26 June 2022

Sister Laurel, Whom Does it Hurt? (Reprise)

 I posted this two years ago now, and the question has been raised again in another context (more about that later), so I thought it a good idea to reprise the post. Any time an ecclesial vocation is used by someone in a fraudulent manner, people are hurt. More, the vocation itself is hurt as is the credibility of the Church. With a vocation as rare and little-understood or little-valued as c 603 vocations are, instances of fraudulent usage become even more harmful than they might with more usual vocations to religious or consecrated life.

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

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

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

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

Whom Does it Hurt?

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

For someone to call themselves a Catholic Hermit when the Church herself has not discerned or admitted her to a public eremitical commitment is to strip away the humble commitment to the truth which is meant to be part of the vocation's foundation and to insert self-definition and self-centeredness in its place. Those who look to this person as an example of the Church's vision of eremitical life may find  that rather than a "Catholic Hermit" they are faced instead with the validation of  many of the same distortions and stereotypes plaguing eremitical life throughout the centuries. 

What they will not find is a person who humbly accepts her poverty before God insofar as this means accepting the vocation to which one is truly called. Lay eremitical life is profoundly meaningful and important in the life of the church; it should be honestly embraced in that way. A secondary result can be that the Church herself (in individual dioceses) will refuse to consider professing diocesan hermits at all; the vocation is a rare one with, relatively speaking, very few authentic examples; fraudulent "hermits" who represent distortions, stereotypes, and caricatures (as well as sometimes being nutcases and liars) unfortunately can serve to cast doubt on the entire vocation leading to dioceses refusing to give those seeking profession any real hearing at all.

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

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

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


I am bothered by all of this because I see the value in eremitical life, most particularly as it stands as a witness against the distorted notions of humanity and community so prevalent in today's world. I am bothered by this because I am committed to live this vocation well for the sake of others,  but especially for the sake of God and God's Church who is the steward of this vocation. I care so much because I have come to know how important this vocation is --- especially as a countercultural witness to the nature of authentic human existence and all the things the world puts up as values today. Finally, I care because God has called me to care, and to embody this caring in my own living, witnessing, teaching, mentoring, direction, and prayer. I care because the truth matters and because God and God's Church cares even as she commissioned me to do so as well. 

You may consider this a personal "hang up" of mine. That's not a problem and you are free to your opinion, but if you wish me to "let it go," I would note that I am responding to your questions here, and your questions prompt me to think about and even research it further --- not the best way to get me to let go of something! You also used the term minutia, and I would ask you to consider what portions of my response deal with minutia; I don't see anything in all of this that is not significant in many ways for many, many, people and the witness of the Church as a whole. My answer to the question, [[Whom does it hurt?]] would have to be anyone such dishonesty or fraud touches, even if they are not aware of it at the time. The Church is to minister truly and to assist others to live the truth of their deepest selves in Christ. That is made much more difficult when fraud and dishonesty are enacted or purported to be enacted in the name of that same Church. In a world hungry for truth, no one, I would argue, is untouched by this.

23 June 2022

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart: the Human Heart, Living Mystery at the Center of Self (Reprise)

(Preparing for Friday's Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. Note that references to readings are for another year at this time.)

 Today's ordinary (daily Mass) readings use the text from 2 Corinthians I spoke about earlier this week, namely, "We hold a treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing power will be of God and not from ourselves." You may remember that in conjunction with that text and the Feast of Corpus Christi I spoke of Sue Bender's experience of seeing a broken and mended piece of Japanese ceramics. (Marking the Feast of Corpus Christi) She wrote, [[“The image of that bowl,” she writes, “made a lasting impression. Instead of trying to hide the flaws, the cracks were emphasized — filled with silver. The bowl was even more precious after it had been mended.”]]

That image has been with me all this week in prayer and also as I have reflected on the various readings, especially those from Paul. It seems entirely providential to me then that this year today, the day we would ordinarily hear a reading about treasure in earthen vessels, is the Feast of the Sacred Heart. The image of this bowl --- broken, healed, and transfigured  reminds me of the Sacred Heart --- traditionally the most powerful symbol we have of the indivisible wedding of human and divine and of the power of Divine Love perfected and glorified (revealed) in both human and divine weakness; thus it has provided me with a wonderfully new and fresh image of the Sacred Heart and (at least potentially) of our own hearts as well.

The heart is the center of the human person. It is a deeply distinctive anthropo-logical or human reality --- at the center of all truly personal feeling, thought, creativity and behavior. As a physical organ it stands at the center of all physical functions within us as well empowering them, marking them with its pulsing life.

At the same time, it is primarily a theological term. It refers first of all to God and to a theological reality. Of course, it cannot be divorced from the human (and that is the very point!), but theologically speaking, the heart is the place within us where God bears witness to Godself, where life, truth and beauty, love and integrity, call to us and invite us to embrace, embody, and reveal them in our own unique ways. As I have noted before, in some important ways it is not so much that we have a heart and then God comes to dwell there; it is that where God dwells within us and bears witness to Godself, (and where we respond to that mystery deep within us) we have a heart. The human heart (not the cardiac muscle but the center of our personhood) is a dialogical event where moment by moment God speaks, calls, breathes, and sings us into existence and where, in one way and degree or another, we respond to become the people we are and (we hope) are called to be.

Everything comes together in the human heart --- or is held apart and left unreconciled by its distortions and self-centeredness. It is in the human heart broken open by love that the unity between spirit and matter is imagined, achieved, and then conveyed to the whole of creation. Here the division between earth and heaven, human and divine is bridged and healed. It is in the human heart that the unity of body and soul is achieved and celebrated.

The vulnerable and broken human heart is the paradoxical place where everything is brought together in the power and mercy of God's love; it is the place where human life is transfigured and then --- through us and the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us in Christ --- extended to the whole of creation itself. It is in the human heart that prejudices, biases, bitterness, selfishness, greed and so many other things are brought into the presence of God to be healed and transformed. At least this is the potential of the heart which is meant to be truly human and glorifies God. The human heart is holy ground and despite its limitations, distortions, darknesses, and narrownesses it is meant to shine with the expansiveness of God's creative "Yes!" Here is indeed treasure in earthen vessels.

And if this is true anywhere it is true in the most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Sacred Heart is the symbol of the reunion of all of reality, the place in that unique life where human life becomes completely transparent to the love of God, the sacrament par excellence of the ministry of reconciliation where human and divine are inextricably wed and exhaustively revealed.

Imagine then an image of the Sacred Heart similar to the image Sue Bender described, a clay pot broken and broken open innumerable times by and to the realities it dares to be vulnerable to and allows to rest within itself. Imagine too that God, that supreme potter refashions it, mends it with his love --- a love that allows the cracks to glow with the light of heaven, a light that transforms the entire pot and all who are touched by its transcendent beauty and truth. This is what we celebrate on today's Feast. The scars will remain, but transfigured --- as though mended with brilliant silver. Light and love, water and blood will pour from this heart and, in time, God will love all of creation into wholeness through Jesus' mediation and through the ministry of each of us who allow our hearts to become the Sacred places God wills them to be.  We "hold" a treasure in earthen vessels. In us the surpassing power of God in Christ is at work reconciling all things to himself.

