22 April 2021

Announcement of Perpetual Profession under Canon 603 by Sister Ellen Jones Carney, Archdiocese of Indianapolis

My congratulations to Sister Ellen Jones Carney!! While I anticipate editing this bio to provide a bit more personal information and additional pictures next week, I am including below the parish announcement and invitation for her Perpetual Profession as a diocesan hermit under canon 603.

Sister's journey has seen her move from life as a professed hermit (professed 9 years) in the Episcopal Church, to confirmation in 2016 as a Roman Catholic when she necessarily relinquished her vows, to private eremitical vows in 2017 followed by approval for public profession under c 603 and then, the need to postpone these due to COVID-19. Her perpetual profession will be held Monday evening and will be live-streamed. The link is included in the text of the invitation.

All are cordially invited to the Solemn Profession of Final Vows as a Diocesan Hermit by Holy Rosary parishioner Ellen Jones Carney, who will take the name of Sister Elizabeth Mary of the Visitation.

A Solemn Mass in the Extraordinary Form will be offered at Holy Rosary Church, Indianapolis on Monday, April 26, at 7 p.m.[Sister Ellen noted this is Eastern time] by the Very Rev. Joseph Newton. The vows will be in English.

A reception will follow in Priori Hall. The Mass will be live-streamed on the parish Facebook page Holy Rosary Church. We offer our congratulations and prayerful support to parishioner Ellen Jones Carney as she prepares for her Solemn Profession as a Diocesean (sic) Hermit.

19 April 2021

On the Need for Ongoing Spiritual Direction in Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, is it the case that over time hermits can need less and less to work with a spiritual director? I read that on another blog by a Catholic hermit under private vows. I wondered if you agreed with this? Would it be more true if the hermit was doing spiritual direction himself?]]

I think I have answered this question in the past (cf., Spiritual direction as accompaniment 2014 different title in original) but perhaps I can say something new about it here. My basic answer is that in my own estimation, no, it is not the case that we need spiritual direction less and less over time as we grow in our vocations. I believe this is a kind of temptation specific to those who are more or less "arrogant," ignorant of, or perhaps just complacent about their degree of spiritual maturity, or their "possession" of a given vocation. It also betrays a mistaken notion of living a vocation as ceasing to need ongoing formation which, while it differs in kind from initial formation it is still absolutely essential -- itself requiring good spiritual direction -- even if this direction is less frequent than formerly.

We cannot see where we have not grown, or rather perhaps, we cannot necessarily see where or how we are called to grow in a given situation. We may know in a general sense that we are called to holiness or union with God, or a better or deeper relationship with Jesus, but also not know how specifically such holiness, union, or relationship actually looks or how we take the next steps toward this, especially when we are speaking about a deepening of one's relationship with God in Christ and the personal work needed to be entirely open to this. In such a case, it is my experience that far from becoming less important and necessary for living one's vocation, it actually becomes more and more important that we are able to talk about it with someone skilled in spiritual direction who has a vital relationship with God and knows us well. 

In some ways it reminds me a bit of the kind of coaching or masterclasses required by a musician who truly takes her vocation as a musician -- an artist -- seriously.  We can always play the way we have played for many years, improving gradually simply by learning the music in front of us. In orchestra, for instance, that always stretches a musician to some extent, but when you watch a master musician working with someone, the experience is inspirational. One watches the master teacher bring out in that person places where they specifically can transcend their own levels of achievement and realize an almost unimagined potential within themselves (and within the music they have been playing almost routinely for many years). 

I have spoken before about a spiritual director as an accompanist and the special gifts and skills required in such a relationship. I noted that it was important that the director be a person of prayer and be under spiritual direction themselves. In other words, it is important that a spiritual director know herself well, know God in Christ well, and know the person she directs well. When all of these elements come together in spiritual direction the director can accompany her client in a way which allows for steps the directee would never have taken on her own. It will be because the director knows (in at least a general sense) and trusts the potential within her directee, and because she knows what God offers in terms of an ever-deepening relationship, and also because she knows the kinds of steps one needs to negotiate to grow in this way, because really, in good directors, all three of these will be true. But, as in work with a master musician, the spiritual director sees all of these elements in a way the directee well may not and assists her directee to take the steps needed to come to the abundant life God offers and wills for her.

Again, we truly cannot see ourselves well enough to achieve the growth and conversion God wills for us, nor, perhaps, do we know God (or allow God to know us) well-enough. We need people who have travelled the same road before us who also know us and our unique capacities, potentialities, and also the various obstacles to growth/conversion which are part of our personal "obstacles" to seeing and growing. Over time we may become complacent with the degree of growth or conversion that obtains without spiritual direction. This can happen because our directors are not particularly skilled or committed to their own growth-with-direction, because we cannot find a good director, because we fail to trust our directors (or to entrust ourselves to their wisdom and expertise when that is real), and it can certainly happen when we become comfortable in our own life, career, or vocation and treat that comfortableness as though we have "arrived" in some sense. With hermits it sometimes occurs because one mistakenly believes a director must also be a hermit or a mystic, or that they must experience the same kinds of exceptional things in prayer that we do --- which allows the hermit to dismiss the ways in which the director actually challenges and blesses or could challenge and bless them. In such cases the hermit will say they have no access to a good director and go it alone. 

You ask if it might be more likely that a hermit who is also a spiritual director would eventually not need to work with a spiritual director. In this too I would say no, it is actually less likely true precisely because such a hermit would know well the importance of accompaniment (and the danger of relative complacency, false humility, or "arrogance") in genuine ongoing conversion. One final note, there is an now-abandoned blog by someone calling themselves a consecrated Catholic hermit under private vows you might have read re the position you describe. Please know no one becomes a consecrated Catholic hermit with private vows. They are a dedicated lay hermit, but neither consecrated nor a Catholic Hermit.

N.B., for a particular vivid illustration of the way a master teacher/coach can work with a skilled musician check out Zander Interpretations Class. (Benjamin Zander, Interpretations class, Gabriel Faure's Elegy for cello. Alan Todas Ambaras, cello) The initial presentation of the piece is wonderful and any cellist would be really pleased with it, but the work Zander does with the "student" (and too, the accompanist!) is truly inspiring, and startlingly transformational in several significant ways. 

Spiritual direction requires the same kind of depth of seeing or vision, confidence (especially in God and the person being directed), and capacity to accompany another in a way which draws the very best -- indeed, the most true and real -- from the musician (hermit), instrument (prayer or relationship with God), and the music itself (the life of God offered to and dwelling deep within the hermit coming to fulness of life in God). Zander notes that his power as a conductor is about empowering his musicians to play "well" (and here he means helping his players tap into the power, life, and truth within themselves); otherwise he is powerless to make music or bring the music to life -- for as a conductor he does not make a sound. So too the job of the spiritual director to help their client get in touch with the life of God within and around themselves. No one outgrows this need to be helped (accompanied) in this very special form of hearing, understanding, embracing, and expressing what one hears and understands with regard to oneself and the very Life of God.

[Benjamin Zander is a noted conductor and inspirational speaker, the founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Zander began his career as a very gifted composer and cellist who studied with Rostropovich.]

16 April 2021

More questions on Lauras or Colonies of Hermits and Canon 603

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I had never thought about the idea that colonies of diocesan hermits are not the same as canonical communities of hermits. Why is it you don't want colonies of c 603 hermits growing into communities in the canonical sense? Why would anyone limit a laura to three hermits at most? You indicated you had a couple of questions about what happens to solitary c 603 hermits in a particular diocese where a laura had become a community. Why did you wonder about this --- you didn't spell that out so your wondering made me wonder!]]

