14 August 2017

On Reunions and the Feast of the Transfiguration

Well, the best laid plans often "gang aglay" as Robert Burns once said. I had thought I would have a post up from the Feast of the Transfiguration but the reunion weekend was just too full and wonderful and I was simply wiped out. So, here we are more than a week later and I am still thinking about the Transfiguration and how it related to the weekend. I said I wanted to write a little about transfiguration in light of it all and I would like to do that --- at least as a start.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. - T. S. EliotUnlike some reunions this one was not merely a single evening spent having dinner with a group of people one no longer knows or cares about. It was not about having outgrown people and places nor was it about speaking different languages professionally or being unable to relate. It was not about bragging to set ourselves apart or lacking empathy and compassion. Perhaps that happens in earlier reunions when folks have not but begun careers and families and businesses and work on terminal degrees; I don't know.  It was, for me, and I think for at least several others of us, about, or at least a little like, what T.S. Eliot describes when he writes, "we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." In my journal I said it this way,  "It felt like we were each pilgrims, journeying apart from one another, finding our way, struggling, succeeding, loving, sometimes alone and lonely and sometimes not, at home yet still journeying --- still not quite "home" in the way we came "home" this weekend."

"I am so blessed." That is what I feel now and it is the sincere refrain I heard numerous times at our reunion dinner as each of  about 23 of us stood with mic in hand and told our stories to our classmates and friends. So many ended their narratives by affirming for the rest of us: "I am so blessed!" I was able to stay with a friend and her husband along with another friend who flew down from Sacramento. Over the next days we were joined by two other once-close friends and spent hours together talking, eating, driving around our old haunts, attending the reunion dinner, praying and sharing about our faith (each of the five of us has her own unique faith and faith tradition. I don't know when I have sat at a table with such a diverse group of Christians: Christian Science, Lutheran, Baptist, Messianic Christian, and Roman Catholic. But in spite of the few difficulties (or minor speed bumps) created by this diversity we talked for some hours regarding our faith and spirituality; what I saw with my own "new eyes", what I recognized by the resonances of my heart, was that in some incredibly fundamental way each of us have the same hearts --- hearts shaped by that faith and by the truth of God and the Gospel); but our hearts were also shaped by coming to know each other in the present. It is this entire dynamic of really coming to know each other in the present and being blessed by every surprising  bit of revelation that reminds me most of the Transfiguration.

I was not surprised that each of us has grown older and changed physically in many ways. Neither should I be surprised, I guess, that each of us has grown into the extraordinary people we had the potential to become --- though our journeys were often nothing like we once anticipated they would be. But I was gratified by and a bit stunned at that. What really astounded me was how little we had each changed and how truly ourselves we had become over the years. That too reminded me of the Transfiguration. I found myself knowing these people again, well on some levels, for the first time on others. First, after the initial meetings when physical differences dominated and more than anything else the years apart still defined our relationships with one another, I found myself forgetting what we each looked like 50-60 years ago; even more, I literally saw these friends transfigured by their personal stories. The images from youth which had filled my mind and remained normative for me of who these women were ceased to be normative except as images of early and essential life and potential now more fully embodied and shaped by one's history. At the same time those early images of these old friends became the dynamic form which shaped and animated their Selves now --- analogous to the way a soul is "form of the body" and "builds a body around itself". 

I also found myself realizing freshly how much I had really loved this smaller group of women with whom I spent about three days --- and how truly I loved them now. In this too I was struck by how amazingly they each embodied the abundant life and grace of God and had grown to do that as promised by Christ as the "perfection" of the potential each carried deeply within themselves all those years ago. And for the first time I knew myself in the same way. Perhaps in this way too I came to understand the Transfiguration a bit better. After all, this is the story of Jesus being revealed for who he really is to those who, for all their defects and bits of personal ignorance and insensitivity, know him better than most. But they must also come to see him with new eyes. They must come to know him not as they did when they were younger and took him for granted even as they loved him. They must come to see him as the exhaustive embodiment of God's story with and for his people. They must come to see him as someone stamped first with the shadow of the cross and then with the light of the resurrection and the fire of the Spirit. And that is how I came to see each of these women --- and perhaps it is a piece of how they came to see me.

The experience of  the Transfiguration --- the invitation to journey in the desert and eventually stand on the mountain with Jesus, to truly know him, to be known and loved by him, comes to us in ways and at times which will surprise and console, challenge and heal. This is what I experienced when I went home weekend before last. I knew these friends I had not seen in 50 years. I knew them and they opened themselves to knowing me; it is an astounding gift of God to come to know them for the faithful women they have become, to come home and have it be home in the truly profound ways we need as adults and pray for every day of our lives. In and with Christ [[We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.]] Thanks be to God!

Feast of Saint Maximillian Kolbe (Reprise)

Please note, the readings referenced below differ from today's but I hope this reprise is still of value!

Today is the feast day of Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright.

The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Aushwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modelled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ. Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.

I think it is easy to forget this fundamental vocation, or at least to underestimate its value and challenge. We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people! (And this is as true for hermits and recluses as it is true for anyone else.) Likewise, we may think of vocation as a call to religious life, priesthood, marriage, singleness, eremitism, etc, but always, these are "merely" the paths towards achieving our foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Of course, it is not that we do not need excellent priests, religious, husbands and wives, parents, and so forth, but what is more true is that we need excellent human beings --- people who take the call and challenge to be genuinely human with absolute seriousness and faithfulness.

Today's gospel confronts us with a person who failed at that vocation. Extended mercy and the complete forgiveness of an unpayable debt, this servant went out into his world and failed to extend even a fraction of the same mercy to one of his fellows. He was selfish, ungrateful, and unmindful of who he was in terms of his Master or the generosity which had been shown him. He failed to remain in touch with that mercy and likewise he refused to extend it to others as called upon to do. He failed in his essential humanity and in the process he degraded and punished a fellow servant as inferior to himself when he should have done the opposite. Contrasted with this, and forming the liturgical and theological context for hearing this reading today, is the life of Maximillian Kolbe. Loved with an everlasting love, touched by God's infinite mercy and grace, Father Maximillian knew and affirmed who he truly was. More, in a situation of abject poverty and ultimate weakness, he remained in contact with the Source of his own humanity as the infinite well from which he would draw strength, dignity, courage, forgiveness, and compassion when confronted with a reality wholly dedicated to shattering, degrading, and destroying the humanity of those who became its victims. In every way he was the embodiment of St Paul's citation, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness!"

In Auschwitz it is true that some spoke of Kolbe as a saint, and many knew he was a priest, but in this world where all were stripped of names and social standing of any kind, what stood out to everyone was Maximillian Kolbe's love for God and his fellow man; what stood out was his humanityHoliness for the Christian is defined in these terms. Authentic humanity and holiness are synonyms in Christianity, and both are marked by the capacity to love and be loved, first (by) God and then (by) all those he has dignified as his image and holds as precious. In a world too-often marked by mediocrity and even outright inhumanity, a world too frequently dominated by those structures, institutions, and dynamics which seem bigger than we are and incapable of being resisted or changed, we need to remember Maximillian Kolbe's example. Oftentimes we focus on serving others, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and the like, and these things are important. But in Kolbe's world when very little of this kind of service was possible (though Kolbe did what was possible and prudent here) what stood out was not only the crust of bread pressed into a younger priest's hands, the cup of soup given gladly to another, but the very great and deep dignity and impress of his humanity. And of course it stood out because beyond and beneath the need for food and shelter, what everyone was in terrible danger of losing was a sense of --- and capacity to act in terms of -- their own great dignity and humanity.

