20 September 2018

On the Importance of Play in Contemplative Life

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I wrote you recently about justifying the inner work you have undertaken in the last couple of years. I thought it pretty atypical of hermits and wondered if you weren't fooling yourself, though I did not put it that bluntly. Now I see you posting about coloring pictures in "adult" coloring books. Are you serious? This is kid's stuff!! Play time!! When I think of eremitical life I think of it as the pinnacle of monastic life and perhaps the most sober expression of religious or consecrated life we know. The Church charges hermits with the ministry of prayer and expects hermits to be a sign of the call to "pray always". The Church charged YOU with this ministry and responsibility! How can your director allow this kind of frivolous time wasting? I am not really surprised but I am concerned that what you do passes for either prayer or contemplative life. Surely it is far from the life of real hermits! Does your bishop know about the way you spend your time?]]

Thanks for your observations.  I had hoped the comments I made on the drawings/colorings I shared contextualized why I do what I do --- at least partly. Your comments remind me that I forgot to specifically mention the importance of play in the contemplative life, indeed, in any truly Christian life --- so let me start there! In the post you reference, I spoke of becoming absorbed in various activities as an aid to growing in contemplative prayer; I also spoke of attentiveness and listening, but I did not speak about simply being ourselves without pretense or posturing; I did not speak about play. Play, however, is one of the primary places we assume such a position vis-a-vis reality. We play without self-consciousness; in play we quite literally lay aside many of the attitudes we ordinarily let define us. What happens in play is something like what happens when we get drawn into Jesus' parables and unburden ourselves of much of the baggage defining our usual existence in order to be drawn into the Kingdom story.

In "play" we are simply our truest selves and grow into ourselves in an unplanned, spontaneous way rooted in true obedience (hearkening) to our hearts --- and thus, to the God who dwells there and grounds our Being. When I was a child two forms of play in particular allowed this kind of absorption and "self-emptying": violin (from age 9) --- mainly in the form of improvisation --- and coloring or painting (well before age 9). These also opened me to the experience of transcendence and community (orchestra especially did this latter).

For reasons that are not important here, I left coloring/painting behind while still fairly young and certainly before I was ready to. In doing so, I lost not only a personal gift, but a privileged way of being myself --- and thus, of playing, creating, and praying. It was natural in undertaking the inner work I have done over the past couple of years to pick up coloring again as an effective form of play which was aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally challenging, expressive, and supportive. I had prayed this way as a child (because prayer and play can be interchangeable -- especially for children!), and, some of the time, when things became  particularly difficult with the work I had undertaken, I prayed in this way in the present as well. By the grace of God, this play was a way to personal healing, reconciliation, and communion with God. Not to be too obvious or heavy-handed about this reference, but you will recall that Jesus said, "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven." I think play, the most characteristic form of the utter seriousness of the child, is a symbol of heaven --- of participation in God's own life.

My director knows all this, I think. About 27 years ago she referred to the importance of play; a good friend of hers was reflecting on the reality of play at the time and Sister Marietta mentioned this. However, except for the comment on play's importance, she did not explain anything more about it to me. Still, what she did say struck me and I remembered it. It was only a couple of months ago when, because of the limitations imposed by my broken wrist, I was reflecting with Marietta on my current inability to improvise music on the violin, I came to understand the place improvisation had in being myself in the midst of trauma that militated against this. In the conversation we had that day I described  what "playing violin" meant to me and then, with my own growing awareness of what I was actually saying, I emphasized I also meant "playing" in the more general sense children mean the term when they become absorbed in their blocks, crayons, dolls, action figures, or make-believe worlds.  By extension, and rooted in my own experience, I thus only very recently came to understand conceptually and theologically the potential and meaning of play itself. (In some ways I might not have seen it as clearly as I do now had it not been for your objections about the utter childishness of play and its supposed antipathy to eremitical life!)

But please understand, play is deadly serious stuff! Again, it is the most characteristic form of the utter seriousness of children. Yesterday we heard the Gospel reading where Jesus says, [[“To what shall I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’]] When I reflect on that in light of what I have come to know and said here, it occurs to me that the people of  "this" generation to whom Jesus spoke were seen as incapable of or entirely resistant to being themselves in response to whatever "tune" God plays or sings. It is a tragic portrait of who we have become when the best analogy is of children who themselves resist or have actually become incapable of play! The people Jesus was speaking to were incapable of play, of freedom and spontaneity, of genuine obedience, selflessness, and kenosis typical of children at play. They could neither dance with the abandon nor give themselves over to grief in the whole-hearted,  un-self-conscious way children at play are capable of. Because of their own religious and other baggage they could not put aside their partisanship or their concern for what others thought, etc.; they could not (let themselves) be the compassionate persons God called them to be in responding to Jesus (or John the Baptist) and the Kingdom messages (kerygma) they proclaimed.

One more story, a story I have told before and recently I think, might also be helpful here. Around 1993 I was working with a young violinist on the Bach Double Violin Concerto. (She had helped me with Scottish Fiddle and was now working with me on Classical violin!) During this time we had a conversation regarding improvisation because both she and I loved to do that (no, not on the Bach Double). In explaining her own experience Laura described seeing "a river of music moving throughout the universe." When she improvised, she said,  she experienced/thought of it as "tapping into that river of music." I told her I knew the same experience except that I called that river "God"! It was while I was sharing this story with my director that I came to understand how "playing" (improvising on) violin, was a way of truly being myself, a way of being open to God, a way of praying. I came to see it had always been a contemplative way of being. In fact, it was the most natural way I knew of doing that --- and I was only seeing this clearly as I dealt with the prospect and pain of perhaps having lost it due to injury. Coloring is a little like that --- as is the absorption of "hobbies" I described in my last post more generally. No pretense, no posturing, just worship -- liturgy -- because yes, I think play is a form of liturgy --- the work/worship/liturgy of Children of God.

You may not agree with all (or any of) this, of course, but I know its truth as do those who share some responsibility for my vocation. My life as a hermit not only makes play possible; it makes it necessary. As Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam told me a dozen years ago when he looked at the Rule I was submitting before perpetual profession, "Please make sure to build in enough time for recreation (play) and rest!" He was so right!!

19 September 2018

Did You Say You Colored?

