04 September 2021

Purposes of Stricter Separation from the World (Reprise)

[Dear Sister, What is the purpose of "stricter separation from the world" in your life? You have mentioned it as an element of hermit life, but I really don't get it. The Sisters I know are deeply involved in this world and it seems to me it is what Christ was all about. Can you help me understand?]]

Great question! I have written a little about stricter separation from the world, especially what it does and doesn't mean, so I would invite you to check out labels leading to those articles for additional thoughts. But you are correct, I have not really written about the purpose of stricter separation, nor have I spoken explicitly about the validity of this approach in spirituality --- which does indeed seem rather different from Jesus' usual way of doing things. In fact, "stricter separation from the world" was not something I would have chosen myself without circumstances which led me to understand it differently than I did as a young Sister. As your own comment suggests, it hardly seems to comport with a Christian perspective which honors the incarnation and the sanctity of all creation in Christ. For me it always sounded selfish and lacking in charity --- not to mention in generosity!

It is important to remember that separation from the world means first of all separation from that which is resistant or uncongenial to Christ, and that it involves detachment from that which promises fulfillment, meaning, and hope apart from him and the God he mediates. This sense of the term "world" refers to anything which is untrue, distorted, resistant to life, to love, and to all the rest of the values which constitute life in God. But it is not God's good creation, therefore, from which we mainly separate ourselves. It is "the world" of falsehood, chaos, and meaninglessness, and this means that it is not something distinct existing merely outside of ourselves, but instead a reality which is intimately related to the darkness, woundedness, distortions, and sclerosis (hardness) of our own hearts.

Keeping this in mind, there are several reasons then for embracing stricter separation from the world. The first is that such separation distances us from the constant reinforcement of values, behaviors, expectations, and so forth which bombard us otherwise. Consider all the things we each see every day that tell us who we are and must be --- despite the fact that almost none of them are consistent with the values of the Kingdom of God! The second reason, however, has to do with allowing ourselves the space and time --- and the silence and solitude --- to meet ourselves without all the supports, props, and distractions of "the world." It is hard to see ourselves for who we really are otherwise. Once the props are down or removed we come to experience our own poverty. When we are not measuring (and in fact CANNOT measure) success, integrity, fruitfulness, etc., according to the terms constituting, "the world" we come face to face with what we are really all about. So the first part of stricter separation is all about reality checks. Conversion, after all, requires confrontation with truth.

The third and most fundamental reason for stricter separation from the world is to allow the space and time needed for a meeting with God. If our hearts (and so, our very selves) are, in part, darkened, distorted, sclerosed and untrue, they are also the place where God bears witness to himself and the truth of who we are. All the elements of the eremitical life, including stricter separation, are geared towards the meeting (and eventually, union) with God which verifies (makes true), heals, and brings to fullness of life. It is in this meeting that we learn how precious we are despite our very real human poverty, here that we learn how constant and secure God's love, here that we begin to have a sense of what we are really capable of and meant for. It is in this meeting with God that we come to know genuine freedom, come to experience an imperishable hope, and are commissioned to go out to others to summon them to something similar.

There is a fourth reason for stricter separation from the world then. We must step away from the distorted perspectives and values which constitute "the world" in order to affirm the deeper truth and beauty of the world around us. We come to know everything in God and that leads us to see with God's eyes. Hermits assume a marginal place so that they may also serve a prophetic function by speaking the truth into a situation in a way which affirms its deepest and truest reality. It will also summon to conversion. Stricter separation from "the world" allows us to love God's world into wholeness. It is a servant of true engagement and commitment. Stricter separation from "the world" is a tool for loving the whole of God's creation; it is neither escapist nor selfish and cannot be allowed to devolve into these.

Now, I suspect that your only objection to any of this would be, "But why a LIFE of stricter separation from the world?" Hermits witness to this basic dynamic and the need for the freedom that results from being the person God makes us to be. The hermit reminds us again and again then of the foundational relationship that grounds our being, and of the task of individuation it summons us to achieve. We are made for life with God. Separation from the world contributes to this in the life of every person at the same time it rejects enmeshment, and hermits say this particularly clearly with their lives.

I hope this helps. It doesn't answer every aspect but it is a beginning. Thanks again for a really great and challenging question. I enjoyed working on it!

31 August 2021

On the Beauty and Depth of Canon 603

[[Sister Laurel, I wondered why you write about canon 603 now, so many years after you have been professed. It sounds to me like you believe it is important to hermits even after they have been consecrated. I realize that the canon describes what is necessary to be admitted to canonical standing, and I get you might want to be writing for those interested in becoming diocesan hermits, but is there something more to it than that? Once you're admitted under a law, why concern yourself with the law? I wondered if you could explain that. By the way, your anniversary of profession is coming up isn't it? Congratulations!]]

Good to hear from you; it has been a while!! Interesting observations and question!  Yes, I continue to write about canon 603 for one particular reason; namely, it is not merely a canon allowing for admission to profession and consecration (as historically and ecclesially important as this is); the canon prescribes a profound and often unimagined way of life constituted by the central elements named therein. Many mistakenly treat these elements as though they are obvious and easily understood and lived. For instance, poverty, chastity, and obedience seem clear enough. So do "Stricter separation from the world", "assiduous prayer and penance" and "the silence of solitude". That one is required to write a Rule of life may seem a requirement anyone can easily accomplish and dioceses routinely send folks off to do this without instructions or assistance -- fully expecting they will be able to succeed at the task, but this is not so easy really. 

Beneath the words of the canon in this element and in all the others, however, there are worlds the hermit is called and will need to explore, embrace, and embody in order to truly be a canon 603 hermit. The canon is, in significant ways, the window to these worlds. Because I petitioned to be admitted to profession under this canon and because the Church professed, consecrated, and commissioned me to do so, I am living and exploring this particular eremitical life; gradually I have come to know or at least glimpse the depths of the life prescribed by the canon --- even when I have not lived into them as fully as I am yet called to. 

 As a corollary, I have come to know many of the depths of the canon itself. I write about canon 603 now 14 years after perpetual profession and consecration because, from within this life, I continue to see new things in the canon --- things Diocesan bishops and Vicars for Religious (who often know very little about such a life or canon 603 itself) need to see, things candidates need to have a sense of as they approach discernment and formation in this call, and things those professed under canon 603 are also committed to exploring. Especially, I  continue to write about canon 603 because, from within this life, I have always perceived a beauty about it and the way it blends non-negotiable elements with the freedom and flexibility of a solitary life lived for the sake of others in response to the Holy Spirit. It both demands and allows for profound eremitical experience before profession and it both calls for and empowers even greater depth and breadth in living this life thereafter. You see, it is not just the single elements of the canon nor their apparently "obvious" meanings that are important -- though of course they are crucial. It is what is implicit in them and in the fabric they weave together that is also critical to appreciating canon 603. 

This kind of appreciation is important not just for the hermit herself, but also for dioceses seeking to use the canon appropriately and for canonists whose tendency is to want to add additional requirements and legislative elements to the canon before admitting anyone to profession. More and more I have come to see that these added elements are unnecessary, not only because eremitical life doesn't need them, but because canon 603 itself does not. Of course, in coming to appreciate the beauty I referred to above, and the surprising adequacy of the canon, one must be open to seeing there what is more than superficial or even more than significantly explicit.

 Let me give you an example. The canon requires the solitary hermit to write her own Rule. However, it doesn't explicitly define the nature of the Rule and whether it will function as law, Gospel, or law and Gospel; will it be primarily or wholly a list of do's and don'ts, limitations and permissions, or will it provide a vision of the life the hermit is committing to live with whatever that requires? Nor does c 603 explicitly require that it be a liveable Rule which may only come to be after the hermit has written at least several drafts. And yet both of these, rooted in the hermit's lived-experience and long-reflection must be understood as called for by canon 603. Another example is the central element, "stricter separation from the world." What does it really mean? What does it call for from the hermit? I have written a lot about this element of the canon over the past decade and more so I won't repeat all that here, but where in the canon does it speak of freedom from enmeshment with falsity and freedom for truth and honest engagement with God's good creation? And yet, this is one of the things, perhaps the main thing this element refers to.

