15 January 2022

Follow up on Time Frames, Regularity and Structure with C 603 Vocations

[[ Dear Sister, I just noticed the addendum you wrote for the blog post on my question. Thanks for doing that. I was going to ask the question again and then go a little farther. Maybe I can do that now. How do we know that the authors of canon 603 didn't simply expect the Church to apply the same time frames to that canon as they do to other forms of religious life? Do you accept any time frames for discernment and formation of a c 603 vocation? In the answer you gave earlier you referred to the doctoral student perpetually writing his dissertation and suggested one should not discern forever, but how would a diocese know when to cut off the process? I am wondering at what would seem to be a lack of structure and regularity in what you are suggesting.]]

Thanks for these follow up questions. I apologize for missing that one question; I'm glad you saw the addendum on the post. (On Being a Hermit Before One Petitions) Though I wish I could refer to conversations on the development of various editions of the canon, those are physically unavailable to me. For this reason I can only list the following reasons: 1) the canon's authors clearly understood solitary eremitical life and stated carefully the essential elements that must come together in a person's life for them to be considered a hermit and then to live this life in the name of the Church; They allowed for (in fact, they required that) the hermit (to) write her own Rule of Life which indicates to me that they clearly saw the way the Holy Spirit worked in this person's life was primary and neither should nor would be subordinated to arbitrary or artificial time frames or unnecessary canonical requirements; 2) commentaries on the canon perceive the life it defines and governs as a second half of life vocation, not as a vocation for a beginner or youngster in the spiritual life. This seems to presuppose at least the kind of formation most hermits experience at the hands of ordinary faithful living and discovery over (relatively) long periods of time. If the individual has been a religious (as in the situation which triggered Bp De Roo's interventions at Vatican II), then that formation would have occurred over years of (usually) perpetual commitment. 

3) the eremitical vocation, but especially the solitary eremitical vocation is rare in the Western Church and living it well is demanding; the authors of the canon seemed not to be thinking many people would be approaching dioceses requesting profession and consecration as a canonical hermit. For this reason, they could (and would have) envision a careful and individualized process of discernment and profession, not one which was regularized from diocese to diocese. The way the canon is written underscores all of this just as does the fact that commentators note that this is to be used for solitary not communal or semi-eremitical vocations; when canon 603 is used for hermits coming together in lauras, each hermit must still write and live her own Rule and move though an individualized discernment and profession process with and under the supervision of the diocese. (I personally believe lauras must be composed of professed c 603 hermits; they are not houses of formation, nor are solitary hermits called to take on such a responsibility for the diocese. I do believe some hermits in the laura may be a resource for those who are responsible for c 603 vocations in the diocese.) 

4) because it is about solitary eremitical life, the c 603 vocation is one of the most clearly personal and least externally or canonically structured in the entire scope of religious life. For this reason, it only makes sense that it be maintained in the same way. Semi eremitical institutes of consecrated life will have more externally regularized lives with common Rule, constitutions, and expressions of the Evangelical Counsels, and for this reason will imply greater need for canonical regulation.

Do I accept any time frames?

In general, I accept some temporal guidelines can be helpful, yes. For instance, I generally agree with my former Bishop that no one be admitted to profession (temporary) unless they have lived as a hermit for at least five years. However, in cases where one has lived and been formed in religious life beyond novitiate and hopefully, into perpetual profession, I appreciate discernment and formation may take less time. That is especially true for monastics and those who leave their congregations in order to specifically pursue a vocation to eremitical life. However, in these cases, I also recognize that there is a grieving or transition process that must be negotiated before readiness for profession under c 603; other necessary personal growth may require more time as well. For instance, former religious from active congregations are likely to need to develop as contemplatives before becoming hermits at all, and monastics may need to rethink many of the elements of canon 603 in order to embrace this life in a way which honors both its demands and its freedom. All candidates for c 603 profession will need to find a way to secure themselves materially and financially while being faithful to the nature of eremitical life. This itself is no easy task and it will require some time for the individual and the Church to determine the hermit has secured herself in the way she needs and the canon requires.

As noted in earlier posts, the majority of any process of discernment and formation will happen long before a person speaks with her diocese about the use of canon 603 -- usually with the accompaniment of a good spiritual director. Only once the person is actually a hermit in some essential sense does it make real sense to approach one's diocese. After all, one needs the diocese's assistance and participation in a mutual process of discernment about profession and consecration under c 603; dioceses do not form hermits, nor (one hopes) do they profess or consecrate lone individuals who are not yet hermits. The admission of someone to temporary profession is done to allow the person to try their vocation as a solitary hermit for some years before making a life commitment. During this time the hermit may decide to try eremitical life in a laura or to join a semi-eremitical institute, for instance. Still, because people do approach dioceses prematurely, a process of mutual discernment and formation can make sense by focusing on the various Rules of Life the individual writes as her experience of herself and the eremitical life grows. This process can be immensely helpful to the diocese and expedite the process of discernment and formation in terms of focus and assistance or support with resources. Ultimately, it can provide the grounds for determining a candidate's readiness for profession and consecration.

I also accept that a diocese might not be willing to work in this way for more than five years. If that is the case, however, such a diocese should be open to reopening conversation with the individual should the person return in time with greater discernment and formation and still be convinced they have an eremitical vocation. If it is clear to the diocese that the person is unsuitable for profession under c 603, then they should be honest with their findings and carefully explain the reasons to the individual and (if this seems helpful) to her director. I would sincerely hope in such a case that the diocese would help point the candidate in other directions. Equally, I would hope the diocese would be open to educating themselves further on the ways successful hermits under c 603 have lived the life and represented the vocation well. (Discernment and formation need/must not only oblige the hermit or hermit candidate!! But that's another topic!!) Since eremitical vocations take time to develop and reveal themselves clearly, I am not putting any terminal numbers on this idea of returning for periods of mutual discernment with the diocese. What must guide everyone is loving honesty --- humility. It is not loving to drag out a process unnecessarily, nor is it honest or loving to cut someone off prematurely, especially in such an unusual vocation which most diocesan staff must educate themselves in in order to truly understand themselves. (Another reason dioceses tend to take refuge in arbitrary canonical time frames!)**

Lack of Regularity and Structure?

