14 August 2019

Treating Disaffected Brothers and Sisters Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors: Loving Them as We Ought (reprised)

In today's Gospel pericope (thought unit, literary unit) for the Feast of Maximillian Kolbe we hear Jesus telling folks to speak to those who have offended against God one on one and then, if that is ineffective, bring in two more brothers or sisters to talk with the person, and then, if that too is ineffective, to bring matters to the whole community --- again so the offended can be brought back into what we might call "full communion". If even that is ineffective then we are told to treat the person(s) as we treat Gentiles and tax collectors. In every homily I have ever heard about this passage this final dramatic command has been treated as justification for excommunication. Even today our homilist referred to excommunication --- though, significantly, he stressed the medicinal and loving motive for such a dire step. The entire passage is read as a logical, common-sense escalation and intervention: start one on one, try all you can, bring others in as needed, and if that doesn't work (that is, if the person remains recalcitrant) then wash your hands of him or, if stressing the medicinal nature of the act, separate yourselves from him until he comes to his senses and repents! In this reading of the text Matthew is giving us the Scriptural warrant for "tough love."

Not a warrant for "tough love":

But I was struck by a very different reading during my hearing of the Gospel this morning. We think of Jesus turning things on their heads so very often in what he says; more we think about how often he turns things on their head by what he does. With this in mind the question which first occurred to me was, "But what would this have meant in Jesus' day for disciples of this man from Nazareth, not what would it have meant for hundreds of years of Catholic Christianity!? Is the logic of this reading different, even antithetical to the logical, commonsense escalation outlined above?" And the answer I "heard" was, "Of course it is different! I am asking you to escalate your attempts to bring this person home, not to wash your hands of her. To do that I am suggesting you treat her as you might someone for whom the Gospel is a foreign word now -- someone who needs to hear it as much or more than you ever did yourself." Later I thought in a kind of jumble, "That means to treat her with even greater gentleness and care, even greater love and a different kind of intimacy. Her offense has effectively put her outside the faith community. Jesus is asking that we let ourselves be the "outsider" who stands with her where she is. He is saying we must try to speak in a language she will truly hear. Make of her a neighbor again; meet her in the far place, learn her truth before we try to teach her "ours". After all, what I and others have said thus far has either not been understood or it was not compelling for her."

While I should not have been surprised, I admit I was startled by my initial thoughts! Of course I knew that Jesus associated with tax collectors and with Gentiles. The reading with the Canaanite women last week or the week before makes it clear that Jesus even changed his mind about his own mission in light of the faith he found among Gentiles. Meanwhile, today's reading is taken from a Gospel attributed to Matthew, an Apostle who is identified as a tax collector! Shouldn't we be holding onto our seats in some anticipation while listening for Jesus – as he always does -- to say something that turns conventional wisdom and our entire ecclesiastical and spiritual world on its head?  Maybe my thoughts were not really so crazy after all and maybe those homilies I have heard for years have NOT had it right! So I looked again at the Gospel lection from today in its Matthean context. It is sandwiched between passages about humbling ourselves as children (those with no status), not being a source of stumbling and estrangement to others, searching for the one sheep that has gone astray even if it means leaving behind the 99 who have not strayed, and Peter asking how often he should forgive his brother to which Jesus says seven times seventy!

What kind of Church Jesus is Calling for:

I think Jesus is reminding us of the difference between a community which is united in and motivated by Christ's own love (a very messy business sometimes) and one which is united in and mainly concerned with discipline (not so messy, but not so fruitful or inspired either). I think too he is reminding us of a Church which is always a missionary Church, always going out to others, always seeking to reconcile the entire world in the power of the Gospel. It is not a fortress which protects its precious patrimony by shutting itself off from those who do not believe, letting them fend for themselves or simply find their own ways to the baptistry or confessional doors; instead it achieves its mission by extending its love, its Word, and even its Sacraments to those who most need them --- the alien and alienated. It is a Church that really believes we hold things as sacred best when we give them away (which is NOT the same thing as giving them up!). Meanwhile Jesus may also be saying, "If your brother or sister has not and will not hear you, perhaps you have not loved them well or effectively enough; find a new way, even a more costly way. After all, my way (the Way I am!) is not the way of conventional wisdom, it is the scandalous, foolish, and sacrificial way of the Kingdom of God!

I had always thought today's reading a "hard one" because it seemed to sanction the excommunication of brothers and sisters in Christ. But now I think it is a hard one for an entirely different reason. It gives us a Church where no one can truly be at home so long as we are not reaching out to those who have not heard the Gospel we have been entrusted with proclaiming. It is a Church of open doors and open table fellowship (open commensality) because it is a church of open and missionary hearts -- just as God's own heart, God's own essential nature, is missionary. Above all it is a church where those who truly belong are the ones who really do not belong anywhere else! We proclaim a Gospel in which we who belong to Christ through baptism are the last and those outside our communion are first and, at least potentially, the Apostles on which the Church is built.

When we treat people like Gentiles and tax collectors we treat them in exactly this way, namely, as those whose truest home is around the table with us, listening to and celebrating the Word with us, ministering to and with us as at least potential brothers and sisters in Christ! We treat them as Gentiles and tax collectors when we take the time to enter their world so that we can speak to them in a way they can truly hear, when we love them (are brothers and sisters to them) as they truly need, not only as we are comfortable doing in our own cultures and families. Paul, after all, spoke of becoming and being all things to all persons --- just as God became man for us. He was not speaking of indifferentism or saying with our lives that Christ doesn't really matter;  just the opposite in fact. He was telling us we must be Christians in this truly startling way --- persons who can and do proclaim the Gospel of a crucified and risen Christ wherever we go because we let ourselves be at home and among (potential) brothers and sisters wherever we go. We do as God did for us in Christ; we let go of the prerogatives which are ours and travel to the far place in any and all the ways we need to in order to fulfill the mission of our God to truly be all in all.

