06 December 2016

On the Hiddenness of Eremitical Life

 [[Hi Sister, I wondered if you find the idea of the hiddenness of your vocation difficult. I was especially wondering if there is some part of "remaining hidden" that is particularly challenging to you? Have you chosen to blog in response to this or maybe in spite of this?]]

Really terrific questions! Yes, there is a dimension of eremitical hiddenness that has been difficult for me, namely, it has been challenging to come to a really adequate or more complete understanding of what I am being asked to witness to or how my life proclaims the Gospel if it is hidden in the sense most folks understand the term. When I considered eremitical life originally I thought it was supremely selfish and in one way and another I have been dealing with residual bits of that conviction throughout my own struggle with the vocation's hiddenness. After all, we have texts like Jesus' clear teaching that one ought not put one's light under a bushel basket but instead place it on a lampstand so that all may see (by) it, and of course there is the clear commandment that we love one another as God loves us. Eremitical solitude and hiddenness seem to fly in the face of these and similar central bits of the Gospel Tradition.

Trusting the Light Mediated by Hiddenness:

If you notice the way I amended the text above regarding putting one's light on a lampstand you will see one of the ways I have come to deal with the apparent conflict between the importance of eremitical hiddenness and also the imperative to share with others. You see, I came to see more clearly the basic truth that it is not so much that we see light itself but rather that we see by virtue of the light. In thinking about eremitical hiddenness I came to see there is a difference between putting one's light on a lampstand so that others might see it and putting the light there so that others may see by virtue of it. The second "translation" allowed me to see that a hermit's hiddenness might prevent folks from looking directly at "the light" (to whatever degree this particular life really is a source of light) but that the light of the hermit's life could still (and in fact MUST still) illuminate the world around her and be a source of light to those within in. In many ways eremitical life is the most radical expression of the truth that we must grow less so that God's glory lives more fully in and shines more fully through us or that it must be Christ in us that is the most critical reality we witness to.

What I must trust is that, in ways I am mainly unaware of, the light of Christ DOES shine through me --- especially through the fact that life in eremitical solitude is something which completes and makes me genuinely happy --- and that it is the real purpose or calling of my life, in the main it is the way I truly DO love others. When I write about the redemptive reality which MUST exist in the life of any hermit and the fact that this must come to the hermit in the silence of solitude I am writing about the same thing Merton wrote about when he said that "the first duty of the hermit is to be happy without affectation in (her) solitude".  The whole quote says, [[The . . .hermit has as his first duty, to live happily without affectation in his solitude. He owes this not only to himself but to his community [by extension diocesan hermits would say parish, diocese, or Church] that has gone so far as to give him a chance to live it out. . . . this is the chief obligation of the . . .hermit because, as I said above, it can restore to others their faith in certain latent possibilities of nature and of grace.]] (Emphasis added,  Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 242)

In a world where there is such an emphasis on active ministry (and rightly so) and such a need for concrete acts of love it is simply hard to see that it is the very hiddenness of the hermit that is actually a very significant act of love which witnesses to the grace of God that has redeemed the hermit's life. So often activism is not a reflection of a contemplative or prayerful core; so often it is an expression of insecurity, the need to achieve for one's own sake more than for the sake of the other. So often active ministry is undertaken in an approach that is more symptomatic than systemic --- it deals with symptoms more than the underlying disease (though the best priests, religious, and laity I know manage an active ministry aimed at the core problem as well and even primarily.) The hermit serves to remind us all that before we reach out to others we must be able to point to God's love and redemption with the wholeness and capacity to remain in solitude, secure even in our hiddenness.

Inner Work and the Witness of the Hermit:

Recently I wrote about inner work I was undertaking with my director. At one point we had a discussion of why this work was personally imperative for me and how it was that it was consonant with my vocation --- especially because the work meant extensive contact with my director and some significant temporary changes in my Rule. I explained that my own sense was that since the Church had consecrated and commissioned me to live this vocation in her name she had also commissioned me to undertake anything essential to living an abundant life in union with God more and more fully. That meant, I explained, that not only had the Church given me permission to do this work but that insofar as it was essential to my own healing and growth it was something that was an essential part of this vocation the Church had publicly called me to.

Also, despite the intense interaction with my director --- an interaction in which the Grace of God was constantly mediated --- it was done mainly in solitude and would enhance my solitude --- especially since solitude differs so radically from isolation and the brokenness associated with isolation. All of this was done so that I could truly be a hermit living out the primary obligation of the eremitical life as Merton had defined it and as I had come to know it to be. All of it witnessed to what the hermit knows most acutely in solitude, namely that there are incredible, awesome latent possibilities or potentialities marking the place within us where nature and grace meet --- where, in fact, God bears and is allowed to bear witness within us. It can be essential for the health of every minister to be reminded of these deep potentialities and the terrible hunger every person may know to have them realized in relation to God. Thus, hermits serve the Church --- sometimes by remaining completely hidden and sometimes by maintaining an essential hiddenness despite a very limited active ministry --- as I do in my parish and with this blog.

On Blogging:

Thus, the answer to your second question is that blogging is not something I have chosen to do in spite of a call to eremitical hiddenness but rather, something I have chosen to do because of it. I am convinced there needs to be a way of sharing the incredibly positive reasons hermits choose the silence of solitude, why their hiddenness is an antidote to the epidemic need for notoriety so prevalent today, and why solitude is not necessarily a selfish choice but can be one which is made for the sake of others. My own choice to blog also has to do with the need for reflection on hermits' lived experience of canon 603 and the way it is implemented and needs to be implemented for the good of the Church and solitary hermits. Eremitical life per se is so little understood in chanceries throughout the world and so often understood in terms of "being a lone person" or isolation rather than eremitical solitude by so many others. We have to allow the love which drives this vocation to illumine the world --- both in its hiddenness and in the limited access we give others to that hiddenness.

What I have come to understand over the past decade especially is that the vocation is not selfish and, paradoxically, that hiddenness in the eremitical life is a dimension of one's love for God, for oneself, and for others because it reveals the God who loves us simply for ourselves; similarly it reminds us that allowing this to really be the foundation of our lives is the one thing necessary and the deepest potential of our humanity.

04 December 2016

Canon 603: Lauras vs Communities of Hermits

[[Sister, could individuals who wish to be religious be professed under Canon 603 and then come together in a laura? What is the difference between a community or religious institute and a laura? I ask because of a post I read recently here on using Canon 603 as a stopgap means to profession. (I don't mean it was a recent post, just that I read it recently.)]]

