14 September 2020

Feast of the Exaltation (Triumph) of the Cross (Reprise)

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

First of all, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative. We are dealing with the profoundly scandalous way God triumphs over human sin and the powers of evil in our world. It is a feast in which the torture and death of one man is celebrated as the greatest occasion of blessing in human history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Diocesan Personnel Don't Understand What A Rule is or How it Functions

[[Sister Laurel, if a diocese is going to use the process of writing a Rule as a key to discernment and formation of a solitary hermit it will make a difference in the way they understand what a Rule is, right? You wrote that there are two way of approaching a Rule, that of law and that of Gospel. You also say that a Rule has to embody one's vision of eremitical life and it's significance in the 21st century. But what happens when a diocese does not appreciate or maybe understand things in the same way you do? Does every diocesan official who works with hermits know what it means to write a Rule? Do they even know what a Rule should be and do? You see what I am getting at I bet: what if a diocese doesn't understand the Rule or the way a Rule should function as you do? What happens then?]]

Really terrific questions, thank you! Yes, your point is well-taken. Because many dioceses have never had the experience of discerning a vocation with a diocesan hermit (one who has lived the life for some years and actually makes it to perpetual profession), they may not know what a Rule actually is or how it works. The problem is exacerbated when the persons working with the candidate are priests or others who have never lived according to a Rule --- much less ever having written one for themselves --- and who think it can simply be a list of do's and don'ts. Similarly, such persons may not appreciate the degree of introspection, reflection, and experience required to write such a Rule. Again, when this is the case there is a much greater tendency to allow the Rule to devolve into a mere list of  things one may or may not do. The problem, of course is that such a Rule is not one which encourages growth or motivates adherence. Dioceses that allow the hermits they profess to write such Rules and are satisfied with them are really setting up themselves and those they profess for failure.

So yes, I have to agree that this is a real problem. Canon 603 legislates a Rule written by the hermit herself, but like many terms or elements in this canon, it presumes a degree of knowledge that many diocesan officials may have no acquaintance with. When dioceses tell a candidate whom they have not worked with for any real length of time to go and write a Rule and offer no assistance, resources, contact people or concrete suggestions or guidelines, I think there is a problem which will only become more complicated as the diocese and candidate move forward towards and with (temporary) profession. But writing a Rule is an incredibly intense and challenging piece of work (though this is accompanied by a sense of joy and freedom at many points), especially if one expects that same Rule to serve as the basis for a vocation which is canonical (ecclesial) and marked by appropriate rights, obligations, and expectations.

It is one thing to believe one is called to be a hermit, another to try living as a hermit for a few months or couple of years and to do so successfully. But it is entirely another thing to try and synthesize what one has learned about God, oneself, silence, solitude, and eremitical life lived according to the evangelical counsels during this brief time and to create a Rule which will govern one's life for the foreseeable future for years and years!! This is especially true when that Rule needs to say essentially (and in some ways, explicitly): here is my vision of this life; here is what I am called to live and why; here is how I will embody the central elements of Canon 603, and here is why this vocation and my own living out of it is a gift to the People of God and the whole world in the 21st Century!

A diocese which fails to understand what a Rule is and how it is to function in the hermit's life does neither the would- be hermit, the eremitical vocation, nor Church any favors in turning a candidate loose to "write a Rule" as the easiest requirement of Canon 603. Not only will good candidates often not be able to create a Rule at all, but the Rules created will not be liveable; they will not be able to inspire and support the hermit in the living out of her vocation throughout the coming years in ways which allow her to greater growth, wholeness, and holiness in response to the Holy Spirit. The results will mean the diocese has failed the individual, the c 603 vocation more generally,  and in concrete terms may lead to the rejection of a candidate with a real vocation or profess someone who simply does not because they can compose a "Rule" consisting of a series of do's and don'ts divorced from reality and the hermit's lived-experience.

Let me add that dioceses and others are in the midst of a rather steep learning curve with regard to canon 603, and that some dioceses with religious in the offices overseeing the profession of c 603 hermits will do very much better in this process because they know what living according to a Rule means and requires. They may not have written one but they do have a sense of what they look like and how they function. This dimension of the diocese's own education on the implementation of c 603 is critically important for the wellbeing of c 603 vocations now and into the future. Meanwhile, hermits will do their best to find resources supporting their growth in this vocation. Additionally, it is likely that those who are faithful in this way will continue to redact their Rules as needed with the assistance and approval of those supervising them.

10 September 2020

Questions on Spiritual Direction

[[Sister, if a spiritual director offers "companioning", does this mean they are simply offering companionship for the lonely? Would they be offering "in depth" spiritual direction? How about accompaniment? I have heard that term used also. Why is there such a difference in names? Since you do spiritual direction how would you feel about someone writing you to ask for prayer and for advice on or help in discerning what they should write about if they are planning a book? I read some of this recently on another blog but have no way to ask the author these same questions.]]

Thanks for your questions. The discipline and art of spiritual direction goes by a number of names including" direction, companioning, and accompaniment. A less-often used but very valuable term is spiritual midwife. Spiritual direction is often misunderstood because of the word direction: folks believe the director is going to be telling the directee what to do. Really, the term means assistance in discerning the presence and directions the Holy Spirit is taking in one's life. In conversations with a director one learns and is helped to attend and respond to the presence of the Holy Spirit in one's life. There is no such thing as superficial Spiritual Direction and that is true no matter the term used to describe the work. Still, because the term direction can be so misleading many directors today prefer other descriptions of the nature of the work.

The one I prefer is "accompaniment" because one accompanies another on their journey through life with God. If you have ever played in an orchestra or piano where you are asked to accompany a soloist you know a lot of what this word means in spiritual direction as well. In a piece I wrote here a while back I described the relationship between director and directee in terms of accompaniment. Here is a part of that post. One question which raised the notion of accompaniment was the inequality of the relationship and I address that here. Still, it is the idea of accompanying which is most fundamental.

[[While I understand your difficulty with terms here (it is indeed hard to characterize the inequality along with the equality of the relationship without thinking in terms of superior and inferior polarities); but I think we must find ways to do this. The direction relationship is one between persons relating to one another in two different roles. The director and directee are equals in Christ and the director serves Christ and the directee with her time, her commitment, her prayer and her expertise. At the same time, she necessarily sets her own story, desires, and needs aside (including the desire or need for friendship in the usual sense if it exists) for the benefit of the directee and her relationship with Christ. Everything that occurs in SD must serve Christ and his desire to love and be loved by the directee and it must do so in a focused  and self-deferential way. 

