15 February 2018

Choose Life (Reprise)

When I was a very young sister, I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then:

Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister H Kelly)

The readings from the Thursday after Ash Wednesday both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accomodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."

The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]

I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are CALLED to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.

God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.

The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us PARE DOWN all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.

It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose death  instead.

Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!

02 February 2018

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Overture to Hansel and Gretel

Well, OCO now has one more concert under its belt with only two pieces this time. The main piece in last weekend's concert was Mahler's 4th Symphony but that is not "up" yet --- meaning our really wonderful videographer has not managed that yet! The overture was Humperdinck's "Overture to Hansel and Gretel" and it was conducted by Shannon Houston, our Associate Conductor. Because we are an amateur orchestra whose players all have day jobs, we all get the chance to do things which stretch us. Thus, Shannon is a fine violinist who most often plays principle second with OCO and is learning conducting at the same time. (Speaking of being stretched, our videographer is actually one of our bassists, Carol de Arment. Carol is teaching herself the in's and out's of videography and in the process of putting together a long piece chronicling the 25 year history of OCO!) Remember to enlarge to full screen!

Addendum: apologies to Carol deArment! She sent me a link to the first movement of the Mahler this morning --- probably not long after I noted the symphony was not up yet! I also said above that the music we play stretches us --- and in ways which are hard to quantify. In speaking about this program Marty, our conductor, did a little quantifying; she said had waited to conduct Mahler for 25 years! That is partly dependent on having an orchestra that can do that technically, but it is very much more a matter of being a conductor who can help them do that! It takes its own kind of stretching to lead an orchestra to play difficult music and to do so as an ensemble which has come to share in the conductor's (and the composer's) musical sense and artistic vision. Getting there, to whatever extent we do that, is really hard work! Ultimately it is usually joyful as well. In any case, here is the first movement of Mahler's 4th symphony.

26 January 2018

Becoming All Fire

In the apothegmata (sayings) of the Desert Fathers and Mothers there is a famous story. It was rooted in the personal experience of these original Christian hermits but it resonated with a line from today's reading from Paul's second letter to Timothy:  [[For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.]] A young monk, Abba Lot, came to an elder, Abba Joseph, and affirmed that he had done all that he knew to do; everyday he did a little fasting, praying and meditating. He maintained hesychia (stillness) and purged his thoughts to the best of his ability. He wondered what else he should be doing. The story concludes, [[Standing up, the elder stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire; and he said to him, "If you are willing, you can become all flame!"]]

I suspect most of us have experienced the formal laying on of hands that occurs during the reception of some sacrament or other. If we are not ordained we would still have experienced this at confirmation and during the reception of the anointing of the sick. Some of us who were baptized as adults may have experienced this during our initiation into the Church. In every case the laying on of hands signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit and the mediation of a kind of vocational event, a call to discipleship in and of the love and presence of God in Christ. (The sacrament of anointing has been called a vocational sacrament to be sick in the Church, a call to proclaim the Gospel of God's wholeness and holiness in and through the weakness and even the relative brokenness of illness. cf. James Empereur, Prophetic Anointing) And of course there are all the other ways God lays hands on us as "his" love comforts, heals, and commissions us to God's  service. I wonder if we realize the invitation these occasions represent, the invitation not merely to be touched and enlightened in so many ways by the love and presence of God, but to be so wholly transformed by him so that we become "all flame"!

This is another way of describing the coming of the Reign of God among us. In today's readings the Kingdom of God is not so much a place as it is an event. Jesus described it this way: [[Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.]] (Matt 11:4-5) And we know that beyond this, the coming of this mysterious event often involved the healing of those with inexplicable illnesses and forms of unfreedom or outright bondage, victims of the demonic in human hearts and the world at large. According to tomorrow's readings the seeds of  this event are planted deep within us, a potential harvest which is natural to us and whose fullness we cannot even imagine. With every encounter with Jesus, every encounter with the Word of God, every direct or mediated experience of the love of God, this human and vocational potential is summoned or drawn to fruition.

One of the privileged ways this encounter occurs just as it did in Jesus' time is through Jesus' parables. These are stories which quietly draw us more and more into the world Jesus calls home, the world of friendship with God, the countercultural world whose values and life we call prophetic. I have written about parables here before --- about their power to summon us out of this world, to empower us to leave our baggage behind and to embrace the newfound freedom of an enlarged and hallowed humanity. It is a world which, through the narrative power of the Word made flesh, transforms and commissions us to return to that same world we left and act as Christ-for-others --- in the world but not of it. Jesus says, "the Kingdom of God is like. . ." and our minds and hearts alert to the promise and  challenge of a reality we cannot explain, a mystery we cannot comprehend unless, until, and to the extent it takes complete hold of us.

This gradual but continual process of call, encounter, response, and missioning is the way the event we know as the Kingdom of God comes, first to us and then to others we meet and minister to, then to the whole of creation. And it is what the Gospel writers are calling us to today. May we each find ourselves grasped and shaken, comforted, healed and commissioned, disoriented and re-oriented by the Word of God that comes to us in Christ. And may we each come to know and believe the truth of our own potential and call --- that we are not merely meant to be touched here and there by the fire of God's love and presence, but that we are made, called, and commissioned to "become all flame" in and through that love. Amen.

25 January 2018

Conversion of Paul: Model for us All (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 January 2018

Miserando atque Eligendo: A Mercy that does Justice as it Creates a Future (Reprise)

Quite often this blog is a way in which I work out theological positions, especially in terms of the nature and charism of eremitical life, the relation of Gospel and Law (often canon law!!), or of mercy and justice. In reflecting on Friday's readings from 1 Sam and Mark I was reminded of Pope Francis' jubilee year of Mercy and of his coat of arms and motto: Miserando atque Eligendo. In 1 Sam David shows mercy to Saul despite Saul's commitment to killing him and is deemed by Saul to be worthy of Kingship by virtue of this act. An act of mercy is presented as having the power to change Saul's heart as nothing else does. The lection from Mark deals with the calling of the twelve. Together they represent a single pastoral impulse, a single imperative, the impulse and imperative also marking the entirety of Francis' Episcopacy and Pontificate and this Jubilee year of mercy as well: Miserando atque eligendo.