[[ Hi Sister, I [was] intrigued by your reference to coloring in a post you put up recently. Do you ever share the pictures you color? I would love to see them! I have been involved in the adult coloring movement for several years and especially love the Johanna Basford books. I love the way coloring relaxes me. Do you know these books? . . .How long does it take you to do a picture and what kind of pencils do you use?]] 
Yes, I definitely know Johanna Basford's books. During the past year or so (the time I have been coloring) I have colored in two of them, Enchanted Forest, and, The Magic Jungle. One of these pictures from EF is found to the left; it's not the greatest picture, and it has serious flaws in the coloring of the background --- though it shows the layering of several different colors very effectively, but I love the colors nonetheless. One other is found at the very bottom of the post. The other pictures shared below are from Mythomorphia by Kerby Rosanes. I mainly use Prismacolor Premiere (wax-based) pencils --- they blend so well! I find oil-based pencils much harder to achieve the vividness I like. Also, I may just lack sufficient patience since they take much longer to produce their effects than wax-based pencils. Still, I have a small number of Polychromos (oil-based) pencils and have been encouraged by someone who loves them to give them some time and perhaps learn to love them myself. (Given their expense -- I tend to get a few via open stock every six months or so -- it will take a LONG time before I can learn to use them sufficiently well!) 
This double page work is a water dragon and a fire dragon. Also done with Prismacolors. I think these two pages took me about a month. Sorry for the glare on the pages but they are protected with a gloss spray (I should have used a matte finish, I guess, but this was on sale!). I had never attempted coloring water before and was trying hard to capture the foam of the waves/water on the water dragon. I have seen fantastic results in this regard (and I could not really duplicate these!) but I am still pretty happy with these results.

The last two Rosanes' pictures involve my first attempts to do a sky at sunset. As I told a friend recently, backgrounds are a real struggle for me. They are something I am learning to do, however. Most pictures take me several days at least and sometimes I have to let them go until I can come back to them with renewed energy (and imagination). Yes, I know folks talk about how relaxing coloring can be. I find it absorbing and these kinds of things can be very helpful to contemplative prayer. (One of the things spiritual directors will often suggest to persons who are beginning their adventure in contemplative prayer is that they regularly do something which is truly absorbing. Some do gardening, some draw or get involved in pottery, or maybe do jigsaw puzzles. The point is to allow oneself to become/be totally present to the reality in front of oneself and (at least implicitly) to entrust one's entire self to God in the process. Learning to listen/attend to whatever comes up during this time is also integral to the process. For me coloring has the added benefit of giving me a way of dealing with chronic pain while I wait for meds to kick in (or not), for instance. As noted below, it also became a significant part of the inner work I began about 2 years ago.

This gnarled guy was challenging. I think there were at least five shades of green used in doing his skin and I kept thinking of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy along with things that were arising in me as a result of the inner work I was doing at the time. (As noted before, there were/are a few "demons" or "monsters" I have or have had to deal with in this work!) This was my very first attempt at a sunset (sunrise?) sky and it is definitely better in terms of gradations than the one above. You can see part of the line drawing of the facing page --- the way this one began, of course.

This Johanna Basford picture, done in January of this year, was modeled on a version I saw done by another colorist; I tried to duplicate the rounded quality of the ring but I also added the moon to the picture as a bid for originality. The texture of the moon's face  worked well in the drawing but is hard to see in this image; this was my first attempt at doing eyes using a bit of white acrylic paint. I  used black acrylic paint over colored pencil for the night sky.

I have been asked in the past if hermits have hobbies. Well, these (along with violin) are examples of mine! Holy leisure!

17 September 2018

Welcome Back!! (And a Bit on the Exaltation of the Cross)

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to sort of "welcome you back". It's nice to see you writing once again. I know you never really quit, but you were posting infrequently over the past couple of years and I missed being able to read you. Are you going to be posting as you have over the past couple of weeks as time moves on or is this flurry anomalous? I wondered too if you preached on the exaltation of the cross last Friday? You do the service at your parish on Fridays, don't you? Did you share this already?]]

Many thanks for your "welcome back"! It's a bit stunning to hear from someone who  has kept track of some of the patterns of my life as you have. I don't know how frequently I will be writing here. It really depends on whether folks ask questions and also whether I have anything new to say. Sometimes I am just all "written out", so to speak; other times I am sure that what is of interest to me is not of interest to others. And sometimes what is happening to me in my life prevents me from doing much writing. The inner work I have spoken of has been intense and absorbing but it also sometimes made it hard to know what to share and what not to share. Some things are simply not edifying, and certainly not when one is in the middle of processing them. It takes some distance in order to have the perspective which allows one to write about them in a way which might be of assistance to others. Finally, my broken wrist is mainly healed. The bones have been entirely healed for more than a month but tendons and ligaments were also torn or sprained and those have taken way more time to heal. Even so, my typing is back up to speed so writing is much easier. It may be this recent flurry is anomalous, the result of feeling freer and relatively well; I don't know. We'll see though.

Yes, I did do the service last Friday. Because I had also done services with regard to readings focused on the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of men or the paradox of Christianity, I was thinking along the lines of the way the cross is ordinarily scandalous or how it is that something so awful has become a symbol of the greatest victory of Love we have ever known. Friday's first reading prepared us for this great shift. You may recall it was the story of the serpent being lifted up on a staff and becoming a symbol of hope. I began by wondering how people would react if I were to say one of our students had accidentally let a snake loose in the chapel the night before and we were unable to find it. The reaction was pretty immediate and people shivered, picked up their feet, or exclaimed with feelings of fear and revulsion. I then explained the way the cross had been seen in Jesus's day -- the way it produced even stronger immediate visceral reactions of fear and revulsion.

The idea that such a symbol of cruelty, criminality, failure, human "justice" (oppression, revision), and godlessness could be transformed into the symbol of God's decisive victory over sin, and evil, a symbol of God's abiding presence in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place, an entirely new way of  understanding God's mercy as his justice, is hard to imagine; and yet, it is what we celebrate on the Feast of the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross. I outlined this and then read a passage I have shared before -- both here and there. It is taken from John Dwyer's Son of Man and Son of God, A New Language for Faith and is simply the most powerful presentation of what occurs on the cross or why we exalt it I have ever heard or read:

[[Through Jesus, the broken being of the world enters the personal life of the everlasting God, and this God shares in the broken being of the world. God is eternally committed to this world, and this commitment becomes full and final in his personal presence within this weak and broken man on the cross. In him the eternal one takes our destiny upon himself --- a destiny of estrangement, separation, meaninglessness, and despair. But at this moment the emptiness and alienation that mar and mark the human situation become once and for all, in time and eternity, the ways of God. God is with this broken man in suffering and in failure, in darkness and at the edge of despair, and for this reason suffering and failure, darkness and hopelessness will never again be signs of the separation of man from God. God identifies himself with the man on the cross, and for this reason everything we think of as manifesting the absence of God will, for the rest of time, be capable of manifesting his presence --- up to and including death itself.]]

