24 April 2018

Hi Ho!!! Diocesan Hermit Rides Again!

Well, this will certainly be a different kind of post for me. It has been many years since I have been able to drive and around Christmas a friend and I found that the Grinch stole my mountain bike out of a locked storage area. I began trying to figure out how to replace my bike and was very fortunate to have help including a number of generous friends from the parish (c/o Knights of Columbus), the local community, and even from childhood (!)  who helped get some money together in order to replace the bike.

In the meantime I began to think about my needs and wondered if replacing the bike was the best choice. I am getting older and I have been injured a couple of times in the past three years which kept me from riding much. (Heck, these injuries kept me from walking much!!) This led to a vicious circle of getting out of shape and riding less, etc. etc. SO, I began to think of the possibility of getting an electric bike! Such a bike would allow me to pedal and get a decent workout but if I was injured or lacking stamina or something similar, the bike would be able to be ridden while powered. (For that matter it might be able to be ridden while I'm wearing my habit --- though the bike helmet and veil might not play well together.) Though we have lots of bike paths linking nearby towns, an ebike would be especially helpful around here (hills make usual riding challenging sometimes --- our Church is at the top of a steep hill and I could never ride there on my own steam!).

Anyway, I researched and researched some more, talked to friends (a couple of whom own ebikes) and eventually got the bike in the picture above. It arrived last Thursday "pre-assembled" --- which meant after a friend helped me haul it out of the box I spent that evening and the next one assembling what remained to be put together. It all went pretty well with one hiccup, namely, the front fender does not fit well. The tire and the frame are just too close together and the fender either rubs against the frame or the tire. For now, because the same bracket is needed for the headlight which is wired into the system and needs to be secured in place, I just put the fender on backwards. Looks a bit wonky and certainly won't protect me from mud or puddles, but it's okay for the time being. There are a few things I still need to pick up, a new U lock (that too was stolen) some  bungee cords or net or something similar to secure books or groceries --- those kinds of things. I also need to take the bike to the bike shop to get it checked over and tuned up, but in the main I think it's ready (read safe!) to ride.

Now, if I can only get my courage up to give it a try beyond a few times around a nearby parking lot!! I admit to being a little intimidated to move out on the roads with it. However, once I get to riding I am excited by the possibilities this bike will open up to me. It can go anywhere a bike can go including on BART. It also folds and will fit in the back of a car. Beyond this it will go around 20-30 miles without pedal assist and up to 60 miles using pedal assist on a single battery charge all depending on a number of factors. The tires are "fat" tires and are designed to be stable on gravel, sand, snow, off road, etc. On the whole, pretty exciting!!

I used to be known around here as the "running nun". I kind of wonder what nicknames will be applied now.

18 April 2018

Diocesan Hermits and Hospital EEM Ministry

[[Dear Sister, is there any reason a diocesan hermit cannot act as an EEM to hospital patients?]]

Good question. First, there is no reason a hermit could not do so simply because they are a hermit. Generally diocesan hermits are allowed to reserve Eucharist in their hermitages and this means that while the oratory itself is NOT open to others, the hermit may be allowed to act as an EEM in limited situations and either draw on or reserve extra hosts in the hermitage tabernacle. For instance, because I live here myself I will bring communion to residents of our local Senior housing complex and will do so every Sunday as an extension of the Sunday liturgy (!) or more frequently in emergent or less usual situations (instances of serious illnesses, for example). I also have my pastors approval to do communion services for this specific residence if folks want such a thing. Occasionally I have been asked to do a communion service at a local nursing home (the usual minister could not do it and required a subtitute), but since I don't drive and therefore depend on parishioners providing transportation, it is impossible to serve in this way more than very occasionally. Similarly, I have visited residents when they have been hospitalized and requested my presence specifically. In such a situation I will go to one of the local hospitals and bring communion (in case it is desired) as part of a more extended pastoral visit.

However, there are a number of good reasons I or another hermit might not be allowed to serve in this capacity. Some have to do with the framework for pastoral care in the region and some have to do with my life as a hermit itself. In my area local parishes serve to provide EEM's for Catholic patients while the hospitals call in priests to serve these patients for other Sacramental needs. They also have trained and certified chaplains who visit in the meantime and care for more general pastoral needs. This means that Catholic patients, including those from my own parish are well taken care of pastorally. They don't need me coming in to give Catholic patients communion. Moreover it is unlikely given privacy issues that I would be allowed to do so; I would and should not be given access to the census of Catholic patients so unless a patient specifically requested to speak to me via the hospital's pastoral staff or the parish's staff, I would have no reason to bring communion to anyone in the hospital.

Now, these considerations also suppose that bringing communion to neighbors or to do so regularly to patients in a hospital setting are things my Rule and life as a hermit allows. It is important to remember that I am not (as in the Episcopal Church)  a solitary (Catholic) nun --- that is, an unaffiliated nun living alone; I am a hermit and the canon under which I have been professed defines a specifically eremitical life of the silence of solitude, stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, etc. It may be that I discern part of living my vocation requires limited active ministry outside the hermitage but if this is the case my bishop and/or delegate (director) will approve of this and too, it will be written into my Rule --- something which is formally approved by my bishop and which I am obligated both morally and legally to live. If my bishop was to determine that bringing communion to hospital patients on a regular and frequent (daily?) basis was not appropriate for a hermit generally or for my Rule specifically, I would need to accommodate that decision.

