11 January 2023

Discerning Whether one lives a Solitude marked by Community or Community marked by Solitude

[[ Hi Sister, thanks for answering my questions. I'm sorry for your difficulties in your parish. I will certainly pray for you and them! It does raise some more questions for me though. For instance, because your parish has always been such an important part of your vocation, would you ever consider changing parishes? What happens to a diocesan hermit who finds that living in a given parish or diocese detracts from living his/her vocation? I mean you can't just go off to another diocese, or can you? Also, from your earlier answer, what is the cut-off line that makes a hermit a hermit instead of being a religious living in community? I hope you understand what I mean here. You don't divide things up percentage-wise so how do you determine you are a hermit participating in community rather than a community member living a non-eremitical form of solitude? Does that make sense? And one last question, what kinds of questions can people ask you? Have you considered opening your blog to comments? I would bet you get more questions if you did that.]]

Good questions and yes, I think I understand what you are asking in all of them. Thanks for your prayers for me and my parish. I appreciate that very much and would note they are probably not much different from those a lot of folks have or are experiencing in relation to widespread attempts by some to move back behind or to prevent the full reception of Vatican II. Would I ever consider changing parishes? Yes, at least I would consider finding other options for regular Mass attendance and preaching that meets my own need to be fed. In some ways, I already do part of that by listening to homilies that are live-streamed. It may be at some point I will need to find a more comprehensive solution, but I am not there yet. 

Regarding changing dioceses the situation is more complicated. Though a diocesan hermit is a canonical hermit wherever she goes within the universal church, should she wish to move to another diocese, she must get the permission of the new bishop in order to be accepted as a diocesan hermit in that diocese. (She cannot live in one diocese and be professed in another.) Her current bishop will confirm she is a hermit in good standing while the new bishop accepts responsibility for her vocation, vows, and canonical status in this new diocese. So, the short answer to your question is no, hermits can't just go off to another diocese; neither am I looking to do so.

Your follow-up questions on determining whether one is a hermit living solitude as a unique form of community, or someone living in community with a consonant and significant focus on solitude is important. When a hermit writes that community is important in her life, is there a danger that at some point she ceases being a hermit and morphs into something else? Yes, that is a danger and it is something dioceses have to discern with candidates prior to profession and hermits must discern at various points thereafter as well. It is important both that solitude not be a name given to validate isolation and individualism, and at the same time, that despite the pervasive presence of community in the hermit's life and coloring her solitude, that she really be living eremitical solitude and bringing the silence of solitude to experiences of community. How does one know what one is really living?

You are correct that I don't use percentages to determine things here. The Trappistines I mentioned in my earlier post refer to balance as important in assuring that they live 100% community and 100% solitude. It is also an important term in managing the relationship between prayer and work so that while they live Benedict's ora et labora, eventually prayer seeps into the Sisters' work and they live a life of prayer in all things. In my own life, and I think in any hermit's life, one begins with the defining elements of one's life. Here c 603 refers to stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, and the silence of solitude --- all lived for the salvation of the world. All three of these taken together are important in determining whether or not one is living eremitical solitude or using the term solitude to validate something else. Together, they lead me to discern what I am living in terms not of balance, but of healthiness and focus.

When I write about the silence of solitude I treat it as the context, goal, and charism of the eremitical life. It is context because almost everything I do is done in the silence of my hermitage's solitude. That context is the ground and supportive sphere in which I pray, study, recreate, do inner work (spiritual direction-related work including meetings with my director), and write. Do I go out? Yes, for Mass, walks, some doctor's visits, occasional lunches or coffees, occasional workshops or talks, and until a few years ago, weekly rehearsals for orchestra. Since COVID I tend to do some shared lectio and some Bible study (including those I teach) along with annual or bi-annual retreats via ZOOM;  I meet my doctors via ZOOM as well, but the silence of solitude is first of all about living alone with God in this hermitage. This way is healthy for me, the way I am most truly myself, and the way God can most truly be God for and with me.

The silence of solitude is something I also recognize as the goal of my life. Here silence means the healing of woundedness, the healing and reconciliation of the various anguished and otherwise noisy voices of the past that call for forgiveness, and even more, the achievement of the authentic expression of my deepest self. When I speak of being made to be a Magnificat (cf banner at top of this blog) I am thinking of being made silent in some ways that allow God's life to sing within and through me so that I become not just God's prayer in this world, but God's hymn of praise --- even when the overtones and harmonies of that hymn are profoundly modal or echo my life's lamentations. In some ways, silence here means not getting in the Word's way and allowing it to come to fruition as I am called and empowered to incarnate it for the sake of the whole world. Here the "silence of solitude" which is central to c 603, points to human wholeness and holiness --- the achievement in God of true individuality where my own deepest potentials are realized and appropriately expressed in my most mature Sel. At the same time, the shouts, temptations, and anguish of the world that can deflect such a process are rendered silent or harmonious (even if now gently dissonant) and of no distorting influence.

Finally, the silence of solitude is the charism of my vocation. I believe hermits live this reality with a special focus and vividness. They say with their lives that every person is called to be completed by God and made for a love that can only be received as gift. Given all the various idols alive and prevalent in our world, all of the things without which we are told we cannot live or be happy and complete or whole, the hermit defines authentic humanity in terms of communion with God and points clearly to all of the values and goals which, more often than not, help ensure we "miss the mark" (i.e., are bound by and to sin) instead. That it is really possible to achieve meaningful and fruitful authentic humanity via the love of God is the claim hermits make with lives lived in eremitical solitude; it is a gift we live for the sake of all others and their own search for completion and abundant life.

The purpose of eremitical solitude is to provide a unique (though not the only) way toward Communion and even Union with God. Again, in my life, I understand communion with God as part of being authentically human and necessary for any genuinely loving relationship with others. Each of the canon's central elements mentioned above puts communion-towards-union with God right at the center of the hermit's life; communion with God which tends toward union is the primary definer of the meaning of eremitical solitude, there thing which makes it context, goal, and charism. The first question I have to ask myself therefore is "am I living an eremitical solitude which first of all tends toward union with God?" The second question is related and has to do with how I know this to be true, namely, "Am I living a healthy solitude which is marked by personal growth as a whole and holy human being?" The last questions I tend to ask myself are, "How does community color and shape my solitude and how is it affected by my solitude; does it foster my life in communion-toward-union with God or detract from that? Is it enhanced by my solitude or does it seem to conflict with it?" All of this and more goes into determining how I am living solitude in its relation to community. I hope this is helpful. 

Regarding your question about opening this blog up to comments, etc., I considered it a number of years ago and decided against it. While I appreciate folks writing me via email and otherwise, opening the blog to comments seemed to me to make the boundaries between my hermitage and the world outside it far too porous. This blog is an extension of my life in solitude and the questions I receive are questions I open within the hermitage and its routines. I have some real control over these --- when to read them, when and how to respond to them prayerfully during my day or week. I can work on my blog without being assailed by comments and questions and at the same time can give such things the time they really deserve and call for without feeling assaulted by other opinions, questions, and concerns. (Those too will have their proper time and space if folks take the time to write me!) Not sure if I can explain this sense of mine any better than that; I hope you can understand what I mean.