Your concern about a lack of regularity referred I think, to c 603 vocations within a diocese, true? Since such vocations are rare, I think this is not the problem you may be imagining. In any case, I believe the process I have outlined re using the Rule of Life as a focus of discernment and formation and certainly the canon itself provides sufficient structure for any solitary eremitical vocation. The one place the canon needs to be spelled out a bit is in regard to the phrase "supervision of the bishop". Ordinarily one does not work with (or sometimes, even meet!) the bishop of a diocese in regard to c 603 until the Vicar for Religious recommends one for profession. (This does presume the diocese is open to implementing the canon at all.) Ordinarily, even when a hermit meets annually or bi-annually with her bishop, a delegate is chosen by the hermit to work with her on behalf of the diocese. Sometimes bishops desire more input with regard to the hermit's life and meet one on one with them, and sometimes it will be only the delegate with whom the hermit meets --- it depends upon the bishop. But it is the case that the hermit requires someone besides her spiritual director with whom she may talk frankly regarding her vocation who also serves the diocese and diocesan bishop in this way.

** I am always comforted by the fact that though initially disappointing, when I met with my bishop after years of discernment and the Vicar's recommendation that I be professed, he said, "I have not read anything you have written (which included published material on prayer, etc). I wanted to meet you first. I hope this is not too disappointing but (now that we have met) I have a lot to learn before I can give you an answer (regarding profession). We will meet a number of times more." That (then Bishop) Abp. Allen Vigneron took seriously his own need to educate himself and, that he took me seriously as well, is immensely helpful to me. Similarly, I am reminded that when I worked with the diocesan Vicar for Religious in earlier years, Sister Susan and another diocesan official took a long trip to New Camaldoli to speak with the Prior there about hermits, what constituted a healthy eremitical life, etc. (I only learned of this much later!) Understanding a c 603 vocation requires much more education than learning the canonical requirements that apply!!!

Feast of St Paul of Thebes: Hermit

It seems to me it's rare to get feast days for hermits but today is one of those! Since the only thing I really know of St Paul (ca. 228- ca.342), often identified as the first hermit in the Catholic Church or Christian Tradition, is what is found in writings attributed to St Antony (also a hermit) I am going to borrow here from those (credit to Give Us This Day).

[[ According to his biographer, St Jerome, this Paul, known as "the Hermit," deserves recognition as the first desert monk. Apparently, he stumbled on this vocation by accident. Jerome relates that Paul was a rich young man of Thebes whose parents died when he was sixteen. when a storm of persecution swept over the Chruch in Egypt, he decided to ride out troubles from the seclusion of a cave in the wilderness. But by the time it was safe to return he had come to love his solitary life and decided to stay.

Nearly a hundred years passed, and many others had discovered the singular attractions of the ascetic life. The greatest of these, St Antony, heard there was someone in the desert whose lifetime of solitude surpassed his own. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Antony found his way to the cave of Paul, where the two immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits and fell into a warm embrace.

While Paul asked for news of the world, a raven arrived with a loaf of bread for their meal. He observed matter-of-factly that he had thus been sustained during his many years. Feeling that his end was near, Paul greeted Antony's arrival as heaven-sent to prepare for his burial. He sent Antony off to fetch a cloak, but when Antony returned, he found Paul's lifeless body kneeling in prayer.]]

The actual account is embroidered with a number of details including the fact that Antony saw Paul ascending to heaven before he arrived to find his body posed in prayer, or that there were two lions there, digging Paul's grave. I recognize the ways such stories are made to reflect holiness and the extraordinary nature of the life lived, but in this case I like the story without the embroidery. It is very simply told, and the bare facts are extraordinary and striking all by themselves. We don't need lions or visions, I don't think. We simply need to hear the facts: viz., a young man, wealthy by all accounts, is orphaned during the persecutions in the early Church and hides himself in a cave to remain safe. In his seclusion he discovered something he may not have expected, namely, the silence of solitude, i.e., life with God alone. He allowed that very specific eremitical solitude to speak to him and, in fact, to seduce him, and he remained a lover of God in the silence of solitude for the rest of his days while God provided for him faithfully.

Given today's pandemic and its requirements of increased isolation and quiet, I admit I wondered how many people will, like Paul, accidentally stumble across their life calling to the silence of solitude and embrace eremitical life. Beyond that, once the pandemic is simply endemic, how many will continue in this calling and more, how many will manage a faithfulness of something approaching nearly 100 years? Like Paul, I never set out to be a hermit, but circumstances brought me to this vocation, and I am grateful to God for the gift! May he, St Antony, St Romuald, and, of course, St Paul of Thebes help all hermits to continue to be faithful to and grow in their calling, whatever the form or state of life in which it is lived!!                                               

14 January 2022

Like Water on Rock, the Hermit's Faithfulness to Her Rule of Life

[[ Hi Sister, I really liked your post on the process of discernment and formation and the way these grow organically out of the canon 603. Did you pick the picture you did, the one with the footprints worn in the floor to demonstrate the organic linkage to canon 603? I really love that picture!!]]