Additionally, if a diocesan hermit wanted to do limited work bringing Communion to hospital patients she would need to work this out 1) with her diocese (including her director/delegate), 2) with her parish pastoral staff, and 3) with the pastoral staff of the hospital itself. There would need to be limits and specifications on what was appropriate during visits and what was not. There might need to be training and some level of certification and identification for the hospital itself --- especially if the hermit desires or is to be given access to the Catholic census. (Some hermits are already trained as chaplains and others are priests as well; these folks would still need some orientation re the hospital's pastoral care program, especially if they have not done much hospital ministry recently.)

It is true, I think, that hermits could serve very well in such a capacity and that such ministry could be  undertaken without detriment to an eremitical call. Such a ministry could certainly deepen the hermit's spirituality and personal growth; but it is also true that to some extent the hermit would need to work with others and eschew acting as an isolated or solitary religious without accountability to, or place within, an established program of pastoral care. Acting once a week as a minister to the sick to bring communion from the Sunday Mass if the parish is responsible for the hospital in the area would, it seems, to me, to be well within the diocesan hermit's vocation. Anything beyond this would need to be worked out collaboratively as well as in some conjunction with the hermit's Rule and those who supervise her living of this.

17 April 2018

Diocesan Hermits and Proprietary Habits

[[Hi Sister, I wondered why you don't wear a Camaldolese habit. Since you were once a Franciscan, how about a Franciscan habit? I know a diocesan hermit in the Eastern US who wears a Franciscan habit so it is done; how did you decide to wear something more generic? Was this your Bishop's decision?]]

Thanks for your questions. While I am a Camaldolese oblate, I am not publicly professed as a Camaldolese. I do not have the right nor the ongoing covenant commitments or formation with and within an institute which would allow me to represent myself publicly as a Camaldolese nun or hermit. The same is true re a Franciscan habit. While I identify formally as an oblate and while I (still) hold Franciscan values and sensibilities, these are not enough. I am not A (publicly professed) Camaldolese or Franciscan.I have told the story here before that when I was preparing for perpetual eremitical profession it was necessary to speak with the Camaldolese and be certain they had no objections to my using a white cowl. I am not the only diocesan hermit associated with the Camaldolese who wears a cowl and they had no problem with the white cowls we wear. However, it was requested that I make sure the hood or cuculla of the cowl was not cut in the distinctive way the Camaldolese hood is cut --- a long or elongated triangle rather than, for instance, the more equilateral triangle of the Trappist hood.

This was not pickiness or mere legalistic pettiness. Habits are proprietary symbols; they belong to the life, history, and sometimes even the unique charism of a religious institute. The members of a religious institute only gradually earn the right and privilege to wear a representative habit. Habits cannot be adopted by an unaffiliated individual without specific approval of the institute to which the habit is linked. (Let me be clear here: even a diocesan hermit's bishop does not have the right to grant the privilege or right to wear the habit of a specific religious institute to a diocesan hermit; this right belongs to the institute itself.) Thus too, a friend who is also c 603 and Carmelite in her experience and spirituality worked hard to design a habit which was 1) reminiscent of Carmelite habits in color and style but at the same time 2) was clearly distinct from and not an identifiable or proprietary Carmelite habit. Diocesan hermits who wear habits and come from a particular spiritual tradition do take pains to adapt what they will wear as hermits so they are not effectively making statements like, "I am formed and publicly professed as a Carmelite (Camaldolese, Benedictine, etc.); in doing so I represent the (charism of the) Order in all I say and do" or "Where you see me you see the (specific institute) at work in the life of the Church"!

All of this raises the issue of a diocesan hermit wearing a Franciscan habit. I only know one diocesan hermit (there may certainly be others whom I do not know!) who used to wear a Franciscan friar's habit but his new bishop made it clear he (the bishop) did not have the right to grant (or allow) this privilege --- something which led the hermit and myself to have a conversation on the topic. I explained what I just wrote about above and noted the diocesan hermit's need to adopt a more generic and less proprietary habit than that of a Franciscan Friar. (Unless a person has been a religious wearing the habit of a specific institute, s/he might be ignorant of the customs and sensibilities outlined above.) So, for instance, I would be really surprised to learn he is, three or four years later, still wearing an identifiable Franciscan habit. However I would also suggest a hermit's bishop is ultimately responsible for requiring the hermit understands and desists in this matter. Again, the point is that hermits without a history of public vows in an institute may simply not know what is customary or why it is important and thus, they may simply need to be educated in this matter. The person you are speaking of may not have yet had such conversations with their dioceses et al.