Marked above all as one loved by God, Father Maximillian lived out of that love and mercy. He extended it again and again to everyone he met, and in the end, he made the final sacrifice: he gave his own life so that another might live. An extraordinary vocation marked by extraordinary holiness? Yes. But also our OWN vocation, a vocation to "ordinary" and true holiness, genuine humanity. As I said above, "In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell." In many ways this is precisely the gift we are called upon in Christ to be for our own times. May Saint Kolbe's example inspire us to fulfill our vocations in exemplary ways.

06 August 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration: The Gorilla in Plain View (reprise)

Transfiguration by Lewis Bowman
I am reprising this post as I work on finishing another while I am away in Southern CA celebrating my fifty-year high school reunion. In that post I am looking at the difference between transformation and transfiguration --- and also the notion of seeing with new eyes. because I have experienced both on this weekend of amazing surprises,  profound trust and sharing, incredibly intimate revelations, and moments of new clarity of vision of eyes and heart. Today's actual Gospel lection from Matthew does not include Peter's stumbling, incredibly misguided, "let us build booths for them" but I think the lesson is important, ---- and something which figures into the new blog piece --- so I am not hesitant to post this reprise! Thanks for your patience. The new blog piece should be up this afternoon or evening and I am hoping this one will help "Prepare the way."

                                                * * * * *

Have you ever been walking along a well-known road and suddenly had a bed of flowers take on a vividness which takes your breath away? Similarly, have you ever been walking along or sitting quietly outside when a breeze rustles some leaves above your head and you were struck by an image of the Spirit moving through the world? I have had both happen, and, in the face of God's constant presence, what is in some ways more striking is how infrequent such peak moments are.

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. It depends upon our expectations. In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams in either white or black shirts, observers were asked to concentrate on the number of passes of a basketball that occurred as players wove in and out around one another. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest, and moves on. At the end of the experiment observers were asked two questions: 1) how many passes were there, and 2) did you see the gorilla? Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla. Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. Even more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of blindness and ignorance. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.

For the past two weeks we have been reading the central chapter of Matthew's Gospel --- the chapter that stands right smack in the middle of his version of the Good News. It is Matt's collection of Jesus' parables --- the stories Jesus tells to help break us open and free us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that we might commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout this collection of parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment which involves the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard last Friday. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the usual significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority they could not deny they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they decided they saw only the son of Mary, the son of Joseph and "took offense at him." Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and the God he revealed. Similarly, Jesus' disciples too could not really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refuses to accept this.

It is in the face of these situations that we hear today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain apart. He takes them away from the world they know (or believe they know) so well, away from peers, away from their ordinary perspective, and he invites them to see who he really is. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus' is at prayer --- attending to the most fundamental relationship of his life --- when the Transfiguration occurs. Matthew does not structure his account in the same way. Instead he shows Jesus as the one whose life is a profound dialogue with God's law and prophets, who is in fact the culmination and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the culmination of the Divine-Human dialogue we call covenant. He is God-with-us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. This is what the disciples see --- not so much a foretelling of Jesus' future glory as the reality which stands right in front of them --- if only they had the eyes to see.

For most of us, such an event would freeze us in our tracks with awe. But not Peter! He outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right here and now. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto amazing prayer experiences --- but in doing so, fail to appreciate them fully or live from them! He is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, consistent with his tradition while neglecting the newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has still missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!!!"

The lesson could not be clearer, I think. We must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through every believer and the whole of creation. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling we are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.

02 August 2017

Contemplative Life and Vulnerability to Pain

[[Dear Sister, I wondered if you feel pain differently because you are a contemplative. I read that one hermit is unaware of most pain unless it becomes really intense and then she comes back to a more physical level of consciousness. The post I read gave the impression that most of the time she is in touch with God but not with the temporal. She said, [[The pain has to be enough, or coupled with such as red-pink streak going up foot from pinkish-red toe, to be enough to bring me back to more physical awareness. And, perhaps this is true, also, for bringing my mind to more conscious awareness of spiritual readings. I'm finding my mind is away, possibly close in with God, but I don't know for sure, of course. It flies from my willed awareness or forced consciousness; the thoughts become whatever God weaves within.]] Do persons of prayer feel pain less? Do you?]]

LOL! Interesting question. I'm pretty sure I experience pain the same as anyone else. I deal with chronic pain, but I do that the way most people do --- medically. I try to pray through this specific kind of pain, but generally it is too distracting so I medicate as necessary and meditate as possible. Other kinds of pain (psychic, emotional), of course, are something that can only be lived through with prayer --- no medication is possible or desirable. I think it is possible that contemplatives are actually more sensitive to these kinds of pain --- after all, they are not numb to them but vulnerable.  But what you cite raises serious questions regarding self-care and attentiveness; I wonder how appropriate it is to be so wrapped up in what one describes as some sort of non-temporal "God-consciousness" that one is generally unaware of infections, injuries, etc. Beyond this I wonder at the phrases "willed awareness" and "forced consciousness". It sounds like the writer is setting up some sort of human will versus will of God calculus or something where being in touch with God means being unaware of oneself and the needs of one's body. These ideas seem to me to be antithetical to a healthy contemplative life.

It may well be that someone's prayer life allows them to move more easily through pain and to function more freely in spite of it, but what is being described here is the presence of recognizable and, one assumes, preventable infection in one's foot for instance. No contemplative I know would EVER suggest their awareness of God or the presence of God's life and love within them detracts from the critical or essential attentiveness to reality which is part of the very definition of contemplative life. Just the opposite in fact. Contemplatives honor God and the life God has given to and entrusted them with. They, especially when they are Christian, approach reality from an incarnational perspective. They know that we are "temples of the Holy Spirit" and members of the very Body of Christ. They see the everyday, supposedly mundane as sacramental and thus, essentially sacred, and they take what care they can and must do to honor this foundational truth of creation.

It is pretty well known that throughout its history Christianity has sometimes fallen prey to an unhealthy dualism rooted in misreadings of texts that speak of detachment or despising the "things of the world" or the Pauline contrast between a body of flesh and one of Spirit. The passage you cite reminds me of some of these misreadings. Especially it reminds me that when Paul speaks of being "in the flesh" or refers to the "flesh body," he is speaking of the whole person under the sway of sin; when he speaks of being in the Spirit or refers to the "spiritual body," he is speaking of the whole person under the power of the Spirit of God. Similarly it reminds me of the piece I wrote a while back looking at the spiritual life as the life we each live under the power of the Holy Spirit. (cf., What Spirituality really Means) More specifically, it is the embodied human life we live in and through the dynamism of the Spirit of God whenever we focus on the vulnerability to Love-in-Act this involves.

In my own experience there have been times when contemplative prayer has involved occasional periods of "raptness" where I am not aware of sensations in my body and where I may even have ceased to breath for periods of time. BUT apart from these very rare "experiences" this same prayer has made me more capable of genuinely incarnational life. Many of us may have reasons which detract from this ability to live a healthy incarnation or embodiment of the Spirit of God, but the life of prayer is not one of these. Instead a healthy contemplative prayer life counters and helps heal those things which may prevent healthy embodiedness.

