11 February 2019

Book Recommendations

I picked up a new book today and though I have only read a little of it I wanted to recommend it (or at least bring it to folks' attention in case they have some interest in the topic). The description included with the book reads, [[Through her  evocative intertwined histories of the penitentiary and the monastery, Jane Brox illuminates the many ways silence is far more complex than any absolute; how it has influenced ideas of the self, soul, and society. Brox traces its place as a transformative power in the monastic world from Medieval Europe to the very public life of twentieth century monk Thomas Merton, whose love for silence deepened even as he faced his obligation to speak out against war. This fascinating history of ideas also explores the influence the monastic cell had on one of society’s darkest experiments in silence: Eastern State Penitentiary. Conceived of by one of the Founding Fathers and built on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the penitentiary’s early promulgators imagined redemption in imposed isolation, but they badly misapprehended silence’s dangers.

Finally, Brox’s rich exploration of silence’s complex and competing meanings leads us to imagine how we might navigate our own relationship with silence today, for the transformation it has always promised, in our own lives. ]]
 
I also wanted to recommend two books I have read in the past year or two by the Irish Dominican, Paul Murray, OP. The first is In the Grip of Lightthe Dark and Bright Journey of Christian Contemplation. [[What is it like in practice to come close to the presence of God? Are there words which can, in some way, explain the nature of that experience? In this compelling study, Paul Murray draws attention to both the wisdom and lived experience of those men and women who knew, at first hand, of the light and fire of which they speak. Murray demonstrates how important and relevant for us today are the writings of authors such as Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Teresa of Avila. To the often bewildered hearts and minds of our generation, the writings of these remarkable men and women speak with a unique authority.]] Murray's writing is clean and transparent. His sensitivity to language, poetry, the reality of prayer, and the heights and depths of the human heart allow his books to sing a song of hope and joy in minor and major modes both.
 
    The second book is Scars: Essays, Poems and Meditations on Affliction.  I began this last July and finished it last night. In some ways it reminded me of John Ciardi's, How does a Poem Mean? because Fr Murray writes beautifully of the book of Job, Beethoven's use of music to console a suffering friend, Rainer Marie Rilke and how Rilke's poetry sustained Etty Hillesum as she journeyed to her death in an Auschwitz death chamber, and several others. Ciardi once wrote in the introduction to his book (a text I used in a high school poetry class about 32 years ago!) that Poetry is like karate; it has the power to save us when we are caught some night in a dark alley. Paul Murray, OP shares that same sense of the redemptive power of beauty -- whether it comes to us in poetry, music, or otherwise. His stories are touching, inspiring, challenging and consoling.

Besides the section on Job and the stories noted above, one of the sections on the importance of the body for human wholeness and clear rejection of approaches to asceticism that are life denying rather than life affirming are especially wonderful. The last section of the book is a series of meditations on Christ's "Seven Last Words" and reflects on these with a new perspective sure to be helpful to every human being who knows affliction. As anyone who has read any of his work knows already, Fr Paul is a gifted writer!
 
Recently I was able to "meet" himself via some email correspondence re my blog and my vocation as a diocesan hermit. It took me some time (at least a couple of weeks) before I was able to move from a nagging sense of, "Hmmm, Irish Dominican, his name is so familiar; how do I know him?" to a thoroughly embarrassed, "Omigosh, I know his work! I have read at least two of his books!!" Fortunately my Dominican friend, Sue Pixley, OP recognized his name right off and, when we were finally able to get together for coffee this weekend, identified him as the author of a book on Dominican spirituality --- a book she will loan me next weekend! Enjoy; I know I will!!

Bible Study at St Perpetua's: For Bay Area Readers of this Blog


               Gospel Parables: The Heart of Jesus' Teaching

[[Bible study resumes at St Perpetua Catholic Community on Wednesday, February 13, with an 8 week series on the Parables of Jesus presented by Sister Laurel O'Neal, Er Dio. The heart of Jesus' teaching was in parables; these unique stories reflect Jesus' own experience of the Father and are the way He draws us into a similar powerful and transformative experience. The purpose of the series is to provide a deeper understanding of these stories as living instances of the Gospel. It will combine teaching on the parables, time for personal reflection, and related faith sharing. All are welcome!
 
Please note, this series ends just the week before Holy Week (no meeting on Ash Wednesday) and the material will be fruitful for Lent. As attendance allows, if you are interested you may come for either a morning or an evening session -- whichever works better for you. Time: 9:30 - 11:30 am or 7:00-9:00 pm; Place: Chapel. Please bring a Bible and notebook. If you have questions contact Sister Laurel .]]

06 February 2019

Can a Priest Be a Diocesan Hermit in One Diocese/Country and Live As a Hermit Under A Second Bishop in Another Diocese/Country?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I am a priest intending to become a diocesan priest hermit. I will not be living in my own home diocese, however, but will go to a neighboring country. I know that I will have to make profession before the bishop in order to become a proper hermit. I do not intend to change diocese, or become incardinated anywhere else. I will simply be living in another country. The question is this: Can my own bishop give permission to the bishop in the place where I will be living to receive my vows? Is that permitted by Canon Law? It's wonderful to know that there is someone like you willing to help people in these situations. Thank you in anticipation for any help you can give.]]
 
Dear Father, Thanks for your question. It is gratifying that you would write. My understanding is that under c 603 one must live in the diocese in which one is professed. Remember the canon is explicit in this, the hermit makes profession "in the hands of the local bishop". I suspect this language is what prompted your question, but it is for this reason that c 603 hermits are called diocesan hermits. A person may move to another diocese and remain a diocesan hermit if and only if the new bishop agrees to receive his/her vows. When this occurs he becomes the hermit's legitimate superior and also has agreed --- at least in principle --- to be open to discerning and professing other canon 603 vocations in his diocese. (Remember, not all bishops/dioceses have opened themselves to implementing canon 603.)
 
The situation you outline is very different and is, though not intentionally perhaps, capable of being perceived as a way of sidestepping both the stability of the vocation, the sense that this vocation is a gift of God to the local Church, and the ability of either the remote or the local bishop to act effectively as legitimate superior. It could be remarked that the situation you are describing also tends to weaken the ecclesial nature of the vocation and would, at least potentially, set a destructive precedent or at least be unhelpful to those persons in the beginnings of considering or discerning vocations as diocesan hermits.

Let me point out that canonical profession is not needed to be a "proper" hermit. We have lay hermits and priests living as hermits --- both without public vows (and often without private vows either). Canonical vows (part of the larger act the Church recognizes as profession) is needed to live and represent eremitical life as a Catholic Hermit, that is, in the name of the Church. If you wish to live as a hermit your bishop can give you permission to do so; strictly speaking you do not need to be professed as a diocesan hermit under c 603. You could, if you desired, make private vows with your bishop as witness (though he would not be "receiving" these vows in the name of the church; that would require profession under c 603). One problem with this option or the next is that in my experience, bishops are generally very reluctant to give permission to diocesan priests to become hermits; not only does the priest shortage make this difficult but the long period of discernment and preparation in one being admitted to the Sacrament of Orders strongly suggests that, short of a life-changing event or circumstances, eremitical life is contrary to the person's true vocation. 