Nor is it just a matter of getting under the surface or common usage of the terms involved. One needs to begin to see the way they are linked to one another and help in the weaving of a single reality. Both of the elements just noted, the requirement that the hermit write her own Rule and stricter separation from the world, demand the hermit engage in a process of growth and maturation in Christ specifically as a canon 603 or diocesan hermit. Moreover, the canon provides a vision of consecrated solitary eremitical life in the Church. Each element contributes to this vision. At the same time, in service to the incarnation of this vision in an individual's life, canon 603 allows for a process of discernment and formation, both initial and ongoing, even though this process is not explicit in the text of the canon

The requirement that a hermit write a liveable Rule confronts everyone with the needs for adequate discernment and formation. But how is this achieved? Do we need more canons? Must we borrow from canonical norms established (wisely and appropriately) for other and less individual forms of religious life? Again, I find canon 603 beautiful and perhaps surprising in its adequacy here: what is implicit in the requirement that the hermit write her own Rule is the fact that an adequate process of discernment and formation can be structured according to the hermit's growing abilities and capacities to write a liveable Rule of life that is true to canon 603's vision of solitary eremitical lifeWriting a liveable Rule of Life is not simply one element of the canon among others; it is the culmination of a process of reflection, prayer, study, and personal growth in Christ (and thus, in all the other elements of the canon) it itself guides. 

A hermit engaging in the writing of a liveable Rule will require accompaniment and assistance (a very small formation team, for instance), but the process envisioned here can be relatively simple and effective in guiding the diocese working with a candidate for profession, and certainly it is respectful of the freedom required by both the hermit and the Holy Spirit in shaping and deepening this specific vocation. Best, it grows organically from (or is implicit in) the requirements of canon 603 itself.

To return more directly to your questions. Canon 603 is certainly a norm by which the Church recognizes and perpetuates solitary consecrated hermits. It is associated with canonical (legal) rights and obligations which bind the hermit. It defines the nature of the diocesan hermit's life and provides the central elements which mark this definition. It is here, however, that canon 603 becomes something more than most canons because it is associated with a vision of the solitary eremitical life and a vision is not only about what is seen, but about the underlying mystery which grounds, inspires, and is to be manifested in the lives of those living under this canon. 

I believe that the authors of c 603 wrote something rich, perhaps richer than they knew. Canon 603 is a window opening onto Mystery; the mystery of eremitical life, of God and the way human beings are verified (made true) in communion with God, the mystery of the way even the most isolated life can be redeemed in solitude, and the mystery of the way even human and Divine solitude always imply community. Because all of this and more is true, because canon 603 is not a once-used now-essentially-irrelevant law (unless of course, one transgresses it!) but something far more, I continue to reflect on, pray with, and write about c 603.

Postscript: Yes, it's a big week for me. I mark my birthday on September 1st, and celebrate the anniversary of my perpetual profession under c 603, the next day, 2nd Sept. 

29 August 2021

On Stricter Separation from the World as a Call to Love the World into Wholeness (Reprise)

[[Sister Laurel, I was asked where the "stricter" in "stricter separation from the world," comes from in canon 603.  Does it mean stricter than cloistered communities, stricter than other religious, stricter than other forms of consecrated life generally? I also was thinking about the idea of "the world" in the phrase in the canon. Doesn't this involve a kind of judgment (judgmentalism) on the world around the hermit? Because I take seriously the admonition not to judge others I wonder if Jesus would have condemned such an approach to something God created and Jesus  made new through his death and resurrection. Can you speak to this? ]]

In my understanding, the reference to "stricter separation from the world" in canon 603 is an intensification of c 607.3. That section of canon 607 reads: "The public witness to be rendered by religious to Christ and to the Church entails a separation from the world proper to the character and purpose of each institute." [Emphasis added]  Generally speaking hermits living under c 603 are called and obliged to live a separation which is stricter than that of other religious. Hermit's vows (or other sacred bonds) will qualify their relationship with the world in terms of wealth, relationships, and power (poverty, chastity, and obedience) but will, in conjunction with their Rule of life and the other requirements of canon 603, do so even more strictly than those of other religious. In particular, the hermit's ministry or apostolate will be very different because in the main it is a matter of being sent into the hermitage in the ministry of prayer and not out in active ministry. I don't think it means more strictly than cloistered religious, however, because hermits are self-supporting and responsible for interfacing with her local, parish, and diocesan communities --- and even with the more extended support community I mentioned in a previous post.

I don't think the requirement regarding stricter separation from the world is a form of judgmentalism but it does require significant discernment on what, when, and how one will give one's heart to things -- first to God and then to all that is precious to God. Stricter separation from "the world" is meant to allow one to love and/or be loved by God in a way which leads to conversion and sanctification -- that is to authentic humanity -- and in light of that, to love all that God loves in a similar way. 

It is always important to remember, I think, that "the world" in canon 603 does not mean "everything outside the hermitage door" -- nor does it exclude dimensions of the hermitage itself as though "the world" is not present there as well. "The world" is a collection of attitudes, values, perspectives, and priorities which live in a hermit's heart just as they live in the hearts of others. Perhaps these have been more or less changed through the context of the silence of solitude and, more importantly, through assiduous prayer and penance, but they remain deeply inculcated and closing the hermitage door, especially when done while naively believing one has shut "the world" out, merely makes the hermitage an outpost of "the world".

As noted in earlier posts, The Handbook on Canons 573-746, notes that "the world" refers to "that which is not redeemed or open to the salvific action of Christ". I have added other dimensions to this definition: 'anything which promises fulfillment apart from Christ," for instance. Thomas Merton  warns against hypostasizing "the world" and sees it in terms of illusion which should be unmasked; it is that which has become a lie and which needs to be seen for what it is.** (see below) We do that when we see all of reality with the eyes of God, and that means seeing all of reality with the eyes of love, just as I noted in my homily for the Solemnity of Ascension.  What it does not mean is God's good creation generally. For that reason, the hermit does not reject the world outside the hermitage, nor even that which is antithetical to Christ. Instead her silence and solitude (i.e., her life with and in God) allows her to see things as they are and to help love them into wholeness. Stricter separation from the world is done for the sake of the hermit's capacity to see clearly and to love truly and deeply. This includes learning to see herself clearly and learning to love herself rightly and profoundly. 

So again, no, I don't think stricter separation from the world represents a form of judgmentalism any more than a physician's diagnosis in order to treat a disorder represents a form of judgmentalism. For the hermit, stricter separation from the world, means disentangling ourselves from all kinds of forms of enmeshment so we may see properly and love profoundly into wholeness. This is what I meant when I said it required significant discernment on what, how, and when we would give our hearts to things. I hope this is clear. So much spiritual writing treats "the world" as anything outside the hermitage, convent, or monastery doors or walls. But this is just careless and dangerous thinking. It neglects the very real dimensions of the human heart which are worldly and on which one cannot simply shut the hermitage door; it also neglects the Great Commandment of love and the profound relationship a hermit (for instance) must have with the world around the hermitage, especially in the silence of solitude -- as paradoxical as that sounds.

I agree with you that Jesus would condemn many writings that speak of "the world" as though it is a distinct objective thing outside a religious house. Especially I agree that Jesus would condemn any way of seeing God's good creation which ignores the victory of the cross over sin and death and over the powers and principalities of this world. We are challenged every day not to ignore "the world" but to see it clearly, to transform it with love, and thereby to eventually win its allegiance to Christ -- even if that allegiance is anonymous. Love provides the kind of unmasking which humbles without humiliating; it raises reality to its true dignity, and it allows the deep meaning possessed by reality to come through without idolizing this world or dimensions of it. It provides the lens through which we can see things truly and value them rightly. I think Jesus saw reality in this way and we who profess that we are in and of him, must be able to demonstrate that we have the capacity to see reality in the same way. 