Summary, Calling for More informed and sensitive proclamation:

When the logic, drama, and tension of today's Gospel lection escalate it is to this conclusion, I think, not to a facile justification of excommunication. In this pericope Jesus does not ask us to progressively enlist more people in order to increase the force with which we strong arm those who have become alienated, much less to support us as we cut them loose if they are unconvinced and unconverted, but -- I posit -- to offer them richer, more diverse and extensive chances to be heard and to hear; he is asking that we provide increasing opportunities for them to be empowered to change their minds and hearts when we, acting alone, have failed them in this way. This is what it means to forgive; it is what it means to be commissioned as an Apostle of Christ. And if that sounds naïve, imprudent, impractical, and even impossible, I suspect Jesus' original hearers felt the same about the pericopes which form this lection's immediate context: becoming as children with no status except that given them by God, leaving the 99 to seek the single lost sheep or forgiving what is effectively a countless number of times. Certainly that's how someone writing under the name of a tax collector-turned-Apostle presents the matter.

Feast of Saint Maximillian Kolbe (reprised)


Today is the feast day of Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright.

The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Aushwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modelled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ. Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.

I think it is easy to forget this fundamental vocation, or at least to underestimate its value and challenge. We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people! (And this is as true for hermits and recluses as it is true for anyone else.) Likewise, we may think of vocation as a call to religious life, priesthood, marriage, singleness, eremitism, etc, but always, these are "merely" the paths towards achieving our foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Of course, it is not that we do not need excellent priests, religious, husbands and wives, parents, and so forth, but what is more true is that we need excellent human beings --- people who take the call and challenge to be genuinely human with absolute seriousness and faithfulness.

Today's gospel [sorry, I will post about today's gospel in a separate post] confronts us with a person who failed at that vocation. Extended mercy and the complete forgiveness of an unpayable debt, this servant went out into his world and failed to extend even a fraction of the same mercy to one of his fellows. He was selfish, ungrateful, and unmindful of who he was in terms of his Master or the generosity which had been shown him. He failed to remain in touch with that mercy and likewise he refused to extend it to others as called upon to do. He failed in his essential humanity and in the process he degraded and punished a fellow servant as inferior to himself when he should have done the opposite. Contrasted with this, and forming the liturgical and theological context for hearing this reading today, is the life of Maximillian Kolbe. Loved with an everlasting love, touched by God's infinite mercy and grace, Father Maximillian knew and affirmed who he truly was. More, in a situation of abject poverty and ultimate weakness, he remained in contact with the Source of his own humanity as the infinite well from which he would draw strength, dignity, courage, forgiveness, and compassion when confronted with a reality wholly dedicated to shattering, degrading, and destroying the humanity of those who became its victims. In every way he was the embodiment of St Paul's citation, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness!"

In Auschwitz it is true that some spoke of Kolbe as a saint, and many knew he was a priest, but in this world where all were stripped of names and social standing of any kind, what stood out to everyone was Maximillian Kolbe's love for God and his fellow man; what stood out was his humanityHoliness for the Christian is defined in these terms. Authentic humanity and holiness are synonyms in Christianity, and both are marked by the capacity to love and be loved, first (by) God and then (by) all those he has dignified as his image and holds as precious. In a world too-often marked by mediocrity and even outright inhumanity, a world too frequently dominated by those structures, institutions, and dynamics which seem bigger than we are and incapable of being resisted or changed, we need to remember Maximillian Kolbe's example. Oftentimes we focus on serving others, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and the like, and these things are important. But in Kolbe's world when very little of this kind of service was possible (though Kolbe did what was possible and prudent here) what stood out was not only the crust of bread pressed into a younger priest's hands, the cup of soup given gladly to another, but the very great and deep dignity and impress of his humanity. And of course it stood out because beyond and beneath the need for food and shelter, what everyone was in terrible danger of losing was a sense of --- and capacity to act in terms of -- their own great dignity and humanity.

Marked above all as one loved by God, Father Maximillian lived out of that love and mercy. He extended it again and again to everyone he met, and in the end, he made the final sacrifice: he gave his own life so that another might live. An extraordinary vocation marked by extraordinary holiness? Yes. But also our OWN vocation, a vocation to "ordinary" and true holiness, genuine humanity. As I said above, "In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell." In many ways this is precisely the gift we are called upon in Christ to be for our own times. May Saint Kolbe's example inspire us to fulfill our vocations in exemplary ways.

13 August 2019

Discerning an Eremitical Vocation

[[ Dear Sister,  I’m writing to ask you specifically how one discerns a call to the eremitic life? Are there things one discerns alone and others one discerns with someone from the diocese?]]

Thanks for your questions. Let me be more general before getting truly specific. One discerns an eremitical life in the same way one discerns any other vocational path: one evaluates what is happening inside one which seems to call him/her for this particular pathway to 1) contemplative prayer, 2) then to contemplative life itself, 3) and then then to a life of even greater silence, solitude and stricter separation from the world we know as the eremitical life. Beyond this, if one decides one is called to the eremitical life described generally in step three, one will discern which type of eremitical life to which one is called. At every step of these three basic stages one discerns whether or not one is living one's own truth more fully and fruitfully. Is one more whole and holy or is one's life (and especially one's inner life) becoming narrower or constricted in ways one would call "disedifying" (they do not build up the body of Christ), more limited or less fully alive, and therefore is one becoming less human, less loving, less fruitful and less Christian? Also at every step along the way I assume the need for working with a qualified spiritual director. (This is really a sine qua non for any adequate discernment in the eremitical life.)