Francis translates the first word of his motto as a gerund, "Mercifying". He sees his episcopacy as being about the mercification of the church and world; the motto as a whole means "To Mercify (to embrace wretchedness) and to Call". This can even be translated as, "I will mercify (that is, make the world whole by embracing its wretchedness in the power of God's love) and (or "and even further") call (or choose) others" who will be commissioned in the same way. Francis speaks of the meaning of his motto in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy . He writes, "So mercifying and choosing (calling) describes the vision of Jesus who gives the gift of mercy and chooses, and takes unto himself."  (Kindle location 226) This is simply the way Francis chose to be a Bishop in Christ's Church; it is certainly the face God turned to the world in Jesus and it is the face of the shepherd we have come to associate with the Papacy. It is the way the Church is called to address and transform our world, the way she is called to literally "embrace wretchedness" and create peace and purpose. Mercifying and calling. It is the Way into the future God wills for everyone and everything.

Paul too saw that mercy was the way God creates a future. He writes in his letter to the Romans, [[Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?]] In other words it is the kindness or mercy of God, God's forbearance and patience that will create a way forward --- if in fact we take that mercy seriously. What I saw as I read that line from Paul was that Divine mercy is always about creating a way forward when our own actions close off any way of progress at all. God's mercy draws us out of any past we have locked ourselves into and into his own life of "absolute futurity". Let me explain. Often times I have written here that God's mercy IS God's justice. Justice is always about creating and ensuring a future -- both for those wronged, for society as a whole, and for the ones who have wronged another. Justification itself means establishing a person in right relationship with God and the rest of reality; it indicates that person's freedom from enmeshment in the past and her participation in futurity, that is in God's own life. Mercy, which (as I now see clearly) always includes a call to discipleship, is the way God creates and draws us into the future. What is often called "Divine wrath" is just the opposite --- though it can open us to the mercy which will turn things around.

Divine Wrath, Letting the Consequences of our Sin Run:

Wrath, despite the anthropomorphic limitations of language involved, is not Divine anger or a failure or refusal of God to love us. Rather, it is what happens when God respects our freedom and lets the consequences of our choices and behavior run --- the consequences which cut us off from the love and community of others, the consequences which make us ill or insure our life goes off the rails, so to speak, the consequences which ripple outward and affect everyone within the ambit of our lives. Similarly, it is God's letting run the consequences of sin which  lead us to even greater acts of sin as we defend or attempt to defend ourselves against them, try futilely to control matters, and keep our hands on the reins which seem to imply we control our lives and destinies. But how can a God of Love possibly allow the consequences of sin run and still be merciful? I have one story which helps me illustrate this.

I wrote recently of the death of my major theology professor, John Dwyer. In the middle of a moral theology class focusing on the topic of human freedom and responsibility John said that if he saw one of us doing something stupid he would not prevent us. He quickly noted that if we were impaired in some way he would intervene but otherwise, no. Several of us majors were appalled. John was a friend and mentor. Now, we regularly spent time at his house dining with him and his wife Odile and talking theology into the late hours. (It was Odile who introduced me to French Roast coffee and always made sure there was some ready!) Though we students were not much into doing seriously stupid things, we recognized the possibility of falling into such a situation! So when John made this statement we looked quickly at one another with questioning, confused, looks and gestures. A couple of us whispered to each other, "But he LOVES us! How can he say that?" John took in our reaction in a single glance or two, gave a somewhat bemused smile, and explained, "I will always be here for you. I will be here if you need advice, if you need a listening ear. . . and if you should do something stupid I will always be here for you afterwards to help you recover in whatever way I can, but I will not prevent you from doing the act itself."

We didn't get it at all at the time, but now I know John was describing for us an entire complex of theological truths about human freedom, Divine mercy, Divine wrath, theodicy, and discipleship as well: Without impinging on our freedom God says no to our stupidities and even our sin, but he always says yes to us and his yes to us, his mercy, eventually will also win out over sin. John would be there for us in somewhat the same the merciful God of Jesus Christ is there for us. Part of all of this was the way the prospect or truth of being "turned over" to our own freedom and the consequences of our actions also opens us to mercy. To be threatened with being left to ourselves in this way if we misused our freedom --- even with the promise that John would be there for us before, after, and otherwise --- made us think very carefully about doing something truly stupid. John's statement struck us like a splash of astringent but it was also a merciful act which included an implicit call to a future free of serious stupidities, blessed with faithfulness, and marked by genuine freedom. It promised us the continuing and effective reality of John's love and guiding presence, but the prospect of his very definite "no!" to our "sin" was a spur to embrace more fully the love and call to adulthood he offered us.

How much more does the prospect of "Divine wrath" (or the experience of that "wrath" itself) open us to the reality of Divine mercy?! Thus, Divine wrath is subordinate to and can serve Divine mercy; it can lead to a wretchedness which opens us to something more, something other. It can open us to the Love-in-Act that summons and saves. At the same time it is mercy that has the power to redeem situations of wrath, situations of enmeshment in and entrapment by the consequences of one's sin. It is through mercy that God does justice, through mercy that God sets things to rights and opens a future to that which was once a dead end.

Miserando atque Eligendo, The Way of Divine Mercy:

What is critical, especially in light of Friday's readings and Francis' motto it seems to me, is that we understand mercy not only as the gratuitous forgiveness of sin or the graced and unconditional love of the sinner, but that we also see that mercy, by its very nature, further includes a call which leads to embracing a new life. The most striking image of this in the NT is the mercy the Risen Christ shows to Peter. Each time  Peter answers Christ's question, "Do you love me?" he is told, "Feed my Lambs" or "Feed my Sheep." Jesus does not merely say, "You are forgiven"; in fact, he never says, "You are forgiven" in so many words. Instead he conveys forgiveness with a call to a new and undeserved future.

This happens again and again in the NT. It happens in the parable of the merciful Father (prodigal son) and it happens whenever Jesus says something like, "Rise and walk" or "Go, your faith has made you whole," etc. (Go does not merely mean, "Go on away from here" or "Go on living as you were"; it is, along with other commands like "Rise", "Walk" "Come",etc., a form of commissioning which means. "Go now and mercify the world as God has done for you.") Jesus' healing and forgiving touch always involves a call opening the future to the one in need. Mercy, as a single pastoral  impulse, embraces our fruitless and pointless wretchedness even as it calls us to God's  own creative and meaningful blessedness.