 One final comment on the passage you have cited. As I noted above, I am concerned with the reference to "willed awareness" and "forced consciousness" which supposedly gives way to "whatever God 'weaves within"'. Attentiveness is a central characteristic of contemplative life, but so are awareness and consciousness. These are "the way we are in the world"; they are part of what contemplative life witnesses to. In contemplative life we attend to reality; we are aware of and consciously honor reality. We are empowered by God for this. While prayer is certainly the work of God within us it is the work/dynamism which illuminates and sharpens, makes whole, empathetic, and compassionate. It is the Spirit of life and love, truth and beauty, the flame of light and comfort which thus becomes the source and ground of genuine rest (Sabbath) and "at-home-ness" (eternal life). The Divine life is the Spirit within us which does not supplant our intellects or consciousness and awareness but instead perfects them.

To float through life in some sort of dissociative state is simply incompatible with contemplative and especially with eremitical life. (Such states may actually represent part of what the NT refers to as "hardness of heart" --- something I am hoping to write further about soon.) Times of genuine prayer which take us up or carry us away from more "everyday" consciousness and awareness are wonderful and are to be honored, but generally speaking these also serve to transform the way we see things so that all reality is transfigured through it. This may mean an increased experience of pain because it will ALWAYS mean an increased vulnerability to reality --- just as it did with Jesus and his own life, passion, and death. Contemplative life is vulnerable life and vulnerable life is obedient life which is responsive to the whole of creation, including the dimensions of sin and death still at work in reality. We must be wary of labeling forms of dissociation (which need not be pathological) "ecstasy", "rapture," or Christian detachment.

30 July 2017

Is Orchestra Consonant with your Hermit Vocation?

[[Dear Sister,
       I enjoyed the Beethoven symphony movements you put up. I think your orchestra should be proud of the job they did. I say that because you have pointed out they are an amateur orchestra. But this video raises the question for me: how can you be a hermit and get out so much? Do you think you represent the vocation of diocesan eremitical life well in this way? I am guessing your bishop approved this activity, but how can you play in an orchestra and live as a hermit? How much rehearsing does your orchestra do?]]

Thanks for your questions. You are the second person who wrote with a similar question. I am always surprised at how much time people believe I spend outside the hermitage to do this. So let me clarify this one point. Because it is an amateur orchestra, OCO rehearses one evening a week for about 2.5 hours with a 15 minute break where we can get a snack, talk a bit to one another and just generally say hey to folks we have not seen for a while. At the end of 6-7 weeks we have a dress rehearsal on Saturday morning and a concert on Sunday afternoon.

On the Sunday there's a brief warm up and then a period of waiting in the green room for concert time. Usually folks use this period: to warm up more completely by playing through difficult passages, to finish folding programs for guests, to eat and drink something light which will sustain them through the concert, and generally to get in the right space for the performance. Interestingly I think, there is a lot of solitude during this period as everyone prepares themselves for what will be both personally, physically, and intellectually demanding. (There is a lot of pre-performance anxiety and each of us deals with our excitement in different ways.) So, again, I am describing @ 3 hours per week mainly working hard to play music with one another --- working to learn parts and transform them into music together! The week of the concert is different with (usually) 2 rehearsals and the concert itself.

Apart from Mass or some other occasional activities at the parish, OCO is my major activity outside of the hermitage. It is important to me in a number of ways and while I have not always been able to play every set and sometimes have had to discern whether it is time to retire or continue, the bottom line is this is one of the ways I make sure my solitude is healthy. When I say that I do not mean that it is an outlet or escape from solitude so much as it is an extension of it; it is (or can be) a focused contemplative activity which symbolizes (embodies and expresses or mediates) the way solitude is intrinsically and reciprocally related to community. It is always important to remember that eremitical solitude is a form of community --- though a rare one which accents the hermit's physical solitude in communion with God lived as "ecclesiola" or "little church", and thus, as paradigm of the whole Church in whose name she is commissioned to live as ecclesiola. The hermit lives alone, but is not a lone individual, not in her prayer, not in her silence,  not in her joy or her suffering and not in her solitary witness to human wholeness achieved in continuing dialogue with the God she proclaims with her life

I believe profoundly in the importance (meaning) of my life as a diocesan hermit and that means I believe profoundly in the importance of a life of the silence of solitude, stricter separation from the "world", prayer and penance, etc.. But solitude in the canonical eremitical life is a rare  and even paradoxical expression of union and communion, first of all with God in Christ, secondly with God's people (Church), and thirdly with all who are precious to God. Isolation is not healthy, not for the human being generally, and not for the hermit specifically. As I have written before, even recluses in the Roman Catholic Church are supported by communities and live in relation to their religious community and the Church Universal. (The Church typically only allows two congregations to have recluses: the Carthusians and the Camaldolese.)

Do I think I live the diocesan eremitical life well in this way? Yes. More exactly perhaps, I think I live my own life as a diocesan hermit well in this way. Orchestra is written into my Rule and fits into a vision of this life which sees it as life giving and, most significantly, a way to genuine wholeness and holiness. This means it is intellectually, aesthetically, spiritually, and personally rich and challenging. At the same time it is a genuinely eremitical life which is lived according to the canonical vision of the life in the revised Code under the supervision of my bishop and delegate in accordance with my Rule and conscience.  It is not, in this way, a matter of anything goes --- nor does it leave the silence of solitude or a life of prayer and penance on the margins somewhere! These are central and orchestra supports and even enriches them. I love orchestra; I love violin, but they relate integrally to my own eremitical contemplative life. When that ceases to be true so will they.

I hope this is helpful.

25 July 2017

Oakland Civic Orchestra: Beethoven's 5th Symphony

One of the most personally important pieces I have ever played is Beethoven's fifth symphony. It is a piece everyone recognizes with its famous first four notes: dut dut dut DUH! These notes are an everpresent reality in most of the symphony; whether we are hearing the intervals involved, the rhythmic motif, the struggle to move from minor to major, etc., these four notes drive everything. When I was in Junior High School I was struck with the thought that "never was so much done with so little"! Remember, Beethoven was struggling to come to terms with his own deafness and the potential crippling of his own genius when he wrote this symphony. It seems appropriate that in situations of personal limitation, deficiency, and also potential, I have come back to this symphony in one way and another.

This last year, when working with my director on a number of areas of personal suffering, limitation, healing, and growth, a friend gave me four tickets to the SF Symphony. It was a lecture on and performance of Beethoven's 5th --- and a great grace for me. "Never was so much done with so little," was the refrain I heard again. Then, the Oakland Civic Orchestra did this same symphony for our last set this June, right at the one year mark of my own intensive work. Again and again, four notes, a simple rhythm, an almost unimaginable potential --- and the new refrain I heard was "Never was so much hidden potential revealed in such a focused way!" For me this is the symphony I associate most with the quality and virtue of hope. I have included OCO playing the first movement above; other movements to come as Carol gets them finished! I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed playing them! (Enlarge the screen for best visibility.)

The last two movements are included below.