While some directees may want the relationship to be more like two violins playing the Bach double together, the work of direction makes the relationship more like that of a solo violin being accompanied in the attempt to play Bach's A minor concerto with passion and integrity. [For those who don't know the Bach Double, in this piece the two violins are incredibly equal voices and are sometimes almost indistinguishable regarding who is first violin and who is second; is is wonderful in this way among many others!] In this situation (the A minor concerto) the accompanist serves both the soloist and composer and/or the composition by stepping back. Her work requires a strong sense of what Bach wrote and what the soloist desires the music to be to reveal that fully. As accompanist she also needs technical virtuosity (and a psychological capacity) of a different kind than required in solo work; she may be a soloist in her own right, but in this situation she is there to facilitate the expression of a kind of union between artist and composer and/or composition. Her role is indispensable but unless she is able to work skillfully as an accompanist rather than someone playing a principal part of a duet, the entire theological dramaturgy will be damaged and the revelation that was meant to occur will be prevented or at least significantly impeded. Most directees come to understand such limitations on the director's part are part and parcel of a significant form of reverence and love. ]] (cf., Spiritual Direction and Mutuality

Companioning, however, has much the same meaning, perhaps with some slightly different connotations or overtones. A spiritual director is a companion to us in our Journey with God in Christ, She listens as we describe what is occurring for and within us, she finds ways to help us bring that to expression, she assists us to discern what God is calling us to and how we should live that out, and she celebrates with us when we are faithful to the God we both serve with our lives. Spiritual direction, though often therapeutic, is not therapy and it does not work like therapy does.

For instance, while transference and counter-transference may occur, they are not used in the way therapy uses and even depends upon them. Instead, they will be pointed out and the directee will work through the problems that led to the transference in the presence of God, just as the director will work through her own --- but in the privacy of her own space and time, and perhaps with a supervisor or her own director. Transference is a central tool in therapy. The therapist is a kind of blank slate to the patient or client upon whom transference can be worked out. The relationship is quite different in spiritual direction, for in direction transference gets in the way of one's relationship with God as well as with direction itself because direction always keeps that specific relationship at the center. Neither is the director to be seen in the way a therapist might by a person in therapy.

In such a relationship and process, companioning is a good description for what happens; one does not tell a directee how to live their life; one accompanies them in their living of it, and especially in their relationship with God. Spiritual direction is a long-term relationship which, while problems will be solved, does not generally focus on problems. Instead it focuses on living and living ever more fully the abundant life which God desires for and offers us at every instant. Both director and directee are focused in the same way on this single all-important reality and relationship. Both will gain from the spiritual direction relationship --- though not in the same way, for it is still not a relationship of absolute equality. Companioning is a good description and, contrary to what you read recently, it certainly is not a kind of glorified "baby-sitting" for the lost or lonely.

My own availability for the kinds of things you describe in your questions is quite limited. Neither of these is spiritual direction. If someone wants advice or is writing a book on eremitical life or some aspect of theology I am fairly expert in, I will find time to discuss the matter with them if I can, or I will refer them to someone who might be able to do this. Anyone is free to ask me for prayer anytime, however. Of course I have the time and will make the time for that. If they have a problem they want to talk with me about, I will make an appointment to meet in whatever way seems helpful in the short term. I simply won't call this spiritual direction nor, despite the intense listening which will be at its heart, will the appointment look like spiritual direction.

Followup Question: Sister, isn't transference inevitable in this kind of work? You don't simply "disallow it" so what does a spiritual director do when faced by transference?

Good question. Transference does occasionally occur, yes. When it does, I don't dismiss it, no. Neither do I dismiss my own counter-transference when it occurs. I am aware of these and when a client reacts in this way I will help them explore it and what triggered it. We will explore when else they have felt this way and in this way they will begin to understand (if they didn't already know this --- often they do) that they are projecting onto me/our relationship something with roots elsewhere. Then I will do whatever is necessary to help affirm the direction relationship in the present.

My job here is to do what I can to keep the client rooted in the present moment and especially in her relationship with God in the present moment; we can and do explore the past but, generally speaking, we do it from a strong rooting in the present. Transference and counter-transference militate against this. (My own countertransference is something I note, hold for later, and then work through as soon as I have the time and space to do that.) My point about transference and direction is not that directors don't work with it at all, but rather, that it is an obstacle to the direction relationship per se and so, generally speaking, we do not use it in the way therapy does.

08 September 2020

Sister Laurel, Why Does it Bother You So Much. . .?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, why does it bother you so much if someone who is Catholic wants to live like a hermit but is not consecrated by the Church wants to call themselves a Catholic Hermit? I'm sure some people don't know that the term is a technical one or that canon law applies to the use of the term Catholic in this sort of thing. And so what? Why not let people just do as they wish? Who does it hurt anyway? I think you are hung up on this and need to let it go --- after all, really what does it matter in the grand scheme of things except for those who, like you, seem to be hung up on minutiae? (I'm betting you won't post this question but thanks for answering it if you do!)]]

Thanks for your questions. Almost everything I write about on this blog, whether it has to do with the commitments made by the hermit, the canon(s) governing her life, approaches to writing a Rule of Life, the rights, obligations, and expectations associated with her vocation, the nature and significance of ecclesial vocations like this one, the nature of authentic humanity and the witness value of the hermit's life, the hope she is called to mediate to those who live lives marginalized by chronic illness and disability, the discernment and formation associated with the vocation, or the importance of elders and mentors in her life (and other topics) --- all of this speaks either explicitly or implicitly to the meaning and importance of the term Catholic Hermit. That said, some posts will deal with your questions as central to understanding this specific eremitical vocation. These will most often be found under the labels:  ecclesial vocation(s),  silence of solitude as charism,  and rights and obligations of canon 603 vocations (and variations thereof). Since I cannot reprise everything written in the past 14 years of blogging on these topics, I would suggest you read or reread some of those posts.

That said, let me point out that it may well be that in our country and even in our world today the truth doesn't much matter and individualism is the way of life most value. Similarly, it may well be that liberty has edged out genuine freedom in such a world and generosity been supplanted by a "me first", "win at any cost" philosophy and corresponding set of values. Similarly, our world seems to have forgotten that what some decry as "socialism" today was identified in the New Testament's Acts of the Apostles as the only true shape of  community in the new Family (or Kingdom) of God in Christ.  (cf Acts 2:44-45) Christianity has never truly been the most popular or pervasive way of living in our world --- even when most folks went by the name "Christian"; still, Christianity is built on truth and this truth leads to a responsible freedom marked by generosity and humble (lovingly truthful) service to others. Countercultural as that may be the place which stands right at the point of sharpest conflict with the values of the contemporary world is the life of the canonical (consecrated) hermit.