He continues,

[[Jesus is rejected and his mission fails, but God participates in this failure, so that failure itself can become a vehicle of his presence, his being here for us. Jesus is weak, but his weakness is God's own, and so weakness itself can be something to glory in. Jesus' death exposes the weakness and insecurity of our situation, but God made them his own; at the end of the road, where abandonment is total and all the props are gone, he is there. At the moment when an abyss yawns beneath the shaken foundations of the world and self, God is there in the depths, and the abyss becomes a ground. Because God was in this broken man who died on the cross, although our hold on existence is fragile, and although we walk in the shadow of death all the days of our lives, and although we live under the spell of a nameless dread against which we can do nothing, the message of the cross is good news indeed: rejoice in your fragility and weakness; rejoice even in that nameless dread because God has been there and nothing can separate you from him. It has all been conquered, not by any power in the world or in yourself, but by God. When God takes death into himself it means not the end of God but the end of death.]] (pp. 182-83)

On Responding to Undefined Lay Vocations

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I've been following your blog for some time and find it very helpful and life-giving. I've been especially interested in how you balance health issues with your eremitical vocation, as health problems over the past few years have changed my external life greatly, diminishing my career and physical activities, but leading to an unexpected deepening of my spiritual life. I was struck by something you said in a recent post, which prompted me to write:
"The importance of the solitary eremitical vocation as a call to personal wholeness in the midst of a world which pulls towards fragmentation, isolation, and inauthenticity cannot be overstated, I think."
       Although I'm not discerning a vocation as a hermit, this call to person(al) wholeness in a fragmented world is one I feel as well, and I think many lay people do. I would even call it a sense of vocation, though what I'm called to is unclear. I find that there is a quality of religious life, and in your description of your eremitical vocation, that calls me as a lay person. I think it is something in the intentional living of a deepening relationship with God, with the recognition of the gifts that offers to oneself, the community, and the world, that resonates very much with my own emerging sense of vocation. The pull I feel now is to ground myself in a mature, sustaining commitment and rhythm in my relationship with God.
          You articulate your vocation and how you live it so clearly, and from such a depth of lived experience, that I was curious how you might answer this questions: How can lay prople, who feel called to be lay people, respond to this type of undefined vocation in a tangible way? The closest I have found to what I mean is the commitment made by people who are oblate associates to an order, but I am not sure this is what I am seeking.]]

Many thanks for your questions and for your permission to use what you have written here. I decided to mainly post it all without much redaction because of its clarity and importance. What I especially appreciate about it is your esteem for the lay vocation and how clearly you state your own determination to remain a lay person as you respond to God's call to personal wholeness and holiness. This determination and sense of call is something the Church has sought to inculcate with Vatican II and she has thus fostered values lay persons are called to embrace as they witness to or preach the Gospel with their lives to and from within the world at large. 

The call to authentic humanity is the foundational vocation of every human being. The things we often call vocations, religious life, marriage, eremitical life, priesthood, etc., are pathways to this foundational vocation. To say one is called to marriage, priesthood, hermit life, etc., is a shorthand way of saying we are called to achieve the fullness of humanity in this way, via this pathway. You have a strong sense of this, I think, and you are sensitive to the way this truth resonates within you. You also  state very clearly what needs to grow in every vocation, whether lay, religious, consecrated, or ordained, namely, one's conscious relationship with God.

Growth in this relationship (the foundation of a universal call to holiness!) has certain tried and true means. While these are open to anyone they are (and have been) most often associated with religious and ordained life, and unfortunately, are subsequently seen as ways lay persons (vocationally speaking) are merely "trying to act" as religious or priests or they are things which are (mistakenly!) seen as unnecessary to lay life. The Church once fostered a relatively elitist view of such things. So, for instance, even today we are used to religious having spiritual directors but see that relatively few lay persons understand this as necessary for their lives; we understand when religious or priests spend time each day doing lectio divina or Scripture study but we tend to see these as unnecessary for the lay vocation (except for the "super religious!" or those without children, demanding work, etc.). Regular prayer (a true prayer life!) is understood similarly and lay persons may attend daily Mass and pray before or after that as well, but more than this? A number of lay persons have become involved in centering prayer and discovered their own call to contemplative prayer, but I think this is still woefully underrepresented among those with a vocation to the lay state of life. Programs offering spiritual development and enrichment are available everywhere but still, despite VII and the catechesis done after that, the majority of participants either remain religious or a very small minority of the laity.

My own preference is to see every lay person participating in a spiritual direction relationship, reading Scripture daily, and praying regularly (morning and night plus meals). I would like to see every lay person totally conversant with what the Church taught about the laity and the universal call to holiness in the Documents of Vatican II (Apostolicam Actuositatem, for instance).  I would like to see them deeply imbued with the Holy Spirit and a dynamic sense that they are the heart of the Church while those of us who are religious, hermits, priests are neither more (nor less) Catholic than the laity, nor necessarily more (nor less) spiritual, etc. Still, it is a matter of priorities and choice, and most often, though all of these things are presented today as realities the Church wishes lay persons to embrace, they are things the majority still can't find the time for -- or deep down don't really believe is "their place".  The truth is, however, that these kinds of things are part and parcel of an absorbing, transforming, and entirely normal relationship with God. They are part of the kind of relationship you have described --- and which the world needs desperately not merely from Religious or priests, but especially from those whose vocations are meant to transform the saeculum, the everyday world of work and family and academy into instances of the Kingdom of God.

You have mentioned health problems. These may limit you in significant ways, but they may also free you to cultivate your relationship with God and find ways of serving the Gospel which are especially significant for you and those whose lives you touch. You may have passions for various things that can be used to serve the proclamation of the Gospel with your life. One of the areas of theology that most interests me is that regarding the vocation to chronic illness. It is not that I believe God wills illness, but absolutely I believe God calls us to wholeness in Him in spite of our illness. As noted in another post, my profession/life motto is Paul's quotation from 2 Cor 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness." I believe that the Church does relatively well with ministry to the acutely ill, and less well with a ministry to the chronically ill, but I believe the Church has entirely failed to create a ministry OF the chronically ill. Here I am thinking of the chronically ill sharing the wisdom of their faith and experience, but especially the paradoxical truth of the Gospel Paul expresses, for instance. In a world geared to productivity and competition, those who are ill cannot participate in the same way. The rhythm, priorities, and energies of their lives differ from those of the  majority. By definition their lives are countercultural and can witness to a Gospel that is itself the epitome of the countercultural.

