12 December 2019

Our Lady of Guadalupe: God is the One Who Lifts up the Lowly (Reprise)

Fifty years ago at Vatican II the messiest, most passionate, and often "dirtiest" fighting to occur during the council took place during discussions of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Out of nearly 2400 bishops the fight was divided almost exactly evenly between two factions, those nicknamed the maximalists and those nicknamed the minimalists. Both factions were concerned with honoring the greatness of Mary in our faith but their strategies in this were very different from one another. The maximalists wanted the council to declare Mary Mediatrix of all Graces and to proclaim this as a new dogma in the Church --- never mind that the thrust of the Council was not toward the definition of new dogmas. They wanted the council to write a separate document on Mary, one which effectively made her superior to the Church.

The minimalists also wanted to honor Mary, but they wanted to do so by speaking of her within the document on the Church. They desired a more Scriptural approach to the person and place of Mary which honored the dogmatic truth that Christ is the One unique Mediator between God and mankind. The Church would be spoken of as Mother and Virgin, for instance, and Mary would be seen as a type of the Church.

The minimalist position won the day (had only 20 Bishops voted differently it would have been another matter) and so, in Lumen Gentium after the Church Fathers wrote about the Mystery of the Church, Church as People of God, the hierarchical nature of the Church, the Laity, the universal call to holiness, Religious, and the Church as a Pilgrim people, they wrote eloquently about Our Lady in chapter VIII. Mary is highly honored in this Constitution --- as it says in today's responsorial psalm, she is, after all, "the highest honor of our race", but for this very reason the Church Fathers spoke of her clearly as  within the Church, within the Communion of Saints, within the Pilgrim People of God, not as a rival to Christ or part of the Godhead, but as one who serves God in Christ as a model of faithfulness.

It is always difficult, I think, to believe and honor the Christmas truth we are preparing during Advent to celebrate, namely, that our God is most fully revealed to us in the ordinary things of life. We are a Sacramental faith rooted in the God who, for instance, comes to us himself in bread and wine, cleanses and recreates us entirely with water,  and strengthens and heals us with oil. Especially at this time of the liturgical year we are challenged to remember and celebrate the God who turns a human face to us, who comes to us in weakness, lowliness and even a kind of dependence on the "yes" we are invited to say, the One who is made most fully real and exhaustively known in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves to see the very face of God in the poor, the broken, the helpless, and those without status of any kind. After all, that is what the Christmas Feast of the Nativity is all about.

I think this is one of the lessons today's Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe teaches most vividly. We all know the more superficial story. Briefly, in 1531 Juan Diego, an indigenous man and Christian encountered a beautiful Lady on the hill of Tepeyac; she told him to ask the Bishop to build a church there. The Bishop refused and required a sign of the authenticity of Juan Diego's vision. Diego returned home to find his uncle dying. He set out again to fetch a doctor and avoided the hill where he had first met the woman and went around it instead --- he did not want to be distracted from his mission! But the Lady came down to him, heard his story about his uncle, reassured him his uncle would be well, and told him then to go to the top of the hill and pick the flowers he found there. Diego did so, gathered them in his tilma or mantle, and went again to the Bishop. Juan poured out his story to him and he also poured the flowers out onto the floor. Only then did he and the Bishop see a miraculous image of the Lady of Tepeyac hill there on the tilma itself.

But there was a deeper story. Remember that Juan Diego's people were an essen-tially subjugated people. The faith they were forced to adopt by missionaries was geared toward the salvation of souls but not to what we would recognize as the redemption of persons or the conversion and transformation of oppressive structures and institutions. It was more a faith enforced by fear than love, one whose central figure was, a la Anselm, a man crucified because an infinitely offended God purportedly willed it in payment for our sins. Meanwhile the symbols of that faith, its central figures, leaders and saints, were visibly European; they spoke and were worshipped in European languages, were dressed in European clothes, were portrayed with European features, etc. At best it was hard to relate to; its loving God was apparently contradictory and remote. At worst belief in this God was incomprehensible and dehumanizing. Moreover, with the "evangelizers" who had forcibly deprived the Indians of their own gods and religion came diseases the Indians had never experienced. They were dying of plagues formerly unknown to them, working as slaves for the institutional and patriarchal  Church, and had been deprived of the human dignity they had formerly known.

It was into this situation that Mary directly entered when she appeared on Tepeyak hill, the center of the indigenous peoples' worship of the goddess Tonantzin, the "goddess of sustenance". The image of the Lady was remarkable in so many ways. The fact of it, of course, was a marvel (as were the healing of Diego's uncle, the December roses Diego picked and poured out onto the Bishop's floor or the creation and persistence of her image on Diego's tilma), but even more so was the fact that she had the face of a mixed race (Indian or Mestiza) woman, spoke in Diego's own language, was pregnant, and was dressed in native dress. And here was the greatest miracle associated with OL of Guadalupe: in every way through this appearance the grace of God gave dignity to the Indian people. They were no longer third or fourth class people but persons who could truly believe they genuinely imaged the Christian God. The appearance was the beginning of a new Church in the Americas, no longer a merely European Church, but one where Mary's Magnificat was re-enacted so that ALL were called to truly image God and proclaim the Gospel. One commentator wrote that, [[Juan Diego and millions after him are transformed from crushed, self-defacing and silenced persons into confident, self-assured and joyful messengers and artisans of God's plan for America.]] (Virgilio Elizondo, Guadalupe and the New Evangelization)

Here too then, in the truly unexpected and even unacceptable place, our God turns a human face to those seeking him. He, and those who are from and of him, comes to us in weakness and lowliness as one of the truly marginalized. In the process we see clearly once again the God of Jesus Christ who scatters the proud in their conceit, unseats the mighty from their positions of power, and lifts up the lowly. During this season of Advent Our Lady of Guadalupe calls us especially to be watchful. God is working to do this new and powerful thing among us --- just as he did in the 1st Century, just as he did in the 16th, just as he always does when we give him our own fiat.