The hermit's life is both most easily misunderstood and most easily distorted in living. The freedom of the hermit can slide into a selfish libertinism, its individuality can devolve into a "me first" individualism, and its lack of an active apostolic ministry can be mistaken quite easily for selfishness and a refusal to serve others. Those who neither understand the nature of the life, nor the Church's role in ensuring that these distortions do not occur will ask the kinds of questions you pose in your query. They are not the folks I generally write about -- though their ignorance can be problematical.  Others who are equally ignorant of the distinctions which stand between world and Kingdom of God will valorize their own selfish individualism with the name "hermit" and some of these will, even when initial ignorance has been corrected, insist on calling themselves "Catholic Hermits" despite never having been called by the Church to live this life in her name, and despite being unprepared and sometimes unwilling to accept the rights and obligations incumbent upon someone petitioning the Church for admission to public profession and consecration. It is these I call counterfeit or even fraudulent for they have taken ignorance and raised it to the level of lie.

Whom Does it Hurt?

Whom does it hurt? First of all it hurts the vocation itself. There is no more stark example of the truth of the way God relates to human beings than when a hermit stands face to face with God in the solitude of her cell and praises God for her life, her call to holiness, the challenge to love ever more deeply, and consents to be a witness to a God who desires to be everything for us because (he) values us beyond all imagining. It is even more striking because she says this is true no matter how poor, how broken or wounded, how sinful or shamed, and how seemingly unproductive her life is in a world marked by consumerism and an exaggerated productivity --- a world which very much values the opposite of all of these and considers the hermit to be "nothing" and "a waste of skin". In Christ, the hermit stands before God consenting to be the imago dei she was made to be, entirely transparent to God's truth, beauty, and love and says with her life that this is the common call of every person. Quite a precious witness!

For someone to call themselves a Catholic Hermit when the Church herself has not discerned or admitted her to a public eremitical commitment is to strip away the humble commitment to the truth which is meant to be part of the vocation's foundation and to insert self-definition and self-centeredness in its place. Those who look to this person as an example of the Church's vision of eremitical life may find  that rather than a "Catholic Hermit" they are faced instead with the validation of  many of the same distortions and stereotypes plaguing eremitical life throughout the centuries. What they will not find is a person who humbly accepts her poverty before God insofar as this means accepting the vocation to which one is truly called. Lay eremitical life is profoundly meaningful and important in the life of the church; it should be honestly embraced in that way. A secondary result can be that the Church herself (in individual dioceses) will refuse to consider professing diocesan hermits at all; the vocation is a rare one with, relatively speaking, very few authentic examples; fraudulent "hermits" who represent distortions, stereotypes, and caricatures (as well as sometimes being nutcases and liars) unfortunately can serve to cast doubt on the entire vocation leading to dioceses refusing to give those seeking profession any real hearing at all.

Secondly, it hurts those who most need the witness of this specific vocation, namely those who for whatever reason find themselves unable to compete with the world on its own terms: the disabled and marginalized who may believe the world's hype that wealth is measured in terms of goods and social status, able-bodiedness, youth, productivity, and so forth.  Hermits say to these people that they are valued beyond all reckoning by a God who knows them inside out. Hermits say to these people that real wealth is measured in terms of love and that one of the most precious symbols of Christianity is that of treasure contained in clay pots, while real strength is perfected and most fully revealed in weakness. To attempt to witness to the truth of the Gospel by living a lie and building it into the foundation of one's eremitical life destroys the capacity of the hermit to witness effectively to these truths. To proclaim the fundamental truth that in Christianity wealth is contained in clay pots is made impossible if one refuses to be the pot one has been made by the potter to be (a lay hermit, for instance) but claims instead to be something else (e.g., a consecrated Catholic Hermit).

Thirdly, it hurts the one doing the lying or misrepresentation, especially if she actually comes to believe her own lies. In this way her capacity for truth, humility, generosity, and gratitude are all equally injured --- and thus too, her own authenticity as a human being. We cannot image God as we are called if we cannot accept ourselves or the vocation to which he calls us. And finally, it hurts the Church herself who is responsible for all that goes on "in her name" and for commissioning those who live eremitical life in this way.

As part of this injury to the Church, it may hurt anyone who is influenced by the fraudulent "Catholic Hermit" in her lies and misrepresentations. Sometimes this happens because the person follows the directions the counterfeit gives to "become a Catholic Hermit" and then, after spending time following this advice and building hopes on a false dream or pathway to realize their dream, is confronted by one's parish or diocese with the truth of the matter. Terrible damage can be done in this way just as it is done to those who are scandalized by the disedifying example of "hermits" who embody all the worst stereotypes associated with eremitical life, whether canonical or non-canonical. Unfortunately, the individual fraudulent "Catholic Hermit" is ordinarily not held nearly as responsible as the Church is in such cases so the damage or injury can be far-reaching and relatively ungovernable.


I am bothered by all of this because I see the value in eremitical life, most particularly as it stands as a witness against the distorted notions of humanity and community so prevalent in today's world. I am bothered by this because I am committed to live this vocation well for the sake of others,  but especially for the sake of God and God's Church who is the steward of this vocation. I care so much because I have come to know how important this vocation is --- especially as a countercultural witness to the nature of authentic human existence and all the things the world puts up as values today. Finally, I care because God has called me to care, and to embody this caring in my own living, witnessing, teaching, mentoring, direction, and prayer. I care because the truth matters and because God and God's Church cares even as she commissioned me to do so as well. You may consider this a personal "hang up" of mine. That's not a problem and you are free to your opinion, but if you wish me to "let it go," I would suggest you not ask me questions about it; after all, generally speaking, I have tended not to write about it unless prompted by folks with questions or concerns.

If You Need People Perhaps You are not Called to Eremitical Life. Really??

[[Dear Sister Laurel, While I appreciated your article on the role of the bishop in supervising the c 603 hermit, and while I think I can see how it is a delegate or delegates can be of aid to the bishop and the hermit both, I was struck by a sense that this kind of institutionalization is very far from traditional hermit life. Whatever happened to "God alone is enough"? I know you have written about charges of an inappropriate institutionalization in the past, once just recently, but I hope you will renew the discussion. If you need the Sisters you mentioned, or if a bishop is not able to supervise hermits in his diocese, mightn't this indicate either 1) you are not called to the kind of solitude eremitical life requires, and/or 2) canon 603's insistence on the supervision of the hermit's life by a bishop is contrary to the life of a hermit? I have posed my questions in a deliberately provocative way, but I hope you will take them as a challenge to answer questions which might trouble some readers. Thanks!]]