My own diocese and bishop simply asked if I would wear a habit and I indicated I would, specifically, a modified generic habit unlinked to any identifiable institute. Beyond this and as we moved towards perpetual profession, we briefly discussed the use of the cowl as a prayer garment granted at perpetual or solemn profession. So, while the nature of my habit was not the specific decision of my bishop, I am sure had I said I would adopt a specific and identifiable habit (Franciscan, Dominican, Benedictine, Trappistine, etc) the chancery staff I was dealing with more regularly (Vicars for Religious, canonists, bishop) would have said something to make sure I did not adopt something I had no right to and something the diocesan bishop had no right to allow or vest me with. Whether or not a hermit will wear a habit is far from the most significant concern a diocese/bishop will attend to in discerning such a vocation; it is certainly far from the most important concern a hermit will deal with. Even so the question of what habit one will wear (if any!) --- and why or why not this specific habit -- are significant ones that need to be discussed.

I hope this is helpful.

08 April 2018

Second Sunday of Easter: What's Thomas' Doubt All About? (Reprise)

Today's Gospel focuses on the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, and one of the lessons one should draw from these stories is that we are indeed dealing with bodily resurrection, but therefore, with a kind of bodiliness which transcends the corporeality we know here and now. It is very clear that Jesus' presence among his disciples is not simply a spiritual one, in other words, and that part of Christian hope is the hope that we as embodied persons will come to perfection beyond the limits of death. It is not just our souls which are meant to be part of the new heaven and earth, but our whole selves, body and soul.

The scenario with Thomas continues this theme, but is contextualized in a way which leads homilists to focus on the whole dynamic of faith with seeing, and faith despite not having seen. It also makes doubt the same as unbelief and plays these off against faith, as though faith cannot also be served by doubt. But doubt and unbelief are decidedly NOT the same things. We rarely see Thomas as the one whose doubt (or whose demands!) SERVES true faith, and yet, that is what today's Gospel is about. Meanwhile, Thomas also tends to get a bad rap as the one who was separated from the community and doubted what he had not seen with his own eyes. The corollary here is that Thomas, in some kind of unjustified intransigence, will not simply listen to his brother and sister disciples and believe that the Lord has appeared to or visited them. But I think there is something far more significant going on in Thomas' proclamation that unless he sees the wounds inflicted on Jesus in the crucifixion, and even puts his fingers in the very nail holes, he will not believe.

What Thomas, I think, wants to make very clear is that we Christians believe in a crucified Christ, and that the resurrection was God's act of validation of Jesus as scandalously and ignominiously Crucified. I think Thomas knows on some level anyway, that insofar as the resurrection really occured, it does not nullify what was achieved on the cross. Instead it renders permanently valid what was revealed (made manifest and made real) there. In other words, Thomas knows if the resurrection is really God's validation of Jesus' life and establishes him as God's Christ, the Lord he will meet is the one permanently established and marked as the crucified One.

The crucifixion was not some great misunderstanding which could be wiped away by resurrection. Instead it was an integral part of the revelation (the making real in space and time, i.e., in history) of the nature of truly human and truly divine existence. Whether it is the Divine life, authentic human existence, or sinful human life --- all are marked and revealed in one way or another by (the signs of) Jesus' cross. For instance, ours is a God who has journeyed to the very darkest, godless places or realms associated with human sin, and has become Lord of even those places. He does not disdain them even now but is marked by them and will journey with us there --- whether we are open to him doing so or not --- because Jesus has implicated God there and marked him with the wounds of an exhaustive kenosis.

Another piece of this is that Jesus is, as Paul tells us, the end of the Law and it was Law that crucified him. The nail holes and wounds in Jesus' side and head -- indeed every laceration which marked him -- are a sign of legal execution and the collusion of Jewish and Roman leadership. We cannot forget this, and Thomas' insistence that he really be dealing with the Crucified One reminds us vividly of this fact as well. The Jewish and Roman leaders did not crucify (or demand the crucifixion of) Jesus because they misunderstood him, but because they understood all-too-clearly both Jesus and the immense counter cultural power he wielded in his weakness and poverty. They understood that he could turn the values of this world, its notions of power, authority, etc, on their heads. They knew that he could foment profound revolution (religious and otherwise) wherever he had followers. They chose to crucify him not only to put an end to his life, but to demonstrate he was a fraud who could not possibly have come from God; they chose to crucify him to terrify and cow those who might follow him into all the places discipleship might really lead them --- especially those places of human power and influence associated with religion and politics. The marks of the cross are a judgment (krisis) on this whole reality.

There are many gods and even manifestations of the real God available to us today, and so there were to Thomas and his brethren in those first days and weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus. When Thomas made his declaration about what he would and would not believe, none of these were crucified Gods or would be worthy of being believed in if they were associated with such shame and godlessness. Thomas knew how very easy it would be for his brother and sister disciples to latch onto one of these, or even to fall back on entirely traditional notions in reaction to the terribly devastating disappointment of Jesus' crucifixion. He knew, I think, how easy it might be to call the crucifixion and all it symbolized a terrible misunderstanding which God simply reversed or wiped away with the resurrection -- a distasteful chapter on which God has simply turned the page. Thomas knew that false prophets showed up all the time. He knew that a God who is distant and all-powerful is much easier to believe in (and follow) than one who walks with us even in our sinfulness or who empties himself to become subject to the powers of sin and death, especially in the awful scandal and ignominy of the cross --- and who expects us to do essentially the same.