The problem of balancing mercy and justice is a false problem when we are speaking of God. I have written about this before in Is it Necessary to Balance Divine Mercy With Justice? and Moving From Fear to Love: Letting Go of the God Who Punishes Evil. What was missing from "Is it necessary. . .?" was the element of call --- though I believe it was implicit since both miserando and eligendo are essential to the love of God which summons us to wholeness. Still, it took Francis' comments on his motto (something he witnesses to with tremendous vividness in every gesture, action, and homily) along with the readings from this Friday to help me see explicitly that the mercification or mercifying of our world means both forgiving and calling people into God's own future. We must not trivialize or sentimentalize mercy (or the nature of genuine forgiveness) by omitting the element of a call.

When we consider that today theologians write about God as Absolute Futurity (cf Ted Peters' works, God, the World's Future, and Anticipating Omega), the association of mercy with the call to futurity makes complete sense and it certainly distances us from the notion of Divine mercy as something weak which must be balanced by justice. Mercy, again, is the way God does justice --- the way he causes our world to be transfigured as it is shot through with eschatological Life and purpose. We may choose an authentic future in God's love or a wounded, futureless reality characterized by enmeshment and isolation in sin, but whichever we choose it is always mercy that sets things right --- if only we will accept it and the call it includes!! Of course it is similarly an authentic future we are called on to offer one another -- just as David offered to Saul and Jesus offered those he healed or those he otherwise called and sent out as his own Apostles. Miserando atque Eligendo!! May we adopt this as the motto of our own lives just as Francis has done, and may we make it our own "modus operandi" for doing justice in our world as Jesus himself did.

08 January 2018

Living the New Year With Christmas Joy

As we say goodbye to the Christmas season, one of my favorite Christmas songs sung by Father Cyprian Consiglio, OSB (Prior, New Camaldoli Hermitage) Cam and Brother James, OSB Cam (in this video he is still a postulant).

And, on this day of Jesus' baptism, as we look forward to the journey we make with him during the rest of this liturgical year we anticipate both the joy and the pain of Jesus' exhaustive gift of self as Emmanuel. With Brother James, Father Cyprian expresses this so well in a song he composed, "Every Stone Shall Cry"

My very best wishes to all who read here, and especially my thanks to those who have supported this ministry with their questions, thoughts, well-wishes, and prayer. A very happy New Year to you; may God bless you with abundant life, and may you live each day with a full measure of Christmas Joy!

Sister Laurel, Er Dio, Diocese of Oakland
(Oblate, OSB Cam.)

06 January 2018

On Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

[[Dear Sister, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I pray you are well. I was wondering if you could say a word on how to discern which edition of the Divine Office one should use as a solitary. Of course, there is the official Roman Liturgy of the Hours, but most monastic houses use a different version of the Divine Office (I love the way the Trappist Genesee Abbey arranges their Office...straight out of the Psalter). Of particular interest for me is the traditional Monastic Diurnal for Benedictines.

I know a solitary should pray in union with the Church, but the Church seems to allow for many options. I have even come across a canonical hermit who only prays Morning and Evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours (she does other private devotions). Another prays exclusively the traditional Little Office of the Blessed Virgin as her official prayer (she too has other devotions). What insights or advice would you give on picking a form of the Divine Office. Thanks.]]

 Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well! Thanks for writing again.

First a couple of things about canonical hermits and the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours). There is no requirement that a hermit say Office, nor, if she does, that she must say seven of the hours, four hours, two, etc. In my opinion it makes little sense not to pray at least a major portion of this prayer of the Church if one is consecrated to be a person of assiduous prayer who therefore lives this in the name of the Church. But that does not change the fact that if a hermit's prayer life is a good one and she prays regularly, though not the Liturgy of the Hours, a diocese is free to profess and (eventually) consecrate her. This is because the hermit's prayer is established or discerned by the diocese to be substantial and whenever and in whatever way she prays, she does so in some union with the Church. She is, in fact, a symbol of the Church at prayer --- the most significant and primary ecclesial role I think hermits and other contemplatives fulfill since before the Church is anything else (teaching church, preaching church, governing Church, etc) she is called to be and must be a praying Church.

At the same time, despite such immense freedom as is typical of eremitical life, it seems to me that a hermit should discern carefully with her director whether or not she will pray the LOH (Liturgy of the Hours) and how much of that she will pray. Similarly, it seems to me that the hermit's bishop (and whomever else have a hand in discerning and supervising this vocation) will need to evaluate the hermit's prayer life generally and decisions re the LOH more specifically. For instance, a person coming to a diocese requesting admission to profession and consecration as a diocesan hermit may never have been in religious life, may thus never have learned to pray any version of the Office, and as a result may never have developed an appreciation for its subtle way of structuring and informing the religious' prayer, perceptions, and internal and external rhythms in living a religious life. In such a situation the diocese may either demand a person learn to pray at least the major hours of the LOH and practice doing so regularly for some time (at least a couple of years) before they will consider admitting her even to temporary profession under canon 603, or the diocese may discern the candidate's prayer life is strong and vital despite not knowing how to pray the Office and allow her to forego this praxis as a condition of living eremitical life in the name of the Church.

Today, as you said yourself, there are many ways to pray a regular Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. I continue to believe that some form of this regular praxis is essential in the life of any religious and certainly any canonical hermit. Assiduous prayer is hardly possible if the foundation of regular formal prayer is missing. I also believe that whichever of these versions of Office available the person chooses to use, they should capture something of the same daily, weekly, and seasonal tone, sense, and rhythm of the official Roman LOH.

For instance, MP through NP usually moves from a sense of birth or newness to a sense of completion and surrender to sleep (death) in God's hands with gratitude and praise being a constant ground throughout. The same rhythm is reprised as the Office moves from Sunday (Resurrection) through Friday/Saturday (crucifixion, death and descent). (Living and praying this rhythm is far more important I think than moving straight through the OT's150 psalms each week, etc.) The same general rhythm and sense informs the Church's Liturgy of the Hours as she moves through the Liturgical year. It seems to me that one jettisons praying any version of the Office at all at their peril, especially if they wish to claim to be praying in union with the Church. For the hermit or hermit candidate the LOH is important as a daily touchstone for all other prayer in this way, but also because it is essentially a communal prayer underscoring the (rare but real) communal nature of all eremitical solitude.