On Withholding the Truth of Chronic Illness in Order to be Admitted to Profession under c 603 (Reprise)

prodigal daughter2.jpg

Originally posted in 2019, this issue was raised again by a different reader, so I have significantly clarified or enlarged on a few points:
[[Dear Sister, have you heard of dioceses that refuse to profess hermits because they have a (serious) chronic illness? I am concerned my diocese will not agree to profess me because I am chronically ill so I am thinking about not telling them about this until after profession.. What do you think of this idea?]]

Thank you for writing. Assuming the situation (illness) is a serious matter, I have to say frankly that I think your specific idea is really terrible. While I understand the fear you are experiencing, it makes no sense to approach your diocese with a petition to admit you to eremitical profession while considering withholding important (in this case critical) personal information from them. While not every form of illness needs to be disclosed to the diocese professing you, truly serious illnesses which impact the way you write and live your Rule do need to be disclosed to and understood by your diocese before they agree to profess you. (Not least, any form of chronic illness must be considered and assessed as the diocese discerns one's ability to live the life one proposes to live in the name of the Church. This includes mental illnesses, and certain neurological illnesses which are progressive in nature. Other conditions not considered an actual illness would also be included here.) To refuse to do this would be tantamount to a lie. Canonically, I believe the Church could determine your profession to be invalid in such circumstances, but, as I am not a canonist, I would need to check that out. 

(Addendum:  Canon 656.4 reads: [[For the validity of temporary profession, it is required that, (4) the profession is expressed and made without force, grave fear, or malice (fraud). [[Malice (dolus), also sometimes translated as fraud, in the context of this canon is the deliberate act of lying or of concealing the truth in order . . . for oneself to get permission to make a vow, which would not be permitted if the truth were known. For example, a novice conceals from her superiors some external forum fact that, if known, would result in her not being admitted to profession of vows. Such malice invalidates the profession of vows (cf. C. 656, 4)]] The emboldened portion does indicate that a lie in a serious matter of external forum of the kind you might be envisioning would lead to the invalidity of vows. By the way, lies or fraud on the part of others in order to get someone professed, given the qualifications noted, would also constitute grounds which invalidate the profession. 

Canonical matters aside please consider the wisdom and import of approaching public profession while withholding such a significant piece of personal information. If it is serious, your chronic illness is not something peripheral to your life, whether as a hermit or not, but central to it and to the witness you are called to give to the Gospel. Is there a dimension of your life and identity which is not touched by your illness and its requirements?  In light of this, how will you write a Rule of life that binds you in law if you do not include the fact of chronic illness? How will you be bound in obedience to legitimate superiors who do not know this important truth about you? (In this matter consider how they would exercise a ministry of authority --- which is a ministry of love --- if they know you so incompletely or partially and in such a significant matter.)

Moreover, how do you build a relationship of trust which such a vow requires if you withhold such a significant dimension of your life? If you can't be honest in this, you might be determined to be incapable of making such a vow or any profession at all. Also, whom do you expect to be for others who suffer from chronic illness or various forms of isolation? (I know you said you would let folks know the truth after profession, but consider if this is really the model of dealing with chronic illness you want to set for others in their own lives?) What is your relationship with the God of truth whose power is made perfect in weakness? How will you proclaim the freedom from fear such a God inspires?

Finally, please consider that many diocesan hermits have chronic illnesses while others are aging and becoming more or less disabled in this way. We are finding our way in this as in many things. In my experience dioceses do not usually refuse to profess a person simply because of a chronic illness if that person can live the central elements and spirit of eremitical life at the same time. Some illnesses will not allow this (nor will some vocations), but since a major part of eremitical solitude is its distinction from isolation, most of us find that chronic illness is something eremitical life can redeem in ways which allow illness to be a significant witness to the individual's true value even (and maybe especially) when eremitical life does not occasion healing from the illness itself. If one cannot risk being truthful in this matter it may suggest that one is simply not suited to the risk of eremitical life itself or the radical honesty it demands --- at least not at this point in time. On the other hand, if one's diocese is talking about making a blanket rejection of chronically ill hermits, perhaps it is time for candidates to educate them, at least generally, re the place of chronically ill hermits in c 603 vocations.

To educate one's diocese in this way, however, means you must live the truth in a transparent way, and doing so long and faithfully enough that you can articulate it clearly for your diocese. Eremitical life itself is edifying; the eremitical life of one who is chronically ill or disabled is meant to be doubly so because it demonstrates what is possible when God is with us in abject human poverty. The basic question your own query raises and which one must answer convincingly will always be, which does one desire more, to live eremitical life and serve the merciful God of truth in this way or to be professed canonically? Canonical profession can and does serve our living out of eremitical life, especially as an ecclesial vocation, but it is a means to the journey of radical truthfulness, authentic selfhood and holiness; it is not the end in itself. You would betray all of that if you had a lie or serious deception at the heart of your profession.

19 June 2022

What does it mean to be a "Hermit in an Essential Sense"? (Reprise)

The following question has come up again a couple of times, so I am reposting this from four years ago.

[[Dear Sister when you have spoken of readiness for discernment with a diocese and even temporary profession as a solitary hermit you have said it is necessary for a person to be a hermit in some essential sense. Could you say more about what you mean by this phrase? I think maybe I know what you are talking about but I also find the phrase difficult to define. Thanks!]]


That's such a great and important question! For me personally, articulating the definition of this phrase or the description of what I mean by it has been a bit difficult. It is a positive phrase but in some ways I found my own senses of what I meant by this come to real clarity by paying attention to examples of inauthentic eremitical life, individuals who call themselves hermits, for instance, but who, while nominally Catholic, are isolated and/or subscribe to a spirituality which is essentially unhealthy while embracing a theology which has nothing really to do with the God of Jesus Christ.  To paraphrase Jesus, not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" actually  has come to know the sovereignty of the Lord intimately. In other words it was by looking at what canonical hermits were not and could or should never be that gave me a way of articulating what I meant by "being a hermit in some essential sense." Since God is the one who makes a person a hermit, it should not surprise you to hear I will be describing the "essential hermit" first of all in terms of God's activity.

Related to this then is the fact that the hermit's life is a gift to both Church and world at large. Moreover, it is a gift of a particular kind. Specifically, it proclaims the Gospel of God in word and deed but does so in the silence of solitude. When speaking of being a hermit in some essential way it will be important to describe the qualities of mission and charism that are developing (or have developed) in the person's life. These are about more than having a purpose in life and reflect the simple fact that the eremitical vocation belongs to the Church. Additionally they are a reflection of the fact that the hermit precisely as hermit reflects the good news of salvation in Christ which comes to her in eremitical solitude. If it primarily came to her in another way (in community or family life for instance) it would not reflect the redemptive character of Christ in eremitical solitude and therefore her life could not witness to or reveal this to others in and through eremitical life. Such witness is the very essence of the eremitical life.