Hermits separate ourselves more strictly from the larger world in order to cultivate this way of seeing, this way of loving. We do it so that we can be remade into a dimension of the heart of the Church; where others who share in the love of God in Christ are meant to be Jesus' hands and feet, hermits stand hidden and yet present as a representation of Jesus' own sacred heart. Once we think of ourselves in this way, stricter separation from the world will never again mean a sterile, much less judgmental, disengagement from the world. Instead it will be a new and paradoxical way of being engaged so the world may truly be and become all God calls it to be. Stricter separation from "the world" is about love for the world of God's great and creative goodness; it is not about "contemptus mundi" except to the degree we reject the ways the world itself has been falsified by human idolatry. It is this falsification (and the distorted human heart that created it) that must be unmasked, and this, it seems to me (and to Thomas Merton, I think) is the work of the hermit and her hermitage. 

** And for anyone who has seriously entered into the medieval Christian. . . conception of contemptus mundi [hatred for or of the world],. . .it will be evident that this means not the rejection of a reality, but the unmasking of an illusion. The world as pure object is not there. it is not a reality outside us for which we exist. . . It is only in assuming full responsibility for our world, for our lives, and for ourselves that we can be said to live really for God." Thomas MertonContemplation in a World of Action.

28 August 2021

On Communities Aspiring to Become Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Premature Use of Religious Garb and Titles

[[Dear Sister, It seems that some communities (maybe alot) start off with these lower grade canonical entities [private associations of the faith, etc] in view of becoming institutes [of consecrated life] or other higher forms but they look and act as if they were full blown institutes (and perhaps they need to). I mean they were (sic) habits, have internal structures as an institute would , call each other sisters or brothers, mother superior and priors, take vows, live a single rule etc etc. Is this normal or are they "playing religious" until they actually achieve a higher juridical form?]]

Good question! I would say that private associations of the faithful ought not wear habits or otherwise style themselves as religious under any circumstances. Those who belong to public associations of the faithful on the way to becoming an institute of consecrated life and are under the direct supervision of a bishop are often allowed to wear habits and otherwise style themselves as religious against the day when this canonical standing actually becomes reality. Personally, (and this is merely my own opinion) I don't think this is appropriate until and unless the diocese's discernment sees clearly that they will, within a year or so, grant the petition for the group to be recognized as an ICL. I also believe that such groups need to be very honest with others re: where they stand in the process and not require that outsiders call them Sister or Brother or pretend that they are consecrated religious. Most, at least from what I have seen from websites, mislead others in such matters.

I believe the use of habits and titles are unnecessary prior to establishment as an institute of consecrated life and public profession, but yes,  the practice has been to allow these things with an eye to the day when public profession is a reality. Still, strictly speaking, poverty doesn't require it, for instance, and since folks in a private group or even a public one which is not yet (and may never become) an institute of consecrated life do not actually represent consecrated life or share in the graces of profession and consecration, using religious garb or styling oneself as a religious/consecrated persons can be vastly confusing and even scandalous to others in the Church.

The religious news today and recently is full of the story of the suppression of Regina Pacis (originated in Italy) for various problems within the organization --- some of which can be quite significant. It is not unusual for new groups/communities to fail for similar reasons whether or not they are actually suppressed, but this is a good reminder of the importance of waiting until a group has moved through certain stages of growth and shown themselves to be healthy and of God before allowing them to be established as institutes of consecrated Life or allowing members to make public profession, be consecrated, and to style themselves as religious. 

One account of the Regina Pacis suppression said, [[The Vatican decree, dated July 24, said the community’s foundational charism lacked authenticity and “trustworthiness,” and there was a “lack of substance” in the community’s texts, especially concerning ecclesiology and formation, according to the bishop’s note.]] Another report included a bit more information from the Roman Decree: [[“the Regina Pacis Community association does not show that it has acquired a charismatic-institutional maturity that can ensure healthy development for the future,” that it lacked “originality and reliability of the founding charism,” and had “poor consistency of the inspirational texts, especially in the ecclesiological sphere and in the formation of the association.”]]

As you can see, the founding and development of a community is complex with significant norms and other requirements which speak to multiple overlapping dimensions of the life and organization itself. To actually become what one feels called to be requires mutual discernment and formation right along until and even after one has been recognized as an Institute of Consecrated Life. Most groups never achieve the kind of  vitality, solidity, transparency, and witness value required in order to live as an instance of consecrated life. Most dissolve of themselves while others need to be suppressed by the Church. Allowing the wearing of habits (if this is desired) or the permission for members to style themselves as religious, from my own perspective, fosters (or can well foster) a kind of pretense which can be an obstacle to coming to the maturity required. After all, a group may grow in a different direction under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; this might be harder to be attentive or docile to if folks are already using habits and titles!

None of this means folks are merely "playing religious", but the truth is the folks being referred to in your questions are not religious and, again, may never be such. I think the Church gives permission as she does in good faith. Even so, negotiating the real relationship one has with the whole Church is a necessary part of living the truth of who one really is in any vocation. This is a matter of responding to the graces associated with any vocation. Such graces can include garb and title, but underlaying these is something very much more than the externals of garb and title. I personally believe it is important to be graced in these deeper ways at least at the same time one adopts religious garb and ways of styling oneself -- and not adopt such elements before that (the situation is different in regard to novices of established institutes). In this way pretense is avoided and the Church at large is potentially edified by such vocations as well as the long and difficult process of becoming an Institute of Consecrated Life.

20 August 2021

(Reprise) Discerning a c 603 Vocation: On the Importance of Jesus' Presence Apart From Reserved Eucharist

Over the past years several people have written me about their desire to become a diocesan hermit in order to be allowed to reserve Eucharist in their own living space. Most striking about three of these emails was the clear sense that diocesan eremitical life per se held no interest for the person apart from this privilege, and indeed, were the ability to reserve Eucharist in their own living spaces withheld by the diocesan Bishop one person said honestly but bluntly, "What is the point of being consecrated?" It is a good question (for there IS a point!), but it also likely says the person posing the question is not called to diocesan eremitical life at this point in time --- if at all. The following is an accurate characterization of the questions I have received from the three posters referenced compiled as though from a single correspondent.

[[Dear Sister, I would like to reserve the Eucharist in my own home. I live alone and I attend adoration when I can. It is really pivotal to my own spirituality. I am discerning a vocation as a diocesan hermit so that I can do that and I am pretty sure that I am called to this. From what you have written though, I understand that my Bishop does not have to grant me this right [to reserve Eucharist]. So here're my questions: What would be the point of becoming consecrated if my Bishop was NOT going to grant this right? Why not just continue to live as I am already? Also, isn't the right to reserve Eucharist critical to discerning such a vocation? Shouldn't those discerning such a vocation be allowed to reserve Eucharist before they are professed/consecrated?

Further, wouldn't I be kind of "stuck" if a new Bishop took this right away from me?  Personally I feel if that happened it would be devastating to my vocation. I know that obedience is important and I don't mean that I would be disobedient to my Bishop; however, I want to be obedient to the will of God and I think that reserving Eucharist is God's will for me. After all, who are we serving?  I love the Lord in the Eucharist; I experience God flooding my being with his presence during adoration sometimes and having Him in my private chapel apart from distractions and noise by other people is absolutely necessary to my becoming consecrated. I imagine this is true for any consecrated hermit, isn't it? ]]

Thanks for your questions.  I am afraid that given what you have written about your reasons for embracing an eremitical vocation, and especially a consecrated form of that, your question "why not continue to live as [you already are]?" is pretty much my own question to you. What I hear you saying to me is simply that you want to reserve Eucharist and that you will seek and accept consecration as a diocesan hermit if that is allowed you, but there is no point in doing so otherwise; that is, you really see no point to living as a diocesan hermit or embracing the rights and obligations associated with this public vocation in the Church otherwise. As significant as devotion to the reserved Eucharistic presence may be for a person (I say "may" for it may also be unhealthy, theologically unsound, and destructive) and as significant as it is for you personally, it is not a sufficient reason to live an eremitical life much less seek or be admitted to consecration in this way. Similarly it may actually suggest that one is not a suitable candidate for either eremitical life generally or for consecration under canon 603 more specifically. Let me try to explain.