When one reaches the final stage mentioned above  (what form of eremitical life?) one may understand oneself as a hermit in an essential sense but not necessarily in a formal sense; one needs to determine the more "formal" context required to be the hermit one is called by God to be. For instance, one will need to discern if one will do this in the lay state or the consecrated state of life. If one feels one might be called to the latter s/he will need to explore profession under canon 603 or life in an eremitical or semi-eremitical community or "institute of consecrated life". It is at this point, whether with a diocese or in the community, that one will need to engage in a mutual discernment process. If one does not wish to explore canonical (that is, a publicly committed or consecrated) life as a hermit, then there is no reason to consult with one's diocese. If one determines one is called to live eremitical life in the lay state (i.e., as a lay person acting in and from the rights and obligations of baptism alone), then one can freely do that without any further permission, admission by the Church to profession or consecration, etc. If, however, one believes one's vocation will be fulfilled as an ecclesial vocation or, that is, that one is called to live as a hermit in the consecrated state, then one must engage in this process of mutual discernment.

Clearly this process takes time. It takes time (usually at least a couple of years) to move from a more typical prayer life to contemplative prayer as a regular practice and then from contemplative prayer itself to a truly contemplative life (again, several years is typically required for this transition). It takes time living this and building in the degree of silence and solitude needed for it before one determines a genuine need for greater silence and solitude; and it takes time (once again, several years is typical here) before one can evaluate all of this and determine one is being called to what the Church recognizes as appropriate to and characteristic of eremitical silence and solitude or, as I have often written here, to a life where the silence of solitude is not only the environment in which one's life in wholeness best grows, but is also the goal of one's life and the gift quality (charism) one will bring to the Church and world with or through one's life.

Generally speaking, one's spiritual director can assist one in all of the steps or stages mentioned here. This is true especially with the specific pieces of adaptation and discernment involved in each step/stage. A director would be able to help the directee or client explore how the various elements of eremitical life "fit" with his/her call to human wholeness and holiness. In the third stage a director can help the person to explore the nature of and reasons for their needs for increased silence and solitude. Not all needs or reasons for these indicate a call to eremitical life and some can be unhealthy or at least unworthy of being chosen; these indicate the need for other kinds of adaptations or changes. When this is the case needs for greater silence or solitude are very unlikely to be indicators of a call to eremitical life. Meanwhile, if you want to bring additional questions, especially given how general I have been here, I will always be happy to answer them

11 August 2019

On Canon 603 and the Chronically Ill and Disabled (follow-up questions)

 [[Dear Sister, I have been interested in an article you wrote several years ago about eremitical life as a possible vocation for those who are chronically ill. Do dioceses consider that article when they are discerning whether or not to profess someone as a diocesan hermit? What about canon law that argues that candidates for religious life and priesthood must be in good health? Doesn't what you wrote conflict with these canons or do dioceses determine things on a case by case basis? I would think it might be problematical to have writers like you seeing canon 603 as a kind of "haven" for those with mental and physical illnesses, wouldn't it? . . . Has anyone ever suggested your article makes it hard for dioceses with regard to canon 603 vocations?. . . Has anyone suggested you are giving false hope to those who are disabled and expect to be admitted to profession when dioceses are more likely to reject them?]]

Wow, good and difficult questions in some ways. Let me give them a shot! First of all, I have no idea if dioceses consider the article I wrote 30 years ago for Review for Religious (cf RFR archives: Volume 48, Number 2, March/April 1989). Certainly there are copies out and about regarding this even though RFR is no longer, being published; also, I have posted a copy of it here on this blog ( cf, Review For Religious, Chronic Illness as Vocation and Possible Eremitical Vocation) as well as answered questions about it as follow-up. However, I really cannot say how widely read or influential the article is or has been over the years. On the other hand, it is my hope that at least some dioceses, pastors, and spiritual directors have read and considered the article and that they bear it in mind as they consider candidates for public profession under c 603 or work with those who are chronically ill. Chronic illness prevents many of us from living in community and sometimes (I don't know how often) it may condition us in ways which predispose towards lives of the silence of solitude -- lives in which the isolation occasioned by chronic illness can be redeemed and transfigured into the silence of solitude associated with eremitical life. Dioceses must be able to recognize this dynamic at work in the lives of the chronically ill when it occurs and, when circumstances are right (meaning when many more circumstances than illness per se come together in the relatively clear pattern of a healthy and graced eremitical calling), they must be open to admitting such persons to profession and consecration under canon 603.

I wrote the article you mention because I had come to understand that while I could not live religious life in community (my illness was both too demanding and too disruptive --- though initially we had not thought this would be the case), I could certainly live as a hermit. In fact, I came to understand that the context of eremitical silence and solitude could allow my own life in  and with Christ to transform weakness and brokenness into a source and form of strength and essential wellness. I knew Paul's theology, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness," and it seemed to fit the  situation perfectly. At the same time, while illness and the isolation it occasioned was one predisposing condition for a life of eremitical solitude, it was not enough of itself to suggest, much less indicate I had an eremitical vocation. On the contrary, it might suggest that physical isolation was a component of something pathological which must be countered, not given the chance to be transfigured into eremitical solitude via even greater silence and physical separati
on from others.  For that reason, when I wrote the article in RFR I was very careful to indicate chronic illness was something which might indicate such a vocation; it was a possibility dioceses and spiritual directors should consider as they worked with those who were chronically ill or disabled.