That's a good question. Canon 603 allows for lauras but of it does not do so explicitly; instead it does so implicitly within the context of support for the solitary eremitical vocation and CICLSAL has approved the idea of lauras. Commentators too have opined on the appropriateness of lauras so long as they do not rise to the level of a community. This means that a laura exists to support solitary hermits in their solitude, and that it does not change the thrust or the requirements of the Canon in other specifications. (The name, laura, is instructive here because as I noted before, it comes from the Latin word for paths which link individual hermitages with one another, and with the chapel and common areas. The emphasis remains on the solitary hermitages and the life within them.) So, how does this differ from a religious institute?

First, community is secondary rather than primary; it is meant to support solitary eremitical life not create communities of cenobites with significant solitude. While Mass may be celebrated daily, and while some of the Divine offices may be chanted or prayed in common, and while during a week a few meals may be taken in common, recreation shared, etc, the emphasis and primary reason for the laura is the solitary vocation. This means too that a hermit continues to be responsible for writing her own Rule (more about this below) --- even though some adaptations may be made so the Laura functions well and responsibility to one another is honored. (This is important not only for the formation of the individual hermit, but also should the laura cease to be sustainable at some point. More about this in a moment.)

Secondly, formation and profession would need in large part to be done apart from the laura itself. That is, one is formed as a hermit in a process which is largely independent and individual. Ongoing formation is provided for in the hermit's Rule. The laura would not responsible for determining what is necessary or for providing for this. Of course, members of the laura might serve other hermits as mentors or elders in the mode of the desert Fathers and Mothers, but such service will not rise to the level of formation director, etc as one would find in a community. Individual hermits might require some degree of socialization to the Laura life specifically, but generally their formation has a different purpose. They are to be formed as solitary diocesan hermits, that is as diocesan hermits whose vocations may take them outside the Laura for any number of reasons and at any time. Formation of new hermits or candidates is not the responsibility of laura members. Instead the laura is open to already professed diocesan hermits. Meanwhile, profession is made in the hands of the diocesan Bishop, not in the hands of community superiors.

Thus, if the laura should be disbanded at some point in the future or a hermit decide to leave (for instance because hermits leave, die, require full time care, decide to live a more completely solitary life with their parish as main community, etc) a remaining hermit (who is not a cenobite) cannot transfer to an eremitical community (like the Camaldolese or Carthusians); instead she remains professed as a diocesan hermit and responsible for her own vocation within the diocese. She must therefore be prepared to live as a solitary hermit like most others --- without the advantages afforded by a Laura and with a sensitivity to her place within the parish community and larger (diocesan and universal) church community.

Thirdly, a solitary hermit must be or have been able to write her own rule of life based on her lived experience and wisdom. I have read an argument that allows for a diocese to write guidelines and the Laura (meaning one person who serves as superior here) to write the Rule. While this might be canonically acceptable (I believe the canon indicates writing the Rule is the hermit's responsibility) it lacks real wisdom and prudence, I think, and it confuses the laura with a religious community. This arrangement cuts away one of the most significant elements assisting the hermit and the diocese in discerning the soundness of the eremitical vocation in front of them; more, it robs the hermit of one of the most integrative and growthful experiences she will have during her first years living this vocation in a truly conscious way. (Please see articles on writing the Rule for more on this topic).

Fourthly, just as the hermit writes her own Rule she must be able to keep her own accounts, determine her own work or limited ministry, and, for the most part (except for common prayer and meals), establish her own horarium (schedule) and choose her own delegate. Again, this is part of recognizing her vocation as a solitary hermit who remains a solitary hermit even should a laura dissolve be suppressed, or otherwise fail. Lauras can accommodate all of these requirements but life in community cannot. Poverty in community requires a common purse and a common interpretation and praxis of poverty; this is not true of solitary eremitical life. Similarly, life in a community requires common leadership --- a single superior; a delegate from outside the community is not workable. In a laura, while one person may serve as leader of the laura, each hermit's vocation is best served by their own delegate.

Fifthly, in a laura, except for worship where each hermit may wear a similar prayer garment, individual hermits wear the garb they have chosen and their bishop has approved according to their Rule of life. Something similar holds regarding access to internet, use of media and computers and other tools a hermit may need. Each of these and other individual needs will be worked out in the hermit's own Rule with the assistance of her delegate and/or spiritual director.

03 December 2016

On Delegates and the Adequacy of Canon 603 Provisions for Formation and Governance

Hi Sister Laurel, when you wrote about the role of your delegate were you aware that some hermits like Sister Petra Clare are critical of the way governance of hermits work out on the ground? She wrote:

[[ Although it was a big move for the hierarchy to recognise these ancient solitary ways of life and re-insert them into the life of the Church during Vatican II, I doubt whether the fathers of the Council had foreseen the pastoral and religious gaps which would be exposed by re-introducing a fourth century way of life into the late twentieth century milieu! This gap has its roots in the formal separation of clergy and religious life governance during the Gregorian reforms in the 11c. When the new canons were introduced, together with canon 605 which fosters new religious communities, the bishops – for the first time since the Middle Ages – were directly responsible for a form of religious life!

This was a shock for both sides – clergy and religious! Bishops did not know anything about the job and were not particularly keen for extra responsibilities. Religious, on the whole, simply shrugged and said it wasn’t their job either: their responsibility stopped at the doors of their communities or – at widest – extended to the Congregation. Occasionally, a religious community has fostered a closer relationship with a particular hermit or virgin, but such exceptions are few and far between. Very often, soon after the virgin has made her commitment the guidance of the church dries up. The result has been, with a few exceptions, a no-man’s land of ‘do-it-yourself’ formation and quasi-religious life.

On the whole the pattern seems to be that the Consecration or hermit profession works well in its first stages. The consecrating Bishop has an interest in his charge, and makes provision for formation (usually very basic), presides the profession, and sets up a minimalistic support system, which usually means appointing a spiritual director and/or some oversight from a religious community or the Vicar for religious. . . . ]]


Thereafter she finds there is simply little oversight and the situation becomes problematical. It sounds to me like your delegate is unusual and you are as fortunate as you said you were. I assume you agree with Sister Petra's analysis of the situation. My question is how does a hermit find someone to serve in this way? How does she avoid the notion of "do-it-yourself" formation mentioned in Sister Petra's account of things? Does the diocese have a role in all of this or should they have a role in all of this?]]


I read Sister Petra's account of things on the blog "City Desert" (cf. City Desert: Modern Roman Catholic Hermits) a couple of years ago I think. I was struck not only by her analysis of the lacunae in canon 603's provisions (or, more accurately I think, the deficiencies in the way the canon is implemented in many dioceses), but also the similarity of her impressions regarding Sister Irene Gibson to my own. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the second portion of her comments on formation --- though I would like to have read those. I don't know how pervasive this problem is but, as I have noted, I do know how fortunate I am in having a delegate who accepts her role in service to the diocese and myself, and who has made it her own so that 1) she regards my own needs and her responsibility in helping me meet these very seriously indeed, and at the same time 2) regards the classic freedom of the hermit which is embodied in canon 603 (and my own Rule) at the same time. Sister M. has worked with me for many years now and she has done so during particularly intense formative  periods in my own life despite the fact that she is (more primarily) on her congregation's leadership team during a particularly critical time in her congregation's life.