Thanks for your questions. Canon 603 was meant for solitary hermits, that is hermits who are professed in the hands of the local ordinary and live on their own according to a Rule they write themselves and which is approved by the local ordinary. There are provisions in canon law for semi-eremitical communities but what was missing was a way for solitary hermits to be recognized in universal law and consecrated as a unique form of religious life. Canon 603 filled that bill. Because it was meant for individuals and not as a short cut to creating a semi-eremitical community, care has been taken by some Bishops' conferences and commentators on the canon, as well as by individual dioceses like my own to make sure the canon is used appropriately and wisely to protect a really rare and significant vocation.

The reason the situation I outlined in the earlier posts made me wonder was because a particular diocese had established what began as a laura of hermits as a canonical community. This makes it appear that if one wants to become a hermit in this diocese one needs to do so through this community, via its formation program, according to its Rule, under the supervision of its superior, with all of the limitations and specifications required for life in this community. I wonder, therefore, what happens to someone who wishes to be professed and consecrated according to canon 603 without doing so under the aegis of this community. Canon 603 allows for this, in fact, once again, it is the very reason the canon was created. I don't know if the diocese in question has solitary c 603 hermits, however.

Similarly, I wonder what happens to a hermit professed as part of this community who desires to go apart and live as a solitary hermit as so many of us are doing now; if the community is still using canon 603 to profess members then it should be possible, but in that case a lot of particulars need to be established. The hermit will need to find housing, establish herself as part of a parish, make sure she is  capable of supporting herself, take care of insurance needs, establish a relationship with a spiritual director, and anything else a solitary hermit needs for living this life on her own. If such a hermit was not part of the original laura, they might not have discerned a solitary eremitical vocation at all and may be entirely unprepared to live such a vocation.

Like questions arise when a diocesan hermit wishes to relocate to the diocese in question and does not wish to become a member of this community. Would she be allowed to live her vocation in this diocese? Would the bishop accept her vows without forcing her to become part of this community? And then too, there are the questions raised should the community fail. These are the same questions raised above but instead of there being just one hermit needing to find housing, etc, you might have several. Finally, what happens when a perpetually professed hermit (or several of them) begin to understand this is not a laura (as it began or was billed as) but a community. Can they demand changes? Can they leave and form their own laura with the diocese's assistance and support or will the diocese insist on dispensing their vows? The answers depend on several factors but especially whether the diocese is still using c 603 to profess members.

Limiting a laura to three hermits does away with the group's tendency to grow (or morph) into a community with greater centralization and more structured governance, finances, single Rule, uniform dress, more need for building projects and maintenance (chapel, refectory, library etc). Three or fewer hermits are more apt to remain financially independent (some expenses will need to be shared but this will be far more limited without a common purse), be able to live according to their own Rule and horarium, and undertake the work they need to do to support themselves with a minimum of bother to the others in the colony. (And while this may sound selfish, in a laura each hermit is responsible for providing for her own medical needs and caregivers; the others in the laura are not responsible in any ongoing way for providing such. To be required to do this in a laura could well mean being required to live contrary to one's own Rule of life.) Finally, the temptation to seek out new members or shore up numbers to allow for the community's continuation over time does not occur when the laura can only consist of a very small  number of solitary hermits who know they may need to live their vocations without the support of other solitary hermits at any time.

Let me just add that while I live as a solitary hermit I definitely appreciate the need for mutual support in this vocation; a laura could serve those needs and still leave one free to respond to the Holy Spirit in the ways one's own call requires. When a laura becomes a canonical community of diocesan right, then members are no longer solitary hermits and should not use canon 603 for professions. Instead, they should be using the same canons every other religious institute uses for governance,  formation, admission to profession, the content of the vows (especially of religious poverty), etc. Once a laura is transformed from a colony of c 603 hermits into a canonical semi-eremitical community we are talking about a shift to a different vocation. Both vocations are eremitical of course, and the central elements of eremitical life will be found in both, but their differences are also significant. Dioceses must be cognizant of this and honor the solitary eremitical vocation canon 603 sought and was promulgated to provide for. 

13 April 2021

Follow-up Questions on Lauras vs Communities

[[Dear Sister, you said "The situation changes if the laura ceases to truly be a "mere" colony or hermits..... and becomes structured as a single community..." Are you referring to a laura who becomes an official institute or do you also mean including any other form even a private association of the faithful? If the former It would make sense to take vows under that rule, within that structure, officially recognized as such by the Church for the purpose of official religious life with all the rights and obligations. However if the latter, it would seem perhaps odd to become a member of a private association, seek dispensation of your public vows and then take private vows until and if your group becomes an institute, but maybe you are saying : it may be odd(or whatever else you think) but it would be within the law and proper order of operation because c 603 is not meant to be used as seed bed for a community at least not explicitly although organic things can develop.

I guess perhaps more explicitly: why would hermits in a laura who are discerning in becoming a community (including living like such) not wait for the approval of at least an institute which as an entity have the capacity to accept public vows and exercise other rights proper to it instead of seeking dispensation of vows and enter into private vows until such time. One reason I can think why they should not seek dissolution of c 603 status, and you cited this although not exactly in response to this question, is that the private association or "community" might fail. So why would a group of hermits give up their vows with their rights and obligations as c 603's for a possible community?? Maybe your response is BECAUSE THEY ARE NO LONGER HERMITS!!]]

I'm not sure I have understood your questions so let me give them a shot. You can also get back to me again. In the sentence you are quoting I am not necessarily referring to either a private or public association of the faithful (it could be either or neither of these), but to a colony (laura) that is not (or is no longer) really a colony of solitary hermits, but instead becomes structured and governed as a community. The hermits continue to live as hermits but they do so within the context of a community with all the elements of a community. Canon 603 was meant to be used to foster and govern the life of the solitary hermit. It was not meant to be used as an end run around the already-established process of becoming an institute of consecrated life -- which process some find onerous --- and yet some have actually done that. Meanwhile, some people have been or have sought to be professed under canon 603 while desiring to start a community of hermits. In such instances, these persons have not really discerned nor intended to live a c 603 vocation; for this reason I believe this constitutes a misuse or abuse of the canon and might invalidate any vows made.

My own diocese required that my vow formula's statement of intention included the phrase "solitary hermit". By this I mean that I was asked to specify that I intended to make profession and be consecrated as a solitary hermit, and so too, that I intended to live the rest of my life as one. Though I thought at the time the phrase "solitary hermit" was a weird linguistic redundancy, I now understand this was very wise and see it underscoring an understanding of the c 603 vocation which comports with the original intention of the canon's authors as well as similar work done on c 603 by the Spanish bishops, and others.

And yes, you are absolutely correct that sometimes things grow more or less organically from solitary hermit to colony of solitary hermits to association of the faithful, to (this next step is not organic since a conscious decision to move in this direction has to be made by both hermits and diocesan bishop) a semi-eremitical community of hermits. When this last step takes place a lot of things must change and change in a conscious and intentional way: the colony must accept more than the prudent limit of members, individual hermits must surrender their own Rules, relinquish responsibility for their own finances and self-provision (for education, spiritual direction, ongoing education and formation, insurance, retirement, choice of delegate, etc., etc.). Thus, I do not consider the move from laura of solitary hermits (even as an association of the faithful), to a group structured as a community to be a strictly organic development. It is not so much that these people are no longer hermits; they would be hermits in the same sense the Carthusians, and Camaldolese are hermits. Rather it is the case that they have chosen to become and are no longer solitary hermits which is precisely the eremitical life c 603 was meant to protect and nurture. 