Meanwhile, most of the major versions of LOH I know of do capture these senses and rhythms. They do this by using some of the same psalms, readings, and canticles or by substituting those which are closely aligned in spirit and content with the Roman LOH. So, how does a person choose? What advice might I give? If one has never prayed Office before I would recommend starting with a single volume like Christian Prayer and get really familiar with it --- meaning pray it regularly, and get instruction or other assistance as needed --- especially to help her accommodate the liturgical and theological rhythms and senses it expresses and embodies.

(For those not seeking to become hermits and especially canonical hermits, one might try beginning with a publication like Give us this Day. This is an excellent resource for busy lay persons who nonetheless desire to pray MP and EP and to reflect on the day's Mass readings as well! I think Magnificat is quite similar.) Something like this is all one may ever need.  If one is a Benedictine Oblate one might well want to use the same texts as the monastery with which one is affiliated. (I tend to use a combination of the Roman LOH with its four week cycle of psalms and the Camaldolese Office book ---  a two week cycle ---because the latter is geared for singing.) A lot of Oblates I know sort of "swear by" the Monastic Diurnal and that is fine. (I can't speak to this version per se because I have never used it; there are blogs which discuss it, however.) Whatever one chooses it is important to be praying as one is able and feels called to pray. You love a particular approach (Trappists of Genesee) so probably that is a version you feel called to.

I personally love the Roman hour of Compline with the Nunc Dimittis" or the "Canticle of Simeon" ("Now Lord, you may dismiss your servant in peace according to your Word. . .") --- another reason I like the Camaldolese Office book which includes a largely invariable Night Prayer with a sung version of this and the usual psalms (#4, 90) along with the Responsory ("Into Your Hands Lord, I commend my Spirit. . . ."). This means that whatever I use for MP and EP (etc.) I would ordinarily use the Camaldolese book for Compline. But there are times I cannot sing Office or may not even feel well enough to pray an entire hour. At these times I might use either the Roman LOH (or a part of it, like a single psalm, appropriate antiphons, and the canticle) --- Give us This Day is a helpful option here --- to maintain the basic rhythm of the day and a vital touchstone to the Church which is the context for my life.)

It is important to remember that unity does  not necessarily imply uniformity nor does uniformity necessarily imply or even occasion unity; similarly Catholicity which is inspired and ensured by the Spirit is certainly broader and more profound than simple uniformity.  Again, I do think that whatever version one chooses one should establish a habit of praying that version regularly and then feel free (within whatever limits are set by one's Rule, etc.) to vary one's praxis if this is needed or truly desirable. By the way, one caveat I should mention: some may choose an antiquarian version of the Office because they reject the changes made in light of Vatican II. This is not, to my mind, an adequate reason for choosing something besides the current Roman LOH. It means one is specifically choosing NOT to pray in union with the Church and not choosing Catholicity but instead a form of (perhaps) rebellious idiosyncrasy.

I hope this is helpful.

25 December 2017

Joy to the World! Hodie Christus Natus Est! (Reprise)

The scandal of the incarnation is one of the themes we neglect at Christmastime or, at best, allude to only indirectly. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We live through the struggles of our lives in light of the moments of hope and joy our faith provides and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the wonder and joy of the birth of our savior. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality nor with all the light and glitter and sound of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. For a brief time we allow the joy of the mystery of Christmas to predominate. We focus on the gift God has given, and the gift we ourselves are meant to become in light of this very special nativity.

Among other things we look closely in the week prior to Christmas at the series of "yeses" that were required for this birth to come to realization, the barrenness that was brought to fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit. We add to this Zechariah's muteness which culminates in a word of prophecy and a canticle of praise, along with the book of Hebrews' summary of all the partial ways God has spoken himself to us; we then set all of these off against the Prologue to John's Gospel with its majestic affirmation of the Word made flesh and God revealed exhaustively to US. The humbleness of the birth is a piece of all this, of course, but the scandal, the offense of such humbleness in the creator God's revelation of self is something we neglect, not least because we see all this with eyes of faith --- eyes which suspend the disbelief of strict rationality temporarily so that we can see instead the beauty and wonder which are also there. The real challenge of course is to hold both truths, scandal and beauty, together in a sacramental paradox.

And so I have tried to do in this symbol of the season. This year my Christmas tree combines both the wonder and the scandal of the incarnation, the humbleness of Jesus' estate in human terms, and the beauty of a world transformed with the eyes of love. Through the coming week the readings are serious (Stephen's martyrdom and the massacre of the holy innocents, a warning about choosing "the world," and so forth) for darkness is still very real and resents and seeks to threaten our joy. Yet, all this is contextualized within the Christmas proclamation that darkness has been unable to quench the divine light that has come into our world, and the inarticulate groaning which often marks this existence has been brought to a new and joy-filled articulateness in the incarnate Word. Everything, we believe, can become sacramental; everything a symbol of God's light and life amongst us; everything a song of joy and meaning! And so too with this fragile "Charlie Brown" tree.

All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide for all who read here, and to all of your families. Today the heavens are not silent. Today they sing: Alleluia, Alleluia!! Hodie Christus Natus Est! Alleluia!

17 December 2017

Gaudete Sunday

As I have written here before, Chanticleer sings each year in the St Ignatius Church of USF and I am often delighted by the opportunity to celebrate the last week of Advent in this way. There is a signature piece they do each year, namely, Biebl's Ave Maria --- what most of us would recognize as the Angelus. People attending await it with excitement; in response they applaud with hands and feet, with gentle cries of delight and the occasional whoop of appreciation. The music expresses joy, reverence, and awe. It is perfect to remind us of the quietly jubilant quality not only of Advent generally but of Gaudete Sunday especially. My very best to you and yours for the rest of this season and, until I can post again, for a wonderful Christmas season. Rejoice!