Finding a Delegate:

So, how does a hermit find someone to work with them in this way? The responsibility for finding a religious to serve in this way was something my own diocese told me I would need to take care of myself. I don't know if they realized how difficult it could be (I certainly did not)  or if they had not really thought things through yet, but undoubtedly I was (yet again!) very fortunate that Sister Marietta agreed to fill the role. However, the content of the role was not really spelled out so it has been something that evolved as Marietta's own sense of responsibility, her experience in formation and leadership, and her own care for me came together with my own needs, discernment, and growth in this vocation. In a sense this kind of "free hand" mirrors the way a hermit's own vocation grows and should grow --- with an emphasis for all involved on discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit in this hermit's life. But the diocese should play a part in all of this -- more of a part than my own plays I think, and far more than dioceses play in the lives of most hermits.

When I say this I mean the diocese: 1) should take the need for a delegate of sufficient experience and commitment very seriously, 2) they should assist a hermit in finding someone to fill this role if the hermit does not know  or cannot find someone right off; this could and probably should include speaking with formation and leadership personnel of congregations in the diocese to seek their assistance,  3) besides the annual or bi-annual meeting with the hermit they should meet regularly with the the hermit's delegate for a sense of how things are going --- not so much for the hermit as for the delegate herself and for her input on her own role; after all she is serving them in this role and helping them and other dioceses to understand what it can and perhaps, should and should not be, 4) when a new bishop comes in he should make a point of meeting not only the hermit but her delegate as well; moreover he (or the Vicar for Religious) should have all contact information for both persons on hand, 5) when this becomes necessary the diocese should assist the hermit to find someone suitable to replace the delegate. It is not, in my opinion, a role which should be allowed to go vacant nor is it a role just any religious can fill, and 6) the delegate should be given a free hand to work with the hermit as they both discern what is helpful and necessary. Both she and the hermit can report on this in annual meetings with the bishop. The bottom line in all of this is that the delegate serves BOTH the hermit and the diocese or diocesan bishop. She should not be seen as simply doing a personal favor for the hermit. Instead she should be recognized and even commissioned to serve in this capacity --- not publicly commissioned, perhaps, but really  affirmed in this service by the pertinent chancery offices/bishop.

The Role of the Delegate and the Role of the Diocese:

Since I have not been able to read what Sister Petra says about formation I don't know whether she is speaking of formation of hermits who have sufficient experience of religious life prior to perpetual profession under canon 603, or those who, relatively speaking, have none or very little when she refers to "do-it-yourself-formation". (I believe it is wrong and an abuse of canon 603 to profess hermits with no experience of or formation in the skills, values, attitudes, and disciplines of religious life but the simple fact is that it does happen in some dioceses.) Neither do I know if she accepts solitary eremitical life as possible under c 603 or believes instead that hermits must live in colonies. Since she is from Scotland she may be associated with a group that believes c 603 is inadequate for the living out of the eremitical vocation. (She may even be the person who once wrote this. I cannot recall.) If she does believe the latter, then I disagree with her and while I believe dioceses have to take greater care in implementing canon 603, I also believe the canon per se defines a livable eremitical life. In instances of solitary eremitical life we must recognize that formation for the hermit mainly occurs in solitude and that hermits who are perpetually professed must show both initiative and responsibility; they must be able to discern (at least in some vestigial sense) and either find or ask for what they need. At the same time the hermit's delegate should be able to discern and inform the hermit of avenues of formation, resources for retreat, etc., which can be helpful to her and certainly those which are necessary for her well-being generally and in this vocation specifically.

While canon 603 does not spell out the role of delegate nor provide for legal categories governing the relationship between herself and the hermit, the canon does clearly say the bishop is the hermit's legitimate superior in whose hands she makes her profession and under whose supervision she lives her Rule and commitment. Given the busyness of bishops and, generally speaking, their own lack of expertise in religious or consecrated life, this can easily be seen to call for a delegate who is a religious with sufficient experience and talents in formation and leadership; the bishop would be the one who outlines the responsibilities of such a role in light of his own needs and those of the hermit, but also with feedback from the Sister or Brother who is assuming the role of delegate. In general we are talking about exercising authority with a light touch but insisting everyone shares in ways which are pertinent not just to the hermit's vocation but to working out prudent ways to implement canon 603 itself so the whole Church benefits.

One thing I may not have been clear enough about: the delegate is NOT the hermit's formation director. The hermit ordinarily has none (and here is the reason for requiring significant lived experience prior to admitting to eremitical life/profession). Moreover, the hermit's formation as hermit mainly occurs in silence and solitude. The delegate and the hermit's spiritual director can assist the hermit in negotiating this more specific formation --- especially her ongoing formation which never ceases to be a challenge and obligation. At the same time there are resources which should be considered in assisting the hermit's education and formation in religious life generally and in eremitical life more specifically. For instance, it is critically important that the hermit has extended experience of real silence and solitude. One of the best ways this can occur is with an extended stay (or repeated stays) in a contemplative monastic community. It is tremendously helpful  to live with religious who themselves live silence and solitude (in community) as they move through a daily routine of prayer, work, recreation, prayer, etc. We tend to learn what is possible by watching others. More, hermits need to be sustained in their solitude and having a sense that others move through their days in the same way the hermit does is tremendously helpful in providing this sustenance.

Dioceses must take seriously their Responsibility with Regard to C 603

I have argued in several specific ways that the diocese is and should be involved in this but let me also comment in a more general way on the place of the diocese in regard to this topic. Dioceses act in a rather uneven manner in implementing canon 603. Some profess, it sometimes seems, almost anyone coming through the door petition in hand. Some refuse to profess anyone at all --- whether because they have no suitable candidates or because they don't believe in the vocation itself, and some use the canon with care and caution --- usually because they understand the vocation along with its rarity and have high standards on who they will admit to formal discernment and profession. Some dioceses may also be concerned their responsibility for the life of solitary hermits will be onerous and more than they can take on --- or more than they know how to take on. It is this last concern which needs to be discussed at greater length and it is a discussion which a delegate along with the hermit can help to facilitate. In particular hermits and delegates can have meaningful input on formation, both initial and ongoing. In any case, a diocese which professes a diocesan hermit definitely needs to take on meaningful (which does not mean extensive) responsibility for this vocation. Otherwise, as I have suggested before, they probably ought not admit hermits to profession under canon 603.