I very much appreciate your clarity in the way you posed your questions. I also agree that you have asked things which others are likely troubled by. For instance, I have been reminded freshly recently that there is a strong thread of anti-institutionalization among some lay hermits and I think that comes from several places: 1) a failure to understand the eremitical vocation as specifically ecclesial, 2) an ignorance of history and the way eremitical lives were discerned and lived through the majority of church history in the Western as well as the Eastern Church, and, 3) the emergence and near epidemic instance of an individualism which neglects or rejects the essential need for human intimacy and relatedness. Yes, I have written about all of these over the past decade and a half; I can try to summarize that here and I will try to draw from the article you mentioned specifically to explain both the way I live solitude, and the way the persons I mentioned (Sisters Susan and Marietta, and (by extension) my bishop and others) contribute to that rather than detract from it. Hopefully that will answer the specific questions you posed.

The Ecclesial Nature of the Eremitical Vocation I Live:

I think it goes without saying that there are many "flavors" or "stripes" of solitude, but let me say it anyway. Some go off to physical solitude to test themselves and their own capacities. One example of this might be Richard Proenecke who, initially at least, went off to Alaska for a year, and who then found he thrived in the solitude while creatively meeting the various challenges he encountered every single day. His story is inspiring as he explores the limits and capacities of the human person alone (or nearly so since he received assistance from a friend who flew in supplies, and allowed access to a shelter which made initial survival a good deal easier). Even so, there is no doubt that Proenecke lived a clear and very significant solitude that would reduce most people to terror or functional catatonia in short order -- unless it killed them outright!

Another example I have referred to here a number of times is the misanthropy and failure to live one's life fruitfully with others represented by Tom Leppard (cf labels to right) and called eremitism by some. Tom Leppard identified others as the heart of his problems in life and hied himself off to the Isle of Skye where he could live without dealing with others often, if at all. Or, consider the solitude of the individual professed according to canon 14 in the Anglican/Episcopal Church who writes that his profession as a solitary religious was specifically meant to say he was not called to community of any sort at all; he was, he claimed, constituted by his anti-communal call and profession. Then again, recall the solitude of someone living in the wilderness of solitary confinement during a 30 year sentence in a US "Super Max" prison or the physical solitude of a child growing up with an impaired immune system who must live in a bubble, or of an elderly person who has lost all of  her family, has few remaining friends and has grown apart from the rhythms and activities of ordinary society. These forms of solitude are vastly different from one another in their shapes and motivations and they all contrast significantly with my own vocation to canon 603 eremitical life.

Finally, consider the person who embraces eremitical life because they feel God is calling them to this; they have a sense of wholeness as a human being in solitude and witness to the love of God by embracing such a call. They feel called to the desert as Jesus was called to the desert, 1) to do battle with the demonic dwelling in their own hearts and in the world around them, and 2) to consolidate their identities as Daughters and Sons of God for their own sake and, in some cases, for the the sake of others. These persons are hermits as the Church defines them generally, and this is what  I am called to as well. You can see how vastly different such vocations are from those described above. Even so, beyond this difference and further specifying it, is the single characteristic that further defines and modifies the distinctive shape and motivation of my own solitude; the very thing that makes it eremitical in a way which contrasts with all of these other forms is its ecclesiality.

Like other Catholic Hermits, I am called by God to live this vocation to the silence of solitude in the heart of the Church, both through her mediation and in her name. With her I have discerned this vocation and been professed, consecrated, and missioned (commissioned, in fact) to live eremitical life in a publicly committed way for the sake of God and all who and that are precious to God.  Unlike those who live eremitical life in the lay state, the Church directly supervises Catholic Hermits' living out of their vocations; she has allowed us to make a life commitment to this call and will help ensure it is truly a call to human wholeness which witnesses to the power of the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. Because of this ecclesial dimension, we are empowered to live authentically human and eremitical life in a responsive and responsible way for the sake of others, and to do so in season and out, in times of darkness and of light.  It is the public and ecclesial dimension of these lives which transform  and stabilize them into vocations.

"God Alone is Enough"

 So what happened to the famous (and in some senses infamous) saying, "God alone is enough?" Have canonical hermits dropped that for the sake of an institutionalization that curtails eremitical freedom and feeds the hermit's tendency to pride, for instance? I don't think so. The affirmation "God alone is enough" can be read several different ways. Two are critical for the hermit, 1) We need no one and nothing but God, 2) only God is able to complete us as human beings and we will be incomplete without God. Eremitical life has generally taken both of these affirmations to be true but recognized that the first cannot be taken literally; it is simply not true when understood literally. The second affirmation is always seen as true and most often is understood to be primary. Sometimes the first affirmation has been made primary. This has happened with those who live reclusion, but it has also happened with those who criticize hermits who are active in their parishes or dioceses even when this is significantly limited in comparison to other religious or ministers.

Hermits have reached a place in their lives where they feel called to witness to the truth that only God can complete us as human beings. In fact, only God (including all the ways God is mediated to us through the lives and love of others) can call us to authentic human existence. We don't say "I don't need anything or anyone other than God" for that would be untrue and, in fact, result in a narrowed and cramped humanity, a shadow of the fullness of life one is called to in Christ. We need other human beings, friends who speak God's truth to us and call us to be our best selves, family who know us more deeply than maybe any others and who love us for who we are, superiors who allow us to be accountable for the gifts God has graced us with and who inspire us to fulfill the commitments we have made for the sake of ourselves and all those others we touch, priests and pastors, physicians, teachers, mentors, and all those who touch our lives and enrich them with their presence and the presence of God in all of the ways God seeks to come to us.

However, while we do not reject the important place of others in our lives,  we have come to a place there where we limit contact with others so we can witness in a more vivid way to the truth that without God we are less than whole, less than human, and that only God is the source of these; only God is sufficient to complete us as human beings. In that sense, "God alone is enough (or sufficient)"! (As Thomas Aquinas said, "Only God is sufficient" --- with all the rich and varied senses of "sufficient" that includes.) The solitude of the hermit says that "God alone is enough" and more, that some of the things our world counts as essential to life are simply not. It is not essential to be wealthy or powerful or to live without constraints. Freedom and well-being are defined differently for a Christian (or an authentically human being). The meaningfulness of our lives is measured in terms of love and generous service, not in terms of productivity or capitalism and consumerism. We are called to be attentive and responsive to the God who gives us life, not to the values of a world which too often defines humanity antithetically to the way the Kingdom (Family) of God defines this.