Response to Article on Hermits

 Dear Sister, I am sending you the link to an article on contemporary hermits and solitude. A reporter went to talk with hermits whose names came from a newsletter and also from a monk. He visited two hermits and writes about both of them. Over all he was in search of some special wisdom solitude provides and was disappointed by both encounters. One of his summaries of his experience said: [[In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you. This, I suspect, was Virgil’s story. It was probably my own, too, and I returned to the city unhappy that my hermit encounters had not yielded more. To my disappointment, Virgil and Doug had proved all too human.]] I was hoping you would read the article and comment on it. Are these two men typical of hermits? How about diocesan hermits? Have you ever had someone come see how you were living? I don't even know what to ask. Please just comment on the article!! ("This reclusive life: what I learned  about solitude from my time with hermits"  in The Guardian, 6 October, 2017)

Thanks,  your link didn't work for me but I was able to google the article with the information you provided. The article was an interesting one. It sounds like the author made a number of correspondents through Raven's Bread, a longstanding newsletter for hermits, solitaries, and those interested in eremitical life. He notes the contacts he made there didn't lead anywhere so he first contacted Virgil ---   vying now, to my mind anyway, with Tom Leppard as the misanthropy  poster boy. Virgil is a disturbing and problematic stereotype. He is portrayed as an angry, volatile, possibly alcoholic misanthrope. Undoubtedly he did not yield any significant insight or piece of eremitical wisdom because his solitude was a matter of self-indulgent escape, nothing more. Solitude, as Merton might have said, had apparently not opened her door to him and for that reason the wisdom of solitude is not really accessible to him. There are other ways of saying that, but I think this is the most general and least personal since I do not know the man.

Doug sounded like both a nice and a lonely guy. I tend to believe the monk who characterized him as "the real deal."  Doug had his problems (possibly some form of ADHD) but solitude seems to be or have been an environment that suited him. The author may or may not have understood vocations to solitude; whether or not he did is unclear to me. What seems clear is that Doug's conversations with Saints, et al, made the author of the article believe solitude was harmful in Doug's case. After summarizing his contact with Doug the article starts to focus more completely on the destructive capacity of solitude. I wonder if this was not the cynical backstory which presupposed the author seeking out and speaking with contemporary hermits at all. Whether I am correct in that I do conclude he misunderstood the way he translated the following saying from the desert Fathers and Mothers: [[It is better to live among the crowd and keep a solitary life in your spirit than to live alone with your heart in the crowd.]]

As you note in your question, the authors says [[In other words, if you go into solitude to get away from something, your troubles will probably follow you.]] But the saying really means, if one is called to solitude and cannot live that out in physical solitude, it is better to live an inner solitude of the heart in the midst of the crowd than it is  to live alone when one's heart is somewhere else. Hermits, as the Church uses the term, are people whose hearts are made whole and full of life in physical and inner solitude. For one called to be a hermit it might still be necessary to live in a physically crowded situation like a city, but even then this person can cultivate a solitude of the heart which will be life giving. They will be in far better condition than the one who tries to live as a hermit when s/he is not called to it. Yes, one not called to live eremitical solitude might well be running from something when s/he moves into the desert, but this is not the only possible reason one turns to solitude when one is not called to it. In any case I think the article got the point of the desert apothegm wrong.

Also, the author reveals the real reason he is disappointed in these two hermits, namely, [[Virgil and Doug had proved too human"! I wish he had said too fallible or too hung up, or something similar. If one is looking for hermits to be anything more than entirely and radically human, then one is looking in the wrong place. The desert does not create angels. It creates (or destroys) human beings.

For those to whom solitude opens her door, solitude creates radically whole and holy human beings, human beings significantly marked and measured by compassion and love, persons who are attuned to mystery and the transcendent but who, for this very reason, are empowered to live as embodied spirit in the present moment. Hermits are profoundly human because they live from and for a dialogue or conversation with God who makes us human. This is true for any human person to the extent they are truly and fully human. That dialogue might be mediated in many many ways and God might be met in/and as truth, beauty, meaning, justice, future, depth, etc. but again, human beings are human to the extent they exist in dialogue with and are completed by God. The wisdom of solitude is always some form of this conclusion and the way solitude empowers this dialogue.

Have I ever had someone come to see how I was living? Beside the Vicar for Religious who visited regularly when I was first becoming a diocesan hermit and my own director (delegate) and pastor, no I haven't. I have been interviewed here twice, once for a local newspaper and once for a student's doctoral dissertation. A couple of other things including a podcast for A Nun's Life were done by phone or by skype.

In the main it is impractical to have someone come here to "see how I live." My hermitage is small and there is not much to see and no way to accommodate overnight guests. I have had a couple of lay persons who wanted to come and see "how I live" but what could I show them? How I pray? How I read or study? How I meet with clients, etc? How I do chores, cook dinner, wash the dishes? I think you get the picture. Life here in Stillsong is extraordinary but it is extraordinary because of the God that transfigures it with his grace; otherwise it is extremely ordinary and there is simply not much to see! Like Doug and Virgil I am all too human and if someone came here looking to find some extraordinary insight and wisdom or evidence of extraordinary prayer experiences, I would have to think they would be disappointed --- just as they might be disappointed by the incarnation and a God who chooses to come to us in the ordinary.

By the way, I don't think either man in the article is typical of the diocesan hermit because diocesan hermits live eremitical solitude in the name of the Church and for the sake of others. I did not get the impression from either Doug or Virgil that they had a sense of living solitude for the sake of others. This is an important dimension of every canonical (Catholic) hermit's life and motivation.

12 December 2017

Primacy of Conscience and Voting in "One Issue Elections"

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I've been watching the Alabama election returns. One issue that comes up again and again is that of abortion. For many in this election their vote hinges on that one issue only --- abortion. I remember you put up a post about this at one point but I couldn't find it tonight. Would you mind reposting it? Thank you!]]

Yes, I am sorry you couldn't find it. It is filed under "conscience -- primacy of" as well as "Benedict XVI and voting" and just plain "voting". Here is the article you were asking about. I have cut some of it to limit it to the key points: 1) what it means to have an informed and a well-formed conscience, and 2) how one determines one is to vote in a situation which is ambiguous or (misleadingly) marked as a "one-issue" situation.