10 December 2019

Follow-up on the Relationship of Eremitical Solitude and Chronic Illness

[[Sister Laurel, thank you for your response to my questions. I think "illegitimate" was maybe too strong a word to have used but you understood what I was getting at. You're right, I was not expecting an autobiographical-type response but it was a great answer and indicated the various topics you have written about over the years apparently are a kind of building blocks leading to a coherent theology of eremitical life and solitude. I have a follow-up question or two if you don't mind. Since I have not read much of your blog I don't know what you have written about this, but when you began exploring eremitical life you might have found it exacerbated the isolation associated with chronic illness. 

Was this a question you dealt with specifically in determining if you had such a vocation? And if you did deal with it specifically was there something in the tradition of the vocation which helped you to do that? Would a diocese know to look for the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude in the lives of others seeking admission to profession as a hermit? I think it is amazing that you were concerned with this question in the way you have been and for as long as you have been. Do you think others with chronic illnesses might become "hermits" without the kind of self-awareness you have shown? That seems like a danger to me. . . .]]

Thanks for following up! Yes, there was a risk in exploring eremitical life. It might well have exacerbated the isolation associated with chronic illness and there were significant periods of time in the beginning when I did not know what the answer would be, nor -- a very much larger question ---whether my motivations regarding pursuing this vocation were completely skewed or not. The question of whether I was looking to validate my isolation or something more authentic and meaningful was one I dealt with during the earliest years of my eremitical life. Eventually I discovered that while part of me was looking to validate isolation a deeper part of me was moved by the Holy Spirit and was seeking the redemption of that isolation (and the whole of my life) in a way which would respect my own limitations (especially those associated with illness) while opening me to life in and of God in a richer and more demanding way.

At the heart of all of this was the biblical injunction, "By their fruits you shall know them". I would say that everyone seriously connected with my life, everyone who loved me along with my spiritual director and even my physicians, watched to discern the fruits of this experiment. We were all hopeful, and it looked like I was acting on a strong experience of the Holy Spirit and sense of vocation, yes, but there was no guarantee I had gotten it right! Still. the evidence of being on the right track began to come in right from the beginning and over the years has only become more clear in an eremitical life which does indeed bear good fruit. God's grace is sufficient, his power is indeed perfected in weakness!

Parts of Eremitical Tradition that Influenced me: 


I think the thing that most helped me in dealing with the distinction between isolation and solitude, the piece of tradition that was compelling to me was a piece of Camaldolese history, namely the writing of St Peter Damian on the hermit as "ecclesiola". In one of his letters Damian is dealing with the way a hermit is to approach prayers which are not themselves solitary or solitary in focus. Is it valid to recite lines like "The Lord Be With you" when the hermit is the only one present at liturgy? What about saying "Our Father" as part of the Lord's Prayer? The result was this letter which explains how the church is wholly present in all of her members, both together and individually. He writes:

[[The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love, so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church. . . .From all the aforementioned it is clear that, because the whole Church can be found in one individual person and the Church itself is called a virgin, Holy Church is both one in all its members and complete in each of them. It is truly simple among many through the unity of faith and multiple in each individual through the bond of love and various charismatic gifts, because all are from one and all are one.]]

It was this emphasis on this "bond of love" which unites all persons in the Church along with the notion that the canonical eremitical vocation is an ecclesial vocation which helped me see most clearly how different eremitical solitude is from isolation, but especially that of chronic illness. A hermit is not alone in her hermitage. Of course she is with God there, but she is also accompanied by the whole communion of saints in her solitary cell and lives her life with God for the sake of these and all others. Other dimensions of life at Stillsong also underscored this, not least the permission to reserve Eucharist here --- a practice that is integrally linked to daily Mass (even when I am not there) and continually underscores the ecclesial dimension of all life in the hermitage. Also very important was my reflection on the phrase, "the silence of solitude," in canon 603. I knew on the basis of Carthusian tradition that this was as much richer reality than mere silence and solitude but it took time to work out the way it indicates personal wholeness, shalom, and the stillness and centeredness of life with and in God.

Additional dimensions of life at Stillsong which kept the distinction between isolation and solitude ever in mind include my own work with my delegate (Director) and awareness of and reflection upon the meaning of "public profession and consecration" and the way this implicates me in the life and expectations of both the local and universal Church. Neither of these ever allow me to think of eremitical life as individualistic or to forget the bond of love rooted in God as ground of being and meaning that links a canonical hermit to the whole Church and all of creation in fact. The issue of a publicly mediated responsibility to the whole of the Church is especially critical here as is the realization that admission to profession and consecration is an act of trust by the whole Church where the c 603 hermit (or any other religious) is allowed and actually called to live this life in the name of the Church. Finally, the image which summarized all of these and more was that of hermit as (living in the)  "heart of the Church". It is hard to reflect on all of this and allow solitude to be defined in terms of isolation.

Would a Diocese Know to Look for this Distinction?

In my writing throughout this blog I have consistently drawn the distinction between a lone individual and a hermit. This is an expression of the same distinction existing between isolation and solitude or between the individualist and the hermit (who is usually highly individual but not an individualist). My sense is that some dioceses certainly do know about and watch out for these fundamental distinctions in discerning vocations to canon 603 life. I agree it might be difficult in the beginning of a person's journey toward profession and consecration, particularly if they deal with the limitations of chronic illness, to be sure of what one is dealing with. But with time it will become clearer and clearer what motivates this "candidate", and the  quality of the life she is living. Also dioceses require letters of recommendation from people who know the hermit, especially her spiritual director and her pastor.  To the extent a diocese spends enough time discerning the purported vocation the question of isolation vs solitude will be more likely to come up.

