann notes, no one is speaking to or with God in this section. They are speaking about him, and in doing so they even distort (or lie to themselves about) what they were told WHILE they were speaking with him and he them. How often this happens in our own lives! Whether we are professional or academic theologians or the armchair variety, how very often we speak about a God we really don't know or allow to know us all that well! How often our speech about God, our theologizing, has nothing whatsoever to do with prayer! It neither stems from prayer, adverts to prayer in gratitude or supplication, nor moves us to return to prayer! And how often it distorts, subtly or otherwise, the truth about God which he himself has revealed to us. Much of our religion is (or has been) built upon such distortions!!

It occurred to me that if we were speaking without reticence about science, or economics, or child-rearing, or any number of other things without first hand knowledge OF the thing being talked about, people would laugh us out of the room. And rightly so! Consider how truly stupid we would be and seem if we spoke about a person as though we knew them first hand and were instead required to confess to listeners that we had never actually met this person face to face! And yet, how often we characterize people, speak of their motives, etc without ever having met them! Why is it that with theology we don't get uneasy in attempting to speak about God and the other ultimately important dimensions of life which are tied to faith in him apart from a first-hand knowledge of God??? (Here I am thinking of suffering, death, illness, evil, and more --- and about all the really silly and even offensive things people say about them and about God when they wax on about such things.) Of course, it is true that the truly first rate theologians never lose perspective like this (or not for long!!) and that their theology is a function of their prayer lives. But for most of us, we rarely talk to or with God before we presume to talk about him, and as a result our theologizing is as blind, self-centered, and distorted as in today's first reading. . . .

06 February 2017

A Little on Paul's Law of the Mind and the Demands of Doing Theology

[[I was informed that a hermit colleague has been blessed with a spiritual gift, a spiritual phenomenon.  I am rejoicing over this news!  This particular hermit has in the past has seemed more leaning to the laws of minds; thus I have been praying for some time for the Holy Spirit to reach into the hermit's soul and inflame it with a touch of God's law of love, of the supernatural realities which soften us and remind us that the temporal is passing but the realm of the Spirit is eternal. . .]] cf.,. . . Hermit Rejoices for entire post.

I always gratefully accept prayer on my behalf and thus count on others to hold me in prayer. Beyond that it is always good to hear that my life has brightened someone's day in some small way. Still I admit I am stunned when someone presumes to pronounce on the state of my soul and though this occurs much less rarely, I am surprised when anyone's spirituality involves anti-intellectualism. When they misinterpret my own definite intellectual bent as being somehow opposed to a vital spiritual life which is relatively untouched by God's "law of love" even as they try to justify these errors in religious terms my surprise is compounded. What I sincerely hope people recognize is that such anti-intellectualism tends to result in a relatively anemic and sentimentalist spirituality that is incapable of dealing adequately  with reality. This is so precisely because it is incapable of truly loving in the way the Gospel calls for! That is especially true when such persons refer to St Paul and misread his language in the process -- as the above post does and as its author has consistently done in the past when commenting on Paul's "law of the mind" or his teaching on law and Gospel.

What is the Law of the Mind according to Paul?

Paul refers to the law of the mind in Romans, but we must be very clear that it is 1) in the singular (it is not "laws of the mind" or laws made up by human minds) and 2) that it is not something Paul criticizes. It is, in fact, an enemy of the law of sin: [[For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my  members.]] (Romans 7:22-23) The law of the mind which Paul refers to is that deepest and truest reality within us that says we are made for God. It is the truest inner moral compass and drive which contends with the more superficial law of sin dwelling in our members. Together with the will it is that dimension of our existence deep within us that is linked to our natural impulse to love God. As Paul says above, it is the "law of the mind" that actually delights in the law of God because, of course, it delights in truth and meaning and beauty! It is this fascination by and delight in truth, beauty, and meaning which opens each of us to fuller expressions of the law of God, the law of Love.

It used to be kind of faddish in spirituality to encourage people to "get out of (their) heads and into (their) hearts." (Let me be clear: there were and are excellent reasons for this too, but it was sometimes encouraged by directors whose strongest function was not their intellect and who may even have distrusted it to some extent.) Because my own intellect is an especially intensely pivotal dimension of the way I relate to God and his entire created reality I am very fortunate to have a director who understands the importance of a strong intellectual life and knows full well what it means to have God reveal Godself via a person's intellectual life.