Difficulties aside, if you wish to be a diocesan hermit, that is, a solitary canonical or solitary Catholic hermit, you could do that by making profession in the hands of your local bishop if he were to give permission; if you wished the second bishop to subsequently receive these vows he would need to agree but at the same time, though you would be a diocesan (Catholic) hermit in the universal Church, your original profession made in your prior diocese would cease to be binding. (In this process, this original profession would have undergone a substantial material change in the condition on which the vows depended and thus they would cease.)

I would think, however, as a matter of true governance (and your own responsibility), this acceptance by the second bishop would require your incardination in the new diocese as well. What I cannot envision is incardination as priest in one diocese and profession (or reception of one's vows) and consequent standing as a diocesan hermit in another. In such a case you would be a single subject attempting to live under the canonical authority of two different bishops and that strikes me as incoherent with neither bishop really having true jurisdiction.

Since I am not a canonist, however, I will refer you to one whom I know and trust with particular expertise with canon 603 but also in matters having to do with ordained and consecrated life more generally. While I believe I have given you accurate information, a second opinion might be of assistance. Meanwhile, I hope my response is helpful both as a direct answer to your question and as a way of thinking further about canon 603 vocations. Whether private or public commitment, whichever option you choose, I wish you good luck in your journey to/in eremitical life!

N.B. The canonist commented on the above question and essentially noted that it was a matter of jurisdiction and that a priest could not be bound in obedience to two different bishops in two different dioceses. Incardination binds a priest in obedience to the local ordinary; so does canon 603. The first bishop has no jurisdiction over affairs in the second diocese and so, cannot act to delegate authority or give permission in the way described in the question.

21 January 2019

They Came to listen and be healed. . . Nevertheless Jesus Would Withdraw to Pray

It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was;
and when he saw Jesus,
he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said,
"Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean."
Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said,
"I do will it.  Be made clean."
And the leprosy left him immediately.
Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but
"Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing
what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them."
The report about him spread all the more,
and great crowds assembled to listen to him
and to be cured of their ailments,
but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.


 I have written in the past that had Jesus healed every person that came to him in need it would still not have been enough; Jesus' mission was the reconciliation of all of creation, the destruction of sin and death themselves and not merely the  healing of this illness or that form of "demonic possession", this dimension of social dysfunction or that aspect of personal distortion or alienation. Jesus' realization that his mission has various differing priorities may have grown as he matured "in stature and grace", but gospel writers clearly recognized and convey to us he was more than a healer or exorcist.  They do this by comparing him with other healers and exorcists or by identifying him as King and Messiah; they do it by noting his refusal to heal or exorcise at times, and of course they do it by focusing on the import of Jesus' death and resurrection --- where no one was healed and nothing exorcised, but creation as a whole was reconciled to God and sin and death were transformed forever on the way to their eventual total destruction.

But the Gospel lection two Fridays ago ends with an even more surprising set of priorities. After healing a leper and having reports of this and other healing activity spreading far and wide and after crowds of people actually assemble to hear him teach and  heal Luke says, BUT he would withdraw to deserted places to pray. The coordinating conjunction "but" makes it very clear that despite the clear need for his capacity to teach and heal Jesus recognized and embraced a greater priority; crowds of people had assembled so he could minister to them nevertheless he would withdraw (meaning he would regularly withdraw even in these circumstances) to deserted places to pray. Granted, as a hermit, this clear statement of priorities is something I am sensitive to and appreciate; it is a way the gospels indirectly justify my own vocation to mainly eschew active ministry and embrace a contemplative life of prayer in the silence of solitude. At the same time it is a salutary reminder to everyone in active ministry that withdrawal (anachoresis) to the desert is a priority that must be embraced in significant ways even when crowds clamor for our teaching and mediated healing.

I think sometimes we treat Jesus' clear pattern of regular withdrawal to pray as some sort of icing on the cake of his mission --- something which adds sweetness or depth but is not strictly necessary because, after all, "he is both human and divine". But with Christmas we recognize that his mission is to be and truly allow God to be Emmanuel, God with us; this means that Jesus' prayer is the very essence of his embracing this identity because prayer is the very act of allowing God to be present to and active within us. Incarnating the Word of God demands and implies the lifetime dialogue of a human being with God. Incarnation itself is the result of this dialogue; it is the acceptance of a covenant relationship, the actual embracing of an identity as covenant reality. It is to be a person of prayer, and for Jesus, it is to the be  THE person of prayer or even  THE embodiment of God's own prayer (God's Word, plan, will, desire, the very content of God's heart) in our world.

The Incarnation of the Word of God is real at the moment of Jesus' conception but God's desire to be Emmanuel is not fully accomplished at the moment of Jesus' conception and nativity; it requires Jesus' entire life for its full revelation (remember revelation is not just making known or manifest; it also means making real in space and time}. Christmas marks the nativity of the Incarnation, but Jesus' "growth in grace and stature" clearly points to an understanding of Jesus' fuller and fuller embodiment and revelation of the Word of God in every moment and mood of life. This covenantal identity implies his continuing dialogue with the One he calls Abba; again, it implies being a person of prayer and more, the incarnation of God's own prayer in our world. Whether we use the language of dialogue or covenant, prayer and the embodiment of prayer is the priority of Jesus' life, identity, and mission.

I am used to hearing from folks in active ministry for whom prayer is important but quite often seen as a way of "recharging one's batteries", or in some other way serving as a break from active ministry. It may also be understood as something which allows one to recover energy for further active ministry. The problem with these views is that they do not see that Jesus' prayer says prayer is  essential for one's identity as authentically human, as a covenantal reality who can only minister to others when they are authentically human. Maybe for some the idea of prayer (and retreat) as a way of recharging one's batteries is a colloquial way of describing this truth, but it seems to me when one really understands the importance of prayer for one's very identity and only then, for one's capacity to minister God's own Good News to others, "recharging one's batteries" simply fails to capture the truth of the situation. But prayer was essential to who Jesus was; it is meant to be at the heart of who we are as well.

Recently, as I was working through something in spiritual direction, my director asked me, somewhat rhetorically, "Why do you pray?" And looking around briefly to the space in which we were meeting (my hermitage prayer space) she continued, "It is the heart of your life; why do you pray?"  My answer was that I pray so that God might be God in me and, through me, in and to our world. Of course I also pray so that I might be made whole and holy, so that I might become the person God calls me to be --- a counterpart God created the cosmos in search of, someone who can be loved and love in response and therefore, in whatever way possible, reveal the God who is Love-in Act and the nature of the human being as covenant partner of that same God. But all of this is covered under the affirmation that I pray in order that God might be God. In this way my life of prayer is also my mission and I think the same is true of Jesus. This, it seems, is what Luke is saying about Jesus and Jesus' prayer when he points to the striking priority this has in Jesus' life; according to our vocations, I think it is the priority that Luke is asking we each and all embrace in regard to prayer in our own lives as well.

