13 January 2019

Feast of Jesus' Baptism (Reprise)

Of all the feasts we celebrate, [today's] feast of the baptism of Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to understand. We are used to thinking of baptism as a solution to original sin instead of the means of our initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus, or our adoption as daughters and sons of God and heirs to his Kingdom, or again, as a consecration to God's very life and service. When viewed this way, and especially when we recall that John's baptism was one of repentance for sin, how do we make sense of a sinless Jesus submitting to it?

I think two points need to be made here. First, Jesus grew into his vocation. His Sonship was real and completely unique but not completely developed or historically embodied from the moment of his conception; rather it was something he embraced more and more fully over his lifetime. Secondly, his Sonship was the expression of solidarity with us and his fulfillment of the will of his Father to be God-with-us. Jesus will incarnate the Logos of God definitively in space and time, but this event we call the incarnation encompasses and is only realized fully in his life, death, and resurrection -- not in his nativity. Only in allowing himself to be completely transparent to this Word, only in "dying to self," and definitively setting aside all other possible destinies does Jesus come to fully embody and express the Logos of God in a way which expresses his solidarity with us as well.

It is probably the image of Baptism-as-consecration and commissioning then which is most helpful to us in understanding Jesus' submission to John's baptism. Here the man Jesus is set apart as the one in whom God will truly "hallow his name." (That is, in Jesus' weakness and self-emptying God's powerful presence (Name) will make all things Holy and a sacrament of God's presence.) Here, in an act of manifest commitment, Jesus' humanity is placed completely at the service of the living God and of those to whom God is committed. Here his experience as one set apart or consecrated by and for God establishes God as completely united with us and our human condition. This solidarity is reflected in his statement to John that together they must fulfill the will of God. And here too Jesus anticipates the death and resurrection he will suffer for the sake of both human and Divine destinies which, in him, will be reconciled and inextricably wed to one another. His baptism establishes the pattern not only of HIS humanity, but that of all authentic humanity. So too does it reveal the nature of true Divinity, for our's is a God who becomes completely subject to our sinful reality in order to free us for his own entirely holy one.

I suspect that even at the end of the Christmas season we are still scandalized by the incarnation. (Recent conversations on CV's and secularity make me even surer of this!) We still stumble over the intelligibility of this baptism, and the propriety of it especially. Our inability to fathom Jesus' own baptism, and our tendency to be shocked by it  because of Jesus' identity,  just as JohnBp was probably shocked, says we are not comfortable, even now, with a God who enters exhaustively into our reality. We remain uncomfortable with a Jesus who is tempted like us in ALL THINGS, and matures into his identity as God's only begotten Son.

We are puzzled by one who is holy as God is holy and, as the creed affirms, "true God from true God" and who, evenso, is consecrated to and by the one he calls Abba --- and commissioned to the service of this Abba's Kingdom and people. A God who wholly identifies with us, takes on our sinfulness, and comes to us in smallness, weakness, submission and self-emptying is really not a God we are comfortable with --- despite three weeks of Christmas celebrations and reflections, and a prior four weeks of preparation -- is it? In fact, none of this was comfortable for Jews or early Christians either. The Jewish leadership was upset by JnBp's baptisms generally because they took place outside the Temple precincts and structures (that is, in the realm we literally call profane). Early Christians (Jewish and otherwise) were embarrassed by Jesus' baptism by John --- as Matt's added explanation of the reasons for it in vv 14-15 indicate. They were concerned that perhaps it indicated Jesus' inferiority to John the Baptist and they wondered if maybe it meant that Jesus had sinned prior to his baptism. And perhaps this embarrassment is as it should be. Perhaps the scandal attached to this baptism signals to us we are beginning to get things right theologically.

After all, today's feast tells us that Jesus' public ministry begins with a ritual washing, consecration, and commissioning by God which is similar to our own baptismal consecration. The difference is that Jesus' freely accepts life under the sway of sin in his baptism just as he wholeheartedly embraces a public (and one could cogently argue, a thoroughly secular) vocation to proclaim God's sovereignty. The story of the desert temptation or testing that follows this underscores this acceptance. His public life begins with an event that prefigures his end as well. There is a real dying to self involved here, not because Jesus has a false self which must die -- as each of us has --- but because in these events his life is placed completely at the disposal of his God, his Abba, in solidarity with us. Loving another, affirming the being of another in a way which subordinates one's own being to theirs --- putting one's own life at their disposal and surrendering all other life-possibilities always entails a death of sorts -- and a kind of rising to new life as well. The dynamics present on the cross are present here too; here we see only somewhat less clearly a complete and obedient (that is open and responsive) submission to the will of God, and an unfathomable subjection to that which human sinfulness makes necessary precisely in order that God's love may be exhaustively present and conquer here as well.

04 January 2019

Once Again on the Importance of Canonical Standing in Nurturing and Supporting the Eremitical Vocation

[[Dear Sister, I wondered if one of the reasons you support canonical standing for hermits has to do with the difficulty and importance of people understanding that solitude is more about communion or community than it is about isolation? What I was thinking was that it takes people to discern whether one is living an isolated life or one of eremitical solitude and the individual might not even know the difference. I also wondered if countering stereotypes of hermits is part of this same need for canonical standing or Church approval. Is this the reason the Church requires the hermit to jump through so many "hoops" to be professed canonically? I think you have written about this some. Lastly, I wondered if your own distinction between isolation and solitude as a "unique form of community" is rooted in your own experience of isolation or of growing to maturity in eremitical solitude? I don't think you have said much about this.]]

Thanks for your questions. They are excellent and it is very cool to hear you were wondering about this! I think I have written about all of these things except perhaps my own experience with/of isolation; I know I did some writing about the importance of canonical standing in On Hermit Ministry and the Call to Become God's Own Prayer and there may be another recent article that did the same. You might check under the label "solitude vs isolation" to see some of the ways I have approached this topic, especially as the place of the Church's discernment is revealed; the same is true of the label "eremitism as ecclesial" (or variations of this). One clarification, I do think canonical standing is important for hermits who live their vocations in the name of the Church, and I believe that strictly speaking, eremitical life is a gift of God to the Church and World which needs to be governed and supervised --- not always easy with such a prophetic vocation, but necessary nonetheless. At the same time I believe that many more than these relative few (consecrated/canonical hermits) are called instead to be lay hermits and to live eremitical life with the aid of spiritual directors and the support of their parishes; I also believe that the Church and world can and should benefit significantly from these lay eremitical lives --- no less than they do from the lives of consecrated hermits.

Difficulties in Discerning the Difference between Isolated Persons and Hermits:

That said, I do agree that there can be a significant difficulty in discerning the difference between an isolated person and one who has been embraced by and embraced eremitical solitude. (Remember that Merton writes poignantly about the necessity of solitude herself opening the door to the one who would be a hermit!) It requires a real knowledge of the person's heart and her commitment to and relationship with Life, Truth, and Love,  not merely a sense of the external silence and physical solitude of the person's life. I also agree that the process of discernment associated with the relatively long journey toward eremitical profession and consecration (always public or canonical in nature!) is a central way the Church lays bare and resolves this difficult question on a case by case basis. But the general difficulty remains and is evident even in newsletters, etc., which are meant to support and nurture eremitical vocations per se. One of the reasons I am not particularly enthusiastic about the self-identification so prevalent in forums like that of Raven's Bread (a newsletter for hermits, solitaries, and others who love solitude), for instance. is because just about anyone can call themselves a hermit and never feel a need to draw important distinctions regarding motivation, personal woundedness vs relative wholeness, historical and ecclesial understandings of the vocation, or to attend much to the tradition of eremitical life.