05 July 2017

"When They Saw Him They Begged Him. . ." (Reprise)

I have to say that today's Gospel always suprises and delights me. At first. It is the story first of all, of Jesus' sending the demons which possess two men into a nearby herd of swine thus freeing the men from the bondage to brokennness and inhumanity which marks and mars their lives, and then, it is the story of what happens when he approaches the nearby town (Gadara) whose residents have heard of what he has done. Despite knowing how the story goes, I admit to being surprised everytime Matthew's last line which begins, "Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him. . ." concludes with, ". . .they begged him to leave their district."

Now, granted, Jesus just destroyed an entire herd of swine, and they must have been someone's livelihood --- perhaps many people's. Some unhappiness with this would have been understandable. And Jesus has healed a couple of men whose conditions had made travel along a certain route unsafe, so one would expect a mixed response to that perhaps -- though the route is now free from this danger, these men now will need to be accommodated in some real sense --- not simply treated as wild animals or aliens of some sort. I begin to have a sense why Jesus was not welcomed here. But I admit to still hearing in the back of my mind cheers of welcome, beseechings of Jesus to come and change lives, a positive and welcoming response like that in fiction stories where the conquering hero comes back from slaying the dragon, or like the narrative in the New Testament where Jesus is welcomed as King with waving palm branches and cries of Hosanna --- temporary as that moment was! In a way, perhaps the "back of my mind" wants a costless or "cheap" grace, a "good news" fit for escapist fiction or an incredibly naive reading of the NT --- but not for the real world.

But besides surprise and delight this lection also stops me with its claim and challenge. That is so because the Gospel is good news in a much more realistic, paradoxical, and problematical way -- especially in regard to the first example above --- and today's Gospel lection highlights this for us. As we have heard over the past few passages from Matthew Jesus reveals himself to be a man of extraordinary, even divine authority --- a man with authority over nature, illness, the hearts of men and women, and now over demons. He heals, feeds on a profound and lasting level, frees, and provides true meaning and dignity for those lost and bereft. He is the Son of God (a title Matthew has on the lips of the demons in today's story)--- very good news indeed --- but he acts with an authority which is genuinely awesome and which turns the everyday world of politics, religion, simple ordinariness, and comfortable respectability on their heads. The Gadarenes in today's Gospel see this clearly and they are unprepared for it. More, he terrifies them. Far from misunderstanding Jesus and refusing to welcome him on those grounds, like the Scribes and Pharisees they understand precisely who Jesus is and want no part of him. Far better to simply ask Jesus to leave the district than to have to come to terms with who he is and what that truly challenges and calls forth in us!

One of the current complaints by some traditionalists is that Vatican II gave us a God of love (they frequently spell the word "luv" to denote their disparagement of it) and lost the God who inspires fear, etc. They may well be correct that there has been some "domestication" of God and his Christ in popular piety --- but then this is not because of Vatican II; it is a continual temptation and sin besetting the Church. After all, how many of us when faced with the daily prospect of renewed faith recognize that acceptance of Jesus' authority -- expressed as an unconditional love which is stronger than death -- will turn our world upside down and call us to a radical way of living and loving which involves renunciation, self-sacrifice, and commitment to a Kingdom that is NOT of this world and often is at distinct odds with it? The equivalent of a herd of swine or the accommodation of the mentally ill is probably the least it will cost us --- precisely because it is unconditional. How many of us choose not so much to be loved exhaustively by God -- to really open ourselves to His Presence with all that implies for growth, maturity and responsibility -- but instead (at least with some part of ourselves) would prefer to cling to a relatively undemanding (and world-reinforcing) piety which falls short of the life of the Kingdom? How many buy into (and construct our lives around) a religion which is at least as much OF this world as it is IN it?

So yes, today's Gospel both surprises and delights me --- but it also gives me pause. It does both because of its honesty; and it does so because it is genuinely good news, rooted in the awesome authority of the Christ who loves without condition but not without challenging and commissioning us to the radically transformed life that comes whenever he meets us face to face or heart to heart. Such a Christ will never be really popular I think. Many of our churches and cities are far more like Gadara than not. Sometimes, I am sorry to say, my hermitage is as well. The authority of Jesus over illness, fear, meaninglessness, and the demons that beset us is an awesome and demanding reality and our hearts are more often ambivalent and ambiguous than pure and single. I suspect that domestication of our faith is something most of us are guilty of every day of our lives.

The Gospel lection requires that we ask ourselves what parts of our lives would we instinctively desire to protect from an encounter with Jesus were we to hear he was on his way to our parish this morning? What kinds of changes would we be unwilling to make --- though we might well suspect Jesus would require them of us if we are to be true to ourselves and him? We might want to be apostles, religious, or otherwise summoned to follow Jesus in some way we ourselves esteem, but at the same time we might not want to hear Jesus say to us, "No, go home and witness to all that I in my mercy have done for you there." Would we minister in the compelling world-changing way the "demoniac" in today's Gospel lection ministered in his "lay" or "secular" vocation [to the power and mercy of God perfected in weakness] or would we reject the call because it was not the vocation we thought we should be gifted with? With these questions and today's Gospel in mind, let us summon up the courage to beg Jesus to enter into our towns, homes, churches, and hearts, and remain with us; let us give him free access to move within, call us and change our world as he wills! That is my own prayer for today.

04 July 2017

Happy Fourth of July!

Each year this day reminds me that Christians have much to tell America about the nature of true freedom, even while they are grateful for a country which allows them the liberty to practice their faith pretty much as they wish and need. Too often today Freedom is thought of as the ability to do anything we want. It is the quintessential value of the narcissist.

And yet, within Christian thought and praxis freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. It is the direct counterpart of Divine sovereignty and is other-centered. I believe our founding fathers had a keen sense of this, but today, it is a sense Americans often lack. Those of us who celebrate the freedom of Christians can help recover a sense of this necessary value by embracing it more authentically ourselves. Not least we can practice a freedom which is integrally linked to correlative obligations and exists for the sake of all; that is, it involves an obligation to be there for the other, most especially the least and poorest among us.

Today the United States is in danger of choosing to "protect" our freedom by refusing to open ourselves to "the other". We have forgotten that we are free only insofar as we are open to loving others, to sharing our lives and our freedom with the other, the alien. Like love, personal freedom is lost when we fail to extend it to others and make "neighbors" of them. Once we build walls against the other so too have we walled ourselves into the narrow confines of our own fear, ignorance, or selfishness. Authentic freedom always seeks the freedom of the other. It is expansive and, to  some extent, missionary in nature. While the boundaries of American freedom involve borders and finite resources which must be honored and husbanded, its heart is global and so must its vulnerability be. 

 All good wishes on this anniversary of the birthday of our Nation! May God empower us to live up to the obligations of the freedom, both personal and national, which we recognize as both Divine gift and human responsibility.

03 July 2017

Feast of the Apostle Thomas: What's that Doubt About? (reprise)

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

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

What Thomas, I think, wants to make very clear is that we Christians believe in a crucified Christ, and that the resurrection was God's act of validation of Jesus as scandalously and ignominiously Crucified. I think Thomas knows on some level anyway, that insofar as the resurrection really occured, it does not nullify what was achieved on the cross. Instead it renders permanently valid what was revealed (made manifest and made real) there. In other words, Thomas knows if the resurrection is really God's validation of Jesus' life and establishes him as God's Christ, the Lord he will meet is the one permanently established and marked as the crucified One. The crucifixion was not some great misunderstanding which could be wiped away by resurrection. Instead it was an integral part of the revelation of the nature of truly human and truly divine existence. Whether it is the Divine life, authentic human existence, or sinful human life --- all are marked and revealed in one way or another by the signs of Jesus' cross. For instance, ours is a God who has journeyed to the very darkest, godless places or realms human sin produces, and has become Lord of even those places. He does not disdain them even now but is marked by them and will journey with us there --- whether we are open to him doing so or not --- because Jesus has implicated God there and marked him with the wounds of an exhaustive kenosis.