Yes, it's an incredibly evocative picture, I think. There is a second one which is like it that I also use sometimes. Yes, I did choose to use it because it reminds me of something growing organically out of the life of the canon. Hermits are formed in long periods of the silence of solitude, and these don't tend to fit normal canonical time frames that are more appropriate for the person in a coenobitical religious life. In some ways the picture also makes me think of the tedium of the cell and the hiddenness of the hermit's formation. Change happens so slowly-but-surely in the silence of solitude and faithfulness to one's commitment to prayer and the whole of one's Rule of Life; the picture also reminds me of this. 

If I were to entitle the picture, I might call it Stability (as in Benedictine stability) because it accents change and growth while remaining in the same place. Benedictines make a vow of stability because they believe God gives us all we need to grow to fullness of life in a given house or monastery. The grass may look greener elsewhere, but Benedictines trust they will be fed in precisely the way they need in the place they make their commitment. Finally, these pictures evoke for me the humble but real and, in fact, the powerful effect the hermit's life has on the Church and world simply by being faithful to the Rule of prayer and life the hermit has embraced. It is like water dripping on rock and is profoundly countercultural given our world's insistence on instant gratification and our expectations of immediacy (and disposability) in everything. It's a welcome reminder of a different wisdom, a different way of looking at reality. Thanks for the question!!

Private Vows, Not an Act of Profession and Not the Way to Consecration as a Hermit

[[Dear Sister, if someone writes: that their vows were received by a Catholic priest on behalf of the Church and God Himself and that they are a consecrated hermit as a result, can this be the case? Can my spiritual director receive my vows and consecrate me in this way? I would rather do it this way than go to my bishop (just being honest!).]]

LOL!! I appreciate your honesty and understand what you are saying!! The answer to your question regarding intention is no, no priest or priest spiritual director unless specifically designated to do so on behalf of the diocese by the local ordinary, can receive vows or consecrate you in the eremitical life. The Church has only two ways for such a thing to happen: 1) she professes and consecrates you as a member of a semi-eremitical or eremitical congregation, and 2) using c.603, you make your profession in the hands of the diocesan bishop or his explicit designee. 

Both of these options involve public vows and a change in one's state of life. A priest can certainly witness private vows (a private dedication, not consecration) --- for these do not involve a public commitment, new rights and obligations, or a new state in life -- but (without acting on behalf of the bishop with regard to c 603) he cannot do so with the intention to consecrate nor to participate in an act of profession. (Profession, which involves more than the making of vows, is always a public act involving new canonical rights and obligations.) I've written a lot about this so check out labels re private vs public vows, etc., if you need more. 

11 January 2022

On Being a Hermit Before One Petitions for C 603 Standing

[[Hi Sister Laurel, in the process you are describing about c 603 discernment it sounds sort of like you are saying a person already needs to have discerned a call to contemplative and then eremitical life before she or he approaches her/his diocese with a petition to be professed under c 603. Is that right?? Is that why c 603 has no provision for periods of formation and all that goes with those? Your use of the term "shoehorning" in your last post was helpful, a pretty vivid way of describing a process which could never really fit into arbitrary time frames and canonical schemata.  Also, it was important that you noted that the majority of the process would never involve the diocese at all. I could see clearly that the really important formation must go on apart from the diocese -- in solitude between the person, God, and perhaps a good spiritual director. Should dioceses be thinking that c 603 is to be used to raise to canonical standing a vocation that has been long in development and is already largely "formed"? Is that what you have been talking about when you say the candidate "must be a hermit in some essential sense" already?]]

Thanks for your questions and comments. I think you've got it, yes!! The history of c 603 grew out of a situation in which a number of solemnly professed monks had discerned vocations to solitude over long years of monastic life, ongoing formation, commitment, and service. To retell the story briefly, in order to follow an eremitical vocation they had to leave their vows and monasteries and be secularized. They then had to find a way to live an eremitical life as best as they could apart from their monasteries in more ordinary surroundings. Roman Catholicism had a history of such persons coming under the protection of the diocesan bishop and eventually this occurred with a dozen or so of these men coming together in a laura under the aegis of Bishop Remi de Roo who, at Vatican Council II, brought up the need to recognize the genuine eremitical vocation as a "call to perfection." Only after another 20 years did the Revised Code of Canon Law include the solitary hermit call in law in canon 603. 

The canon itself presumes and implies a personal history of spiritual and personal formation as a hermit prior to contacting one's diocese re c 603 even though it does not spell this out. For instance, "stricter separation from the world" is not simply about closing the hermitage door on the things outside these premises, but rather about separating oneself more strictly from the things which are contrary to or reject Christ while one cleaves to Christ more strictly and wholeheartedly with all one has and is. Assiduous prayer and penance are not about more prayer and penance than usual in Religious life, or at least it is not only about this; it is primarily about being a truly human person whose heart, mind, body and spirit, are given over to their source, ground, nourishment, and enrichment in God alone in the silence of solitude. 

This takes time; finding the way God calls one to this takes serious weighing, trying, and discerning the various paths to God any life offers as one grows first as a person of prayer, then as a contemplative, and then as a solitary hermit. It is possible to read the central elements of c. 603 in a more superficial way. The silence of solitude, for instance, can be read merely as describing a context for eremitical life, but for the actual hermit, the silence of solitude is also the charism of her vocation, and, in fact, a goal -- the way to describe a fully human life lived alone in communion with God, a life of shalom and wholeness in the silence of solitude.