In today's excessively individualistic society everything from  an intolerant or self-indulgent cocooning to agoraphobia and misanthropy can be subsumed under the rubric "eremitism" in order to attempt to validate expressions of selfishness and woundedness while escaping the need for responsibility to Church and world in regard to a vocation which is meant for the edification of others via a unique proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This tendency to re-brand any number of social deficiencies and "disorders" as "eremitism" because solitude is defined only in terms of physical aloneness goes hand in hand with the tendency to rebrand or redefine license as authentic freedom. But eremitical solitude is only partly about physical solitude; at its heart it is about communion -- communion with God, with oneself, and with all others, communion which vividly defines the nature of the human being as a covenantal reality and human freedom as the counterpart of divine sovereignty.

In any case, just because someone says, "I am a hermit" in today's world does not mean they are one --- at least not as the Church understands the term; you are exactly right in pointing to the need for discernment in this. Even more important than the distinction between solitude and isolation in the need for canonical standing is the way in which this distinction is achieved and the reality it witnesses to in the authentic hermit: namely through her experience of the love of God in Christ which heals and transforms isolation into solitude. Because the canonical hermit is very specifically called and commissioned to live a solitude which vividly and consciously proclaims the life and love of God, the mutual discernment of the canonical process is necessary and helpful for all eremitical vocations. This is so because such a vocation results in wholeness, holiness, and a freedom expressed in compassionate self-gift rather than an isolation associated with personal woundedness, lack of freedom, a lack of generosity, and the incapacity for compassion or sacrifice. Distinguishing between these dimensions (solitude vs isolation, healthy withdrawal vs unhealthy withdrawal) in oneself is difficult; they can co-exist, especially in the beginning of an eremitical life when so much is ambiguous and still needs to be sorted out, integrated, or formed.

Fooling Ourselves and Misleading Others: The Importance of Mutual Discernment

Moreover, apart from this, our ability to fool ourselves and justify isolation --- especially by applying a label like "hermit" to validate this, by uncritically comparing ourselves to "hermits" of different centuries with different (and sometimes less valid) or actually unhealthy sensibilities and spiritualities, or (when unhealthy withdrawal or selfish isolation are met with skepticism or concern) by concluding, for instance, that we are simply misunderstood by "the world" which we believe we are somehow superior to spiritually or otherwise --- is simply too easy to do. But in these situations the so-called "hermit" will never witness adequately to the power of the love of God which unites her with all God loves; she will never be able to proclaim the Gospel in the unique way a hermit called to human wholeness and holiness will.

It takes others to assess and assist the hermit in assessing the real nature of her physical solitude, her deep motivations, her understanding of the nature of the vocation itself, the place of her relationship with God in Christ and others, and her own wholeness and holiness, if they are to truly discern the presence of an eremitical vocation. This has always been true in the church but it is much more urgent since canon 603 and the possibility of dioceses accepting hermit candidates without long formation in religious and/or monastic life.  Further, because of the individualism of our society, eremitism looks like many other things today  but at its heart it is generously (sacrificially) countercultural. Thus, because it is lived for others it is not a facile rejection of the world outside the hermitage nor an expression of spiritualities which falsely hypostasize and demonize "the world". (See posts re Thomas Merton's treatment of the notion of "the world" for explanations of this.)  Countering this false and destructive approach to the world around us and other stereotypes and misconceptions is certainly a part of the importance of canonical standing and the sometimes-lengthy discernment those seeking profession requires.

After all, how can a church be expected to profess individuals to a genuinely compassionate and generous eremitical life without making sure the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude is something candidates for profession and consecration have come to understand on the basis of long-experience, prayer, and even struggle to love effectively while embracing the life of a hermit? I sincerely believe the "hoops" we often refer to having candidates jump through are not usually onerous and are completely reasonable as the Church attempts to adequately embrace and celebrate the gift which God has given her in the midst of a world so often marked and marred by individualism and license. This is especially true given the uniqueness of each vocation and the way each candidate serves to educate the Church on the way the Holy Spirit brings individuals to an authentic eremitical vocation.

My Own Experience of the Distinction Between Isolation and Eremitical Solitude:

Your question about my own experience of isolation and growing to maturity in solitude is very perceptive. I insist that solitude is a unique experience of community partly because I have experienced the unhealthiness or destructiveness of isolation (physical, emotional, etc.) and its antithesis in the healing character of solitude,  partly because psychology and theology stress the importance of human relatedness (theology stresses this is our very nature), and partly because my own growth in solitary eremitical life (including the inner work I have undertaken over the past couple of years with my director) have each underscored this in its own complementary way.

Taking all these things together I would say I have been exploring the distinction between isolation and solitude for the whole of my life; I began long before I began doing so in a conscious way by focusing on eremitical solitude as a result of the publication of canon 603 in 1983. A number of factors made this necessary, not least significant childhood experiences of isolation and the effect of medically and surgically intractable epilepsy from the age of @ 19.  Similarly, the really positive influences in my life have underscored the communal nature of solitude along with the solitary pole of all community; that has been especially true with violin and orchestral playing, but also with academic work in Theology, my experience of community in religious life, work with physicians and others, and the gift of friendships, parish relationships, etc.

Without the deep and extensively-rooted sense that solitude represents the redemption of isolation, or the profound experience of being communal at our core, I do not know how I could have made sense of eremitical life or embraced it as a divine vocation. Thomas Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action captured my imagination but it did so because it spoke to and built on my life-experience of isolation vs. solitude. Without the experience of having the whole of my life being called to this particular form of self-gift, or the sense of the significance such a life holds where even many discrete gifts and talents are relinquished in order to witness to the way God alone creates, calls, and completes us as covenant partners in a relationship foundational for authentic human being, I could only have rejected eremitical life as the epitome of an unhealthy and inhuman withdrawal. For a host of reasons through the whole of my life I have been uniquely sensitized to isolation and marked with a hunger for genuine solitude. The inner work I have undertaken as part of spiritual direction is a commitment to being made more and more whole and holy in this kind of deeply relational or communal solitude.

By the way, in my emphasis on the ecclesial nature of this vocation this same dynamic is a defining element. While it is true that I often speak of ecclesial vocations in terms of ecclesial rights, obligations, and stable and governing structures, the communal nature of every such vocation is at the heart of the term "ecclesial". Ecclesial vocations represent vocations summoned forth by God from the "called ones" constituting the ecclesia. We say canonical hermits live eremitical life in the name of the Church and by that we mean such hermits are specifically authorized to live these vocations in the power and as an instance of the presence of the ecclesia. In other words, all such vocations are commissioned by the Church community; they are nourished by, embraced on behalf of that community and missioned by and for that community and those outside that community; finally they are lived in a way which edifies (builds up) that same community. How could someone claiming to be called to be a hermit honestly accept consecration to this ecclesial vocation if she failed to appreciate the communal dimension of her solitude and was committed to isolation instead of eremitical solitude?