13 January 2019

Feast of Jesus' Baptism (Reprise)

Of all the feasts we celebrate, [today's] feast of the baptism of Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to understand. We are used to thinking of baptism as a solution to original sin instead of the means of our initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus, or our adoption as daughters and sons of God and heirs to his Kingdom, or again, as a consecration to God's very life and service. When viewed this way, and especially when we recall that John's baptism was one of repentance for sin, how do we make sense of a sinless Jesus submitting to it?

I think two points need to be made here. First, Jesus grew into his vocation. His Sonship was real and completely unique but not completely developed or historically embodied from the moment of his conception; rather it was something he embraced more and more fully over his lifetime. Secondly, his Sonship was the expression of solidarity with us and his fulfillment of the will of his Father to be God-with-us. Jesus will incarnate the Logos of God definitively in space and time, but this event we call the incarnation encompasses and is only realized fully in his life, death, and resurrection -- not in his nativity. Only in allowing himself to be completely transparent to this Word, only in "dying to self," and definitively setting aside all other possible destinies does Jesus come to fully embody and express the Logos of God in a way which expresses his solidarity with us as well.

It is probably the image of Baptism-as-consecration and commissioning then which is most helpful to us in understanding Jesus' submission to John's baptism. Here the man Jesus is set apart as the one in whom God will truly "hallow his name." (That is, in Jesus' weakness and self-emptying God's powerful presence (Name) will make all things Holy and a sacrament of God's presence.) Here, in an act of manifest commitment, Jesus' humanity is placed completely at the service of the living God and of those to whom God is committed. Here his experience as one set apart or consecrated by and for God establishes God as completely united with us and our human condition. This solidarity is reflected in his statement to John that together they must fulfill the will of God. And here too Jesus anticipates the death and resurrection he will suffer for the sake of both human and Divine destinies which, in him, will be reconciled and inextricably wed to one another. His baptism establishes the pattern not only of HIS humanity, but that of all authentic humanity. So too does it reveal the nature of true Divinity, for our's is a God who becomes completely subject to our sinful reality in order to free us for his own entirely holy one.

I suspect that even at the end of the Christmas season we are still scandalized by the incarnation. (Recent conversations on CV's and secularity make me even surer of this!) We still stumble over the intelligibility of this baptism, and the propriety of it especially. Our inability to fathom Jesus' own baptism, and our tendency to be shocked by it  because of Jesus' identity,  just as JohnBp was probably shocked, says we are not comfortable, even now, with a God who enters exhaustively into our reality. We remain uncomfortable with a Jesus who is tempted like us in ALL THINGS, and matures into his identity as God's only begotten Son.

We are puzzled by one who is holy as God is holy and, as the creed affirms, "true God from true God" and who, evenso, is consecrated to and by the one he calls Abba --- and commissioned to the service of this Abba's Kingdom and people. A God who wholly identifies with us, takes on our sinfulness, and comes to us in smallness, weakness, submission and self-emptying is really not a God we are comfortable with --- despite three weeks of Christmas celebrations and reflections, and a prior four weeks of preparation -- is it? In fact, none of this was comfortable for Jews or early Christians either. The Jewish leadership was upset by JnBp's baptisms generally because they took place outside the Temple precincts and structures (that is, in the realm we literally call profane). Early Christians (Jewish and otherwise) were embarrassed by Jesus' baptism by John --- as Matt's added explanation of the reasons for it in vv 14-15 indicate. They were concerned that perhaps it indicated Jesus' inferiority to John the Baptist and they wondered if maybe it meant that Jesus had sinned prior to his baptism. And perhaps this embarrassment is as it should be. Perhaps the scandal attached to this baptism signals to us we are beginning to get things right theologically.

After all, today's feast tells us that Jesus' public ministry begins with a ritual washing, consecration, and commissioning by God which is similar to our own baptismal consecration. The difference is that Jesus' freely accepts life under the sway of sin in his baptism just as he wholeheartedly embraces a public (and one could cogently argue, a thoroughly secular) vocation to proclaim God's sovereignty. The story of the desert temptation or testing that follows this underscores this acceptance. His public life begins with an event that prefigures his end as well. There is a real dying to self involved here, not because Jesus has a false self which must die -- as each of us has --- but because in these events his life is placed completely at the disposal of his God, his Abba, in solidarity with us. Loving another, affirming the being of another in a way which subordinates one's own being to theirs --- putting one's own life at their disposal and surrendering all other life-possibilities always entails a death of sorts -- and a kind of rising to new life as well. The dynamics present on the cross are present here too; here we see only somewhat less clearly a complete and obedient (that is open and responsive) submission to the will of God, and an unfathomable subjection to that which human sinfulness makes necessary precisely in order that God's love may be exhaustively present and conquer here as well.

04 January 2019

Once Again on the Importance of Canonical Standing in Nurturing and Supporting the Eremitical Vocation

[[Dear Sister, I wondered if one of the reasons you support canonical standing for hermits has to do with the difficulty and importance of people understanding that solitude is more about communion or community than it is about isolation? What I was thinking was that it takes people to discern whether one is living an isolated life or one of eremitical solitude and the individual might not even know the difference. I also wondered if countering stereotypes of hermits is part of this same need for canonical standing or Church approval. Is this the reason the Church requires the hermit to jump through so many "hoops" to be professed canonically? I think you have written about this some. Lastly, I wondered if your own distinction between isolation and solitude as a "unique form of community" is rooted in your own experience of isolation or of growing to maturity in eremitical solitude? I don't think you have said much about this.]]

Thanks for your questions. They are excellent and it is very cool to hear you were wondering about this! I think I have written about all of these things except perhaps my own experience with/of isolation; I know I did some writing about the importance of canonical standing in On Hermit Ministry and the Call to Become God's Own Prayer and there may be another recent article that did the same. You might check under the label "solitude vs isolation" to see some of the ways I have approached this topic, especially as the place of the Church's discernment is revealed; the same is true of the label "eremitism as ecclesial" (or variations of this). One clarification, I do think canonical standing is important for hermits who live their vocations in the name of the Church, and I believe that strictly speaking, eremitical life is a gift of God to the Church and World which needs to be governed and supervised --- not always easy with such a prophetic vocation, but necessary nonetheless. At the same time I believe that many more than these relative few (consecrated/canonical hermits) are called instead to be lay hermits and to live eremitical life with the aid of spiritual directors and the support of their parishes; I also believe that the Church and world can and should benefit significantly from these lay eremitical lives --- no less than they do from the lives of consecrated hermits.