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

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

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

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

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

23 June 2017

A Contemplative Moment: The Crimson Heart

 --- the Church speaks in a hymn by Gertrude von le Fort ---
"solitary Heart, all-knowing Heart, world-conquering Heart.". . .
The "heart" is the name we give to the unifying element in the human person's diversity. The heart is the ultimate ground of a person's being. Her diversity of character, thought, and activity springs from this ground. All that she is and does unfolds from this source. Her diversity, originally one in its source, remains one even in its unfolding and it ultimately returns to this unity.

The "heart" is the name we give to the inner ground of an individual's character, wherein a person is really himself, unique and alone. The human being's apartness, his individuality, his interiority, his solitariness --- this is what we call the heart. This characteristic of the heart reveals and at the same time veils itself in everything the person is and does. For the human being's total diversity in being and activity would be nothing if it did not blossom forth from the heart as from a living ground, and at the same time veil his hidden ground.It must be veiled because its water doesn't flow on the surface of what we commonly speak of as the human person's being and activity.

An individual's uniqueness, her individuality, is her heart. That is why one is always alone and solitary --- alone and solitary in the meaning that everyday life gives gives to the words, in the idiom of the marketplace, which no longer suspects the abysses concealed in human words. For there is a realm where the person is entirely himself, where he himself is his solitary destiny. In this realm where he can no longer bring himself and his fragmentary world to the marketplace of everyday life --- in the realm therefore where his heart is --- the person is alone and solitary because of this apartness. . . .
The center of our hearts has to be God; the heart of the world has to be the heart of our hearts. He must send us his heart so that our hearts may be at rest. It has to be his heart. . . .He must let it enter into our narrow confines, so that it can be the center of our life without destroying the narrow house of our finitude, in which alone we can live and breathe. And he has done it. And the name of his heart is Jesus Christ! It is a finite heart, and yet it is the heart of God. When it loves us and thus becomes the center of our hearts. every need, every distress, every misery of our hearts is taken from us. For his heart is God's heart. and yet it does not have the terrifying ambiguity of his infinity. Up from this heart and out from this heart human words have arisen, intimate words, words of the heart, words of God that have only one meaning, a meaning that gladdens and blesses.
Our heart becomes calm and rests in this heart, in his heart. When it loves us then we know that the love of such a heart is only love and nothing else. In him the enigmatic mystery of the world's heart which is God becomes the crimson mystery of all things, the mystery that God has loved the world in its destitution.
Excerpted from
 "The Mystery of the Heart" by Karl Rahner, SJ
The Great Church Year, the Best of Karl Rahner's Homilies
Sermons and Meditations
(Please read the entire essay! I have excerpted a text in which every word is important and none are wasted. Though not my intention it is a betrayal of Rahner's text.)

22 June 2017

On Rules, Bishops, and Finding the Way With Canon 603

Dear Sister, could you comment on the following? It is an excerpt from a post on Citydesert: A Hermit's Christmas . You have written about Rules and writing them. I wonder if you agree with what this hermit has to say. Also, could you comment on the portion about bishops? I wonder if this resonates with your own experience? [[She admits, that although she is guided by her rules (sic) of life, there are times when she has to make it up as she goes along. As she embarked on her new path, she sought the blessing of the Most Rev Malcolm McMahon, then the Catholic Bishop of Nottingham. “He said: ‘We don’t do hermits.’ He didn’t know anything about it – although he did grow to like having a hermit in the diocese: it gave him kudos with the other bishops.”]]

 Thanks for your questions! I have read this article and recognize the section you cited. Let me say that Sister Rachel's descriptions of "making it up as she goes" and of her bishop's initial response resonate with me --- big time!! One of the reasons I chose to write my Rule in the way I did and encourage others to do the same is precisely because when one puts Gospel and principles of eremitical life before one puts an emphasis on law one gets a Rule which is sufficiently structured but also allows the hermit the time and space to respond to the Holy Spirit in uniquely personal ways. In writing a Rule one simply cannot account for every contingency if one tries to write it in terms of "do's and don'ts". One needs instead the experience and insight to write a Rule which captures an authentic vision of eremitical life, states clearly the way one sees one's mission and charism, and then draws conclusions about specific do's and don'ts which are generally applicable. If one can do that the Rule will function well and also leave room for adjusting to unexpected situations and circumstances.

Another piece of all of this that helps the hermit to discern how she will act in such circumstances and situations is the feedback of her delegate. One of the reasons a canonical hermit has a delegate is because the hermit will need to discuss these kinds of things with someone who knows her and her life. For instance, last year I thought about doing something which my Rule could never have anticipated and I asked my delegate if she saw anything problematical with my doing what I was considering. She responded that so long as it was, 1)  consistent with my Rule, 2) consonant with my deep conscience, and was,  3) sensitive to my own health and/or physical needs, she could see no problem. She also noted that since I was thinking about a public action, I needed to consider whether or not I would wear my veil and/or cowl. And then, "Your decision." All of this was very helpful to me, especially since it defined what I had to consider and left the decision squarely in my own hands. (It also pointed up a couple of places my Rule could be more helpful in such cases --- exceptional though they might be!)

There is no way a Rule can anticipate, much less legislate every little (or big!) thing unless it is made to be essentially restrictive and contrary to the freedom of the hermit. At the same time it must be very clear about what the hermit is doing and why she is doing it. When it is clear in this way discernment will be needed, of course, but it will also be possible. The Rule and one's own internalization of its articulated vision and mission then serves as a significant guide for one's discernment. Beyond this the hermit's delegate (who, in my experience, has a copy of and knows the hermit's Rule) will assist in specific thorny instances of discernment and help her in living this Rule with a flexibility which serves genuine fidelity.

This is not exactly "making it up as one goes" in a way which suggests the hermit is free to do anything at all at such times, but I think it is "making it up as one goes" in the way Sister Rachel was speaking of. Remember that in Sister Rachel's case, a diagnosis of cancer required significant changes in her schedule, degree of social contact, etc. Accommodating these kinds of needs while still keeping one's Rule in some essential sense demands flexibility and discernment but it demands these within the context of the vision, mission, and gift of solitary eremitical life the hermit has spelled out in her Rule. When I wrote my own Rule I chose very specifically to focus on spelling out who I was and was called to be in terms of canon 603 and only thereafter, what specifically I was called to do or not do. I think this corresponds generally to the distinction between Gospel and Law. What I find to be true is that so long as a hermit knows, both intellectually and deep in her heart, who she is, discerning what she is to do will follow more easily --- even in difficult situations and circumstances like those Sister Rachel faced.