In other words, c 603 was never meant for beginners in the spiritual life, nor were dioceses meant to form such persons in the eremitical life. (I'll say more about this below.) Canon 603 was meant to be used for hermits (not those who were still hermit wannabe's) who had lived into their vocations over a span of time and brought themselves to their diocese because they recognized that this service (eremitical life lived in and on behalf of the Church) was an essential part of their call to life in solitude. It was meant, this means, to be relatively rarely used when strong candidates with experience as contemplatives and deeper yearnings for solitude presented themselves with a petition to be professed. The canon defines eremitical life as the Catholic Church regards it and adds certain conditions to those who feel called to live this life as an ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church. 

In some ways this is a tension-filled and paradoxical situation. The Church defines the signs and ways to genuine freedom in Christ found in hermit lives throughout her history and otherwise: stricter separation from the world, a life of assiduous prayer and penance, the silence of solitude, ordered according to a Rule the hermit writes herself, framed in terms of the Evangelical Counsels, and then provides a canonical framework to live such freedom in the name and on behalf of the Church. In this way, the Church entrusts an ecclesial vocation to someone committed to the freedom of a prophetic life of grace. Thus, the person should also have the wisdom to deal with a vocation which is at once ecclesial and also deeply prophetic. None of this indicates or implies a vocation which is to be embraced by beginners or those without sufficient experience and (even) expertise (e.g., the ability to write a liveable Rule, for instance, or an articulable sense of the way the silence of solitude functions as more than the context for one's life -- a sense which is rooted in the hermit's lived experience).

Dioceses do not and apparently were never meant to form hermits. This is so not only because hermits are formed in solitude (you restated my position very well), but also because dioceses tend to need time frames into which the formation program can fit without lots of flexibility or freedom --- for the hermit and for the Holy Spirit! And eremitical vocations require time, freedom, and greater flexibility sometimes than canonical norms can ensure. Also, while dioceses have within them people who could effectively accompany a hermit in her formation and discernment, the diocesan offices of Vicar for Religious, etc., ordinarily don't have the time even if they should have the expertise and willingness (and my sense is this is rare). However, after the hermit is formed in an essential way, and know they are called to eremitical life (which may require the assistance of a Delegate for the Diocese and Hermit candidate), dioceses (beyond the Delegate) are precisely the ones to assist in the discernment of a c. 603 vocation. Thus, your final question is exactly right. Dioceses should think that c 603 is to be used to (admit) to canonical standing a vocation that has been long in development and is already largely "formed". After all, there are other ways to live eremitical life. C 603 is only one way and not everyone is meant to live as a solitary hermit in the name of the Church even when their eremitical vocation seems very certain.

Again, because I believe in this approach to c 603 vocations, I have written about a process which can work for dioceses and for hermits and their Directors (diocesan delegates). It is not a program, but a process drawn organically from the requirements of c 603 itself, and for that reason does not impose arbitrary time frames or stages which are more appropriate for coenobitical religious life. I believe the canon was artfully (wonderfully!) wrought; it stresses the freedom of the hermit within a given set of essential (not optional!) characteristics. The addition of additional and strict time frames, etc., which are not drawn from the canon itself will actually "offend" against the sufficiency and beauty of the canon and the life it defines. Ironically, only a process drawn directly from the canon itself can do justice to the canon and the vocation it governs. 

The single point in the canon which allows this, the single requirement marking the combination of lived experience, one's personal and mature embrace of the essential canonical elements, institutional supervision and accompaniment, and one's growth in and commitment to an authentic (responsible and ecclesial) eremitical freedom is the requirement that the hermit write her own (liveable) Rule of Life. The process, therefore, grows directly and organically out of the hermit's varying and various attempts to fulfill this requirement. 

Addendum: A postscript on the absence of time frames from c 603:

One final word re your question on why c 603 does not provide time frames as a kind of P.S. Given the care with which the canon has been crafted, my sense is the authors wanted dioceses to use the contents of the canon itself to gauge the quality and readiness for consecration of the vocation in front of them. I believe they knew that once time frames were set up in one diocese others would follow and the time frames themselves would become the markers used for gauging readiness, etc. In the various offerings of canonists writing on c 603, what stands out is the use of time frames without any real discussion of the depths of the vocation itself or the essential characteristics of the c 603 vocation. Thus, as dioceses pick up these books, they fasten on the time frames (for these are more easily understandable and accessible) and not on true discernment of an eremitical vocation. The approach of hermits to the matter is quite different --- give the individual time to grow into a contemplative and then, if they feel called to this, into a hermit, and perhaps too, to one with a c 603 vocation (there are other avenues for living eremitical life, after all). Accompany her on the way to this. Discern the vocation mutually when the individual reaches this point of readiness.

09 January 2022

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus (Reprise)

 Of all the feasts we celebrate, this Sunday'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, even so, 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 but gains authentic selfhood in the process --- 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.

06 January 2022

Feast of the Epiphany

There is something stunning about the story of the Epiphany and we often don't see or hear it, I think, because the story is so familiar to us. It is the challenge which faces us precisely because our God is one who comes to us in littleness, weakness, and obscurity, and meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. It is truly stunning, I think, to find three magi (whoever these were and whatever they represented in terms of human power, wealth, and wisdom) recognizing in a newborn baby, not only the presence of a life with cosmic significance but, in fact, the incarnation of God and savior of the world. I have rarely been particularly struck by this image of the Magi meeting the child Jesus and presenting him with gifts, but this year I see it clearly as a snapshot of the entire Gospel story with all its hope, wonder, poignancy, challenge, and demand.