The Cave of the Heart
. . .Let me restate 1) the pertinent part of the Church's teaching on the nature and primacy of conscience, and 2) Benedict XVI's analysis of elections which involve, for instance, the issues of abortion and contraception when neither candidate or party platform is really completely acceptable to Catholics.

First, we are to inform and form our consciences to the best of our ability. This means we are not only to learn as much as we can about  the issue at hand including church teaching, medical and scientific information, sociological data, theological data, and so forth (this is part of the way to an informed conscience), but we are to do all we can to be sure we have the capacity to make a conscience judgment and act on it. This means we must develop the capacity to discern all the values and disvalues present in a given situation, preference them appropriately, and then determine or make a conscience judgment regarding how we must act. Finally we must act on the conscience or prudential judgment that we have come to. (This latter capacity which reasons morally about all the information is what is called a well-formed conscience. A badly formed conscience is one which is incapable of reasoning morally, discerning the values and disvalues present, preferencing these, and making a judgment on how one must act in such a situation. Note well, that those who merely "do as authority tells them" may not have a well-formed conscience informed though they may be regarding what the Church teaches in a general way!)

There are No Shortcuts, No Ways to Free ourselves from the Complexity or the Risk of this Process and Responsibility:

There is no short cut to this process of informing and forming our consciences. No one can discern or decide for us, not even Bishops and Popes. They can provide information, but we must look at ALL the values and disvalues in the SPECIFIC situation and come to a conscientious judgment ourselves. The human conscience is inviolable, the inner sanctum where God speaks to each of us alone. It ALWAYS has primacy. Of course we may err in our conscience judgment, but if we 1) fail to act to adequately inform and form our consciences, or 2) act in a way which is contrary to our own conscience judgment we are more likely guilty of sin (this is  actually certain in the latter case). If we act in good faith, we are NEVER guilty of sin --- though we may act wrongly and have to bear the consequences of that action. If we err, the matter is neutral at worst and could even still involve great virtue. If we act in bad faith, we ALWAYS sin, and often quite seriously, for to act against a conscience judgment is to act against the very voice of God as heard in our heart of hearts.

And what about conscience judgments which are not in accord with Church teaching (or in this case, with what some Bishops are saying)? I have written about this before but it bears repeating. Remember that at Vatican II the minority group approached the theological commission with a proposal to edit a text on conscience. The text spoke about the nature of a well-formed conscience. The redaction the minority proposed was that the text should read, "A well-formed conscience is one formed in accord (or to accord) with Church teaching." The theological commission rejected this redaction as too rigid and reminded the Fathers that they had already clearly taught what the church had always held on conscience. And yet today we hear all the time from various places, including some Bishops, that if one's conscience judgment is not in accord with Church teaching the conscience is necessarily not well-formed. But this is not Church teaching --- not the teaching articulated by Thomas Aquinas or Innocent III, for instance, who counseled people that they MUST follow their consciences even if that meant bearing with excommunication.

Benedict XVI's Analysis:

Now then, what about Benedict XVI's analysis of voting in situations of ambiguity where, for instance, one party supports abortion but is deemed more consistently pro-life otherwise? What happens when this situation is sharpened by an opposing party who claims to be anti-abortion but has done nothing concrete to stop it? MUST a Catholic vote for the anti-abortion party or be guilty of endangering their immortal souls? Will they necessarily become complicit in intrinsic evil if they vote for the candidate or party which supports abortion? The answer is no. Here is what Benedict XVI said: If a person is trying to decide for or against a particular candidate and determines that one candidate's party is more consistently pro-life than the other party, even though that first party supports abortion or contraception, the voter may vote in good conscience for that first candidate and party SO LONG AS they do not do so BECAUSE of the candidate's position on abortion or contraception.

In other words, in such a situation abortion is not the single overarching issue which ALWAYS decides the case. One CAN act in good faith and vote for a candidate or party which seems to support life as a seamless garment better than another party, even if that candidate or party does not oppose abortion. One cannot vote FOR intrinsic evil, of course, but one can vote for all sorts of goods which are clearly Gospel imperatives and still not be considered complicit in intrinsic evil. By the way, this is NOT the same thing as doing evil in order that good may result!! Benedict XVI's analysis is less simplistic than some characterizations I have heard recently; theologically it seems to me to be far more cogent and nuanced than these, and it is [an analysis] Bishops who are supposed to be in union with him when they teach as the ordinary Magisterium should certainly strongly reconsider and learn from. . . .

10 December 2017

On Eremitical Life: Advent, Movies, and Lectio Divina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 December 2017