In other words, Thomas' doubt may have had less to do with the FACT of a resurrection, than it had to do with his concern that the disciples, in their desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced, had truly met and clung to the real Lord, the crucified One. In this way their own discipleship will come to be marked by the signs of the cross as they preach, suffer, and serve in the name (and so, in the paradoxical power) of THIS Lord and no other. Only he could inspire them; only he could sustain them; only he could accompany them wherever true discipleship led them.

Paul said, "I want to know Christ crucified and only Christ crucified" because only this Christ had transformed sinful, godless reality with his presence, only this Christ had redeemed even the realms of sin and death by remaining open to God even within these realities. Only this Christ would journey with us to the unexpected and unacceptable places, and in fact, only he would meet us there with the promise and presence of a God who would bring life out of them. Thomas, I believe, knew precisely what Paul would soon proclaim himself, and it is this, I think, which stands behind his insistence on seeing the wounds and put his fingers in the very nail holes. He wanted to be sure his brethren were putting their faith in the crucified One, the one who turned everything upside down and relativized every other picture of God we might believe in. He became the great doubter because of this, but I suspect instead, he was the most astute theologian among the original Apostles. He, like Paul, wanted to know Christ Crucified and ONLY Christ Crucified.

We should not trivialize Thomas' witness by transforming him into a run of the mill empiricist and doubter (though doubting is an important piece of growth in faith)!! Instead we should imitate his insistence: we are called upon to be followers of the Crucified God, and no other. Every version of God we meet should be closely examined for nail holes, and the lance wound. Every one should be checked for signs that this God is capable of and generous enough to assume such suffering on behalf of a creation he would reconcile and make whole. Only then do we know this IS the God proclaimed in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, the only one worthy of being followed even into the darkest reaches of human sin and death, the only One who meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place, the only one who loves us with an eternal love from which nothing can separate us.

31 March 2018

Exultet!! Life is Victorious Over Death

30 March 2018

Madman or Messiah? In the Darkness We Wait in Hope (Reprise)

I admit that a pet peeve of mine associated with celebrating the Triduum in a parish setting is the inadequate way folks handle what should be periods of silence after Holy Thursday's Mass and reservation of the Eucharist and the stations and celebration of Jesus' passion on Good Friday. Unnecessary conversations, hearty and premature  wishes of "Happy Easter" in the sacristy or upon leaving the Church and parking lot immediately after the Passion drive me more than a little crazy --- not only because we have only just celebrated the death of Jesus, but because there is a significant period of grief and uncertainty that we call Holy Saturday still standing between Jesus' death and his resurrection.

Silence is appropriate during these times; Easter is still distant. Allowing ourselves to live with something of the terrible disappointment and critical questions Jesus' disciples experienced as their entire world collapsed is a significant piece of coming to understand why we call today "Good" and tomorrow "Holy." It is important to appreciating the meaning of this three day liturgy we call Triduum and a dimension of coming to genuine and deepening hope. I have often thought the Church could do better with its celebration of Holy Saturday, but spending some time waiting and reflecting on who we would be (not to mention who God would be!) had Jesus stayed good and dead is something Good Friday (essentially beginning after Holy Thursday Mass) and Holy Saturday (beginning the evening after the passion) call for.

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In explaining the theology of the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During Holy Week, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement. Sin has increased to an extraordinary extent and the one people touted as the Son of God has been executed as a blaspheming godforsaken criminal. We watched the darkness and the threat to his life grow and cast the whole of Jesus' life into question.

In the Gospel for last Wednesday we heard John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks before this we had been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Family and disciples failed to understand him, thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a much more profound level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks of Lent, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life and active ministry was punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It is held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness closes in on every side Jesus celebrated a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He washed their feet, reclined at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus spoke of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple understood what was happening. There is one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan enters Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus becomes his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here --- and the darkness enters this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or it is the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. In the midst of these days of death and vigil, we do not really know which. At the end of these three days we call Triduum we will see what the answer is.

Today, the Friday we call "Good," the darkness intensified. During the night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. Today he was brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged in an attempt at political appeasement and then handed over anyway by a fearful self-absorbed leader whose greater concern was for his own position to those who would kill him. There was betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship and covenantal bonds on every side but God's. The night continued to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus was crucified and eventually cried out his experience of abandonment even by God. He descended into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness became almost total. We ourselves can see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us.

And the question these events raises haunts the night and our own minds and hearts: namely, messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were? (cf Gospel for last Friday: John 10:31-42.) Is this darkness and emptiness the whole of the reality in which we live? Was Jesus' preaching of the reality of God's reign and his trust in God in vain? Is the God he proclaimed, the God in whom we also trust incapable of redeeming failure, sin and death --- even to the point of absolute lostness? Does he consign sinners to these without real hope because God's justice differs from his mercy? The questions associated with Jesus' death on the Cross multiply and we Christians wait in the darkness today and tomorrow. We fast and pray and try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved,  brother and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not, as Paul puts the matter, the greatest fools, the most pitiable of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees; and though we do not see how it is possible we would like to think that Paul was right and that grace will abound all the more. But on this day we call "good" and on the Saturday we call "holy" we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.