However, the eremitical vocation is not well-understood and remains mysterious to many dioceses today. The concern you raise with regard to knowledge of the distinction between isolation and solitude may not occur and sometimes seems not to have been entertained. I think this failure is more apt to come from a simplistic notion of solitude which focuses only on aloneness or correlative requirements of silence than from a failure to distinguish individual from individualistic, for instance, but yes, some dioceses might fail to look for this distinction. Of course this is one reason reflection on canon 603 life specifically and eremitical life generally must be carried on by those who have lived or supervised it. It is a service to the Church and to the vocation itself which will open up canonical eremitical life further in the future. Every diocese entertaining the idea of professing and consecrating someone as a diocesan hermit will engage in research on the vocation; as this continues the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude will become clearer and clearer.

Sources of Reflection and Candidates for Eremitical Life:

Once again, chronic illness has served as a grace leading me to greater sensitivity re the distinction between isolation and eremitical solitude as well as to reflection on this distinction. I am sure other life experiences can do the same. The deep yearning for a meaningful life is universal and intensified by experiences like chronic illness, and this makes me think that of any demographic group, those with chronic illnesses might represent a potentially relatively higher number of eremitical vocations than others might. Even so, eremitical solitude remains a gift of God and a rare vocation in an absolute sense. I believe that even when those with chronic illnesses lack some degree of self-awareness they might well discern eremitical vocations --- though I also believe that in genuine vocations self-awareness will develop as the vocation matures.

I agree there is some danger to authentic solitude when individuals substitute isolation instead, It is here that we get flawed spiritualities which mistakenly treat the whole of God's creation as "the world" from which the hermit is more strictly separated, or which measure the quality of eremitical life in terms of separation rather than love, incompleteness and alienation rather than wholeness and community (koinonia). However, as eremitical life continues to become more fully understood in the contemporary Church I believe counterfeit versions will become more apparent and authentic approaches to eremitical solitude something those involved in discernment will come more and more to look for explicitly.

09 December 2019

On the relationship of Chronic Illness to Eremitical Solitude

[[Dear Sister Laurel, it seems to me that your insistence that eremitical solitude is not a matter of isolation but an experience of community has close ties with the way you experience chronic illness. I realized recently that isolation is a key problem for those with chronic illness and was led to your blog. As a result of my reading I wondered if you have been sensitized to the relationship of isolation to solitude by both chronic illness and eremitical life? Do you ever think about the way these two pieces of your vocation are related?  Assuming you do, have you ever wondered if your own chronic illness has led to an illegitimate conclusion about the relationship of isolation and solitude in eremitical life?]]

Wow! Really excellent observations and questions! Definitely make me want to ask you about your own background  (psychology, theology, spirituality, etc). Thank you. I would answer all of your questions in the affirmative except the last one about an illegitimate conclusion. That one I would argue has to be answered in the negative. In one way and another I have thought about the relationship between isolation and solitude and the way chronic illness is related to eremitical life not just occasionally but in an ongoing way for the last 50 years!

While both my own chronic illness and eremitical life sensitized me to the relationship between isolation and solitude and their distinction from one another, they did so in a mutually illustrative way. Moreover, it was precisely my move to eremitical solitude which represented a final move from the isolation of chronic illness to solitude itself. This move from isolation to solitude, something which comes with and requires growth and healing in an ongoing way, is part of the redemptive experience I have said is necessary in discerning an eremitical vocation --- at least it is part of the redemptive experience at the heart of my own eremitical vocation! If eremitical life is about isolation rather than solitude, or if these two things are not distinguishable, then eremitical solitude would have increased the isolation associated with chronic illness and could in no way have been redemptive for me. It has done just the opposite. Because of this, because the fruit of eremitical life actually was the redemption of isolation associated with chronic illness, I have been able to move back and forth in my own reflection on eremitical solitude, between solitude's nature and quality, the ways the isolation of chronic illness can be redeemed, and also the idea of chronic illness as (potential eremitical) vocation. These three elements especially are interwoven in my thought and writing.

 Originally I dealt only with chronic illness and the tension between my own need and desire to be part of ordinary life in the ways "everyone else" supposedly is. I was educated in systematic theology and wanted to teach and otherwise minister in the Church and academy but could not because of chronic illness. Eventually, because of my engagement with theology (especially Paul's theology of the cross and a strong theology of language or theological linguistics), my work in spiritual direction, reflection on Scripture (especially Paul and Mark), and my own prayer, I came to think about chronic illness as vocation. The heart of the gospel message I heard was: "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness!" (2 Cor 12:9) In 1983 canon 603 was published as part of the Code of Canon Law and that triggered some more thought while it led me to the idea not just of chronic illness as vocation but as a potential vocation to eremitical life. In all of this I was looking at the way a person who is chronically ill is searching for ways to live a meaningful life and see their life as one of genuine value. When illness prevents so much, especially meaningful ways of giving of oneself and living community, what does one do? How can one look at things and find meaning? How can one be who one is most deeply called to be? Does chronic illness need to prevent one finding and living the answers to these questions?

After some time living an experiment in eremitical life I decided I had discovered the context for living my own vocation. It was here I began thinking and praying in a more focused way about the distinction between solitude and isolation. I was beginning to realize more and more that the two were different and that eremitical solitude (only one kind of solitude afterall) might, in fact, represent the redemption of isolation -- both generally and for me specifically. Out of this came a number of strands of thought: physical v inner solitude, stereotypes of eremitical life, the distinction between validating and redeeming isolation, the way God alone is sufficient for us, becoming the Word of God, person as question and God as completing answer, relinquishing discrete gifts for the gift one is made to be by God, the necessity of a redemptive experience at the heart of one's eremitical life in discerning such vocations, the communal nature of solitude, the indispensable place of spiritual direction in eremitical life, and several more. At the heart of all of these is the redemptive activity of God and especially the way the grace of God transforms isolation into solitude and renders chronic illness and the life touched by chronic illness meaningful. Illness raised the existential question of meaning for me; Eremitical life proved to be the context mediating God's own answer to that question --- the answer that God alone can be.