Sunday #2: Preparing the Way of the Lord, A bit of Advent Reading and Writing

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths: All flesh shall see the salvation of God.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
We all choose what is important for celebrating Advent well,--- what is necessary to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, to ready ourselves to see (i.e., to receive, understand, and to be transformed and transfigured by) the salvation of our God in Christ. This year I am going back to focus once again on the Lord's Prayer as one key to this preparation. I am spending my mornings doing lectio, study, and writing on this prayer. It has always been an incredible source of life, insight, and strength for me; two of my favorite authors, Tom Wright and Gerhard Ebeling write especially about the prayer in terms of Advent and waiting on the Lord.
One of Ebeling's most striking observations in his work, On Prayer, The Lord's Prayer in Today's World is an insight that transformed my own theology and understanding of prayer when I first read the book as an undergraduate @ 1973. Ebeling was writing about the petition, "Hallowed be Thy name," and said: [[. . .we ought not to tone down its amazing, and indeed offensive, aspect or reduce it to a mere act of reverent adoration before the glory of God. For this is the most necessary petition. In other words it is concerned with the greatest need, God's need. . . .we must pray to God on behalf of God: that he would take up his own cause, that he would assert himself as God, that he would come, that he would appear, that he would reveal himself, that he would arise as God, that he would in very truth become God. This is the deepest source of prayer: God himself compels us to this intercession for God, to this passionate longing, that God will become God.]] In this passage I think Ebeling captures two senses of the meaning of waiting on God: 1) looking forward to God's coming and to the fulfillment of God's purposes with anticipation, and 2) serving God and allowing our lives to be defined by this service.
I am reading two other books for Advent. The first is a new book by John Haught, The New Cosmic Story, Inside Our Awakening Universe. As we hear in some of the readings of Advent, we look forward to a new Heaven and a new Earth, not merely to going to an otherworldly Heaven. Theologically this means that we must look at ourselves, our religion, and our world very differently than we have in the past. It is the Christ event, the exhaustive Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, that is the key to understanding what this means, namely, that we human beings are embodied Spirit and that our ultimate hope is that the entire cosmos will be fulfilled in Christ. Human beings are not meant or made to be disembodied Spirit. Our souls yearn to be embodied and our ultimate form of existence will be embodied. As Ratzinger once explained in his book, Eschatology, as our souls are the form of our bodies, so do they "build a body about (around) themselves," and, after death, yearn for what our creeds affirm as the resurrection of the body. Meanwhile, science has "given us" a universe which is unfinished; our faith tells us that in Christ human beings play a part in helping creation be brought to fulfillment as a "new creation", "a new heaven and earth" --- just as we have a part in God becoming God!
The second book is Pagola's,  Jesus, A Historical Approximation. I first read this five or six years ago and return to it from time to time, rereading a section or two, and sometimes more. It is a beautiful book in every sense; it introduces us to the historical Jesus and his world without being either heavily academic or skeptical. It reads like the book of someone in love with Jesus even as it is informed by contemporary scholarship; certainly it can help with the preparation of one's mind and heart for the coming of Jesus. Especially, as I pray and work with Jesus' prayer, it is a book that can remind me of who Jesus was/is and how he related to his Abba --- it is a work that helps me see what the fulfillment of embodied Spirit (or embodied Word) is and does --- and thus, by participation in Christ, to the incarnation I am called to realize during Advent and beyond.
Meanwhile, Advent and Christmas are seasons when I sometimes do more outside the hermitage --- specifically, every couple of years or so I go to the movies two or even three times if there are good things showing or to a concert or ballet. (Sometimes I will go alone, but more often it is something I do with friends as a holiday celebration.) A week ago Friday my delegate and I met for about an hour and a half, had a light lunch, and then we went and saw the movie Wonder. We stopped for hamburgers (well, fillet o' fish) on the way home --- all (except for meeting together) things we do very rarely; it was an excellent day! I will try to write more about the movie separately, I think, but let me say here it was wonderful: inspiring, moving, and incredibly appropriate for the beginning of Advent (the scandal of the Incarnation and Isaiah's, "A little child shall lead them," comes to mind here!). My delegate's characterization was exactly right, I thought; she commented that what she most appreciated, "was everyone had their journey to make because of the presence and impact of this unique child!!!" And so, this wonderful story helped set the tone and prepare our hearts to meet Christ anew as we entered the season of Advent.

08 December 2017

Mary, I Will Overshadow You. Be Not Afraid!

I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anxiety about what might be wrong, and then a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! What will Joseph think?" and then, "O God, I can be killed for this!" while only over more time comes the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her and that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's Word and Spirit calling her beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promises.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God dwells within us and only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you. Be not afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to embody Christ and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the coming Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. But our own fiat will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

03 December 2017

First Sunday of Advent

 All good wishes on this first Sunday of Advent! "Adventus" is a season where we prepare to see the surprising ways God works in our lives, where we are especially cognizant of the choices which allow God to be active deep within our own hearts and within our larger world; it is where we learn to look more closely and attentively at everything within and around so that we are prepared to respond as fully as possible to this God of newness and surprises.

For many of us there is a paring down to the essentials in order to make all this possible. We also take greater care and time with our own self-inventory, our own inner work --- especially as that allows the life of God to move through and fill us. And of course, we make sure there is sufficient silence to truly hear the movements of our own hearts and the God who would be Emmanuel by taking up complete residence there. These are the really essential "preparations for Christmas" which put shopping and other things we also must do in their proper place.

I find it awesome to consider that the God who would "tent" among us has chosen my own heart and soul, my own mind and body --- with all of their flaws and weaknesses --- to reveal the fullness and perfection of Divine love made manifest in Christ. But through the past months I have watched the greening of new life nascent within me; I have seen it where I thought it could never be and sometimes where I thought it had been quenched forever. Ours is a God of newness and life and we are called to allow these to spring up within us wherever they will. He is faithful beyond telling and does not disappoint. So I am reminded that the season begins with a single candle in the darkness. It will end with a blaze of light and warmth -- and especially that of the light of Christ within us --- if only we allow it.

 May these weeks of preparation see the kindling of new life and light even when it begins with a small and sometimes stuttering flame in the midst of great darkness. Especially may we all come to know more intimately the surprising God of newness who takes up residence and "tents" within and among us in Christ; He is the God who treasures our poverty and weakness and transforms and transfigures them into the mangers and lamps of his life and love.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

01 December 2017

On Merton, Suffering, Solitude, and the Making of the Hermit

[[The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the divine mercy transforming and elevating his own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] [Merton's ideal solitaries] are thus, [[the paradoxical, tormented solitaries for whom there is no real place; men and women who have not so much chosen solitude as been chosen by it. And these have not generally found their way into the desert either through simplicity or through innocence. Theirs is the solitude that is reached the hard way, through bitter suffering and disillusionment.]]

[[Dear Sister, I have wondered for some time what makes a person want to be a hermit. It just never made sense to me unless the person was broken and embittered by life and needed to withdraw from that by giving up on people and even on God. It's the solitude that I can't justify. Community made sense but not solitude unless hermits were people who were unable to participate in community for some reason. When you have written about the creation of the hermit heart in your own life it sounds like it involved a lot of suffering but you don't come across as bitter or broken. Thomas Merton has written about this very thing (please see what I quoted from "The Hermitary" site); have you seen this already? But I wondered what makes your heart a hermit heart and not the heart of an embittered survivor of suffering. Is the answer in what Merton wrote about mercy?

Do you think Merton is correct in characterizing the "ideal solitary" as he does? If this is true it must be really difficult for dioceses to "discern" this kind of vocation. Do you know what I mean? In religious life candidates are screened for their health and wholeness and backgrounds involving suffering raises red flags for the vocation personnel. But if ideal hermits are "tormented solitaries" what does a diocese look for in determining authentic eremitical vocations?]]