In no way would I ever consider canon 603 a "haven" for the chronically ill and disabled but yes, I do think that despite its demanding character, eremitical life has the flexibility and freedom to allow for some among this population to discover the grace of God calling them to a wholeness and holiness via this path. When this happens their lives will makes a powerful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ --- in spite of and even especially in the case of their illness/disability. What Merton said about the necessity of Solitude herself opening the door to the one who would be a hermit remains true. I do believe that the canons requiring good physical and mental health for those entering religious congregations or moving towards ordination are necessary. However, today congregations can and do make case by case decisions on who they will allow to enter and who they will advance to profession while congregations and dioceses do the same with candidates for ordination. There are some absolute impediments to ordination, and  generally speaking, I agree with these, but profession as a diocesan hermit is really a very different matter and dioceses can afford to be more flexible without making the vocation a "haven" for the chronically ill and disabled; not only do hermits not live in community but they are self-supporting so that dioceses are not, generally speaking, responsible for medical expenses, insurance, living expenses and the like.

No one has ever suggested my article makes it hard for dioceses trying to discern c 603 vocations, though I admit I hoped when I wrote it to introduce a possibility into their discernment processes they might not have considered adequately, namely, that chronic illness might be a source of the grace of an eremitical vocation which itself could contribute to eremitical formation in terms of several different and critical values (pilgrimage, solitude vs isolation, an independence rooted in radical dependence upon God, a paradoxical wholeness, etc). That was completely contrary to the wisdom of the time re religious vocations; but then canon 603 itself was also pretty contrary to what we were used to at that time as well! Again, my article did not argue that chronic illness is a kind of passport to profession. I did not say that illness provides sufficient grounds for professing someone or discerning eremitical vocations; it argued that in some cases there was the possibility that illness might condition one towards such a vocation, might make it easier for such a vocation to be received. At the same time then, I have not heard anyone suggest I am giving folks false hope. I have been clear that discerning an eremitical vocation takes time and serious attention and prayer; I  know that some dioceses may not consider chronic illness in the way I would hope they would, but at the same time I think dioceses in general do recognize the flexibility and freedom built into canon 603 even while they recognize the demanding nature of the life codified there.

It is the case that I hear occasionally from someone who is chronically ill or disabled and who read my article all those years ago (or more recently for that matter!) and have subsequently been profoundly disappointed by a diocese who will not admit them to profession. Those communications are some of the most difficult I receive; they cause me pain because my article did have a place in encouraging their imagination about and discernment of a vocation; I feel particularly sorry for the individuals involved and empathize with their disappointment. The difficulty of balancing the nature of a public vocation (consecrated life is always a matter of public commitments and obligations) and discerning a call in someone whose life does not fit all the standard criteria or who embody the grace of  God in a new and unexpected way, is very difficult for dioceses as well as for the individuals petitioning for admission to profession and consecration. Sometimes the answer is living eremitical life with a private commitment rather than as a consecrated hermit or anchorite. Sometimes the person needs to transition from the isolation occasioned by their illness to solitude-as-healing, and then to life in society. Sometimes (especially in these kinds of cases I think) both the individual and the diocese need to take more time together in their discernment. Canon 603, because it does not codify any specific time frames, certainly allows for this kind of time if dioceses take both its traditional elements and its uniqueness seriously.

What must be certain is that the person advanced to profession (public vows) and eventually to consecration can live c 603 in an exemplary (that is, an edifying) way which helps dispel the stereotypes which so accrued to eremitical life throughout history. This person MUST say to the whole Church that eremitical solitude is not about isolation but is instead about the redemption of isolation into a unique and often obscure but very real form of community lived in and with Christ for the sake of others. This is why I have written those admitted to profession must have experienced eremitical solitude as redemptive and be able to witness to that clearly with their lives. The witness given depends upon the authenticity and depth of the hermit's experience and ecclesial rootedness. This presence of a redemptive element is something I have put forward as a central element in discerning an eremitical vocation under c 603 and it is something I am more clear about now than when I first affirmed it. Still, if dioceses are to demand the presence of such an element they also MUST, for their part, be open to discerning its presence which builds on chronic illness and/or disability. The process leading to c 603 profession and consecration is meant be truly mutual.

09 August 2019

Feast of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

prodigal daughter2.jpgAt today's service I read the Gospel from today's daily readings. It was the very familiar, " Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." (Matt 16:24-28). It was not the optional readings for the Feast but certainly suited the day given who Sister Teresa Benedicta was and is. I think it is easy for us to think of taking up our crosses as an exhortation simply to embrace suffering. It certainly means that but it means more besides, namely, it calls us to grow in what some call cruciformity as we adopt an attitude of vulnerability and love towards all we meet in our world. It asks that we open ours arms and our hearts to embrace those we meet with the love of God that empowers us. In short we allow the love of and our love for others to shape us in a cruciform way. Two elements brought this home to me this week besides the fact of our Feast.

Last week and this I reread several novels by Chaim Potok. One of these was My Name is Asher Lev. Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew growing up in the earlier to mid 1900's. His devoutly religious family are Ladover Hasidim who seek to counter the murderous anti-Semitism so prevalent in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's by establishing Ladover communities, synagogues and yeshivas. They have lost dearly-loved relatives in pogroms and the holocaust and have heard again and again that anti-Semitism is a justifiable result of the supposed fact that "It was Jews that killed Jesus". (It must be said that this is an undeniable, and unutterably shameful piece of our Christian history which has blasphemously victimized the innocent in the name of the greatest act of selfless love we know.) So these people too are marked by the Cross of Christ; it is linked for them to the senseless and hate-filled deaths of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins --- and yet, at great risk to himself  Asher's father travels in faithfulness to the Master of the Universe to support Jews and extend Ladover Hasidism throughout Europe.