I think each of us learns to live and will thus mature in the foundational relationship we have with God in combination with the specific or concrete circumstances of our lives. When we do that our vocation begins to be clearer and clearer, more and more explicit. It will always represent an incarnation of both of these dimension of one's life. Thomas Merton spoke of hermits giving people hope about certain truths of nature and grace; he was correct in this but it is also true that every vocation witnesses to a hope which comes from the meeting of nature and grace and the transformation of the ordinary into something genuinely sacramental. Lay vocations are meant to do this in the everyday world mentioned above, the world of work, family, economics, political activity, etc. In these various dimensions of the saeculum lay persons witness to what is means to be authentically human and to bring the values and dynamics of the Kingdom of God into these same dimensions. So, let me encourage you to take the time and effort required to let your relationship with God develop --- to deepen and extend itself in the ways God wills for you for the sake of his Gospel and Kingdom. As you do this the concrete shape of your call to authentic and full humanity will also develop and God's own dreams for you and all whom you touch will be realized.

Again, thanks for your questions. I hope this is helpful, but if I have been unclear I hope you will let me know that; I will clarify as possible.

16 September 2018

On Constraints and Authentic Freedom

Hi Sister, I wondered why you define freedom the way you do. I was thinking about being the persons we are called to be in spite of the constraints of our lives and that doesn't seem like freedom to me. If God calls us to something and we do that, then how does that represent "authentic freedom"? How can having constraints or being constrained represent freedom?]]

These are good questions. Let me explain why it makes theological sense to me, generally speaking --- and perhaps with reference to my own personal story as well if that will illustrate things more clearly. When theologians think about the human situation we think about the condition of sin as a state of being bound by conditions which prevent us from being the persons we are made and called by God to be. Sin is a state of being estranged and alienated from God, from one's deepest Self, and from others; it is a state in which we are not free to love as we are meant to love and may even be hostile as well as resistant to this love. We are constrained by the situation (of sin) and prevented from being the person we are most profoundly and truly meant to be. It is only when we are loved by God in a way which empowers us to achieve who we are potentially, who we are made and called to be, that we begin to know real freedom --- and also, therefore, genuine happiness. Freedom always has to do with being our truest selves; the bondage of sin prevents this. This is the principal reason we speak of sin (hamartia, 'αμαρτια) as falling short. Thus, authentic freedom is something God empowers; it represents freedom from whatever prevents us from living the truth of ourselves and freedom for the fulfillment of our most profound or ultimate human potentiality.

Some constraints then, are disastrous for our humanity, but not all constraints are disastrous or even necessarily destructive. All of us have limits with which we must live: age, health, family, material wealth or poverty, intelligence, education or lack thereof, and so forth. These things serve as constraints, but at the same time they need not prevent us from becoming the persons we are called/meant to be. For instance, we may not have much money, our health may be poor, we may be lousy students or have failed in a string of business ventures; we may have come from a dysfunctional family which made maturing into adulthood a greater task than ordinarily is the case, and we may live in neighborhoods without access to cultural treasure, and be constrained in many other ways besides, but if we come to know the love of God we will be empowered to become our truest selves nonetheless.

In light of this love we will even find that those things which constrain us (and perhaps once constrained us in ways which limited us as persons) become sources of grace instead. With grace we transcend (though do not necessarily lose) the limits that constrain us. In my own life chronic illness once constrained me in ways which seemed to prevent my ability to grow in the various ways I believed I needed and certainly desired to grow. However, in light of God's love for me chronic illness has proven to be a significant way I came to know the truth of Paul's saying, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness." Vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience created constraints which also opened me more fully to the love of God. My Rule envisions a life marked by constraints, but one which is above all a life of authentic freedom --- or it could not be my vocation! Last week my parish's daily Mass community heard the Beatitudes during a Mass geared to one class of our school children; the essential message of this text was and is, Blessed (happy!) are you who feel the many constraints (forms of limit and loss) that touch human beings living in space and time, for they actually make it possible for you to come to know the happiness and freedom of God's sovereignty.

When I wrote last week here I spoke about "natural" forms of suffering Douglas John Hall noted in God and Human Suffering: temptation, anxiety, loneliness, and limits. These make transcendence, communion, security, peace, joy, and surprise possible for us. They are constraints which are part of our coming to the fullness or abundant life of humanity. In God these specific forms of suffering becomes sources or means of blessing. Imagine what it would be like to have none of these (or any!) constraints! If one is never lonely, neither can one be aware of a yearning or need for communion; without limits --- if, that is, one has whatever one wants whenever one wants it --- one never comes to know joy or surprise (or patience, or excitement!); if one is not tempted one may never be stretched to turn to God in dependence or otherwise grow in character. Unless one knows anxiety, neither will one ever come to know genuine security in God or the peace and wholeness which is the result of life in and from (Him).

We cannot do away with all constraints, nor should we try. We exist as historical people: we are embodied (and made to be embodied, even in eternity) and we exist in space and time (all of which are constraints and the source of further constraints). But the love of God can empower us to transcend the constraints which condition our lives and discover the seeds of true personhood within or through them. It is this transcendence empowered by God as Love-in-Act which is the very essence of becoming the persons God calls us to be and the essence of that which Christians identify as authentic freedom and beatitude. Moreover, as described in the last paragraph, the absence of constraints can, according to the analysis of Douglas John Hall's work on "natural" or existential forms of suffering, make us incapable of becoming the persons God has made and summons us to be. This is another paradox which is critical to the way we define authentic freedom and the way it is often opposed to license.

I sincerely hope this is helpful! Let me know if it raises more questions or is unclear in some way and I will give it another shot!

15 September 2018

A Contemplative Moment: "For Suffering"

"For Suffering" from
To Bless the Space Between Us, A Book of Blessings
by John O'Donohue
May you be blessed in the holy names of those
Who, without you knowing it,
Help to carry and lighten your pain.
May you know serenity
When you are called
to enter the house of suffering.
May a window of light always surprise you.
May you be granted the wisdom
To avoid false resistance;
When suffering knocks on the door of your life,
May you glimpse its eventual gifts.
May you be able to receive the fruits of suffering.
May memory bless and protect you
With the hard-earned light of past travail;
To remind you that you have survived before
And though the darkness now is deep,
You will soon see approaching light.
May the grace of time heal your wounds.
May you know that though the storm might rage,
Not a hair of your head will be harmed.

On Ongoing and Serious Discernment Post-Perpetual Eremitical Profession

[[Dear Sister Laurel,  As I read your last post (cf.,September 4, 2018), I was struck by how much discernment you were engaged in. I think most people think of discernment as something one does at the beginning of a vocation but once one reaches profession and especially perpetual profession there won't be any more serious discernment required regarding vocation itself. But that's clearly not true, is it?