29 March 2018

On Why God cannot Forgive Sin by Fiat (Reprise)

[[Sister, I know you might not be able to answer this until after Easter and that's okay. I can see why a lot of individual miracles would not have been enough, I think, but couldn't God have just have defeated sin and death with a word? Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead so why couldn't God not have done something similar for all of us? Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them.]]

Thanks for your comments and questions. They are good and important ones. They arise for us especially around the Triduum. In fact, the question of what was possible for God came up in a discussion I had with a priest friend on Holy Thursday so it's pretty fresh for me. Your reference to Lazarus' being raised not only sharpens the question, but is actually also the key to answering it. You see, one of the things biblical scholars and theologians point out is that Lazarus was not resurrected in the way Jesus was. Lazarus was not raised to new or eternal life but to a mortal life in and of this world, a life which would one day end again in death. Sometimes they will point out the difference between resuscitation and resurrection in speaking of Jesus himself; the distinction works for what happened to Lazarus as well. What they are trying to point out in this is that there was something lacking in this event; the raising of Lazarus was somehow insufficient to deal definitively with death.

In Jesus' raising of Lazarus, godless death itself is not destroyed and until this happens the victory needed over sin is not accomplished in any life much less brought to completion in every life and the whole of creation. It is therefore possible to understand this particular miracle of Jesus as the climax of a history of acts of power --- healings, exorcisms, etc --- which are still insufficient to destroy godless death and death itself.  Even were Jesus to do this for every person he could have, it would simply not have been enough. Death itself must be transformed from the godless reality it is to a reality in which God is met face to face and one day, destroyed completely. This  entry into the realm of godless death (or, from another perspective, the taking up of godless death into God's own life so that it and the whole of reality is transformed and made sacramental) is the heart of what we understand as the reconciliation of the world on a cosmic level.

On a more personal but intimately related level it is important to remember that the death we die is understood theologically as a consequence of sin. There is a natural perishing which is intrinsic to the evolving, imperfect (unfinished) world we know. But human beings are broken and estranged by sin and this complicates the death we each will die. It is no longer a natural perishing but what I have referred to a number of times as godless death. Every time we make a choice for something other than God or for life in God, we effectively choose godless death as well. If we choose to live without God so then we choose to die without God --- and that means we choose death as emptiness without Love, without God. We not only choose it as a future reality, we build it into our lives and even into our very selves (body, etc.) so it affects every moment of our lives. Paul asks, "Who will save us from this body of death?" He is clear in his theology that the situation is more dire and intractable than a merely natural perishing. It is something from which we must  be saved.

When we are being saved from godlessness this occurs by God transforming this, and in fact the whole of historical existence with his presence. And when godlessness is a dimension of the death which dwells within us and which we ourselves loose in this world, we are speaking of a personal reality which God cannot simply destroy by fiat --- not without destroying us as well. God must be "given access" to this reality, and that access, which is achieved in a generous self-emptying motivated by love of God, must be more radical, more profound, than any sinner can manage. This is so because it can only occur through one's openness and attentiveness to God --- an openness and attentiveness which is deeper than human sinfulness, an openness to the will of God which can only be seen clearly by one whose selflessness and love are entirely uncompromised by human alienation and brokenness.

The NT word for this kind of openness is obedience; to express the radical or exhaustive quality of Jesus' own salvific obedience Paul says more;  namely, he defines it as [[obedience unto death, even death on a cross]]; Jesus' radical, exhaustive obedience, opens the way for God to enter the most godforsaken dimensions of our lives and world. But this is not a miracle he could have done "from the outside" or "without complete self-emptying" in the profoundly compassionate but still somewhat personally distanced way he healed illnesses or exorcised demons. It required he take on sinful death itself in an act of complete identification with out state and in an exhaustive helplessness and kenosis. In this way Jesus' obedience allows for "God's power [to become] perfected in weakness." In both his miracles and in his resurrection Jesus mediates the grace of God. In the miracles he has not yet relinquished the degree of agency or authority he yet possessed nor the distance from our sinful conditions or situation he entirely relinquishes on the cross.

This kind of relinquishment or self-emptying is only "learned" --- if it is ever "learned" or "achieved" in one's life --- through radical suffering. (Words are difficult at this point and in speaking about this "learning" and "achieving", "revealed" in the sense of  "being made real (realized) in space and time" may be the best word here.) The process is not automatic --- as though suffering alone produces the change; it does not. But through such suffering the person of faith gradually becomes entirely dependent on the grace of God; thus, self-emptying occurs. One moves from faith to deeper and deeper faith as human weakness is transformed and transfigured by Divine power. We have all experienced this process in our own lives in various ways and to various depths and degrees, but to remain open to God's presence and power even as one experiences God's complete absence (something I believe only Jesus has experienced) was necessary to destroy godless death. The bottom line in all of this is that God could not have destroyed godless or sinful death simply by fiat; human obedience (openness to God's power and presence) was necessary to allow God access to this essentially personal reality. In his exhaustive openness to God Jesus achieved this in and through his death by crucifixion; as a direct consequence he was raised from godless death to eternal life at the right hand of God.