If the identities of the Magi are unclear, the dynamics of the picture are not. Here we have learned men who represent all of the known world and the power, wealth, and knowledge therein, men who spend their lives in search of (or at least watching for the coming of) something which transcends their own realms and its wisdom and knowledge, coming to kneel and lay symbols of their wealth and wisdom before a helpless, Jewish baby of common and even questionable birth. They ostensibly identify this child, lying in a feeding trough, as the King of the Jews. Yes, they followed a star to find him, but even so, their recognition of the nature and identity of this baby is surprising. Especially so is the fact that they come to worship him. The stunning nature of this epiphany is underscored by the story of the massacre of the male babies in Bethlehem by the Jewish ruler, Herod. Despite his being heralded as the messiah, and so too, the Jewish King, there is nothing apparently remarkable about the baby from  Herod's perspective, nothing, that is, which allows him to be distinguished from any other male baby of similar age --- unless of course, one can see him with eyes of humility and faith --- and so, the story goes, Herod has all such babies indiscriminately killed.

One child, two antithetical attitudes and responses: the first, an openness which leads to recognition and the humbling subordination of worship; the second, an attitude of a closed mind, of defensiveness, ambition, and self-protection, an attitude of fear which leads not only to a failure of recognition but to arrogant and murderous oppression. And in between these two attitudes and responses, we must also see the far more common ones marking lives which miss this event altogether. In every case, the Christ Event marks the coming of the sovereign, creator, God among us, but in the littleness, weakness, and obscurity of ordinary human being. In this way God meets us each in the unexpected and even unacceptable place (the manger, the cross, human being, self-emptying, weakness, companionship with serious sinners, sinful death, etc) --- if we only have the eyes of faith which allow us to recognize and worship him!

More on the Process of Discernment and Formation of c 603 Hermits

 [[Hi Sister Laurel, I have read some of the things you have written about the discernment and formation of eremitical vocations. You seem to disagree with dioceses that establish time schemata associated with the canonical stages of religious life. Is that accurate and if it is, why do you disagree with it? You stress an approach which depends upon a candidate or hermit writing several different versions of their Rule of Life over time. How does this differ from a set period of candidacy, novitiate, and juniorate? What happens if someone using your approach decides they want to keep on writing new Rules and never come to the place where they need to leave the idea of eremitical life behind?]]

Happy New Year to you, and thanks for your questions. To clarify one point for accuracy, what I disagree with is not dioceses but canonists who write about approaches to implementing c 603 which are strong on canonical time frames, and formal stages, even as they are woefully short on an understanding of eremitical life or the central elements of canon 603 and the ways a person grows in these. As a corollary, I also disagree with the application of time frames which work well in a communal context but are insensitive to how fluid time can and often needs to be in a solitary eremitical context. Finally, I am amazed at canonists who write in ways meant to codify time frames for growth in solitude but show no sense at all that there are different kinds of solitude --- some transitional, some geared toward growth, others geared toward a kind of personal decompensation, some escapist, others individualistic, and so forth. 

Eremitical solitude is not transitional, nor is it escapist or individualistic. One may need a period of transitional solitude when one leaves a given context or situation (like active ministry or religious life) just as one will need some times of transitional solitude during bereavement, for instance, but whether these will ever grow into eremitical solitude is unlikely given the rarity of eremitical life itself. One needs to take care with the type of solitude one is dealing with in a candidate and since types or forms can and do overlap and confuse, it can take time to determine what one is dealing with --- more than it takes in community, for example. 

A Process NOT a Program:

What I have written about on this blog is not a program of discernment and formation (which, I think, is what time frames are meant to define) but a process. In the process I have tried to describe, the diocese provides sufficient support for the person discerning a c 603 vocation --- a small discernment and formation team, for instance, composed of the Vicar for Religious, and someone with expertise in formation in contemplative and/or eremitical life along with input from the person's spiritual director, and/or delegate. The process is driven by the "candidate's" own growth and needs. 

These will be reflected by the Rule she writes for herself at any given stage of discernment and formation, and the Rule will serve as a guide for discussions re the presence of an eremitical vocation, readiness for profession, resources required (extended time in monastic silence, lessons in praying the Divine Office or other forms of prayer, assistance with establishing cottage industries, classes in theology, Scripture, instruction in the vows,  etc). There should be a clear difference in the first Rule a would-be-hermit writes and the second, or third, or seventh, or tenth!! The formation team should be able to see progress in the person's lived experience and understanding of canon 603 and its constitutive elements. More, they should see signs that the person is growing in personal wholeness and holiness, that she is thriving in (and toward!) the silence of solitude even in the midst of the struggles it will also bring or involve.

In such a process the canonical stages appropriate to cenobitic life (life in community) simply have less meaning and are less quantifiable or even distinguishable. In any case such "stages" would need to be applied not according to a specific timetable, but according to one's readiness for the responsibilities associated with each stage of the life per se --- and these are not the same as those in coenobitical life. (A hermit is not being prepared to take on varying degrees of canonical responsibility within a congregation, but instead is being prepared to take a representative place in a living eremitical tradition.) It seems to me that the marker of such readiness is the capacity to write a liveable Rule of life after having written several experimental and less adequate Rules reflecting the would-be-hermit's growth in the life

On mistaking the inability to write a liveable Rule as a sign of no vocation: 

I have known people desiring to be c 603 hermits who spent several years trying and failing to put together a Rule. This did NOT necessarily mean they were not called to the life, but rather that they had a good deal to learn and especially, a lot to become consciously aware of before they could articulate it in the way a liveable Rule requires. For instance, to write a liveable Rule which concretely reflects a commitment to be open and responsive to God at work in one's life, one needs to cultivate all of those skills which are part and parcel of truly listening to/for God. One needs to know something of Who God is and who they themselves are, how God has been at work in their lives and the ways they have responded most fruitfully or refused to do so and why. Until one reaches some real degree of this level of awareness, they may be a lone individual, but they have not entered into eremitical solitude --- even as a novice hermit --- and they are certainly not ready to write a liveable Rule of Life.