Canon 603, as I have written uncountable times, defines an ecclesial vocation and in all such vocations there is a bond of mutual responsibility between the hermit and the Church as a whole. It is true that generally speaking diocesan hermits do not need much oversight in living their lives. Still, they represent a new form of consecrated life which reprises an ancient and important impulse to prophetic and contemplative witness pivotal to the life and good health of the Church; for this reason every diocesan hermit and those who assist her share in the establishment and evolution of canon 603 life within the Church. There has to be meaningful dialogue between the diocese/bishop and the hermit and delegate so the Church can continue to recognize and risk consecrating these vocations. If the canon is not working well in some way or a hermit's life is disedifying, if dioceses require greater experience of such vocations, if they are to risk discerning and professing c 603 vocations, then it can only be with the input of hermits who are already perpetually professed (and their delegates!) in order that the limited experience of the Church in regard to these vocations can be extended and enlighten more widely.

30 November 2016

Sister Juliana 105 years old, 83 years a Religious Sister

Such a great story and wonderful to celebrate!

[[“Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” At first glance these words of the Grace Before Meals seem simple. After all, this is one of the first prayers parents teach their toddlers. Yet, in its simplicity, it expresses a profound, fundamental truth about our lives; all that we are and all that we have are gifts given to us through God’s bounty, in a manner of speaking, from God’s farm to our table. With grateful hearts we receive God’s abundant love and, in turn, offer our gifts and talents, our hopes and joys, our dreams and desires back to God to assist, in our unique way, in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

Juliana Barilla, OP has long understood the great joy it is to serve God by serving God’s people. Not many of us get to spend over eight decades living out this great joy. But Sister Juliana is privileged to say she has been doing so as a Grand Rapids Dominican for 82 years and still counting.]] (cf, Sister Juliana for access to Sister Juliana's story.)

28 November 2016

On Battling Demons and the Mediation of Peace

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, you have written about battling demons as something real in the life of the hermit. I wondered if you were aware of the hermits who say that the stories of the desert mothers and fathers battling with demons are just legends and that the vocation of the hermit is to mediate peace? Do you agree or disagree with this appraisal of the situation?]]

Thanks for the question. I can't say I am familiar with the comments you are recounting but I both agree and disagree with them --- assuming of course, the accuracy of your account.

With regard to the comment about the stories of the desert elders being just legends, I would disagree with the use of the qualifier "just". Legends are powerful stories which can convey a kernel of truth. They can work like myths actually do work. To speak of "just myth" or "just legend" is like saying it's "just a matter of semantics". Such speech  denigrates and neglects the power of language to mediate truth; it disregards the fact that words matter. That said, yes, I would agree that the stories of the desert elders battling demons are legends or are stories with significant legendary features whose purpose is to describe an inner experience or event which is otherwise difficult to speak about or convey. Like myths they may be best honored when we do not take them literally. (Taking myths literally trivializes them and the truth they convey.) At the same time, their deep truth is truly heard when we allow ourselves to imagine the details in ways which fill our minds and hearts so we can really consider or meditate on them --- just as we would do with something which is literally true. We must allow ourselves to enter the stories fully so that they may address us and resonate within us --- just as we do with Scriptural stories, especially the parables of Jesus. Only in this way will we come to receive the truth they seek to mediate to us.

As I have written several times, it is traditional wisdom to understand that eremitical life involves battling with demons; in my own experience, however, those demons are mainly the ones we carry in our own hearts. The demons we battle may be those of insecurity, inferiority, arrogance, perfectionism, and so many others. They may involve memories which reside in both our minds and muscles because they have been profoundly encoded neurologically. They may be the demons of trauma or abuse or poverty and severe lack which so wound and injure our hearts as well. Almost anything that happens to human beings at the hands of others, themselves, or life's circumstances more generally can take on demonic dimensions and be triggered in the face of the love of God which seeks to heal us in the deepest and darkest places within our hearts, minds, and souls. Because hermits live religious poverty in the silence of solitude and spend their lives seeking God in this way, much of the noise and many of the distractions that attenuate or prevent most peoples' attention to their own hearts and to the darkness and demonic voices that dwell there are missing.

Being confronted by and accepting the love of God is profoundly healing, consoling, and life giving but at the same time it can be and often is a tremendously strenuous and painful process. When I wrote recently of the personal work I had been doing beginning June 1st I said the following: [[. . .believe me, when we deal with the parts of ourselves left unhealed, distorted, or broken in childhood and throughout life, the process of healing can be as fierce, demanding, and messy as stories of Desert ancestors battling all day and night long with demons then coming out of their caves torn and bloodied but exultant in the morning! The same is true of the story of Jacob wrestling with God (God's angel) and, painfully wounded though he was, refusing to let go until God blessed him. We enter the desert both to seek God and to do battle with demons; it is a naïve person indeed who does not anticipate meeting themselves face to face there in all of their weakness, brokenness, and [(fortunately), their] giftedness as well! We may well know that God is profoundly involved in what may eventuate into the fight (or struggle) of and for our lives but it can take time, faith, and perseverance before we walk away both limping and blessed beyond measure.]] (cf Sources and Resources for Inner Work)

Yes, it is true that hermits and eremitical life more generally is about the mediation of peace. The purpose of the struggle with demons is precisely to allow the hermit to dwell in peace and to extend that peace to others and to the world at large. When I write about the hermit (or any Christian) becoming the very prayer of God I am pointing to the same reality. Likewise speaking of being mediators of God's love or being the counterpart of God are ways of conveying the same truth. So, yes, I completely agree with the hermits you are referring to in this regard. However, I believe the struggles so often spoken of in the Apothegmata of the Desert Elders, Cassian's Conferences (esp Conf VII), or in the Life of Anthony, for instance, point to a necessary purgative and healing stage of our inner lives as we become the people we are called to be --- people who embody and mediate genuine peace.

Remember that in all of the readings we heard in the past couple of weeks at the liturgical year came to a conclusion judgment was most often portrayed as a kind of harvest --- and one that was not without a kind of violence or struggle. In every act of love, every act, that is, of judgment, God says an unconditional "yes" to us -- to the true self with all its gifts and potentialities, its yearnings and needs, but God also says "no" to anything which is unworthy of us --- to anything within us that cripples, distorts, or represents falseness. God embraces the wheat of our true selves as something in which God delights --- something which will nourish and bless the whole world, but the chaff of falsity and distortion is threshed away and left behind forever. In this way God creates us, summons us to be as fully and exhaustively as we can be. In this way he loves us and all those whom our lives will eventually touch. The result is a holiness occasioned by the love of God while the consequence of such healing and integration is shalom or peace --- not as the world gives, perhaps, but for which the world yearns almost immeasurably.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent: In what Story will we Stand? (reprise)

Sometimes I will post pieces I have written in the past because they are appropriate for the season or the feast. Today I am reprising this piece for the additional reason that it marks a theme I have recently returned to in my own life, namely, the way genuine conversion transforms the story in which we participate. The question of in what (or who's) story will we stand really represents the question of who we will be as persons: Advent especially poses this question powerfully and freshly.