And though this is a separate topic let me note that what remains is for us to be made sharers in THIS death of Jesus. Christians have had this happen through baptism where they are "baptized into (Christ's) death, and thus too, into his resurrection"; in this way we are literally made a new creation. Eternal life has broken into our temporal/historical world and transformed it utterly; we become a people of hope --- trusting God for the ultimate meaning of our lives and empowered to love God's creation into greater and greater  wholeness as we live this new creation here and now in a conscious and explicit way. This is at the heart of our vocations and (com)missioning to embody and proclaim the Good News with our lives.

03 March 2018

The Desert Fathers and Mothers: On the Hermit's Need for Human Relationships in Achieving Holiness

[[When one desert father told another of his plans to “shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,” the second monk replied, “ Unless thou first amend thy life going to and fro amongst men, thou shall not avail to amend it dwelling alone.”]] (Sayings of the Desert fathers and Mothers)

I think this Desert Father and Mother apothegm is especially important and fascinating because it explicitly forbids one to move into solitude and away from others merely in some attempt to perfect oneself. This flies in the face of the way many conceive of eremitical life as well as the way some would-be-hermits describe the vocation. But it should not surprise anyone who carefully reflects on the Great Commandment and the interrelatedness of its two elements, love of God and love of neighbor. Especially it should not surprise those who live eremitical life in the name of the Church; we know the communal nature of our eremitical solitude --- nuanced and rare as it may be. We know too that our formation as hermits generally comes after (and requires) years of life in community, whether religious or parish (along with all of the forms of community we experience throughout life). Similarly, ongoing formation requires personal work with directors and delegates --- and usually some degree of life in a parish community. (As I have written here before, actual eremitical reclusion today is allowed by the Church in only two congregations: Camaldolese and Carthusian. It is important to recognize the community context, supervision, and support this even rarer vocation calls for.)

The human perfection we call holiness is the wholeness of the reconciled person who is therefore alive in the fullness of his or her personal truth. This implies reconciliation with God, with self, and with all else in God. It implies a profound capacity for compassion, for the ability to see Christ in others, and the willingness to spend oneself for the sake of others. Desert elders knew the desire to seek perfection in physical reclusion by turning one's back on people is badly motivated and can lack the preparation necessary for becoming a hermit and moving into eremitical solitude. They knew that solitude is a demanding and dangerous environment and particularly so for those unprepared for and not called to it. Even in those who are called to it eremitical solitude can be the source of illusory and delusional thinking and perceptions. Thus the requirement for ongoing direction by experienced spiritual directors and the supervision by bishops and/or their delegates.

The desert Fathers were convinced that the way human beings come to achieve the necessary experience leading to repentance for sin and amendment of life is through one's ordinary interactions with other human beings. Contrary to popular opinion perhaps, the authentic eremitical vocation is not one where an individual moves into the desert merely to pursue personal or "spiritual" perfection in some sort of "solitary splendor" or in an interpersonal and relational vacuum. One moves into solitude 1) because solitude has truly opened her door to one, and 2) because with the church one discerns this is what God is calling one to and is prepared to live for the whole of her life as the fulfillment of the Great Commandment. Discernment that one is called in this way will include a sense that one is healthy in terms of interpersonal relationships and that one has achieved relative maturity in one's spirituality and Catholic identity. This is a traditional stance. St Benedict, for instance, affirms that hermits must have lived in community for some time and, of course, not be in the first blush of conversion.

I want to emphasize the place of discernment here, not only the discernment we each do on our own but the discernment we do with the Church itself in the person of legitimate superiors and directors, i.e., bishops, vicars of religious, delegates, et al. Part of this discernment, and indeed initial and ongoing formation is meant to ensure that the hermit or hermit candidate's motives are not selfish or otherwise misguided and that solitude has indeed herself opened the door to this vocation. What this means is that the hermit/candidate is responding to a Divine call; the Church will also make sure the hermit/candidate is prepared not only to live in solitude but more, that she will grow and thrive in it in ways which will be a gift to the Church and thus, to others. There are subtleties involved here and nuances which the hermit/candidate may not appreciate until much later and may not be able to determine on her own. It is also important to remember that since a hermit does not do apostolic ministry** the ways she lives her solitude and the meaning her life embodies within and as a result of this solitude are themselves the gift God gives the Church through the hermit. Supervision and discernment (mutual and otherwise) are required not only early on for a candidate not yet admitted to profession but throughout the hermit's life. ***

One of the reasons I stressed these needs (supervision and discernment) and the way they are ensured is because they are a part of the hermit's integral need for others in her life. Whether we are hermits or even recluses we need others who know us well and are capable of assessing in a continuing way the quality of our vocation, and encouraging and assisting us to grow in our responsiveness to it. Canonical (consecrated) hermits are called to ecclesial vocations and the Church has the right and obligation to oversee these just as she expects us to continue to grow as human beings; canonical hermits have accepted the obligation to grow and participate in those "professional" relationships which help ensure that. Yes, hermits do grow in light of their experience of the love of God; they grow as human beings and as hermits through their experience of Christ in the silence of solitude and the disciplined and attentive living of their Rule and horarium, but what growth there is in these things is often dependent on the hermit's work with her director and delegate, and also with her interactions and relationships with folks from her parish and/or diocese.