The Experience at the Heart of Authentic Eremitism:

Whenever I have written about becoming a hermit in some essential sense I have contrasted it with being a lone individual, even a lone pious person who prays each day. The point of that contrast was to indicate that each of us are called to be covenantal partners of God, dialogical realities who, to the extent we are truly human, are never really alone. The contrast was first of all meant to point to the fact that eremitical life involved something more, namely, a desert spirituality. It was also meant to indicate that something must occur in solitude which transforms the individual from simply being a lone individual. That transformation involves healing and sanctification. It changes the person from someone who may be individualistic to someone who belongs to and depends radically on God and the church which mediates God in word and sacrament. Such a person lives her life in the heart of the Church in very conscious and deliberate ways. Her solitude is a communal reality in this sense even though she is a solitary hermit. Moreover, the shift I am thinking of that occurs in the silence of solitude transforms the person into a compassionate person whose entire life is in tune with the pain and anguish of a world yearning for God and the fulfillment God brings to all creation; moreover it does so because paradoxically, it is in the silence of solitude that one comes to hear the cry of all in union with God.

If the individual is dealing with chronic illness, for instance, then they are apt to have been marginalized by their illness. What tends to occur to such a person in the silence of solitude if they are called to this as a life vocation is the shift to a life that marginalizes by choice and simultaneously relates more profoundly or centrally. Because it is in this liminal space that one meets God and comes to union with God, a couple of things happen: 1) one comes to know one has infinite value because one is infinitely loved by God, not in terms of one's productivity, one's academic or other success, one's material wealth, and so forth, 2) one comes to understand that all people are loved and valued in the same way which allows one to see themselves as "the same" as others rather than as different and potentially inferior (or, narcissistically, superior), 3) thus one comes to know oneself as profoundly related to these others in God rather than as disconnected or unrelated and as a result, 4) chronic illness ceases to have the power it once had to isolate and alienate or to define one's entire identity in terms of separation, pain, suffering, and incapacity, and 5) one is freed to be the person God calls one to be in spite of chronic illness. The capacity to truly love others, to be compassionate, and to love oneself in God are central pieces of this.

The Critical Question in Discernment of Eremitical Vocations:

 What is critical for the question at hand is that the person finds themselves in a  transformative relationship with God in solitude and thus, eremitical solitude becomes the context for a truly redemptive experience and a genuinely holy life. When I speak of someone being a hermit in some essential sense I am pointing to being a person who has experienced the salvific gift the hermit's life is meant to be for hermits and for those they witness to. It may be that they have begun a transformation which reshapes them from the heart of their being, a kind of transfiguration which heals and summons into being an authentic humanity which is convincing in its faith, hope, love, and essential joy. Only God can work in the person in this way and if God does so in eremitical solitude --- which means more than a transitional solitude, but an extended solitude of desert spirituality --- then one may well have thus become a hermit in an essential sense and may be on the way to becoming a hermit in the proper sense of the term as well.

If God saves in solitude (or in abject weakness and emptiness!), if authentic humanity implies being a covenant partner of God capable of mediating that same redemption to others in Christ, then a canonical hermit (or a person being seriously considered for admission to canonical standing and consecration) MUST show signs of these as well as of having come to know them to a significant degree in eremitical solitude.  It is the redemptive capacity of solitude (meaning God in solitude) experienced by the hermit or candidate as  "the silence of solitude"  which is the real criterion of a vocation to eremitical solitude. (See other posts on this term but also Eremitism, the Epitome of Selfishness?It is the redemptive capacity of God in the silence of solitude that the hermit must reflect and witness to if her eremitical life is to be credible.

Those Putative "Hermits" not Called to Eremitical Solitude:

For some who seek to live as hermits but are unsuccessful, eremitical solitude is not redemptive. As I have written before the destructive power of solitude overtakes and overwhelms the entire process of growth and sanctification which the authentic hermit comes to know in the silence of solitude. What is most striking to me as I have considered this question of being a hermit in some essential sense is the way some persons' solitude and the label "hermit" are euphemisms for alienation, estrangement, and isolation. Of course there is nothing new in this and historically stereotypes and counterfeits have often hijacked the title "hermit".  The spiritualities involved in such cases are sometimes nothing more than validations of the brokenness of sin or celebrations of self-centeredness and social failure; the God believed in is often a tyrant or a cruel judge who is delighted by our suffering -- which he is supposed to cause directly -- and who defines justice in terms of an arbitrary "reparation for the offences" done to him even by others, a strange kind of quid pro quo which might have given even St Anselm qualms.

These "hermits" themselves seem unhappy, often bitter, depressed and sometimes despairing. They live in physical solitude but their relationship with God is apparently neither life giving nor redemptive -- whether of the so-called hermit or those they touch. Neither are their lives ecclesial in any evident sense and some are as estranged from the Church as they are from their local communities and (often) families. Because there is no clear sense that solitude is a redemptive reality for these persons, neither is there any sense that God is really calling them to eremitical life and the wholeness represented by union with God and characterized by the silence of solitude. Sometimes solitude itself seems entirely destructive, silence is a torturous muteness or fruitlessness; in such cases there is no question the person is not called to eremitical solitude.

Others who are not so extreme as these "hermits" never actually embrace the silence of solitude or put God at the center of their lives in the way desert spirituality requires and witnesses to. They may even be admitted to profession and consecration but then live a relatively isolated and mediocre life filled with distractions, failed commitments (vows, Rule), and rejected grace. Some instead replace solitude with active ministry so that they really simply cannot witness to the transformative capacity of the God who comes in silence and solitude, much less the silence of solitude. Their lives thus do not show evidence of the incredibly creative and dynamic love of God who redeems in this way but it is harder to recognize these counterfeits. In such cases the silence of solitude is not only not the context of their lives but it is neither their goal nor the charism they bring to church and world. Whatever the picture they have never been hermits in an essential sense.

Even so, all of these lives do help us to see what is necessary for the discernment of authentic eremitical vocations and too what it means to say that someone is a hermit in some essential sense. Especially they underscore the critical importance that one experiences God's redemptive intimacy in the silence of solitude and that one's life is made profoundly meaningful, compassionate, and hope-filled in this way.

Prior's Homily: Cyprian Consiglio on the Solemnity of St Romuald --- Positive Disintegration and Reform

[[I’ve been thinking about the lobster again recently, and one of the most powerful images I ever heard about times of transition. The lobster, as you may know, has an exoskeleton: it’s held together from the outside. And every now and then it has to molt its shell and grow a new one. In order to do that it fills itself up with water until it pops off its shell––and in the course of the operation it pops out its eyes, too. And it sinks to the bottom of the ocean where it has to lie there, naked and blind, and totally vulnerable, to wait for the new exoskeleton to grow around it, a new form, you might say. It’s a moment of incredible vulnerability and, if a lobster is capable of such a thing, a moment that requires immense trust that this new form is going to grow around it while it lies there blind and naked and absolutely vulnerable.

We think of Saint Romuald not only as the founder of our congregation but as a reformer within the greater world of Benedictine monasticism. It occurred to me recently that the word “reform” has a kind of double meaning to it; it could be a positive thing or it could be negative. The negative sense is that we assume some person or some institution has gotten off course, and so it needs to repent, be corrected, as in sending someone to “reform school” to change their ways.