Difficulties in Discerning the Difference between Isolated Persons and Hermits:

That said, I do agree that there can be a significant difficulty in discerning the difference between an isolated person and one who has been embraced by and embraced eremitical solitude. (Remember that Merton writes poignantly about the necessity of solitude herself opening the door to the one who would be a hermit!) It requires a real knowledge of the person's heart and her commitment to and relationship with Life, Truth, and Love,  not merely a sense of the external silence and physical solitude of the person's life. I also agree that the process of discernment associated with the relatively long journey toward eremitical profession and consecration (always public or canonical in nature!) is a central way the Church lays bare and resolves this difficult question on a case by case basis. But the general difficulty remains and is evident even in newsletters, etc., which are meant to support and nurture eremitical vocations per se. One of the reasons I am not particularly enthusiastic about the self-identification so prevalent in forums like that of Raven's Bread (a newsletter for hermits, solitaries, and others who love solitude), for instance. is because just about anyone can call themselves a hermit and never feel a need to draw important distinctions regarding motivation, personal woundedness vs relative wholeness, historical and ecclesial understandings of the vocation, or to attend much to the tradition of eremitical life.

In today's excessively individualistic society everything from  an intolerant or self-indulgent cocooning to agoraphobia and misanthropy can be subsumed under the rubric "eremitism" in order to attempt to validate expressions of selfishness and woundedness while escaping the need for responsibility to Church and world in regard to a vocation which is meant for the edification of others via a unique proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This tendency to re-brand any number of social deficiencies and "disorders" as "eremitism" because solitude is defined only in terms of physical aloneness goes hand in hand with the tendency to rebrand or redefine license as authentic freedom. But eremitical solitude is only partly about physical solitude; at its heart it is about communion -- communion with God, with oneself, and with all others, communion which vividly defines the nature of the human being as a covenantal reality and human freedom as the counterpart of divine sovereignty.

In any case, just because someone says, "I am a hermit" in today's world does not mean they are one --- at least not as the Church understands the term; you are exactly right in pointing to the need for discernment in this. Even more important than the distinction between solitude and isolation in the need for canonical standing is the way in which this distinction is achieved and the reality it witnesses to in the authentic hermit: namely through her experience of the love of God in Christ which heals and transforms isolation into solitude. Because the canonical hermit is very specifically called and commissioned to live a solitude which vividly and consciously proclaims the life and love of God, the mutual discernment of the canonical process is necessary and helpful for all eremitical vocations. This is so because such a vocation results in wholeness, holiness, and a freedom expressed in compassionate self-gift rather than an isolation associated with personal woundedness, lack of freedom, a lack of generosity, and the incapacity for compassion or sacrifice. Distinguishing between these dimensions (solitude vs isolation, healthy withdrawal vs unhealthy withdrawal) in oneself is difficult; they can co-exist, especially in the beginning of an eremitical life when so much is ambiguous and still needs to be sorted out, integrated, or formed.

Fooling Ourselves and Misleading Others: The Importance of Mutual Discernment

Moreover, apart from this, our ability to fool ourselves and justify isolation --- especially by applying a label like "hermit" to validate this, by uncritically comparing ourselves to "hermits" of different centuries with different (and sometimes less valid) or actually unhealthy sensibilities and spiritualities, or (when unhealthy withdrawal or selfish isolation are met with skepticism or concern) by concluding, for instance, that we are simply misunderstood by "the world" which we believe we are somehow superior to spiritually or otherwise --- is simply too easy to do. But in these situations the so-called "hermit" will never witness adequately to the power of the love of God which unites her with all God loves; she will never be able to proclaim the Gospel in the unique way a hermit called to human wholeness and holiness will.

It takes others to assess and assist the hermit in assessing the real nature of her physical solitude, her deep motivations, her understanding of the nature of the vocation itself, the place of her relationship with God in Christ and others, and her own wholeness and holiness, if they are to truly discern the presence of an eremitical vocation. This has always been true in the church but it is much more urgent since canon 603 and the possibility of dioceses accepting hermit candidates without long formation in religious and/or monastic life.  Further, because of the individualism of our society, eremitism looks like many other things today  but at its heart it is generously (sacrificially) countercultural. Thus, because it is lived for others it is not a facile rejection of the world outside the hermitage nor an expression of spiritualities which falsely hypostasize and demonize "the world". (See posts re Thomas Merton's treatment of the notion of "the world" for explanations of this.)  Countering this false and destructive approach to the world around us and other stereotypes and misconceptions is certainly a part of the importance of canonical standing and the sometimes-lengthy discernment those seeking profession require.

After all, how can a church be expected to profess individuals to a genuinely compassionate and generous eremitical life without making sure the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude is something candidates for profession and consecration have come to understand on the basis of long-experience, prayer, and even struggle to love effectively while embracing the life of a hermit? I sincerely believe the "hoops" we often refer to having candidates jump through are not usually onerous and are completely reasonable as the Church attempts to adequately embrace and celebrate the gift which God has given her in the midst of a world so often marked and marred by individualism and license. This is especially true given the uniqueness of each vocation and the way each candidate serves to educate the Church on the way the Holy Spirit brings individuals to an authentic eremitical vocation.

My Own Experience of the Distinction Between Isolation and Eremitical Solitude:

Your question about my own experience of isolation and growing to maturity in solitude is very perceptive. I insist that solitude is a unique experience of community partly because I have experienced the unhealthiness or destructiveness of isolation (physical, emotional, etc.) and its antithesis in the healing character of solitude,  partly because psychology and theology stress the importance of human relatedness (theology stresses this is our very nature), and partly because my own growth in solitary eremitical life (including the inner work I have undertaken over the past couple of years with my director) have each underscored this in its own complementary way.

Taking all these things together I would say I have been exploring the distinction between isolation and solitude for the whole of my life; I began long before I began doing so in a conscious way by focusing on eremitical solitude as a result of the publication of canon 603 in 1983. A number of factors made this necessary, not least significant childhood experiences of isolation and the effect of medically and surgically intractable epilepsy from the age of @ 19.  Similarly, the really positive influences in my life have underscored the communal nature of solitude along with the solitary pole of all community; that has been especially true with violin and orchestral playing, but also with academic work in Theology, my experience of community in religious life, work with physicians and others, and the gift of friendships, parish relationships, etc.

Without the deep and extensively-rooted sense that solitude represents the redemption of isolation, or the profound experience of being communal at our core, I do not know how I could have made sense of eremitical life or embraced it as a divine vocation. Thomas Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action captured my imagination but it did so because it spoke to and built on my life-experience of isolation vs. solitude. Without the experience of having the whole of my life being called to this particular form of self-gift, or the sense of the significance such a life holds where even many discrete gifts and talents are relinquished in order to witness to the way God alone creates, calls, and completes us as covenant partners in a relationship foundational for authentic human being, I could only have rejected eremitical life as the epitome of an unhealthy and inhuman withdrawal. For a host of reasons through the whole of my life I have been uniquely sensitized to isolation and marked with a hunger for genuine solitude. The inner work I have undertaken as part of spiritual direction is a commitment to being made more and more whole and holy in this kind of deeply relational or communal solitude.