10 January 2023

Weather and Accessibility Updates on New Camaldoli Hermitage

I have had news over the past several days regarding New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur. Due to the rains here (Norther CA) and problems with slides along the coast roads, NCH is currently closed to guests but also isolated from incoming assistance and supplies. Father Cyprian wrote the following to update Oblates and others who care. I am passing it on:

“We had heavy rains––7.14 inches––yesterday on top of the intermittent heavy rains we have had for the past ten days. Highway 1 is now closed all the way from Palo Colorado Road in the north to the Elephant Seal viewing area in the south, so a distance of about 70 miles. There is at least one major slide to the north of us (there are bound to be countless little ones); and there is at least one major one 25 miles south of us. They have closed the gates on either side of Paul’s Slide, the one that we sit on, so we can’t even go 100 feet south of our driveway now. On top of that, a section of a slope slid down on our entrance road, right where the old road meets the new one, with bushes, rocks, and mud. It is impassable at this point, but our guys are down there now with a bulldozer, two Bobcats, and a backhoe trying to clear it.

 Our biggest issue is that we are low on propane in some of the tanks so we are conserving and moving folks around to places where there is more available. We have also moved all our liturgies into the Chapter Room for the time being to save on heat there too. We have no idea when a delivery truck can make it to us.

The good news is everyone is fine, and in a pretty good mood, staff included, who are consistently loyal and resilient. And thanks to Br. Benedict’s diligence we have enough canned and dry goods to weather most any kind of isolation.

We have been warned to expect more atmospheric rivers in the coming days, but anyone who says they know for sure what is going to happen is not to be believed. So we shall wait and see! Of course all our guests are gone and we have no idea when we will be able to welcome anyone just yet. We hope soon, obviously.

Join us in prayer for all those who have lost life and property, for the evacuated and the homeless, and for all the first responders out there who really have their hands full all up and down the coast. 

Thank you so much for all your concerns and prayers, loyalty and love. We feel it!”

09 January 2023

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

 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 ours 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 the incarnation of 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 (our estrangement from God and from our deepest selves), 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 in a world under the sway of sin in his baptism just as he wholeheartedly embraces a public 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 that 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 profoundest solidarity with us. Loving another, affirming the being of another in a way that 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 so that God's love may be exhaustively present and genuinely sovereign here as well.

07 January 2023

Reflection on the Feast of the Epiphany (reprise)

There is something stunning about the story of the Epiphany and we often don't see or hear it, I think because the story is so familiar to us. It is the challenge that faces us precisely because our God is one who comes to us in littleness, weakness, and obscurity, and meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. It is truly stunning, I think, to find three magi (whoever these were and whatever they represented in terms of human power, wealth, and wisdom) recognizing in a newborn baby, not only the presence of a life with cosmic significance but, in fact, the incarnation of God and savior of the world. I have rarely been particularly struck by this image of the Magi meeting the child Jesus and presenting him with gifts, but this year I see it clearly as a snapshot of the entire Gospel story with all its hope, wonder, poignancy, challenge, and demand.

If the identities of the Magi are unclear, the dynamics of the picture are not. Here we have learned men who represent all of the known world and the power, wealth, and knowledge therein, men who spend their lives in search of (or at least watching for the coming of) something which transcends their own realms and its wisdom and knowledge, coming to kneel and lay symbols of their wealth and wisdom before a helpless, Jewish baby of common and even questionable birth. They ostensibly identify this child, lying in a feeding trough, as the King of the Jews. Yes, they followed a star to find him, but even so, their recognition of the nature and identity of this baby is surprising. Especially so is the fact that they come to worship him. The stunning nature of this epiphany is underscored by the story of the massacre of male babies in Bethlehem by the Jewish ruler, Herod. Despite his being heralded as the messiah, and so too, the Jewish King, there is nothing apparently remarkable about the baby from  Herod's perspective, nothing, that is, which allows him to be distinguished from any other male baby of similar age --- unless of course, one can see him with eyes of humility and faith --- and so, the story goes, Herod has all such babies indiscriminately killed.

One child, two antithetical attitudes and responses: the first, an openness which leads to recognition and the humbling subordination of worship; the second, an attitude of a closed mind, of defensiveness, ambition, and self-protection, an attitude of fear which leads not only to a failure of recognition but to arrogant and murderous oppression. And in between these two attitudes and responses, we must also see the far more common ones marking lives which miss this event altogether. In every case, the Christ Event marks the coming of the sovereign, creator, God among us, but in the littleness, weakness, and obscurity of ordinary human being. In this way, God meets us each in the unexpected and even unacceptable place (the manger, the cross, human being, self-emptying, weakness, companionship with serious sinners, sinful death, etc) --- if we only have the eyes of faith which allow us to recognize and worship him!

Silence of Solitude and Community in Eremitical Life

[[Hi Sister Laurel, good to see you writing here again. Have you been okay? I had a question about what you wrote on the Feast of the Holy Family. You said, [[It took and still takes the focused work I associate with spiritual direction, the deep and intense silence of prayer, and the community in all its forms that grounds and renders meaningful and coherent the eremitical solitude that represents the context, charism, and goal of my own life with God.]] When you write about community in all of its forms rendering eremitical solitude meaningful and coherent, what do you mean? I guess I still see community and eremitical solitude as opposed to one another. I am not sure I understand the use of the word coherent here either.]]

Hi there yourself, and thanks for the questions! Yes, in the main I have been okay. There have been struggles with health that are ongoing -- these are sometimes worse and sometimes better --- and difficulties in our parish community that are relatively new; all have taken a lot of energy, including emotional and intellectual energy. Also, I haven't received many questions recently so thinking up posts was just too hard for me. However, I am getting back on track and discerning what I will do in the midst of all of this so I am feeling better. Not least, I am beginning Bible study again for the parish (and others joining us by ZOOM) with the Gospel of John on the 19th of January, and as always, Scripture and the challenge of teaching it are incredibly life-giving for me. 

I am also recommitting to this blog. I continue to believe it is important and touches more people than I can ever know. The week after Christmas I wrote to a monastery in a neighboring state whose Christmas Mass was live-streamed. (I attended Mass in person in my own area, but I wanted to share this community's celebration as well.) Unfortunately, there was no audio! Later that day they put up the homily as a separate video. Fortunately, the audio worked fine! When I wrote, I thanked them for posting the separate video and made a few comments about the homily. It had spoken to me "with God's own voice" and was simply a gift I will carry with me as I move into the future. Not least, to underscore the substance of the homily, the presider included a litany-like song with Celtic harp accompaniment about each of us being the beauty of God incarnated in our world. 

Later that afternoon I received an email from the priest whose homily I had noted. He introduced himself as "the guy playing the harp" and thanked me for the kind words. Further, he explained that he was glad to make contact with me because he was discerning contemplative and/or eremitical life and when he began doing so a few years ago had first read my blog. He has read it many times over the past several years. Our connection was a reminder of how small our world really is, and how God works to weave threads together in some of the most surprising ways as he summons everything to fullness in himself. All of this also ties into and prepares the way for my answer to your question about the relation of solitude to community.