But in some way, that’s also the positive meaning of it: to re-form could mean to go back to basics and form all over again, like a musical group that breaks up and then re-forms, maybe with a slightly different line-up but hopefully with renewed energy,[1] like a lobster growing a new shell around itself. And even the word “de-form” can have a positive meaning to it, kind of like our rather unpoetic translation of Romuald’s advice in the Brief Rule. Our usual translation of the famous line in it is “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting…” but the Latin is actually destrue… It’s too easy to simply translate that as “destroy,” and obviously out of character with everything else we know about healthy asceticism (though the Italians translate it annientati–annihilate yourself!). But as Thomas and I came up with some years ago in a decidedly unpoetic translation, destrue is the opposite of “construct,” not necessarily as harsh as “destruct,” but better “deconstruct.”

Hence, “deconstruct yourself completely” and sit waiting, like that lobster, blind and naked on the floor of the ocean. And so de-form; sometimes we have to be active about it: instead of forming something, let’s first de-form, un-form, take this form apart or let this form die, and start all over again from the basic building blocks––even if it means we are blind, naked and vulnerable for a time, trusting that the new form will build around us.

I got some of this idea from an article that our Br. Will gave me recently, “A comparison between the Zen Buddhist Ten Oxherding Pictures and the Theory of Positive Disintegration” of the Polish psychiatrist (and poet) Kazimierz Dabrowski. I love the image of positive disintegration. Sometimes de-forming or dis-integrating is the best thing for us, because we’ve turned into a form that we were never meant to be, or we’ve not become what we set out to be, so we need to de-construct, de-form, dis-integrate, and give ourselves a chance to re-integrate, to re-form.

It’s the ongoing work of conversatio, really. And of course that is how we translate that strange word for our monastic vow of conversatio––we vow to “reform our lives,” and it’s an ongoing conversation. When the monastic way warns us that we’ve left the right path we need always to be willing to turn around, re-find the right one, and start out all over again. We need to sometimes do this each and every day.

I turned fifty at old Camaldoli in Tuscany in 2008 and almost everyone that I met that day quoted the opening lines Dante’s Divina Commedia to me which the poet David Whyte loves to quote when he is talking about aging: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / Ché la diritta via era smarrita: “At the middle of the path of our life / I found myself in a dark forest / because the right way was lost.”

Saint Romuald of course first enters a monastery under the Cluniac reform and observance, which we can assume was pretty heavy on ceremony and liturgy. He leaves because he doesn’t find the monks observant enough, but he doesn’t leave monastic life altogether, nor does he immediately go to another monastery. And poignantly, he does not go off on his own but under a master. Going to Venice with the hermit Marino and living the eremitical life was actually going back to the basics of the monastic impulse––fasting, praying, solitude, psalmody, in simplicity, without all the decorations and ceremonial. And then he can start all over again from there, and wait for a new form, or new forms, to grow up around that experience. When he starts his reforming of other monastic communities and even of his giving some container to the various hermits and hermitages populating Italy at the time, he comes back to the Rule of Benedict––but without the straitjacket of observance of Benedict of Aniane, for instance, or all the ceremonial exuberance of Cluny.

But the beautiful thing about it is again our charism of the dear Three-Fold Good: his re-forming doesn’t take the typical form of other Benedictine traditions at the time. Yes, it did take the form of community, perhaps in a more austere and simplified way. It also took the form of a move into greater and greater solitude even to the point of reclusion, while still under the Rule and an abbot. It also took the form of missionary martyrdom as some of our first monks longed for from the beginning, with Romuald easily enfolding them in his family. Holding all those forms together has always been a challenge for us throughout our history. But just as new forms emerged then, so new forms can still emerge now. I always think of Shantivanam and how easily the ashram model folded into our congregation.

All this is similar to the great work of ressourcement––going back to the sources––that went on with our forebears especially in the 20th century leading up to the Second Vatican Council, in and outside of monasticism, in the greater world of theology and especially in the liturgical renewal: to strip off the unnecessary accretions that have built up around us––and that is a delicate work, discerning what is essential and what is not, what was a healthy growth and what was simply a barnacle on the side of the ship. So in a sense to de-form, dis-integrate for a moment so as to recover something of the pristine original energy––of Christianity, of the liturgy, of monasticism––and see what new form they all might take in a new world, in a new culture, with whatever positive attainments we might have gained with our post-Enlightenment, post-modern mentality, with whatever advances we may have made in our understanding of human growth through depth psychology, with whatever evolution of our spiritual consciousness might have taken place with our modern explorations in the spirituality of Asia and other cultural influences outside of Europe, for instance. What new forms could emerge from these influences?

And especially, for religious, a reference to the originally inspired tradition was exhorted so as to initiate dialogue in contemporary situations. I continue to find that a fascinating formula: to go back to the source so as to be relevant for today.

Another of the ressourcements that took place at the Second Vatican Council in religious life––oddly enough that it should even have had to––was to go back to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and to the Gospels. As a matter of fact, the document Ecclesia Sancta (1966) felt the need to urge study and meditation on the Gospel for all religious, from the time of novitiate on. Partially this was because this had not been a major emphasis for Catholic religious up ‘til then for hundreds of years, and one has to wonder, how would a deeper knowledge of the gospel change our view of religious life?

So, what does this mean for us individually and collectively? How many times does this need to happen in our individual lives, for us to be de-formed and re-formed, ché la diritta via era smarrita–– because we have left the right path, deviated from our true path? How often are we called to look at our corporate lives in this way, to judge what needs to be set aside as non-essential, to recover not only our own individual inspiration but the original inspiration of our Romualdian tradition. As Saint Benedict admonishes us, we are always beginning again with the gospel as guide, together and individually, being challenged first and foremost to be converted again to the way of Jesus, the way of self-surrender and service. And then to ask ourselves once again, what was that original monastic impulse? And why Romuald? And why the Camaldolese? And why these people? And why this place, or Incarnation or Monastery of the Risen Christ?

The phrase “the new normal” has crept into our vocabulary since Covid times––but I prefer the idea of “reform.” This is an opportunity for the church, the nation, whole world really, to re-think normal, instead of just going back to things as they were, to re-form, to allow this disintegration to be a positive thing. But let’s focus on us, with Romuald as our guide, to go back to the source, to the sources, once again––to the Gospel, to our original monastic impulse, to what drew us to New Camaldoli or Incarnation or Monastery of the Risen Christ, to what drew us to these brothers and sisters (here and throughout the world) and to come back each day willing to be reformed, re-made, re-newed. As Saint Paul tells us, … if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. There is new creation––it’s in the present tense; if anyone is in Christ every day everything old passes away; and everything becomes new![2]]]

cyprian 19 june 22

18 June 2022

Feast of St Romuald (Reprise)

Romuald Receives the Gift of Tears,
Br Emmaus O'Herlihy, OSB (Glenstal)

Congratulations to and prayers for all Camaldolese, monks, nuns, oblates, and friends! Tomorrow, June 19th is the feast day of the founder of the Camaldolese Congregations! We remember the anniversary of solemn profession of many Camaldolese as well as the birthday of the Prior of New Camaldoli, Dom Cyprian Consiglio.