By the way, in my emphasis on the ecclesial nature of this vocation this same dynamic is a defining element. While it is true that I often speak of ecclesial vocations in terms of ecclesial rights, obligations, and stable and governing structures, the communal nature of every such vocation is at the heart of the term "ecclesial". Ecclesial vocations represent vocations summoned forth by God from the "called ones" constituting the ecclesia. We say canonical hermits live eremitical life in the name of the Church and by that we mean such hermits are specifically authorized to live these vocations in the power and as an instance of the presence of the ecclesia. In other words, all such vocations are commissioned by the Church; they are nourished by, embraced on behalf of that community and missioned by and for that same community as well as those outside it; finally they are lived in a way which edifies (builds up) the faith community/ecclesia. While it does happen, it is hard for me to conceive how someone claiming to be called by God to be a canonical hermit could  honestly accept consecration to this ecclesial vocation if she failed to appreciate the communal dimension of her solitude and was committed to an individualistic isolation instead of eremitical solitude.

31 December 2018

Everything is Holy Now



Sometimes readers have written that they are concerned that thinking of and seeing the world as sacramental diminishes the holiness we find in Word and (Eucharistic) Sacrament. For these folks it's as if seeing the world as extraordinary in this way makes of Word and Sacrament something "simply" ordinary. The Eastern Church saw Christmas as a feast marking the divinization (theosis) of reality (especially of the human being!) through the Incarnation --- a situation where awe and reverence become our "ordinary" or fundamental attitude toward the whole of God's creation.

I have been working on a series on the Parables of Jesus for Bible Study in my parish and one of the fundamental lessons we learn from Jesus' parables is not simply the way he uses these stories to relate to folks or can be remembered. (The scholars who treat Jesus' parables in this way seem often to neglect the real power of these stories and trivialize them in other ways as well.) Instead, the common juxtaposition of the commonalities of Jesus' world (seeds, leaven, farming, meals, etc) with a transcendent Rule of God in a way which opens hearers to decisions for the latter reminds us again and again that God's Reign breaks into this world in the ordinary things of this world.

I was sent the song above as a way of sharing part of the Eucharistic celebration and renewal of vows by the Sisters of the Holy Family on their Feast Day on this Feast of the Holy Family. Captures the truth of all of this wonderfully, doesn't it?

30 December 2018

Reflecting on the Feasts of the Octave of the Christmas

When I was an undergraduate at St Mary's College, CA, I worked with friends in campus ministry. One year, we planned the College Christmas Liturgy and, as theological students who were a little full of themselves we pressed the college chaplain to let us choose music that had nothing to do with little babies in mangers, etc. We wanted something less "sentimental", less marked by unhistorical Xmas Stars, angels, adorable lambs, charming shepherds, and so forth. Our instincts might have been good theologically, but to some extent we lacked a strong sense of the liturgies involved in the Church's celebration during the Octave of Christmas and the need to celebrate God now-present in the littlest and least! On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Massacre or Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents --- Matthew's unique narrative which helps contextualize the Feast of the Nativity. Just as Mark's version of the Gospel led him to write "a passion narrative with a long introduction," Matthew's Gospel eased any tendency to sentimentality in the Christmas narrative by reminding us that the Christmas star is accompanied by significant shadow!

But is the story of the massacre about something that really happened? There are good reasons for believing Matt's account is historical and not "just" the Evangelizer's "theologoumenon" (a narrative construct created to convey theological truth). Herod, after all, was known as a cruel, paranoid man driven by a need for power and a strong obsession with conspiracy theories. He had been made "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate in 40 BC, took over Jerusalem with a Roman army, and then maintained his hold on power by killing anyone who might have seemed the least threat. These people included not only a Hasmonean Prince, but 1 of 10 wives, his Mother-in-Law (also Hasmonean), 3 sons, a brother, 45 Jewish leaders and a handful of Pharisees, 300 military leaders, and any number of other folks Herod felt endangered his position or conspired against him. In general he was hated and after the death of his Sons Caesar Augustus noted, "I would rather be a pig than one of Herod's Sons!" When commentators describe Herod's typical pattern of behavior they would note he became fearful, killed whomever he feared, fell into a depression, and then as a response to this, shifted into a more active mode of "BUILD, BUILD, BUILD!!" All of this makes Herod's response to the birth of Christ and account from the Magi as believable; it does not strain credulity --- though it would also have made a powerful theologoumenon!

There is another reason we can believe in this event, however. Often students are told that because there is not multiple attestation in the other Gospels (this is Matthew's story alone!) and because we find no mention of it in Josephus (an ancient historian) or other extra-canonical sources we can't accept the story is historical; similarly they are taught that the huge numbers of children involved (variously, 3000, 16,000, or 64,000 in different Christian liturgical sources) without recognition by Josephus et. al., argues that such an event never happened. But archeologists now know that Bethlehem and immediate environs probably had a population of only 300 people; by extrapolation this means that the number of boys who were 2 years old or younger at this time was only @ 6-7. In a world where infanticide was accepted (or at least not remarked on!), the death of a handful of children by an established murderer and tyrant might well not occasion comment, much less be seen as historically significant. And finally, we ourselves have come to know how quickly people can become inured to stories of harm coming to the least and littlest in our society. Consider the atrocities in Syria and Yemen, or the cruelty now documented which happens to those seeking asylum from oppression daily on our Southern border by US government officials acting in our name  --- and as the Holy Family celebrated in today's Feast once needed to do as they fled to Egypt from Herod's machinations!

No, the massacre of the Holy Innocents and trek of the Holy Family into Egypt are credible as historical events and we trivialize and sentimentalize them at our peril --- and at the peril of our theology of the Nativity and Incarnation when we fail to appreciate the portrait of our world painted by various feasts of the Octave of Christmas. Today it is not uncommon to hear that our world is not as it should be because it is evolving toward the fulfillment God has willed for it; sin is sometimes left out of the equation altogether. But real as evolution is and hopeful as is the image of a world slowly evolving toward fulfillment as well, there are powers and principalities at work in our world which are evidence of sin --- that is, of the universal ratification of anti-Divine powers and principalities and the need for the intervention of God in our historical reality. I sincerely believe that the Christ Event would have occurred, sin or no, as a definitive step in the evolution of our world, but I also know that sin is real and the cosmic light of the Christmas star is bright in part because it stands against the backdrop of sin's darkness.

Christmas is a season of Joy not because there is no darkness, no sin, no oppression and death, but because it reminds us that God has made of our humanity a sacrament of (his) own life and light. History has become the sanctuary of the Transcendent and eternal God. Our God is now Emmanuel (God-with-us) and we, the littlest and the least have been ennobled beyond anything we might otherwise have imagined; in and through Christ we too are called to be Emmanuel for our world, in and through the Christ Event we are each made to be temples of the Holy Spirit. As Advent reminded us, we live in "in-between" times, a time of already but not-yet. There is work to be done, and suffering still to experience. But the light and joy of Christmas is real and something which will inspire and empower all that still needs to be done: caring for, loving (!) the least and littlest so they truly know they are the dwelling places of God; opposing the Herods of this world in whatever effective way we can so the Kingdom of God may be more fully realized by divine grace through time; allowing the joy and potential of the Christ's nativity in our world and ourselves to grow to fullness of grace and stature as we embrace authentic humanity and holiness.