Consequently, one of the most important truths I have had reaffirmed throughout the inner work I have done over the past 8 months or so (I am in the 9th month of that work) is the fact that my intellect is a precious gift of God and the faculty through which God most often graces and has graced me with his self-revelation. Does my mind require the love of God to truly function well? Of course! It is MADE FOR the love of God! It is empowered to function rightly through the grace of God! So of course my intellect and the law of the mind is God's good gift to me (indeed, to all of us) and it has been a source of awesome nourishment to me --- and to those I minister to.
 
Trusting the Process and Doing Theology:

That said I should also emphasize that of course our intellects are not the whole of the way we relate to God or receive God's revelation of Godself. The law of love is imprinted on intellect, will, spirit and sensibility --- all of them. And all of them are meant to function together accordingly in what constitutes what the NT calls a purity or singleness of heart. I have reported here that quite often in these last months my director has encouraged me to "trust the process". Trusting the process did not mean the intellectual pieces of things could be demeaned or ignored -- nor did this ever happen ---but that in some things it takes the intellect time to catch up with the other pivotal centers of human functioning and that can be challenging for me. More, the intellect needs to build on human experience and be grounded in it while human experience needs to be rendered articulate in the various ways this occurs and to the extent this is possible, through the work of the intellect.  While all this can be challenging for one who depends on a strong intellect anti-intellectualism is ruled out of court.


The bottom line here is that far from being something that draws me away from God it is and has always been the activity of "doing theology" --- and here I mainly mean academic and systematic theology --- which most often brings these three dimensions of my being together; it is thus the "place" where I am most profoundly touched by the Word of God or the presence the God who speaks to my heart from within. Many people fail to understand that doing theology in a serious way is never merely an intellectual exercise. That is true because doing theology means being a person of prayer as well as of study, a person of compassion as well as of the capacity for intellectual insight and systematization, a person of heart as well as mind. It means being a person who loves God and the mystery of God's creation, being fascinated with these realities, concerned for them and in fact responsible for the struggle to understand and to articulate their truth for those who need it. It also means knowing from the very first day one walks into a theology class (and possibly before one even does this) that one's efforts will always fall short and quite often fail very badly.

On the Holocaust and Doing Theology:

This was brought home to me in my first introductory course in theology. Not only were we faced with the rock bottom theological datum of a literally incomprehensible and ineffable God (the infinitely fascinating and awesome Mystery around whom we literally cannot get our minds and hearts) but our professor pointed out emphatically that anyone wishing to do serious theology needed their work to be capable of doing justice to the tremendum we call the Holocaust or their theology was, at best, unworthy of the name. In this latter case we cannot do this unless theology engages and depends on one working with their whole self! Moreover it will not happen unless our theology is profoundly historical and critical, not only in our reading of Scripture but in our approaches to doctrine, law, and anthropology as well. Again, our approach to theological and spiritual realities must be informed by both our hearts and our intellects. Jesus, of course, said the same thing when he counseled us to be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents. And yet again, we know that our efforts will ultimately fail because of the incomprehensible Mystery which is the focus of our efforts and the finite nature of our own minds and hearts. This does not mean we are relieved of the necessity of doing theology; instead it spurs theologians to humility in an enterprise they are summoned and even impelled by God himself to undertake for the sake of his People but also for the sake of his entire Creation.

Paul's "law of the mind," again, is that deep and dynamic reality which delights in and is profoundly fascinated by the law of God. It does not in the least allow the kind of anti-intellectualism present in the post cited above. Faith requires both our heads and our hearts together; it cannot exist otherwise precisely because as Paul Tillich insightfully characterized it, it is a centered act of the whole person and a state of being grasped by an ultimate concern. Such a state of being grasped means being taken hold of in our entire being so that every locus and focus of human functioning (intellect, will, spirit and sensibility) is empowered by and responsive to the God who demands our whole self and promises us everything we need for the completion we and our world are made for.

N.B., The painting (print) above is one I got for Christmas this year. It is Brother Mickey McGrath's, Madonna of the Holocaust and is something that moved me profoundly not only because of conversations I had with Brother Mickey on the Theology of the Cross while he was here on sabbatical in November, but because of the story I told above about my intro to NT course and the challenges of doing serious theology. I think it is an awesome symbol of an historical-critical theology which is a matter of both heart and mind.