Ego Vobis, Vos Mihi: "I am yours, you are mine"

Saint Romuald has a special place in my heart for two reasons. First he went around Italy bringing isolated hermits together or at least under the Rule of Benedict --- something I found personally to resonate with my own need to seek canonical standing and to subsume my personal Rule of Life under a larger, more profound, and living tradition or Rule; secondly, he gave us a form of eremitical life which is uniquely suited to the diocesan hermit. St Romuald's unique gift (charism) to the church involved what is called a "threefold good", that is, the blending of the solitary and communal forms of monastic life (the eremitical and the cenobitical), along with the third good of evangelization or witness -- which literally meant (and means) spending one's life for others in the power and proclamation of the Gospel.

Stillsong Hermitage
So often people (mis)understand the eremitical life as antithetical to communal life, to community itself, and opposed as well to witness or evangelization. As I have noted many times here they mistake individualism and isolation for eremitical solitude. Romuald modeled an eremitism which balances the eremitical call to physical solitude and a commitment to God alone with community and outreach to the world to proclaim the Gospel. I think this is part of truly understanding the communal and ecclesial dimensions which are always present in true solitude. The Camaldolese vocation is essentially eremitic, but because the solitary dimension or vocation is so clearly rooted in what the Camaldolese call "The Privilege of Love" it therefore naturally has a profound and pervasive communal dimension which inevitably spills out in witness. Michael Downey describes it this way in the introduction to The Privilege of Love:

Theirs is a rich heritage, unique in the Church. This particular form of life makes provision for the deep human need for solitude as well as for the life shared alongside others in pursuit of a noble purpose. But because their life is ordered to a threefold good, the discipline of solitude and the rigors of community living are in no sense isolationist or self-serving. Rather both of these goods are intended to widen the heart in service of the third good: The Camaldolese bears witness to the superabundance of God's love as the self, others, and every living creature are brought into fuller communion in the one love.

Monte Corona Camaldolese
The Benedictine Camaldolese live this by having both cenobitical and eremitical expressions wherein there is a strong component of hospitality. The Monte Corona Camaldolese which are more associated with the reform of Paul Giustiniani have only the eremitical expression which they live in lauras --- much as the Benedictine Camaldolese live the eremitical expression.

In any case, the Benedictine Camaldolese charism and way of life seems to me to be particularly well-suited to the vocation of the diocesan hermit since she is called to live for God alone, but in a way which ALSO specifically calls her to give her life in love and generous service to others, particularly her parish and diocese. While this service and gift of self ordinarily takes the form of solitary prayer which witnesses to the foundational relationship with God we each and all of us share, it may also involve other, though limited, ministry within the parish including limited hospitality --- or even the outreach of a hermit from her hermitage through the vehicle of a blog!

In my experience the Camaldolese accent in my life supports and encourages the fact that even as a hermit (or maybe especially as a hermit!) a diocesan hermit is an integral part of her parish community and is loved and nourished by them just as she loves and nourishes them! As Prior General Bernardino Cozarini, OSB Cam, once described the Holy Hermitage in Tuscany (the house from which all Camaldolese originate in one way and another), "It is a small place. But it opens up to a universal space." Certainly this is true of all Camaldolese houses and it is true of Stillsong Hermitage as a diocesan hermitage as well.

The Privilege of Love

For those wishing to read about the Camaldolese there is a really fine collection of essays on Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality which was noted above. It is written by OSB Camaldolese monks, nuns and oblates. It is entitled aptly enough, The Privilege of Love and includes topics such as, "Koinonia: The Privilege of Love", "Golden Solitude," "Psychological Investigations and Implications for Living Alone Together," "An Image of the Praying Church: Camaldolese Liturgical Spirituality," "A Wild Bird with God in the Center: The Hermit in Community," and a number of others. It also includes a fine bibliography "for the study of Camaldolese history and spirituality."

Romuald's Brief Rule:

And for those who are not really familiar with Romuald, here is the brief Rule he formulated for monks, nuns, and oblates. It is the only thing we actually have from his own hand and is appropriate for any person seeking an approach to some degree of solitude in their lives or to prayer more generally. ("Psalms" may be translated as "Scripture".)

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

Feast of Saint Romuald

From the Camaldolese newsletter regarding tomorrow's feast:

June 19th is an official feast for the Camaldolese congregation. It marks the feast of the founder of the Camaldolese Congregation, Saint Romuald of Ravenna.

Born in 951 AD, Father Romuald lying on his bed, gave his life back to God on the 19th of June 1027- (Saint Peter Damian: The Life of Blessed Romuald). As a young man, Romuald did penance for 40 days at the monastery of Sant’Apollonare near his home region of Ravenna, which was then an administrative city for the destroyed western Roman Empire, simply for being a witness of a duel where there was a death. He then became a monk there, but shortly afterward came under the tutelage of a hermit monk in Venice named Marino with whom, among other things, he prayed the 150 psalms every day. Venice was at that time considered Byzantine territory. It was common practice for hermit monks to pray constantly, especially to pray the entire psalter daily. This was a tradition shared with the Levite priests of Judaism praying the Tehillim, the same tradition for monks of the desert in the north of Africa and the Middle East, as well as among both the eastern and western monks of the Roman Empire. In 978 Romuald left Venice to travel with an abbot of Cluniac tradition, Abbot Gari, to one of his monasteries under his jurisdiction located in Cuxa (the Pyrenees). There Romuald lived for almost 10 years as a hermit, but also participated in the cenobitic life with other monks. There he was also ordained a priest.

These two pivotal places, Venice and the Pyrenees, marked the formative moments in his monastic life, where he realized the importance of a balance of eremitism and cenobitism in the spiritual life. After Cuxa, Saint Romuald returned to Ravenna and immediately to Montecasino for a short period of time. Then, and for the rest of his life, he moved through different areas in central Italy, mainly within what was then the Papal states, and Istria, which was part of the republic of Venice and is now Croatia, founding hermitages, reforming monasteries, and mentoring other monks.

Saint Romuald lived in tumultuous times, where alliances, principalities, empires, duchies, provinces, and new marquisates were forming. Unfortunately, during this period in history, nepotism (the favoring of relatives or friends) existed in order to secure geographical territory. Monasteries and abbeys were appointed or granted in order to secure some favor in government, alliances or power. Simony (the buying and selling of religious posts or pardons) was also common.

Within this environment, Saint Romuald was appointed to various abbacies and also twice threatened with death. He rejected the threats and avoided compromising situations with his religious fervor and piety, always responding to the call to serve and surrender to God’s call. He preferred times of prayer and seclusion above all; in his interactions with other monks as is stated in both documents that narrate his life (Saint Peter Damian’s The Life of Blessed Romuald and Saint Bruno of Querfort’s The Life of the Five Brothers), he always gave counsel to monks to return to their cell and pray. He attracted multiple candidates to monasticism and his fame grew in the region of what is now Tuscany, Venice, Croatia, and Rome.

12 June 2022

What Kinds of Sacrifices are Required by c 603 (Solitary Eremitical Life)?