My very best wishes to all on this Feast of the Holy Family and my special thanks to the Sisters of the Holy Family (Fremont, CA) for the charism embodied by the members of their congregation. As they mark the renewal of their vows on this feast we celebrate that they have been and remain a light to the littlest and the least amongst us, to the lost, abandoned, and rejected, the homeless or those who are otherwise without families, and to all those who have found in them a compassionate Presence capable in Christ of healing the wounds occasioned by sin and death.

25 December 2018

Merry Christmas From Stillsong

The Christmas Season extends to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Like other pivotal seasons of our faith it gives us a chance to ponder, pray with, and digest the call to enter into the mystery it represents, not only in the lives of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, John and Jesus, et al, but in our own as well. The dimension of reality we know as Word or Spirit, that dimension of mystery which permeates, enlivens, and grounds all of reality is ever dynamic and seeks ways to become more articulate within creation. It seeks to "overshadow" each of us so that we may each truly become God's word made flesh, a new creation, the imago dei we are made to be as God becomes sovereign in history..

There is an immensity in this call, an incommensurability when measured against our own weakness and personal poverty and we each meet it with a variety of emotions, concerns, and attitudes as we seek to bring our whole selves to it -- just as Mary (or so many of the other participants in the story of Christmas and Christianity) did. Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven" captures all of this so very well!! Sincerest wishes for  wonderful Christmas! Enjoy!!



24 December 2018

God With Us: Celebrating Mystery's Visitations in our Lives



Jump for Joy  by Eisbacher


Today's Gospel is wonderfully joyfilled and encouraging: Mary travels in haste to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and both women benefit from the meeting which culminates in John's leaping in his mother's womb and prophetic speech by both women. The first of these is Elizabeth's proclamation that Mary is the Mother of Elizabeth's Lord and the second is Mary's canticle, the Magnificat. Ordinarily homilists focus on Mary in this Gospel lection but I think the focus is at least as strongly on Elizabeth and also on the place the meeting of the two women has in allowing them both to negotiate the great mystery which has taken hold of their lives. Both are called on to offer God hospitality in unique ways; both are asked to participate in God's mysterious plan for his creation despite not wholly understanding this call and it is in their coming together that the trusting fiats they each made assume a greater clarity for them both.

Luke's two volumes (Luke-Acts) are actually full of instances where people come together and in their meeting or conversation with one another come to a fuller awareness of what God is doing in their lives. We see this on the road to Emmaus where disciples talk about the Scriptures in an attempt to come to terms with Jesus' scandalous death on a cross and the end of all their hopes. They are joined by another person who questions them about their conversation and grief. When they pause for a meal they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and their entire world is turned on its head. That which was senseless is on its way to making a profound sense which will ground the existence of the church. Peter is struggling with the issue of eating with the uncircumcised; he comes together with Cornelius, a Centurion with real faith in Christ. In this meeting Peter is confirmed in his sense that in light of Christ no foods are unclean and eating with Gentiles is Eucharistic. There are a number of other such meetings where partial perception and clarity are enhanced or expanded. Even the Council of Jerusalem is a more developed instance of the same phenomenon.

On Spiritual Friendship, both formal and informal:

I personally love Eisenbacher's picture above because it reminds me of one privileged expression of such spiritual friendship, namely that of spiritual direction. I can remember many meetings with my own director where there was immense surprise and joy at the sharing involved, but one of these stands out --- especially in light of this Gospel pericope. I had experienced a shift in my experience of celibacy. Where once it mainly spoke to me of dimensions of my life that would never be fulfilled (motherhood, marriage, etc), through a particular prayer experience it had come to be associated instead with espousal to Christ and my own sense of being completed and fulfilled as a woman. Thus, when I met with my director to share about this experience, I spoke softly about it, carefully, a little bashfully --- especially at first; but I also gained strength and greater confidence in the sharing of it. (I was not uncertain as to the nature of what I had experienced, but sharing it allowed it to claim me more completely and let me claim a new sense of myself in light of it.) My director listened carefully, and only then noted that she had always prayed for such a grace for all her novices (she had been novice director for her congregation); she then excused herself and left briefly. When she returned she had a CD and CD player with her. Together we sat quietly, but joyfully and even a bit tearfully celebrating what God had done for us while we listened to John Michael Talbot's  Canticle of the Bride.

Elizabeth and Mary come together as women both touched in significant ways by the mystery of God. They have trusted God but are not yet completely clear regarding the greater mystery or how this experience fits into the larger story of Israel's redemption. They are both in need of one another and especially of the perception and wisdom the other can bring to the situation so that they can truly offer God and God's plan all the space and time these require. Hospitality, especially giving God hospitality, takes many forms, but one of the most important involves coming together to share how God is active in our lives in the hope of coming to a greater and more life giving perspective, faith, and commitment. It is in coming together in this way that we clarify, encourage, challenge and console one another. It is in coming together in this way that we become the prophetic presence in our world Absolute Mystery calls us to be. Let us all be open to serving as friends to one another in this sense. It is an essential dimension of being Church and of the coming of the God we will celebrate as Emmanuel ("God with us") on the Feast of the Nativity.

20 December 2018

Looking for Personal Assistance: Got 3/4 Cello?

Hi all! This will be an unusual post for me here and I am a little embarrassed to be putting it up. However, I need some assistance with a decision I need to make so I am putting up an update on the healing of my broken wrist and the difficulties which still remain for me to resume some things which have been central to my prayer and "being myself" since I was about nine years old ---namely, playing music both in an orchestra and more importantly, in composing and in improvisational playing alone. In this latter I have always poured myself into my music and used it to express my heart's content. It allows a spontaneous expression of emotions, love, and so on; it is a dialogue with the God who moves me to stand alone and who empowers me to become an instrument of his own profound music.

My broken wrist  has mainly healed but there have been problems with tendons and ligaments as a result of the fall which caused the fractures in the first place. We have treated these with injections of corticosteroids and achieved significant relief from pain and inflammation but the pain on the ulnar side of my wrist continues in a way which prevents my playing violin. The cortisone is curative for the inflammation of the main tendons of my thumb, but not for those of the ulna; it is merely palliative and cannot deal with the problem here itself. And here is the point: because of the way my bones healed my ulna is now longer than it was before. That means the ligament which ties it to the radius (which is also healed but differently shaped) is being pulled and possibly torn some. It is a major source of continuing pain and lack of movement but it is keeping the joint stable and doing its job! The solution may be surgical if I want to play violin again and avoid degeneration down the line. If steroids are insufficient, the doctor (who is really fine!!) would need to go in, do an osteotomy of the ulna, remove a couple of millimeters and then pin and plate the bone together and back into position. arthroscopic debridement of the radio-ulnar joint (DRUJ) and affected TFCC (ligament complex) might precede or accompany the ulnar shortening.