A Poignant Conversation

Last week I spoke to a friend I haven't seen in a number of years. She has Alzheimer's and now lives in a different state. We have known each other since the early 80's  when we were both working with the same spiritual director and sometimes stayed at the Center for dinner or made retreat together. Today Denise remembers that time clearly as a watershed period of her life and it is a complete joy for her to talk about it. Doing so is part of what allows her to remain a hopeful and faithful person. It is a major part of her ability to remain herself. But her capacity for story has been crippled and to some extent reduced by her illness.

We are Made for Story

For me this conversation helped underscore a deep truth of our existence. Human beings are made for story. Story is an inescapable part of being truly human and we are diminished without it. It is not only a profound need within us but a drive which affects everything we are and do. Nothing happens without story. Nothing significant that happens in our life is unmediated by story.  When scientists reflect on and research this truth, they conclude we are hardwired for story. Neuroscientists have even located a portion of the brain which is dedicated to spinning stories. This portion of our brain sometimes functions to "console" and compensate one for the loss of story in brain disorders (amnesia, for instance) and I sometimes hear it at work in my friend Denise as she fills in the holes in her own memory for herself; but it is implicated in our quest for connection, context, and meaning in all its forms.

Thus scientists explain that story is actually the way we think, the way we relate to and process reality, the way we make sense of things and get our own hearts and minds around them. Whenever we run into something we don't understand or cannot control --- something we need to hold together in a meaningful way we invariably weave a story around it. Children do it with their dolls and crayons; Abused children do it and often have to be helped in later life to let go of these so they may embrace their place in a better, truer story. Physicians do it when they determine diagnoses and prognoses. Historians do it in explaining the significance of events. Scientists spin stories to explain the nature of reality. The complex stories they author are called theories. Like the myths of religious traditions, these narratives often possess a profound explanatory power and truth. They work to allow the development of technology, medicine, and the whole of the sciences, but they are stories nonetheless. And of course, gossips, know-it-alls and scam artists of all sorts routinely spin stories to draw us in and exploit our capacity and hunger for story.

We all know that stories are essential to our humanity.  At their best they help create a context, a sacred space and healing dynamic where we can be ourselves and stand authentically with others: Thus, when someone we love dies it is natural (human!) and even essential that we gather together to tell stories which help reknit the broken threads of our story into something new and hopeful, something which carries us into a future with promise. In a way which is similarly healing and lifegiving we offer strangers places in our own stories and make neighbors of them. We do the same with friends. Ideally, there is no greater gift we can give another than a place in our own stories, no greater compassion than our empathy for and appreciation of another's entire story. For good and ill our humanity is integrally linked to the fact that we are made for story. We reside and find rest within stories; they connect us to others. They are vehicles of transcendence which make sense of the past and draw us into the future. They link us to our culture, our families, our communities, our faith, and our church; without them we are left bereft of identity or place and our lives are empty and meaningless. 

We have only to look at the place story holds in our life in the Church to appreciate this. The creed we profess is not a series of disparate beliefs or dogmas but a coherent story we embrace more fully every time we repeat it and affirm "I believe" this. Our liturgy of the Word is centered on stories of all sorts --- challenging, inspiring, consoling us as only stories can do. Even the act of consecration is accomplished by telling a story we recount and embrace in our "Amen" of faith: "On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it saying. . . then he took the cup, blessed it saying. . .]] Stories like these, we know, provide the context and overarching narrative in which all things ultimately hold together and are meaningful.They make whole and holy. For this reason we yearn for them and honor them as sacred.

Our Capacity for Story is Both Blessing and Curse 

Augustine summarized all of this when he said, "O God, we are made for thee, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." He might well have said."O God your story is our own and our hearts are restless until they finally reside securely in that story". Just like physicists who are searching for that one theory of everything, we are each made for and in search of the story which makes complete and ultimate sense of our lives, the story which allows us to develop our own personal stories fully, the narrative framework which lets us be completely and exhaustively human. Christians recognize this blessed story as the Kingdom of God, God's own story.The challenge for each of us, I think, is to make this story our own. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths. Because of our capacity and even our hunger for story our lives are full of scripts and tapes which conflict with the story we are offered in Christ. Some seem lifegiving but many do not serve us very well at all.

 For instance, when young persons opt to join a gang, they are choosing a particular story of status, community, belonging, power as opposed to powerlessness, and a place in a world which seems larger and more adult than the one they occupy already. Unless these things are distorted into badges of courage and achievement the narrative omits prison, death, the sundering of family relationships, loss of education, future, and so forth. Another example: when adults choose to have affairs they are buying into a story they tell themselves (and our culture colludes with this at every point) about freedom and love, youth, immediate gratification, sexuality and attractiveness. The part of the narrative they leave out or downplay is the part of the story we are each called to tell with our lives about personal integrity, commitment,  faithfulness, patience, and all the other things that constitute real love and humanity. 

What we are seeing here is the very essence of sin. It is no coincidence that the Genesis account of humanity's fall from "grace" (which is really a place in God's own life or "story") centers around the fact that at evil's urging Adam and Eve swap the story God tells them about themselves, their world, and their place in it for another one they prefer to believe. In THIS story eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil will not bring death; in THIS story God is a liar; in this story humanity grasps at godhead and lives forever anyway. So many of the scripts and tapes we have adopted are as distorted and destructive and they touch every part of our lives. Two of the most recent I heard are, "The poor are takers" and "Selfishness is a moral imperative and the key to the common good." But there are many others! Scripts about what real men and women do or don't do --- both in society and in our church --- about what freedom is, divine justice, what is required to gain God's love (despite the fact God gives it freely to anyone who will simply accept it), etc. As sinful human beings we are an ambiguous mixture of stories which make us true and those which stunt or distort us. Our capacity for story is both blessing and curse.

Story is also the way Home

If our capacity for story is both blessing and curse then it is also the way home. In particular the stories Jesus tells us are a primary way home. Jesus' parables are, in fact, one of the ways he works miracles. (If anyone --- even Webster's Dictionary --- ever tells you these parables are "simple religious stories with a moral" don't believe them! They are far more dynamic and dangerous than that!) Like every story, Jesus' parables draw us in completely, allow us to suspend disbelief, check our overly critical voices at the door, and listen with our hearts as well as our intellects. They create a sacred space in which we are alone with God and can meet ourselves and God face to face. No one can enter this space with us even if there are hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder listening to the same story. But Jesus' stories do more. As I have written here before: [[ When Jesus told parables, for instance, he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life.