I also see much more clearly the role of your director/delegate in assisting you to live out this vocation more fully. There is a real partnership between the two of you which benefits the c 603 vocation as well as your own personal vocation. You have written about this before but this made the picture so much clearer for me! I wondered if you could say more about solitude and the work you have undertaken with Sister M. It seems to me that your relationship and work with her underscores the difference between isolation and solitude. But at the same time your work with her must take you out of the hermitage and away from the silence of solitude frequently. How does this work? Do you think you are changing the idea of what eremitical life is or requires?]]

Many thanks for your observations and questions; the last is a huge one! Yes, throughout the work with my director, but especially during the first year there was a fair amount of vocational discernment going on. That first year critical questions were raised with a new intensity: Was my commitment to eremitical life rooted in God's call or in my own brokenness or woundedness? Or, and this is what was reaffirmed in new and compelling ways, "Is my call a paradox rooted in both of these as my motto reminds me: 'My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.'" In the second year those initial questions quieted some as I worked through other things, and then, in the first months of the third year of work, I experienced a critical piece of healing coupled with a renewed or even increased excitement over canon 603 and it's adequacy and importance in nurturing  solitary eremitical vocations. My own passion re this canon and my experience of spending the last decade and more "unpacking" it in my own life plus the way an eremitical life made the inner work both possible and morally obligatory was strengthened throughout these past years; it also seems to have led to insights I can share with those involved in the discernment and formation of such vocations.

What is true is that once one has made perpetual profession one can generally rest in the assurance that one need not continuing discernment over whether one has this vocation or not. Everyone has weighed in and found that one does. But there are several reasons eremitical life may need to be discerned anew: 1) it is rare and few are called to live a life of the silence of solitude; solitude comes in many forms, most of them transitional or temporary. It might not be unheard of to mistake this for a life calling, particularly if one is thriving in it. 2) the same circumstances that contribute to the making of the heart of a hermit can make one unsuited for such a call; while I think the difference is fairly easy to discern in most cases, I can think of a few where new information makes this less facile. 3) the eremitical life is a call to the privilege of love; its solitude is a rare form of community. If one undertakes personal/inner work which opens one to more common forms of loving, being loved, and participating in community, one will need to look again at one's vocational path. We are ALWAYS called to abundant human life -- that foundational vocation does not change --- but the path to achieving this can change. One must be sure one is responding appropriately --- especially when eremitical life is such an atypical route to human wholeness and holiness.

Working Within the Hermitage:

My work with Sister Marietta does not take me out of the hermitage, at least not usually. She comes here for our meetings and has done that for at least the last 15 years or so. Similarly, when I used to meet with the Vicar for Religious when first becoming a hermit, Sister Susan also drove here from the chancery. (Now that she is co-delegate and on her congregation's leadership team (Vicar) she still will drive here from her Motherhouse in Redwood City when that is possible; unfortunately, because she does not reside in Redwood City but lives down the coast, we don't get to see each other frequently or even often; usually these days we talk by phone!) My relationships with Sisters Marietta and Susan have underscored the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude, just as you say. My work with Marietta has led to changes in the degree of physical solitude I have experienced for the time being, but at the same time it has emphasized the way I come to wholeness in the silence of solitude and eremitical prayer. The work I have done with Sister Marietta is mainly done alone in the time between our appointments -- though she has been uniquely supportive of and present to/for me as I have needed.

Yes, this work with an accompanist and the delegate's role generally tend to be ones of real partnership. In c 603 life one reason this is true is because both the delegate and the hermit are responsible not only for the hermit's own vocation, but for the c 603 vocation itself. (This latter commitment on the hermit's part can also be part of what motivates her to continue discerning her own vocation even after perpetual profession; she is concerned that c 603 vocations be authentic and well-discerned!) But the partnership involved means that the hermit will do all she has committed to do in her profession, and her delegate will be there for her whenever needed and as that is possible. When the diocese asked me to select a delegate they wanted someone who would serve as a "quasi-superior." Over time Sisters Marietta and Susan and I have talked about this and the way the delegate(s)  should function in my life; at the same time my relationship with Marietta has changed, my own religious (eremitical) life has matured, and the way obedience is exercised between us generally involves mutual discussion of needs, limits, and perceptions. I attend to my life and to the God who is sovereign over that life; Marietta does the same. Together we work for my own well-being and (usually implicitly) the well-being of the diocesan hermit vocation.

Changing the Idea of Eremitical Life?

So, as to your last question, do I think I am changing the idea of what eremitical life is or requires? No, not really. Throughout the history of eremitical life hermits have always had elders or mentors to whom they could turn at need for instruction, words of encouragement, correction, and challenge. This was true in the deserts of Nitria and Scete; it was true in medieval times when hermits went to bishops for supervision and support. If you have read St Francis of Assisi's Rule for hermits/hermitages you may remember that Francis outlined a situation of three persons, four at most, two of whom served as "Mother" to the others. These brothers also had "custos" or superiors. It was the task of the "Mothers" to guard and otherwise serve the Sons as Martha served Jesus and Mary in the gospel parable. Roles were changed after some time of guaranteed silence, solitude, and contemplation with the brothers taking turns as "Sons" or "Mothers". Both Sons and Mothers lived in solitude, in this arrangement but it seems that the solitude of the "Sons" was stricter with the "Mothers" keeping people away from the "Sons".

The overall point here, and something which is emphasized in Canon 603 is that hermits require supervision, direction, and sometimes, the kind of accompaniment I have been afforded by my own director. Francis was not timid about using the term "Mothers" for those who served the "Sons" and their vocations in the way Francis' Rule outlined. There is an incredible intimacy and necessary dependency fostering maturation in solitude necessary in Francis' vision of eremitical life. It was a true partnership, and, since the roles could and would be reversed, one marked by the equality of peers. I think, unfortunately, that we think of hermits in more individualistic terms than is often healthy -- often because we equate solitude with physical solitude rather than with the intimacy of communion with God. But hermits are not called simply to "do their own things"; they are called to negotiate to demands of life with God and that requires assistance even as the relationship is lived in the silence of solitude.

Canon Law and the Freedom of Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, is it true that canon 603 came to be because of abuses common to the eremitical vocation? Have you heard the quote by the person who says hermits follow God with a minimum of structure? (Sorry, I forgot who it was who said this.) I wondered if living according to canon law is faithful to this idea.]]