29 January 2017

Some Thoughts on Receiving the Gift of Tears

[[Dear Sister,
     You wrote recently about some experiences of crying in ways you had not done before. Were you saying you had received what is sometimes called "the gift of tears"? Is this a real thing?]]

     Thanks for your questions. I was kind of hoping no one would ask these very questions because these are questions I had not answered for myself until recently --- and then, only very provisionally. But here they are! So let me first give you an extended introduction to my answer::

This last Thursday I met for spiritual direction and/or accompaniment with my director and of course my experience over the previous two weeks was at the center of our work together. As a result we had one of the most profoundly holy conversations we have ever had --- and I say that recognizing that much of what we deal with regularly is profoundly holy.. We talked about things which were directly of and from God and at the same time, while perhaps rare, may simply be so deeply personal that folks do not speak of them outside the SD relationship. "The gift of tears" per se was a central piece and even the core of our conversation. Since Sister Marietta is much more experienced in all of this than I am and in so many ways (not least because of the breadth of her work in spiritual direction, her experience of doing deep inner work with others, or her academic specialization in applied spirituality) and because she was looking at the forest while I was still bumping my nose into various trees from within that forest, I asked her about her own knowledge and understanding of the gift of tears.

You see I wondered if what I had experienced (and in fact was still experiencing) was in some way or other what the early Church Fathers, especially the Syriac Fathers (e.g., Ephrem, Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac of Syria), John Klimakis (Climacus), et al) were speaking of when they wrote about penthos (πενθος) or the weeping associated with compunction (κατανυξις, katanuxis), that is, the tears associated with the piercing or puncture of one's heart by the grace or mercy of God.

These are the tears some have called "joy-bearing grief" (Hunt; 2001). They are the tears I see represented and celebrated almost every day of my life when I look at Bro Emmaus O'Herlihy's*** painting of St Romuald receiving the gift of tears --- Romuald seated in ecstatic prayer with tears streaming down his cheeks, his face upturned in a mixture of joy, awe, and perhaps grief, and his hands raised to God in praise and gratitude. It is from these tears that the Camaldolese charism and Institute (Order) was born and these are the tears central to Cistercian spirituality (Louf, The Cistercian Way, p.93). These are the tears associated with the active work of the desert we call "repentance." They are the tears of the second beatitude: [[blessed are those who weep]] while Hebrews refers to these same tears when it speaks of being pierced by the Word of God (Heb 4:12). And they are the tears of the sinful woman who, in a similar mixture of grief, regret, joy, love and gratitude washed Jesus' feet with her own tears according to the gospel stories. I have never known anyone given this gift in my own life, but I knew (or thought) my director had known someone and so we talked about what this gift is like when received in greater fullness. With that in mind let me answer you more directly.

First I have to say the crying I have been moved to was absolutely a gift of God and something inspired by the Holy Spirit in the sense of NT charisma. My tears were not merely about grief, or profound regret, or my own woundedness  --- though all of these and more were certainly involved. As I noted in my earlier post, it was much more about joy and gratitude to God for all God had done and continues to do in my life, especially in calling me to what canon 603 refers to as "the silence of solitude". It was a profoundly and pervasively healing reality, something which involved the whole of my Self, but especially, something which mobilized spirit, body, emotions, and intellect in a single encompassing act of grief, gratitude, love, and praise.

Moreover, my experience was that these periods of weeping involved and thus connected every period of my life from infancy onwards; as a result the kinds of divisions and compartmentalization or dissociation (used here in a non-pathological sense) occasioned by the woundedness incurred throughout my life were transformed into a more coherent and conscious whole. This penthos constituted these pieces as a greater and essential unity, a living history revitalized as (more) single and whole. As it effected this healing or reconciliation it freed and empowered me to love and praise God in ways I had been unable to do before this. In other words, these tears glorified God (made God real in space and time) and transformed my own life into something which does the same and serves as a promise of continuing transformation to the degree I commit to obedience in this.