So, on to that question! I spoke of community in all of its forms as providing a way for eremitical solitude to be meaningful and coherent and there I was thinking there of several things. The first is that no Christian hermit lives solitude purely alone. That may be isolation;  it may be some form of personal death (that is, death in a less definitive sense), but it is not solitude. Eremitical solitude as I live and know it is inherently communal --- though that may certainly seem an unusual claim. I do not live alone, ever. I live with God and God is real to me most all the time. Secondly, however, because I am a Catholic hermit, my solitude is rooted in the community of the universal Church, especially as it is localized in my diocese and parish. 

This is not an abstract or merely notional or pro forma rootedness; it involves me with people in concrete ways; they are fed by and feed me and my solitude (communion with God) even when I am not with them physically. I work regularly with a spiritual director who either comes here to the hermitage or meets with me via ZOOM. I am dependent on other people in a number of different ways, from doctors and nurse practitioners to folks who deliver my groceries, those who give me rides to liturgy, et al. And of course, as noted above, I both touch and am touched by people who read this blog and have done for some part of the past 16 or so years. Most of these I will never meet or even speak to. Some write me and a few I will meet face to face --- especially those living in solitude themselves.

In other words, in my solitude, there is a complex and deep web of people whose love and prayers sustain and challenge me to be myself precisely in the silence of solitude even as my life does the same for them. Though it is not always done directly, they subtly influence all of the elements of my vocation; they give that call a certain significance and are part of shaping it in ways that are both meaningful and help it to hang together (cohere) so that it constitutes a meaningful whole. I have often written of the vocation to eremitical solitude as an ecclesial vocation --- meaning first of all that this vocation belongs to the church before it belongs to the hermit herself. (God gives it to the Church who mediates it to me and to other hermits on God's behalf. 

That mediation is not a one-time act, but an ongoing reality I continue to receive and embrace.) I believe profoundly that this ecclesial context is a large part of what allows an eremitical vocation to speak in the way any true vocation must. Among other things, it helps clarify at every point that one's solitude is not about escapism but encounter and engagement, not individualism but individuality and being the whole person one is called by God to be. The silence of solitude points to being committed and whole enough to listen and respond --- to God, to one's deepest self, and to others who might come into one's ambit in any way at all including their need for prayer. It is also a fruit of such attentive or obedient listening, living, and loving.

Consider the following in identifying eremitical solitude as a unique form of community. One's vocation is mutually discerned with representatives of the church; one is called forth by the community to make one's profession and to receive consecration; one is similarly sent into the hermitage to embrace a life of assiduous prayer with and for God's own sake and the sake of all of God's creation, and is supported in one's solitude and anachoresis by the prayer and the assistance of many others. 

The hermit is aware of all of this throughout her life in the hermitage. To forget it is to forget who she is and how she has been and is called every day of her life. At the same time, if one takes any part of this communal dimension away, solitude begins to look very different. It ceases to be eremitical solitude as the church and canon 603 understand it, and can gradually slide into alienation and individualism while the silence of solitude may modulate into the muteness of an uncommitted and personally empty withdrawal from life. It may become a silence we struggle to fill with "noise" --- the noise of various forms of activity and distraction, for example. 

Because of the difficulties recently associated with my parish and the way it has affected my own life, I am clearer than ever that community underlies, pervades, and even characterizes the hermit's solitude in a unique way --- though of course, one can and does move more deeply into the solitude of one's hermitage and the arms of God one finds there for strength and comfort at such times. But even at such times, one's "greater" turn to the silence of solitude of the hermitage is strongly marked by one's existence as part of a community of faith. Nor does deepening or more intense communion with God allow one to forget this. The suffering one brings to prayer at times like this is the suffering of life in a faith community and the strength and healing one finds in one's solitude is the healing one brings in some way to one's faith community. I remember a Trappistine Sister explaining in a video once a while ago that "our life is about 100% community and 100% solitude; it is not 50/50 because the heart of both of these is communion with others" -- and though hermits approach this truth from a different perspective than Trappists, so it is with eremitical life and its communion, first with God, then ourselves, and also with others. 

I hope this is helpful. An older post covers some of this and may do a better job of it in some ways. You can find it here: Silence of Solitude as Charism

01 January 2023

Happy New Year! Recommitting Ourselves to the God of Newness

I have written here in the past that our God is associated with a form of newness we might call qualitative newness. In Greek, it is kainetes or kaine. It contrasts with the second kind of newness Greek recognizes and has a distinct word for, neos. This is the newness associated with a new pair of shoes, for instance; it is the kind of newness where a version of the thing in question replaces an older or worn-out version of the thing or where one gets something one didn't have before, a new broom or car or dishwasher --- or a new pair of shoes. The promise of the Gospel, of Christmas, and of the entry of God into our hearts and human history, is the promise of kainetes, a qualitative newness where everything is made new and, eventually, God is all in all. 

The ironic thing about becoming new in this way is that it means the realization of the things which are deepest and oldest within us, the potentialities we have held since our conception to become the person God calls us to be. To become new in the way God makes all things new means, for us, to become our truest selves, to become authentically human; we do this in response to the Word and Spirit of God who is constantly summoning us to Godself. 

At the beginning of the year, we make resolutions --- or at least most folks do, I think. In these resolutions, we tinker with this or that aspect of our lives and commit to improving this practice or that one. We may swear off chocolate, commit to praying more often, to spending less money on extravagances or to go to the gym every day, and the like. All of these touch in some way on who we are and often on things that prevent us from being all we might be. But often only barely. At the same time, they miss the mark in enabling us to be new persons. They simply do not go far enough in allowing God to make all things new. They don't go far enough in identifying the real goal, the commitment we need to make to be our truest selves. 

On the other hand, when we commit to being ourselves, our truest, most authentic selves, nothing remains the same. Nor is there any limit on the growth this entails or the number of ongoing, related commitments that might also be required as newness opens up within and in front of us. This commitment means turning first and last to God as the ground and source of all genuine (qualitative) newness --- or kainetes. And, it means turning to the truth deep within ourselves, the truth that no enemy can destroy, no failure abolish, nor darkness quench. Finally, it means learning trust that deep truth, in all of its strength, beauty, and wondrous giftedness, is really who we are -- and depending on it, living from it day in and day out along with the God who is its source and ground.

In the new year I pray that people will make this kind of commitment. If we can do that, and if we can renew it every day,  the God who works in and through us can and will make our world a vastly different place and we will have taken steps toward allowing (him) to become all in all.

All good wishes to my readers for a really New Year!! I wish you each and all, the peace of Christ.

30 December 2022

Feast of the Holy Family

Today's Feast has not always been one with which I could resonate well because I grew up in what would euphemistically be called a "dysfunctional" family in which love was a difficult and sometimes difficult-to-find reality. Thus, the symbol of the Holy Family was one I was sure I did not understand and might never really come close to understanding. On the other hand,  both then and now, I have had many really profound experiences of  "family" in a broader and less formal sense including families who "adopted me" (again, in an informal but real sense), in music groups, with friends throughout school, via parish communities, and with Sisters with whom I lived in community or otherwise shared the values and bonds of religious life. 