That is one part of the story. The other is that Asher Lev has a prodigious gift; he is an artist, a young man with an irresistible and insatiable desire/need to draw and paint. As he grows up in this fundamentalist Ladover community, his family is torn between dealing with Asher's gift (which, his father, especially, thinks is demonic in origin) and the desire to honor one another and Ladover Hasidism. Asher's Mother stands torn between her love for her Son and his gift, her love for her husband, her God and the Ladover tradition; she is a buffer for everyone's pain.

Eventually Asher is led to paint the story of his family's anguish. When Asher's Father travels Rivkeh, his wife, waits for his return and stands looking out the living room window, sometimes for hours; this becomes the basis for Asher's greatest paintings, two crucifixions. Each has his Mother framed in the living room window, tied there with the ties from the venetian blinds and stretched between her husband returning from his travels and her son (whose paint brush represents a spear which penetrates her heart). All are held together by love, but of course it is not an easy thing. It is an anguished, tortured love. Asher has drawn on crucifixion because it is the only aesthetic frame he knows as an artist which is sufficient to "hold" and express the torment, pain, and passion of his life. His family are bewildered by his art, offended, betrayed, torn by his gift and profoundly saddened by the way in which Asher has hurt them with it. Asher is exiled from the Brooklyn Ladover community. Cruciformity marks every life in this story. As Christians we know the profound anguish and today, to a lesser degree, the offense of the cross but for us it has primary notes of joy and triumph as well.

The second element which brought this dimension home to me especially was the fact that this is August, the month associated with entrance to religious life for many of us, the month of professions and jubilees, the month when we celebrate the commitments we and our Brothers and Sisters have made to life in Christ. It is the month when the appropriate refrain I have heard several times is: He is faithful and so are we!! This year is my pastor's 50th jubilee and I entered 50 years ago this month as well. All over the world stories of jubilees are shared: one I heard was about an IHM Sister who is 102 yo and celebrated her 85th jubilee last week; she processed into liturgy determined to walk the distance on her own two feet. She did it and was joyful and triumphant when she reached the altar as were those celebrating with her. This too was a symbol of her long and faithfully-formed cruciform life. Another Jubilarian at the same liturgy processed in with her niece, a young Sister who had just made her first profession. The two walked in hand in hand, the younger supporting the elder, both radiant with joy. When I shared this story with another Sister I was reminded then of a Franciscan from her congregation who died at 107 yo and who also celebrated 85 years of religious life; her niece is also a Franciscan (same congregation) and is alive, though quite elderly, today. Stories of lives dedicated to Christ and shaped over years in vulnerability to and in the service of Incarnate Love. Cruciformity. The shape of the faithful, sometimes anguished, joy-filled and persevering discipleship Jesus calls each of us to today.

carving1.jpgThe third element, of course, the element which brings all of this together for me, is the life and witness of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross whose feast we celebrate today. Edith Stein was a brilliant Jewish philosopher who studied for her doctorate under Edmund Hussurl. As a youth she ceased believing in God but as a young adult she read St Teresa of Avila's autobiography and recognized it as truth. She became Catholic. As her life experience and spirituality broadened she wrote a dissertation on Empathy. Prevented from taking a professorship first because she was a woman, and later because of her Jewishness, she continued her reading in philosophy and theology and eventually became a Carmelite Nun. At the center of her life was the cross; she called it "our only hope". Sister Teresa Benedicta's last significant work was on St John of the Cross. That same year, on 02 August 1942, the Gestapo came to her convent to arrest Sister Teresa and her blood sister, Rosa, also a Catholic who served at the convent. They were moved to a transit camp, Westerborc, and on 07. August, were transported to Auschwitz. She and Rosa were gassed there two days later on 09. August. 1942. As she left the convent with her sister, she said, [[Come, we are going for our people.]] Meanwhile, a good friend said of Edith: [[She is a witness to God's presence in a world where God is absent.]] In the seemingly godless world of Nazi death camps, in the face of meaningless slaughter Sister Teresa Benedicta showed others the face of Love incarnate. Cruciformity, Jesus' call to embrace the cross with our lives was modeled by Edith Stein as John Paul II noted at her canonization, a "daughter of Israel" and a "daughter of Carmel."

Whether in anguish, joy, triumph, or all three at once and more besides --- we celebrate that we and our Brothers and Sisters in Christ are called to embrace a life of vulnerability and love empowered by our trust in the God who will be there both for and with us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. That is what it means to take up our cross, to live truly in Christ. We are not victims but victors in him for the sake of creation. This is the shape of discipleship and all authentic humanity --- a life of transforming generosity, where self-centeredness is replaced by self-emptying, and our hearts are opened to others in compassion; a life of cruciformity.

07 August 2019

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

If we're looking for a Gospel lection that breaks all stereotypes today's is one of these! This reading is sometimes categorized among the "difficult sayings of Jesus" because it has Jesus characterizing a Gentile woman as a dog (a typical epithet of his day when referring to Gentiles) and refusing to extend healing to her daughter because HIS mission is first of all to the lost of Israel, not to the Gentiles. And so, the woman, who has already silenced Jesus with a terrific act of faith, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David," answers Jesus' instruction on this point with a bit of instruction of her own: [[ Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table!]] Jesus, already silenced and now thoughtful, seems even to reconsider and expand the scope of his own ministry in light of it. If Jesus' can grow in grace and stature in this way, through the mediation of a completely disenfranchised woman, then is anyone in the Church really beyond being instructed by the women standing (at best) on the margins of power and authority or the Christ standing as their Master? I don't think so.