That said, and realizing it is FAR too soon to say how else this gift has changed me for the present when I compare my recent experience of these tears to what else the Scriptures say about them and what else my director described having come to know about this gift, I have to underscore the fact that I have not in any sense received the gift of tears in fullness! Like other gifts or charisma of the Holy Spirit one must grow in one's reception of them. (As Friday's reading from Hebrews reminded us we [[need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.]]) We must also watch the growth of such a gift's reception in order to discern its authenticity: "By their fruits you shall know them!" And what are the real fruits of this gift? In Christ one incarnates the very life of God; one comes to see with God's eyes, to love with God's heart, to touch with God's own touch, and so forth. One is transformed in Christ into the compassionate enfleshment of Love-in-act. Nothing less.

When one thinks of this in Scriptural terms it involves a true conversion of mind and heart which fulfills the profoundest nature and call of every human being: to be entirely transparent to the will and life of God. In Christ it is a conversion so radical that as with Jesus' own life, where one meets true human being one quite literally meets the merciful God who would live in and through us. When one receives this gift in greater fullness, one meets (sees and embraces) our world quite literally with the compassion of the suffering and risen Christ; when this is true one is moved to tears regularly and persistently in a way that is reminiscent of the Jesus who stood on the hill as he looked on the Jerusalem he loved --- would love if only he were allowed --- and wept! Bearing this in mind I have to say again that yes, this gift is real. What I have been experiencing is what the Church Fathers refer to as penthos or the gift of tears. But at the same time I cannot even begin to say what some are reported to say they know with indisputable clarity and undeniable humility, namely, that they truly see with the eyes of Jesus and feel a compassion for all they see or meet which, again, is literally the compassion of Jesus. This regularly moves them to tears as it defines their entire lives!

*** Brother Emmaus transferred from the Camaldolese Benedictines to the Benedictines of Glenstal and is now several-years solemnly professed there at Glenstal. His referenced painting will be familiar to readers here and is seen at the top of this article.

25 January 2017

The Conversion of Paul, Model for us All (partial reprise)

 Today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us of the conversion of Paul. There is no doubt this is one of the most important events in the history of the Church and certainly one of the most dramatic. Luke tells us of this event three times in this single work so it is hard to overestimate its importance. A couple of things in particular strike me about this reading this time around.

The first, and the one I will focus on in this blog post, is how radical the changes needed to be in Paul's life to really do justice to his experience of the risen Christ whom he had been persecuting, but also how conservative in the very best sense that experience also was. Tom Wright describes this dual dynamic or dialectic when he says, [[ But this seeing . . .confirmed everything Saul had been taught; it overturned everything he had been taught. The law and the prophets had come true; the law and the prophets had been torn to pieces and put back together in a totally new way. It was a new world; it was the old world made explicit. . . .it showed him that the God he had been right to serve, right to study, right to seek in prayer, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had done what he always said he would, but done it in a shocking, scandalous, horrifying way. The God who had promised to come and rescue his people had done so in person. In the person of Jesus.]]

So often I am emailed by people who would like to be hermits or who, similarly, would like to put up a sign calling their home "____ hermitage" so people "realize this is not a normal home any more," but who have not made the necessary transition to an essentially eremitical life. As I have noted before, they may or may not live alone, but they add in a little prayer, a bit of silence, a little lectio, and then continue living essentially the same lives they have always lived --- just tweaked a bit. After a day's work outside the hermitage they refer to their time at home alone in the evenings as "their eremitical time" and wonder why I or others -- including their chancery personnel -- reject the idea that they are yet really hermits.

Many people live the same kind of "Christian" lives. Their spirituality is compartmentalized and in the main their lives are untouched by the reality of the risen Christ. They pray and worship on Sundays, they say grace before meals, and perhaps before bed or on arising, but on the whole, their lives are mainly unchanged and perhaps untouched by the completely world shaking reality of the risen Christ. Sometimes we have the sense that elements of the institutional church suffer in somewhat the same way. Parts of their lives, parts of their interpretation of the Tradition they rightly hold precious have not been touched by an experience of the risen Christ and the result is an unfortunate compartmentalization in their approach to reality and a narrowness of vision with all that entails. But given the example we have from St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, this will not do --- not for anyone claiming the name "Christian".