Because of the choices necessary in moving from one form of canonical eremitical life to another, once the discernment process is completed, such hermits (those no longer wishing to be a solitary hermit under c 603) should have their vows under canon 603 dispensed (or declared to be no longer be valid) and their group should be required move through all the steps outlined by the Church for any other putative or nascent institute of consecrated life. At the same time any member of the laura who does not wish to be part of such an experiment or community should re-establish themselves as a solitary hermit in the diocese. Presuming they are already perpetually professed and consecrated, they will still need to write a Rule of life which is approved by the bishop if they have not already done so, and provide for their own independent life as does every other c 603 hermit. If there are two or three such hermits, they could continue (somewhere else in the diocese) as a laura but the same requirements would need to be met (Rule written by the hermit herself, independent status, provision for oneself, etc.).

You asked about the sense it makes to move from perpetually professed to temporary vows were one to move from life under c 603 to becoming a member of an institute of consecrated life (or laura on the way to becoming an institute of consecrated life) so let me try to address that -- though I don't believe I referred to such a situation directly in my last post. Temporary vows indicate a standing in law of someone who is not perpetually professed which is part of an ongoing process of mutual discernment where one has a chance to live vows in a way which deepens one's commitment and also to continue to discern whether or not this is really one's vocation. 

In the situation I outlined earlier I was not speaking of anyone seeking a voluntary dispensation of perpetual canonical vows; rather I had in mind the need for dispensation from a canon 603 profession if one means or feels called to live in a community (not a laura) of hermits. When one becomes certain that one is called to live as a member of an institute of consecrated life, or that they are no longer called to life as a solitary hermit, a dispensation will be granted or the hermit's c 603 vows declared invalid depending on the circumstances. I don't think the vows need be dispensed or invalidated unless or until the hermit becomes clear that she is called to communal life. (Some reasonable time limit on the discernment process is prudent here, however. The hermit cannot be discerning -- and thus fail to live her own Rule -- indefinitely.) There would be no need for private vows in such a situation.

Questions on C.603 and Lauras vs Communities of Hermits

[[Dear Sister, I have read a few articles [here] and they have such good content and are very informative. I was reading the article "are canon 603 hermits religious" and the last paragraph prompted this question. I attached a screenshot for reference. My questions are: 1) If a group/laura of Hermits exceeded (three) or if they decided to live a more communal structure and sought to become an Association of the Faithful or even higher forms, what would happen to their vows? Would they have to take vows under the new juridical entity or would they continue to be members of this new entity while retaining their vows as 603's? 2) If so would this be indefinitely? Separate but related 3) are public vows necessarily tied to the canonical structure they were made in? e.g. institute, 603? Separate question: 4) I read of "final vows" for a member of an association of the faithful. Is there such a thing as "final vows" if they are private?]]

Thanks for reading and for your comments and questions! They are excellent!! If a laura of canon 603 hermits sought to become an association of the faithful and in every way necessary remained a laura and NOT a community of hermits (i.e., not an institute of consecrated life), each and all would retain their vows under c 603. Because lauras often fail, and because an individual professed under canon 603 might also simply choose to leave such a laura while remaining a diocesan hermit, the vows remain binding. The situation changes if the laura ceases to truly be a "mere" colony of hermits each with her own Rule, ministry, delegate, horarium, and bank account, integral relationship with a parish, etc., and becomes structured as a single community with single Rule, horarium, superior, bank account, ministry, formation program, and so forth. 

While lauras are helpful for mutual support of hermits, and while they require some degree of common finances, and even someone who takes a leadership role to some extent on a temporary basis (which could be rotated each month or so, for instance), the individual hermits need to maintain their own independence both because of the nature of the c 603 vocation itself, and in case they desire to leave or the laura fails. As I recall, the limit of 3 hermits in such a laura was decided by the Spanish Bishops conference in order to minimize the needs and dangers of greater numbers of hermits which naturally calls for more centralized governance and institutional structure. Greater numbers than 3 hermits militate against the solitary eremitical vocation envisioned and provided for canonically by canon 603.

That said, I know of one group that began as a laura and then became not only an association of the faithful, but beyond that, a community of hermits (of diocesan right) with a single Rule and all of the other elements I noted above. I don't believe they ceased to call themselves c 603 hermits or made vows as members of a community, but that is what they should have done. Ordinarily in such a case, the group's c 603 vows would be dispensed (or rendered invalid) the same day (or at the same moment) they became a community and made vows as part of the community under a given Rule, superior, etc. Because c 603 was written for solitary hermits, not members of a religious community it may well be that when a colony becomes a religious institute the vows are automatically invalidated because of a significant material change in the context of the life being lived and so too, in one's vows. New members could not and should not make vows under c 603, but under the usual canons which are binding on coenobitical religious. They have discerned a different vocation.

If they did not do this (dispense or understand c 603 vows as rendered invalid), one wonders what the diocese does with individuals who wish to be professed under canon 603 and may want to be part of a laura without joining this community or agreeing to all of its own laws and statutes. An individual may also desire to be professed under c 603 without a laura in said diocese; certainly c 603 itself does not require membership in a laura or community, so again, I wonder what the diocese does with such people. I also wonder what happens to c 603 hermits who need to provide for themselves but are unprepared to do so when other members of the community die and the community cannot be sustained. In such cases, c 603 vows (if never superseded by coenobitical vows and not rendered invalid due to a material change) remain valid until and unless they are dispensed.

Yes, public vows are canonically tied to the entity in which the vows are made. In some instances, after a three year trial, religious can canonically (legally) transfer their vows from one community to another community, but c 603 hermits are a different matter and cannot transfer their vows. Similarly, a religious wishing to become a c 603 hermit must leave her institute and vows in order to do so (this can be, and sometimes is, arranged so one's dispensation is signed the same day profession under c 603 is made). A diocesan hermit makes public vows within a given diocese and becomes a diocesan hermit in and of the Diocese of N_______. If the hermit desires or needs to move to another diocese and wishes to remain a diocesan hermit, she must obtain the agreement of the bishop of the new diocese as well as an affirmation from her professing diocese that she is a hermit in good standing. If hermits have been specifically professed as members of a community of hermits (not as solitary hermits who come together in a c 603 laura!!) and wish instead to become solitary diocesan hermits under c 603, their existing vows (if perpetual) will need to be dispensed and new vows made under c 603. This would also require a separate discernment process because the context is so very different. Again, though still eremitical it is a different vocation than solitary eremitical life, even when that is lived in a colony or laura. If a perpetually professed c 603 hermit participates in a laura of c 603 hermits and decides to leave the laura, her vows under c 603 remain binding until and unless she seeks a dispensation or decides to relocate to another diocese.

The indication "final vows" could, in my opinion, be used for private avowal (not profession!), because they indicate the intention of the person making the vows. However, such vows do not involve the same rights and obligations that public vows do; they are easily dispensed, and have no real sense of mutual discernment or ecclesial nature. Every vow made by a person, whether public or private (canonical or non-canonical) intends finality. This is true of canonically temporary vows as well. Calling a canonical vow temporary or perpetual therefore, mainly indicates where the person stands in terms of the church's own discernment of such vocations; has the person yet been seen by all involved, to be called by God to live this vocation in the name of the Church for the entirety of their lives?  

Temporary vows indicates a provisional confirmation of a vocation here. Admission to perpetual or definitive profession and consecration indicates an unqualified confirmation by the Church (including the Institute of consecrated life if there is one) that, insofar as this can be determined, the person is thusly called by God. It is important to remember though that one's own discernment does not cease with perpetual or definitive vows --- though the community or church ceases to be engaged in such a process of discernment in any focused way. Through the various canonical professions made, the process of discernment shifts, however, from an accent on "am I called", to an emphasis on "how am I called to live this vocation of mine** more deeply and truly" in this or that situation and context. 