Hi there. I have written several times about the history of canon 603 and debunked the notion that it was published/promulgated in order to combat abuses. You can find an account of the contemporary history in the following article: History of Canon 603. Other posts can be found under the label "Canon 603 --- history" in the right hand column of this blog. However, let me say here that canon 603 grew out of a community led by Dom Winandy under the protection of Bishop Remi DeRoo. Bishop Remi had come to recognize the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church eremitical life represented and desired Vatican Council II to recognize it as a state of perfection. Canon 603 came about when Vatican II authorized the renewal of the Code of Canon Law in light of the pastoral changes and theological shifts adopted by Vatican II. While it is true canon 603 provides non-negotiable elements which serve to structure an eremitical life and, when properly understood or "unpacked", shows its true purpose is to define a form of life which is faithful to the eremitical tradition, it also represents a gift to the contemporary hermit and Church in which the authentic freedom of solitary communion with God may be explored and celebrated --- and all this in the name of the Church.

I believe the quote you paraphrased was made by Jean LeClercq. (Merton, a friend of LeClercq, also refers to a minimum of structure as an essential  characteristic of eremitical life.) The truth is that canon 603 does not outline or define a highly structured life. Yes, it is regular and full, but its regularity is meant to ensure each hermit lives the essentials of the life in a way which stamps the whole with genuine freedom --- always a gift of God. Genuine freedom  is not the same as license; it does not mean doing whatever one wants whenever one wants, but rather represents "the power to be the person one is called to be" within and even in spite of the constraints our lives impose.  The essential elements are uniquely shaped by each hermit and combined in ways which will make the specific pattern of her life different from the pattern of another c 603 hermit. Most importantly, the hermit will combine the elements specified and personally needed in order to live the most fully human life possible. I doubt very much there is another diocesan hermit who plays violin once a week in an orchestra (though I would love to meet one) --- but playing has always been a critical piece of my own communion with God. Long before I learned other forms of prayer, playing violin/improvisation represented my own participation in the transcendent and was my primary way of being my truest Self. Thus, when I wrote my Rule I allowed for continuing playing in the Oakland Civic Orchestra as well as doing some chamber music with friends from the orchestra once a week.

Thus, the hermit's Rule of Life, which is also required by the canon, allows one to structure one's life in whatever way serves her own growth in wholeness and holiness.  I think folks who have lived lives under c 603 with the assistance of good spiritual directors come to know how it is that the canon creates a realm of freedom allowing one to explore the heights and depths of life with and in God. It is a regular or orderly life of prayer, penance, meaningful work, recreation and rest through which one is loved and comes to love more and more deeply and well as the years come and go. This "privilege of love" marks every activity, every period of work, rest, or recreation, every purpose dignifying the life. Canon 603 does not foster a legalistic life. Legalism, I have found, is the mistake of beginners (or something imposed by those who have never lived eremitical life). It is the stance of the insecure and relatively ignorant. For those who have lived eremitical solitude for some years c 603 gives them the opportunity to compose a Rule which is more vision of the life one is committed to out of love --- for self, for God, and for all that is loved by God --- than it is an outline of what one must and must not do hour by hour, and day by day.

Thus too, it will not surprise you to find that I believe canon 603 defines a life which is faithful to LeClercq's quotation; it does not betray it. I have certainly read the complaint that canon 603 is an instance of increased institutionalization which betrays the freedom of eremitical life. The only articles I am aware of that have been recently written or otherwise posted in this vein have been written from outside an experience of the life of the canon. I don't believe the author shows an adequate sense of either the canon's history or the quality of the life it is normative of. The pieces' antipathy to canon 603 eremitical life has personal sources which I partly understand but must reject for the bias they lend to these articles' perspective. It is really important (and this is true for Vicars and Bishops as well as for potential candidates to diocesan eremitical life) that canon 603 be understood not merely from the perspective of the canonist, but additionally and even primarily from the perspective of a diocesan hermit who has found the canon to be a gift of God making eremitical life possible and personally (humanly) fulfilling.

14 September 2018

Questions on Suffering and the Exaltation of the Cross (Reprise)

[[Could you write something about today's feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

The above question which arrived by email was the result of reading some of my posts, mainly those on victim soul theology, the Pauline theology of the Cross, and some earlier ones having to do with the permissive will of God. For that reason my answer presupposes much of what I wrote in those and I will try not to be too repetitive. First of all, in answering the question, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative.

(Crucifix in Ambo of Cathedral of Christ the Light; Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Cathedral Sunday in the Diocese of Oakland)

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was ALSO a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph ONLY because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in ALL of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they image miniature instruments of torture, yes, but they are also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit. Today's first reading prepares us for this paradox with its serpent lifted up on a staff; today we recognize not a symbol of poisoning and death but the caduceus, a symbol of medical care, comfort, and healing.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the asistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exult in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we MUST bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace ALWAYS results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will REALLY be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In ALL cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives IN SPITE of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in ANY situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We MUST do whatever it is that allows us to not close off to God, and to remain open to growth AS HUMAN. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act in ways which changes that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life) then we must act in ways which change that.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others TO THE GRACE OF GOD. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in today's Feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the cross empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, -then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in THAT Cross in embracing our own.

I am certain I have not completely answered your question, but for now this will need to suffice. My thanks for your patience. If you have other questions which can assist me to do a better job, I would very much appreciate them. Again, thanks for your emails.

12 September 2018

The Silence of Solitude, a Share in the Abyss of God's own Heart

[[Hi Sister, I wondered why you speak of solitude in personified terms. You say "she herself must open the door to the hermit". Do you think of solitude as a living thing?]]

Thanks for the question. I have repeated Thomas Merton's observation that one cannot choose solitude as one's own vocation; solitude must open the door to the hermit or there is no vocation. I can't say why Merton used this personification with real certainty, but I  know that it reminds me of references to Wisdom in the OT, where Wisdom or Sophia, is a dimension of God --- and a distinctly feminine one at that! I suspect that this same sense might have been true for Merton. In describing the Eremo which is the Motherhouse of the OSB Camaldolese in Tuscany, Merton writes: [[In order to seek Him who is inaccessible the hermit himself becomes inaccessible. But within the little village of cells  centered about the Church of the Eremo is a yet more perfect solitude: that of each hermit's own cell. Within the cell is the hermit (himself), in the solitude of his own soul. But --- and this is the ultimate test of solitude --- the hermit is not alone with himself: for that would not be sacred loneliness. Holiness is life. Holy Solitude is nourished with the Bread of Life and drinks deep at the very Fountain of all Life. The solitude of the soul enclosed within itself is death. And so, the authentic, the really sacred solitude is the infinite solitude of God Himself, Alone, in Whom the hermits are alone,]] (Disputed Questions, A Renaissance Hermit, p. 169)

What Merton is getting at, I think, is that eremitical solitude is not only lived in communion with God, but it is communion with God lived within the very life of God. It is of itself a dimension of the God who exists both as a community of love and as an abyss of solitude. It is the life of God which is opened to us when solitude opens her door to us. Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam, says something very similar in speaking of two freedoms meeting one another in The Eremitic Life. He writers: [[In this sense the eremitic calling is a consequence of meeting the original depths of the Trinity's solitude. God is the living interpersonal relationship of love inasmuch as he is the presence of the original abyss of solitude and silence. The reality of God is thus the original source of any solitude, an impenetrable abyss that calls to the profound depths of solitude of the human heart. Having heard that existential call of God's solitude, people respond to it by opening up the whole secret of their hearts.]]