Following his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul took the next few years, withdrew to a desert region, and began completely reframing the tradition he deeply loved in light of his experience of the risen Christ. He completed this reframing as he engaged each of the churches he founded or preached to in their own unique pastoral circumstances and with regard to their own unique problems. In other words, an experience of world-shattering revelation through prayer, reflection, and genuinely pastoral presence and ministry became an experience of radical conversion. It was, in some ways what happens when a vat of dough is affected by yeast. No part of the dough is or can be left untouched. Similarly it is rather like what happens when one puts a picture together from all the puzzle pieces one has at hand --- but finds some have been left out. Each time a new piece is discovered and added the picture must be reformed and the place of each and all the pieces must be adjusted and reconsidered. (This is especially true with puzzles whose pieces are all the same shape and can be combined in a myriad of ways --- each of these creating a different picture as a whole.)

In such a process none of the older pieces are rendered obsolete or superfluous, but neither can they be seen any longer in their old light or from an older perspective. When one meets the risen Christ, all of the old pieces of the Tradition must be regarded from this new perspective and for Paul that required a rethinking of issues like Law, the nature of resurrection specifically and salvation more generally, the relation of Israel and the Church, Creation and Covenant and what God is attempting to effect by these, the nature of election and who God has called to this and why, the relationship of evil and grace and how ministry is truly effected --- whether by separation and ritual purity or immersion and a holiness which is contagious, the nature of the Messiah, and so forth. In other words, the old doctrinal statements and understandings are not simply swept aside as unimportant, but neither are they left unaffected nor can they be treated adequately apart from the charismatic experience of the risen Christ. Neither are the changes called for merely cosmetic then; they are radical --- reaching right to the roots. We are not merely to be thrown from whatever hobby-horse we have been riding for so long --- no matter how worthwhile. Instead there must also be a soul-deep healing or reconciliation, a bone-deep re-envisioning of all the old certainties after an experience of dazzling illumination or revelation. We, our faith, and lives which reflect and incarnate that faith must be wholly remade from the roots. Nothing else will do.

Paul is the Apostle we must look to here, the one with the courage to change everything without losing anything essential, the one whose experience of the scandalously crucified and risen Christ shaped entirely the way he would honor and represent the Tradition handed onto him, the one who refused to compartmentalize his faith and experience but instead allowed everything to become a new creation in Christ. The simple fact is that should our church fail in this it will cease to truly be the Church Christ called into being. Like Paul's own conversion, the RADICAL integration of our EXPERIENCE of the risen Christ at this point in time with the Tradition and with the concrete needs and yearnings of our time --- or our failure to do so --- will be one of the most significant events in the history of the church. We will either return to largely being the religion/institution of the Pharisees or become the gospel reality, the Kingdom Jesus meant us and our world to be. Every group, every individual must play a part; none is unimportant or can be allowed to remain voiceless (much less be silenced!!) or the Gospel of Jesus Christ will fail to be proclaimed and the coming of the Kingdom which is the thoroughgoing interpenetration of heaven and earth will be hampered yet again.

16 January 2017

Karim Sulayman - I Trust You


Karim Sulayman - I trust you from Meredith Kaufman Younger on Vimeo.

In the midst of our country's and our world's insanity this was a wonderfully touching and important lesson. It only takes one person to break through the barriers  of embarrassment, suspicion, and fear. Each of us is called to be that person wherever we are and go! Don't forget to enlarge to full screen!

15 January 2017

The Wilderness Call to Life: Creating the Heart of a Hermit




Well, my apologies for not getting a post up for this video. It took me places I hadn't planned on and I am still processing it ("Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?" was certainly an apt line in this song!). That was especially true regarding my prayer over the past week and a half or so. I have been living with a "new" definition of prayer I came to because of a Communion service I did for our daily Mass community during a time when our pastor had to be away. That service included our sixth grade class from St Perpetua's school.  The Gospel was from Luke and the pericope involved both began and ended with Jesus' prayer; whether referring to Jesus coming from the synagogue or going off aone to pray at the end of a day of active ministry, both implicitly and explicitly Luke portrays Jesus as a man of prayer. Moreover, according to Luke Jesus' ministry, his active and effective love for others focused on in the middle portion of the text was empowered by prayer and leads to prayer. Allowing God (Love-in-act) to be God in us invariably gives birth to, empowers, and shapes an impulse to go out to others. Because of this I came to think of prayer as a matter of  "allowing ourselves to be loved from the inside out"!