Only in very significant situations does the publicly professed and consecrated person freshly and seriously raise the question as the whether or not she is called; in these situations the presumption on everyone's part (e.g., authorities, diocese, spiritual director, etc.) is that she is called and what is needed is to help her find a way to negotiate the difficulties being experienced. All of this (mutual discernment, presumption of vocation by others) differs (that is, it is missing) in the case of private vows because these remain at every point a matter of an individual's entirely private discernment and commitment. Even so, because this intention to finality is part of every vow made, and because the term can point to the person's intention, I don't think there is any problem with the term perpetual vows for private avowals --- so long as one understands the entirely private nature of the commitment and that one's own discernment does not cease once such vows are made.

** a vocation may be said to be "mine" only through the grace of God and the mediation and confirmation of the Church. The sense of "mineness" grows in time, not in the sense that the vocation is a person's possession precisely, but in the sense that one becomes more and more clear that one's own selfhood is perfected at the same time one lives one's vocation with fidelity; I know this is the path through which God has called me to perfection and will allow me to touch others with the Gospel of his Christ. in other words there is a deepening and more extensive sense that God's faithfulness and our own interlock in this vocation while this mutual faithfulness results in the revelation of God and our own holiness and wholeness.

08 April 2021

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Died into the Hands of God April 9, 1945 (Reprise)

I first posted this piece several years ago, but it is particularly significant for two reasons:1) this is the First Week of Easter when we spend time reflecting on the events of Jesus' passion and resurrection, among other things, what it means for human beings to do the worst they can do to another human being and for God to do justice in mercy; tomorrow is the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's  in credibly inhumane execution by the Nazis at Flossenburg, and 2) we are experiencing a time of learning to be Church in new ways during a pandemic which separates us from those we love, as well as from much of the ministry and other activity which also make our lives meaningful.  Still, the Holy Spirit is with each and all of us and we are joined as the Body of Christ in that Spirit; as we begin to celebrate the Easter season, each in the relative solitude of our own homes, let us hold onto that truth in whatever ways we can.

Similarly, in writing about eremitical life I noted that stricter separation from the world was an essential part of maintaining not only one's love for God, but also for God's creation, because without very real separation we might instead know only enmeshment in that world rather than a real capacity for love which reconciles and brings to wholeness. In everyday terms we know that the deficiencies and losses we experience throughout our lives are things we often try to avoid or seek to fill or blunt in every conceivable way rather than finding creative  approaches to genuinely live (and heal) the pain: addictions, deprivations and excesses, denial and distractions, pathological withdrawal or superficial relationships of all kinds attest to the futile and epidemic character of these approaches to the deep and often unmet needs we each experience.

While we may expect our relationship with God to fill these needs and simply take away the pain of loss and grief, we are more apt to find God with us IN the pain in a way which, out of a profound love for the whole of who we are and who we are called to become, silently accompanies and consoles us without actually diminishing the suffering associated with the loss or unmet needs themselves. In this way God also assures real healing may be sought and achieved in our separation and suffering. It is a difficult paradox and difficult to state theologically. Paul did it in terms of the God of all comfort who comes to us and resides within us in the midst of our suffering. Today, I found a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer written while he was a political prisoner of the Nazis and separated from everyone and everything he loved --- except God; it captures the insight or principle underlying these observations --- and says it so very well!

Nothing can make up for the absence
of someone whom we love,
and it would be wrong
to try to find a substitute;
we must simply hold out and see it through.

That sounds very hard at first,
but at the same time
it is a great consolation,
for the gap --- as long as it
remains unfilled ---
preserves the bond between us.

It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap;
God does not fill it
but on the contrary keeps it empty
and so helps us to keep alive
our former communion even
at the cost of pain.

from  Letters and Papers From Prison
 "Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge: Christmas Eve 1943"
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As a hermit embracing "the silence of solitude" I know full well that this charism of eremitical life is characterized by both connection and separation. It is, as I have written here many times a communion with God which may be lonely --- though ordinarily not a malignant form of loneliness! --- and an aloneness with God which does not simply fill or even replace our needs for friendships and other life giving relationships. Sometimes the pain of separation is more acute and sometimes the consolation of connection eases that almost entirely. Sometimes, however, the two stand together in an intense and paradoxical form of suffering that simply says, "I am made for fullness of love and eschatological union and am still only (but very really!) journeying towards that." This too is a consolation.

Today I am grateful for the bonds of love which so enrich my life  --- even when these bonds are experienced as painful absence and emptiness. I think this is a critical witness of eremitical life with its emphasis on "the silence of solitude" --- just as it is in monastic (or some forms of religious) life more generally. I also believe it is the terrible paradox of relatedness-in-separation Jesus' almost-inarticulate cry of abandonment expressed from the Cross.  Thanks be to God.

03 April 2021

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Truly Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!! (Partial Reprise)

 For the next 50 days we have time to attend to what Jesus' death and resurrection changed, what became real because of these. You see, in light of these events we live in a different world than existed before them, and we ourselves, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ's death, are new creations as well. While all this makes beautiful poetry, and while, as John Ciardi once reminded us, poetry can save us in the dark and threatening alleys of life, we do not base our lives on poetry alone. Objective reality was transformed with Jesus' passion and death; something astounding, universal, even cosmic in scope, happened in these events which had not only to do with our own salvation but with the recreation of all of reality. One of Paul's shorthand phrases for this transformation was "the death of death," something I hope to be able to look at a bit more as these 50 days unfold. We have already begun to see what happens in our Church as Christ's own life begins to shine forth more brightly in a myriad of small but significant ways. Not least is the figure of Francis who has many of us singing a heartfelt alleluia in gratitude to the Holy Spirit.

But, it is probably good to recall that the early Church struggled to make sense of the cross, and that faith in resurrection took some time to take hold. Surprisingly, no single theology of the cross is held as official, and variations --- many quite destructive --- exist throughout the Church. Even today a number of these mistakenly affirm that in various ways God was reconciled to us rather than the other way around. Others affirm that Jesus' death was merely the consequence of his ministry -- his speaking truth to power in all the ways Jesus did this --- and that nothing besides Jesus' horrific death occurred on the cross. An entirely passive Jesus was crushed on the wheel of the world's powers and principalities. His death, they claim, was really unnecessary for God to do what God willed to do. In particular they miss the way Jesus' complete dependence upon and attentive openness (obedience) to God on the cross continued Jesus' ministry to reveal One who would be Emmanuel in even the most godforsaken and shameful places. Only in time did the nascent Church come to terms with the scandalous death of Jesus and embrace him as risen, and so, as the Christ who reveals (both makes known and makes real in space and time) a God whose power is perfected in weakness. Only in time did she come to understand how different God had made the world, especially for those who had been baptized into Jesus' death. Thus, in celebrating what happened on the cross, the Church offers us a period of time to come to understand and embrace its meaning and scope; the time from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is, in part, geared to this.

Today, then, is a day of celebration, and a day to simply allow the shock and sadness of the cross (and certainly of the past year and more!) to be completely relieved for the moment. Lent is over, the Triduum has reached a joyful climax, the season of Easter has begun and we once again sing alleluia at our liturgies. Though it will take time to fully understand and embrace all this means, through the Church's liturgies and the readings we have heard we do sense that we now live in a world where death in all its forms has a different character and meaning than it did before Christ's resurrection --- and therefore so does life. On this day darkness has given way to light, and senselessness to meaning -- even though we may not really be able to explain to ourselves or others exactly why or how. On this day we proclaim that Christ is risen! Not even sinful, godforsaken death could hold him or separate him from the love of God -- and it cannot hold or separate us as a result. Alleluia! Alleluia!!