In eremitical (or any other) solitude it is simply too easy to say, "God wills this," or "God is calling me to that," when discernment is done by the hermit alone. In such a situation the temptation is to canonize or apotheosize one's own opinions, perceptions, tendencies, and so forth. God does not literally speak to us as human beings do but instead does so through Sacred texts, sacraments, prayer, and the fruits of our choices and actions, etc; since we learn to love and be loved in our contact with others, hermits must 1) be well-formed in learning to hear (discern) and respond to God in authentic ways, and 2) they must be adequately supervised and directed in this. This does not mean one meets every week or even every month with one's delegate, or spiritual director. "Adequate" means whatever is sufficient to allow the hermit/candidate to grow in her vocation first as a human being called to live from and mediate the love of God (and others) and secondly as a hermit who does this in the silence of solitude.

** Hermits may do some very limited apostolic ministry but are not and cannot be identified in terms of this ministry as are apostolic or ministerial religious. The silence of solitude is always primary and definitive for the hermit's life.

*** Some have written that the need for direction and supervision cease to be important when the hermit has lived the life for some time. I believe this is a false conclusion, It is true that the nature of direction and the supervisory relationships change with time and maturity but it seems to me they may become even more critical over time. Whether that is generally true or not the need for ongoing formation and discernment continues through the whole of the hermit's life.

On Diocesan Hermits and Ordinary Visitations

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I hope this finds you doing well. I came across this entry on your blog about having hermitages and hermits' prayer spaces blessed. It brought to my mind a question about visitations. How do diocesan hermits handle canonical visitations? Or is it an issue at all?]]

Hi there. All is well so thanks for asking. Your question about visitations is a good one and one I have never been asked until now, so thanks for that too! As you likely know, canonical visitations are undertaken by the Bishop each year because every three years he is expected to meet with every parish, religious house, and other institution in his diocese in order to gauge their health and take what pastoral steps are necessary to improve or optimize this. Hermitages would fall under this requirement unless there is some other way of securing the necessary information and implementing the necessary pastoral actions if there are any.

My own sense is the Bishop may have a better sense of a hermit's wellbeing than he does of any other house, parish, or convent in the diocese. This is because besides meeting once a year or so with the bishop, in some dioceses diocesan hermits are supervised by a delegate who serves the Bishop and the hermit in ensuring the health of the hermit's vocation.  The delegate meets with the hermit more frequently than the Bishop can and quite often, knows more about religious life as well. So, for instance, I ordinarily meet with my delegate at least three or four times a year; in the last year and a half, because of special inner work we are doing together, we have met at least every two weeks (last year it was closer to once a week). Because the Bishop can simply speak with the hermit's delegate at any time to determine how things are going for the hermit, and because the bishop also meets with the hermit once a year or so, a formal visitation is not usually necessary.

I don't have any information on other hermits and visitations but most of the hermits I know meet regularly with their bishop and for that reason he sees them more frequently than he sees others under his purview. (Some religious, for instance, never see or speak to their bishop; after all, he is not their legitimate superior as he is for diocesan hermits. Meetings with laity are even less frequent or likely.) I would think visitations with these hermits is also seen as relatively unnecessary.

25 February 2018

On Eremitical Life, Hiddenness, and Illness

[[Dear Sister, what happens to hermits when they become ill? If one is supposed to "be hidden from the eyes of men" then how do they manage illnesses? Can they get help from others? Can they make Doctor's visits? I have been reading a blog post [title omitted here] by a Catholic hermit who claims that illness is a real issue because the hermit is supposed to live a hidden life. Her situation (she is too weak to get up to fix meals or even to go to the doctor) raises other questions for me. How can a diocesan bishop allow a hermit to be in such circumstances?  How do you balance the hiddenness of your vocation with times of illness. Do you ever need assistance with things? How do you handle that?]]

Interesting questions! Let me start by outlining something about "hiddenness" itself. This will not only explain why "hiddenness" is not present in canon 603 while it is present in the catechism's paragraphs on eremitical life, but it will also prepare the way for thinking about your questions re illness.

Hiddenness is not a primary value:

The hiddenness of the Catholic hermit (that is, the hiddenness of the hermit whom the Church herself has admitted to public profession and consecration!!) is only implicitly defined by canon 603. While hiddenness is explicitly mentioned in the catechism, this text is not legislative or prescriptive. It is descriptive but not prescriptive in the same way the central elements of c 603 are prescriptive. This does not mean hiddenness is unimportant, but it does mean it is derived from and secondary to the elements of the life c.603 legislates. A canonical or consecrated hermit is not bound to live hiddenness; it is the result of and is shaped by the things she IS bound to live, namely, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, the evangelical counsels, all supervised by the diocesan bishop and those he delegates to do so in his place. What this means is that as significant as hiddenness may be to the Catholic hermit, these other elements have priority to any notion of hiddenness; more, these other things give a better sense of what defines eremitical life!