Now of itself that experience was not new to me of course. It is the reason I (or most anyone I know) sit in quiet prayer and give myself to God. I know that God desires to love me, God desires to be God for and with me, and I desire to allow God to do that and to be and do whatever flows from that.. But this last week the description, "Letting God love us from the inside out" as a definition for prayer was new, a more succinct way of thinking about the dynamic of prayer and ministry together, especially as prayer empowers ministry. Then on Sunday we sang "The Summons" which touched me and pulled everything together. While using this song both for meditation and in my usual practice of quiet prayer I became far more vividly  aware of God loving me from the inside out throughout the whole of my life. We sometimes hear that when a person faces death their entire life flashes before them. Well, the combination of contemplative prayer, meditation on "The Summons", and personal work for direction led me to experience something similar. For the first time, in series of images drawn from my entire life during each prayer period, I saw clearly how God had worked through my WHOLE life to create the heart of a hermit. The experience was repeated at each prayer period over a number of days; it was an amazing time of healing and integration empowering a fresh sense of my vocation.

Ordinarily I sit in quiet prayer for about an hour or so at a time a couple of times a day  ---  once at 4:00 am and again in the early evening. But last week the work I had been doing with my director coupled with my response to the song at Mass triggered an urgent hunger for quiet prayer in the mid-afternoon.  I responded by sitting for about two hours and then,  after a brief stretch and cup of tea, etc.,  I sat again for meditation using lines from and sometimes using headphones playing "The Summons" in a repeating loop for about another hour and a half. (In using the headphones I would really only "hear" and be moved by one or two lines at a time while the rest of the song either went mainly "unheard." or I stopped the playback). Each line that struck me with fresh application and emotion during these times reminded me of various events in my life from very young childhood onwards in the aforementioned series of images. In response I began to cry both long, freely, and deeply --- sometimes in some sadness and grief, but mainly in joy and profound gratitude for the way I saw that God had been working in my life. And so it continued over a period of several days through a number of  longer-than-usual prayer periods. It was far and away one of the most powerful and graced experiences I have ever had.

What I experienced  in all of this and eventually came to see clearly was indication after indication that throughout the whole of my life God not only has called me by name to be but that he called me to be a hermit (or maybe I should say that at each point God prepared me in very specific and clearly identifiable ways to receive and live this call). He has created possibilities for me to follow him in Christ even when I was unaware there were such possibilities --- and even when I was consciously unaware of the God who was their source and ground! He has called me to allow myself to be loved unceasingly and without limit so that I could serve him and his people as one who truly knew (solitary) love --- even, and perhaps especially when it came to me in profound physical solitude and emotional isolation. As God does with each of us, He loved me from the inside out and fitted me for discipleship and ministry --- though, of course, in my case he fitted me for the very unlikely and unusual discipleship and ministry of a diocesan hermit. From a tangle of many beautiful but also sometimes seemingly inapt threads, ugly snags, and tightly formed and apparently fruitless knots, God has constantly and lovingly woven a grace-filled tapestry celebrating the solitary vocation to life and love --- and God continues to do so, if only I will continue to consent and commit myself in faith.

The summons John Ball wrote about in his song comes to us each and all in many ways but primarily it is an inner reality, something that calls us from our deepest core and, as we make innumerable choices for life, forms us into God's very own "members" who will love, touch and serve others: Will we "come and follow him"? Will we "go where we do not know and never be the same"? Will we "let his love be shown and his name (i.e., his powerful presence) be known"? Will we "let his life be grown in us and we in him"? This summons and these questions are what concerned Jesus, a man (as Hebrews affirms so clearly) like us in all things, a man of prayer who (as the author of Luke-Acts affirmed) grew in grace and stature. It is what empowered him to respond so exhaustively to the One he called "Abba" in an entirely unique way; it is what allowed him to become the unique mediator and Minister of God's love so that when people looked at Jesus they saw not only the face of authentic humanity but the very face of God and when they were touched by Jesus' humanity they were touched by the very hands and breath of God.

This summons, these questions must be what concern and empower us as well. They must shake and console, challenge and transform us so that we are able to love beyond what we believed was even remotely possible. This is what we are called to; it is the long, joyful, tear-stained and life-forming process we must embrace and let embrace us. Whether we are thinking of Luke or of Hebrews, this is what it means to be people of prayer, people who are loved from the inside out, people who are truly imago Christi as Christ is singularly imago Dei.