27 March 2021

The Crucified God: Emmanuel Fully Revealed (partial reprise)

Several years ago I did a reflection for my parish. I noted that all through Advent we sing Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and pray that God will come and really reveal Godself as Emmanuel, the God who is with us. I also noted that we may not always realize the depth of meaning captured in the name Emmanuel. We may not realize the degree of solidarity with us and the whole of creation it points to. There are several reasons here. First we tend to use Emmanuel only during Advent and Christmastide so we stop reflecting on the meaning or theological implications of the name. Secondly, we are used to thinking of a relatively impersonal God borrowed from Greek philosophy; he is omnipresent -- rather like air is present in our lives and he is impassible, incapable of suffering in any way at all. Because he is omnipresent, God seems already to be "Emmanuel" so we are unclear what is really being added to what we know (and what is now true!!) of God.  Something is similarly true because of God's impassibility which seems to make God incapable of suffering with us or feeling compassionate toward us. (We could say something similar regarding God's immutability, etc. Greek categories are inadequate for understanding a living God who wills to be Emmanuel with all that implies.) And thirdly, we tend to forget that the word "reveal" does not only mean "to make known," but also "to make real in space and time." The eternal and transcendent God who is revealed in space and time as Emmanuel is the God who, in Christ, enters exhaustively into the most profoundly historical and personal lives and circumstances of his Creation and makes these part of his own life in the process.

Thus, just as the Incarnation of the Word of God happens over the whole of Jesus' life and death and not merely with Jesus' conception or nativity, so too does God require the entire life and death of Jesus to achieve the degree of solidarity with us that makes him the Emmanuel he wills to be. There is a double "movement" involved here, the movement of descent and ascent, kenosis and theosis. Not only does God in Christ become implicated in the whole of human experience and the realm of human history but in that same Christ God takes the whole of the human situation and experience into Godself. We talk about this by saying that through the Christ Event heaven and earth interpenetrate one another and one day God will be all in all or, again, that "the Kingdom of God is at hand." John the Evangelist says it again and again with the language of mutual indwelling and union: "I am in him and he is in me," "he who sees me sees the one who sent me", "the Father and I are One." Paul affirms dimensions of it in Romans 8 when he exults, "Nothing [at all in heaven or on earth] can separate us from the Love of God."

And so, in Jesus' life and active ministry, the presence of God is made real in space and time in an unprecedented way --- that is, with unprecedented authority, compassion, and intimacy. He companions and heals us; he exorcises our demons, teaches, feeds, forgives and sanctifies us. He is mentor and brother and Lord. He bears our stupidities and fear, our misunderstandings, resistance, and even our hostility and betrayals. But the revelation of God as Emmanuel means much more besides; as we move into the Triduum we begin to celebrate the exhaustive revelation, the exhaustive realization of an eternally-willed solidarity with us whose extent we can hardly imagine. In Christ and especially in his passion and death God comes to us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. Three dimensions of the cross especially allow us to see the depth of solidarity with us our God embraces in Christ: failure, suffering unto death, and lostness or godforsakenness. Together they reveal our God as Emmanuel --- the one who is with us as the one from whom nothing can ever ultimately separate us because in Christ those things become part of God's own life.

Jesus comes to the cross ostensibly having failed in his mission. (From one perspective we could say that had he succeeded completely there would have been no betrayal, no trial, no torture and no crucifixion.) Jesus had spoken truth to power all throughout his ministry. On the cross this comes to a climax and in the events of Jesus' passion, the powers and principalities of this world appear to swallow him up. But even as this occurs and Jesus embraces the weight of the world's darkness and deathliness, Jesus remains open to God and trusts in his capacity to redeem any failure; thus even failure, but especially this one, can serve the Kingdom of God. Jesus suffers to the point of death and suffers more profoundly than any person in history we can name --- not because he hurt more profoundly than others but because he was more vulnerable to it and chose to embrace that vulnerability and all the world threw at him without mitigation. Suffering per se is not salvific, but Jesus' openness and responsiveness to God (that is, his obedience) in the face of suffering is. Thus, suffering even unto death is transformed into a potential sacrament of God's presence. Finally, Jesus suffers the lostness of godforsakenness or abandonment by God --- the ultimate separation from God due to sin. This is the meaning of not just death but death on a cross. In this death Jesus again remains open (obedient) to the God who reveals himself most exhaustively as Emmanuel and takes even the lostness of sin and death into himself and makes these his own. After all, as the NT reminds us, it is the sick and lost for whom God in Christ comes.

As I have noted before, John C. Dwyer, my major Theology professor for BA and MA work back in the 1970's described God's revelation of self on the cross (God's making himself known and personally present even in those places from whence we exclude him) --- the exhaustive coming of God as Emmanuel --- in this way:

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

He continues,

[[Jesus is rejected and his mission fails, but God participates in this failure, so that failure itself can become a vehicle of his presence, his being here for us. Jesus is weak, but his weakness is God's own, and so weakness itself can be something to glory in. Jesus' death exposes the weakness and insecurity of our situation, but God made them his own; at the end of the road, where abandonment is total and all the props are gone, he is there. At the moment when an abyss yawns beneath the shaken foundations of the world and self, God is there in the depths, and the abyss becomes a ground. Because God was in this broken man who died on the cross, although our hold on existence is fragile, and although we walk in the shadow of death all the days of our lives, and although we live under the spell of a nameless dread against which we can do nothing, the message of the cross is good news indeed: rejoice in your fragility and weakness; rejoice even in that nameless dread because God has been there and nothing can separate you from him. It has all been conquered, not by any power in the world or in yourself, but by God. When God takes death into himself it means not the end of God but the end of death.]] Dwyer, John C., Son of Man Son of God, a New Language for Faith, p 182-183.

18 March 2021

Joseph, Icon of the Man who Struggles to implement God's own Justice (Reprised)

For tomorrow's Feast of St Joseph, I wanted to repost something I put up a couple of years ago because it reflected an important step in my own appreciation of St Joseph.

[[Friday's readings (December 2015) focused on the coming of the One in whom justice will be done and creation set to rights. Jeremiah speaks of this in terms of the Davidic line of Kings --- a line which often profaned and betrayed God's sacred promise and hope. The psalmist sings wonderfully of the promise of the Lord bringing all things to rights in the love of God.

But especially poignant is the Matthean story of Joseph as the icon of one who struggles to allow God's own justice to be brought to birth as fully as possible. It is, in its own way, a companion story to Luke's account of Mary's annunciation and fiat. Both Mary (we are told explicitly) and Joseph (we are told implicitly) ponder things in their hearts, both are mystified and shaken by the great mystery which has taken hold of them and in whose story they have become pivotal characters. Both allow God's own power and presence to overshadow them so that God might do something absolutely new in their world. But  it is Joseph's more extended and profound struggle to truly do justice in mercy, and to be a righteous man who reveals God's own justice in love, God's salvation, that was at the heart of yesterday's Advent story.

The Situation:

I am a little ashamed to say I have never spent much time considering Joseph's predicament or the context of that predicament until this week. Instead I have always thought of him as a good man who chose the merciful legal solution rather than opting for the stricter one. I never saw him making any other choice nor did I understand the various ways he was pushed and pulled by his own faith and love. But Joseph's situation was far more demanding and frustrating than I had ever appreciated! Consider the background which weighed heavy on Joseph's heart. First, he is identified as a just or righteous man, a man faithful to God, to the Covenant, a keeper of the Law or Torah, an observant Jew who was well aware of Jeremiah's promise and the sometimes bitter history of his own Davidic line. All of this and more is implied here by the term "righteous man". In any case, this represents his most foundational and essential identity. Secondly, he was betrothed to Mary, wed (not just engaged!) to her though he had not yet taken her to his family home and would not for about a year. That marriage was a symbol of the covenant between God and his People Israel. Together he and Mary symbolized the Covenant; to betray or dishonor this relationship was to betray and profane the Covenant itself. This too was uppermost in Joseph's mind precisely because he was a righteous man.