So, yes,  I personify Solitude because I understand it as a dimension, even the most fundamental dimension of God's own heart. To speak of Solitude opening the door to us is to speak of God opening a particular dimension of God's own heart to us and inviting us to dwell there in silence and solitude and coming to the human wholeness, holiness, and rest hermits call "the silence of solitude" and hesychasts call "quies". It is critically important that we understand how qualitatively different from  ("mere") silence and solitude is the reality we call "the silence of solitude" or "eremitical solitude". The first is simply the (still important!) absence of sound and others; the latter is life lived in the solitary abyss of God's heart and so, a living and communal reality. This is also the reason I identify the Silence of Solitude not only as environment, but also as goal, and charism of the eremitical life.

Questions on "Justifying" Inner Work

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, when you write about the inner work you have undertaken you justify it in the name of your vocation --- as though your vocation itself called for it and made it the right and necessary thing to do. I wonder if that is really true. I don't think I have read about any other hermit undertaking this kind of work after leaving the world or entering the desert! It seems entirely unique to you. Do you really think other hermits might be called to this kind of "work" or could you be justifying it in order to remain a hermit?]]

Thanks for your questions! They do push me further in writing about this work. First, I have no idea how many other hermits are acquainted with PRH; I know that Father Michael Fish, OSB Cam has done PRH and knows my director/accompanist personally for her skills in PRH, but beyond Michael's experience I don't know of other hermits who have engaged in this work. At the same time I think it is important to remember the entire history of eremitical life and the frequent references that occur throughout this history to the struggle or outright battle with demons --- most of which, I am sure, are the demons of our own hearts. As I wrote here a couple of years ago in On Battling Demons and Mediating Peace:

[[. . .believe me, when we deal with the parts of ourselves left unhealed, distorted, or broken in childhood and throughout life, the process of healing can be as fierce, demanding, and messy as stories of Desert ancestors battling all day and night long with demons then coming out of their caves torn and bloodied but exultant in the morning! The same is true of the story of Jacob wrestling with God (God's angel) and, painfully wounded though he was, refusing to let go until God blessed him. We enter the desert both to seek God and to do battle with demons; it is a naïve person indeed who does not anticipate meeting herself face to face there in all of her weakness, brokenness, and [(fortunately), her] giftedness as well! We may well know that God is profoundly involved in what may eventuate into the fight/struggle of and for our lives but it can take time, faith, and perseverance before we walk away both limping and blessed beyond measure.]] (cf Sources and Resources for Inner Work)

I am also reminded of a passage from Thomas Merton's Disputed Questions in the essay "The Renaissance Hermit"; here Merton cites Bl. Paul Giustiniani: [[It is here, in this inexpressible rending of his own poverty, that the hermit enters, like Christ, into an arena where (she) wages the combat that can never be told to anyone. This is the battle that is seen by no one except God, and whose vicissitudes are so terrible that when victory comes at last, the total poverty and emptiness of the victor are so absolute that there is no longer any place in (her) heart for pride.]]

Hermits have known throughout the history of eremitical life, I believe, of the nature and necessity of the struggle Paul Giustiniani noted here and which I have described as "inner work". Alan Jones in Soul Making,  The Desert Way of Spirituality,  refers to the healing of memories as an integral part of the desert tradition and life, and while I don't believe he appends the description, "struggling with demons," I have no doubt he would agree with the linkage made here. In other words, the work which I have described here and there during the past two years and more is work which is entirely consonant with the life of a hermit; more, it is work that the desert context makes absolutely essential. I think I could call it a sine qua non of eremitical life and not be overstating the case. It is in fact, a necessary dimension of the salvific character of the hermit life. As regards your last question, I am clear that my posts on "inner work" capture the paradox of risking a vocation because the very vocation itself makes this necessary. I have, so far as I and others can discern, not fooled myself or them in identifying solitary eremitical life as my own vocation --- an important reason to have embraced an ecclesial vocation under the direction and supervision of others!

10 September 2018

What are Signal Graces?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, can you tell me what a "signal grace" is? Does it mean God is sending us a "signal" like an image of Jesus pointing the way or causing a bell to ring or something? Thank you.]]

Sure. A signal grace is a grace which is exceptional and stands as the "originating grace" for many others. Thus, for instance, in my own life the chance to attend Mass with a high school friend was a signal grace which led to my first vision of what the Church is as well as to my catechesis and conversion. The opportunity to study theology under John Dwyer was not simply a grace, but a signal grace which became the source and even foundation for many, many other graces --- not least my love for Scripture or the ability to reflect theologically on things (like c 603!), and especially Paul's theology of the cross -- which has allowed me to live my entire adult life in light of God's promise of new life. The prayer experience I have described here which occurred @ 1985 at the prompting/invitation of my director was a signal grace as was my director's consent to act as my delegate with and for the Diocese of Oakland. My stumbling across canon 603 in 1983-84 while checking out the Revised Code of Canon Law was a signal grace which led me to eremitical life and all the graces that have come from this --- not least the recent work I have undertaken with the assistance/accompaniment of my director or some work I am currently doing re canon 603 itself. And finally, of course, eremitical profession itself has been a signal grace along this same stream of graces for which I thank God daily.

Signal graces are not usually actual signals like a vision of Jesus literally pointing to a door or causing a bell to ring as a signal to us. (Though if either of these were to happen to us they could also be signal graces in the accepted sense used in this post. Merton, for instance, once had a dream in which he heard the bell of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani; that dream was a signal grace for him, possibly in both senses.) In this post's (and ordinary theological) usage, however, "signal" is an adjective meaning notable, as in a signal event or achievement. Given this meaning we look back at the stand-out graces in our lives, the really pivotal graces which represent a kind of turning point leading to innumerable other graces we might otherwise never have known. Each of the graces I mentioned above represented a turning point, a grace in light of which I and my life would never be the same. Each led to further graces (further experiences of the powerful presence of God),  and a kind of fruitfulness which can only be described in hindsight. (We might or might not know a grace is significant at the moment it occurs, but signal graces are recognized in hindsight as we look at the subsequent pattern of graces associated with or originating from them.)