My need for others:

Your question in this assumes that eremitical requires a certain kind or degree of solitude and that my need for the mentoring, accompaniment, and supervision by others, indicates I am not called to eremitical life. in fact eremitical life has ALWAYS had such things, and required them. Ordinarily some needs have always been obviated by considering eremitical life as a "second-half-of life" vocation which builds on significant formation and assistance by others in religious life. Even so, the need for mentors was built into the Desert Abbas and Ammas lives when they moved to the desert (i.e.,  any wilderness outside the cities). Because I have written about this fairly recently I will refer you to a couple of posts which discuss this rather then repeating this material. Please see: Never Alone in ThisThe Place of Elders in Eremitical Life, and Religious Obedience and the Ministry of Authority See also other posts under the label, Ministry of Authority, Delegates, Spiritual Directors (or Spiritual Direction) or legitimate Superior.

29 August 2020

Evangelical Poverty as Dependence Upon God

[[Hi Sister, I read your post on adopting a spirituality and one thing you said made me stop and think. It wasn't on the subject of the post so much but it was the way you defined Franciscan poverty in terms of being who one is before God. I always thought Franciscan poverty was about letting go of material things and that Franciscan poverty was stricter than other forms of poverty for this reason. Why did you define Franciscan poverty in the way you did? Is this the way you define poverty in your own eremitical life?]]

Thanks for the question. I defined Franciscan poverty the way I did in the post you referred to because my sense of Francis' take on poverty was that he let go of anything that obscured or prevented his complete dependence upon God; the necessary  corollary is that he let go of anything that prevented him from being truly himself before, with, and in God. He demanded his followers also relinquish things so that nothing would stand in the way of their relationship with God. Because God is truth itself this relationship with God is the source and ground of standing in one's own truth and being oneself.  The same is true of God as love. Because God is love-in-Act one is able to be wholly oneself in God's presence; one needs no props, no other sources of Selfhood than God alone. The very essence of faith (and love of God) is the ability to stand before God as the person one is. Thus, Francis very much wanted those who followed him to stand naked (so to speak) before God, and more, to become entirely transparent to the grace (presence) of God in Christ Who is working in and through them.

Similarly, it was this latter posture which was and is at the heart of Franciscan poverty and which material poverty was/is meant to serve. I have written here before about this view of evangelical or religious poverty; my own vow is defined in these terms rather than in terms of material poverty --- not because I don't embrace material poverty but because I know that if I measure matters in terms of my dependence on God and focus on or give that priority, material poverty will largely fall into place. The opposite is not as true, at least that is how it seems to me; material poverty can foster dependence on God, but it need not do so. In any case, the two things go hand in hand so that in formation as a Franciscan, for instance, material poverty is a given and exhaustive dependence on God to be the one one is called to be is the focus of the spirituality.

As noted, this is the way I view the evangelical counsel of poverty. My vow reflects this explicitly and reads: [[I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.]] (cf.,Everyone is called to the Evangelical Counsel of Poverty)

There is a strong dimension of the richness and meaningfulness of this kind of poverty; it is a paradoxical reality and I wanted to capture that in the vow itself. The reverent approach to life lived in this way, and to everything and everyone one encounters, was also something I needed to capture as an integral dimension of such dependence. When we can stand before God in the way Franciscan poverty calls for, we can be open to all of creation in a reverent and accepting way. In any case, though I might write a slightly different vow today (I first used this vow in 1976), the priority given to complete dependence on God to be the person I am called to be would still be it's heart. I think my vow of evangelical poverty is essentially Franciscan, but I did not consciously draw it from Franciscanism; instead it came from my experience of God's presence in my life and from reflection on the Pauline and Markan theologies of the Cross. I hope this is helpful!

28 August 2020

On Hermits Adopting a Specific Spirituality

[[Dear Sister, I pray that you are happy and well amidst this corona crisis. I guess we’ve all adopted some aspects of the hermit life during the lockdown. I know for myself that the Liturgy of the Hours has taken on an even greater importance in my spiritual life during this period of isolation and parish shutdowns. 

I do have a question though; my question involves the adoption of a “spirituality” for a hermit. I know there are many hermits who draw inspiration from the great charisms of the Church (i.e. Carmelite, Franciscan, Benedictine etc). If I’m not mistaken, you are a hermit in the Camaldolese Benedictine tradition. 

I’m wondering though how a hermit incorporates a specific charism or spirituality into his/her life of solitude. Surely, the baseline spirituality/disciplines of the eremitic life forms it’s own unique type of spirituality (i.e. contemplative prayer, divine office, silence, solitude, Lectio Divina etc). I suppose what I’m trying to figure out is how a hermit does those things in a specifically “Benedictine”, “Franciscan” or “Carmelite” et al. manner? How would a hermit adopt a particular spirituality if they have not been formed in a community based on one of those charisms? Is it even advisable that a hermit adopt a spirituality apart from the one that flows from being a hermit? ]]

Good to hear from you again. Yes, all is well here. Thanks for your prayer.  I think in some ways you have the cart before the horse in the idea of "adopting" a spirituality. Your last line, however, gives a clue to the dynamics that should be at play, namely, one's spirituality should flow from one's eremitical life and the way God is present to the person in that life. Assuming one is not formed in a particular spirituality, one is apt to find that embracing a particular spirituality is a natural outgrowth of their life in solitude. Even when one is formed in a particular spirituality one may not find it resonates as well with one's eremitical life as other spiritualities do. Let me give you an example.

As you noted, yes, though professed as a diocesan hermit, I am Camaldolese Benedictine. I embraced that spirituality because it has a strong eremitical component, but also finds community and evangelization (or witness) important. In fact, it is built on these three pillars. Thus Camaldolese life resonates powerfully with diocesan eremitical life lived in a parish and diocesan context. It resonates especially well for someone who does theology and loves to teach Scripture and believes the entirety of eremitical life should be about proclaiming the Good News. I embraced this because the shape of my life was already clear from the character of my eremitical life and what I believed about the communal (ecclesial, etc.) nature of eremitical solitude. 

Camaldolese life and spirituality is a long-lived, well-tried form of eremitical and cenobitical life which is demonstrably healthy and capable of inspiring all the dimensions of my life, whether that means life alone in my hermitage, my participation in my parish and diocese, or my doing theology generally and writing about eremitical life specifically. In other words, it was a natural fit which "spoke to me" and encouraged me to allow nothing to be lost from my eremitical life in a way which narrowed either myself as person or (therefore) eremitical life itself. I did not adopt this spirituality so much as I embraced it as something that was already in some ways "my own". I suppose I could say I became aware of it wanting to embrace me. It was important to me that I be able to add the gift of my own life to this spirituality (a strand of the eremitical life in the Church) and also that it provided ways I could grow via the mentoring of other Camaldolese monks, nuns, and oblates.