Because of all of this I would have to say that chronic illness has led me to understand some things about eremitical life I might not have appreciated as much otherwise. I believe chronic illness has thus been a gift which sensitized me to dynamics inherent in the hermit vocation, not only the nature of eremitical solitude as an experience of community and the way it cannot be used to validate misanthropy and isolation from others, but also the way the person we become through God's love is the gift we bring to the Church in place of discrete gifts and talents we may have to give up or leave unrealized. At the same time chronic illness is part of the way God has shaped my own heart into the heart of a hermit. Far from agreeing that it has led me to an illegitimate conclusion re the relationship between isolation and solitude, I believe it prepared me to raise the question in a particularly urgent way while opening me to the answer embodied in eremitical life.

I suspect you were not looking for such an autobiographical answer and to be sure, I could have outlined my answer in a less personal way, but I really have been living the question and the answer in one way and another through the whole of my adult life. I sincerely hope this is helpful!

08 December 2019

Another look at Religious Obedience and the Ministry of Authority

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I am not a Catholic and I have no real knowledge of religious life except what I've heard here and there or that I just grew up believing. I read an article you wrote on obedience and on what you called "the ministry of authority" which you defined in terms of love. I have to say I was kind of floored by it. It is nothing like what I thought a vow of obedience or the way superiors worked in a nun's life. When you speak of your Delegate I get the sense you are very close but also that she can exercise authority any time she feels it is necessary. Have I got that right? Does she ever just tell you what to do? Does she ever tell you to do things you don't want to do or feel are wrong? Can you give me some specific examples of how obedience and the "ministry of authority" actually work? Do you ever worry that a vow of obedience might make you somehow less than an adult? I don't mean any offense! I am not sure why this is so interesting to me but you are dispelling some long-held misunderstandings and I don't know where else I could ask these questions. Thank you!]]

Thanks for your questions. My own family is not Catholic and I suspect they hold (or held) some of the same misunderstandings so I am grateful you have asked about the topic. First though, let me thank you once more. You have read the article you mention well and summarized it accurately. Obedience is linked to the ministry of authority and that authority is (in my experience) exercised as an expression of love. Neither do I mean it is exercised as an expression of an abstract love, but as an expression of a genuine love rooted in knowledge of and care for the person's truest self. (A superior in a congregation must cultivate a love not just for an individual Sister but for the house, the congregation and its charism and mission; working with a diocesan hermit is somewhat different. The delegate cultivates a love for the hermit, her place in the parish and diocese, and the eremitical tradition she represents in a canonical way; it is in this smaller context that she exercises the ministry of authority with a solitary Catholic hermit.)

As you can see exercising a ministry of authority is about much more than telling someone what to do. Encouraging another's growth in Christ requires its own attentiveness, faith, and fidelity to truth, both personal and institutional. Similarly then, obedience is a much richer and significant reality than simply "doing what one is told". Obedience is about listening attentively, to God, to one's deepest self, to the needs and potential one has within, to the nature and quality of one's commitments,  and to the way life summons one to greater and greater fullness in the service of others. We may use the short hand phrase "will of God" for all of this but cultivating this kind of attentive listening is at the heart of a vow of obedience and all contemplative life. One of the more privileged sources of discernment regarding the ways love and life call us to fullness in our transparency to God is one's delegate or Director. One's Director/delegate knows us (indeed, they have worked with us usually for years, listened well to us, prayed for and with us, and in part have been chosen for this role precisely because they know us well) and love us in the way every person needs most. They will also be chosen for their experience in religious life (including formation and leadership) as well as their wisdom and faithfulness as a consecrated person living an ecclesial vocation.

On the other hand, by the time one becomes a diocesan hermit (i.e., is professed and consecrated in a life commitment under c 603) one has lived eremitical life for some time, written a liveable Rule of Life (usually after several drafts and lots of notes made over time), and become accustomed to vows of the Evangelical Counsels. One may or may not have been a religious in another chapter of one's life, but in any case one has learned what is essential for one's relationship with God, and developed the skills and tools necessary to respond to God faithfully day in and day out. The Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, study of Scripture, a fair theology and spirituality will have become foci for one's life. One will have worked with a spiritual director regularly for some years, fostered a relationship with the Church (usually through one's parish) and accepted an adult  leadership role (not necessarily a formal one) in the faith community. In other words, one is an adult in one's faith and does not need someone telling them what to do day in and day out. But one will also be profoundly committed to grow 1) as a Christian, 2) as a contemplative, and 3) as a hermit representing a significant, prophetic, but rare tradition. It is the role of a hermit's Director (delegate) to make sure one's arc of growth in these ways occurs in a way which is edifying to the diocese and church universal.So, what does this look like "on the ground" so to speak?

As I have noted several times, my own Director rarely tells me what to do --- though she will do a fair amount of encouraging, especially in connection with inner work we also do or when I am considering doing something new ministerially! In the past three and a half years I think she has given me what I might consider a demand rooted in obedience perhaps three times. You asked for examples. A couple of times recently she has told me to do something I didn't much want to do, but the directive was a way of allowing my trust for M. (and, ultimately, for the God who is active in our work together) to triumph over my own fear, reluctance, or reticence. The one somewhat different example that stands out in my mind comes from a time when I was juggling a few different things and was also at a very difficult part of my own growth work. My pastor was travelling and that meant the daily schedule of services for the chapel community had to be worked out in his absence. We try to have priests fill in at these times, but it is not always possible. Although 6-7 days needed to be covered and I was willing to try to do what I could along with a couple of others, my delegate simply said, "Two services, no more." It was a limit I might eventually have set for myself at that time, and it was a directive I could perhaps have blown off had I chosen to, but this simple directive recognized not only my role in the parish but the importance of the other dimensions of my life and the difficulty and energy required for the inner work I was doing as well my parish's needs. My Director saw what I could not and set the limits for me; the limits were actually a relief and it never occurred to me to transgress these.