I hope this is helpful.

09 September 2018

Healing of the Deaf, Speech-Impaired Man (Reprise)

Today's Gospel brought us face to face with who we are called to be, and with the results of the idolatry that occurs whenever we refuse that vocation. Both issues, vocation and true worship are rooted in the Scriptural notion of obedience, that is in the obligation which is our very nature, to hearken --- to listen and respond to God appropriately with our whole selves. When we are empowered to and respond with such obedience our very lives proclaim the Kingdom of God, not as some distant reality we are still merely waiting for, but as something at work in us here and now. In fact, when our lives are marked by this profound dynamic of obedience, today's readings remind us the reign of God cannot be hidden from others --- though its presence will be seen only with the eyes of faith.

In the Gospel, (Mark 7:31-37) A man who is deaf and also has a resultant speech impediment is brought by friends to Jesus; Jesus is begged to heal him. In what is an unusual process for Mark (or for any of the Gospel writers) in its crude physicality, Jesus puts his fingers in the man's ears, and then, spitting on his fingers, touches the man's tongue. He looks up to heaven, groans, and says in Aramaic, "ephphatha!" (that is, "Be opened!"). Immediately the man is healed and "speaks plainly." Those who brought him to Jesus are astonished, joyful, and could not contain their need to proclaim Jesus and what he had done: "He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

I am convinced that the deaf and "mute" man (for he is not really mute, but impeded from clear speech by his inability to hear) is a type of each of us, a symbol for the persons we are and for the vocation we are each called to. Theologians speak of human beings as "language events." We are called to be by God, conceived from and an expression of the love of two people for one another, named so that we have the capacity for personal presence in the world and may be personally addressed by others; we are shaped for good or ill, for wholeness or woundedness, by every word which is addressed to us. Language is the means and symbol of our capacity for relationship and transcendence.

Consider how it is that vocabulary of all sorts opens various worlds to us and makes the whole of the cosmos our own to understand, wonder at, and render more or less articulate; consider how a lack of vocabulary whether affective, theological, scientific, mathematical, musical, psychological, etc, can cripple us and distance us from effectively relating to various dimensions of human life including our own heart. Note, for instance that physicians have found that in any form of mental illness there is a corresponding dimension of difficulty with or dysfunction of language. Consider the very young child's wonderful (and often really annoying!) incessant questioning. There, with every single question and answer, language mediates transcendence (a veritable explosion of transcendence in fact!) and initiates the child further and further into the world of human community, knowledge, understanding, reflection, celebration, and commitment. Language marks us as essentially communal, fundamentally dependent upon others to call us beyond ourselves, essentially temporal AND transcendent, and, by virtue of our being imago dei, responsive and responsible (obedient) at the core of our existence.

One theologian (Gerhard Ebeling), in fact, notes that the most truly human thing about us is our addressiblity and our ability to address others. Addressibility includes and empowers responsiveness; that is, it has both receptive and expressive dimensions. It is the characteristically human form of language which creates community. It marks us as those whose coming to be is dependent upon the dynamic of obedience --- but also on the generosity of those who would address us and give us a place to stand as persons --- places we cannot assume on our own. We spend our lives responsively -- coming (and often struggling) to attend to and embody or express more fully the deepest potentials within us in myriad ways and means and doing so as an answer to the invitation of God's very personal call and other's love for us.

But a lot can hinder this most foundational vocational accomplishment. Sometimes our own woundedness prevents the achievement of this goal to greater degrees. Sometimes we are not given the tools or education we need to develop this capacity. Sometimes, we are badly or ineffectually loved and rendered relatively deaf and "mute" in the process. Oftentimes we muddle the clarity of that expression through cowardice, ignorance, or even willful disregard. Our hearts, as I have noted here before, are dialogical realities. That is, they are the place where God bears witness to himself, the event marked in a defining way by God's continuing and creative address and our own embodied response. In every way our lives are either an expression of the Word or logos of God which glorifies (him), or they are, to whatever extent, a dishonoring evasion, distortion, or even an outright lie.

And so, faced with a man who is crippled in so many fundamental ways --- one, that is, for whom the world of community, knowledge, and celebration is largely closed by disability, Jesus prays to God, touches, and addresses the man directly, "Ephphatha!" ---Be thou opened!" It is the essence of what Christians refer to as salvation, the event in which a word of command and power heals the brokennesses which cripple and isolate, and which, by empowering obedience reconciles the man to himself, his God, his people and world. As a result of Jesus' Word, and in response, the man speaks plainly --- for the first time (potentially) transparent to himself and to those who know him; he is more truly a revelatory or language event, authentically human and capable through the grace of God of bringing others to the same humanity through direct response and address.

Our own coming to wholeness, to a full and clear articulation of our truest selves is a communal achievement. Even (or even especially) in the lives of hermits this has always been true insofar as solitude is NOT isolation but is instead a form of communion marked by profound dependence on the Word of God and lived specifically for the salvation of others. In today's gospel friends bring the man to Jesus, Jesus prays to God before acting to heal him. The presence of friends is another sign not only of the man's nature as made-for-communion and the fact that none of us come to language (or, that is, to the essentially human capacity for responsiveness or obedience) alone, but similarly, of the deaf man's total inability to approach Jesus on his own. At the same time, Jesus takes the man aside and what happens to him in this encounter is thus signaled to be profoundly personal, intimate, and beyond the merely-evident. Friends are necessary, but at bottom, the ultimate healing and humanizing encounter can only happen between the deaf man and Christ.

In each of our lives there is deafness and "muteness" or inarticulateness. So many things are unheard by us, fail to touch or resonate in our hearts. So many things call forth embittered and cynical reactions which wound and isolate when what is needed is a response of genuine compassion and welcoming. Similarly, so many things render us speechless: bereavement, illness, ignorance, personal woundedness, etc. As a result we live our commitments half-heartedly, our loves guardedly, our joys tentatively, our pains self-consciously and noisily --- but helplessly and without meaning in ways which do not edify --- and in all these ways therefore, we are less human, less articulate, less the obedient or responsive language event we are called to be.  To each of us, then, and in whatever way or degree we need, Jesus says, "EPHPHATHA!" "Be thou opened!" He sighs in compassion and desire, unites himself with his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, and touches us with his own hands and spittle.

May we each allow ourselves to be brought to Jesus for healing. May we be broken open and rendered responsive and transparent by his powerful Word of command and authority. Especially, may we each become the clear gospel-founded words of joy and hope in a world marked extensively and profoundly by deafness and the helplessness and the despair of noisy inarticulateness.