At the same time my initial formation was as a Franciscan and while Francis provided a Rule for hermits and lived some of his life as a hermit, I never felt within myself a call to adopt his vision of eremitical life. (The tenderness, community, and love central to his vision is something that resonates with me, however.)  Yet, I have the crucified Christ at the heart of my life and spirituality, and I do embrace the Franciscan value of poverty (i.e., being who one is before God) and I resonate with the characteristic Franciscan dimension of Joy. Even so, I don't think I have to be specifically Franciscan for these dimensions of my life to be central or to fit within the Camaldolese framework and spirit. In other words, the aspects of Franciscanism I carry strongly within me fit well within Camaldolese spirituality; they have to or I would not have been able to embrace such a spirituality. Someone else would be able to live eremitical life in a specifically Franciscan context and by embracing a Franciscan spirituality. Franciscanism could certainly work for that --- and could probably do so for me if Camaldolese spirituality did not speak to me in the way it does. In this, again, it matters what resonates most strongly with the individual hermit's spirituality.

As for charism, as a diocesan hermit I locate the charism of my life in  the canon under which I am professed. For me that is what canon 603 calls, "the silence of solitude". Because I am not professed as a Camaldolese, but as a diocesan hermit under c 603, it seems appropriate to me that I find the charism of my life as I do. The Camaldolese triple good (three pillars) are very helpful to me as is their own charism which has to do with "the privilege of love" (Ego vobis, vos mihi)***. I love that the privilege of love is right at the heart of their lives (and mine as well); however, when I come to identify the charism of my life, what I find is that "the silence of solitude" is a very rich symbol which can combine all of the Camaldolese elements,  encapsulate my own story in unique and significant ways, and speak in a special way to the needs of our contemporary existence. (To speak briefly about this, let me just say that one of the reasons the COVID-19 crisis is helpful to folks is because it helps them discover themselves in a deeper way and to cultivate both silence and solitude (which can flower in that larger reality called "the silence of solitude"). COVID-19 puts people in touch with their own needs in this way and others.)

Doing things in a Benedictine (etc.) Way:

I don't think adopting a spirituality is first of all about saying Office, doing Lectio, or praying in a specific way. However, a person who finds herself resonating with a Benedictine spirituality is more apt to be one for whom the Divine Office is a central piece of her daily life, while one who prays in the spirit of St Francis may approach prayer more explicitly in terms of friendship with Christ and a stress on the relationship such prayer must involve. All of the things you mention are fundamental to every spirituality but these activities can be stamped with a Franciscan, Cistercian, or Carmelite character (among others). Ordinarily these have to do with the spirit underlying the way one approaches the activity. Occasionally a certain spirituality may contribute a specific way of doing something --- as Ignatian spirituality contributes a very specific way of entering into the Scriptural text using one's imagination and capacity for empathy. Camaldolese spirituality requires a call to both solitude and community (or community in solitude!) as well as a sense of the importance of the Gospel witness of one's life.

Perhaps the bottom line here is that in most cases spiritualities do not mean doing things in a certain way so much as they mean doing these with or because one has a particular spirit. Generally speaking, at least as I think about this, it is the person who is Franciscan, Carmelite, Camaldolese,  etc. Their spirituality will reflect that identity and spirit. (I realize, of course, that a spirituality is something in which persons are formed; I do not mean to deny this, but the greater truth is that we shape the tradition with the gift of ourselves just as we are shaped by it. When one is discerned to have a Franciscan or Camaldolese vocation, for instance, what is being recognized is that the whole person resonates with the Franciscan or other spirituality, not merely that they can or have simply "adopted" an abstract spirituality or collection of spiritual practices. The concern is whether or not these spiritual elements can/do come together in this person in a way which makes of them a living constellation of spiritual attributes we can identify as characteristically Benedictine or Camaldolese or Cistercian, for instance?)

When hermits, especially diocesan hermits who have written and live their own Rule and are, by definition, solitary hermits, adopt a particular spirituality it is because we desire to be part of a living tradition that transcends our own eremitical lives. In some ways we want our own vision of this life and the way we are called to live it subsumed under a larger and vital tradition which helps protect us from individualism and underscores the ecclesial nature of our lives and commitments. It is also the case that we need and may desire folks who walk a similar path to accompany us in our own journey --- whether that occurs in a direct way or more remotely.

When you ask about the advisability of adopting a spirituality that does not flow from being a hermit per se, my answer has to be I agree, this is inadvisable unless 1) one is solid in one's eremitical life, and 2) one feels a strong attraction to some aspect of a particular spirituality. What may be happening in such a case is the spirituality one is adopting speaks strongly in some ways but also has the capacity to call the hermit to or cultivate dimensions of her personality and spirituality which are yet in need of development. On the other hand, the hermit may need to be associated with a larger and vital tradition (and thus, those who also embrace it) so that she can grow in her eremitical life generally. It is never a good idea to adopt a spirituality willy nilly or for no real reason at all, but to the extent a specific spiritual tradition can allow one to grow fully into the hermit one is called to be, adopting it is a good idea.

Thanks again for writing; it is always good to hear from you.

*** Ego vobis, vos mihi: The Camaldolese motto (timely, given my recent post on mottoes) is  "I am yours, you are mine". This fundamental truth speaks clearly of the privilege of love that marks every Camaldolese life.

26 August 2020

On Conscience and One-Issue Voting

[[Dear Sister, I think you wrote a piece about elections and one-issue voting in 2012 or 2016. Could you summarize that article here now? I have family who are arguing that anyone who votes for a candidate who is not anti-abortion  who votes for a party that supports a woman's right to choose is necessarily damned to hell. I don't believe the current President is really anti-abortion but even if he is everything else he is about does not exactly scream "pro-life". . . . At the same time I don't think VP Biden is necessarily anti-life because of his support for abortion. . .]]

Thanks for asking about this; I saw a post recently which criticized a bishop for restating Benedict XVI's analysis, so yes, there is significant misunderstanding on what the Catholic Church teaches about conscience judgments/decisions and the difficulty with one-issue voting. Abortion tends to be the single issue around which such misunderstandings and their attendant arguments are marshalled. 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.

Hermitage Chapel and 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 (or party'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 even if that candidate or party does not oppose abortion. (Please note that in this analysis a candidate may support a platform which includes the right to abortion and not be a supporter of abortion itself.) 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. You might look for original articles on Benedict's analysis both here and elsewhere.

25 August 2020

On Mottoes in the Consecrated Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, do you have a motto? How did you choose it? I wondered if the other hermits you wrote about recently have mottoes?]]