When I reflect on how this worked I think it illustrates well why ministry and authority are combined in the designation, "Ministry of authority". Sister was ministering to me in this instance and she was doing so on the basis of both knowledge and love. She was protecting me so my own ministries in the parish, diocese, and universal Church could continue in a fruitful way --- not only my ministry of prayer in the silence of solitude, but also what I do as pastoral assistant as well as my own inner work, blogging, and writing on eremitical life itself. Those four words, had a bit of steel in them but were gently spoken and came from a place of love. What I want you to hear here is that no one else (except my bishop) could have said those same words to me ("Two services, no more!"), not my best friend or a favorite professor, not a confessor nor a spiritual director, but only someone with the authority associated with my public vow of obedience. My pastor might well have asked I do or feel free to do only two of the services and he could have said "Let the other two work out the remainder", but he could not have said precisely what my Director did in the same way she did. He does not have that authority. What I also want you to hear, however, is that there is nothing infantilizing in setting such a requirement. That is precisely because it is rare and rooted in a love focused on my own well-being and growth.

Obedience binds in situations where there is no directive, of course, but not in quite the same way. If my Director (delegate) asks or encourages me about something with regard to my health, spirituality, relationships, ministry, work, etc. I will certainly give whatever it is serious consideration, explore what it will take to implement or follow up on it appropriately, as well as pray about and take what action is appropriate. But in these kinds of things I am also free to make what decisions I will. In other words, I listen attentively, discuss things with relevant people, work through them (prayer, journaling, research) and do what is clearly needed in light of my own integrity and vocation. I would say that this is the way obedience generally works for vowed religious (professed diocesan hermits) these days. It is the same pattern I described in another example when I asked my Director if she could see any problem with me doing something very much outside my usual routine (protesting governmental action at a major airport). In that instance she said, "So long as it comports with your Rule, respects your own physical needs, frailties, and health concerns, and is consistent with your own deep conscience, I don't see any problem with it." She also reminded me since this action was public I needed to decide about wearing my habit/cowl but that too was left up to me.

No Director (delegate or superior) can demand someone do something they consider wrong, or rather, no religious/professed hermit can obey such a demand, not without sinning seriously. We  (every Christian) is/are required to follow our certain conscience judgments. Conscience is the very voice of God within us and we cannot act counter to such a conscience judgment without acting against God. If a superior requires we do something contrary to conscience, conscience must always trump the superior's directive. As St Thomas once pointed out, if one is condemned unjustly for following one's conscience, even to the point of being excommunicated, one must follow one's conscience and bear the punishment humbly. Conscience judgments  always have primacy for they are they very voice of God within a person's heart of hearts. I hope this is helpful. The ministry of authority has been conceived variously over the centuries and many folks' only sense of what it means may come from movies or TV. There's lots of good literature on obedience generally and the vow specifically, but mostly only religious read such stuff!

2nd Sunday of Advent


I am looking ahead to Friday's readings for this week. The Matthean gospel lection is one I have written about a couple of times before, namely the one where Jesus describes this generation in terms of children who won't enter into the role-play games common for children preparing for adult roles in their society in Jesus' day. [['We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.' ]] These lines are followed by Jesus'' description of the quality of faith he is finding on the ground, [[For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, 'He is possessed by a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, 'Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is vindicated by her works.]]

It seems that Matthew's Jesus is running into folks who are simply unwilling or unable to allow the God who is bigger than they are to enter their world and lives. That's not too surprising of course. To allow the God proclaimed by Jesus or witnessed to by JohnBp  to enter into our own world, is to embrace the God who radically shakes the foundations and ultimately leaves nothing unchanged. We like our comfortable certainties (and some of us like our uncomfortable certainties --- so long as these are known quantities), but a God who is newness and futurity personified and who "makes all things new" can be a God we resist and even reject. Sometimes the really new frightens us, often we simply dislike it, but with the God of Jesus Christ we are asked to commit to newness and a future which stands in stark contrast to many of the values and truths we have embraced and comforted ourselves with.

So, Advent reminds us that God is doing something new. There was something new conceived in a young virgin and in her older kinswoman as well. There was something new embodied by Christ and made real in space and time through his life, death, and resurrection. And there is something new being conceived in our own lives as well to the extent we have also said "yes" to the promptings of the Holy Spirit of a God Who is bigger than anything we can conceive. If only we can let go of some of those comfortable (and uncomfortable) certainties we have carried into this season, Wisdom will indeed be vindicated by her works!

06 December 2019

Chronic Illness a Special Challenge in Solitude?

[[Dear Sister, do you find that people have a hard time understanding why you live in greater solitude than most people? Since you have a chronic illness and have mentioned that many hermits do have chronic illnesses I wondered if this can be a special challenge in getting people to understand your eremitical life? If someone says they are careful not to tell folks that they are a hermit because of the response they get to the requirement of  solitude why might that be?]]

Thanks for your questions. Without knowing the person specifically it is hard to say why someone might say they are careful not to tell folks they are a hermit because of their response to a life of solitude. We hermits, whether lay or consecrated, are what we are, and eremitical life is (or should be!) a healthy way to fullness of life for us; we tend to be open about the fact that we are hermits and that this is the way God calls us to wholeness and fullness of life. People may have a hard time understanding this because of how unusual it is to be called to authentic humanity through the silence of solitude, but in my experience anyway, so long as they can see the essential truth of this claim we make, they won't or don't tend to react badly. And maybe that's the key to what is at the heart of the caution spoke of by the person you are asking about: somehow the solitude of eremitical life does not seem to truly contribute to the person's wholeness, well-being, and fullness of life. As your questions regarding my own life seem to suppose, some chronic illnesses might not allow one to live as a hermit -- not even as privately vowed.