What happens to Jesus is as instructive for the contemporary Church as all of Jesus' words, all his parables, discourses, instructions, imprecations, and remonstrances. For (again) in today's gospel story Jesus hears and is silent! He is stopped, arrested by a woman's compelling act of faith. It is a pregnant silence because it is the result of truly listening and leads both to further listening and to a fundamental shift or variation in Jesus' ministry from the lost sheep of Israel to the lost of all the nations. It is the silence of a teacher who is truly effective not because he has all the answers but because he is willing to listen, reconsider the answer and ministry God has given him, and learn! It is the silence of a docile teacher who truly hears the commission of God coming from the least and the lost; it is the silence of one who can change his mind and even the direction of his ministry as a result of an encounter with the truth a woman and outsider carries! Certainly that is precisely the kind of teacher the Church itself is called to be! After all, the Church is not greater than her Master; instead she is called to embody and mediate him. In light of today's Gospel lection the challenge to embody and mediate the DOCILITY of Christ seems compelling!

All kinds of situations reduce us to silence but only sometimes do we really listen therein, only sometimes are we genuinely obedient. Ordinarily today silence is something that occurs momentarily while we plug in a different device or while we take a breath during a conversation in order to "let someone else have a turn". Rather than listening to that other person in the profound way Jesus listens in today's Gospel, too often our silences tend to be filled with mental machinations as we gauge where and how we can reenter the "conversation" and continue our own discourse or argument! Conversations with Church leaders can sometimes give us the sense that we are speaking to a clerically-clad wall. Nothing, especially the living God, is truly heard in these conversations, no minds or hearts are changed, connections and bonds of charity are not made, aliens do not become neighbors, neighbors do not become brothers and sisters, and brothers and sisters especially do not become colleagues in the service of the Gospel!


But Jesus' example condemns such an approach. In this lection one of the lowest and the least becomes the One by which Jesus truly hears the voice of his Father and comes to modify his own understanding of his mission. After his silence at her first words to him Jesus rehearses the standard Jewish arguments for her and for his disciples, arguments that make sense in THIS worldly terms and in terms of an Israel threatened by outsiders, but not in terms of the Kingdom of God: "I was sent only to the children of Israel; It is not just (right or fair) to take the food from the children (Israel) and throw it to the dogs (Gentiles)." (We might hear common arguments for excluding folks from Eucharist today --- arguments that make good sense in worldly terms: "We cannot pretend there is a unity that doesn't really exist. We cannot defile the Eucharist by giving it to public and obstinate sinners. It wouldn't be just to do these things!") But in Matthew's telling of the Gospel story, Jesus has already fed the five thousand (apparently mainly Jews) and found there was plenty left over. He has also just preached that it is what comes out of us that defiles, but to eat with unwashed hands does NOT defile. . . The Canaanite women's response is a reminder of Jesus' great Eucharistic miracle as well as the infinite value and power to heal of even the smallest crumb that comes to the most unworthy from God.

But it reminds us of much more as well. For those, for instance, who object that women cannot teach, we have an example of a Gentile woman teaching Jesus about the will of God and helping to reshape his mission. In so doing she reminds Jesus of a different "justice" in which all are therefore welcome at Christ's table; similarly she reveals that the way Israel is first may not be precisely the way the world (or Israel herself) sees or has seen such matters. Israel is to be first in including, ministering to, and serving the outsider and the unworthy, not in excluding them until some other day of the Lord is at hand. That day is here, NOW, and, with the Canaanite woman's intervention, Jesus too comes to see this more clearly and embrace it more fully. In some ways this shift in vision, a shift the Church herself is called upon to make, parallels the two different ways we have of understanding the term Catholic: the Latin sense of universalis which means universal and draws a huge circle representing the universal but inevitably leaves some outside the circle however large it is drawn, and the Greek sense of Katholicos which is universal in the sense of leaven in bread where no one and nothing is left excluded or untouched, unchanged, and no one is left unfed.

So, through the intervention of the faith of a woman and "outsider" or alien, Jesus' understanding of God's will and perhaps too, the nature of the People of God continues to grow; Jesus continues to grow in grace and stature.  A couple of years ago a friend gave me a card which read, Ït takes courage to grow up and become who you are called to be." So it was for Jesus; so it is for each of us. When we muster even the smallest bit of faith or courage we will be astounded at what comes from the seeds we plant. This courage and openness to growing is called obedience.  But we must speak our own truth, more and more truly, more and more courageously. Only in this way will our church and  world become the realities God calls them to be.


06 August 2019

Feast of the Transfiguration (Reprised)

Transfiguration by Lewis Bowman
Have you ever been walking along a well-known road and suddenly had a bed of flowers take on a vividness which takes your breath away? Similarly, have you ever been walking along or sitting quietly outside when a breeze rustles some leaves above your head and you were struck by an image of the Spirit moving through the world? I have had both happen, and, in the face of God's constant presence, what is in some ways more striking is how infrequent such peak moments are.

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. It depends upon our expectations. In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams in either white or black shirts, observers were asked to concentrate on the number of passes of a basketball that occurred as players wove in and out around one another. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest, and moves on. At the end of the experiment observers were asked two questions: 1) how many passes were there, and 2) did you see the gorilla? Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla. Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. Even more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of blindness and ignorance. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.