31 December 2018

Everything is Holy Now



Sometimes readers have written that they are concerned that thinking of and seeing the world as sacramental diminishes the holiness we find in Word and (Eucharistic) Sacrament. For these folks it's as if seeing the world as extraordinary in this way makes of Word and Sacrament something "simply" ordinary. The Eastern Church saw Christmas as a feast marking the divinization (theosis) of reality (especially of the human being!) through the Incarnation --- a situation where awe and reverence become our "ordinary" or fundamental attitude toward the whole of God's creation. This song was sent to me as a sharing of part of yesterday's Eucharistic celebration and renewal of vows by the Sisters of the Holy Family on their Feast Day. Captures the truth of all of this wonderfully, doesn't it?

30 December 2018

Reflecting on the Feasts of the Octave of the Christmas

When I was an undergraduate at St Mary's College, CA, I worked with friends in campus ministry. One year, we planned the College Christmas Liturgy and, as theological students who were a little full of themselves we pressed the college chaplain to let us choose music that had nothing to do with little babies in mangers, etc. We wanted something less "sentimental", less marked by unhistorical Xmas Stars, angels, adorable lambs, charming shepherds, and so forth. Our instincts might have been good theologically, but to some extent we lacked a strong sense of the liturgies involved in the Church's celebration during the Octave of Christmas and the need to celebrate God now-present in the littlest and least! On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Massacre or Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents --- Matthew's unique narrative which helps contextualize the Feast of the Nativity. Just as Mark's version of the Gospel led him to write "a passion narrative with a long introduction," Matthew's Gospel eased any tendency to sentimentality in the Christmas narrative by reminding us that the Christmas star is accompanied by significant shadow!

But is the story of the massacre about something that really happened? There are good reasons for believing Matt's account is historical and not "just" the Evangelizer's "theologoumenon" (a narrative construct created to convey theological truth). Herod, after all, was known as a cruel, paranoid man driven by a need for power and a strong obsession with conspiracy theories. He had been made "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate in 40 BC, took over Jerusalem with a Roman army, and then maintained his hold on power by killing anyone who might have seemed the least threat. These people included not only a Hasmonean Prince, but 1 of 10 wives, his Mother-in-Law (also Hasmonean), 3 sons, a brother, 45 Jewish leaders and a handful of Pharisees, 300 military leaders, and any number of other folks Herod felt endangered his position or conspired against him. In general he was hated and after the death of his Sons Caesar Augustus noted, "I would rather be a pig than one of Herod's Sons!" When commentators describe Herod's typical pattern of behavior they would note he became fearful, killed whomever he feared, fell into a depression, and then as a response to this, shifted into a more active mode of "BUILD, BUILD, BUILD!!" All of this makes Herod's response to the birth of Christ and account from the Magi as believable; it does not strain credulity --- though it would also have made a powerful theologoumenon!

There is another reason we can believe in this event, however. Often students are told that because there is not multiple attestation in the other Gospels (this is Matthew's story alone!) and because we find no mention of it in Josephus (an ancient historian) or other extra-canonical sources we can't accept the story is historical; similarly they are taught that the huge numbers of children involved (variously, 3000, 16,000, or 64,000 in different Christian liturgical sources) without recognition by Josephus et. al., argues that such an event never happened. But archeologists now know that Bethlehem and immediate environs probably had a population of only 300 people; by extrapolation this means that the number of boys who were 2 years old or younger at this time was only @ 6-7. In a world where infanticide was accepted (or at least not remarked on!), the death of a handful of children by an established murderer and tyrant might well not occasion comment, much less be seen as historically significant. And finally, we ourselves have come to know how quickly people can become inured to stories of harm coming to the least and littlest in our society. Consider the atrocities in Syria and Yemen, or the cruelty now documented which happens to those seeking asylum from oppression daily on our Southern border by US government officials acting in our name  --- and as the Holy Family celebrated in today's Feast once needed to do as they fled to Egypt from Herod's machinations!

No, the massacre of the Holy Innocents and trek of the Holy Family into Egypt are credible as historical events and we trivialize and sentimentalize them at our peril --- and at the peril of our theology of the Nativity and Incarnation when we fail to appreciate the portrait of our world painted by various feasts of the Octave of Christmas. Today it is not uncommon to hear that our world is not as it should be because it is evolving toward the fulfillment God has willed for it; sin is sometimes left out of the equation altogether. But real as evolution is and hopeful as is the image of a world slowly evolving toward fulfillment as well, there are powers and principalities at work in our world which are evidence of sin --- that is, of the universal ratification of anti-Divine powers and principalities and the need for the intervention of God in our historical reality. I sincerely believe that the Christ Event would have occurred, sin or no, as a definitive step in the evolution of our world, but I also know that sin is real and the cosmic light of the Christmas star is bright in part because it stands against the backdrop of sin's darkness.

Christmas is a season of Joy not because there is no darkness, no sin, no oppression and death, but because it reminds us that God has made of our humanity a sacrament of (his) own life and light. History has become the sanctuary of the Transcendent and eternal God. Our God is now Emmanuel (God-with-us) and we, the littlest and the least have been ennobled beyond anything we might otherwise have imagined; in and through Christ we too are called to be Emmanuel for our world, in and through the Christ Event we are each made to be temples of the Holy Spirit. As Advent reminded us, we live in "in-between" times, a time of already but not-yet. There is work to be done, and suffering still to experience. But the light and joy of Christmas is real and something which will inspire and empower all that still needs to be done: caring for, loving (!) the least and littlest so they truly know they are the dwelling places of God; opposing the Herods of this world in whatever effective way we can so the Kingdom of God may be more fully realized by divine grace through time; allowing the joy and potential of the Christ's nativity in our world and ourselves to grow to fullness of grace and stature as we embrace authentic humanity and holiness.

My very best wishes to all on this Feast of the Holy Family and my special thanks to the Sisters of the Holy Family (Fremont, CA) for the charism embodied by the members of their congregation. As they mark the renewal of their vows on this feast we celebrate that they have been and remain a light to the littlest and the least amongst us, to the lost, abandoned, and rejected, the homeless or those who are otherwise without families, and to all those who have found in them a compassionate Presence capable in Christ of healing the wounds occasioned by sin and death.

25 December 2018

Merry Christmas From Stillsong

The Christmas Season extends to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Like other pivotal seasons of our faith it gives us a chance to ponder, pray with, and digest the call to enter into the mystery it represents, not only in the lives of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, John and Jesus, et al, but in our own as well. The dimension of reality we know as Word or Spirit, that dimension of mystery which permeates, enlivens, and grounds all of reality is ever dynamic and seeks ways to become more articulate within creation. It seeks to "overshadow" each of us so that we may each truly become God's word made flesh, a new creation, the imago dei we are made to be as God becomes sovereign in history..

There is an immensity in this call, an incommensurability when measured against our own weakness and personal poverty and we each meet it with a variety of emotions, concerns, and attitudes as we seek to bring our whole selves to it -- just as Mary (or so many of the other participants in the story of Christmas and Christianity) did. Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven" captures all of this so very well!! Sincerest wishes for  wonderful Christmas! Enjoy!!