There is a second "solution" here and here is where I require assistance. I could change instruments to one which does not require the serious rotation of the wrist necessary for violin. While my pastor suggested a comb and waxed paper the other night as we drove to a Chanticleer concert, my thought is that I could shift to a cello. (Combs and waxed paper tickle my lips too  much!) So, I am wondering if maybe readers could assist me in this. I need to find a playable cello which is less than a full-sized instrument, viz, I need a 3/4 or 7/8 instrument to learn on. (I would prefer either a small 7/8 or a larger 3/4 but a large 3/4 might be the best size for me.) I am hoping that someone somewhere has one they, or their children, have outgrown or otherwise set aside and would consider a long-term loan of such an instrument. If I can move to this solution I can avoid surgery, and continue playing music --- a very good thing! More over, I could use the cello as I have used the violin since grade school --- namely,  to compose and improvise, to touch into the "river of music" I know as God.

If anyone has a way of assisting me in this, or has questions and suggestions, I would be happy to hear them. You can write me at Sister Laurel M O'Neal, Er Dio, /St Perpetua Catholic Community/2454 Hamlin Road, Lafayette, Ca 94549, or you can email me at SRLAUREL@aol.com. I hope someone out there has an instrument they don't need and can loan me indefinitely; it will have great care. I have access to a fine violin shop where I can get the instrument additional care as needed. Bottom line, I am hoping folks have access to a playable 3/4 or smaller 7/8 cello that has rested in a closet somewhere and might love a quiet home. Thanks for your consideration! And may your Advent and Christmas be full of the peace of our God --- the God who chooses to make his dwelling place amongst us so that one day we might also dwell in (him) as God becomes all in all.

 
So thanks for reading about my problem and bearing with my requests and embarrassment. It is Advent and a time for preparing for surprise and newness, a time when we prepare to incarnate ourselves the Word of God in the midst of any personal barrenness. I am finding ways to create and pray and write and teach out of my contemplative solitary prayer during this time, but if it is possible to avoid more surgery as well as recover a major form of prayer, I would like to do that. If I can remain open to new possibilities I can and will be peaceful in a time of Advent. waiting and expectation. God surprises as he fulfills his promises. Thanks again!

14 December 2018

Jesus and John the Baptist: Two Approaches to Forgiveness (Reprised)

Gospel Reading for Friday, 2nd Week of Advent: Matthew 11:16-19

Recently I watched story of a woman (Eva Moses Kor) who survived the holocaust. She was one of a pair of twins experimented on by Dr Mengele. Both she and her sister (Miriam) survived the camp but her sister's health was ruined and years later she later died from long term complications. Mrs Kor forgave Mengele and did so as part of her own healing. She encouraged others to act similarly so they would no longer be victims in the same way they were without forgiveness and she became to some extent despised by a number of other survivors. What struck me was the fact that Eva had come implicitly to Jesus' own notion of forgiveness and justice (where her own healing is paramount and brings about changes in others and the fabric of reality more than other notions of justice) while others clung to the Jewish teaching which states that amendment and restitution (signs of true repentance but more than this as well) must be made before forgiveness is granted. What also struck me was that she was indeed freer and less a victim in subjective terms than those who refused to forgive saying they had no right, for instance. Further, her forgiveness and freedom freed others (including another doctor at the camp (Dr Hans Munch) who had, until he met Eva and heard of her own stance towards Mengele, been unable to forgive himself) --- though it also pointed up the terrible bondage of either refusal or inability to forgive which other survivors experienced, especially as this became complicated by their newfound anger with Eva.

Today's Gospel reminds me of this video (and vice versa) because of the close linkage of John Bp and Jesus, and so of two very different (though still-related) approaches to repentance and forgiveness. On the one hand, a strictly ascetic John the Baptist preaches what John Meier describes as a "fierce call to repentance, stiffened with dire warnings of fiery judgment soon to come." (A Marginal Jew, vol 2, pp 148-49) In general John's preaching is dismissed and John himself is treated contemptuously as being mad or possessed by a demon. In the language of the parable John piped a funeral dirge and people refused to mourn.

On the other hand we have Jesus of Nazareth preaching the arrival of the Kingdom of God and offering "an easy, joyous way into [that] Kingdom" by welcoming the religious outcasts and sinners to a place in table fellowship with himself. Meier characterizes the response to THIS call to repentance in terms of the parable, [[With a sudden burst of puritanism, this generation felt that no hallowed prophet sent from God would adopt such a free-wheeling, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, hobnobbing with religious lowlifes and offering assurances of God's forgiveness without demanding the proper process for reintegration into Jewish religious society. How could this Jesus be a true prophet and reformer when he was a glutton and a drunkard, a close companion at meals with people who robbed their fellow Jews . . .or who sinned willfully and heinously, yet refused to repent. . .?]] In other words, in terms of tomorrow's parable Jesus piped a joyful tune, a wedding tune, and people refused to join in the celebration and dismissed Jesus himself as a terrible sinner, worthy of death.

There is wisdom in both approaches to repentance and forgiveness. Both are part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Both approaches are rejected by "this generation" --- as Jesus calls those who refuse to believe in him. Both lead to greater freedom. But it is Jesus' model which leads to the kind of freedom Eva Moses Kor discovered and which is supposed to mark our own approach to repentance and forgiveness. After all repentance is truly a celebration of God's love and mercy, and these we well know are inexhaustible. Still, entering the celebration is not necessarily easy for us, and we may wonder as some of the other survivors wondered about Eva's forgiveness of Mengele: do we have the right to forgive? Is it wise to act in this way towards someone who has not repented and asked for our forgiveness? Isn't this a form of "cheap grace" so ably castigated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer --- also a victim of the Nazi death machine? (cf The Cost of Discipleship) Where does forgiveness become enabling and does it demean others who have also been harmed? What about tough love: isn't John Bp's approach the better one? Am I really supposed to simply welcome serious sinners into my home? Into our sacred meal? To membership in the Church? To my circle of friends?

And the simple answer to most of these questions is yes, this is what we are called to do. The Kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus' example is the one we follow. It is this example which leads to the freedom of the Kingdom, this example that made Christians of us and will in time transform our world. In particular, it is this example which sets the tone for Advent joy and festivity and allows the future to take hold of our lives and hearts. It is not merely that we have the right to forgive in this way, but that we have been commissioned to do so. It is an expression of our own vocations to embody or incarnate the unconditional mercy of God in Christ.

Most of us will find ourselves caught between the prophetic example of John the Baptist and the Messianic example of Jesus' meal fellowship with sinners. We have great empathy both for the approach of Eva Moses Kor AND those survivors who could not forgive Mengele --- often because they felt that doing so was contrary to justice as spelled out in the Scriptures and elaborated in rabbinical tradition, as well as because it demeaned his victims. We know that "tough love" has a place in our world and that "cheap grace" is more problem than solution. Tomorrow's Gospel underscores our own position between worlds and kingdoms, and it may cause us to recognize that there was a deep suspicion of Jesus' table fellowship which was grounded in more than envy or fear. We may see clearly that the Jewish leadership of Jesus' day had serious and justified concerns about the wisdom of Jesus' actions and praxis. Even so, it is also clear regarding which model of repentance and forgiveness we are to choose, which model represents the freedom of the Kingdom of God, and which model allows us to be Christ for others. As Matthew's version of this parable also affirms, the wisdom of this approach will be found in its fruit --- if only we can be patient and trust in the wisdom of Jesus, the glutton, drunkard, and libertine who consorted with serious sinners.