[[Dear Sister, I wondered what kinds of sacrifices are required by c 603. Is it all about prayer and fasting or is it something more like living in poverty and substandard housing. I think you can tell from my question that I am doubtful about what it might mean, and I hoped you could answer my questions. For instance, do you sacrifice your health in the name of penance? Do you sleep on boards and refuse to talk to people about anything but God, or maybe about anything at all? It's true, I don't understand what some people embrace in the name of sacrifice or penance, but you write about the freedom of canon 603 and the beauty of the life it defines. How do these two things go together? Sacrifices and beauty don't seem to go together to me. What kinds of sacrifices are required by c 603?]]

Thanks for your questions --- and for your humor!! We all enter adulthood with a plethora of opportunities before us and potentialities within us. Over time we make choices as we come to know our own hearts and the will of the God who dwells there. Those choices gradually close off or narrow external possibilities regarding what we do with our lives and open us to the single choice that will define us, potentially for the rest of our lives. When we make this choice wisely, discerningly, it will also open within us a richness of opportunities for achieving the deepest and truest potentialities within ourselves. It will not allow us to live all of our gifts, and certainly not in the extensive or exclusive ways we had once imagined we might do, but it will allow us to become fully human and provides ways to express our giftedness in spite of real limitations.

All of that is true for eremitical life itself, and for life under c 603 in particular. Solitary eremitical life requires that one renounce or let go of most forms of community living, even though I write about it as a unique form of community the accent is as much on unique as on community and most folks are simply not called to achieve fullness of humanity in this expression of "living together alone". So, the first sacrifice we make is that of more ordinary forms of community, dreams of community-building**, creating families, etc. The "silence of solitude" required by the canon points to both this renunciation and the goal and gift it is to the church and world. We make this sacrifice because we believe that God calls us to realize the fullness of authentic humanity in this uncommon context where we can be "alone with the Alone", as it is sometimes described.

Other sacrifices are entailed by making such a radical choice and commitment. In terms of eremitical life, for instance, one will never be able to become (or remain) a college professor or teacher, a fulltime minister or hospital chaplain. One will need to relinquish any dreams of becoming a professional violinist or playing (except occasionally) in a symphony orchestra, for example. (Fill these examples with your own dreams, gifts, serious interests, and other careers.) And there are a host of smaller sacrifices from mode of dress to the simplicity with which one lives, to the freedom one has to do what one wants when one wants to do that thing, to the ability to keep up in one's field by participating in extensive reading, colloquies, workshops, etc, to traveling, calling friends or family whenever one wants or even just going out to dinner with friends except very occasionally, to having new things on a regular basis. Examples could be multiplied of course (and many of these hold for all religious, not just for solitary hermits)!! Even so, because of some of your questions regarding health, etc., I want to emphasize again, we make these sacrifices because we sincerely believe this is the way God has called us to the fullness of authentic humanity in Him.

The other side of sacrifices like these are the commitments the life involves. A commitment to grow more and more profoundly in the truth of who one is most deeply in relationship with God in the silence of solitude is the essential commitment required of the consecrated hermit. (Again, commitment to doing so outside a community of hermits is part of the c 603 commitment.) The vows are the means or framework for the journey one is taking; they are the means to an end, not an end or vocation in themselves. (Every state in Christian life requires some commitment to the evangelical counsels; public vows, for instance, give others the right to expect one lives these in a paradigmatic way, a way which is capable of challenging and inspiring others in any state of life --- not because the vows themselves are the end, but because they help make possible receiving and vividly witnessing to the abundance, richness, and redemptive capacity of a solitary relationship with God.) Each sacrifice puts the onus on being the person we can be for others. We give who we are, not what we have (though we also are ready to give what we have because it demonstrates or witnesses to who we are and are called to be). 

I identify authentic freedom as the power to become the person God calls me to be. I recognize there is no lasting happiness or meaningfulness in any other notion of freedom because every other notion of freedom will eventually cease to be convincing (and leave us bereft of hope) as it crashes against the limits of temporal existence. If one defines freedom in terms of doing what one wants, for instance --- and this means in terms of wealth, health, youth, success, achievements, power, or even simple will, the moment debilitating chronic illness hits, for instance, or actual impoverishment, one's so-called freedom is gone, or at least severely cramped.  But this is not the case when one understands freedom as Christian theology does. There, the more I become myself, my deepest, truest self, the more truly free I am, and this freedom can increase in spite of limitations of all sorts. The vows represent sets of limits, constraints, and penultimate commitments which serve this greater freedom. Renunciation in this calculus assists us with and is necessary as part of our vocations, but is not identical with embracing our vocation per se.

All of this means that I do not sacrifice my health, for instance, in the name of penance. Though an indispensable element in my calling, penance is not my vocation.  Fullness of life achieved in union with God through assiduous prayer and penance in the silence of solitude is my vocation. No, I don't sleep on boards --- though my mattress sits on top of the bed frame's slats, if that counts! And ordinarily I speak to anyone who wants to speak to me about anything they want to talk about --- with the general exception of telemarketers whom I give a couple of chances to listen to me and then hang up on without apology. Yes, my life is about prayer, and whatever penance helps to regularize, extend, and even intensify my prayer life, but substandard housing or penance for penance's sake? No, not at all! Nor is religious poverty about actual impoverishment. I live comfortably --- (though it's true, my furniture is usually at least second hand or DIY pressboard stuff; the exception is a couple of pieces of bedroom furniture friends bought me new more than forty years ago. The mattress I now have is newer than that, but came to me when a local retreat house was closing and disposing of furnishings. The Sister making the gift went around to all the rooms and lay on the mattresses to find the best one --- an image I found both funny and very touching; it is an image I still appreciate because she chose very well!) --- and, generally speaking, I have what I need to live my commitment to God and to be brought to the fullness of humanity to which God calls me.

** A c 603 hermit can and usually does belong to a parish and she will ordinarily be an integral part of this faith community and participate in community-building as a member. Similarly, she can be an oblate with a Benedictine House, for example, and participate in some degree of community-building among oblates. But c 603 is not meant for use by communities of hermits; it is about solitary eremitical life and is meant for those who have discerned this very rare vocation.

I sincerely hope this helps!!

08 June 2022

Eschatological or Sacred Secularity: An invitation not to Respond

Therese Ivers has written a couple of posts contending with my arguments that the CV vocation for women living in the world represents a new and important form of secularity, namely an eschatological or sacred secularity the Church and world seriously and urgently needs. They may be found here: Secular Institutes and Sacred Secularity and here: Not Sacred Secularity! She has also asked that I not respond to those posts until she has more time to engage in a discussion of the matter. Fair enough. She is working hard on her dissertation, so I am not going to respond fully at this time; still, I do need to say she has either misunderstood or simply mischaracterized my position in significant ways. For that reason, perhaps it will help if I "outline" what I have already written and make explicit what I mistakenly thought was clear in my posts. 