24 December 2018

God With Us: Celebrating Mystery's Visitations in our Lives



Jump for Joy  by Eisbacher


Today's Gospel is wonderfully joyfilled and encouraging: Mary travels in haste to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and both women benefit from the meeting which culminates in John's leaping in his mother's womb and prophetic speech by both women. The first of these is Elizabeth's proclamation that Mary is the Mother of Elizabeth's Lord and the second is Mary's canticle, the Magnificat. Ordinarily homilists focus on Mary in this Gospel lection but I think the focus is at least as strongly on Elizabeth and also on the place the meeting of the two women has in allowing them both to negotiate the great mystery which has taken hold of their lives. Both are called on to offer God hospitality in unique ways; both are asked to participate in God's mysterious plan for his creation despite not wholly understanding this call and it is in their coming together that the trusting fiats they each made assume a greater clarity for them both.

Luke's two volumes (Luke-Acts) are actually full of instances where people come together and in their meeting or conversation with one another come to a fuller awareness of what God is doing in their lives. We see this on the road to Emmaus where disciples talk about the Scriptures in an attempt to come to terms with Jesus' scandalous death on a cross and the end of all their hopes. They are joined by another person who questions them about their conversation and grief. When they pause for a meal they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and their entire world is turned on its head. That which was senseless is on its way to making a profound sense which will ground the existence of the church. Peter is struggling with the issue of eating with the uncircumcised; he comes together with Cornelius, a Centurion with real faith in Christ. In this meeting Peter is confirmed in his sense that in light of Christ no foods are unclean and eating with Gentiles is Eucharistic. There are a number of other such meetings where partial perception and clarity are enhanced or expanded. Even the Council of Jerusalem is a more developed instance of the same phenomenon.

On Spiritual Friendship, both formal and informal:

I personally love Eisenbacher's picture above because it reminds me of one privileged expression of such spiritual friendship, namely that of spiritual direction. I can remember many meetings with my own director where there was immense surprise and joy at the sharing involved, but one of these stands out --- especially in light of this Gospel pericope. I had experienced a shift in my experience of celibacy. Where once it mainly spoke to me of dimensions of my life that would never be fulfilled (motherhood, marriage, etc), through a particular prayer experience it had come to be associated instead with espousal to Christ and my own sense of being completed and fulfilled as a woman. Thus, when I met with my director to share about this experience, I spoke softly about it, carefully, a little bashfully --- especially at first; but I also gained strength and greater confidence in the sharing of it. (I was not uncertain as to the nature of what I had experienced, but sharing it allowed it to claim me more completely and let me claim a new sense of myself in light of it.) My director listened carefully, and only then noted that she had always prayed for such a grace for all her novices (she had been novice director for her congregation); she then excused herself and left briefly. When she returned she had a CD and CD player with her. Together we sat quietly, but joyfully and even a bit tearfully celebrating what God had done for us while we listened to John Michael Talbot's  Canticle of the Bride.

Elizabeth and Mary come together as women both touched in significant ways by the mystery of God. They have trusted God but are not yet completely clear regarding the greater mystery or how this experience fits into the larger story of Israel's redemption. They are both in need of one another and especially of the perception and wisdom the other can bring to the situation so that they can truly offer God and God's plan all the space and time these require. Hospitality, especially giving God hospitality, takes many forms, but one of the most important involves coming together to share how God is active in our lives in the hope of coming to a greater and more life giving perspective, faith, and commitment. It is in coming together in this way that we clarify, encourage, challenge and console one another. It is in coming together in this way that we become the prophetic presence in our world Absolute Mystery calls us to be. Let us all be open to serving as friends to one another in this sense. It is an essential dimension of being Church and of the coming of the God we will celebrate as Emmanuel ("God with us") on the Feast of the Nativity.

20 December 2018

Looking for Personal Assistance: Got 3/4 Cello?

Hi all! This will be an unusual post for me here and I am a little embarrassed to be putting it up. However, I need some assistance with a decision I need to make so I am putting up an update on the healing of my broken wrist and the difficulties which still remain for me to resume some things which have been central to my prayer and "being myself" since I was about nine years old ---namely, playing music both in an orchestra and more importantly, in composing and in improvisational playing alone. In this latter I have always poured myself into my music and used it to express my heart's content. It allows a spontaneous expression of emotions, love, and so on; it is a dialogue with the God who moves me to stand alone and who empowers me to become an instrument of his own profound music.

My broken wrist  has mainly healed but there have been problems with tendons and ligaments as a result of the fall which caused the fractures in the first place. We have treated these with injections of corticosteroids and achieved significant relief from pain and inflammation but the pain on the ulnar side of my wrist continues in a way which prevents my playing violin. The cortisone is curative for the inflammation of the main tendons of my thumb, but not for those of the ulna; it is merely palliative and cannot deal with the problem here itself. And here is the point: because of the way my bones healed my ulna is now longer than it was before. That means the ligament which ties it to the radius (which is also healed but differently shaped) is being pulled and possibly torn some. It is a major source of continuing pain and lack of movement but it is keeping the joint stable and doing its job! The solution may be surgical if I want to play violin again. If steroids are insufficient, the doctor (who is really fine!!) would need to go in, re break the styloid process of the ulna, remove a couple of millimeters and then pin and plate it back into position. When it heals there would need to be a second surgery to remove the plates and pins.

There is a second solution here and here is where I require assistance. I could change instruments to one which does not require the serious rotation of the wrist necessary for violin. While my pastor suggested a comb and waxed paper the other night as we drove to a Chanticleer concert, my thought is that I could shift to a cello. (Combs and waxed paper tickle my lips too  much!) So, I am wondering if maybe readers could assist me in this. I need to find a playable cello which is less than a full-sized instrument, viz, I need a 3/4 or 7/8 instrument to learn on. (I would prefer either a small 7/8 or a larger 3/4 but a large 3/4 might be the best size for me.) I am hoping that someone somewhere has one they, or their children, have outgrown or otherwise set aside and would consider a long-term loan of such an instrument. If I can move to this solution I can avoid surgery, and continue playing music --- a very good thing! More over, I could use the cello as I have used the violin since grade school --- namely,  to compose and improvise, to touch into the "river of music" I know as God.

If anyone has a way of assisting me in this, or has questions and suggestions, I would be happy to hear them. You can write me at Sister Laurel M O'Neal, Er Dio, /St Perpetua Catholic Community/2454 Hamlin Road, Lafayette, Ca 94549, or you can email me at SRLAUREL@aol.com. I hope someone out there has an instrument they don't need and can loan me indefinitely; it will have great care. I have access to a fine violin shop where I can get the instrument additional care as needed. Bottom line, I am hoping folks have access to a playable 3/4 or smaller 7/8 cello that has rested in a closet somewhere and might love a quiet home. Thanks for your consideration! And may your Advent and Christmas be full of the peace of our God --- the God who chooses to make his dwelling place amongst us so that one day we might also dwell in (him) as God becomes all in all.

 
So thanks for reading about my problem and bearing with my requests and embarrassment. It is Advent and a time for preparing for surprise and newness, a time when we prepare to incarnate ourselves the Word of God in the midst of any personal barrenness. I am finding ways to create and pray and write and teach out of my contemplative solitary prayer during this time, but if it is possible to avoid more surgery as well as recover a major form of prayer, I would like to do that. If I can remain open to new possibilities I can and will be peaceful in a time of Advent. waiting and expectation. God surprises as he fulfills his promises. Thanks again!