Reservation of Eucharist is a privilege; it is not essential to eremitical life:

While you may imagine that what you feel and believe is and would be true for any consecrated hermit, it is simply not the case. The privilege of reserving Eucharist is not an absolute right and, in fact, is not even typical of the eremitical tradition. Only rarely have hermits been able to reserve Eucharist in their hermitages; it is a distinctly modern development and is still not universally  practiced. Not all diocesan hermits are granted this right and some personally feel no need for it (or they may feel they don't have adequate space for it given the simplicity of their living arrangements). Most religious hermits also live without this privilege (it is typical of the Carthusians and Camaldolese to live in cells without Eucharist reserved). I am sure you would agree nonetheless that there is a point to their lives and that the presence of God in their cells is undoubted. 

Eremitical life has generally been lived in both the Eastern and Western Church  for almost 2000 years without the privilege of reservation of the Eucharist by individual hermits.  If this is truly the reason you are seeking consecration, that is, if this is really absolutely vital to your being consecrated, then I believe you have missed something critical about this vocation. Let me suggest that, for instance, you may not yet be sufficiently appreciative of the ecclesiality of the vocation or of the other ways God dwells with the hermit (or the hermit with God) and the ways the hermit is called to give witness to these realities. Similarly, you may not be open to the loneliness and paradoxical experience of God's presence which is not tied to a literal tabernacle and sometimes feels like an absence. Dealing with this is part and parcel of the eremitical life and of the witness it is called and commissioned to offer both Church and world.

For instance, while the Celebration of the Eucharist and its extension to the hermitage through the reserved Eucharist is central to my own life and to the ecclesial sense of this vocation, and while I would need to change some of the ways I pray were the privilege of reserving it revoked ---especially on days I do not attend Mass --- that revocation would not adversely affect the quality of my prayer or my sense that God is with me as he is in the Eucharist --- in Scripture, in contemplative prayer, in my solitary meals, etc. Neither would it diminish my sense that I live this vocation both for the sake of others and empowered by them and their love and prayers as well (again, part of what I have been calling the ecclesial sense of this vocation). The Eucharistic presence is significant, of course, and it symbolizes all of these things. I emphatically do not mean to minimize that, but my hermitage is and is meant to be a tabernacle of the Risen Christ whether or not I am also allowed to reserve Eucharist here. This is true, I would suggest, for any consecrated hermit and again, is part of the public witness they are called on to give those others who have no chance of reserving the Eucharist in their own spaces but who are also called to recognize and realize their own lives as instances of Eucharistic presence and as places where that presence can become manifest in everyday moments and activities.

Neither is Reservation of Eucharist Essential to the Candidate's Discernment Process


Reservation of the Eucharist is not part of the discernment process --- at least not in the way you are thinking above --- because it is not absolutely necessary to the eremitical life per se or even to consecrated life. It is a privilege, and I agree it is wonderfully life giving and significant, but it is not part of Canon 603's essential elements, for instance. (You might want to review those and also read something like Wencel's book on eremitical life to help you reflect on them.) It is customary only post-consecration at this point, but it is not more than customary. If you continue to develop your own prayer life I think you will find that God's being can flood your own regardless of whether or not you have Eucharist reserved; that is one piece of a strong Eucharistic theology which carries one beyond the limits of Mass or chapel or tabernacle. YOU are to become bread broken and wine poured out for others, whether you have access to Eucharistic reservation or provision for adoration or not. As a hermit your own response or experience should actually be as much to the living God who, in the silence of solitude, resides in  your own heart as it is to the presence in the reserved Eucharist. If you do not find this to be the case it may well be because as yet you are less open to this. Again, Christ is present in many ways in the life of a hermit. All of them must be given attention and allowed to be as fully nourishing and inspiring as God wills them to be.

Not least this is so because OTHERS will benefit from the witness of your life when this is the case and because, as Canon 603 says explicitly, we live it "for the salvation of the world", not merely for ourselves. Our world itself is at least potentially sacramental and we are meant to see that realized (revealed) in every home, etc; a hermitage should surely do this in a way which is paradigmatic for the whole church and world --- significantly this means whether or not the privilege of reservation is allowed. Because of this, genuine discernment looks for signs that this is true for candidates for eremitical consecration without the reservation of Eucharist. You see, you, like anyone else living by themselves, are alone with the Lord the moment you sit down to pray, or eat, or read a page of Scripture. You, like anyone else, are alone with him the moment you sigh in need or fear or loneliness or pain.  Like anyone else, you are alone with him when you shower or wash dishes, lie down to sleep, clean house, work in the garden or take a walk outside the hermitage, etc. This too is real presence. 

A hermit's life witnesses to THIS reality and if one is truly attentive and maturing in her faith she will seek to come to know this sense of presence and faithfulness whether with or without the presence of the reserved Eucharist because, as noted above, this experience can assist the majority of persons called to a similar holiness to embrace this truth in their own lives despite the fact they will never have even the possibility of reserving Eucharist in their own homes. For these reasons, among others, discernment of a vocation to canon 603 eremitical life may well even require that one NOT be given permission to reserve the Eucharist in their hermitage before perpetual profession and consecration. Though this would be an unusual step, I think, it might well be important for a superior to refuse, suspend, or revoke permission to reserve the Eucharist in one's hermitage, at least temporarily, even after a person is professed and consecrated.

I say this because unless a person can live with God in THIS way they may not be called to eremitical solitude at all. Instead, their physical solitude may be a form of illegitimate isolation and their desire to reserve the Eucharist a form of privatistic devotion which is actually a betrayal  1) of the vocation's ecclesiality, 2) of the nature of eremitical solitude, and 3) of the very nature of Eucharist itself. (cf, Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Narcissism and Exaggerated Individualism, or Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Ecclesiality vs Individualistic Devotional Acts) In a little-understood vocation fraught with stereotypes related to selfishness, narcissism, and misanthropy and with regard to a canon which has already been abused in merely stopgap solutions for those who cannot be consecrated in any other way, it is important that candidates for profession be models of significant ecclesiality or communion, generosity, love for and witness to others.

What would be the Point of Becoming Consecrated if the Permission could be Revoked?

The fact that you ask "what would be the point?" regarding consecration as a diocesan hermit in the face of lack of permission or revocation of permission to reserve Eucharist in your own space again suggests to me you do not yet truly sufficiently understand nor value the nature of consecrated eremitical life or the witness it gives to so very many whose isolation can and must be redeemed by the presence of God in their physical solitude. A hermit knows this because she has actually been formed in solitude usually without the privilege of reservation. Again, the hermit seeks and learns to find God in ALL the ways God is present, and all the ways every person is called on to find God and she does this not only because she is called to do it, but because it is a central redemptive truth and possibility anyone in the consecrated state must clearly witness to. There is a significant "point" to eremitical life and communion with God is certainly pivotal to that; however, again, reservation of the Eucharist is NOT absolutely necessary for achieving this communion and may even be an obstacle to it for some, especially if it makes of solitude an instance of isolation and Eucharist a mainly privatistic indulgence.