Parables, Jesus' parables that is, typically throw down two sets of values; two perspectives [or stories] are cast down beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign --- the realm the Church has sometimes called "the world". Because our feet are firmly planted in the first set of values, [the first set of stories or scripts], the resulting clash disorients us and throws us off balance; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness (or enmeshment) in other narratives, it creates a moment of "KRISIS" or decision and summons us to choose where we will finally put our feet down again, which reality we will stand firmly in and inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author and rule us. ]] 

Will we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural, societal, personal, or even some of the inadequate religious narratives we cling to, or will we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt God's own story as our own? Who will author us? Will it be the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes and redeems it? Where indeed will we put our feet down? In which story will we choose to walk and with whom? These are clearly the questions that face us during this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and a God who tells us his story in a most unexpected way.The fresh cycle of readings are an invitation to approach God's story with fresh ears and a willingness to have our lives reshaped accordingly. It is the story we are made and hunger for, the story in which we are made true and whole, the story in which nothing authentic of our lives is ever lost or forgotten. What greater gift can we imagine or be given?

26 November 2016

Thanksgiving Greetings

Personally speaking, I have had an amazing year, especially the past almost six months. For me, the work of those months is reaching a kind of conclusion just at the end of the liturgical year and I can hardly say how grateful I am for it all. It was not pleasant much of the time; it was downright painful for weeks on end, and at the same time it was a grace of God which healed, freed, and summoned to new life at every moment. Especially I experienced the consolation and challenge of a divine and humanly mediated love which supported me at every moment as it called me to leave behind ways of thinking, feeling, and being which had defined --- and sometimes crippled --- me and made me unable to respond adequately to God's call to abundant life. I think we are each called to know and to mediate this kind of love to others; it is the essence of any Christian vocation.

This week my delegate sent me a copy of Nimo's song "Grateful". I had never heard it before (and I was a little surprised she would send me a "rap" song --- until I actually listened to it!) but it is truly wonderful and I want to share it here. Whether it is  because our liturgical year is coming to a close with thoughts of the creative act of God we know as judgment, because that same calendar is gifting us with Advent and the preparation for new beginnings, fresh commitment, and new birth or because some of us are US citizens celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the midst of national turmoil and anxiety, we have each been given today and the blessings it holds. Even in the midst of life's struggles and concerns, this day is a time to be grateful for all we have and are. Once again, as Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings, "For all that has been, Thanks. For all that will be, Yes."

On the Purposes and Nature of Canon 603

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 had done (or tried to do) that in the middle ages in a number of ways where regularize meant 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 C. 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 ecclesial 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 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 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 prevents 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.

24 November 2016

Canon 603 Vocations: On the Differences between Delegates and Spiritual Directors

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what is the difference between a diocesan hermit's delegate and their spiritual director? Is there really much of a difference in these roles? Can anyone serve as delegate or does it need to be another religious?]]

Yes, there is a significant difference between the role of spiritual director and that of delegate. First of all, there's no doubt a spiritual director enters into a pretty intimate relationship with a directee, but there are distinct limits. For instance, a spiritual director works to assist a client to grow in her relationship with God, et al., but she does not assume a specific responsibility with regard to the person's vocation per se. This means that the delegate, who is also concerned with the vocation per se is, in my experience anyway, at least potentially more profoundly involved with the hermit than even the spiritual director.

For example, as a spiritual director I may work with a religious or a priest and in our work together we touch on many of the dimensions of these persons'  lives with God and by extension, on dimensions which impact and reflect on their vocations. However, as spiritual director I am not responsible in any direct way for those vocations as such. In short, I do not oversee or supervise directees' vocations in any direct way. That does not mean we don't talk about their vocations to religious life and/or priesthood insofar as these are grounded in the person's relationship with God, but it does mean I am in no way charged with making sure they live their vocations with integrity. Neither am I responsible then for serving their congregations, communities, or dioceses and bishops in a way which helps assure them this is the case. (In saying this, by the way, I do not mean that a diocesan hermit's delegate necessarily reports on the hermit to the bishop, although he may well ask for her input from time to time; likewise, while formal reports could be required, my own diocese has not done so, for instance.) Still, as delegate she serves both the hermit and the diocese in making sure this vocation is well lived and represented.

The delegate concerns herself with the nuts and bolts of the hermit's life AND vocation. She may be involved with making sure the hermit really does have sufficient silence and solitude, that her relationship with and commitments within her parish do not conflict with her essential vocation to stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude. She may be sure the hermit has ways of assuring her living conditions, eremitical environment, and necessary forms of care as she ages. (A spiritual director may ask about these kinds of things insofar as they affect her client's prayer life or spirituality but she will not actually have a role in supervising these aspects of the client's life.) Similarly, the delegate may be sure that the hermit's life is not one of isolation rather than healthy anachoresis (eremitical withdrawal). Again, while the delegate is responsible for overseeing the well-being of the hermit and her spirituality in ways a spiritual director may share, the focus and concern of the delegate as delegate broadens some to embrace the vocation itself and all that is involved in living that well --- not in some abstract way, but as it is embodied in the concrete life of this particular hermit. (By the way, the bishop's concern is somewhat different than the delegate's because he is charged with overseeing the incidence and well-being of canon 603 vocations more generally; the delegate is not.)

Religious Obedience:

Also, because of this the hermit's delegate has the authority to direct the hermit to do x or y or "insist" on actions in ways a spiritual director simply does not have the authority to do. My own diocese recognized this by using the language of "superior or quasi-superior" in asking me to choose my delegate --- language which indicates that, because she serves both me and the diocese with a delegated authority, I owe her the same kind of obedience (i.e., religious obedience) I owe my bishop when he asks for or directs me to do something in terms of my vow. To be clear, neither my bishop nor my delegate exercise their authority in this way very often; in fact it is extremely rare. (Only one of the bishops I have lived this vocation under has ever done so --- not least, I think, because they trust my delegate to supervise my life in ways they cannot and because they know me far less well than she does. In a couple of cases, for instance,  my sense was that the bishop left the business of religious vows and values up to the religious.) Even so, the relationship between the bishop and delegate, and the publicly vowed hermit is marked by a general attentiveness and responsiveness every Christian knows as "obedience", but by a formal and religious obedience, 1) because the hermit is publicly vowed to this and 2) because the broader and mutual concern of all involved is not only the personal life, well-being, and spirituality of the hermit but the Church's canonical vocation of solitary eremitical life itself.