14 December 2018

Jesus and John the Baptist: Two Approaches to Forgiveness (Reprised)

Gospel Reading for Friday, 2nd Week of Advent: Matthew 11:16-19

Recently I watched story of a woman (Eva Moses Kor) who survived the holocaust. She was one of a pair of twins experimented on by Dr Mengele. Both she and her sister (Miriam) survived the camp but her sister's health was ruined and years later she later died from long term complications. Mrs Kor forgave Mengele and did so as part of her own healing. She encouraged others to act similarly so they would no longer be victims in the same way they were without forgiveness and she became to some extent despised by a number of other survivors. What struck me was the fact that Eva had come implicitly to Jesus' own notion of forgiveness and justice (where her own healing is paramount and brings about changes in others and the fabric of reality more than other notions of justice) while others clung to the Jewish teaching which states that amendment and restitution (signs of true repentance but more than this as well) must be made before forgiveness is granted. What also struck me was that she was indeed freer and less a victim in subjective terms than those who refused to forgive saying they had no right, for instance. Further, her forgiveness and freedom freed others (including another doctor at the camp (Dr Hans Munch) who had, until he met Eva and heard of her own stance towards Mengele, been unable to forgive himself) --- though it also pointed up the terrible bondage of either refusal or inability to forgive which other survivors experienced, especially as this became complicated by their newfound anger with Eva.

Today's Gospel reminds me of this video (and vice versa) because of the close linkage of John Bp and Jesus, and so of two very different (though still-related) approaches to repentance and forgiveness. On the one hand, a strictly ascetic John the Baptist preaches what John Meier describes as a "fierce call to repentance, stiffened with dire warnings of fiery judgment soon to come." (A Marginal Jew, vol 2, pp 148-49) In general John's preaching is dismissed and John himself is treated contemptuously as being mad or possessed by a demon. In the language of the parable John piped a funeral dirge and people refused to mourn.

On the other hand we have Jesus of Nazareth preaching the arrival of the Kingdom of God and offering "an easy, joyous way into [that] Kingdom" by welcoming the religious outcasts and sinners to a place in table fellowship with himself. Meier characterizes the response to THIS call to repentance in terms of the parable, [[With a sudden burst of puritanism, this generation felt that no hallowed prophet sent from God would adopt such a free-wheeling, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, hobnobbing with religious lowlifes and offering assurances of God's forgiveness without demanding the proper process for reintegration into Jewish religious society. How could this Jesus be a true prophet and reformer when he was a glutton and a drunkard, a close companion at meals with people who robbed their fellow Jews . . .or who sinned willfully and heinously, yet refused to repent. . .?]] In other words, in terms of tomorrow's parable Jesus piped a joyful tune, a wedding tune, and people refused to join in the celebration and dismissed Jesus himself as a terrible sinner, worthy of death.

There is wisdom in both approaches to repentance and forgiveness. Both are part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Both approaches are rejected by "this generation" --- as Jesus calls those who refuse to believe in him. Both lead to greater freedom. But it is Jesus' model which leads to the kind of freedom Eva Moses Kor discovered and which is supposed to mark our own approach to repentance and forgiveness. After all repentance is truly a celebration of God's love and mercy, and these we well know are inexhaustible. Still, entering the celebration is not necessarily easy for us, and we may wonder as some of the other survivors wondered about Eva's forgiveness of Mengele: do we have the right to forgive? Is it wise to act in this way towards someone who has not repented and asked for our forgiveness? Isn't this a form of "cheap grace" so ably castigated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer --- also a victim of the Nazi death machine? (cf The Cost of Discipleship) Where does forgiveness become enabling and does it demean others who have also been harmed? What about tough love: isn't John Bp's approach the better one? Am I really supposed to simply welcome serious sinners into my home? Into our sacred meal? To membership in the Church? To my circle of friends?

And the simple answer to most of these questions is yes, this is what we are called to do. The Kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus' example is the one we follow. It is this example which leads to the freedom of the Kingdom, this example that made Christians of us and will in time transform our world. In particular, it is this example which sets the tone for Advent joy and festivity and allows the future to take hold of our lives and hearts. It is not merely that we have the right to forgive in this way, but that we have been commissioned to do so. It is an expression of our own vocations to embody or incarnate the unconditional mercy of God in Christ.

Most of us will find ourselves caught between the prophetic example of John the Baptist and the Messianic example of Jesus' meal fellowship with sinners. We have great empathy both for the approach of Eva Moses Kor AND those survivors who could not forgive Mengele --- often because they felt that doing so was contrary to justice as spelled out in the Scriptures and elaborated in rabbinical tradition, as well as because it demeaned his victims. We know that "tough love" has a place in our world and that "cheap grace" is more problem than solution. Tomorrow's Gospel underscores our own position between worlds and kingdoms, and it may cause us to recognize that there was a deep suspicion of Jesus' table fellowship which was grounded in more than envy or fear. We may see clearly that the Jewish leadership of Jesus' day had serious and justified concerns about the wisdom of Jesus' actions and praxis. Even so, it is also clear regarding which model of repentance and forgiveness we are to choose, which model represents the freedom of the Kingdom of God, and which model allows us to be Christ for others. As Matthew's version of this parable also affirms, the wisdom of this approach will be found in its fruit --- if only we can be patient and trust in the wisdom of Jesus, the glutton, drunkard, and libertine who consorted with serious sinners.

12 December 2018

A Contemplative Moment: Into the Eye of God


  Into the eye of God
by Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB

For your prayer
     your journey into God,
    may you be given a small storm
    a little hurricane
      named after you,
     persistent enough
      to get your attention
    violent enough
       to awaken you to new depths
      strong enough
       to shake you to the roots
     majestic enough
       to remind you of your origin:


      made of the earth
      yet steeped in eternity
      frail human dust
       yet soaked with infinity.

     You begin your storm
      under the Eye of God.
      A watchful, caring eye
      gazes in your direction
   as you wrestle
        with the life force within.

In the midst of these holy winds
In the midst of this divine wrestling
    your storm journey
    like all hurricanes
       leads you into the eye,   
   Into the Eye of God
     where all is calm and quiet.

A stillness beyond imagining!
Into the Eye of God
after the storm
Into the silent, beautiful darkness
  Into the Eye of God.


I used this poem for prayer a few evenings ago. It is taken from Macrina Wiederkehr's A Tree Full of Angels, Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. Advent seems to me a fine time to consider the presence of the Holy in the Ordinary moments and moods of reality. Sister is a monastic of St Scholastica Monastery, Fort Smith, Arkansas.

09 December 2018

Second Week of Advent: Movies and Lectio Divina (reprised)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 November 2018

Realized Eschatology: Embracing the Mid-Air Living of Advent (Reprised)

Almost two weeks ago (Saturday evening) my pastor and I had an email conversation about the situation in Paris and Sunday's readings which were so dramatically apocalyptic in tone and content. The underlying Theology we were both challenged by was the Johannine perspective which is sometimes called "realized eschatology" --- a term which captures the "already and the not yet" character of the world in which we live and of the Kingdom of God for which we and all of creation yearn. We recognize clearly that our world is one where Jesus' passion has "defeated death" and thus, everything has changed but at the same time we recognize that death is still with us and our world is not yet all it is meant to be; it is not yet the world in which God is "all in all."