What Sister Rachel writes about her Bishop is certainly familiar to me. When I first began becoming a diocesan hermit and was petitioning for admission to public vows, I was working with the Vicar for Religious in a process of discernment. During this process because of another situation which "left a bad taste in his mouth", the bishop decided not to allow any professions under canon 603 for the foreseeable future. He did not communicate this to the Vicar however. I personally think the Bp had forgotten Sister Susan was working with me in regard to c 603 and innocently failed to communicate the matter to her. Whenever the decision was made it was only made known to Sister Susan after we had met for about five years and she was ready to recommend me to the bishop for profession; it was a difficult decision for both of us. In any case, I eventually petitioned again (or renewed my original petition) and was accepted for admission to vows. The time it took from the day I knocked on the chancery door, so to speak, to the day I was perpetually professed was 23 years.

Other dioceses have recognized that canon 603 is too-easily misused today or that it does not provide adequately for the solitary hermit's initial or ongoing formation. Some have decided the vocation itself (along with c 604) is not real, is merely a "fallback" vocation and do not allow for it. Some recognize that requiring hermits to be self-supporting is a double-edged sword: it is necessary to prevent those merely seeking a sinecure, but it may be unjust to those with genuine vocations to solitude --- especially as they age and become infirm. Some have had many would-be-candidates seeking admission to profession but found none of them suitable -- and they may be entirely correct in this! In the space of the last 34 years my own diocese has had only one person they professed specifically as a diocesan hermit; in the last 10 years (since I was perpetually professed) I know they have had many people knocking on the door about this (perhaps averaging one a month by one account) but none have been admitted to perpetual vows. In reviewing my own petition Archbishop Vigneron was very clear he needed to learn a lot before any decision could be made. Fortunately, he spent time doing that! So, what Sister Rachel writes about this is not unusual and something I definitely can resonate with, yes.

I can't comment on the second observation Sister Rachel makes about other bishops regarding her bishop because he decided to consecrate a diocesan hermit. I do know that Bishops seek out those with experience of hermits whom they have professed and consecrated in order to get a feel for how things work with the canon. Vicars, canonists, and diocesan hermits themselves may also be contacted for insight and information. But whether or not and how other bishops may regard those among them who have professed and consecrated c 603 hermits is not something I have any knowledge of.

I can say that it is my impression that some bishops "like" having hermits or like using canon 603 for "special cases" and profess more persons than they really should. Especially it is problematical when bishops have a number of hermits the majority of whom 1) have no formation,  and 2) are really just solitary individuals but not hermits; (some of these are active in terms of ministry and life rather than contemplative, and some are simply misfits who cannot live in community). Equally problematical are,  3) those who are unsuitable because of some psychological defects or defects in personality, and 4) those who desire to use the canon as a stopgap solution to beginning their own communities. The root of these problems come from bishops not having a clear idea of what constitutes eremitical life and most especially what constitutes the charism of this life. When bishops are clear in their own minds about the nature and gift this life represents to the Church and world they are much more likely to admit to profession those who show real understanding of these things and live them with a sense of mission. Without a clear sense of the charism ("the silence of solitude") of the vocation especially, bishops will continue to admit those without an authentic eremitic vocation to profession or, alternately, refuse to admit anyone to profession.

In any case, this recent history of misuse and abuse coupled with a long pre-canon 603 history of stories of eccentrics, stereotypical nutcases and misanthropists, is instrumental in making canon 603 something bishops eschew and shun learning anything more about. It is good that bishops turn to their confreres who have had experience with solitary diocesan hermits, not least because the vocation is rare and when there are "success" stories to hear bishops should be made aware of them. Problematical areas need to be clarified, discernment and formation issues dealt with in ways which allow for better and wider recognition of genuine vocations., and stories of failures need to be analyzed so that bishops know what kinds of things are danger signs. Again. in all of this Vicars, canonists, and diocesan hermits and their delegates can be good sources of information as well.

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart (Reprise)

Tomorrow we celebrate a feast that may seem at first glance to be irrelevant to contemporary life. The Feast of the Sacred Heart developed in part as a response to pre-destinationist theologies which diminished the universality of the gratuitous love of God and consigned many to perdition. But the Church's own theology of grace and freedom point directly to the reality of the human heart -- that center of the human person where God freely speaks himself and human beings respond in ways which are salvific for them and for the rest of the world. It asks us to see all  persons as constituted in this way and called to life in and of God. Tomorrow's Feast of the Sacred Heart, then, despite the shift in context, asks us to reflect again on the nature of the human heart, to the greatest danger to spiritual or authentically human life the Scriptures identify, and too, on what a contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart might mean for us.

As I have written here before, the heart is the symbol of the center of the human person. It is a theological term which points first of all to God and to God's activity deep within us. It is not so much that we have a heart and then God comes to dwell there; it is that where [and to the extent] God dwells within us and bears witness to himself, we have a heart. The human heart (not the cardiac muscle but the center of our personhood the Scriptures call heart) is a dialogical event where God speaks, calls, breathes, and sings us into existence and where, in one way and degree or another, we respond to become the people we are [and are called to  be]. It is therefore important that our hearts be open and flexible, that they be obedient to the Voice and love of God, and so that they be responsive in all the ways they are summoned to be.

Bearing this in mind it is no surprise that the Scriptures speak in many places about the very worst thing which could befall a human being and her spiritual life. We hear it in the following line from Ezekiel: [[If today you hear [God's] voice, harden not your hearts.]] Many things contribute to such a reaction. We know that love is risky and that it always hurts. Sometimes this hurt is akin to the mystical experience of being pierced by God's love and is a wonderful but difficult experience. Sometimes it is the pain of compassion or empathy or grief. These are often bittersweet experiences, but they are also life giving. Other times love wounds us in less fruitful ways: we are betrayed by friends or family, we reach out to another in love and are rejected, a billion smaller losses wound us in ways from which we cannot seem to recover.

In such cases our hearts are not only wounded but become scarred, indurated, less sensitive to pain (or pleasure), stiff and relatively inflexible. They, quite literally, become "hardened" and we may be fearful and unwilling or even unable to risk further injury. When the Scriptures speak of the "hardening" of our hearts they use the very words medicine uses to speak of the result of serious and prolonged wounding: induration, sclerosis, callousedness. Such hardening is self-protective but it also locks us into a world which makes us less capable of responding to love with all of its demands and riskiness. It makes us incapable of suffering well (patiently, fruitfully), or of real selflessness, generosity, or compassion.

It is here that the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus' is instructive and where contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart can assist us. The Sacred Heart is clearly the place where human and divine are united in a unique way. While we are not called to Daughterhood or to Sonship in the exact same sense of Jesus' (he is "begotten" Son, we are adopted Sons --- and I use only Sons because of the prophetic, countercultural sense that term had for women in the early Church), we are meant to be expressions of a similar unity and heritage; we are meant to have God as the well spring of life and love at the center of our existence.

Like the Sacred Heart our own hearts are meant to be "externalized" in a sense and (made) transparent to others. They are meant to be wounded by love and deeply touched by the pain of others but not scarred or indurated in that woundedness; they are meant to be compassionate hearts on fire with love and poured out for others --- hearts which are marked by the cross in all of its kenotic (self-emptying) dimensions and therefore too by the joy of ever-new life. The truly human heart is a reparative heart which heals the woundedness of others and empowers them to love as well. Such hearts are hearts which love as God loves, and therefore which do justice. I think that allowing our own hearts to be remade in this way represents an authentic devotion to Jesus' Sacred Heart. There is nothing lacking in relevance or contemporaneity in that!