In all of these, I learned the importance and challenge of loving and being loved into wholeness, that is, loving and being loved in a way that allowed my deepest potential as a person to be realized. And yet, that wasn't always an easy thing to allow! It took and still takes the focused work I associate with spiritual direction, the deep and intense silence of prayer, and the community in all its forms that grounds and renders meaningful and coherent the eremitical solitude that represents the context, charism, and goal of my own life with God. Luke's infancy narrative gives an account of Mary's single powerful "Fiat!" and notes, "She pondered all these things in her heart," which points to a process extending far beyond that single "Fiat". Coming to be the bearer of Light and Life God wills us each to be in Christ takes innumerable "Yes-es" -- and not a few no's as well! The pondering we do in our hearts is not always peace-filled, and the Magnificat we learn to sing with our lives may be more compelling for the dissonances and darkness that continue to mark it in various ways.

 (Reprise) Christmas is a season of Joy not because there is no darkness, no sin, no oppression, or death, but because it reminds us that God has made of our humanity a sacrament of (his) own life and light in spite of the continuing presence of these other realities. 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 (and revealed as made noble!) 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 we will still 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 its proper 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 and the mission they embrace so selflessly. 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, the abandoned and rejected, to 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 the sin and death at work in our world and sometimes in our own families. I personally locate them at the crossroads of Mercy and Grace and I know I am not alone in this.

18 December 2022

Called to Clap and Cheer: Embracing an Advent-Christmas Attitude toward the Future (Reprise from 2015)

In Advent: Shaping our Lives in Light of the Future I wrote that Advent is about preparing to embrace and embracing the future, especially the future revelation of God, rather than hanging onto the past as an adequate model of what will one day be. I reminded readers that our cosmos is an unfinished reality and that we are on the way to the day when Christ will "come to full stature" and God will be all in all. I also noted that theologians and exegetes today read the Genesis creation and fall narratives very differently than they once did --- not as pointing to a completed and perfected universe which then, through human disobedience or sin, fell from perfection, but instead to a perfected universe still coming to be.


Such a new reading does not leave human sinfulness out of the picture nor does it even change our definition of it much. It is still very much about an ungratefulness we link with disobedience and "falling short" of the reality God calls us to be and embrace in our loving, our stewardship of life in all of its forms and stages, and our worship of the One Creator God. Sin is still about substituting our own versions of God for the real One based on partial and fragmentary revelations and being "satisfied" with a religion whose focus is too much on the now-dead past while we resist (i.e., we fail to entrust everything in faith to) the ever-surprising God who wills to make everything definitively new. Sin is about enmeshment in this passing world and its fragmentary vision; it shows itself in resistance to the coming Kingdom (the sovereignty and realm) of God which is already in our midst in a proleptic way and seeks to pervade and transfigure all we are and know. Sin is about our resistance or lack of openness to the qualitatively new and surprising (kainetes), the reality we know as an eternal or absolute future; when we embrace or otherwise become enmeshed in that lack of openness we are left only with the world of transience and death. After all, sin and death, in all of their forms and degrees are precisely about a lack of future.

Today's readings from Isaiah and Matthew fit very well in underscoring these dynamics, both those of Advent and the futurity it inaugurates and celebrates, as well as of sin and its resistance to newness and future. Isaiah's language is classic for us. He reminds us that so long as we are disobedient to the Commandments of God we have no future; we will not prosper. I think today we need to hear the term "Commandments" as referring to those imperatives of gratefully loving, stewarding life, and worshiping God which are the keys to any authentic futurity. Obedience is a matter of hearkening to these, that is, being open and attentive to them in all of the ways and places they come to us as we embrace whatever they call us to. Obedience is the responsive behavior of those who are grateful.

The Gospel lection tells a wonderful story of prophetic and messianic gifts of God (symbolized most fully by John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth) given freely to God's People --- only to be met with narrow-minded criticism and hardhearted ingratitude. God is trying to do something new, trying to bring creation to fulfillment in a "New Creation" of freedom, holiness, and eternal life; human beings representing God's chosen people are resistant. Now John the Baptist himself had come to wonder if Jesus was really the Messiah John had prepared people for; things were looking bad for both John and Jesus and Jesus did seem to be pretty different than the One John had been proclaiming.

Jesus responded to John's questions by pointing to the things God was doing through him to give the blind and crippled a new and full future --- just as Isaiah had promised. Then Jesus uses the image of children engaged in petty bickering as they play games mimicking weddings and funerals. It is important to note that these are ordinarily the most joyful and poignant celebrations of life, love, and the hope of a future grounded in the God we know. Similarly, funerals are those moments marking the terrible sadness and grief of sin and death in separation from God --- though they too may be transformed into celebrations of an eternal hope and future. Jesus reminds the adults listening to him that --- in something that was deadly serious --- God played them a dirge (called them to serious repentance and conversion) culminating in the prophet John and a wedding hymn in Jesus his Anointed One, but they resisted and rejected both. Instead, they criticized John as a crazy person and called Jesus a drunkard and glutton. Theological arrogance, religious complacency (lukewarmness) or superiority, outright cynicism or hardheartedness --- whatever the roots of this ingratitude it gave no room at all to a faith (trust) that allowed God to do something new in and with our world.

Because Christmas and the exhaustive incarnation of God is, in some ways, not yet complete; because we look forward to the day when Christ will finally come to full stature (cf., Paul to the Ephesians), both Isaiah and Matthew are urging us to adopt an attitude of gratitude and joyful openness to the God of Newness and the future we know as life in God. It is an attitude that contrasts radically with that of the children playing their games in today's gospel or of those rejecting Jesus and John and the Kingdom they inaugurate. Harold Buetow tells the following story which captures the childlike humility, excitement, gratitude, and openness we are to have in relation to the awesome Christmas drama of the New Creation God is authoring right now in our lives and world.

[[Little Jimmie was trying out for a part in the school [Christmas] play. He'd set his heart on being in it though his mother feared he wouldn't be chosen. On the day when the parts were awarded, with some trepidation his mother went to collect him after school. Jimmie rushed up to her, eyes shining with pride and excitement: "Guess what, Mom," he shouted, and said, "I've been chosen to clap and cheer!"]]

I am especially struck by how really involved and aware, how truly attentive to and appreciative of the work occurring right in front of oneself one must be to "clap and cheer" (or to be raptly silent!) in ways which support and move the drama of God's will forward. Isn't this the attitude of praise and gratitude evident in God's followers all throughout the centuries? Isn't this the attitude merited by an unfinished universe moving mysteriously but inexorably toward the day when its Creator God will be all in all?  And isn't this the attitude of obedient anticipation Advent asks each of us to cultivate?

The story of Jimmie's call is from Harold Buetow's, Walk in the Light of the Lord, A Thought a Day for Advent and Christmastide, Alba House, 2004. (Friday, 2nd Week of Advent, p 40.)

15 December 2022

Third Week of Advent: What Did you Come to See?