Bishops know this and my own experience is that they allow reservation of the Eucharist only as PART of a rich and varied life where God's presence is perceived and celebrated in all the ways it is real. They are aware that the reservation of the Eucharist must never be isolating (again, solitude and isolation are very different things), never cut off from the whole People of God or fail to be a true extension of her Eucharistic liturgy, never merely a privatistic act and certainly not an elitist or selfish one. Permission is given when reservation is a piece of a healthy Sacramental theology which sees every meal in the hermitage as a continuation of Eucharist with the hermit's local community, every interchange with others as an exchange of the kiss of peace, and so forth. Reservation of Eucharist is allowed because in a life of eremitical solitude it calls for and can nourish this kind of spirituality which serves the  hermit and whole People of God. Ironically, for a hermit to actually learn these things and live them fully as part of a profoundly ecclesial vocation, it may be important to withhold permission to reserve Eucharist in the hermitage. (cf:  Notes From Stillsong: On Reservation of the Eucharist and, Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: On Hermits and Eucharistic SpiritualityNotes From Stillsong Hermitage: Ecclesiality vs Individualistic Devotional Acts for more on Eucharistic Spirituality and the dangers of privatistic or individualistic devotional practice in its regard.)

This is not merely a matter of obedience in the sense of doing as one is told (though it certainly may include that), but it is very much a matter of a more profound and fundamental obedience where one learns to hear, respond to, and celebrate the God who comes to us in the ordinary things of life and who, in the hermit's life especially, is allowed to transfigure all of reality including one's living space itself. You ask, "Who are we serving"? We are serving God, of course. But, as I have noted above, we are serving him as we serve others with our own witness to the ascended Christ who is present to all of reality and can transfigure it with that presence. We are serving all those others whose isolation needs to be transformed by God's presence as it comes to them in every moment of every day. We do so by witnessing to these possibilities and to the Kingdom of Heaven that is meant to interpenetrate and transform this reality.

As noted earlier the issue of ecclesiality comes into play in all this. This time, however it is a consideration because you speak as though you might disobey your Bishop if your own sense of what God calls you to differs --- or at least you already believe you know better. In fact, as a diocesan hermit you would have to consider that God's will ALSO comes to us through the Bishop and our vows and commitment to an ecclesial vocation requires we listen attentively to this. Also as already noted, Bishops can have VERY good reasons for denying or removing permission for the reservation of the Eucharist in the hermitage of a diocesan hermit. Of course, the hermit must be convinced of the value of this vocation apart from himself. He must see its value for the whole church and, while his own discernment is important and should be considered by the Bishop, the hermit must also let go of the notion that s/he alone knows best.

Mary Magdalene and the Requirement she not Cling to the Jesus she knows so well:

Let me say finally that the way you narrowly cling to the reserved Eucharistic presence alone reminds me of Jesus' words to Mary Magdalene: "do not cling to me, I have not yet ascended to my Father." Jesus clearly was pointing to a presence which would be harder to perceive perhaps, but which Mary was really called to commit herself to. It is a more risky presence, less comforting for some maybe, and certainly less comfortable, but it is part of the real Eucharistic spirituality we are all called to embrace. Whether or not we are allowed to reserve Eucharist in our own living spaces it will be a symbol of this more extensive and even harder-to-perceive reality --- the ascended Christ present in every moment and mood of ordinary reality. If you are ever to truly discern a vocation to be a hermit, much less a consecrated solitary hermit, you are going to have to open yourself to this presence just as Mary Magdalene was required to do. More, you are going to need to commit to allowing it to become more and more pervasive in our world. That is part of committing yourself to the coming Reign of God among us and part of every disciple's call and commission --- but it is particularly so for those called to ecclesial vocations and consecrated life.

In other words, before you can say you have truly discerned a vocation to be a diocesan hermit you are going to need to discern a vocation to love God wherever God is in your solitude, wherever he desires to be present to you and to all that is precious to him, not only in Eucharistic reservation. Similarly, you are going to need to discover and be able to articulate the charism of the eremitical vocation which is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the WHOLE People of God --- not merely to you or for the purposes of your own private devotion. Beyond this your diocese will need to mutually discern this vocation with you and admit you to profession/consecration; otherwise you simply cannot consider yourself truly called to this vocation. You asked what is the point of being consecrated without also being given permission for reservation of the Eucharist, and as it stands, it seems very clear that for you there is no point. Unless and until you really discover and are prepared to embrace the purpose, mission, and gift (charism) of a life of eremitical solitude lived for others I think you are correct that you ought not pursue this path.  

19 August 2021

Reprise: On the Significance of the Lay Eremitical Vocation

Today as I celebrate the 54th anniversary of my baptism (I was 17 yo), I think it might be a good idea to reprise a piece I wrote in 2012 on the importance of the lay eremitical vocation. In part this was written in response to the wisdom and limitations of someone whose diocese  did not admit them to profession under c 603, and in part it was written to counter things others were writing which, if allowed to stand, would do away with lay eremitical vocations altogether. Today I look at where the journey begun with baptism has taken me. It is extraordinary and extraordinarily graced. I thank God for the experience that started me along this way and all the ways he has been faithful to me since then. Again, extraordinary is the word that fits best.

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have returned to thinking I am a lay hermit, and nothing more, and though God can work miracles in our lives and does marvelous things we could not foresee, at this moment I don't see anything so grandiose [as being admitted to profession as a canon 603 hermit] happening in my life. My life is marvelous in itself, and I try in all humility to bury myself in His will, not thinking anything of myself as being in the least special at all. 
I feel that God has consecrated me, but any consecration the Church would do would have to be as a consecrated lay man, and I still don’t see any provision in Canon Law for such a state; perhaps you can clarify what other options may exist of which I am unaware.]]

Hi there,
      By way of introduction and since you have read this blog for a while let me suggest you and newer visitors reread some of the pieces on the importance and nature of the lay vocation and the lay eremitical vocation. I don't want to repeat everything I have said in those but I feel a need to reiterate some of it as in a partial response. 

First though,  let me say that I understand the pain you feel at desiring eremitical consecration and the difficulties of waiting on a diocese to respond to your request. You are new at living eremitical life (just two years or less) with no background in religious life; it ordinarily takes much more time to discern this vocation, much less to be allowed to live it in the name of the church. I also went through the hassle of long waiting periods (23 years!), a sometimes unresponsive diocese, occasional fearful and controlling chancery personnel, lost files, mislaid correspondence, and so forth. It was not always easy and I almost found other ways to live my gifts from time to time, but in patient prayer and reflection I also came to see that lay eremitical life was an immensely valuable vocation and if that was what God was calling me to, then perhaps I was meant to learn to appreciate this more than I had come to already. Eventually, yes, I was consecrated under c 603, but the reflection I did on the lay eremitical vocation along with the reflection I do from my current position even now stands me in good stead.

I will take issue with some of what you said and applaud some other things. First, any sentences referring to being a lay hermit and using words like "just" or "only" or "nothing more" to describe this are dead wrong and may well indicate you have not yet come to completely see how truly wonderful is the vocation to be a lay hermit or the way in which your life can speak to those right around you and the Church as a whole. You ARE consecrated. That happened for you at Baptism. I think you need to consider that part of what you are feeling is the reality of your baptismal CONSECRATION. There is no need for a separate vocation to be a "consecrated lay person" since lay persons ARE, by definition, consecrated or they would not be part of the laos, the laity, or People of God. I strongly suggest that part of what God may be calling you to is a stronger, clearer sense of the dignity and significance of an eremitical vocation lived in the lay state.

It is true this is not the same as being called to the consecrated state of life, but because there is nothing higher or more sacred than baptism which makes of us a new creation and calls us to an exhaustive holiness, neither therefore can we say that the consecrated state of life is a higher calling nor that the lay state is some sort of merely entrance-level vocation. As I have said many times here, these two states of life are different in their canonical rights and obligations, but neither is higher than the other. The language of objective superiority which Aquinas used does NOT translate in this way and Aquinas seemed to assiduously avoid implications of vocational inferiority or a lower vocation. I would urge you to drop any qualifying language which diminishes the dignity of the lay state or the significance of lay eremitical life. Whether or not this stage of your life leads to diocesan eremitical life it is an infinitely significant vocation and the model you are currently given to live out for all those persons living around you, many of whom are isolated elderly or chronically ill, etc, and need to be reassured of the significant value of their lives.