Monks of Tibhirine
Father John shared a quote with me that Saturday evening from John Shea --- the theologian and poet whose poem on the resurrection I shared here around last Easter, (cf., After the End) John Shea speaks of "mid-air living" which is something like when a trapeze artist lets go of one bar and then --- after what seems like a long moment ---  grabs the wrists of the person catching him/her. "This life is/always will be a time of transition./ Change can be quick,/ in the “blink of an eye,”/ but transition is slow."

Thus, John began his homily with a reference to the Cirque de Soleil and drew out this image of a change that happens quickly "in the blink of an eye" but a transition that can (seemingly at least) take forever." I thought the image and Father John's use of it were truly brilliant as an illustration of the situation in which we Christians find ourselves today. In the face of the apocalyptic tone of so many of the readings over the past two weeks John Shea's reference to mid-air living and Father John's images from the Cirque de Soleil have stayed with me these last couple of weeks. That was especially true as we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. Once again the contrast between the world of everyday reality and the world where God is sovereign in Christ, worlds which interpenetrate one another but are not yet one spoke of "mid-air living".

Today's readings underscore the same imagery and dynamic. Daniel is actually recognized as the "already but not-yet" book of the Old Testament. It speaks of two very different Kingdoms, both present in this same world of ours. One is all-too-recognizable. Originating from the four winds and drawn from the sea (a symbol of primordial chaos and too, sinful reality) are four monsters, four rulers which are "like men" or become "like men" but are characterized as less than and other than that at the same time. One has a human-like brain and is seriously smart, one is "like a bear" and characterized by his cruelty, He is a devourer of much flesh. A third is drawn as a leopard with four heads; to him all dominion is given. A fourth is very like a man but again, is not human; he is incredibly strong and arrogant.

And finally, in Daniel's picture of the world he knows, there is another truly sovereign Ruler called the Ancient One or the Ancient of Days. When thrones are set up this ruler's trappings are marked by flames and incredible whiteness --- symbols of power, judgment, mystery, life, and purity. The throne itself has "wheels of fire" --- a symbol whose meaning is now uncertain. Some say it symbolizes the notion that the throne is moveable and will no longer be in Jerusalem --- an idea supporting the notion that God will be Lord over all nations, not just Israel; others suggest that this Ruler, God's very self, has taken the throne of heaven and moved it to earth. In any case, this Ruler and his Kingdom are present alongside the "monsters" described in the first part of the lection and their Kingdoms. Daniel thus describes an ambiguous world in which there are two kinds of kingdoms, two kinds of sovereignty and even two kinds of time existing alongside one another. As Daniel puts it, the kingdoms standing in opposition to the Kingdom of the Ancient One have already been judged and the great beast (Death itself?) has been slain but, [[The other beasts, which also lost their dominion,were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season.]]

The significant lesson in this is twofold: 1) our God is and will always be with us in the midst of this world's trials, and 2) one day God's kingdom will be established in a way which transforms us and our world completely. Judgment, the making right of all reality has begun, and we ourselves will be made truly human only in light of the sovereignty of God. In Daniel it is from the Sovereignty of the Ancient One that the Son of Man comes. Originally the term "son of man" meant one who is truly human and it had messianic connotations. Eventually, in light of the Christ Event, it came to be seen to refer to Jesus, God's anointed One. This Son of Man is seen as the  destroyer of death and the redeemer of our world, the one in whom reality is set to rights.

Today's Gospel underscores the sense that in Christ God's Kingdom has come upon us in a truly unexpected way. Jesus has been healing and preaching the Kingdom. The blind see, the deaf hear and crippled people walk because of him. But many remain blind and in bondage; many refuse to see. All the signs are that the Ancient One has "moved his throne" and Jesus iterates that people must learn to see these signs right in front of them. And of course, in a world filled with terrorism and death it is not always easy today either to see the signs that the Kingdom of God has come amongst us. It is not always easy to hold onto the hope Daniel wanted to inculcate in his own people and which Luke and John with his Gospel of "mid-air living" (realized eschatology) proclaims. It is not easy to claim the humanity which is ours in Christ who is the Son of Man so long hoped for when that contrasts so wildly with the other sovereignties of our world. The change we were looking for came quickly and definitively in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It came in wholly unexpected ways, in incarnation, powerlessness and self-emptying; in relative obscurity, poverty and shameful death. In Christ eternal death has been destroyed. Transition though takes a long time.

This weekend we begin the new liturgical year as we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Once again the Church offers us the chance to "begin at the beginning" and allow ourselves and our world to be further transformed by the God who has set up his throne amongst us. Today's readings remind us what Daniel and Israel hoped for, what they saw all of creation moving towards in a long moment of trial and transformation. Let us enter into this season with joy and hope as those who see reality with new eyes, the eyes of the dreamer and prophet Daniel, the eyes of Jesus whose vision is filled with the love of his Father, the eyes of those who have been made a new creation in Christ. Let us commit to working toward that day when God will be all in all.  Let us commit to being People who live fully in that long and difficult, but also joyful moment of already and not yet.

29 November 2018

On Esteeming Prayer as the Heart of the Universal Call to Holiness

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I pray you are well and I would like to wish you in advance a good Advent and a merry Christmas. I read your recent blog post which responded to a reader who assumed hermits “do nothing”. I thought your response was excellent. I just wanted to share with you the response I heard a Trappist monk gave when he was asked that question by someone visiting the monastery. Essentially, he said: “The value you place on prayer will determine the value you place on contemplative life.” I loved his response because of its simplicity. He left it at that, and it left us thinking. It really challenged me to evaluate how important I think prayer and worship is.

If prayer and worship is really important then it makes sense that certain people devote their lives exclusively to that for the good of the Church and world. That prayer and that witness to its importance is “ministry”. I think why many people have a problem with contemplative life is that deep down they really don’t think prayer, worship and penance are that essential. What do you think? ]]

Thanks for your comments, sharing, and question; it is always good to hear from you. I think your observation, building as it does on the Trappist monk's analysis is right on. However, I also think that it is important to analyze why it is prayer, worship, and penance are no longer considered essential. (For now, however, I am going to set the idea of practicing penance aside and focus on the devaluation of prayer we see so often.) Since you have read my blog for some time I don't think my own observations will surprise you, but to be frank, I believe the way prayer has been presented not only by the Church generally, but especially within the context of a dated cosmology and naïve theology (portrait of God) which sees God as A being rather than as the ground and source of being, meaning, and true personhood has been a central reason folks no longer see prayer and worship as essential. There are related cultural and anthropological (human!) reasons, not least a post Enlightenment esteem for human capacities and progress, our very real scientific naturalism (the idea that only empirical reality is real), a correlative atheism or at least agnosticism, and a correlative, and thus, inflated notion of the independence and power of the human person (which results in, among other things, an exaggerated activism.

All of these have contributed to notions of prayer which are (or tend to remain) superficial, often superstitious, extraordinarily selfish, and focused almost entirely on what human beings want and do, rather than on allowing God to work within us according to God's own will and our deepest needs. In a culture which mainly sees faith in God as irrational and entirely unjustified except among the supposedly naïve and scientifically ignorant, it is not hard to understand another part of why prayer and worship are no longer sufficiently esteemed. However, in this post I want to look in a summary fashion at ways the Church herself complicated the matter. This occurred by encouraging a kind of infantilism of the laity, discouraging lay Catholics from even entertaining the idea that they might be called to contemplative prayer, by discouraging and otherwise limiting the reading of Scripture by Catholics of all states of life, and of course, by embracing clericalism and a theology of vocations that opened the riches of the Tradition we hold in trust and expectation by God to a relative few and prevented the laity from assuming positions of ministerial, pastoral, and administrative leadership.