Thirdly, he loved Mary and was entirely mystified by her pregnancy. Nothing in his tradition prepared him for a virgin birth. Mary could only have gotten pregnant through intercourse with another man so far as Joseph could have known --- and this despite Mary's protestations of innocence. (The OT passage referring to a virgin is more originally translated as "young woman". Only later as "almah" was translated into the Greek "parthenos" and even later was seen by Christians in light of Mary and Jesus' nativity did "young woman" firmly become "a virgin".) The history of Israel was fraught with all-too-human failures which betrayed the covenant and profaned Israel's high calling. While Joseph was open to God doing something new in history it is more than a little likely that he was torn between which of these possibilities was actually occurring here, just as he was torn between believing Mary and continuing the marriage and divorcing her and casting her and the child aside.

What Were Joseph's Options?

Under the Law Joseph had two options. The first involved a very public divorce. Joseph would bring the situation to the attention of the authorities, involve witnesses, repudiate the marriage and patrimony for the child and cast Mary aside. This would establish Joseph as a wronged man and allow him to continue to be seen as righteous or just. But Mary could have been stoned and the baby would also have died as a result. The second option was more private but also meant bringing his case to the authorities. In this solution Joseph would again have repudiated the marriage and paternity but the whole matter would not have become public and Mary's life or that of the child would not have been put in immediate jeopardy. Still, in either instance Mary's shame and apparent transgressions would have become known and in either case the result would have been ostracization and eventual death. Under the law Joseph would have been called a righteous man but how would he have felt about himself in his heart of hearts? Would he have wondered if he was just under the Law but at the same time had refused to hear the message of an angel of God, refused to allow God to do something new and even greater than the Law?

Of course, Joseph might have simply done nothing at all and continued with the plans for the marriage's future. But in such a case many problems would have arisen. According to the Law he would have been falsely claiming paternity of the child --- a transgression of the Law and thus, the covenant. Had the real father shown up in the future and claimed paternity Joseph would then have been guilty of "conniving with Mary's own sin" (as Harold Buetow describes the matter). Again Law and covenant would have been transgressed and profaned. In his heart of hearts he might have believed this was the just thing to do but in terms of his People and their Covenant and Law he would have acted unjustly and offended the all-just God. Had he brought Mary to his family home he would have rendered them and their abode unclean as well. If Mary was guilty of adultery she would have been unclean --- hence the need for ostracizing her or even killing her!

Entering the Liminal Place Where God May Speak to Us:

All of this and so much more was roiling around in Joseph's heart and mind! In one of the most difficult situations we might imagine, Joseph struggled to discern what was just and what it would mean for him to do justice in our world! Every option was torturous; each was inadequate for a genuinely righteous man. Eventually he came to a conclusion which may have seemed the least problematical even if it was not wholly satisfactory, namely to put Mary away "quietly", to divorce her in a more private way and walk away from her. And at this moment, when Joseph's struggle to discern and do justice has reached it's most neuralgic point, at a place of terrible liminality symbolized in so much Scriptural literature by dreaming, God reveals to Joseph the same truth Mary has herself accepted: God is doing something unimaginably new here. He is giving the greatest gift yet. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed Mary and resulted in the conception of One who will be the very embodiment of God's justice in our world. Not only has a young woman come to be pregnant but a virgin will bear a child! The Law will be fulfilled in Him and true justice will have a human face as God comes to be Emmanuel in this new and definitive way.

Joseph's faith response to God's revelation has several parts or dimensions. He decides to consummate the marriage with Mary by bringing her to his family home but not as an act of doing nothing at all and certainly not as some kind of sentimental or cowardly evasion of real justice. Instead it is a way of embracing the whole truth and truly doing justice. He affirms the marriage and adopts the child as his own. He establishes him in the line of David even as he proclaims the child's true paternity. He does this by announcing this new Son's name to be Jesus, God saves.  Thus Joseph proclaims to the world that God has acted in this Son's birth in a new and entirely unimagined way which transcends and relativizes the Law even as it completely respects it. He honors the Covenant with a faithfulness that leads to that covenant's perfection in the Christ Event. In all of this Joseph continues to show himself to be a just or righteous  man, a man whose humanity and honor we ourselves should regard profoundly.

Justice is the way to Genuine Future:

Besides being moved by Joseph's genuine righteousness, I am struck by a couple of things in light of all of this. First, discerning and doing justice is not easy. There are all kinds of solutions which are partial and somewhat satisfactory, but real justice takes work and, in the end, must be inspired by the love and wisdom of God. Secondly, Law per se can never really mediate justice. Instead, the doing of justice takes a human being who honors the Law, feels compassion, knows mercy, struggles in fear and trepidation with discerning what is right, and ultimately is open to allowing God to do something new and creative in the situation. Justice is never a system of laws, though it will include these. It is always a personal act of courage and even of worship, the act of one who struggles to mediate God's own plan and will for all those and that involved. Finally, I am struck by the fact that justice opens reality to a true future. Injustice closes off the future. In all of the partial and unsatisfactory solutions Joseph entertained and wrestled with, each brought some justice and some injustice. Future of some sort was assured for some and foreclosed to others; often both came together in what was merely a sad and tragic approximation of a "real future". Only God's own will and plan assures a genuine future for the whole of his creation. That too is something yesterday's Gospel witnessed to.

Another Look at Joseph:

Joseph is the star in Matt's account, the one who points to God and the justice only God can do. It is important, I think, to see all that he represents as Mary's counterpart in the nativity of Jesus (Son of David) who is Emmanuel (Son of the One who, especially in Jesus, is God With Us). Mary's fiat seems easy, graceful in more than one sense of that term. Joseph's fiat is hard-won but also graced or graceful. For Joseph, as for Mary, there is real labor involved as the categories of divinity and justice, law and covenant are burst asunder to bring the life and future of heaven to birth in our world. May we each be committed to mediating God's own justice and bringing God's future into being especially in this Advent-Christmas season. This is the time when we especially look ahead to Christ's coming and too, to his eventual coming to full stature when God will be all in all. May we never take refuge in partial and inadequate solutions to our world's problems and need for justice, especially out of shortsightedness, sentimentality, cowardice, evasion, or fear for our own reputations. And may we allow Joseph to be the model of discernment, humility, and courage in mediating the powerful presence and future of God we recognize as justice and so yearn for in this 21st Century.]]

On the Use of Language other than Conciliar formulae and Jesus' Discernment Struggle in Gethsemane

[[Dear Sister, you have said that Jesus is entirely or exhaustively transparent to God and that you believe this is the same thing that the councils who came up with our Christological Dogma were saying. I have a couple of questions in that case, 1) why don't you just use the same language then and repeat the Dogmatic formula, and 2) if Jesus is both God and man, how is it he can struggle with what steps he will take in Gethsemane? Thank  you.]]

Good questions, important ones, thank you. In answering the question of simply repeating dogmatic formulae and terminology my own answer needs to point out two things, 1) that while the dogmatic language and formulations of councils like Nicaea and Chalcedon were a means to an end, they were not an end in themselves, and 2) the church has made clear that theologians may well need to restate things in language that speaks better to other times and thought worlds while not rejecting the (i.e., any) dogma per se. So, first of all remember that the two natures/one person language was the best language the church had at its disposal to express the truth that in the fully human One Jesus, the world encountered the living God himself. In Jesus as fully, authentically, or exhaustively human we also meet the one in whom the creator, transcendent God is made definitively known and real in space and time and takes creation to and even into himself.