I don't think folks have greater difficulty understanding how it is I live in solitude than they would of anyone else. Some are concerned for me and how I manage during times of illness or injury but once they realize I am free to ask for assistance should I need it (indeed I can say I am morally bound to do so!) their concerns are eased. Additionally, my relationship with my Director (delegate) and relationships with folks in my parish faith community help assure that I have the assistance I need to get to doctor's visits or to consider various options for treatment, hospitalization, etc. But all of this considered, what is more important I think, is that folks tend to see I thrive in solitude and are assured that I work with superiors, et al., in order to be sure that continues to be true. Yes, I live in solitude and a medically and surgically intractable seizure disorder can make that problematical in some ways, but I am genuinely happy as a diocesan hermit, and the canonical structures of my life along with other relationships make it relatively easy to reassure people that the pros of eremitical solitude far outweigh the cons. Again, as I have noted here before, because this vocation is ecclesial it is not a form of isolation but of significant solitude defined in terms of community and that is something folks may not understand. When these things are borne in mind I do not find it difficult to reassure folks that eremitical life is demanding but incredibly rewarding, nor that though it is uncommon, it is not abnormal or unhealthy for one truly called to it.


There are certain dimensions of my life, certain times of suffering and struggle, which are integral to what I consider to be the way God has shaped the "heart of a hermit" over my 70 years of life; these are indeed difficult to share with others. I hold them private and share them with very few people. But God has always been there for and with me and this graced part of events comes through in the theology I teach or write, in the very limited preaching I do and the Scriptures I most resonate with and teach. When I speak or write about eremitical life I always stress the redemptive element which is at its center, and in fact, must be at its center if it is to be considered of God. There is no reason usually to write about the various dimensions of my own suffering, for instance, unless doing so really serves to illustrate the degree or quality of God's grace in my life at the same time. My life is fruitful and richly meaningful because of the love of God that has accompanied me in every moment and mood of that life. The God I believe in, the Creator God and Abba of Jesus Christ, is not one who wills suffering; instead he wills life and this means he wills to accompany each of us in our suffering not only that life and meaning can be drawn out of what would otherwise merely be death dealing but so that one day all suffering is ended and God will be all in all.

All of this and more, by the way, is what the Church examines when she seeks to discern an eremitical vocation with someone. The story the Church seeks to hear is the story of God's redemption of a person as this occurs in the silence of solitude. A bishop and his Vicar for Religious, among others, will be listening for the grace that dominates and makes sense of all things as a person who seeks to become a diocesan hermit enters into the mutual discernment process required for admission to the consecrated state. In other words what makes my own life understandable and reassures others about the healthiness and fruitfulness of eremitical solitude is an expression of the very same thing Church hierarchy listens for if they are to accept a person has a genuine eremitical call to life under canon 603. For that matter the hermit's Rule of Life will also provide evidence of this same narrative. Similarly, if a person cannot move successfully through such a discernment process it might also be the case that they will refrain from telling others they are a hermit, not only because it is difficult to admit such failure, but because they may not actually be able to reassure folks sufficiently that eremitical life is really a healthy or fruitful choice for them.

Public profession will commit one to witnessing to eremitical life as a way to a fruitful, healthy life which sings of God's grace and strikes others as being happy. Should health demands or other life circumstances move the hermit away from being able to witness in this way in  spite of the suffering involved the hermit may be required to consider seeking or accepting a dispensation of her vows. Still, while the vows are binding a person may well be bound to the elements of canon 603 and eremitical life others do not "get".  It is important to be clear these vows are made freely and can, if necessary, be dispensed if the calling is no longer truly healthy for one. Meanwhile, if one's embrace of eremitical solitude is a matter of an entirely private commitment (private vows), one is always obligated to keep the superseding values of their public baptismal state. Such private vows will not, generally speaking, include any commitment to eremitical life per se nor any obligation to live under an eremitical Rule, and they may well reflect an inadequate discernment process in any case. A private commitment to eremitical life may well need to be left behind if the life proves unhealthy for the person whether or not private vows of the evangelical counsels also need to be dispensed --- something easily done by one's pastor, in every case.

05 December 2019

St Joseph's Dream and Advent Promise




I recently wrote a piece based on a Friday homily which reflected on the importance of dreams and the idea of paying attention to our dreams (and nightmares) along with God's promises, to help prepare for and move us to greater commitment to the God of Jesus Christ. I realized that I had also once published a video with Brother Mickey McGrath's painting of St Joseph and the reassurance he receives via a dream. It is this assurance of the providence of God that allows Joseph to take Mary as his wife and paves the way for the Incarnation. The above video looks at Bro Mickey's painting from various peoples' perspectives. I hope you enjoy it and of course, I hope you enjoy Bro Mickey's art and the way it expresses a wonderfully relevant contemporary spirituality.

02 December 2019

From Gratitude, Dreams, and Divine Promises to Commitment

Last Friday's readings gave us a lection from Daniel and one from Luke. Because those readings were preceded by Thanksgiving and its celebrations and led immediately into Advent I found it a little difficult to separate them off from all that was going on both within and without in order to construct a homily for Friday's service. Daniel 7:2-14 gave us the account of the dream of four beasts and the coming of the Son of Man, of courts, judgment and the shifts in dominion that come to our world in light of the coming of the Son of Man. Daniel's dream predominates -- and, like all dreams, usually gives interpreters fits! But there is also a strong element of promise to this pericope from Daniel. Luke's lection (Lk 21:23-29) admonishes us to read the signs of the times and proclaims the Kingdom of God as being "at hand" -- a kingdom which will never pass away. With Luke we move more strongly from dreams to the promise of God's own future.