This means the first several years of beginning to live as a hermit may be full of learning entirely new things, developing new skills, becoming aware in ways of was not aware before, and essentially undergoing a unique kind of conversion of mind and heart which is necessary to being a hermit in some "essential way". The process cannot be rushed, nor should it be shoehorned into the canonical time frame that works for religious living in community. And yet, this shoehorn approach is the one most canonists take, and so too, most dioceses who decide to implement c 603. If a person has not written a liveable Rule in the first couple of years after approaching a diocese with a petition for profession under c 603, dioceses are apt to dismiss them as unsuitable candidates for such a profession. 

Partly, I believe this occurs because the diocesan personnel don't have the first clue about how to accompany a budding solitary hermit on their own journey of discernment and formation, and partly it is due to the more fundamental failure to understand the distinction between lone individual and hermit in the first place. Equally foundationally problematical is the fact that diocesan staff, never having tried to do this themselves, often seem to believe writing a liveable Rule is a simple task that anyone should be able to do without assistance or significant preparation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes candidates are dismissed as unsuitable because the diocese doesn't actually believe in the hermit vocation at all --- though this lack of belief is rarely explicitly admitted; in such instances dioceses will not be able to accompany a candidate in the way needed. After all, if one does not esteem the vocation, one will hardly take the time needed to appropriately regard the process it takes a candidate to embrace and be able to represent such a vocation! The process I have outlined on this blog serves to assist both the candidate and the diocese in taking solitary eremitical vocations seriously in a way which is organic to the vocation and therefore, is not unnecessarily onerous to either the candidate or the diocese.

Necessary Time Limits:

Your question about what is equivalent to the "perpetual doctoral student" problem where someone keeps writing and writing on their dissertation but never concludes it is well taken. There must be some time limits --- or at least there must be signs the hermit candidate is moving towards perpetual profession and the wholeness/holiness of an authentic vocation --- if the formation team is to continue working with them effectively. Otherwise, the process breaks down and everyone's time and energy are wasted. On the other end of the scale there must be minimum time limits as well. A diocese must be clear that formation in religious life, while helpful, is not identical to that of the solitary hermit, nor in the Roman Catholic Church is canon 603 meant to define a "solitary religious" as the Episcopal Church allows in their canon law, but rather a true and solitary hermit

For someone leaving religious life in community (especial in active ministry), time for transition from life in community and active ministry, to (presuming they entered relatively soon after college) adult life in a parish environment, to contemplative life (if one really feels called to this), then to contemplative life in solitude (again, if one continues to feel called to this), and then to eremitical life per se must be given and required. This is so because each of these steps (especially in the beginning) can take various vocational forms and these too must be discerned and established. Again, asking the candidate to write a Rule of Life which reflects her growing (or shifting) sense of these realities in her life can serve as a focus for ongoing discussion, direction, formation, and discernment of readiness to move in a somewhat more formal way from step to step toward profession as a canon 603 hermit. Time frames can serve as guidelines in all of this and for a lot of it one needs only a good spiritual director. 

It is only once one is transitioning from contemplative life to even greater solitude that one begins discerning eremitical life per se and may reasonably consider and discern consecrated eremitical life under c 603. At this point approaching a diocese is meaningful, but not truly before this. When one approaches a diocese prematurely (especially before one is a hermit in the essential sense I mentioned above) one may merely ensure that one's true vocation is not realized, much less recognized.

On the Problem of Shoehorning "Vocations" into more usual Canonical Timeframes:

While there are a number of benefits to the process I have outlined, one of its real strengths is the fact that it does not ask a person to approach a diocese prematurely but allows a person to work carefully with her director until it is relatively clear that she really has an eremitical calling. At that point the person has already undertaken a significant personal discernment process which she can then share with the diocese and should be relatively ready to discern with her diocese whether or not she is ultimately called to a canon 603 (a solitary diocesan hermit) vocation. If a person approaches the diocese before this (before, that is, the various transitional forms of solitude, etc., have been worked through, for instance), everyone involved may mistake being a lone pious individual, for being a person with a vocation to eremitical solitude. On the other hand, if one approaches a diocese prematurely, a diocese can err in the opposite direction, and may decide the process is taking too long and simply dismiss the person as unsuitable for c 603 profession. 

The tendency to shoehorn c 603 vocations into the canonical timeframes associated with canonical religious life in community makes either of these mistakes likely. In the first instance, the eremitical vocation is demeaned or trivialized, and the diocese may decide not to risk professing anyone under c 603 in the future. In the latter instance, a specific public (canonical) eremitical vocation which is a unique gift of the Holy Spirit, may be lost to the Church even though the individual can continue to live fruitfully as a privately dedicated (non-canonical) hermit. Remember that canon 603 was originally written because a number of vocations to eremitism with long preparation in monastic life had no way to be recognized canonically or lived according to the monastic house's proper law. 

As a result, years lived in solemn vows had to be relinquished, the monastics secularized, and ways to live as hermits explored apart from publicly vowed religious life. The long preparation for such a call was not accidental to discovering a vocation to eremitical solitude, but essential to it. For this reason, canon 603 also requires long preparation even though the diocese is not directly involved in most of it. This cannot and must not be forgotten; it is part of the canon's own history and nature.

31 December 2021

Happy New Year!!!

I spent some of today and will continue tomorrow reading through my journals from this year --- so much change, growth, and healing that it is hard to believe.  But then, the grace of God is always hard to believe --- even as (whenever it is experienced) it is impossible to doubt. I love paradoxes like this!! God is just SO good!!! The fruitfulness of grace is especially realized in many small steps of faithfulness. So, I look back at a year of hard and fruitful work even as I look forward to another one of the same. The needs of our parishes, communities, neighborhoods, and country cry out for the grace of God. Each of us is meant to be a temple of that grace, that active presence, and our hearts are meant to bring the newness of eternity into the fragility and temporality of our world. This is the vocation of every person, no matter their state of life, nor their age or station. 