What did you come out to the desert to see? You've heard the rumors of this man named John and of me (Jesus) as well, so what did you come out here seeking? Was it a reed blowing in the wind, a so-called "prophet" moved by every cultural current and whim, or was it someone more authentic with a word that is lasting, solid, and eternal --- like the truth of God? What are you, you who are neither followers of John nor disciples of mine looking for? You heard that John in his way and I in mine proclaimed the Word of God. You heard people calling us prophets. Were you expecting us to be dressed in worldly finery and the trappings of political, religious, or ecclesiastical honor, prestige, and power? Is that what you really hoped for? Is it what you needed? Please ask yourself these questions!!! And please answer them honestly, from the depths of your hearts! What did you travel into the desert to see? What do you need?!

Today's gospel starts out this way with Jesus asking the crowd who have attended both John's disciples and his own to examine their hearts, first so they might understand their own motives in seeking him and John the Baptizer out, and then too, that they might get in touch with their truest and deepest needs and yearnings, needs and yearnings that can only be met or filled by the God who created and completes them as human beings. As it moves along, today's Gospel also promises these folks that they will be surprised and that God's answer to what they were seeking may look very different than they were expecting. And isn't this how it is for each of us whenever God reveals Godself to us? To Jesus' questions then, we might add one more that is implicit in all he says in this gospel lection, namely, "Are you prepared to be surprised by God? Will you allow that?" There is a corollary here too, "Will you receive him; indeed, will you follow him even if he comes as one whose power is manifested in weakness, his justice in mercy, and whose glory is most perfectly revealed in crucifixion and shame?

Jesus' questions are always some of the most important texts in the New Testament. They provoke, invite, and empower us to enter into a process of introspection, self-appraisal, and clarification leading to real conversion. In these few sentences in today's gospel lection, Jesus implicitly focuses us on the ways we run hither and yon looking for "something" to fill the emptiness, something to make sense of our confusion and existential lostness, something that can serve as a means to anchor our lives and still our constant restlessness. 

He calls to mind all the false solutions we substitute for the real thing: power, prestige, the favor of the powerful and honored, wealth, worldly success, etc. and reminds us of how these leave us hungry and thirsty for something more and other. At the same time, Jesus encourages us to recognize that Divine wisdom is not always clothed in the vestments of ecclesiastical or civil authority we usually submit to, for example. This, of course, is one of the reasons the Magi (who, whether they are astrologers or kings or something else entirely, are certainly symbolic representations of the wisdom and power of this world) will offer gifts and bow down to a helpless child. God comes to us in surprising ways that turn our expectations on their heads, even as he reveals and fulfills our deepest needs and yearnings.

As we journey toward the feast of the Nativity of Jesus, it's a good time to let him put his questions to us as well. It is one way the valleys and mountains of our own hearts and minds are either filled or made low and the highway of our God made straight within us --- one of the ways the Kingdom of God is brought near and an incarnate God allowed to take up residence with and within us. As we bustle around in our Christmas preparations what is it we are really preparing ourselves for? What, indeed, have we come out to see?

24 November 2022

Happy Thanksgiving!



i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes. . .

e.e. cummings
1894-1962

This is one of those really special days for Americans, where we pause and give thanks for all that we have and can aspire to as the result of our liberty as citizens of the United States. For me, it is a joy-filled day because God has been so very good to me in so many ways. My life is rich with friends, love, meaning, fruitful ministry and work, and genuine freedom. In particular though, it is rich in the presence of God in an eremitical solitude that is full, empowering, and challenging. I am grateful beyond telling for this vocation and the freedom to respond to it. So many people have brought me to this place. . . ! I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving Day. May we celebrate well the gifts and callings we have been given by God and may we remember and help empower to celebrate those who might  have reason to doubt or be grieved by the meaning of this day.

08 November 2022

The Gospel Call to Make Neighbors of "the other": A Post-Election Reflection and Prayer (Reprise)

I wrote the following post six years ago (can it possibly have been that long??) and today, on another election day, though there have been some changes for the better, the overall problem outlined here is even worse with increased social division, polarization, hatred, antisemitism and other forms of racism, and authoritarianism. The lesson Jesus taught us is the same as it was in his day: make neighbors of the "other" and reject attitudes that judge and demonize those who are different than we are. This is fundamental to a Gospel of reconciliation. Meanwhile, for those Christians voting today, let me remind you that Christians are never one-issue voters. Instead, we are the ones who recognize objective values and disvalues, are capable of preferencing them and then choosing them prudentially in love. If one cannot or will not do this, one is not genuinely a disciple of Christ because one would then be incapable of being church (embodying Christ) in God's wonderful and complex world.

 As we move into this new period with President-Elect Trump I have to say I am surprised, even stunned by the results of this election. Throughout Trump's campaign, I watched people being turned on by rhetoric that appealed to and perhaps exploited the very worst impulses and motives dwelling within the very darkest recesses of our hearts and minds. They are the very worst and darkest impulses of the world we occupy as well. 

One of these, and one of the most fundamental, is the impulse to reject "the other", to be frightened by those who do not think or believe or look like we do, to resent and denigrate and isolate them and ourselves. Donald Trump quite clearly and carefully tapped into that fear. He demonized folks who those living in the city may meet regularly (and may or may not have genuinely accepted), but who those living in the rural areas may never have met face to face, much less sat down next to in a restaurant or dined with at their own table. Trump touched into our often poorly-hidden fear, anger, insecurity, and even hatred and captured the minds and hearts of those who felt entirely disenfranchised by the "other" of many different stripes. In these ways, Trump capitalized on some of the motives and emotions that can and do drive us as human beings to choose that which is unworthy of us --- unworthy of authentic humanity --- and it propelled him to a win in this election. And this stuns me.

And yet, the NT tells me I should not be so surprised; there is nothing particularly new or surprising in all of this. After all, the Christian mission to proclaim the Gospel to the world is also a mandate to make neighbors of "the other." That stance and charge is only meaningful in a world marked and marred by the kinds of attitudes and divisions Donald Trump expressed and exploited in his campaign. Jesus' mission was a countercultural way to approach reality in the first century and it remains a countercultural reality whose very antithesis has apparently assumed an almost institutional validity in the United States presidential election. But for Christians this task to make neighbors of the other, to call one another "friend" in the performative, reality-making way such words of love change reality, to love as we have been loved by a God who excludes no one and who offers us citizenship in a Kingdom greater than anything of which we can conceive --- this task has become a very much more critical and difficult mission. And yet, to act towards "the other" as Jesus and his Father have called us remains the mission of Jesus Christ and the heart of a ministry of reconciliation rooted in unconditional and unmerited love offered freely to and through us. "Love one another as I have loved you" is quintessentially a call to make neighbors, fellow citizens, and friends of those who were "the other" and had no legitimate place --- whether that means in God's own life or in the world we who have been made God's own inhabit.

I am frightened right now even though I know that faith casts out fear. I am concerned, even worried though the Scriptures tell me not to be anxious. I am struggling to remain hopeful for the coming of the Kingdom --- a new heaven and a new Earth where justice is realized ---- though the reasons for hoping in the goodness and generosity of many Americans has been eroded and this new President seems to promise a "scorched earth" policy and an ethics of vengeance to anyone he deems an "other" because they don't think, speak, act or believe as he does. I am chastened because I believe in radical conversion of heart and mind even as I look at our new president elect and I think, "God forgive me, but he has shown himself to be a pathetic and unprincipled human being throughout his life and this campaign; I don't believe he will change now."