Thanks for the questions. Yes, I do have a motto. It is taken from 2 Cor. 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." From that I had engraved on my ring, "[God's] power is perfected in weakness" and that is my motto. I chose this because throughout my whole life I have needed to learn the truth of it, not only that God's grace is sufficient for us, but the startling truth that where that grace is active, power can be manifested in weakness; even more, I have needed to learn that in weakness the power of God's grace will triumph in startling and paradoxical ways.

When I studied theology I learned Paul and Mark's theologies of the cross and did work on Paul Tillich and his own theology of the cross as well. This theology was, more or less, the focus and source for all other Christology and other theology I have done. It was the place where I became acquainted intellectually with the notion of a God whose power is perfected in weakness and who transforms reality with freedom-empowering love. Whether I was reading Jesus' parables, the paradoxes of Paul's theology, the "in-your-face" irony of Mark's portrait of divine Kingship and call to discipleship, or trying to teach or proclaim these as the heart of the Good News, I found myself being addressed by God: [[I have been with you since the beginning revealing a power made perfect in weakness -- both the weakness I embrace for your sake and your own as well. I will never leave you abandoned or alone nor will there ever be a form of human brokenness, alienation, or shame from which I can be excluded!!]] In this way intellectual and academic work complemented, supported, and brought meaning to my lived experience. It is also the source of my eremitical vocation: "My grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected (made perfect) in weakness."

I suppose the Hermits I wrote about recently also have mottoes, but I can't say for sure. Perhaps they will write and share what these are and a little about why they chose them. If that happens I will add to this post with whatever is provided -- or I will add them to the posts on their professions. The bottom line here (and my own sense of what is involved in choosing a motto) is that when Sisters (or others) choose such things they do so in a way which represents the foundational truth of the way God works and has worked in their lives. It is a meaningful and profoundly intimate dimension of their lives. Sometimes one's motto comes to one during prayer or lectio; I know one Sister whose motto was given to her (i.e., she heard this spoken directly to herself) during her profession liturgy. Generally speaking, a motto will spell out a sense of the shape one's life is to take in response to God. It will be a promise of the way God will work in and through her for the life of Church and World, a statement of the way God is glorified in her life. Thus, for instance, the motto of the Sister who heard this at profession is taken from Rom 9:17, [["I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and my name might be proclaimed in all the earth."]] Mottoes embody an entire life with and in God in just a sentence or two. They are at once historical, aspirational, and inspirational as they encapsulate one's personal experience, spirituality, and vocation.

23 August 2020

UPDATE! Perpetual Profession and Consecration: Sister Grace Ford, Er Dio, Hermit for the Diocese of St Augustine

Perpetual Profession and Consecration
UPDATE: In an email written in joyful celebration of c 603 and (specifically) Sister Anunziata's perpetual profession yesterday, Sister Grace Ford wrote to let me know she [[was perpetually professed [under c 603] on 28.June.2020 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Jacksonville, in the Diocese of St. Augustine. Bishop Estevez officiated along with (her) spiritual director, Fr. James Kaniparamparil, CMI.]] God is so good!!!! I give God thanks for c 603 and the way the Spirit is working through it to raise up solitary eremitical vocations in the consecrated state!

Sister Grace also wrote today: [[I cannot express adequately the gratitude and awe I have for the abundant grace God has gifted me with through this precious, arduous, terrifying and peaceful process.  I do not think it is possible to effectively share the essence of this journey unless one has lived their own experience of it.]] As some may remember, I posted news of Sister's temporary profession here in May 2019. Part of the original post (Congratulations Sister Grace Ford, Er Dio), which includes more of Sister Grace's background, follows:

Temporary Profession
I received the following "Thank you" note this afternoon from Sister Grace Ford, Er Dio, who was just professed (temporary vows) as a diocesan hermit for the Diocese of St Augustine. 

What  a terrific surprise!! Sister, a former Sister of St Joseph, is (or has been) a teacher, a professor of psychology, and a  psychotherapist specializing in child psychology, trauma, depression, and family systems. After discerning for 15 years, she has chosen to live eremitical life and will do so as a solitary hermit of the Diocese of St Augustine. As I told Sister Grace, I am profoundly gratified to hear this blog was helpful to her and believe sharing this small portion of her story will be helpful to others discerning or considering discerning this vocation with their dioceses. How good God is!!!

22 August 2020

Perpetual Profession and Consecration: Sister Anunziata Grace, Hermitess for the Diocese of Knoxville

Justin Card. Rigali, Sr. Anunziata Grace, Bp Richard Stika
It's official!!!! Sister Anunziata Grace is perpetually professed and consecrated as a diocesan hermit of the Diocese of Knoxville!! At right is a picture of Sister Anunziata with Cardinal Rigali (spiritual director) and Bishop Stika, (Ordinary of the Diocese of Knoxville). It was a long and inspired journey for Sister Anunziata and I am personally awed by the way the Spirit has worked in her life to bring her to this new point in what is truly an amazing adventure.

While I could not be there in person, I was able to watch the profession and liked especially the things I recognized as Sister's personal touches (for instance, peopling the Litany of the Saints with hermits). Given the limitations of the pandemic (I wish the assembly could have been larger and the camera streaming the ceremony had been from a closer perspective; since Sr. Anunziata was not mic'ed hearing some of what she said was also difficult for some.) it was a moving and beautiful liturgy. There was warmth and clear affection for Sister Anunziata and Bishop Stika joked a bit about Sister's Rule of Life including, "four trips a year to Tahiti" to which, without missing a beat, Sister Anunziata responded ironically, "Well, with your permission!). I was especially delighted by the way Bishop Stika referred to Sister's "new role in the diocese". So, please meet the Church's newest diocesan hermit, Sister Anunziata Grace, Hermitess of the Diocese of Knoxville! Deo gratias!!!


Original Announcement: For those readers who might be interested: I have written a couple of times now about the upcoming profession of a diocesan hermit I have had the privilege of accompanying during her journey to this point in her eremitical life. I am overjoyed to announce that Sister Anunziata Grace's perpetual profession and consecration will be live streamed from the Diocese of Knoxville Cathedral at 10:00am tomorrow (Saturday), the 22.August. 2020, Knoxville (EDT) time. You can find the link at the bottom of the diocesan webpage here: Diocesan of Knoxville. Please join me in celebrating this event in both the life of the Church and the eremitical tradition itself --- and, of course, please especially remember Sister Anunziata Grace in your prayers.


This came my way through the hands of a few others, including Sister Susan, OSF. One person called it the best commercial ever. Maybe, but definitely a message that will make you smile and laugh and maybe cry some too! Please, you might want to enlarge the screen, and definitely listen all the way through. Enjoy!!!

09 August 2020

Questions on Writing a Rule of Life: Why Demand a Longer Process?