15 June 2017

Solemnity of Corpus Christi: Celebrating a Power Made Perfect in Weakness

Because Sunday is the Solemnity of Corpus Christi and because tomorrow's first reading is Paul's "earthen vessels" text (2 Cor:4:7-14) I am reprising the following post from two years ago. I am hoping to get another piece up on tomorrow's readings --- a version of a reflection I will do for my parish community -- but that might not be until tomorrow or Saturday some time.

[[Dear Sister, if a person is chronically ill then isn't their illness a sign that "the world" of sin and death are still operating in [i.e., dominating] their lives?  . . . I have always thought that to become a religious one needed to be in good health. Has that also changed with canon 603? I don't mean that someone has to be perfect to become a nun or hermit but shouldn't they at least be in good health? Wouldn't that say more about the "heavenliness" of their vocation than illness? ]] (Concatenation of queries posed in several emails)

As I read these various questions one image kept recurring to me, namely, that of Thomas reaching out to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. I also kept thinking of a line from a homily my pastor (John Kasper, OSFS) gave about 7 years ago which focused on Carravagio's painting of this image; the line was,  "There's Another World in There!" It was taken in part from the artist and writer Jan Richardson's reflections on this painting and on the nature of the Incarnation. Richardson wrote:

[[The gospel writers want to make sure we know that the risen Christ was no ghost, no ethereal spirit. He was flesh and blood. He ate. He still, as Thomas discovered, wore the wounds of crucifixion. That Christ’s flesh remained broken, even in his resurrection, serves as a powerful reminder that his intimate familiarity and solidarity with us, with our human condition, did not end with his death. . . Perhaps that’s what is so striking about Caravaggio’s painting: it stuns us with the awareness of how deeply Christ was, and is, joined with us. The wounds of the risen Christ are not a prison: they are a passage. Thomas’ hand in Christ’s side is not some bizarre, morbid probe: it is a  union, and a reminder that in taking flesh, Christ wed himself to us.]] Living into the Resurrection

Into the Wound, Jan L Richardson
My response then must really begin with a series of questions to you. Are the Risen Christ's wounds a sign that sin and death are still "operating in" him or are they a sign that God has been victorious over these --- and victorious not via an act of force but through one of radical vulnerability and compassion? Are his wounds really a passage to "another world" or are they signs of his bondage to and defeat by the one which contends with him and the Love he represents? Do you believe that our world is at least potentially sacramental or that heaven (eternal life in the sovereign love of God) and this world interpenetrate one another as a result of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection or are they entirely separate from and opposed to one another? Even as I ask these questions I am aware that they may be answered in more than one way. In our own lives too, we may find that the wounds and scars of illness and brokenness witness more to the world of sin and death than they do to that of redemption and eternal life. They may represent a prison more than they represent a passage to another world.

Or not.

When I write about discerning an eremitical vocation and the importance of the critical transition that must be made from being a lone pious person living physical silence and solitude to essentially being a hermit living "the silence of solitude," I am speaking of being a person who has moved from the prison of illness, for instance, to illness (or any form of brokenness or woundedness) as passage to another world through the redemptive grace of God. We cannot empower or accomplish such a transition ourselves. The transfiguration of our lives is the work of God. At the same time, the scars of our lives will remain precisely as an invitation to others to see the power of God at work in our weakness and in God's own kenosis (self-emptying). These scars become Sacraments of God's powerful presence in our lives, vivid witnesses to the One who loves us in our brokenness and yet works continuously to bring life, wholeness, and meaning out of  death, brokenness, and absurdity.

To become a hermit (especially to be publicly professed as a Catholic hermit) someone suffering from chronic illness has to have made this transition. Their lives may involve suffering but the suffering has become a sacrament which attests less to itself  (and certainly not to an obsession with pain) but to the God who is a Creator-redeemer God. What you tend to see as an obstacle to living a meaningful profoundly prophetic religious or eremitical life seems to me to be a symbol of the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It also seems to me to remind us of the nature of "heavenliness" in light of the Ascension. Remember that one side of the salvation event we call the Christ is God's descent so that our world may be redeemed and entirely transformed into a new creation. But the other side of this Event is the Ascension where God takes scarred humanity and even death itself up into his own life --- thus changing the very nature of heaven (the sovereign life of God shared with others) in the process.

Far from being an inadequate witness to "heavenliness" our wounds can be the most perfect witness to God's sovereign life shared with us. Our God has embraced the wounds and scars of the world as his very own and not been demeaned, much less destroyed in the process. Conversely, for Christians, the marks of the crucifixion, as well therefore as our own illnesses, weaknesses and various forms of brokenness, are (or are meant to become) the quintessential symbols of a heaven which embraces our own lives and world to make them new. When this transformation occurs in the life of a chronically ill individual seeking to live eremitical life it is the difference between a life of one imprisoned in physical isolation, silence, and solitude, to that of one which breathes and sings "the silence of solitude." It is this song, this prayer, this magnificat that Canon 603 describes so well and consecrated life in all its forms itself represents.

Bowl patched with Gold
We Christians do not hide our woundedness then. We are not ashamed at the way life has marked and marred, bent and broken, spindled and mutilated us. But neither are woundedness or brokenness themselves the things we witness to. Instead it is the Sacrament God has made of our lives, the Love that does justice and makes whole that is the source of our beauty and our boasting. Jan Richardson also reminds us of this truth when she recalls Sue Bender's observations on seeing a mended Japanese bowl. [[“The image of that bowl,” she writes, “made a lasting impression. Instead of trying to hide the flaws, the cracks were emphasized — filled with silver. The bowl was even more precious after it had been mended.”]]  So too with our own lives: as Paul also said, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing power will be of God and not from ourselves."  (2 Cor 4:7) It is the mended cracks, the wounds which were once prisons, the shards of a broken life now reconstituted entirely and transfigured by the grace of God which reveal the very presence of heaven to those we meet.

12 June 2017

On What Spirituality Really Means

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
       When you write about the inner work or "growth work" you have been engaged in, how important is it that you work with someone else? Doesn't this mean you are not living solitude? I was bothered by your saying you thought the Church had "implicitly commissioned" you to do this work. Could you say more about this? I am asking because I don't understand how some sort of pseudo-psychological work can be considered part of the hermit's life which is supposed to be a spiritual life and I really doubt the Church would support it much less commission it! Can you explain this?]]

Thanks for your questions. I don't know if you have misunderstood me but you have made it clear that I have not been clear in recent posts and need to say a bit more to clarify. I have answered similar questions in the posts, Followup Questions and Objections on Inner Work as well as Sources and Resources for Inner Work. I do recommend you look at those; they were written just a year ago and allowed me to outline how it was I saw this work as intrinsic to the life of a hermit. In those posts I discuss asceticism, the desert Fathers and Mothers, the importance and appropriateness of working with another, and several other topics. Without repeating everything there let me touch on a couple of topics raised by my last post and your questions which I may not have dealt with explicitly in those earlier posts.

The first issue I think is that I am called to a spiritual life but that that seems to you to disallow attention to psychological, emotional, and similar health or growth. My own understanding of spirituality does not cut those things out of the picture. Spirituality primarily has to do with the Life of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and where the Spirit is active nothing is (or should be!) untouched. A spiritual life is a life in which the Holy Spirit is allowed to act as she will; it is one where the person embraces this action, prepares for its continuation, and acts from it. It is one where the Holy Spirit is allowed to touch, heal, and empower every dimension of the person so that she grows in wholeness and/or holiness. In other words, spirituality is not merely about matters of my own spirit or soul, it is about what God's Spirit does with my whole Self.