But the larger truth is that my faith does not rest on the outcome of this election, nor is my hope for a new heaven and a new earth doomed or even critically threatened by it. So yes, the task to make neighbors and friends of "the other" and to support others who have given their lives to apostolic work given over to this is made a little more challenging --- and also more urgent. And in spite of my fear I accept that challenge and know MANY others who will do the same. My commitment to a Love that does justice is also made more challenging and more urgent. And in spite of my anxiety, that too is a challenge I accept and a commitment I renew today. My share in the proclamation of a Gospel that reminds us we are all outsiders, all aliens who have been brought into the very life of God through the death and resurrection of a convicted criminal (this election campaign is not the only time we have heard a crowd of fanatics shout for the execution of someone they did not actually know or were bent on vilifying!) and a baptism we neither earned nor merited --- that proclamation has become infinitely more critical I think. I sincerely hope and pray, therefore, that I will be seeing many blogs, homilies, essays, and talks from other religious and religious leaders who remind all of us who call ourselves "Christian" of the Gospel we proclaim --- the good news of a God who makes outsiders and their world his very own despite the sacrifice this entailed.

Again, "Love one another as I have loved you" is quintessentially a call to make neighbors, fellow citizens, and friends of those who are aliens, those who are the "other" and have no legitimate place or claim --- whether that means in God's own life or in the world we who have been made God's own inhabit. May our God help us to embrace this call at a time when our country and world has perhaps never needed us to do so with greater urgency.

24 October 2022

Another Look at Humility from the Perspective of Matthew 23:1-12 (Reprise)

I chose to repost this piece in preparation for another one I am working on re humility. Both a conversation I had with a young priest a couple of months ago regarding the distinction between the verbs "to humiliate" and "to humble," and about the idea that in humbling us God raises us up, as well as a homily I heard yesterday have me thinking about how common our misunderstanding of humility actually is. The following post suggests the antithesis of humility is hypocrisy --- dishonesty of a particular kind. It also suggests that once we know (understand and embrace) who we really are in terms of God, we will understand humility.  Best, Sister Laurel 10/24/2022

Today's Gospel presents us with an analysis of the nature of humility and a reminder of its importance. This lection is concerned with the image of authentic humanity seen in contrast with the inauthentic humanity of the Pharisees. Three things, in particular, struck me about humility as a result of today's gospel passage.

First, while most of us would say the antithesis of humility is pride, and today's gospel certainly portrays pride as a symptom of the lack of humility --- the Pharisees love their special seating at the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets as well as their titles and elaborate religious garb --- pride is an aspect of a deeper reality. That deeper reality is the real opposite of humility; it is HYPOCRISY which means play-acting, pretending, or dissembling. What the Pharisees show us is that there is a kind of forgetfulness in this hypocrisy, a willingness to ignore some aspect of the truth about themselves and others and to play up (or to deprecate) other aspects of the person, or the person as a whole. The Pharisees are indeed guilty of pride, but pride is a symptom of this deeper problem, this need to pretend and live a lie.

One thing today's Gospel makes clear (and we will hear the same thing in tomorrow's) is that this kind of pretense is always at someone else's expense. If we cannot be truthful about ourselves and accept the whole of ourselves in light of God's love for us, in light of the infinite dignity we possess as his own, neither will we be able to be truthful about others. Because we feel ashamed and threatened on some level, we will need to put others down or oppress them in some way. For the Pharisees, treating religion as a means to status for themselves also means making sure others are seen as less religious or even irreligious. The burdens they tie up and impose on others which they then do not lift a finger to help these others to bear is the burden of religious law. As a result of some of these laws, people cannot worship with their brethren, some are, by definition, unclean, etc. Their very livelihoods prevent them from being Jews in good standing, so to speak. For them, religion is oppressive and a means of disempowerment. It denigrates rather than exalting and empowering.

It follows then that one of the central signs of a lack of humility (hypocrisy, pretense, dissembling, etc) is seeing others as competitors or rivals. For this reason, Jesus directly opposes this with the notion that those who really follow him are brothers and sisters to one another, and have a vocation to serve, that is, a call to ease the burdens of our neighbors. We do that in many ways, but one of the most important is by giving these neighbors access to the life of Christ and his gospel, a life that supports them in their preciousness and allows them to live up to their potential and dignity as human beings. Ironically, the biggest bit of forgetfulness the Pharisees are guilty of is how TRULY gifted they were --- they and everyone else. That is, they forgot that where God was concerned they were truly beggars; their whole selves are gifts of God, given at every moment, inspired by his breath, sustained with his mercy and love, and given every good gift from beyond themselves. To say one is gifted requires a giver of gifts, and to acknowledge true giftedness is also to admit one's dependence on the giver.

Secondly then, it is from an examination of its opposite, and also from looking to Jesus that we come to see humility as a loving truthfulness about ourselves, especially vis-a-vis God and others. To be humble requires an awareness and acceptance of who we really are, not just in terms of limitations, brokenness, sinfulness, and the like, but our strengths, talents, and gifts as well. This is true not only because simple awareness is important in the spiritual life and pretense is disastrous, but because this kind of awareness and acceptance allows us to really live for others. For the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of our brothers and sisters, and with the knowledge that we are essentially no better nor worse than anyone else, we are free to work on our limitations, whether that be with therapy, spiritual direction, education, etc. And for the sake of our brothers and sisters and the building up of the kingdom we will be free to develop and use our gifts, talents, and strengths --- but not if we remain either reticent or embarrassed about admitting them, or if we claim them as our own possessions and the means to self-aggrandizement.

Thirdly then, we have to renounce the notion that humility is about self-denigration or self-deprecation. It is not about putting ourselves down, particularly not in hypocritical or insincere ways. Humility is not about a lack of self-esteem or feeling and operating out of a lack of personal dignity. Instead, humility is about being exalted in the truest sense, that is accepting our identities, our preciousness and dignity in God, letting him lift us up from the dust of the earth and breath into us a spirit that sets us apart from the rest of creation making us uniquely gifted for the sake of the whole of his creation. Humility allows our greatest truth to be the fact that God is continually merciful to us, continually regards us as and makes us precious, continually loves us beyond and in spite of anything unworthy of his love in a way that makes us the very result of that love.

Genuine humility recognizes and accepts both dimensions of our lives, the limitations and sinfulness, AND the giftedness and strengths, particularly since the latter does not come from us, but from the giver of all gifts. It is for this reason that other signs or symptoms of a lack of humility besides pride, competitiveness, and rivalry include false modesty, perfectionism (a lack of honesty about our own giftedness and its imperfection), a lack of self-esteem, and all the actions that come with these. Embracing the whole truth of ourselves is both freeing and empowering. Not least it opens us to accept and use God's gifts (for which we need no longer be ashamed or self-conscious) on an ongoing basis. (After all, it is not easy to be rescued or saved, but for the humble person, it is the simple fact of who they are and who they will continue to be.) Further, it allows us to accept others for who they are as well, neither threatened by their gifts nor repulsed by their limitations and weakness. This empowers us to really be brothers and sisters to one another and to serve as best we can.