Thank you for your observations and questions. I have written recently again, though briefly,  about fraudulent hermits; what you are asking about is really one of the more significant ways people betray the eremitical vocation or substitute an inauthentic version of the life for the real thing. What Merton was saying first of all, as I read him, is that solitude must open the door to the one wishing to live an eremitical life; one cannot simply decide to live solitude and do it without such an opening. The second thing I believe Merton is writing about is how the door of solitude is often opened to a person. One of the main ways is through suffering that isolates in any of the many ways this occurs. But I agree with you that suffering is not sufficient to truly discern an eremitical call; it is a beginning and might be suggestive but it is not definitive.

On Unredeemed Suffering and the Door to Solitude:

Moreover, if a person has nothing but her suffering and if that suffering  remains unredeemed or un-transfigured by the grace and love of God, she will never be a hermit in the proper (Christian) sense; instead she will remain an isolated, broken, and possibly embittered person but one who is largely, if not entirely incapable of proclaiming the Gospel with her life. Such a person ought not be admitted to profession as a canonical hermit because while she may "not have a place" --- one element of Merton's description --- neither can she live out the mission or charism of the canonical hermit. Genuine solitude is redeemed and transformed isolation. It is marked or characterized by its relational tenor, a unique but very significant and paradoxical form of relatedness, of ecclesiality and community. The place the hermit has is unusual but very real. The door solitude opens to us is unlocked in part by significant and long-term suffering a person experiences through the first half of her life, but at the same time the door of Solitude can only said to be opened if the person has come to know the potential healing and transformation of her woundedness by the unqualified love and eternal life of God.

While persons whose first half of life may be marked by significant suffering are sometimes important and illustrative of the way some eremitical vocations are born, as you say they are sometimes also difficult cases in regard to discernment by dioceses. This is especially true if suffering remains the defining dimension of the person's life.  When I began this blog more than a decade ago I wrote about one needing to be a hermit in some essential sense before one approached a diocese with a request to be professed. What I meant then and still hold is that one has to move from being an isolated person for whom physical solitude may merely mirror or even exacerbate the alienation that can come from and be a source of suffering to being one for whom solitude is a relational reality which heals isolation and is the context for real reconciliation. Hermits know more than physical solitude; they know communion -- with God and others. And this means they can (and in fact must) know the healing of whatever suffering marked their earlier years. When dioceses work with potential candidates for profession they must look for those persons for whom physical solitude is a unique form of communion and symptom and source of healing.

My Own Healing and Growth Work:

In my own inner work I have become even more convinced of this truth.  Both of the quotations you cited are important but in regard to becoming the hermit I am called and consecrated to be I especially resonate with the first one. [[The contemplation of the Christian solitary is the awareness of the Divine mercy transforming and elevating [her] own emptiness and turning it into the presence of perfect love, perfect fullness.]] This is the one which mirrors my profession motto, [[(God's) power is made perfect in weakness]] --- a motto I chose precisely because it reflects first the nature of the Christ Event and then my own story with and in light of the grace of God. My own story involves suffering, yes, but far more than that it is the story of God's grace, a grace which, as I have said here many times, brings light out of darkness, life out of death, and meaning out of senselessness and absurdity. What Merton says, what Paul says, what the Christ Event makes real in space and time, and what authentic hermits of all sorts also say is that suffering plunges a person into the depths of isolation and readies her to hear God's invitation to depend on God alone. When, and to the extent that invitation is accepted one's life is entirely transfigured into one of wholeness and holiness, one is defined in a new way. Suffering may not ease entirely and may even increase in some ways, but it will no longer be the thing which drives and defines the person.

 And this means, of course, that one whose defining experience is the mercy of God will show this to those discerning her vocation. The one who wishes to become a diocesan hermit will reveal the mercy of God as the ground and source of her suffering's redemption and her life's transfiguration. Without this her solitude will be nothing more than physical and maybe spiritual, and emotional isolation. She will be a lone individual --- her suffering will have made her this on a number of levels, but she will not be a hermit in the sense the Church uses the term. On the other hand those individuals who have made the journey that Merton describes, the journey through serious suffering and into the mercy and love of God, may well have discovered the eremitical world solitude herself (and only "Solitude" herself) admits them to.

Summary: A Note to Dioceses on the Charism of Diocesan Eremitical Life

To reiterate then, Dioceses which are careful in their discernment will not eschew a person whose life is full of suffering so long as that life is also one defined and clearly transformed by the grace of God experienced in eremitical solitude. Such a diocese is careful to look not only at the suffering but at the fruits of that suffering which would  demonstrate it has been transfigured by the mercy of God. When the latter is not clearly present, when for instance, the person's message is self-centered and full of expressed pain but little else, when, that is, her life is defined by her suffering and not by the grace of God, the diocese will have to wait and watch to see what kind of vocation is actually present. They will give the person some reasonable time in physical solitude to see what changes occur. Generally speaking, if the person is called to be a hermit, isolation and a focus on suffering will be transformed by the love of God into genuine solitude (a unique but very real expression of reconciliation and community in Christ)  and the proclamation with her entire life of the healing and redemptive love of God.

Generally speaking, all of this reflects the way the heart of a hermit is created and the door to eremitical solitude is opened when there is a background or history of significant suffering. It reflects the way a life comes to reveal the charisma or gift to Church and World c 603 calls "the Silence of Solitude" in such cases.  Suffering of all sorts can hollow one out and make one yearn for answers to the question of self that only God can provide. One lives the questions associated with meaning: does my life make sense? Is it meaningful? Is it moved by love, both as giver and receiver? How can I make sure my life is meaningful by ministering to others in a way which is redemptive for them?  Why have or am I suffering in the apparently gratuitous way I have or am? Where is God in all of this and how can I live for God and others? As important as living the questions is, through the grace of God mediated to one in all the ways it comes to us, one will also come to live the answer: namely, I have lived/am living all of this so that the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ is proclaimed loudly and clearly (or silently but with clarity and poignancy!) and the God whose power is perfectly revealed in weakness resonates within my heart causing it to sing a Magnificat of gratitude and praise.