It is an enigmatic future, one veiled in challenging imagery (multi-headed beasts with wings and horns, domination by these beasts, thrones and courts of judgment). On Friday we talked some before the service about nightmares. One person had said he hoped I was going to explain the first reading and I knew I wanted to move away from interpreting the dreams directly (a sure way of trivializing them) to speaking of dreams more generally. The sharing folks did about nightmares helped prepare them for hearing Daniel in a way which eased their bewilderment by the images he was actually using. Sometimes dreams allow us to get in touch with the potentialities we need to live, sometimes they help us express our feelings regarding the "monsters" which may fill our lives with fear or otherwise dominate them. Whether we are dealing with nightmares and the powers needing to be overcome or the more positive dreams linked to potentialities God's promises help focus and put them in perspective.

Our own addition of Thanksgiving to the days moving us into Advent also helps focus everything in terms of God's promises, God's future. For that day our entire nation spends time getting in touch with all the ways God has gifted us in our lives, all the ways God has helped achieve our deepest dreams or overcome our darkest nightmares, all the ways God has created a significant future for and with us. These three elements, gratitude, dreams, and promise help move us to commitment to this same God and (his) plans for creation. They are present not only in the days preceding Advent, but in the readings throughout the season. Advent is the time we spend deepening our sense of gratitude, getting in touch with our own dreams, and sharpening our sense of Divine promise (including the promise we bear within ourselves and are called to realize in space and time). It is a time marking something new coming, a season celebrating our growing openness to incarnation.

John O'Donahue says that sometimes beginnings take a long time and are very rich; they are as full as the time between the moment an artist picks up a brush and the moment he sets that brush to canvas. For us Advent is analogous; we have a season of fullness (marked by promise and dreams) between the first Sunday of Advent and Christmas day; it is season in which we prepare for the way God will be incarnate in our own lives and future through our own (re)commitment to Christ. As we begin I imagine and wonder what "painting" (commitment) is being prepared by the grace of God in the time between the moment I pick up the brush, the beginning of Advent, and the moment I touch it to the canvas (Feast of the Nativity).

On Hermits, Selfishness, and Friendship (partial reprise)

[[Dear Sister, I read that some people believe that hermit life is selfish because it raised the question, "Who is it the hermit is loving?" (That's not quite the right quotation.) Have you written about this before? Do you know the objection I am trying to remember?. . .I also wondered about the importance of friendship in your life. These are related questions. Also, do you have many friends? How do you maintain them? does being a hermit get in the way of that? I've always thought that friendships are incredibly important for human wellbeing so I am just wondering how this works for you.]]

Thanks for your questions. I have written a number of posts on the place/importance of friendship for the hermit. If you check out the labels to the right you will find at least 10 posts on "friendships and hermiting". You will also find posts on selfishness or self-centeredness and the eremitical vocation. Below I am including one of the posts written within the last three years or so. I think it will answer a lot of your questions even though the questioner had different concerns than you do. Please feel free to get back to me if it fails to satisfy your needs in this; I am happy to say more if I can.

Meanwhile, I think your first questions may refer to concerns Pachomius (4C.) had while living as a hermit. However, others have also raised these questions: how can one learn to love if one is strictly alone, how can one grow in patience or humility without the company of others? Pachomius eventually founded a monastery because he believed living with others was crucial to coming to Christian maturity. In my own life (and in canon 603) I believe the church tries to protect the gift of eremitical life while balancing the fundamental need for community and friendship. Maintaining such balance is demanding and difficult for hermit and friends alike -- but God provides what is necessary here. Certainly the folks who are a hermit's friends are very special and especially graced persons; the hermit gives thanks every day for such friends, relatively rare though they may be!

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I have been thinking about attachments and detachment recently and I was remem-bering when nuns had to let go of family ties and "particular friendships". As a hermit do you give up family ties or particular friendships? If you are trying to live a life given to God alone can you have attachments to friends? I know you write about having friends so how does that actually work? As you grow as a hermit will you let these go? If I wanted to develop a strong spiritual life it means being stripped of attachments doesn't it? Should I be letting go of friendships or is that only for hermits?]]

Thanks for the questions. Let me start with the way friendships are viewed today in religious and eremitical life generally and then tackle the nature of detachment and the kinds of attachments we are called to eschew. Then maybe I can say something about the paradoxical nature of giving one's life to God alone and how it is friendships are ordinarily an indispensable part of that. Finally, I can say something about how it is hermit life changes this somewhat, what it retains, and what might be necessary in the recluse. What you should be doing is a separate question which I think (and hope!) will build on these things.

Friendships are Indispensable Gifts of God:

First it must be said that friendships are a gift from God to each of us and one of the primary ways God's own life and love (for these are identical) is mediated to us. Friendships are also one of those places we can learn to truly love as the great commandment requires. We tend to appreciate this a bit better than has sometimes been true in the history of spirituality. Religious today have friends and good friends. So long as this does not detract from the person's love for her Sisters and commitment to her community which will have priority, such friendships add to her own life and can add to that of her community as well. Especially I think, we see better today than sometimes that to genuinely love another does not prevent us from loving God with our whole hearts, mind, and strength any more than loving God in this way prevents us from loving ourselves or others. Love, which is a transcendent reality and of God, is not divvied up or divided into discrete units so easily as this.

What I mean is we can't treat it in pre-cisely the same way we would some sort of finite resource like groceries in our pantry. While it may be we do not have enough bread and peanut butter and jam to feed every kid in the neighborhood and still have enough for our own children, we are more apt to find that love is like the loaves and fishes we read about last Friday --- there is enough to feed everyone with plenty left over --- simply because this is how genuine love really is. Even more, we tend to find with love that the more we give the more we have to give. To spend significant time with a friend listening, sharing, laughing, and loving is really to open ourselves to greater and greater love --- and that means opening ourselves and that relationship up more and more to the living God who is love. To do that, in fact, is to love God himself and to open our whole world to him is to love God in the way the great commandment calls us to.