We should always bear in mind that the word humility comes from the Latin, humus, which means earth, ground, or soil. Humility reflects several senses of this word: 1) it recalls that we are creatures made from the dust of the earth, but also spirit-breathed, inspired beings with an innate dignity that is literally incomparable to any other creatures we yet know. 2) humility is the soil out of which all other virtues grow. It is akin to the good soil in the parable of the soils which allows the Word of God to take root and grow deeply and lastingly without being stunted or distorted while we proclaim it boldly with our very lives, and 3) it is indeed the ground of our salvation in the sense that it is the precondition, the loving truthfulness necessary for receiving fully the gift of salvation.

One final word on the last line of today's Gospel. We might be tempted to read this line as punitive (or alternately implying reward): if we lift ourselves up, God will knock us down, whereas if we denigrate ourselves, God will exalt that and us as a reward. I think this is a serious misreading of the line. What Jesus (via Matthew) is giving us here is the PARADOX of humility: if you are honest about yourself and who you really are, God's work to gift you will bear incredible fruit. His Word within you will be ABLE to exalt you further and further and make you even more who you are called to be. You will truly be God-breathed or inspired dust of the earth, and your inheritance will be eternal. If, on the other hand, you are unable to admit or accept the truth of yourself God's loving mercy will not be able to find a place to grow in you and will not bear fruit in abundance. If, and to whatever extent you cannot be gifted by and dependent upon God, then life and death will eventually take whatever status you have enjoyed away from you, and you will return to the dust of the earth as nothing more lasting than that.

Canonical Hermits, Non-Canonical Hermits, and Humility

In light of Sunday's Gospel (re: the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple), I am pulling up some older posts on humility and maybe will write a new one as well. Peace!

[[Dear Sister, do some hermits chose not to become canonical because of their humility? I have read one hermit who chose not to do so because she wished to remain "small" and another because she wished to remain "hidden". Is there an advantage in making such a choice for these reasons?]]

Thanks for your questions. Let me define humility as I understand it and then try to answer your question about smallness from that perspective. Humility is a form of honesty, specifically, a form of loving honesty (both elements are critical here) about who one is (and who others are) in light of the way God sees us. We are humble when and to the extent we regard ourselves (or others) in the same way God regards us, neither disparaging ourselves (or others) nor engaging in self-aggrandizement. I have written here before about this and especially on the distinction between something that is truly humbling and something which is instead, humiliating. Too often in various threads of spirituality, the verb associated with humility has been mistakenly construed as 'humiliate'! But God does not humiliate --- ever! God's love humbles us. It reveals our true dignity. It raises us to the ability to see clearly and lovingly just who we and others are in light of God's own deep regard for and delight in us.

There can be many sources of the notion that canonical vocations are about pride or a lack of humility. Consider, however, that if God calls some to be diocesan hermits under c 603, it is also the case that acceptance of such a vocation might well be a wonderfully humbling experience. Surely it could be argued that God would intend any vocation to be a humbling (or humble-making) experience rooted in God's love for that person and those to whom they are called to minister in this specific way.  No? My own sense is that we tend to associate pride or arrogance with canonical standing because we often neglect to ask ourselves whether or not God calls anyone at all in this way. If a way of life represents a form of divine call, why should we assume that those who seek this specific form of life lack humility or that the way of life lacks sufficient "smallness" where another form of the vocation (non-canonical eremitical life, for instance) does not?

I participated in a couple of conversations this last couple of weeks on a list on "Hermit Vocations" --- a list apparently made up largely (but not exclusively) of self-designated hermits in the lay state. I was saddened to find the degree of judgment I did which is present regarding diocesan (c 603) hermits and the arrogance or pride they were thought to reveal simply in having sought (and been granted!) canonical standing. One opinion was that for those seeking standing in law under c 603 "was all about show" and concern with externals. It is seriously harmful to any form of eremitical life to paint them with such a cynically broad brush and I was surprised to find this response to be so immediate and, in some ways, pervasive. But, to be misunderstood is nothing new with eremitical vocations and I think the question of God's call is critical here: If canonical standing is something God wills for at least some hermits, then how can we automatically conclude that canonical standing and all it brings is something only the arrogant or prideful embrace? (By the way, please note that when folks criticize canonical hermits they tend only to criticize solitary canonical (or diocesan) hermits, not those living eremitical life in canonical communities. I wonder why that is?)

I am not certain what you are asking when you speak of advantages in making decisions in terms of "smallness", for instance, but I believe one's personal discernment can certainly benefit from being concerned with one's own personal and spiritual strengths and weaknesses and how the grace of God is working in the Church and ones own life to make the very best of these. If this means realizing that one sees diocesan eremitical life as lacking in "smallness" or "hiddenness", then it can certainly be of benefit to work through all of this with one's spiritual director. Similarly, if one is looking for a "higher" form of eremitical life, perhaps one needs to spend some time working through this aim and all that motivates it. At the same time, if one is unable to see the real value in lay (non-canonical) eremitical life, the dignity and worth of such life, then one needs to work through whatever it is that causes one to see this form of eremitical life in this way. Whenever we get into competitive ways of seeing that accent "better", "superior" or "lower", "meaner", etc, it is time to take real care regarding what is going on in our own hearts.

That said, it is important to also ask if there are ways each form of eremitical life challenges the other to greater authenticity. For instance, canonical standing calls hermits to understand that the eremitical vocation belongs to God and the Church, not to the individual. It calls hermits to find ways to embrace, live, and express the truth that eremitical life serves others from within the Church --- whether or not the vocation is technically an "ecclesial" vocation or not. Canonical standing emphasizes the place of mutual discernment and formation, both initial and ongoing, and the necessity for regular spiritual direction and participation in the sacramental life of the church. It does not allow one to substitute license for genuine freedom. It stresses the need for a Rule, a vision of how one is to live the life and a commitment which binds in conscience and as well as in law, and which affirms what is foundational and what is not. Lay (non-canonical) eremitical life reminds hermits of the roots of eremitical vocations in the life of the Church, the profound prophetic character of hermit vocations as typified by the Desert Abbas and Ammas --- and others throughout the history of the Western church. These two forms of solitary eremitical existence should be in conversation with one another, NOT in competition.

 There are temptations associated with each form of eremitical life. For instance, it is true that canonical standing can lead to the temptation to consider canonical hermits as "better" hermits than non-canonical hermits. This particular temptation needs to be assiduously eschewed and that may require one learning to see oneself merely as called to one valid form of eremitical life rather than another equally valid form. If one has a problem with pride, for example, then perhaps that is a good reason for one's diocese to require one to live as a hermit without the benefit of canonical standing until one appreciates the way God works in and through lay or non-canonical hermits. Even so, the conversations I have recently had remind me that non-canonical hermits can easily fall into the same trap -- that is, they can easily believe they are "better" hermits than canonical hermits because, for instance, they are more like the Desert Abbas and Ammas who did not have (and of course could not have had!!) canonical standing (institutional standing and support in law), or are (supposedly)  "smaller," or "more humble," or more "hidden."