One of the most important pieces of theology Vatican II fostered was on the dignity of the lay vocation and the universal call to holiness. One of the challenges the Church still must accomplish is a move to implement this dimension of the Second Vatican Council consistently, completely. Ironically, that achievement falls MAINLY to lay persons to claim and make real! You can do this right now, without waiting for the Church to admit you to profession under canon 603. You write: [[Nor can I really speak with any authority, never having been a novice, professed monk, or anything more than just a layman. I do not want to be an "outlaw" or rebel of any kind, but the existence of people like myself means God is anything but done with moving among men to bring redemption to them by any means possible.]]

But the truth is while you do not have the training provided by religious life you do have authority. You are a baptized lay person living (and learning to live) an eremitical life and coming more and more to understand what doing so means for those living in the world you inhabit all the time. You can speak to THIS vocation and this world with a particular authority and credibility I might myself have relinquished in accepting canonical standing. What I mean by this is that my own life is separated from those around me, not merely by eremitical life, but by my canonical standing. While I am very keen on witnessing to isolated elderly, chronically ill persons who are isolated by their illness, and others who may discover that eremitical life could redeem their isolation, In the past few years I have come to realize that lay hermits might well be able to speak with greater credibility to these people than someone with different standing in canon law. I suspect this may be a special charism which lay hermits have especially; that is, I think this may be a gift of the Holy Spirit which lay hermits bring to both the Church and the world in ways canonical hermits may not be as effective in bringing.

But doing this means taking the fact and dignity of one's baptismal consecration with complete seriousness. Of course God is not done bringing people to redemption in Christ by any means possible; you are absolutely correct in this, but the primary, essential, or foundational way God does this is through baptism. Bringing the charism mentioned above  to the Church and world also means reflecting on the place eremitical solitude occupies in your own life. When you can speak clearly to yourself about what these mean you will come to appreciate what they mean or could mean in the lives of others around you. You could begin blogging about this perhaps, or finding ways at your own parish to speak about it. You have begun this process already. In what you wrote above you said, [[My life is marvelous in itself, and I try in all humility to bury myself in His will, not thinking anything of myself as being in the least special at all.]] I applaud the first part of this sentence  --- for your life is indeed marvelous in itself. But you are entirely special and so is your call. All of us, by virtue of our birth and then again by virtue of our baptism and rebirth in Christ are infinitely significant and ultimately special. Genuine humility actually recognizes this and genuine spirituality is a grateful response to it. 

I ask that you try to imagine how many people who were once catechized and inculturated to believe that vocations to the lay state were second or third class vocations and yearn to really serve God in a "special" way would welcome hearing from a lay hermit that they simply have to recognize the truth of their lives as they stand right now! During this year of Faith where we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II and renew our commitments to its achievements this could be quite a gift for you to bring to the Church and world in your own unique way! In fact, in a Church where we once again have a growing clericalism and similar forms of hardening elitism it may be a critical mission God has given you. At this point in time you are a lay hermit and nothing less!! It is a crucial vocation. Whatever the future holds for you in regard to canon 603, the only thing which can diminish this lay eremitical vocation is appreciating it inadequately and living it badly. I urge you to embrace it as an infinitely significant vocation and really make it your own.

18 August 2021

Pope Francis and Bishops on Vaccination: An Act of Love


This public service announcement is important enough to get Pope Francis speaking out. In some areas bishops have obscured the church's teaching on religious freedom and primacy of conscience to allow for some to adopt an individualistic approach to the need for vaccinations and wearing masks. It could not be said any clearer here though; we do not get vaccinations for ourselves alone; we do it for one another because we are part of a human family and the virus threatens us all. We are not free to reject the law of love.

14 August 2021

Followup Question: Jesus' Call to Live God's Love Exhaustively

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I have never heard Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane described in terms of discernment before. I thought Jesus went to his Father in prayer to see if his Father could take the cup away. I also never heard anyone suggest that the cup Jesus accepts is the cup of integrity. Isn't it the cup of suffering? Doesn't God's refusal to take away the cup from Jesus mean he wills Jesus' death and torture? I don't see how you can argue God does not will Jesus' torture, suffering and death.]] 

Thanks for reading the posts which are behind your questions (cf Violence at the Heart of Christianity). I appreciate it. Thanks also for the chance to clarify what I am and am not saying and why. I definitely appreciate that as well. First of all I am reading the scenes in Gethsemane in the synoptics, not in John because John uses a different approach. The three scenes in the synoptics are essentially the same with Luke adding the vivid detail of the agonia with blood-like sweat pouring from Jesus. This detail adds to the depth of my conclusion that Jesus was discerning with and before God the very nature of his next vocational step and, as part of that process of discernment, readying himself to embrace it wholeheartedly.

Discernment, an Ongoing Process in Living One's Vocation:

What I have suggested thus far is that Jesus's ministry was a way of confronting all of the powers and principalities at work in the world. It was a way of embodying God's reign and bringing that into confrontation with the various powers and manifestations of evil of this world/kingdom (i.e., sin, illness, death, oppression, meaninglessness, etc). As Jesus continues his ministry of the Kingdom of God/Heaven, the intensity of his confrontations grows as does the threat to him these represent. In some stories of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem one gets the impression that Jesus evades the threat temporarily and moves from safe house to safe house as the lights of previous safe houses wink out and the darkness and threat closing in on Jesus grows. In spite of all of this Jesus continues to live and minister in integrity, that is he "speaks truth to power" in, with, and through his authentic humanity and exhaustive transparency to and mediation of God. Throughout we are told that time and again Jesus goes apart to pray to his Abba and then continues forward as he discerns he must (we read, for instance in Lk 4:42-43, "I must preach. . .to the other cities too. . .for it was for this purpose too that I was sent. . ." as Jesus comes from prayer).

I think it would be a terrible mistake to treat Jesus' prayer throughout the gospels as though it is only a way of recharging his spiritual or personal batteries, so to speak. Jesus' prayer to his Abba is always about laying his entire humanity before God and finding the will of God in continuing on his path to reveal (make known but also to make real in space and time) the very sovereignty of that creator God. Jesus' relationship with God develops and deepens over time. His embodiment of the Word of God becomes more definitive and exhaustive. (Luke says, "he grew in grace and stature"). At every point Jesus must discern what is the best way to carry on his specific vocation and ministry. Will it be in healing, exorcisms, teaching, preaching, contending with religious authorities, calling disciples, weakness, submission, rebellion (as with some Jewish activists), silence, or even in subjection to and death from the very powers and principalities he confronts? Remember, Jesus' ministry is to proclaim (i.e., embody and bring) the Kingdom of God to and in the face of the world's darkness and idolatry, not to simply be a wonderworker, healer, preacher, teacher, exorcist, etc. Discernment is an ongoing process which reaches its climax in Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane.

In Luke's gospel we have the detail of the agonia in the garden. Remember that agonia (or agony as we translate it) did not mean a period of terrible physical (or mental) suffering. It was a word used by athletes for all that was involved in their immediate preparation for a contest or race. They would warm up their muscles, minds, and hearts so they were at their peak of readiness when the contest began. I can imagine athletes running through an assessment of who they really are and all the reasons they are participating in such a contest as part of this agonia. In John's gospel, instead of the Gethsemane scene in the Synoptics, we see Jesus doing this in a long period of prayer where he recalls all that he has done for others, who he is, who others are and what keeps them in bondage or exile, what he is about in terms of God's reign and opposing the powers of this world. This has the flavor of teaching and proclamation, but it is also the kind of discernment moment where we affirm with God just who we are and what our vocation is as we listen to God and prepare for something which will really test us and our call.