12 January 2017

On Communities as Formative Contexts for c 603 Hermits

Dear Sister, I was reading about diocesan hermits and came across an online discussion on the difficulty of becoming a diocesan or Catholic Hermit. One person spoke about her diocese not allowing diocesan hermits or consecrated virgins because of the rarity of the vocation and the fact that it is supervised by the bishop. I guess it was thought that discernment and supervision would be too much of a problem. One person then responded: [[I think it makes sense that it's a rare vocation, and not one to be taken on lightly. Without the direction of a community and superior, those living in solitude can easily stray from the path or become quite eccentric. It's important, even in the solitary vocations, to have a good SD. It might be even better to live with a community for a while, to receive good formation in the religious life, and only then to step out on one's own (with God, of course!). There are quite a few communities of hermits in the US where you could inquire about being formed with the intent of eventually becoming a diocesan hermit.]] Is this a good idea? Do you know anyone who would take me on if I wanted to do this?]]

Thanks for your questions. Some parts of this response are very fine I think. In fact I would say everything up to the last sentence is right on. However, the last sentence and the idea of going to a community with the idea of being formed by them and one day leaving to become a diocesan hermit seems unworkable and potentially seriously problematical to me. I do believe that a solitary hermit who seeks to be canonically professed and consecrated as a diocesan hermit should have some background in religious life (or its equivalent) and access to a monastery where she may spend time -- including extended periods occasionally if that is possible. However, no community will take on a person in order to form them if the person does not intend to stay in the community. Nor should they.

Formation is done in the particular charism and mission of the institute in question. The purpose is not simply to make a religious, monastic, or hermit but to form someone into a Benedictine, Carthusian,  Camaldolese, Franciscan or Carmelite hermit, etc. One enters a community with the explicit sense of discerning and being formed in a vocation with this particular community for the rest of one's life. One learns to live with and love one's Sisters in this community, to be a Sister to them and to throw one's lot in with this group of people come what may. In such a community there is shared solitude which is every bit as communal as any other dimension of the life here. I think that some very rare communities might be willing to allow a person to undertake formation with them while knowing the person desires to become a diocesan hermit down the line but I suspect the successful candidate would be a rare and exceptional person as well.  If it were the case that one could become a hermit in six months to a year, perhaps one could arrange to be a guest somewhere for that period of time, but one cannot be formed as a hermit in such a short period -- much less be prepared for vows and consecration.

Absolutely one could learn to pray the Office, develop some sound habits of work, prayer, recreation, and rest which would serve one when one began one's formation as a solitary diocesan hermit; similarly, one could get a good sense of the nature of monastic and eremitic silence and solitude and see how one does in such a context, but formation as a hermit? No, not in such a time frame. Besides, one is to be formed as a solitary hermit and this takes time on one's own; it also requires that one (learn to) take care of everything one needs to live on one's own without the benefits of community life. This includes writing one's own Rule and this in itself requires experience as a solitary hermit and attention to what actually works for oneself during different seasons and during wellness and illness as well.

Finally, I have to say that the discernment and formation process of a diocesan hermit must be diocesan and involve diocesan personnel, the person's home parish, and so forth. This, I think, must be primary even if it is supplemented by periods at a monastery or hermitage one knows and even if it is preceded by a time as a religious in community. Only when this is the case will one know whether one can truly live an eremitical life outside a community of hermits; only in such a case will one be able to discern properly or provide appropriately for both initial and ongoing formation. Moreover, only in such a case can one know whether one's diocese is truly open to admitting hermits to profession and consecration under c 603. A diocese cannot promise to profess one IF one spends an extended time in a monastery or hermitage, nor can one expect a diocese to profess one simply because one HAS spent such time in such a context. Again, while such formation is apt to be beneficial, the solitary eremitical vocation is not the same as eremitical life in community; it must be lived and reflected  upon on its own terms.