The Church Contributes to the Problem:

Prayer, especially contemplative prayer and lives of prayer (as opposed to "merely" saying occasional prayers), have neither generally nor effectively been seen as truly fundamental to every vocation and every state of life --- at least not in the modern church. Prayer-as-foundational was seen as the purview of priests and religious, the truth of "their" vocations. The Church in the last several centuries legally enforced minimal participation in liturgy and sacraments until the Vatican Council II; similarly she expected relatively little of adult lay Catholics beyond an embrace of prayer mainly using devotions, perhaps a morning offering and grace before meals. While the purpose of her legislation may have been concern for the eternal lives of People of God, the result, in combination with other elements, was the infantilization I spoke of earlier. When Vatican II occurred the Church officially embraced a very different theology of and perspective on the laity. She expected and encouraged the laity to embrace mature spiritual lives in which almost nothing familiar and common to the prayer lives of priests and religious would remain foreign to the laity. She expanded the Lectionary, reformed and taught the Divine Office as the official prayer of the WHOLE Church and encouraged the laity to adopt at least some of the major hours (Lauds, Vespers, and perhaps Compline, for instance).

The Church opened the Scriptures via Lectio Divina and Bible study to the laity as well, encouraged genuine participation in the Liturgy as she unofficially eased her emphasis on devotionals; she recommended retreats and workshops, opened ministries and theological education on several different levels including undergraduate and graduate through post-doctoral levels for the first time to the laity (including women!). In other words, the Church did a 120 degree turn in all of these things and codified the changes in the major decrees and more minor documents of Vatican II. (I am leaving 60 degrees shy of 180 degrees for the role of women in leadership in the Church.  I believe this remaining significant deficiency also has an affect on the prayer lives of lay women and perhaps women religious as well.)

Change is hard:

But the implementation of such wide-ranging change (even only 120 degrees!) takes time. Most fundamentally, below all of these changes, the most difficult transition has been developing a theology of the laity which embraces and makes theological sense of these changes. Clericalism has prevented this as has the flawed notion of religious or consecrated life as a "higher" vocation than the lay vocation. (Again, in the hierarchical sense of the term "lay", religious who are not clerics are laity; in the vocational sense of the term "lay" they are not.) Religious men and women who chose to adopt regular garb did so, in large part, as a piece of helping the whole Church embrace this new esteem for the laity. (I disagree that this produced the results desired, but I understand this reason for relinquishing habits and respect those who chose to do so for this reason more than I can adequately say.) Implementation also takes effort and resources --- and interest! While clerical and religious theologians can contribute to this project, properly speaking it takes laity to develop and implement an adequate theology of lay life!

What I mean is that parishes have done a lot in offering programs for adults, in opening ministries to the laity, in improving preaching so it really speaks to the circumstances of the ordinary person, and otherwise encouraged lay members of the faith community to mature theologically, spiritually, and as human persons. At the same time it is not always easy to get folks to let go of some things or rearrange priorities to truly embrace a new vision of the lay vocation and what I call a prayer life. And yet, that is what God calls each of us to, viz, a life suffused with and empowered by prayer, a life marked by conscious and focused openness to the Presence and Spirit of God that seeks to breathe within us in ways that enlarge and transfigure our hearts, a life in which the incarnate and cosmic Christ is truly sovereign.

Recovering an Appreciation of Prayer as the Heart of Every Vocation

In my own vocation I have come to understand prayer differently than I once did and differently than I think many tend to do. My allergy to the notion of people as "prayer warriors" has hardened (though at the same time I recognize lives of prayer are truly engaged in a struggle for the Kingdom of God). God is at work in us and in our world offering us all we need to be our truest selves. Prayer is first of all and always a matter of God working within us.  Moreover then, our own part in prayer is always our response to the activity/presence of God within and around us. Because I believe what I have written about contemplative prayer  --- namely, that it is in this way that we witness to the fact that God alone completes us whether or not we have and/or use other gifts in active ministry, I also believe this is the deepest truth of prayer, the thing which makes it the heart of what Vatican II identified as the universal call to holiness, and provides the one perspective which makes truly esteeming prayer possible.

So much here I had to leave unsaid and will need to return to! Thanks again for your email and questions. Have a fruitful Advent and a Good Christmas if I don't hear from you again before then.

27 November 2018

On Hermits, Ministry, and Community --- Learning to see with New Eyes

[[Dear Rev. Sister, There are two things about your life which I don't understand. The first is how you justify not doing any kind of ministry like other Sisters do. The second one has to do with how you live community if you don't live in a religious community with other Sisters. I don't see how you can be a religious if you don't live in community. Isn't that the very definition of a religious? It seems to me the Church is making a mistake in professing hermits. Our world needs religious who model community, not individuals who can't or anyway don't live even in community. It also needs Sisters who do ministry. Some parishes have never even seen a Religious Sister in recent years and the laity are not committed to ministry like a Sister is. I think we need Sisters who model ministry, not those who live alone and do nothing. By the way are you allowed to go home for Thanksgiving?]]

Good questions. Canon 603, the canon which governs my life and that of other solitary consecrated hermits has led to some changes in the way we see religious life; at the same time some dimensions of consecrated life which were long-accepted are underscored and call us to an even deeper appreciate the Church's theology of consecrated life. In particular, the Church's approach to eremitical life is all-important for understanding why hermits exist and why the Church consecrates them and thus, recognizes or even  "honors" their existence! Your questions are really posed to the Church itself, I think: why does she esteem this vocation? Why recognize it as a divine call at all? What justifies this? Isn't eremitical life itself --- as I once would have put it --- a waste of skin?

Your first question has to do with ministry and assumes (or asserts) I don't do any or that I "live alone and do nothing". While you don't use the word, I think you are wondering about active ministry and why I don't do much of that in the way apostolic or ministerial Sisters do. It is true that active ministry is not and cannot be primary in my life, but I still do a significant (that is, a meaningful) degree of this within the limitations of solitary eremitical life. I am Pastoral Assistant at St Perpetua Catholic Community and do Communion Services once a week and a handful of other things from time to time; I also do spiritual direction and some writing. But this aside, my own eremitical solitude and prayer are actually my primary ministry and gift to the Church and world.

You see, I try to share some of what this is all about on this blog; what I try to live is something Merton said this way: “the Christian solitary today should bear witness to the fact that certain basic claims about solitude and peace are in fact true, [for] in doing this, [they] will restore people’s confidence first in their own humanity and beyond that in God’s grace.” The hermitage represents for the individual and society that place where the hermit “can create a new pattern which will fulfill (her) special needs for growth. . .and confront the triple specters of ”boredom, futility, and unfulfillment, which so terrify the modern American.”

The freedom of the hermit is at the service of this witness which is her ministry. I think it's pretty important, but you are correct that I am not involved in active ministry in the same way or to the same degree as ministerial or apostolic Sisters. I am a contemplative and while there are several ways of describing this I like Thomas Merton's: [[The contemplation of the Christian [hermit] is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating [her] own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] This is the same awareness we have when we understand ourselves in the Pauline sense of "Earthen vessels" or when we embrace the reality of authentic incarnation through kenosis. My life is dedicated to this kind of growth, self-emptying and incarnation. It is the contemplative way of prayer and the way to holiness to which God calls me. The question then, is why is this witness so important? Why would God call someone to this and why would the Church recognize and esteem such a call?