For the past two weeks we have been reading the central chapter of Matthew's Gospel --- the chapter that stands right smack in the middle of his version of the Good News. It is Matt's collection of Jesus' parables --- the stories Jesus tells to help break us open and free us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that we might commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout this collection of parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment which involves the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard last Friday. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the usual significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority they could not deny they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they decided they saw only the son of Mary, the son of Joseph and "took offense at him." Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and the God he revealed. Similarly, Jesus' disciples too could not really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refuses to accept this.

(N.B. the Transfiguration story today is taken from Luke's gospel but my remarks which are reprised below depend on Matthew's version.) It is in the face of these situations that we hear today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain apart. He takes them away from the world they know (or believe they know) so well, away from peers, away from their ordinary perspective, and he invites them to see who he really is. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus' is at prayer --- attending to the most fundamental relationship of his life --- when the Transfiguration occurs. Matthew does not structure his account in the same way. Instead he shows Jesus as the one whose life is a profound dialogue with God's law and prophets, who is in fact the culmination and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the culmination of the Divine-Human dialogue we call covenant. He is God-with-us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. This is what the disciples see --- not so much a foretelling of Jesus' future glory as the reality which stands right in front of them --- if only they had the eyes to see.

For most of us, such an event would freeze us in our tracks with awe. But not Peter! He outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right here and now. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto amazing prayer experiences --- but in doing so, fail to appreciate them fully or live from them! He is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, consistent with his tradition while neglecting the newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has still missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!!!"

The lesson could not be clearer, I think. In this day where the Church is conflicted and some authority seems incredible, we must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through Bishops and all believers. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling we are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.

03 August 2019

Follow-up on Why Canon 603?

beth1.jpg[[ Dear Sister, thank you for answering my question on Canon 603. I had read the following passage which seems to disagree with some of what you wrote: "What was it that made people, possibly hermits themselves, in the early 1980's, entreat a Church law to designate and recognize a category? That was an interesting decade following upon two previous interesting decades. Laws are made to stop abuses or to introduce something that people want." Could you clarify whether it was to curb abuses or to beg for something hermits wanted that caused the Church to create canon 603? Also, did this entreaty happen in the 1980's or at another time?]]

 Thank you for continuing the discussion. I'm not sure where you locate the disagreement. However, to be clear, I don't know if the hermits under Bishop de Roo's protection asked him to intervene at Vatican II, but it would make sense if their discussions with him --- especially in light of the anguish they had had to go through in order to leave their monasteries and establish themselves as hermits apart from  monastic life --- had included the possibility of a genuine appreciation of the eremitical life by the universal Church. Even so, the intervention at Vatican II occurred in the mid- sixties, not in the 1980's and was informed primarily by Bishop de Roo's appreciation of the eremitical life as he came to know it through a dozen or so hermits living in a laura in British Columbia. Neither can just anyone in the Church simply ask in an effective way for the Church hierarchy to create a law/canon.

Again, Bp de Roo's intervention listed at least a half dozen reasons for recognizing the eremitical life as a gift of God to the Church with significant prophetic and evangelical elements. He did not, so far as I can find, speak of abuses of eremitical life, nor would he have asked for recognition for a vocation for such a reason. It is far more effective to allow a lifestyle to remain unrecognized and thus too, relatively unknown if one wants to deal with abuses. Further, the solitary eremitical life had largely died out in the Western Church; again, abuses were not an issue until after canon 603 was promulgated and at that point they became an issue mainly for dioceses and candidates who did not really understand the distinction between a lone individual and a hermit. From the failure to draw this significant distinction come instances of inauthentic "hermits" and premature or unwise professions which  do not last or edify. Such unwise and premature professions also lead to a fundamental distrust of the canon and the tendency of dioceses to refuse to profess even really strong candidates. (There is a refusal to truly discern vocations on a case-by-case basis; discernment is never entered into and the canon is dismissed as speaking of "stopgap" or "fallback" vocations rather than being recognized as creating the norm for authentic solitary eremitical life.)

31 July 2019

Why Canon 603?

[[ Dear Sister, is it true that Canon 603 was formulated or published in order to prevent abuses of eremitical life by hermits? Is Canon 603 important for other reasons than this? Also, has there been a history of problems with hermits and if so, why would the Church institutionalize such a vocation?]]

Thanks for your questions. I have answered these in the past so let me refer you to past answers. One article you might find helpful in this regard is Fraudulent Hermits Throughout History from November 2015. This article notes there is a history in the Church of dealing with fraudulent hermits (though more fundamentally these were attempts to create norms for authentic eremitical life) and also outlines how canon 603 differs from these attempts, not only in scope but in nature and origin. There are earlier articles on the origin and history of canon 603 (cf label Canon 603 - history), most particularly which outline the positive reasons Bp Remi De Roo intervened at Vatican II in order to get the Church Fathers to recognize eremitical life as a "state of perfection" (a vocation to the consecrated state of life). (See especially, Followup on Visibility and Betrayal of Canon 603 for the first article I wrote here in which I remember listing the positive reasons given by Bishop De Roo.)

To answer your questions very briefly here, canon 603 was created because Bp Remi de Roo had experienced eremitical life as Bishop Protector of about a dozen hermits who had come together after leaving their solemn vows as monks. Their monasteries did not allow for eremitical life in their proper law so these monks had to leave their monasteries, their vows, and be secularized in order to pursue life as hermits. It was a big sacrifice but eventually they founded a laura and did so under Bp De Roo. He saw the significant contributions to the Church these vocations represented and wrote an intervention as Vatican II to support making this vocation part of those allowing for public profession and consecration. Almost 20 years later canon 603 was the result. Thirty-six years later c 603 is still a relatively unknown and less understood vocation.