We Christians believe that because (he) is eternal and living our God is the ground and source of genuine newness (kainetes). We believe that he is a God who transfigures all of reality into something hope-filled and meaningful with (his) presence. We believe that in Christ we can and are called to cooperate with God in his creative and redemptive activity as he brings about a world where heaven and earth profoundly interpenetrate one another, and where one day God will be all in all. On this holiday, as so many make lists of goals and resolutions for the New Year, may each of us look to the God who is source of all blessings, and recommit ourselves to a time in which God's own projects in us and in all we know, and love may be brought to fulfillment. May God respond to our deepest needs with a presence that transforms all need into blessing! 

That is my prayer for each and all of us. All good wishes for a wonderful year!

26 December 2021

Reflecting on the Feasts Within the Octave of 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! One of the events we look at during this time is 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. I personally locate them at the crossroads of Mercy and Grace and I am sure I am not alone in this. 

21 December 2021

Advent Decisions: In Which Story Will We Stand?

(Revised as Reflection for Parish Masses, IV Advent) 

Awhile back I lost a friend I first came to know back in the early 1980’s. We met at a small local retreat house and came together regularly for workshops, retreat, spiritual direction, and occasional dinners as well as outings together to SF, etc. Years later, when she developed Alzheimer’s, Margaret continued to remember those times at the center as a watershed period of her life. It was a complete joy for both of us to step back into that time and share our memories. It was the retelling of these stories especially that allowed her to remain hopeful and faithful in the face of continuing loss and increasing limitation. She rested in these stories and retained a sense of the meaning of her life in this way. Stories can do this. During Advent, as we begin retelling our faith’s foundational cycle of stories once again, is a good time to reflect on the importance and power of story in our lives.

It wouldn’t be too strong an assertion to say that we are made for story. Weaving stories and allowing others to weave us into their stories is not just a significant need, but a profound drive within us affecting everything we are and do. Everything that is meaningful in our lives is mediated by story – so much so that scientists have concluded we are hard-wired for story. Neuroscientists have even located a part of the brain which is dedicated to spinning stories. It is linked to our ability to imagine ourselves in relation to the world around us, but it also functions to “console” us, to make sense of reality and to compensate us for the loss of personal story in some brain disorders, for instance. Sometimes I heard this at work in my friend as she filled in holes in her own memory so her own story could move forward.

Evidence that we are made for story is everywhere. Whenever we run into something we don’t understand or cannot control, something we need to hold together in a way which makes sense, we invariably weave a story around it. Whenever we yearn to move into a larger world, whenever we imagine and anticipate such a move, again we weave a story around it. Children do it with their dolls, stuffed animals, crayons, and toys of all sorts. Imagine a child explaining what has happened and whispering reassurance to her doll or stuffed animal after a natural disaster puts the whole family in an arena shelter. Watch too as she listens as that special friend cuddles her back and rehearses bits of the story the child needs to hear as it reminds her, “you are not alone, and you will not be alone”. Such stories help this child to negotiate the challenges and uncertainties of the present and move into a more viable future.

Fiction authors weave stories that change our lives in a similar way. We love to dwell in the worlds they create, especially when our everyday lives are stressful, but in entering these stories psychologists note that we also grow in real world abilities: empathy, the skills we need to tolerate being alone, and we become better at relationships and dealing with uncertainty as well. Such stories help widen our own sense of self and let us confront the “real world” with a sense of confidence and  even adventure. Physicians weave stories more subtly, maybe, when they use a patient’s symptoms to determine diagnoses, treatment plans, and prognoses. Historians use story to explain the significance of events and allow us to engage with the past, present and future when they do this well. Scientists and theologians do something similar when they spin very different but complementary and deeply true stories to explain the nature of reality.

At their very best, hearing and telling stories helps create a sacred space and healing dynamic where we can truly be ourselves and stand authentically with others in the present. When someone we love dies it is natural that we come together to tell stories, including those of Christ and the way he lived, died, and was raised. Doing so helps to knit the broken threads of our stories into something new and promising --- a new and hopeful narrative which eases grief and leads to a future marked by promise and hard-won wisdom. Couples deciding to have a new baby, families who choose to adopt are making the tremendous choice to allow the breaking open and reshaping of their stories as they give these children a name and place to stand in their lives and even in the greater world. Therapists, priests, and spiritual directors help us to hear, claim, and tell our truest stories, especially when they are difficult or overwhelming, unworthy of us, or (at least so far) unable to have been fully processed. Especially healing is the way these “pastoral ministers of personal story” allow us to be deeply heard and to find rest in acceptance, forgiveness, and new beginnings.

So profoundly human and humanizing is our capacity and need for story that the Church’s greatest acts of worship take the form of story. Our liturgy of the Word is, of course, made up of stories that challenge, console, and inspire us as only the Word of God can do. And listen today as we recite the Creed together. It is not composed of a series of disparate beliefs or dogmas but is a coherent story in which we find meaning, hope, and peace together as a single People of God. Even the act of Consecration is accomplished by the recounting of a story we embrace and let embrace us in our great Amen of faith: “On the night before he died, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it saying, ‘This is my body. . .’ Then he took the cup, blessed it saying, this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. . .’” We are asked then to reenact or retell this story with our lives, and to do so in memory of Him. In these mysterious and sacred acts of storytelling and our reception of them, the most profound potential of story is made real among us: viz., our deepest hungers and needs are met and we are made truly human as we accept a central place in God’s own life and allow God a place in ours. In so many ways our capacity for story is a blessing.