  1. My interest in CV's living in the world stemmed from a sense the vocation lacked substance and I found no one speaking of that substance, if it existed. Upon attending and/or writing about the consecration of friends I was embarrassed that all I could say about this vocation involved what it was not (not a Sister, no vows, no wearing of a habit, bishop is not the legitimate superior of -- you get the idea) and I was searching for better ways to say what this new and ancient vocation was about in the midst of all the things it was not. (By the way, I think the vocation's ancient quality might also be a key to understanding it as a significantly qualified form of secularity, because the early church did not yet neatly divide vocations into religious and secular; they lived in light of a fresh and compelling sense of eschatological secularity as a result in the Incarnation, Passion/Resurrection of the Lord, and resultant New Creation -- the now coming to be New Heaven and New Earth.)
  2. I read an article by Sharon Holland, IHM suggesting CV's consecrated under canon 604 (I thought nuns were consecrated in this way under other norms) had a significant vocation which was secular. Because I was doing theology on Christ's transformation of the world in his passion, death and resurrection, and because "secular" has always been a kind of slur or reference to a second or even third-class vocation, the idea that the Church had chosen those living secular lives for consecration as Brides of Christ/CV's was exciting. More, Sister Sharon's article helped make a significant, if paradoxical, sense of a vocation I thought lacked "a job description" as I first put the matter, or a raison d'etre, as I might say today.
  3. I also read the Rite of consecration and the homily associated with it and discovered a significant reference about virgins being "apostles in the Church and in the world, in the things of the spirit and the things of the world." (Sharon Holland, IHM had also referred to this significant characterization in her article.) This characterization clearly speaks of a secularity re the vocation (i.e., those CV's living in the world), but one now qualified by consecration. Because it reflects the new creation achieved in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new creation where heaven has broken into our ordinary world, I called this eschatological secularity. Often I have used an alternative term, "sacred secularity," for this expression. Whichever term I have used, I am convinced of two things in its regard: 1) the CV vocation needs this secularity if it is to make sense and be influential for sake of the Gospel in our contemporary world, and 2) CV's, because they are not religious with the vows of religious, could serve the Church and world as genuine apostles of the Gospel if and only if they whole-heartedly embrace the witness to eschatological secularity our world needs so very urgently. (We don't think of them as instances of religious life-lite; this means they live a secularity but significantly qualified by their consecration.)
  4. I have not been concerned with the nuns who receive the consecration of virgins (if they are going to receive this consecration they do so after solemn profession in which the usual prayer of consecration is not said; it is delayed and replaced by the prayer of consecration in the Rite of Consecration of Virgins during this celebration). Rightly, they receive only one form of consecration and of course, it is not to any form of secularity. Since they are essentially irrelevant to my position on eschatological secularity, I have mainly not included them in any reference to CV's or CV's living in the world.
  5. I am concerned with understanding and perhaps providing the beginnings of a theology which allows the consecration of a woman living in the world to be a Bride of Christ to be theologically meaningful for the whole Church. I am concerned that without this the vocation will itself be irrelevant, elitist, and have no sense of mission or charism. (Until CV's themselves provide a theological apologia for their vocation which is relevant, prophetic, and truly ministerial or pastoral in some clear way, the consecration of women living in the world as Brides of Christ is a quaint, but anachronistic adaptation of a once-meaningful (!!!) vocation in the early Church.
  6. At present there are two forms of the CV vocation, one secular in the significantly qualified way I have been speaking of, and the other religious. (Emphatically, these two forms are not religious and religious-lite!!!) I have generally only been speaking of the first. That is not the same thing as saying the CV vocation per se is secular. Thus, I have tried to be clear I am writing about women living in the world as CV's. Unless I specifically refer to nuns who receive this consecration, I am not including them in any references to sacred or eschatological secularity. (Again, since nuns were receiving the consecration before the Church promulgated c 604, I assumed they were not covered in canon 604 and would be able to be consecrated as CV's even had c 604 only spoken of the significantly qualified secularity I am mainly interested in.)
  7. I recognize that the continuing admission of nuns to the consecration of virgins is a problem in several ways and I believe the solution would be to cease admitting nuns to this consecration. It is superfluous, confusing, and to some extent, anachronistic. However, again, my real concern is with the relevance and nature of the CV vocation for women living in the world and that is what I have been writing about. Therese appears to have missed that point, for whatever reason (perhaps I was unclear), and as a consequence, she significantly mischaracterizes my positions or affirmations in her blog posts.
The church has failed to honor secularity and secular vocations for too long but in reintroducing this truly ancient vocation she seems to me to have provided a means or occasion of developing an eschatological view of the world that does justice to the new creation achieved in the life, death, resurrection and ascension and the way heaven interpenetrates created reality. She could do this if CV's living in the world are seen as called to a significantly qualified secularity (though she could do it without them as well). Without CV's embracing and witnessing to this qualified secularity, however, it is the CVs' vocation that will suffer for the eschatological secularity is a new reality established by God in light of the cross. If the Consecrated Virgin living in the world does not witness to this new reality, and do so in particularly focused ways, she has to face a real danger of being irrelevant, powerless in terms of charism or mission, and anachronistic.

Entirely secondary to this is my interest in the question whether all religious women (and men) are brides of Christ or not. It is not a question for me. I know the answer, and my own experience. My Sisters in religion know the answer. (As one said about a month and a half ago, "Until I read your blog I didn't even know it was a question!!") The tradition is clear about this in many ways, and the Rite of Profession of Religious Women is clear about it as well; it leads to the application of the principle, [[As we pray, so do we believe. . .]] in this specific matter. If the promulgation of c 604 and the Rite of Consecration changed that, the Church will need to explicitly announce this, change her Rites of Profession -- at least for Religious Women, and develop a truly compelling apologia on why this shift has occurred and is valid and necessary. Even were she to do this it would be an uphill battle to have this teaching received by the whole church --- and reception would be necessary. 

While I am waiting to read Therese's yet unfinished and thus unpublished dissertation (which she "cautions" me to read in the posts linked below!), I should also note that one dissertation, no matter how compelling or brilliant, will not change the minds and hearts of all the faithful or of most religious women in this matter, nor will it compel the changes I have noted would be necessary (e.g., in the Rite of Profession of Women Religious). So, for the time being, I won't be responding to Therese's posts on this matter. However, since my own interest is in the Church's approach to secularism, and because I do have a concern with the coherence and genuine relevance of the struggling** consecrated virgin vocation for women living in the world, I will continue to answer questions and write about those topics. Recent posts on this matter include:  Are Consecrated Virgins Alone Brides of Christ? and On the Need for Serious Reflection

On my use of the word "struggling":

** I use the word struggling not because of numbers (those are up), but because of the lack of significant work on the vocation being done by CV's do not seem to be able to do much more than thump their breasts while proclaiming, [[I am a Bride of Christ, I am a Bride of Christ!!]] No one, so far as I know, is contending with this, and most of us want to celebrate with them. However, in parishes all over the world the response among clergy and the faithful to these assertions is something like, [[Okay. And. . .?]] or, [[Sure, if you say so. . . YAWN!]] Were such women to write about the witness of consecrated virginity and the paradigmatic womanliness associated with it in a world where sexuality is routinely trivialized and womanhood along with it, for instance, people might start perking up at the idea. Were they to embrace in a really wholehearted way the eschatological secularity CV's living in the world are called to witness to because their vocation effectively shows that heaven and earth now interpenetrate one another, the faithful might become downright excited by the vocation. But, so long as the accent is on proving and praising what sounds like the elitist identity of such women especially because it is thus coupled with depriving others of long established and cherished identifications, the vocation will continue to struggle not only for recognition among Catholics, but for real understanding and esteem.