When a client tells me about their spiritual lives they pay attention to where the Holy Spirit has been allowed to act, where she has been resisted or ignored, and just generally where the Holy Spirit seems to be moving in her/his life. When I work with my own director, especially in the PRH work we are doing together, we work through all those forms of woundedness which, over the years, have prevented the Life of God which resides deep within me to truly inform, empower, inspire, transfigure and transform my life. It may be that Spirit has been unable to adequately inform and move my will, or my intellect, or my sensibilities (including emotions. sensations, and feelings).

What I need to become is vulnerable to the Holy Spirit, vulnerable to Love-in-Act, and this vulnerability (from the L. root vulnus for "wound") only comes from working through my own woundedness and the scarring that has "hardened" my own heart! We all know people who can't feel their feelings, or those who are incapable of acting on what they know, or even those who are incapable of showing the curiosity, creativity, or critical power of their intellect. Whenever these things happen, and in whatever degree, it means a truncated, relatively impaired human life which is unable to respond adequately to the movement of the Spirit. Even when significant or deep healing is unnecessary we have to learn to respond fully, exhaustively.

Too often I hear about notions of spirituality which involve a limited dimension of the person (their spirit or soul) and leaves the rest as though it is uninvolved in spirituality. Thus, there are all kinds of dualism involved in these: the temporal vs the eternal, the bodily vs the spiritual, the spiritual vs the ordinary "profane" world, etc etc. But these notions are antithetical to genuine spirituality which begins with the Spirit of GOD -- not the spirit of the person per se -- and then attends to that in ways which allows the Holy Spirit to move where she will! The corollary to this kind of division is that only some parts of us and only some activities are seen as "spiritual" while others are not (e.g., praying is spiritual, playing in an orchestra supposedly is not, etc). 


Laura Risk (friend
 and renowned fiddler)
As part of this, we must remember that human beings are embodied Spirit, that our souls (the very breath of God which literally inspires our bodily existence) "builds our bodies around it". The soul, as Aquinas reminded us so well, is the form of the body and works towards this embodiment always and everywhere. (This, by the way, is one reason "heaven" will ultimately never be about disembodied souls; the soul yearns for embodiment, yearns for resurrection, and that is what we ultimately hope for!)  But the upshot of all this is a spiritual life cannot avoid attending and paying attention to the WHOLE of our lives. (And here I will note that the act of playing a violin can be one of the most prayerful acts in my entire life because it is a fairly sophisticated form of the Holy Spirit's embodiment. There are times, of course, it does not rise to that level, but the yearning to play and the empowered act of pouring myself into the instrument to produce music is the very definition of the Holy Spirit at work in me and in our world.)

Embodiment, quite obviously, involves our whole selves. That means the psychological or emotional as well as the physical. It especially means paying attention to anything that stands in the way of the Holy Spirit's activity in our lives. During Advent we hear the admonition to "make straight the paths of the Lord!" We are to make our lives ready in ways which allow the Spirit of God to fill the valleys and level the mountains. And now during Pentecost we cry out in both supplication and great joy, "Come Holy Spirit! Enkindle the hearts (the deepest core) of the faithful (those who trust you, those you will set afire with your love!)" In all of this the Scriptures affirm that we seek and are sought by the God who wills we allow the Holy Spirit (the Life and Love of God) to inspire every part of our being: body, mind, heart, spirit, sensibilities, emotions, ordinary and extraordinary dimensions of our lives. Everything is meant to be shot through with the power and love of the Spirit of God. When I speak of  everything being potentially sacramental this is part of what I mean. With the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost God affirms actively and effectively that NOTHING will be left untouched, unembraced, unloved, unreconciled or not wholly taken up into the very life of God himself.

The work I have been doing with my director is meant to allow the Holy Spirit to move freely within and through me --- as She is meant to do. It is meant to allow me to be the person in whom that Sprit lives and moves freely, a person who is whole, coherent, and holy --- a person in other words, who is truly inspired by the Spirit and who "holds together" in Christ and the love he and His Father share -- just as we are each called to do. For that reason we work through everything that stands in the way of that. We work through woundedness, both old and more recent, allowing love to heal these. We work through memories, allow for the experience and expression of emotions, and at every point reappropriate these from the perspective of God's unceasing presence and love --- as these are present not only in my hermitage, but in my deep Self and in my director as well. (It is the role of my director to mediate God's love in all of this and this means this love's critical, attentive, challenging, consoling and empowering character!) There is literally no part of my life that goes untouched in all of this. If spirituality means a praxis which leads to holiness then this is how it must be. After all, God has been at work during the whole of my life and in this work we [[lay it all out and trace the hand of God that somehow ordered all things. . .]]

On Being Commissioned to do this Work:

My consecration and commission by the Church has charged me with living my Rule, canon 603, and solitary eremitical life in the Church's name. She has given me permission to turn from other things including active or apostolic religious life, family life, and any number of other things to live with, from and for God alone in the silence of solitude. She has provided me the freedom to turn from the world's definitions of success, etc, and has allowed me the space and time to attend to God in all the ways God calls me to. This means I do not have to justify my life in the same terms most of those I know have to do.
But, the Church has also prayed that God would bring to completion in me what was begun on that day of consecration. When she granted me the cowl she prayed that I would carry out the ministry of prayer she had entrusted to me. Both of these mean the Church expects and prays that I would fully allow God to be God within and through me in my contemplative solitary eremitical life. I am free to do whatever is necessary to allow this to happen and become the truth of my life. I am free, in other words, to "put on Christ" and to do so as a diocesan hermit --- to allow my mind and heart to be remade in his image by the Spirit. I am obligated in the same way.

This means I am responsible for doing whatever I can to fulfill this obligation. I am responsible for working toward my own conversion in the power of God. My director and I decided together on the kind and degree of work we would undertake because while entirely complementary, it also goes beyond the usual work or commitment of spiritual direction --- though now it is entirely integrated into spiritual direction in our work together. What must be clear is that the aim of our work together is everything I have described throughout this post. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to work in and through me as exhaustively as possible. Both of us are committed to God and to allowing God full reign in our lives and the lives of those we touch. Both of us are consecrated by God through the mediation of the Church for this purpose. Both of us are committed to holiness --- to the life occasioned and brought to fullness by the Holy Spirit. That is what spiritual life is about and I think when you ask questions about the wisdom or prudence of this work for a hermit it is important that you consider we both act with all of this in mind.

Addendum: sorry, I missed a couple of questions, so briefly: the work I have spoken of requires the assistance of another who is trained to accompany persons in this way. The majority of the work is done on one's own but meetings with the accompanist are absolutely essential and often critical since part of healing often requires speaking one's truth to another who will really hear this. (Being heard in this way is a complex dynamic of love, trust, and acceptance, but it also means trusting, accepting, and expressing one's own truth in a way which might not have been possible before.) To summarize, this kind of work must be done with another person, a person who knows how to listen deeply, to respond compassionately, and to speak the words of truth and love which can cut through our personal "deafness" and incapacity to empower a full and loving response to God and to those whom God holds as precious.  It is especially important to remember that the work we are doing together (and with the grace of God!) increases my already-established capacity for healthy solitude. It does not detract from this.