[[Dear Sister, you wrote that only after a person has lived eremitical solitude for several years should a diocese ask them to write a Rule. Are you trying to draw out the process? Why can't a person write a Rule before they even approach the diocese and then turn up there Rule in hand as they make their petition for profession? Surely it can't be all that difficult to write a Rule for hermit life. I think you are trying to make this more difficult than it needs to be and I have never heard of a diocese asking a person to wait for years before writing a Rule. Usually it is the first thing they look for! Do you think you know more than dioceses do in this matter? Hardly very humble for a "consecrated hermit" is it?]]

Yes, I wrote that just recently and I have done so from time to time over the past fourteen years as well. There are always exceptions of course, but generally speaking, most people showing up seeking to be professed as diocesan hermits have never lived in the silence of eremitical solitude at all much less for an extended period of time. If you were to engage them in a conversation on canon 603, its central elements, history, or the vows it calls for, you would find they knew little if anything about these. If you asked them to describe the vision of life they live by few would be able to articulate this, and if you asked how it is they structure their lives in light of their life in and with Christ, the response you would get is a far cry from what eremitical life looks like.

In those I have been in touch with, it has seemed to me that a number of them are expecting the diocese to accept them as candidates in some sort of hermit formation program and to profess them at the end of two or three years after they have simplified their lives a bit, been kitted out in a habit, and read a few books about prayer, desert spirituality, and the vows (maybe!)!  In truth, those who are serious about eremitical life are at the beginning of a long journey, a life-long journey, in fact, which will change them to their roots -- just as it will reveal God to them in ways they could never have imagined. It is only as a person has lived this journey for some time, and have begun to glean a vision of what its shape and substance will be, that they will be able to write a liveable Rule of life.

Yesterday I "met" via ZOOM with a diocesan hermit who is making her solemn/perpetual profession on the 22. Aug. (Feast of the Queenship of Mary) I don't think she will mind my sharing this story here. You see, it has been my privilege to accompany her over the past several years --- first, as she considered what this call might mean for someone living solemn vows as a monastic for 34 years, and then, as she went through the process of exclaustration and began her formation as a solitary hermit with an ecclesial vocation. This was our very first ZOOM conversation so it was wonderful to actually see each other. (It is amazing what the light in another's eyes adds to a conversation!) One of the things we talked about briefly was the content of the Bishop's Decree of Approval, Rule of Life because hers reads a bit differently than mine does. But we did that after a bit of laughter-filled reminiscing when she asked me, "Do you remember what my first Rule of Life was like?" (I did!) . . . Do you know, there were seven drafts??!" (I did not!!) She also reminded me what my advice was after the first draft: "Set it aside [and live your life]." All of this is instructive in one way and another --- not only because of the struggle and growth it points to, but also because of a shared joy and humor at the way the Holy Spirit had worked with our limitations in all of this.
Consider Sister's experience of cloistered religious ( i.e., monastic!) life, of the vows, and of living according to a Rule and constitutions. She had served in leadership in her congregation and been a novice directress. She had felt the tug of a call to greater solitude and had to move against the tide of community life (which she loved deeply) to honor that call. And she was tested in this. And yet, it took her seven drafts to negotiate the gradual transformation from cenobite to semi-eremite and finally, from eremite to diocesan eremite  (not that all of these are experienced as entirely discrete stages), 2) who God is in her life, 3) an expression of eremitical life which is at once traditional and contemporary, and which, 4) she can truly live in the name of the Church. Those seven drafts were the record of her initial formation as a hermit. But they were much more than that. They were also the workbooks in which she claimed and articulated that formation for herself and the church in a way which aided discernment and perhaps will have served (or will serve in the future) in instructing others regarding what such a process of becoming a solitary hermit looks like when it is well (faithfully) done; (the approved Rule becomes a quasi-public document marking another hermit's assumption of a vital place in the church's eremitical tradition); moreover, these drafts were guidebooks on the way which, besides marking the landmarks of her formative journey, helped inspire that formation.

So, no, I do not suggest that dioceses have people live as hermits for a few years before asking them to write a Rule in order to draw out the process or set arbitrary obstacles for the person. The process is an organic one which takes work, and prayer, and time --- significant periods of time. Dioceses that ask someone to write a rule as soon as they believe the person  might  be a suitable candidate for profession does this person no kindness. Instead they can be setting the person up for failure. Using the gradual crafting of a liveable Rule as a guide to discernment and assistance in formation simply makes good sense and takes advantage of what the process demands anyway. In any case, I suggested what I did because I want to see people succeed in what is already a demanding process.  I want the Holy Spirit to be given a chance to work in all the ways She needs to work. My own writing of my Rule was, until the past four years of intensive inner work, the most formative experience of my life. I very much want others to have a similarly rich and fruitful experience if that is the will of God --- and yes, I absolutely want to educate dioceses on the way the requirement that a hermit write her own Rule can be allowed to be a grace for all involved!!!

Do I think I know more than dioceses do in this matter? Yes, generally speaking, I believe I do. I have learned from my own crafting of a Rule and I have sometimes mentored others. Thus, I did not impose a set process on anyone, but I urged them to allow the Rule to take shape as their own eremitical lives and corresponding vision did. Those who were able to entrust themselves to the potter's hands over what was typically a several year period, evidenced a similar process to my own. We each made the journey and allowed the journey to shape the Rule just as we allowed the portions of the Rule we had composed (and therefore, canon 603 itself) to further shape and define our journeys/lives. This is not arrogance. It is humility -- a loving honesty learned by trusting the Holy Spirit and the call we each heard or discerned in the other, a humility meant to assist dioceses and those faced with the prospect of writing a Rule of life despite never even having read, much less lived according to a Rule! (My friend was very far ahead of the game in this regard and yet, her own growth and inspired vision took time to form and more time to come to expression in a liveable Rule!!!)

I know that this requirement of canon 603 is the most concrete-sounding element of canon 603, and the most easily pinned down by a diocese with little experience or sense of how to proceed in this matter. But it is not one someone without experience living solitary eremitical life can accomplish --- nor should they be asked to try, especially without mentoring. A Rule is a tool, but it can become a precious friend --- if I may speak this way --- for the Rule accompanies us, supports, challenges, inspires, guides, instructs us, and protects our vocation. It is a window for the Holy Spirit, a living document which breathes with the life of the hermit, her Abba, and her Lord and Spouse. It (and certainly the crafting or weaving of such a sacred text [from the Latin texere, to weave]) should be allowed to function in all the ways such a process can function. This will serve the hermit, the diocesan staff who work with her, the Church universal who promulgated canon 603, and the eremitical tradition entrusted to all of these.