A Cup of Integrity which involves Suffering:

Jesus is committed to God's purposes and has lived his life walking this specific path. At this point the path takes him directly into the very maw of the powers of sin and death, the heart of "the world" he acts to transform by making God present there. Jesus speaks truth to power; it is the truth of authentic humanity and the Creator God spoken (made present, addressing) the untruth (sin, evil, distortions) of this world. At every moment and mood of his life Jesus has acted with integrity in the face of opposition and lack of understanding, whether with parents and family, teachers and elders in the Temple or synagogue, the crowds, his disciples, Satan, God, the powers of the Roman Empire, Pilate, Herod, et al). He has come to know and prepared for the entirety of his life to affirm and reveal the Kingdom (Reign) of God in a definitive way. When he prays he also discerns and that is especially true in Gethsemane. 

We can hear his implicit questions to his Abba: "How will my failure and crucifixion reveal your reign?" "The disciples are not ready yet, won't my death destroy the reform movement just coming together around me?" "How does allowing the powers that be to destroy me reveal your power and infinite love?" "If you can show me a better way, please Abba, I beg that you do this; I can't see how this is the best way forward!" And yes, we can hear his fear as well, "Dying such a death? It is unthinkable in its torture and its shame." "My Mother will have to watch, no matter what I tell her." "Will I be up to this? Am I strong enough?" Then, his final affirmation --- the piece of his prayer evangelists share, "But of course, your will be done in me as I have always allowed it to have been done until now; let me live these  kenotic (self-emptying) events with fidelity, with integrity!!" As I "hear" Jesus' prayer in this scene especially, it is a struggle to discern and then accede once again, but now far more profoundly, to the will of God.

The Divine Will: Embracing a Life of Love even in the Face of Godless Death:

One of the images I use sometimes to illustrate the distinction between what God does and does not will with regard to the cross of Christ is that of the Peace Corps. We send young persons to other countries, sometimes where there can be significant danger, in order to demonstrate the truth and vision of the United States of America. No one in the Peace Corps wills the death of these young persons; what is willed is that they live their lives for these others in a fully integral way with all the integrity and fidelity they can bring to the task. What is willed by those who commission them is life, not death. And yet sometimes Peace Corps volunteers are lost/killed in the process of carrying out their mission. Sometimes it is due to accidents, or natural disaster; sometimes, however, it is due to the hostility and belligerence of people in the country. 

A similar example might be members of the armed forces. When these young persons are sent out "in harm's way" they are sent to live (and fight as needed) for the mission. They may be engaged in building schools, hospitals, communications networks and infrastructure; they will fight to protect the innocent, to secure a government, and so forth. But what is willed is not their death. Giving their lives for others may be entailed in living their lives for others, but what superiors will is not their deaths (and especially not by horrific means) but that they live their commitments with fidelity and integrity wherever they find themselves!

What God wills of Jesus is that he live from and for the Love of God. God wills Jesus to be a man for others, one who reveals the depths and breadth of God's own love for himself and these others, and to do so exhaustively. While this love is rejected even by some of Jesus' own disciples and family, Jesus continues to offer it even as he is tortured, betrayed, and executed.  It is important to distinguish what human beings will for and do to Jesus and what God wills for him.  we teach that God wills that Jesus love us and his God to the farthest reaches of human life --- wherever that love takes him, and whatever openness and attentiveness (obedience) that requires; what I do not believe that God wills Jesus' death by torture or his abandonment and betrayal by anyone including Godself.

The cup that God does not remove is the cup of living and loving exhaustively with complete integrity (as God loves!) even to the greatest depths and breadth of their very rejection. This is where the vocation to authentic humanity is most difficult; it is where the call to openness, attentiveness, and self-gift to and for the other is most easily compromised and mitigation most easily justified. And Jesus knows this very well. It is what inspires his prayer in Gethsemane: Is the abject inhumanity and shamefulness of Jesus' fate really the best way to make human integrity and dignity in a sovereign God most manifest? Is there a better way to reveal the God who is exhaustive and unconditional love-in-act --- a better way to allow Love-in-act to penetrate and transform reality even to the depths of inhumanity and godlessness?  

I believe this (along with all the related questions mentioned above) is what filled Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane. I believe this is what Jesus was discerning. It is certainly the question answered by Jesus' passion. God willed Jesus live God's love exhaustively, wherever that love for God and God's own took him. God willed he live his life and vocation with an uncompromised, unceasing openness and integrity. And that is precisely what Jesus did. The resurrection is the story of what God (the one Jesus called, Abba) willed and was able to do with and because of Jesus' own faithfulness and integrity.

08 August 2021

Learning to See With New Eyes: Thinking About the Transfiguration

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

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. In part it depends upon our expectations. In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams wearing either white or black shirts, each team was given a basketball and instructed to continually pass the ball to their respective teammates. Observers were asked to concentrate on and count the number of passes made by the white-shirted team as players wove in and out around one another passing in whatever way they could. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through the scene; she pauses, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest a few times, and moves on. 

At the end of the experiment observers were asked: 1) how many passes did you count? Then, the experimenters asked, "Did you see the gorilla?" Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla though most everyone got the number of passes correct. Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.  Yet more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth, we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of our limited and erroneous perceptions rather than correct our mistaken conclusions

When Jesus teaches, he does so in parables --- his own unique form of story-telling that helps break us open and frees us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that instead we might perceive and commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout his parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God of surprises who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment evidenced in the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

Taking Offense at Jesus:

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard two Fridays ago. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the usual significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority Jesus possessed which they could not deny, they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they took Jesus for granted and decided they saw only the son of Mary, the son of Joseph; he was, quite literally, a stumbling block to them. Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and to the God he revealed. For Jesus' neighbors and family assuming they really knew him, taking him for granted was a form of unbelief, the opposite of faith and the way they rejected truth. Similarly, neither could Jesus' disciples really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refused to accept this.

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

Learning to See With New Eyes:

I watched a video today of a man who was given Enchroma glasses --- a form of sunglasses that allows colorblind persons to see color, often for the first time in their lives. By screening out certain wavelengths of light, someone who has seen the world in shades of brown their whole lives are finally able to see things they have never seen before; browns are transformed into yellows and reds and purples and suddenly trees look truly green and three-dimensional or the colorful fruit of these trees no longer simply blend into the same-color background. The man was overwhelmed and overcome by what he had been missing; he could not speak, did not really know what to do with his hands, was "reduced" to tears and eventually expressed it all as he hugged his wife in love and gratitude. Meanwhile, family members were struck with just how much they themselves may have taken for granted as everyday they moved through their own world of "ordinary" color and texture. The entire situation involved a Transfiguration almost as momentous as the one the disciples experienced in today's Gospel.

For most of us, such an event would overwhelm us with awe and gratitude as well. But not Peter --- at least it does not seem so to me! Instead he outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right then and there. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto and even control amazing prayer experiences --- immediately making them the basis for some ministerial project or other; unfortunately, in doing so, they, in acting too quickly and even precipitously, fail to appreciate these experiences fully or learn to live from them! Peter is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to similarly build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus in a way which is consistent with his tradition --- while neglecting the qualitative newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed and needs to be processed in personal conversion. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has missed the point. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!!!"

Like Peter, and like the colorblind man who needed to wear the glasses consistently enough to allow his brain to really begin to process colors in a new way, we must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must see the sacred which is present and incarnated in ordinary reality. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through every believer and the whole of creation. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true no matter who we are or what our usual station in life. Genuine obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. 

There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling or unable we often are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God of newness (kainetes) standing there right in the middle of our reality.

07 August 2021

Feast of the Transfiguration (revised)

I am thinking about transfiguration and what the story of Jesus' transfiguration tells us. The story I have posted many times here regarding Jesus' transfiguration involves the main point that we don't see what is right in front of us; we see what we expect or are conditioned to see. Especially we don't always see the dignity of every human person or the profound potential which resides at their core. We sometimes speak of the human person as imago dei and we may recognize the vocation each one has to become imago Christi, but my sense is that most times folks don't quite know what to do with these references. How seriously are we meant to take them? Are they just a form of poetry or do they say something about the literal truth about our nature?