I would argue the vocation is important for all the reasons Bp De Roo enumerated, but above all I would argue the vocation is important because it establishes solitude as antithetical to isolation or a selfish individualism; it also, therefore, gives an important example to isolated elderly and the chronically ill and disabled regarding the completion that is possible in God alone and so too, to the meaningfulness of any life rooted in God. Bp De Roo listed at least a half dozen positive reasons for the recognition of this vocation by the Church. Abuses, though sometimes problematical throughout the history of the vocation, were not listed as part of the origin of canon 603. The Church is not unaware of the problems with hermits in her history, but what is more compelling are the prophetic and witness values of this vocation. Hermits proclaim the Gospel of Christ with a peculiar vividness. As noted recently, in the lives of hermits we hear of (and see) a God whose power is perfected in weakness, who alone completes us in our authentic humanity, who loves us with an everlasting love, and who calls us to a radically countercultural life as Christians.

While we can't avoid speaking of the stereotypes, fraudulent versions, and distortions of eremitical life, the positive reasons for institutionalizing the vocation are much more important. At bottom the Church recognizes this life as a gift of God given/entrusted to the Church for her own life and edification.

28 July 2019

Followup Question on Lay Hermits and Their Potential Capacity to Speak Better to the Laity

[[Hi Sister, I remember where you once said you were surprised to find that in some ways being a lay hermit might have been able to speak better to laity than being a consecrated hermit under c 603. I wondered if you could explain how it is this might be so.]]

Good question and not one I can recall following up on before this. Thanks for asking. One of the problems we still deal with despite Vatican II is the sense many of the laity (in the vocational sense of that word) still seem to have is that a call to deep prayer lives and exhaustive holiness is somehow the purview of religious. That said it seems at least equally true that living such a life (of exhaustive holiness) but as a hermit, when it is considered at all, is considered the purview of religious. While many lay persons feel called to live lives of solitude and consider themselves to be hermits, the call to a life of "assiduous prayer and penance", stricter separation from the world, and "the silence of solitude" --- which is far more than a life of silence and solitude, still most often seems to be considered the purview of religious. A too-distinct line is drawn between the life of the religious and that of the lay person (using lay here in the vocational rather than hierarchical sense).


Eremitical life, as it is defined in c 603, then, is rightly seen as giving us a vocation which is vastly different than simply going off and living in silence and solitude, or even of loving solitude. Part 2 of the canon makes clear that a consecrated form of this life is lived by making a public commitment in the hands of one's local bishop. However, part 1 of the canon simply defines the nature of eremitical life per se as this is understood in the Roman Catholic Church. The problem is that very few lay persons I have read or spoken to seem to think Part 1 of canon 603 can describe a vocation suited to lay persons, because it specifically defines a desert vocation. Sometimes this becomes clearer as lay persons express comfort calling themselves solitaries or "lovers of solitude" but eschew the description hermit because they cannot see themselves embracing a desert spirituality; I have seen this reflected even in popular publications like Raven's Bread, a newsletter for hermits and other lovers of solitude.

A desert vocation is profoundly dependent upon God in the silence of solitude for one's completion as a human being; it is relatively and even absolutely rare for a person to be called to human wholeness in this way. As a result many lay persons embrace a less demanding form of life where some degree of prayer, silence, and solitude matches their temperaments, perhaps, but risking everything on the fulfillment which comes from a solitary relationship with God is simply not their desire or their actual vocation. The Episcopal Church recognizes solitaries who are not hermits --- vowed religious who are neither members of congregations or institutes of consecrated life nor who embrace a true desert vocation. Their lives, though of undoubted value, do not speak to others in the same way a hermit's might, nor do these people necessarily desire to live that same witness. Neither do those who choose to live a kind of "part-time" eremitism where solitude is a kind of luxury and assiduous prayer and penance are less ways of life than they are significant additions to one's way of life. (More about this another time, I think.)

And yet, it is my opinion that lay persons who do embrace all the elements of canon 603 apart from its Section 2 (the provision for public vows under the supervision of the diocesan bishop), and do live as hermits, also have the capacity to say to every person that we are called, without exception, to live the values of assiduous prayer lives with some degree of silence and solitude and an essential separation from the world (that is from that which is contrary to God or promises fulfillment apart from God). Moreover, these hermits can say to isolated elderly, and the chronically ill, that eremitical life itself (as described in canon 603) can be a perfect means of contextualizing their lives and serving others in an incredibly meaningful way, whether or not these persons experience a call to consecration under canon 603 --- and (perhaps especially) even if they do not precisely because they are less well recognized by the Church than are consecrated vocations. Again, the Church must do better in encouraging and recognizing lay vocations generally, but lay eremitical vocations specifically.

My point in the article you referred to was that, surprisingly, my very consecration separated me somewhat from those who neither seek nor are called to live as consecrated hermits and it may have made it harder for them to consider eremitical life as a vocation for lay persons. Given the importance of eremitical life as a particularly meaningful context and even a potential vocation which can assist isolated elderly and chronically ill (et al.) to appreciate the value of their lives when other standards (work, productivity, social activity, etc) fall away, I found this problematical. I wanted to witness to a way of life that allowed  the chronically ill and isolated elderly to discover a new and marked value to their lives, particularly as a privileged way to proclaim the gospel of the God whose power is perfected in weakness. To find my own vocation was mainly seen as only appropriate for religious and was not considered as defining a life appropriate for lay persons (in the vocational, not hierarchical sense) was surprising and disappointing to me.