Another way of looking at this is to note that hiddenness may or may not be edifying. It is the reasons one manifests hiddenness that are more important than hiddenness itself I think. What I mean is that in eremitical life hiddenness is rarely a value in and of itself (in most areas of life hiddenness -- not privacy or discretion --- is a disvalue and this can be true even in eremitical life). That is especially true in Christian eremitical life where witness is a very high value in eremitical and other forms of discipleship. (For that matter discipleship is itself a very high value which must be seen to undergird other values like solitude, silence, and penance, for instance.) Because I embrace a life of the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance I will find there is an essential hiddenness about my life but you see, my life is a hidden one because my engagement with God and my commitment to life mainly takes place in a hermit's cell. Thus the questions I ask myself in discerning whether I am called to this or that activity (outside the general outlines of my Rule) is rooted in whether these are commitments to God and life in and for God in my eremitical calling, not whether it fosters hiddenness or not.

To choose hiddenness for its own sake may allow or even invite one to mask all kinds of problems or label any form of separation from others as "eremitical" when they are really a refusal to engage or to live with and for others, that is, when they are a refusal to love as Christians are called to love. Self-hatred, misanthropy, selfishness, and any number of other "pathologies" can take root and/or thrive in "hiddenness from the eyes of (others)". The reason for one's hiddenness is and must be rooted in a higher and transcendent value which makes hiddenness itself meaningful as a Christian value. For the solitary Catholic (canonical) hermit some of these are the central elements of canon 603. For the Catholic (canonical) hermit who is part of a community or congregation they are the central elements of their Rule and Constitutions.

Dealing With Illness and other Needs:

All of this helps explain why canon 603, the canon which governs (consecrated) solitary eremitical life in the Roman Catholic Church does not even mention "hiddenness from the eyes of men," while the catechism includes this. Again, the canon is prescriptive in nature; it defines the elements which are primary or essential. The catechism is descriptive and includes elements which are secondary or derivative --- that is, elements which are less essential or which derive from the more primary, essential elements.

If I thought I was primarily or mainly called to live a life of "hiddenness from the eyes of (others)" I would struggle constantly with whether or not I could leave my hermitage to shop, attend Mass, go to doctor's visits, or even (as I did today) attend a Town hall meeting on stopping gun violence! Heck, I would have to question whether one could even be called to public vows if one is primarily called to this same hiddenness. But I am called to live an essentially Christian eremitical vocation of assiduous prayer and penance in the silence of solitude. Sometimes that means being openly and demonstrably a member of a number of human communities! Moreover, I am a Catholic hermit with a serious chronic illness. That means I have needs and must meet them if I am to live life prayerfully --- that is attentively, gratefully, and responsibly.

Like most folks I have a number of people I can call for assistance. My director and I meet regularly here at the hermitage and she is available in between meetings should I need to contact her. I belong to a parish community and am ordinarily able to attend Mass 2-3 days a week; parish members, my pastor, a number of friends, are all available should I need various kinds of assistance. I generally simply need to ask and we will find a way to work things out together. But let me be clear here, in most situations I am the one responsible for initiating contact or the request for help. I do not expect people to read my mind and precisely because the majority of my life is undertaken in the silence of solitude I don't expect folks to worry about me or call to check on me if they don't see me for some time.

If I become as sick as the person you describe purportedly is or was, then arrangements would need to be made for regular assistance unless hospitalization is the real need. In such a situation there would be absolutely no problem at all having people come into the hermitage to assist me and no problem if I need transportation to doctors appointments or if I need to be hospitalized. As noted above, canonical (consecrated) hermits do NOT primarily commit to remain hidden from others. They commit to an essentially solitary vocation of Christian life and love. The diocesan hermit's delegate or director, and ultimately, of course, her Bishop are responsible for ensuring she can (and does) live her Rule and fulfill her vows --- along with anything else which constitute essential elements of her eremitical calling.

This is true in initial discernment, through temporary vows (which should allow sufficient time for the diocese to be sure the person can truly live the life before admission to perpetual profession; they will continue to do something similar after perpetual profession as well. (While serious failures to live eremitical life after perpetual profession might actually require dispensation of vows, elder hermits becoming seriously ill after years of living eremitical life, for instance, are another matter. Though these hermits might well need to move to some form of assisted or modified solitary/communal living to deal adequately with their illness or disability no one would seriously suggest their vows should be dispensed.)

As a point of information however, the blogger you are referring to, is not a consecrated (canonical) hermit. She is a lay person living or trying to live as a dedicated hermit with private vows. This means her bishop is no more directly responsible for supervising the way she lives than he is for supervising the way any other lay person in his diocese lives. Her life may raise all kinds of questions but the actions of the bishop of her diocese do not --- at least not in her regard. \

I hope this is helpful.

15 February 2018

Choose Life (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 February 2018

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Overture to Hansel and Gretel

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

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

26 January 2018

Becoming All Fire

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

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

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

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

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

25 January 2018

Conversion of Paul: Model for us All (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 January 2018

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

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

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

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

Divine Wrath, Letting the Consequences of our Sin Run:

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

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

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

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

Miserando atque Eligendo, The Way of Divine Mercy:

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

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

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

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