 The Christological Formula:

Remember too that at the time of the Christological councils the Church was struggling to take the Christ Event seriously and to protect both parts of what I affirmed above; 1) that Jesus was truly and exhaustively human (more than you and I are because of sin), and 2) that those who encounter him also and at the same time encounter the living God Godself. In Jesus, that God is truly and powerfully present. All human language and categories of thought will fall short of the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth and this was certainly true of the Greek categories/thought of the early Church Fathers which could not deal with paradox (which is right at the heart of the Christ Event). Thus, when someone accented Jesus' humanity it was necessarily seen to diminish the divinity one encountered in him. On the other hand, when one emphasized or accented the divinity we encountered, it necessarily meant diminishing Jesus humanity. 

Imagine a pendulum hanging at rest and name that Jesus of Nazareth. Imagine theologians pushing the pendulum toward the extreme labeled "Divinity" in order to speak more and more emphatically about the way Jesus makes divinity present and encounterable in history (the world of space and time). This "pendulum" represents the way the early fathers thought world demanded they think of what was happening. If one continues to push the pendulum to its extreme in this direction (toward divinity) one was also seen as necessarily emptying Jesus of his humanity more and more, and at the extreme, when the pendulum is pushed as far as one can go in asserting the fact that in Jesus one encounters the living God, one comes up with Docetism, the heresy that Jesus merely seemed human. On the other hand, if one tries to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, Greek categories of thought and language made it necessary to push the pendulum in the direction of humanity at the expense of divinity. One came eventually to adoptionism and Arianism -- heresies in which Jesus was just a good and righteous man but not one in whom one truly encountered the living God.

Another way of describing what the Greek categories and language made necessary (and what happens on the pendulum) is that of inverse proportion which, by the way, is exactly counter direct proportion and a paradoxical way of thinking. You see, in an inverse proportion, if one increases one side of the proportion (divinity), the other side (humanity) will necessarily decrease. But back to the image of the pendulum. The solution the early Fathers came up with to end the continual problem of heresy falling into opposite heresy/heresies as the pendulum was pushed in one direction and another was to assert the two nature/one person formula. This essentially stopped the swinging and protected the truth that in the fully human one, Jesus, one also and at the same time encountered in a definitive way the living God who was the creator and redeemer of the cosmos. 

Today the dogma continues to hold the pendulum steady and reminds theologians that both truths must be given full weight in writing and thinking about the Christ Event. It is a means to this end. However the dogmatic formula is not the mystery itself but a means of protecting, challenging, and verifying our language, thought, and proclamation of the mystery which stands behind this language. We not only can find other language/categories of thought to convey this mystery in order to be true to the Christological Councils, proclaiming the truth to other generations and thought worlds will demand we do so. Even so, the dogmatic formula will continue to protect the truth as we search for other ways to state and communicate the truth behind the formula (and behind whatever linguistic formulation we settle on for our time). In other words, the dogmatic or linguistic formula serves the truth, it is not the truth. It is, again, a means to an end but it is not an end in itself.

Your first Question:

The bottom line then is that I do not simply repeat the formula because I am convinced that is a sure way to fail to proclaim the mystery behind the formula to people today. We just don't think or speak in the categories used by the early Fathers and translating them into English terms we think we understand not only does not help, it leads us further astray!** I also believe it falls short of the biblical language and categories of thought --- especially those of direct proportion and paradox. Direct proportion says if one element of the ratio is increased, so must the second; if Jesus' humanity is increased, so must the divinity we encounter in and through him. Likewise, if the Divinity increases so does Jesus' humanity --- it becomes fuller, more abundant and true. Paradox says essentially the same. The dogmatic formula has an important place but it has no room for and cannot deal with paradox (though I believe it clearly calls for and maybe points to paradox as it tries to hold two contrasting realities together in unity/identity.) The need to truly encounter the living and risen Jesus --- and so too the living God who has taken us into himself just as he entered as deeply as possible into our existence in search of a counterpart --- requires different language and categories of thought if that encounter is to occur and inform my own subsequent proclamation.

Your Second Question:

Jesus is an authentically human person on a journey to live and proclaim the sovereignty of God in that life and to reveal it (make it both known and real in space and time) to the world. This means that God must be sovereign in Jesus' life and that he must learn to be attentive to this and to all the temptations he experiences to put self before the will of the one he calls Abba. He must also become more and more responsive to God rather than to all of the other powers he faces. Luke refers to this life journey when he says Jesus grew in wisdom (or grace) and stature. Incarnating the Word of God, allowing its full and exhaustive enfleshment is the work of Jesus, not of Mary, and it took Jesus the whole of his life and death. The process came to a climax in Jerusalem as the place where all the powers and principalities were centered and were even drawn by Jesus to himself. This included not merely the religious and political powers but what Paul called "powers and principalities" --- the power of evil, sin, and death which are also alive and at work in our world.

Jesus had been speaking truth to all of these various forms of power throughout his ministry when he healed, preached, taught, exorcised, blessed, forgave, and challenged or confronted various folks. But what becomes clear to Jesus is that wonderful as they are as signs of Jesus' unique authority and the reign or sovereignty of God, no miracles or healing or exorcisms are enough to defeat the powers that are the source of so much suffering. There must be a showdown between the powers that be and God himself and that means drawing them all together, drawing them onto himself in fact while he remained entirely open and responsive to God so that God could embrace him and defeat the powers he has taken on as personal realities, personal experienced realities.

When I say Jesus struggles it is not with God nor with the choice to remain faithful and to live with integrity. But I can hear him asking himself and God if there isn't another way to achieve all that God wills for the world and God's Kingdom. Eventually though, Jesus' discernment is completed. God does not speak but I am convinced his listening presence is as active as that of any good Abba, or spiritual director. Still, the decision to continue on to the cross is Jesus' discernment as the necessary way to live his life with exhaustive faith, integrity, and love. Those contemporary theologians who say, for instance, that Jesus' cross was unnecessary must come to terms with Jesus' own discernment in this matter. In any case, we have seen Jesus struggling before this in a somewhat similar way when he was driven into the desert by the Spirit. Every time he goes apart to pray there is likely some elements of similar struggle to discern the way forward. Jesus is human like us in everything but without sin(ning). Yes, when we encounter him we also encounter the living God through and in him, but that does not mean Jesus does not have to pray or think or discern. Jesus is himself and to the extent he is entirely transparent to the living God, he is wholly, truly and exhaustively himself. That is the paradox with which Greek thought and language could not cope.

I sincerely hope this is helpful! Please feel free to write with more questions!!!

** One example of this occurring is with the words eventually translated into the English term "person". Today, the word person means an independent conscious subject and we all know that. But when the Christological Councils were held the terms (hypostasis, substance or ousia) that eventually were translated as "person" meant almost the exact opposite of what that means today. They did not mean an individual conscious subject but pointed to ways in which God possessed his own divinity. As I was taught long ago, [[[ The notion that there are three persons in God, in the sense we inevitably use the word person today, is not an assertion of faith; it is a denial of the real God because it is the refusal to allow Jesus to be the one who defines God, and the refusal to allow God to be the one who defines himself and determines the one he will be, in Jesus.]] (Dwyer, Son of Man and Son of God, A New Language for Faith, Paulist Press, 1983, p.92) Emphasis added.

07 March 2021

On the Relationship of God to Death: Death as the Last Enemy

[[Dear Sister, I read something you wrote about God not willing the torture and death of Jesus. (I'm sorry for being vague here; I can't cut and paste from your blog.) That was not what I was taught. In fact, I was told when at different times two of my children died of serious illness that God "had taken them" and also was reminded that I should not be angry with God because after all, "he had not spared his only begotten Son." Are you saying that God does not will our deaths either? That God did not take my daughters from me? And if God did not do this, then where are my children? What hope do any of us have??!!]]