I think you can imagine a spectrum of human needs and corresponding ecclesial ministries. People seek to be fed, taught, and healed; they need advocates and assistance in all kinds of ways (attorneys, social workers, spiritual directors, etc.); they need the Gospel proclaimed to them in Word and deed. Active ministry fills all of these roles and more, but a human being's deepest need, a need which is most vividly revealed when suffering drives a person to the depths of helplessness and hopelessness, for instance, is the need to be assured that faith in God is not only reasonable, but that, in fact, one's relationship with God is the single thing which will complete us and bring real happiness and peace; it is the single thing that will inspire, strengthen, and provide the impetus for moving forward or enabling one to live fully and freely no matter the limitations or constraints also present. While every religious witnesses to the importance of one's relationship with God, some do so in a more primary and, in some ways, even more vivid and exclusive way; these religious are contemplatives and a relative few are hermits.

While it is true that hermits pray "assiduously" --- as canon 603 puts the matter --- what this means most fundamentally is that we try to allow God to work in us in ways which make of our hermitages outposts of the Kingdom of God, and (we sincerely hope) mediators of the energy of love we know as the Holy Spirit. I have a deep trust that the love of God, when embodied in this way changes the world --- though I have no sense of how that is and no way to quantify it. I hold people in prayer and trust that because God is at the center of both of our lives they will experience some degree of being accompanied by me in God, some sense of presence and love beyond what they might otherwise have experienced; and yet, the experience of this is not crucial; the fact of it is, however. When I think of praying in this way I think of binding people together in ways that begin to reflect the unity of the Kingdom once fulfilled. I think of allowing the Kingdom to come in my own heart and in the world around me. I do not pray to change God's mind, or to ask God for something he has not already anticipated; I pray to enter into God's own will and love for the persons for whom I am praying.  I think of this as ministerial, though no doubt it is not the active ministry most folks would recognize.

Similarly, in contemplative prayer I simply allow God to be God --- and to complete and perfect me as the one God calls me to be. In this way I give witness to the same thing Thomas Merton once discussed when he spoke about the fundamental vocation of the hermit. What Merton said in a passage very similar to the observation quoted above, was that he owed it to his community to live happily and at peace in his hermitage and in union with God. If the hermit does that, Merton affirmed, she witnesses to certain truths about the relation of nature and grace. When I have written about this here I have spoken of the "dialogical" or covenantal nature of the human being. Hermits witness above all, it seems to me, to the truth I wrote about recently, namely, that which only I can do (in this case, to be myself), I cannot do alone. But hermits do this on the most foundational level, the level of being itself. We say that the human person, insofar as she is truly an "I" is constituted as a "we", that God is a constitutional part of our selves.

When hermits through the ages have said that "God alone is sufficient for us" they have not truly meant we can live lives of total isolation (though physical solitude is crucial here); they have meant God is the One necessary if we are to truly be ourselves. We speak of this "being ourselves" with and in God as being whole and holy or being complete(d) and perfect(ed).  Again, I believe these things have important ministerial dimensions and are profoundly pastoral; it is important that persons understand the eremitical life for this reason, but I think that even when the vocation is not well-understood, it remains provocative and raises questions for those who hear of hermits in their midst (in the Universal Church, diocese, or even in the parish), for instance.

Sisters and Community, Presence in Parishes, etc.

Clearly I disagree with you that the Church is making a mistake in professing hermits. But again, they are not trying to profess ministerial Sisters in doing so. They (the Church) pray that these professions will witness to the Gospel, to the truth that our God loves us unconditionally and eternally and will never leave us. They (hermits)witness to the fact that our God's love completes and sanctifies us no matter our personal poverty otherwise. They (hermits) say this with their lives. But they also witness to community rather than isolation; solitary consecrated hermits have what are called "ecclesial vocations"; they exist in the heart of the Church in a silence and solitude which are the deepest expression of identity and community. (Imagine a communion which is beyond words and busyness, a communion marked by rest and simply "being with and for".) Every person is called to know and witness to this profound solitude whose heart is the identity (selfhood) and relatedness of communion with and in God -- though very few will do so in eremitical solitude. We all know what it means to stand alone, to be our selves alone; this latter occurs only with and in God. The paradox at the heart of our faith is that when we are truly ourselves, when we are our selves alone we no longer stand alone; instead we are more profoundly related to God and one another than ever before. (Hence the article I wrote which affirmed, "That which only we (ourselves) can do, we cannot do alone!"

The problems you raise with regard to Sisters in parishes and children who have never seen or been taught by a Sister are very real. However, there have always been different vocations and we do no one any service by refusing to recognize those that we believe are less needed than those we miss and more evidently esteem. That is a little like asking a store to stop selling apples because farmers have been unable over the last decade or so to provide as many oranges as they once did. The problem, which is likely a complex one, needs to be resolved in different ways and on different levels --- if resolution is even possible. Meanwhile, while you are correct that prior to canon 603, the term "religious" applied only to those living in a community with other Religious Sisters and Brothers, canonists now recognize that in light of canon 603, the term religious now applies to persons with no formal bonds to a religious institute. (Handbook on Canons 573-746). This does not include hermits with private vows, of course, but those who instead are legitimately consecrated by the Church in a Rite of Public Profession and Consecration.

More and more, the laity (in the vocational rather than hierarchical sense of that term) are able to do ministry in the same way Religious Sisters once did within parishes. They are better educated theologically and pastorally and while they tend to work full time elsewhere, the contributions lay persons make to the life of a parish is significant (invaluable) and will continue to grow to be more so. The Church Vatican II envisioned is, in some ways, a very different Church than most of us knew as children or young adults. As the numbers of Religious men and women dwindle, the laity will become more and more responsible for the very life of the Church and all the ministry done therein. In the same way as the number of ordained celibate priests declines (and we do not see this decline diminishing in the near future), alternatives will need to be found to ensure the Church's Sacramental ministry. But God has always provided, and will continue to provide -- if only we have the vision and the courage to embrace the solutions which open to us! The Gospel continually challenges us to learn and be made able to "see with new eyes". In each of the situations you outlined this need is perhaps the greatest one we face.

Thanksgiving:

Yes, I am certainly allowed to "go home" for Thanksgiving. I ordinarily do not do so. Last year I celebrated Mass and ate dinner with the Friars at San Damiano though. This year, I went to Mass, had coffee with a Dominican friend, and then I stayed in and spent a relatively quiet day, reading, praying and working on a reflection for the service on Friday morning. I did have turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce for dinner --- along with pumpkin ice cream and caramel sauce. (Of course last month I was able to go on retreat with Ilia Delio, OSF, then to spend several days with old friends, and at the beginning of this month I was able to attend a weekend retreat with Brother Mickey McGrath (cf picture to the right) so there has been a lot of time away from my hermitage, a lot of celebrating, and a good chunk (experience) of "home" as well. It has been a wonderful Thanksgiving "season" and I am looking forward to Advent.)

I sincerely hope this is helpful to you.