One other thing I should make very clear: none of this minimizes, much less removes the hermit's responsibility for discerning her own needs and living her own life with care and integrity; instead these relationships are helpful in maintaining the perspective necessary for assuring the hermit remains responsible for the whole of her life and vocation. Again,  these specific relationships are part and parcel of recognizing and appropriately honoring a vocation as ecclesial --- a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church which is entrusted with the task of mediating, nurturing,  and governing that vocation, and to the hermit who is called to live that life in a way which fulfills her own deepest call to humanity and to do so in the name of the Church.

Who Should Serve as a Delegate?

In my opinion it only makes sense to have another religious as one's delegate --- and one who has lived this life for some time. (S/he need NOT be a hermit but s/he does need to be essentially contemplative and appreciate the eremitical life.) This need that the delegate be an experienced religious holds because the person needs to have a background in living and directing others in the living of religious life and vows. Personally I feel very fortunate and I understand not every diocesan hermit is as blessed in their own situations --- sometimes because their diocese has not known what is appropriate for canon 603 life or seen how to implement this, and sometimes because the hermit herself has not been able to work with sufficiently experienced persons or sometimes even known what is possible. Thus I describe my own experience here because I believe it can help others (especially candidates, chanceries, and bishops) in imagining not only what relationships hermits need to live this life well, but in seeing what canon 603 in particular calls for in terms of eremitical obedience and freedom.

My own delegate has been a novice director and serves on the leadership team of her community --- both during tumultuous or critical times in the life of the Church and her congregation. Moreover she does spiritual direction and is trained in PRH --- a form of personal growth work I have written about here before. In each of these ways she brings something to her role as my delegate which has been a definite gift to me.  I believe it has been important that she have the skills associated with these roles --- not least the ability to listen and to hold authority lightly and the wisdom, compassion, and personal integrity required to exercise it in a way which is far more compelling than any merely external or more superficial exercise of authority can be. As noted above, she does not direct me to do (or not do) x or y often (I can count the times she has done so over the past almost 10 and a half years on half of one hand), but when she does there is no question it is because she knows in a profound and personal way the importance of whatever is at issue --- and because she genuinely knows me and loves me as Christ does.

In considering who should serve as delegate then, it seems to me that a non-religious (or one with little experience) might be tempted to either neglect entirely the loving exercise of authority (as though anything goes in eremitical life) or tend to exercise it in a more heavy-handed and less loving or genuinely wise and prudent way. This latter way of exercising authority does not occur because the person is naturally more heavy-handed or less loving, but because s/he has not lived or internalized the values and vows of religious life (especially in regard to living and exercising authority) in a way which sensitizes him/her appropriately. When this is the case the one exercising authority may actually collude with the more inexperienced, immature, and even juvenile aspects of the hermit's own self and approach to authority. For instance, it is tempting for a neophyte to think of oneself as "bound in obedience to" a superior --- even when the person is not a legitimate superior and does not have this authority.

Though fairly rare I think, this happens sometimes with regard to (less competent) spiritual directors working with non-religious. Having an SD exercise authority in a heavy-handed (authoritarian) way can make one feel different and special, especially in a culture where obedience in the sense of  "giving up one's own will" is (rather romantically but tragically) misunderstood and esteemed. In such circumstances the exercise of what mistakenly passes for obedience can make one feel like one "belongs" to a special culture or even that one is "cared about" in a unique way. To have a delegate whose notion of obedience involves a heavy-handed exercise of authority can be disastrous, especially when the hermit is new to all this or has personal healing which still needs to take place. The results of such collusion are unhealthy; they can be infantilizing, elitist, and, in these and other ways, contrary to the freedom of the Christian --- much less the Christian hermit whose vocation is meant to be a model of Christian freedom.

On the other hand, a delegate who has lived under and exercised authority in ways which encouraged and helped her to hold authority lightly, lovingly, and in a way which fosters another's growth in maturity, integrity, and freedom is a very great gift. Religious obedience in particular can help us truly listen to God and challenge us to embrace the potentialities which live within us and which we might never have imagined holding. Again, however, I think it does take someone who is experienced both in living religious obedience and in introducing others to or enhancing their living of it --- as well as to religious poverty and chastity in celibacy --- to really serve effectively as a diocesan hermit's delegate.

21 November 2016

Pro Orantibus Day: Celebrating Those Who Pray

Today the Church celebrates "pro orantibus" day, namely the day when we celebrate those who spend their lives in prayer. Cloistered and eremitical vocations certainly are the main ones we call to mind but I am especially reminded of all those are elderly and others who may be isolated or unable to do active ministry who spend their days and nights praying for our world, for our parishes, and so forth.

In prayer we allow God to love and accompany us, to work within to transform our hearts and minds and make us into his own prayers in our world. We give ourselves to God so God might give himself to us and to those to whom we witness. We give ourselves to God so that the face we turn to the world is the very image of God-made-flesh. And of course, we pray and give our lives to prayer so that the deepest law of creation, Love-in-Act, is even more clearly revealed and made more pervasive within and through those same lives. In other words, we do so to glorify God and sanctify our world.

Contemplatives, whether hermits or not, remind us all that God completes us, that we are not truly human unless we are covenant partners with God. The positive side of this, of course,  is that this relationship is the foundation of ALL of our lives and we are each and all of us called to embrace it more fully day by day --- lack of cloister notwithstanding. While "pro orantibus" day celebrates in a special way those who live cloistered and eremitical lives, it also celebrates every person who lives his or her life for God and all that is precious to God by committing to be persons who truly allow God to work within us --- and, by extension, through us.

19 November 2016

Hanging onto the Promise: A Divine Love that is Stronger than Death

  There is a single theme running through yesterday's readings. Whether it is the reading from Revelations or from the Gospel of Luke, or the powerful refrain of the responsorial psalm, the authors are clear that we are called to be people who "hold onto" God's promise; holding onto God's promise is the essence of all prophetic vocations and the essence of Jesus' messianic life and calling as well. In the presence of turmoil and chaos, in the shadow of the cross and the threat of sin and death to be persons of faith is to be persons who make their own in every situation and circumstance the promise that the God who IS Love-in-act, loves us with a love which is stronger than death. 

The picture in the Gospel is powerful. Ordinarily we focus on the fact that Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple and that is certainly appropriate. This action embodies the promise that God will act to transform not just the Jerusalem Temple but that in Christ he will make the entire world into a "house of prayer", that is, into the privileged place where God is present, active, and sovereign, where, in fact, he is truly worshipped and all reality is really as it is meant and made to be. In other words Jesus' enacted parable embodies the promise of a love that will do justice,  and an ultimate justice at that.