First, I am terribly sorry for your loss!! Please know I will hold you in my own heart and prayer. Meanwhile, yes, I have written that Jesus' torture and death by crucifixion were not willed by God; these were inhuman acts dreamt up and made as sophisticated and ingenious a way of killing someone in horrendous torture --- i.e., in as unspeakable degradation, pain, and shame, as was (in)humanly possible. The first thing I think we must accept is that our God is a God of love and life and that, as Paul tells us, death is the last enemy to be brought under God's feet (1Cor 15:25-26). What God is is Love-in-Act and what God wills is life, abundant, integral life in dialogue and union with Himself. He does not will the death of anyone, including his only begotten Son. 

The second thing we must see and embrace then, is a somewhat different way of understanding Jesus' prayer and God's silence in the Garden of Gethsemane. Remember that there Jesus prays three times that his Abba allow this cup to pass him by. He does not pray that the cup not be given him by his Abba, but that God would remove it if possible. It is possible here to hear Jesus struggling in the presence of the One he loves and is loved by  best --- the One who always hears him --- to find another way forward, another way to live his life and vocation with integrity without running headfirst into the powers that will kill him --- and this includes not only the religious and political authorities, but the powers of sin and death as well. But God does not remove or take from Jesus the cup of integrity --- the cup of a life lived with integrity in dialogue with God drunk to its very dregs. 

Does God will Jesus' horrendous and shameful death by torture and/or crucifixion? No. We can't accept he does nor does any text say this specifically is the will of God. To believe it is the will of God is to accept as well that those who betrayed, rejected, lied about, abandoned, spat upon, tortured, and executed Jesus were fully cooperating with the will of God. That is simply impossible, and if true, would give us a God few of us could believe in or trust. Where is the "good news" in that? To struggle in the way Jesus does in Gethsemane is to engage with God in order to come to terms with God's actual will; here Jesus struggles to come to clarity about and embrace fully what it means to live one's life and vocation with complete and exhaustive integrity --- especially when that life/vocation is defined in terms of dialogue with and complete dependence upon God. Jesus' life certainly is about this and our own lives are meant to be the same. It is not Jesus' torture and death that God wills but his absolute integrity and exhaustively authentic God-dependent humanity. This is the cup God cannot, and will not remove from him.

In Jesus' passion, we must learn to tease apart the things that are of man, and especially of man's inhumanity versus what is authentically human, and those which are truly of God or are the will of God. What I find of God in the crucifixion is the affirmation and reassurance that God, the One Jesus calls Abba, does not despise even the most godless of situations, places, persons, and events. Our God is the one is who absolutely determined to be found in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. Jesus, precisely as truly and authentically human, reveals this God to us and in the power of the Holy Spirit lives his life and speaks truth to power in a way which means that God does not despise the godless places in our lives; they are, in fact, the places God chooses to reveal his love and mercy most exhaustively.

Regarding the things of mankind, there are two aspects we must be able to see in Jesus' passion and death: first, there are the inhuman or less than truly human actions and attitudes of most of the actors in the narrative. These have to do with all the things I mentioned above in the second paragraph and several more besides -- the hunger for power and the correlative thirst for control at the expense of others, the fear associated with life in such a society for those who are diminished, oppressed, and exploited, the tendency to join in when a mob yells angry, bloodthirsty, and thoughtless slogans because otherwise we feel powerless, have no true sense of ourselves or of  genuinely belonging, and believe we can achieve these things by joining ourselves to such groups even when that leads us to harm others. All of these tend to dehumanize us. The instances of inhuman and dehumanizing behavior and attitudes in the passion narratives are legion. 

Secondly, there are examples of true or authentic humanity, human humility, integrity, faithfulness, generosity, and courage. Jesus is the primary exemplar here, but the beloved disciple, Jesus' Mother, and a few other women along with Joseph of Arimathea and the Centurion who proclaims Jesus the Christ/ Son of God are also participants modeling some of these virtues and dimensions of authentic humanity. What is especially true of authentic humanity is the way it is entirely transparent to God --- something I believe Catholic Christological dogma tried to express in the non-paradoxical language of hypostases, etc. So, the more truly human one is, the more transparent to God. And because this is so, when we see Jesus' helplessness, weakness, shame, brokenness, and so forth, we should also be able to see the paradoxical power of love that does not despise weakness, brokenness, or anything else that might once have been a sign of God's disfavor and absence. Instead, in the crucified Christ God makes these his own and there on the cross heaven and earth are drawn together in the very heart of Jesus precisely as crucified. (cf., 2 Cor 12:8-9 "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.")

The Good News of the Cross

For purposes of this essay, again, it is critically important to remember that death is not some sort of weapon God wields to punish, but again, is an event linked consequentially to estrangement and alienation from God, self, and others.  As noted above, it, along with Sin, is a power or principality which is a consequence of human sinfulness which Paul identifies as the last enemy to be put under the feet of God. It is imperative that we understand death, and especially what the NT calls "eternal death,"  "sinful death," or again, "godless death," as something linked to sinfulness with which God contends. God does this throughout the history of Israel's struggle against idolatry and he does it in Jesus' miracles, exorcisms, and in every other choice for life and love which Jesus makes on God's and others' behalf.  

What Paul also tells us is that the cross is precisely the place where God's ultimate victory over the powers of sin and death is won. It is the place where humans beings do their worst to an innocent other and it is a place where authentic humanity is made definitively real in space and time in Jesus in spite of the very worst human beings can do and experience. Finally, it is the place where God's love is revealed in its greatest depth and breadth; here we see God revealed definitively (i.e., made definitively real and known in space and time) as the One who will not allow sin  or death to have the final word or be the final scream or silence. Here on the cross Jesus remains obedient (that is, open and attentive) to the God who wills to be present to, with, and for us without condition or limit. In other words here on the cross heaven and earth come together as God has always willed. Paul says it this way: [[Very rarely will someone give his life for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves his love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,]] and again, [[God was in Christ, drawing all [creation] to Himself,]] and too, [[Jesus, the Christ was obedient unto death, even (godless, sinful) death on a cross."]] In all of this God is at work bringing a new heaven and new earth into existence where God will be all in all. More, God does this for us so that, as my major theology professor used to put it, human beings might "live in joy and die in peace."

Your Questions:

So, with all of that as background, let me try to respond to your questions more directly.  Yes, in light of this theology of the cross I am saying that God does not will Jesus' death or the death of any other person. Our God, the God and Abba of Jesus wills life --- full and abundant life, not death. He wills that Jesus live his life with integrity and that he bring God's love to the whole sweep of human existence, every moment and mood of it. This is Jesus vocation and the way he proclaims the coming of the Reign of God. He wills that Jesus oppose Sin -- that state of estrangement and alienation that occurs whenever human beings fall short of their truest humanity and choose idols instead of God. But death itself is not "of God" and godless, final, or eternal death, even less so. The truth is that while death invariably intervenes in and destroys life in a bewildering variety of ways, God in/through Christ and his cross intervenes in death and brings eternal life, meaning, and hope out of that. Tragically, Death did indeed take your daughters, but in Christ God has taken death into himself and transformed it entirely with his own presence, life, and love. In so doing he rescues your daughters from death and welcomes them into his own very life. The hope this makes possible extends to all of us in Christ.

Your children are well and entirely safe in God as well. That is the hope that we all share because while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us all. God in Christ loves us so exhaustively and effectively that he will allow nothing to stand in the way of this love, not sin or death, not anything created or supernatural. We are made for God and nothing at all can prevent us from reaching that goal. Again, to quote Paul, [[Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No. . .For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.]] (Romans 8: 35-39)

I sincerely hope this is helpful! It is meant not only for you but for any who have been taught some version of God using death as "punishment" or, when this doesn't fit the context, that he "calls us home" by causing our death. God calls us to himself, always and everywhere, including in our godlessness and relative inhumanity, but death is not his weapon or instrument in this; rather it is the enemy that he vanquishes in Jesus' own obedient (open to God) death.