Real Personal Love Involves Detachment:

I think the real problem comes when we are not really loving others (or letting them truly love us) but instead are relating to them for some lesser reason. To be "attached" to someone because we truly love them (and have been able to allow them to love us) really implies significant detachment. We are delighted to be with them; they console and challenge and inspire us, but at the same time we "hold them lightly" and may need to let go of them in the name of love. We cannot cling to them precisely BECAUSE we love them. This paradox I suspect was not always understood enough --- thinking in terms of paradox is not always easy for us, and often feels very unnatural. We tend to think in terms of either/or --- either attachment or detachment, but love introduces us to relationships that are variously intimate, fiercely loyal and committed ("attached") while at their heart being open to what is best for the other to the point of sacrificing our own needs and desires (detachment) in small ways and large for their sake.

The detachment we want is that of selflessness. The "attachments" we are allowed -- and in fact are commanded to embrace because they are uniquely human and humanizing -- are those of real and personal love. I don't think, by the way, I am meant to live a life which is given to God alone (nor is any hermit), but rather I am called to live a life given to God in all things. Moreover, I am called to live a life given to God in this way in the silence of solitude and which is thus lived for others. Specifically it is meant to witness to the fact that for each and every one of us God alone is sufficient for us, God is the ultimate source of life and love and meaning for each one of us, the source and ground which makes us capable of marriage and family, of friendship, ministry, etc, and the absolute future to which we are drawn. No one and nothing else completes or empowers us in the way God does. We are made for God and in that way we are made for community.

The Witness of the Eremitical Life:

The hermit's life is meant to witness to this fact --- not in an elitist way as though it is only true for her or for the rare vocation to eremitism but in a way which affirms this is truth for all of us. She does it in silence and solitude because, in fact, this strips away many of the things we might use to "complete" us falsely, to obscure our vision, or which we mistake either for God or for our truest selves. She does it in the silence of solitude (and with the silence of solitude as the goal and gift of her life) to reveal the truth of who God is and who we all are most fundamentally --- namely, persons who are always and everywhere in intimate dialogue with God. This is the primary reason, I think, why canon 603 does not define the vocation in terms of individual salvation but in terms of being something lived for the redemption of all. I think Thomas Merton saw this clearly when he spoke of the one first duty of the hermit. You may remember that he said,

[[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 Diocese, and parish] 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.]] (Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 242) While I agree completely with Merton I would say that to live happily and without affectation in one's hermitage witnesses to the fact that the human being is made for and incomplete without God and therefore is defined by her potential and capacity for Love.

Maturing in Eremitical Life:

As I grow in my eremitical life I don't think I am going to "let go of friends". It may be that maintaining them will be done a bit differently than is done now, but generally speaking, I need friends to empower me to love --- and that means to love God too. My need for them is not a weakness or some form of inordinate attachment (meaning an improperly ordered attachment --- one that is not ordered to becoming more loving and holy); often I have thought some of my ability to live without them is the real deficiency --- though that is certainly less true than it might have been once upon a time. In any case relationships can make real selflessness possible and selflessness (meaning being God and other-centered in authentic love) is both the heart and the purpose of detachment. It remains true that I am open to being called to reclusion and if that happens the time and contact necessary for friendships will be even further significantly limited, but at this time I don't think this is where I am being called.

It should be clear from all that I have said that growth in the spiritual life does not necessarily mean letting go of authentic friendships. It is far more likely to demand their cultivation --- something we should be aware of in this time and culture of superficial and utilitarian "friending!" Sometimes the literature of exclusion and separation was simply selfish (and not particularly Christian); it failed to see that love of God and love of others are inextricably intertwined and in some ways it prevented even the genuine friendships that are so necessary for growth. That is as true for the hermit as it is for everyone else.  In fact it should be noted that the capacity for authentic friendships and relationships generally is presupposed in eremitical life; this is one reason it is considered a second half of life vocation or is perceived as being possible only after years of  formation in monastic life. For the hermit the relationship with God is always given absolute priority, and this must occur in the silence of solitude -- which limits and conditions the friendships which are possible. Still, so long as the hermit is faithful in observing these priorities she may very well find her vocation calls for a few really special friendships as well. The hermit may not see these friends often but their love supports and challenges her in ways a solitary vocation really requires.

01 December 2019

First Sunday in Advent (Reprise)

 All good wishes on this first Sunday of Advent! "Adventus" is a season where we prepare to see the surprising ways God works in our lives, where we are especially cognizant of the choices which allow God to be active deep within our own hearts and within our larger world; it is where we learn to look more closely and attentively at everything within and around so that we are prepared to respond as fully as possible to this God of newness and surprises.

For many of us there is a paring down to the essentials in order to make all this possible. We also take greater care and time with our own self-inventory, our own inner work --- especially as that allows the life of God to move through and fill us. And of course, we make sure there is sufficient silence to truly hear the movements of our own hearts and the God who would be Emmanuel by taking up complete residence there. These are the really essential "preparations for Christmas" which put shopping and other things we also must do in their proper place.

I find it awesome to consider that the God who would "tent" among us has chosen my own heart and soul, my own mind and body --- with all of their flaws and weaknesses --- to reveal the fullness and perfection of Divine love made manifest in Christ. But through the past months I have watched the greening of new life nascent within me; I have seen it where I thought it could never be and sometimes where I thought it had been quenched forever. Ours is a God of newness and life and we are called to allow these to spring up within us wherever they will. He is faithful beyond telling and does not disappoint. So I am reminded that the season begins with a single candle in the darkness. It will end with a blaze of light and warmth -- and especially that of the light of Christ within us --- if only we allow it.

 May these weeks of preparation see the kindling of new life and light even when it begins with a small and sometimes stuttering flame in the midst of great darkness. Especially may we all come to know more intimately the surprising God of newness who takes up residence and "tents" within and among us in Christ; He is the God who treasures our poverty and weakness and transforms and transfigures them into the mangers and lamps of his life and love.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!