But to get back to your questions and what I began this post with, namely, an understanding of humility, in all of this we need to recognize that real humility does not engage in such a competitive way of characterization and discourse. Real humility recognizes that both canonical and non-canonical eremitical life can be rooted in the call of God;  though they differ in their relative canonical rights and obligations, both have all the dignity and importance of true vocations of God and both can reveal the tremendous diversity and freedom of eremitical life. It seems to me that one could discern a vocation to hiddenness and to public vows/canonical standing. One has to be certain of one's own motives and discernment but there is no reason to necessarily conclude God cannot call one to smallness, hiddenness, AND to canonical standing. He has and continues to do so.

27 September 2022

On the Purposes and Nature of Canon 603 (Reprise)

Dear Sister O'Neal, was canon 603 established to regularize hermits in the Western Church? Does the church refer to or have recluses any more? I am asking because of the following passage: [[It may be interesting to note that now, the Western Church has, as recently as1983, developed a means to regularize hermits (the term recluse has dropped from Church use) by creating CL603.  Thus, hermits who wish to receive bishop approval and be publicly professed under that bishop's direction within their given diocese, may do so. At this time, the canon regulization (sic) is not at all pressure upon hermits who may still prefer private profession of vows within the Consecrated Life of the Church.  Some bishops may prefer to not have hermits in their dioceses nor to deal with the regulized (sic) aspect of CL603, either; but I know of no statistics current on this point.]] I know there are problems with referring to "private profession" "within the consecrated life" of the Church so I am not going to ask you about that. Thank you.]]

No, generally speaking canon 603 was not promulgated to "regularize" solitary hermits in the Western Church. The church from diocese to diocese rather than with universal law had done (or tried to do) that in the middle ages in a number of ways. Primary among these was establishing common Rules for hermits and funneling many of them into monastic communities and such. (Remember that regularize and Rule come from the same root, regula.) As a result, solitary hermits in the Western Church pretty much died out by the 15th or 16th Century. Canon 603 was established as a way of recognizing this significant but very rare vocation in universal law for the first time and allowing it to reveal itself on its own terms with ecclesiastical supervision. This was especially desirable because, as I have noted several times here, solemnly professed monks were discovering vocations to solitude after years in the monastery but because this was not an option for them under their institute's proper law, they had to leave their monasteries and be dispensed and secularized if they were to live as hermits at all. Bishop Remi de Roo and others argued at Vatican II that such a significant and prophetic vocation should be universally recognized as a "state of perfection." This finally occurred with canon 603 and the publication of the 1983 revised code of Canon Law.


Canon 603 serves to define eremitical life (c. 603.1) in well-accepted traditional terms and to provide for living it as an ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church under the supervision of the hermit's local bishop (c. 603.2). It is important to remember that this canon expects the hermit to write her own Rule rooted in her own experience of the way God is calling her to live this life. This is a necessary piece of the Church's discernment of the vocation and of readiness for vows. The bishop does NOT write the hermit's Rule nor is she forced to adopt an already-established Rule --- as was often the case in the Middle Ages. She lives the ecclesial definition of eremitical life in her own way according to her own rhythms, gifts, and needs, but she does so with the aid of a spiritual director and also a diocesan delegate who assists the Bishop in making sure the vocation is lived well and in a healthy, representative, and edifying way. There is nothing onerous about this arrangement for one called to this vocation precisely because eremitical life is not about simply doing as one pleases, but instead about responding to an ecclesially mediated vocation in ways which are edifying to the church even as they are life giving to the hermit.

Regarding recluses, the Church has not dropped the term. She uses it mainly for those very rare hermits who belong to certain Orders and are admitted to reclusion by their communities. The vocation to reclusion is supervised and supported by the congregation, particularly by the superior of the house where the recluse resides. Only the Camaldolese and the Carthusians are allowed to have recluses today. (This includes the Camaldolese nuns who are famous for supporting the vocation of Nazarena, a recluse who lived at the house in Rome.) A diocesan hermit who desires to become a recluse would need the permission of her bishop, recommendations by her spiritual director and her delegate along with significant support by her parish or diocesan community to make healthy reclusion possible. The urgency here is to maintain a specifically ecclesial vocation in which the hermit's vocation to authentic humanity is fostered. If solitary eremitical life is rare, vocations to genuine reclusion are rare to the nth degree but neither the vocation nor the term have been dropped by the Church. Instead, the Church is careful in allowing hermits to embrace reclusion and applies the term rarely.

Because she esteems the eremitical vocation as a gift of the Holy Spirit and understands not only how rare it is but also how easy it would be for misanthropes and other eccentrics to distort and misrepresent it the Church takes care to define it in universal law and to include it as a specific and new form of consecrated life. This means that not "anything goes". Misanthropes need not apply. Lone folks who are not actually embracing a life defined by the constitutive elements of the canon and who do not show clear signs of thriving in such a situation are not hermits despite the more common usage at large in our world. Meanwhile, those who have embraced an authentic desert vocation as canon 603 defines it cannot identify themselves as Catholic hermits unless the Church herself gives them this right in an explicit and public act of profession, consecration, and commissioning. Lay hermits (hermits who, vocationally speaking, are in the lay state, whether with or without private vows) exist and these vocations should be esteemed but they are not vocations to the consecrated state of life nor are they lived in the name of the Church.

Can we speak of canon 603 serving a regularizing purpose today? I suppose if one distinguishes the usage in history, recognizes the relative dearth of eremitical vocations in the Western Church over the past 4-5 centuries, and is clear about the extremely positive way eremitical life was spoken of in the interventions of Bp Remi de Roo at Vatican II and canon 603 subsequently came to be, it is possible to think of this canonical act of defining things carefully as an act of regularizing those who call themselves hermits. After all the canon is a norm which helps prevent misunderstanding, fraud, and hypocrisy and establishes a universal standard by which the whole Church can recognize and measure authentic eremitical life --- especially vocations to consecrated eremitical life. It brings such hermits under the norms of universal law and the structures associated with consecrated life in the Church. Still, we need to be clear that "regularization" was not the original or primary purpose of canon 603, especially when it is measured against the steps taken in earlier centuries to "regularize" the relative crowds of both authentic and inauthentic hermits who peopled Italy, England, Germany, etc.

Moreover, as noted above, given the canon's requirement that the hermit write her own Rule and thus its insurance of individuality, freedom, and flexibility in fidelity to a traditional and divine calling, even now "regularization" is a word we should probably use carefully. A delegate who serves the hermit and the diocese to protect in very personal ways the legitimate rights and obligations undertaken by the hermit in profession also suggests this. In particular, any suggestion that the canon is meant to shoehorn hermits into some kind of ecclesiastical or legal straitjacket which limits their freedom (or God's!) is one we should assiduously avoid. In my experience, with canon 603 we are faced with a norm which creates a kind of sacred space where an authentic vocation to solitary eremitical life may be recognized and flourish and where authentic human freedom is enabled to reach the perfection associated with holiness and communion with God. After all, one does not "regularize" a gift of the Holy Spirit; instead, one defines or cooperates with the Spirit in defining sacred spaces and mediatory "structures" or channels where God's gift may be formally hallowed and recognized as hallowing the larger context of the Church and world. I think canon 603 functions in this way.