12 December 2018

A Contemplative Moment: Into the Eye of God


  Into the eye of God
by Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB

For your prayer
     your journey into God,
    may you be given a small storm
    a little hurricane
      named after you,
     persistent enough
      to get your attention
    violent enough
       to awaken you to new depths
      strong enough
       to shake you to the roots
     majestic enough
       to remind you of your origin:


      made of the earth
      yet steeped in eternity
      frail human dust
       yet soaked with infinity.

     You begin your storm
      under the Eye of God.
      A watchful, caring eye
      gazes in your direction
   as you wrestle
        with the life force within.

In the midst of these holy winds
In the midst of this divine wrestling
    your storm journey
    like all hurricanes
       leads you into the eye,   
   Into the Eye of God
     where all is calm and quiet.

A stillness beyond imagining!
Into the Eye of God
after the storm
Into the silent, beautiful darkness
  Into the Eye of God.


I used this poem for prayer a few evenings ago. It is taken from Macrina Wiederkehr's A Tree Full of Angels, Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. Advent seems to me a fine time to consider the presence of the Holy in the Ordinary moments and moods of reality. Sister is a monastic of St Scholastica Monastery, Fort Smith, Arkansas.

09 December 2018

Second Week of Advent: Movies and Lectio Divina (reprised)

 [[ Dear Sister Laurel, I'm thinking you may not be surprised by my questions. I saw what you said about going to the movies 2 or even 3 times during Advent and Christmas and it made me wonder how you could do that and be a hermit. I was even more surprised that your delegate went with you! So, could you explain to me how that all works? Does it fit into your Rule? Isn't Advent a period of greater solitude for you (hermits).  I can hear others saying, "The movies? She isn't a hermit!" I would also bet I am not the only one who wrote you wondering about this!]]

Well, I will say I expected people to write me about this but so far, you are the only person to do so! Now that's not bad. Your questions are, as I say, understandable. So let me give them a shot. First of all, this is not a regular practice but it could be (say once a month or every two or three months), especially if I choose good movies that are thoughtfully and artistically done, and more especially if they are based on a true story or a book that is recognized as inspiring. It is not surprising to folks that hermits do a kind of reading called lectio divina. What may be surprising though is that movies may also be good subjects for lectio. For instance, in 2011 I saw the movie "The Tree of Life" with my pastor. Initially we both hated it, but I found it working within me in the hours and days thereafter and decided it was really a beautiful, wonderful film which was suitable to contemplative prayer and life --- much to my pastor's (perhaps feigned)  irritation! In talking about all this with other religious I learned that a monk and hermit from a nearby monastery had seen this film 5 or 6 times and was "using it for his lectio"; he was planning on seeing it several more times.

Something similar happened for me with the movies Life of Pi, The King's Speech, Of Gods and Men and Into Great Silence; eventually we arranged a DVD showing/discussion of this last one at my parish. The simple fact is that God can speak to us in movies just as God does in passages of Scripture, theological books, or even some novels. For instance, I have long known that every time I read a Steinbeck novel something profound happens to me spiritually. The same was often true of AJ Cronin's novels which I read mainly in junior high school --- and again as an adult. The notion that some works are "spiritual" while some are "worldly" in a way which means they cannot mediate the Word of God to us and must be avoided is not only simplistic, it is counter the truth the Incarnation itself reveals to us; namely, our God comes to us in whatever ways we seek him; He makes holy whatever He will, whatever He touches. The "ordinary" and "worldly" (as this term is commonly used) are entirely suitable to mediate God's powerful presence to us. Christians know that with God nothing is ordinary. All is at least potentially sacramental. When a filmmaker or novelist, etc, creates a work of art meant to be beautiful, true, meaningful, and so forth, and when that work attempts to speak these with integrity, God will be mediated to the one who knows how to listen and to seek Him. One may therefore practice lectio with these as well as with other "texts".

In the case of Wonder both I and my director (a word I use in place of "delegate" more and more) knew the story and the story of the person on whom the movie is based. Both of us had heard from other Sisters, et. al. that the movie was excellent and well worth seeing. It was not until I saw it though that I saw how clearly it fits with Advent and some of the early readings in this season. Only then did I recognize its capacity to inspire and shape my own heart with courage, compassion, and empathy. While I am unlikely to see the movie again (unless it becomes available on DVD), I am likely to read the book and use that for lectio along with the movie that now (still) lives within me.

When you consider this I think you can understand how it is possible to see movies not only because they are recreational in the usual sense, but because they can be prayed and are meant to be prayed (that is, attended in a way where one "seeks God"). With good films one opens oneself to the story (just as one does with one of Jesus' parables), is drawn in some way, and then one finds one's mind and heart engaged by the God of truth, beauty, love, challenge, courage, consolation, death, (monastic) stability, martyrdom (witness or parrhesia), and so forth. Let me say that when one attends a movie in a theatre, it remains a fairly solitary event. The reflection done on it may include others at points thereafter, but there is little or no conversation during the film and afterward one brings it all to God in solitary prayer. So, to answer your initial questions, yes, this comports with my Rule. My director usually leaves decisions re what comports with my Rule in my own hands of course, but at the same time I don't think she would have worked out the accommodations she did if she had had misgivings about my decision. So, was seeing this film (and the others as well) appropriate for a canonical (consecrated) hermit? Yes, it was; and given all the conditions already stated it could make a significant contribution to one's eremitical life.

Regarding Advent, no, it is not a season of stricter or greater solitude. I simply live my Rule as I would during ordinary time or Pentecost. Advent is not a penitential season; the focus is not on sin, forgiveness, ascesis, and so forth, but on preparation and waiting in joyful expectation. Yes, there is an aspect of penance, but strictly speaking Advent is not a penitential season. I understand the season as a time to focus on listening, preparing, and responding with all the small "fiats" embodying the God of the Incarnation may require. I approach it as a season focusing on the sacramentality and therefore, the transfiguration of the ordinary. It is a season marked by pregnancy --- thus my reading of Haught's The New Cosmic Story; it tells the story of an unfinished universe unfolding and evolving into something (a new heaven and new earth) we cannot even imagine, a pregnant universe burgeoning with potential and grace. And, as it turns out, in my own inner work this is a theme I need especially to focus on right at this time.

I hope this answer your questions and is helpful to you. All good wishes for Advent, and too, for Christmastide.

Addendum: Those interested in the use of Lectio Divina with icons, movies, and other forms of media --- or even with one's life experience (!) might be interested in Lectio Divina: Contemplative Awakening and Awareness by Christine Valters Paintner and Lucy Wyncoop OSB.