During some seasons and time in our calendar our focus tends to be more on the penitential, on our own sinfulness or "falling short" of the great potential and call that does exist at the core of our being than it is on that potential itself. We locate God outside of ourselves as judge, but can neglect the truth which the human heart reveals, namely that the human heart is the privileged place where God bears witness to Godself, and that the source and center of human life is divinity itself. While we attend to a need to do penance, to pray more regularly, and to develop the generosity of those who are loved unconditionally by God, we must not neglect the underlying conviction of all seasons, namely, we do these things because the person we are most truly shines like the sun and mediates the life and light of God to our world. Authentic penance is not merely about tidying up our moral lives or cleaning up the minor deficiencies or failings which mark and mar those lives; it is about getting in better touch with the incredible potential we carry within us and are called to embody exhaustively for God's sake and the sake of his entire creation.

To be a human being is to be the image of God. To be authentically human is to become imago Christi --- not as some pale reminder of a distant historical figure we admire a bit (or even love a lot), but as those who allow him to become the very shape and quality of the way we think and feel, approach and act towards our God, ourselves, and others. When the original disciples looked at Jesus they saw the Kingdom of God alive in our world; in him they saw human freedom as the counterpart of divine sovereignty and divine power made perfect (fully realized) in weakness. When we look at one another we should see the very same things. In Christ we see God, in ourselves we should see Christ. Transfiguration is at the heart of our faith, not only because conversion from sin is necessary, but because our deepest, truest selves yearn to shine through and remake us from our hearts outward. Transfiguration reveals what is truest, deepest, and lives right in front of us in every person and in ourselves all the time; it is a synonym for the conversion and reconciliation (the healing) of ourselves so that the divinity we know as "Love-in-Act," shines through and illuminates the whole. That is the essence of authentic humanity.

29 July 2021

Hermits Without formation? (Reprise)

[[Dear Sister Laurel, another poster mentioned that maybe Jesus is calling hermits without formation. Isn't it kind of outrageous to demand a significant degree of formation for the freest [most free] vocation known? Aren't you asking for more than Jesus asks?]]

In a word, no; I don't think so. We are each called to discipleship, to sell what we "have" (or what "has us"!), to prioritize every relationship and to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. This is true whether we are called to be hermits, cenobites, priests, married, single, or whatever. We are called to live from and for the Gospel, to inculcate the values of the Kingdom, to embrace the radically counter cultural and reject individualism, commercialism, and every other false "god" or ideology our society (and our hearts) have created. We are each called to become men and women of prayer, penance, compassion, and service to others. We are called to become profoundly human; that is, we are called to become persons who are wholly transparent to the glory (revelation) of God --- persons who allow God to love us exhaustively and express our gratitude and joy for this as fully as possible in our love for others. None of this is a matter simply of catechesis or book learning.

For the disciples this becoming occurred in encounters with and in the company of Jesus --- as it must do for us as well. The Christ we meet, however, comes to us in all the ways he has come to hermits throughout the centuries: in the sacraments, in lectio, in contemplative and liturgical prayer, in solitary intellectual and manual work, in solitary leisure and in the personal work these and spiritual direction occasion. Our estrangement from God, self, and others means that none of this is "natural" for us;  none of this is achieved without formation.

Freedom and License are antithetical realities:

Freedom is not the same thing as license. One of the most serious errors I hear people making today is equating these two things when they are really opposites in most ways. While it is true that eremitical freedom is one of the most remarked on qualities of the life, this has always meant the freedom to respond to God as God wills. It has never referred to the notion of doing whatever one likes whenever one likes to do it. I have written here a number of times that authentic freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. That is, freedom is a capacity to hear and respond fully and appropriately to the will and voice of God in our lives. But developing this capacity obviously takes formation. It requires self-discipline, clarity about who we are and who God is (especially on the basis of the Jesus' revelation of him and the Gospel),  and it requires real time and leisure for listening to God's Word as well as the capacity to commit to this in all the ways it is mediated to us in the eremitical life. Again this all requires and presupposes formation.

You see, most people who write me about eremitical life are clear that they would like to listen to God's voice more wholeheartedly but only in terms of the life they are already living --- they are open to "tweaking" it a little here or there. Only one or two have been clear that eremitical life really requires changing one's life in all the truly radical ways necessary so that God's Word or Voice is mediated to them constantly, especially in and for the silence of solitude. (Remember that the silence of solitude is not only the environment in which this is achieved, but the means and goal of the hermit's life as well.) The symbol of this is the giving over of one's own home to eremitical life (not to eremitical life-lite much less to some form of pious individualism). This idea of giving our very residences over to God in this way so that everything we do or have becomes a piece of the life of the silence of solitude, so that everything is drawn into God's mediatory activity and is capable of revealing God to us, so that everything becomes Eucharistic requires periods of transition. More, it requires that one comes over time to understand the choice that involved when one proposed to become a hermit; additionally it requires the time and training necessary to be made ready to make such a choice, and then, of course, the ability to really do so.

St Peter Damian and the Hermit as Ecclesiola:

I have written here before about the linkage between Peter Damian's notion of the hermit as an "ecclesiola" --- a litte church --- and the homily my Bishop (Archbishop Vigneron) gave at my perpetual profession. It was there that I first heard the  reference to giving over one's entire house. Partly because it had been some time since I could simply "take the train home from work" and leave all that "behind me" and partly because I no longer thought of my own place as an "apartment", it took some time for me to fully appreciate the depth of Bp Vigneron's insight here. What I mean is I could not hear at that moment how striking and radical this image for the commitment I was making actually was. I have also written about the change that must come about for a beginner in this life --- namely, that they must transition from being a lone person to being a hermit in some essential way. In such a context, the idea of giving over one's entire home  assumes a very striking and challenging import.

You may have seen comments, for instance, by a person who was trying to "balance hermit things with worldly things" I noted several years ago. I have heard this difficulty more than once and dealt with it myself. It indicates to me that the person had not yet made the transition from being a lone person living in an apartment (for instance), to being a hermit who lives in a hermitage in some truly essential sense. Signs that one has made such a transition include: 1) a radical break with one's former life (if one does some of the same things one now does them from a radically different perspective and in a different way), 2) a movement from living in solitude because it is required by circumstances to living in solitude because it is truly one's own way to wholeness and holiness (the circumstances may not change but they are now a subtext rather than the defining reality of one's life), 3) a transition from concern with whether or not this latter element (chronic illness, for instance) has merely forced one into solitariness and is an inadequate reason for embracing eremitical life, to living it because it is also, and more importantly, a gift to others which glorifies (reveals) God most fully through one's own life. The hermit may certainly be concerned with her own wholeness and holiness (discernment of a vocation presupposes this vocation leads to these for the individual!), but at some point she must become more focused on the charism which this life is to the Church and World. This transition and the other elements as well all represent a transition from selfishness or a more individualistic focus to a truly ecclesial life. Similarly, they all require formation.

Freedom and Selflessness are Inseparable:

Finally, there is no true freedom unless there is also true selflessness. Freedom and generosity go hand in hand. A life lived for others is a truly free life. A life lived from and for the Love of God is one of authentic freedom. A life of mere license and self-indulgence (including self-indulgence that takes apparently pious forms, as for instance did the person's who spoke of using canon 603 as a means of reserving the Eucharist in her own place and found consecration pointless otherwise).  Jesus always demands a great deal from his disciples. Yes, he is clear that his yoke is easy and his burden light --- and indeed they are --- but at the same time, making the transition from hanger-on to true disciple requires formation. It requires a radical break with one's former life. In a world where silence is rarely heard and solitude has been exchanged for some kind of mere isolation and/or individualism,  Jesus' call to those who would be hermits, and certainly a call to be diocesan hermits who represent the vocation publicly or "in the name of the church", cannot be answered without formation.