But not always! Sometimes we do get caught up in or substitute stories that are unworthy of us and therefore of God as well. When we do, we are deeply diminished. For instance, when young people opt to join a gang, they are telling themselves and their world a story of status, power, community and belonging rather than the story of relative powerlessness and emptiness they feel caught in. Or consider the kinds of stories adults who choose to have affairs tell themselves --- stories our world colludes in in every way possible, stories about a selfish notion of “Freedom” and love, eternal youth, the importance of physical attractiveness and immediate gratification.

At the same time, think about the realities these folks must deny or suppress --- things like genuine faithfulness, sacrifice, and humility, the importance of patience, generosity, and service --- and all of the other dimensions that are part of the abundant life God wills for and offers us in Christ. Substituting (or as happens in instances of abuse and neglect, being caught up and enmeshed in) partial and inadequate or distorted stories can skew our own lives and prevent us from becoming the persons God calls us to be.

And of course, today we find ourselves dealing with more than one pandemic. The first one is about COVID-19; the second one is about story-telling-gone-awry. In some ways, this is even more deadly than the first pandemic. There are all sorts of stories being told, and I am sure you have heard them ---from the notion that President Biden is a malfunctioning robot disguised to appear human, to the notion that Lizard People control our politics and feed off our emotions to the idea that our planet is controlled by an evil cult that engages in child trafficking and on and on. A tendency to conspiracy theories, false narratives, a need to blame others, and an allergy to objective truth in a world under threat seem to have nudged that part of the brain I mentioned earlier into outright lunacy in these cases. We want to shake our heads and laugh at these stories, but they are dangerous. Yet, because we are made for story, when our lives seem empty, powerless, and without hope, we will latch onto stories which feed even the worst tendencies within us at the expense of others which are more worthy of us.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that the Genesis account of humanity’s “fall from Grace” centers around the fact that, at evil’s urging, Adam and Eve swap the story they experience as they walk intimately with God --- the story about themselves, their world, and God’s place in it with them -- for another view of reality they prefer to believe. In THIS story eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (rather than knowing just the truly Good) will supposedly not bring death. In THIS story God is portrayed as petty and a liar. In this story human maturity and responsibility is exchanged for self-consciousness, fear, and a blame game that we recognize replaying in one form and another every evening on some versions of the “news.” To choose a false narrative or to be caught up by such a story in this way is the very essence of sin. It separates us from the very source of life and light, it cripples our relationships, and it weakens and even destroys our capacity for truth. Sometimes the stories we embrace and hand on as truth are a curse.

If the fact that we are hard-wired for story is both blessing and curse, then it is also the way home. You see, it is not just that we are hard-wired for story; it is that we are made, hard-wired even, for God's own story. The cycle of stories we began just 4 weeks ago says that in our lostness, God comes to us in Christ and in Christ, God works to free us from sin – the state where we miss the mark of our true humanity --- and gives us a new home – a new narrative in which we can be our real selves. Jesus frees us from the distorted, inadequate, and unworthy scripts and stories we live by. One of the ways he does this is with the powerful and uniquely engaging stories we call parables. In telling us these stories he offers us a place to stand in God’s own story, God’s own reign, as he makes our own stories his.

The word parable is made up of two Greek words, "para" (alongside of, as in parallel lines, parallel parking, paralegals, and paramedics --- lines running equidistant alongside one another and legal and medical professionals who work alongside attorneys and physicians). The second word is "balein" (to throw down).

What Jesus typically does in his parables is to throw down one set of values, a single perspective, one story or situation his hearers know well and identify with personally. They will begin spinning the story as soon as Jesus, speaking with a wholly unique authority, says The Kingdom of God is like, and follows it with something even as brief as “A man had two sons” or “Ten lepers were coming along the road”. In this way the story (and its storyteller!) draws us in and engages our hearts and minds (and so, probably some prejudices as well!). And then, just as his hearers have settled down comfortably in this well-known story Jesus throws down a second perspective or set of values (viz., those of the Kingdom of God) which clearly clashes with the first. Because we are firmly planted in the first set of values, the first script or story, the resulting clash disorients us and throws us off balance. Being off-footed in this way means Jesus’ parables help free us from our embeddedness or enmeshment in other narratives; it creates a moment of “KRISIS” (crisis) or decision; it summons us to choose in which reality we will stand firmly, which story we will make our own. This is what Advent asks us to consider, the question that stands behind Isaiah’s invitation that we Prepare the way of the Lord

In today’s Gospel, two women, one only 12 yo and on the cusp of marriage and motherhood -- and the other beyond childbearing age and barren, have allowed their own stories to be broken open by the unfathomable mercy of God. In a culture where especially the most “pious” or religious will ostracize, ridicule, and disbelieve them, they were thrown off balance by their unexpected experience of a God who ALWAYS surprises and have regained a new balance by saying yes to allowing (him) to do something qualitatively new in and for our world. Their courage – and God-given fruitfulness makes our world resonate with a new hope and promise. Like Mary and Elizabeth, and like my friend Margaret (even in her limitations and loss) -- none of us is too young nor do we ever need to be too old to similarly accept a new and deeper place in God’s story. After all, it is the story we are made and most hunger for, the story which makes us true and whole, the Divine and ultimately, the truest Human Story we are hard-wired for --- the story in which nothing is ever lost or forgotten. This is the great conversion Advent prepares the way for – if only we can bring ourselves to say a whole-hearted "yes!" to making God’s story our own. What greater gift can we imagine or be given?