That said, I believe the work of Therese Ivers (whom, again, I consider a friend --- at least when she is not taking gratuitous potshots at me on her blog!) is more nuanced than this in at least some ways because she builds on the idea that CV's are called to be Mothers of Souls. But again, if this descriptor is used in a way that attempts to deprive religious Sisters who have long mothered children and adults in every way one might think of but one, such a designation will be doomed to failure. Once again, in this matter too it is the eschatological secularity such a vocation would be associated with which would make such Mothering a unique charism or mission of CV's rather than an exclusive possession of the vocation.

A Note on Definitions and Misunderstandings:

(I suspect one thing that might help with misunderstandings is my defining pivotal terms more frequently than every few posts on this topic, particularly the word secular which is the adjectival form of the noun saeculum or age --- thus, for instance novum saeculum originally referred to the new age (and world) which was inaugurated by the Christ Event. I specifically identify an eschatological secularity with witness to this novum saeculum and the way heaven or eternity and our created world now interpenetrate one another. It is related to the at-least-potential sacramentality of our world and to the continuing Incarnation of God in our midst. For this reason, my usage differs in some ways from that which simply identifies the secular with the profane or simply counters secular with religious. But more about this when I also have time to write about this topic again.)

05 June 2022

Pentecost: Witnessing in the Power of the Holy Spirit (Reprise)

One of the problems I see most often with regard to our Christianity is its domestication, a kind of blunting of its prophetic and counter cultural character. It is one thing to be comfortable with our faith, to live it gently in every part of our lives and to be a source of quiet challenge and consolation because we have been wholly changed by it. It is entirely another to add it to our lives and identities as a merely superficial "spiritual component" which we refuse to allow not only to shake the very foundations of all we know but also to transform us in all we are and do. 

Even more problematical --- and I admit to being sensitive to this because I am a hermit called both morally and canonically to "stricter separation from the world" --- is a kind of self-centered spirituality which focuses on our own supposed holiness or perfection but calls for turning away from a world which undoubtedly needs and yearns for the love only God's powerful Spirit makes possible in us. Clearly today's Festal readings celebrate something very different than the sort of bland, powerless, pastorally ineffective, merely nominal Christianity we may embrace --- or the self-centered spirituality we sometimes espouse in the name of "contemplation" and  "contemptus mundi". Listen again to the shaking experience of the powerful Spirit that birthed the Church which Luke recounts in Acts: 

[[When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.]]

Roaring sounds filling the whole space, tongues of fire coming to rest above each person, a power of language which commun-icates (creates) incredible unity and destroys division --- this is a picture of a new and incredible creation, a new and awesome world in which the structures of power are turned on their heads and those who were outsiders --- the sick and poor, the outcast and sinners, those with no status and only the stamp of shame marking their lives --- are kissed with divinity and revealed to be God's very own Temples. The imagery of this reading is profound. For instance, in the world of this time coins were stamped with Caesar's picture and above his head was the image of a tongue of fire. Fire was a symbol of life and potency; it was linked to the heavens (stars, comets, etc). The tongue of fire was a way of indicating the Emperor's divinity.  Similarly, the capacity for speech, the fact that one has been given or has a voice, is a sign of power, standing, and authority.

And so Luke says of us. The Spirit of the Father and Son has come upon us. Tongues of Fire mark us as do tongues potentially capable of speaking a word of ultimate comfort to anyone anywhere. We have been made a Royal People, Temples of the Holy Spirit and called to live and act with a new authority, an authority and status which is greater than any Caesar. As I have noted before, this is not mere poetry, though it is certainly wonderfully poetic. On this Feast we open ourselves to the Spirit who transforms us quite literally into images of God, literal Temples of God's prophetic presence in our world, literal exemplars of a consoling love-doing-justice and a fiery, earth-shaking holiness which both transcends and undercuts every authority and status in our world that pretends to divinity or ultimacy. We ARE the Body of Christ, expressions of the one in whom godless death has been destroyed, expressions of the One in whom one day all sin and death will be replaced by eternal life. In Christ we are embodiments and mediators of the Word which destroys divisions and summons creation to reconciliation and unity; in us the Spirit of God loves our world into wholeness.

You can see that there is something really dangerous about today's Feast. What we celebrate is dangerous to a Caesar oppressing most of the known world with his taxation and arbitrary exercise of power depending on keeping subjects powerless and without choice or voice; it is dangerous if you are called to live out this gift of God's own Spirit as a prophetic presence in the very same world which kills prophets and executed God's Anointed One as a shameful criminal --- a traitor or seditionist and blasphemer. Witnesses to the risen Christ and the Kingdom of God are liable, of course, to martyrdom of all sorts. 

That is the very nature of the word, "martyr", and it is what yesterday's gospel lection referred to when it promised Peter that in his maturity he would be led where he did not really desire to go. But it is also dangerous to those who prefer a more domesticated and timid "Christianity", one that does not upset the status quo or demand the overthrow of all of one's vision, values, and the redefinition of one's entire purpose in life; it is dangerous if you care too much about what people think of you or you desire a faith which is consoling but undemanding --- a faith centered on what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace". At least it is dangerous when one opens oneself, even slightly, to the Spirit celebrated in this Feast.

A few years ago my pastor (John Kasper, OSFS)  quoted from Annie Dillard's book, Teaching a Stone to Talk. It may have been for Pentecost, but I can't remember that now. Here, though, is the passage from which he quoted, [[Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.]] Clearly both Fr John and Ms Dillard understood how truly dangerous the Spirit of Pentecost is.

We live in a world where two Kingdoms vie against each other. One is marked by oppression, a lack of freedom --- except for the privileged few who hold positions of wealth and influence, though these folks may not know authentic freedom at all --- and is marred by the dominion of sin and death. It is a world where the poor, ill, aged, and otherwise powerless are essentially voiceless. In this world Caesars of all sorts have been sovereign or pretended to sovereignty. The other Kingdom, the Kingdom which signals the eventual and inevitable end of the first one is the Kingdom of God. It has come among us first in God's quiet self-emptying and in the smallness of an infant, the generosity, compassion, and ultimately, the weakness, suffering and sinful death of a Jewish man in a Roman world. Today it comes to us as a powerful wind which shakes and disorients even as it grounds and reorients us in the love of God. Today it comes to us as the power of love that does justice and sets all things to right.

While the battle between these two Kingdoms occurs all around us in the way we live and proclaim the Gospel with our lives, the way, that is, we worship God, raise our children, teach our students, treat our parishioners, clients, and patients, vote our consciences, contribute to our society's needs, and generally minister to our world, it is our hearts which are ground zero in this "tale of two Kingdoms." It is not easy to admit that insofar as we are truly human we have been kissed by a Divinity which invites us to a divine/human union that completes us, makes us whole, and results in a fruitfulness we associate with all similar "marriages". It is not easy to give our hearts so completely or embrace a dignity which is entirely the gift of another. Far easier to keep our hearts divided and ambiguous. But today's Feast calls us to truly open ourselves to this union, to accept that our lives are marked and transformed by tongues of fire and the shaking, stormy Spirit of prophets. After all, this is Pentecost and through us God truly will renew the face of the earth.