In the language of the first reading from Revelations, this "enacted parable" promises that the mystery of God will be brought to completion. It is striking that in the story of the cleansing of the Temple there are really two groups of people present. The first is the Pharisees  and other members of the Jewish leadership. They understand Jesus very well and are threatened by him; they have been seeking to find ways to put him to death but until now they have been thwarted. And here is the second very significant focus of the parable we should pay attention to in the same way we pay attention to Jesus throwing out the money changers; there is a second group of people, those persons who hold or "hang onto" Jesus' every word --- those persons who in some way have been touched directly by Jesus' ministry and the promise it embodies and mediates --- by the promise, the Word Jesus incarnates more and more fully throughout his life in every moment and mood of that life. And in light of the touch of this incarnate promise these fragile but divinely empowered people are those who, for the time being anyway, hold back the tide of darkness and violence the religious leadership are set to unleash on Jesus and (through the Romans) the world at large.

These are the people who have heard him teach and preach; they have had demons of all sorts cast out, been fed and nurtured by him. They have been listened to more profoundly than has ever happened to them until their encounter with Jesus and they have "been known", profoundly known and loved by him. They have been forgiven of their sins, reconciled to God and to themselves as well. They have found their shame transformed by an unconditional acceptance and esteem which heal at a person's core as Jesus called them by name and names (and thus effectively makes) them "friends" --- and friends of God. In every situation they encountered a man who effectively spoke truth to power (and to "powers and principalities") to unbind their hearts and free them for wholeness and abundant life. In every case Jesus is the One who confronts alienation, weakness, powerlessness and brokenness with the Incarnate Word or Promise of God: God loves them and all of creation with a love that is stronger than sin and death.

This is the promise, the Word of God Jesus himself stands in and from more and more fully --- even as he stands more and more clearly under the shadow of the cross; it is the promise in and through which he has been formed by prayer and struggle, by encounter after encounter of both love and rejection as his own sacred heart was enlarged and shaped into an image of the Living God. It is the promise which is the content of his own faith and the nature of the divine heart of the One he calls Abba. It is the living Promise he incarnates in our workl.

And so Jesus moves into the lion's den, so to speak; he casts out the money changers, takes up his place as teacher and in this way promises to make of this Temple and the whole of creation a house of prayer. His actions are provocative. They are a final instance of Jesus speaking truth to power, where the Divine promise encounters the world so in need of and hungry for that promise --- and also so implacably opposed to it. Jesus' action here will bring the entire establishment, both Jewish and Roman, down on his own head. And it will inaugurate the final showdown, the definitive encounter between godless death and the promise of a God who loves us with a love that is stronger than even godless death.

And the outcome of that showdown is well known to us. In Christ, the Love that is Stronger than death was subjected to death, even godless death; it was allowed to descend to the depths of that reality, and transformed it into the sacramental place where we may meet this Promise face to face. Cross and resurrection. The love of God encounters the very worst that human beings can do to one another, the very worst that human beings fear and build more and more securely into their world and relationships. And, in the face of death the Promise we call God is proven to be true: God loves us freely, gratuitously, prodigally, with a love that indeed is stronger than sin and sinful godless death.

The call we have each been given is the call to hang onto and be People of the Promise. This is the essence of faith. It is also the essence of prophecy, for to be People of the Promise is to speak and act with a power that changes reality. It is to speak and act in ways which accomplish the will of God in our world. But to be prophets in this way is not comfortable. As Revelations tells us the Promise is sweet like honey on our tongues. Our first contact with it as we take it into ourselves is wonderful in this way, but as we really digest it, take it into ourselves more deeply, it will also sour our stomachs. It will require that more and more deeply and extensively we speak truth to power in our own lives. It will mean that we confront the powers of sin and death still at work in our world with the Promise, the Living reality, of a Love that is stronger than death, a Love that does justice wherever it is truly spoken/enacted. As Christians --- priests, prophets, and rulers who are formed in and from this Promise this is always our vocation.

As we approach the end of our liturgical year and the Feast celebrating the sovereignty  (Kingship) of Christ, the urgency with which we are called to embrace this prophetic call today cannot be underestimated I think --- not because Jesus' own mission failed but because it did not. Thus too, through the crucified, risen and ascended Christ, it must continue in us. We must be People of the Promise, prophets and priests of a love that does justice and speaks and sings the future into existence. In this way God continues to create a new heaven and a new earth where (he) is truly all in all.

13 November 2016

A Light that Shines in the Darkness: On the Play, Prayer, and Resistance of Martyrdom

“Music... will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Returning this afternoon from a rare outing to attend a concert of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra I was thinking about a drawing I am working on which is a kind of meditation on the way God was present to me in my Junior High and High School years. I too played in a youth orchestra and besides playing violin I spent hours listening to classical music and pretending to conduct the orchestra playing on my record player! (In fact, most of the classical musicians I know did something similar as kids and we almost never talk about it --- unless someone breaks the silence, and then everyone chimes in to share about their own childhood and adolescent play --- a profoundly serious form of play for most of us that prepared us for adult dreams, commitments,  discipline and passionate living!)

For me music was an awesome source of light and beauty and joy. It brought order and rationality and introduced me to a language which broke every divisive limitation and boundary; here the Transcendent broke into and pushed away the darkness that was present and which sometimes threatened to stifle the life I was also summoned to embody fully, exhaustively. It poured out of my own heart and mind (through violin) and was also present as I touched into the "music" of the universe (improvising and "conducting"). It was here I really began to learn to pray (without realizing this was the case), and it was here that a large part of the experience of redemption in solitude so crucial to the making of the heart of a hermit was centered during these relatively early years. All of this, along with conversations with a friend who is both a religious and an artist, helps remind me that today it is especially important that somehow we each get in touch with beauty and the presence of the God who IS beauty during this time of increased anxiety and concern caused by the ugliness of institutionalized hatred and bigotry --- and the prospect of these being given real legitimacy by elected leaders and their appointees.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian, pastor, and resistance movement member sought to counter and defeat the bigotry and racism of the fascist movement and agenda whose purpose was to make aliens of neighbors and "the other" of friends and colleagues that was such a central part of the Nazi's self-serving will-to-power. The National Socialists who came to power with Hitler, murdered Bonhoeffer; they hanged him at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on 09. April.1945 in an execution that may have been prolonged to six hours or more. Like Bonhoeffer we are each and all of us called to be the  martyrs of God; we are summoned and in fact made to witness to the love of God, Temples who manifest God's glory in the midst of threatening crises and darkness. We are called to be prophets who speak truth to power and do so with a love that does justice.

It is here that serious play, genuine recreation, becomes as critical as the work we also engage in; after all, play can be a significant form of prayer that allows God to work in and through us to quiet, energize, and enlarge our minds and hearts with a life that is "for others", a life that is capable of truly resisting bigotry, racism, and hatred that refuses to see the Divine beauty of each person we call ""alien" or "other."

Sculpture: by Edith Breckwoldt, The ordeal. No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places. (Bonhoeffer)