What I would suggest to you if you are interested in becoming a diocesan hermit (or really to anyone who is so interested) and you (or they) have no background in religious life is the following: 1) find yourself a good spiritual director, preferably a religious with experience in formation and one who lives contemplatively (even if an apostolic religious); 2) establish a relationship with them over some time, 3) begin living as a solitary hermit if that is your decision (use c 603 as the guide for your life), 4) read everything you can about it as you meet regularly with your director. If you can live this way for two or three years, and if you really thrive in the silence of solitude, then try your hand at writing a Rule. Once you have managed this task (something which is likely to take you several months) you are probably ready to contact your diocese with a request that they consider admitting you to profession under c 603. If they are open to admitting ANY suitable person then at this point you will likely begin a discernment process with the diocese itself.

I do think that candidates for consecration under c 603 and those already professed and consecrated can benefit from regular time away in a disciplined, regular monastic context so I suggest looking into options for that. I believe this is ordinarily necessary in order to understand what a Rule and the life itself should include and also to have an experience which challenges one to faithfulness even when one is far from the monastic community. In this way I think I am in essential agreement with the perceptions of the person you cited in your question even I am not in agreement with her specific suggestion re joining a religious or monastic community. I believe that all dioceses that demonstrate caution in approaching the eremitical vocation lived in the name of the Church, who recognize the relative and even the absolute rarity of this vocation, and who understand the absolute need for sufficient formation --- both initial and ongoing --- serve this vocation even when they mainly refuse to profess individuals. Especially dioceses who recognize that a lone individual is not necessarily a hermit, that isolation (physical, emotional or psychological, etc) does not constitute eremitical solitude and who insist on communal or ecclesial sensibilities in their candidates serve this vocation. Whatever assists an individual candidate to live a life embodying authentic eremitical solitude needs to be considered and honored; extended or regular times with a community certainly aids in this.

11 January 2017

On the Blessing of Canonical Hermitages

[[Dear Sister, can a diocesan hermit's "prayer space", to use your term, be blessed legally (is that canonically)? What is necessary for this to happen?]]

Yes, legally and canonically mean the same thing in your question. As I understand the case at least three canons apply in such a circumstance, cc. 1226, 1228, and 1229. (Other canons may apply and I'll speak to that in a moment. First of all, a matter of terminology: The term chapel is now used to refer to a private place used for worship and Mass by one or more physical persons; it is not open to the public. A religious community's prayer place where the space may be used for public worship occasionally with permission of the superior is now called an oratory.)

For a diocesan hermit's prayer space to be established as a canonical chapel the local ordinary must approve. If Mass is to be celebrated there either because the hermit is a priest or because the hermit has a priest come occasionally to say Mass, the bishop must approve this as well. (It is recommended that when a hermit is permitted to reserve the Eucharist in her hermitage she also has Mass said there occasionally.)  Finally, under canon 1229 in order for the space to be blessed (consecrated) according to the usual liturgical books as a private chapel the space may not be used for any domestic purpose. Moreover the fixtures within the chapel (or, within the space which does not qualify to be blessed as a chapel under c 1229) --- things like tabernacles, monstrance, ciboria, and so forth are separately consecrated. (This is where other canons may apply.)

In my admittedly limited experience diocesan hermits do not ordinarily have the finances or, therefore, the space to dedicate an entire room to prayer without also using some of the space for other domestic purposes (e.g., sleeping). That means that those I know do not have their spaces blessed (or consecrated) as canonical chapels. (Tabernacles can be separated from the rest of the room by free-standing panels or a relatively fixed partition if one is forced by circumstances to also use the room for domestic purposes. Remember, only the hermit will use this space; it is not open to the public.) I don't think this would create a space which qualifies as a private chapel but it does honor conditions accompanying the right to reserve Eucharist in this space.

However, there is an alternative --- though canonically speaking neither does this constitute the space as a chapel; namely, to have the hermitage blessed as a home is blessed and then have the sacred fixtures or appointments like tabernacles, etc. specially blessed. This means that the space and appointments would be blessed by the bishop or a priest designated to do so. From my experience this would tend to be one's pastor. (Sometimes the bishop will come to the hermitage on the day of perpetual profession and in a post-liturgy consecration, bless it then; but often this cannot be arranged because of the distance between parish church and hermitage or others complications.) I think most diocesan hermits have their hermitages blessed in a simple home-blessing rite. Others will simply trust God to bless the hermitage in its use. By this I mean hermits will often trust that in the living of their lives, through their prayer, silence, solitude, and so forth, God will bless the hermitage with his presence.

I hope this is helpful.