27 December 2007

The vocation to Chronic Illness,

I received some questions about the notion of "chronic illness as vocation", and I am aware that there have been a number of visits to the article here in the blog about Eremitism as a vocation for the chronically ill and disabled. While I will write those who emailed me with questions, I thought I should also write a bit more about this idea here, not only because the Review For Religious article on Eremitism which was reprised here was a relatively brief introduction to the idea, but also because as positively provocative as the phrase "vocation to chronic illness" is, it is also easily misunderstood.

What a Vocation to Chronic Illness is NOT

First, therefore, let me say something about what a "vocation to chronic illness" does NOT mean!! In no way do I mean to suggest that God wills our suffering, much less that he calls us to this, especially in the forms of chronic illness or disability! We need to make sense of suffering, and we need to take seriously the sovereignty of God, but we cannot take these two pieces of the human puzzle, facilely slide them together as though they are related as effect and cause, and conclude that God wills suffering. In fact, I don't think we can speak of the suffering human beings endure as positively willed by God in any way, shape, or form with the single exception of Christ's own exhaustive participation in our human condition. (The permissive will of God is another matter, and, except for agreeing that it is real, I am not addressing that here.)

Our Essential Vocation: Authentic Humanity

The conjunction of human and divine often strikes us as paradoxical: expressions of brokenness, sin, alienation, weakness, hatred, untruth and distortion stand in conjunction with wholeness, goodness, unity, power (authority), love, truth and beauty themselves. But, to be less abstract, the human-divine equation, the community or dialogical event we are each called to be often looks to be composed of incredible contradictions: our sinfulness becomes the place where God's mercy/justice is exercised most fully; our weakness and brokenness the place where God's own strength and wholeness (holiness) is most clearly revealed; our fundamental untruth and distortion the place where God's own truth verifies and hallows us, authoring us in Christ as his own parables to speak the Gospel to a hungry world.

There are few images of human sinfulness and brokenness so vivid as that of illness, and especially of chronic illness or disability. It is not the case that the ill person is a worse sinner than others who are well or relatively well. Neither is it the case that illness is the punishment for sin, especially personal sin. Still, it IS the case that the chronically ill bear in their own bodies the brokenness, estrangement from God, and alienation from the ground of all wholeness, holiness, and truth which are symptoms of the condition of human sinfulness. What is expressed in our bodies, minds, and souls, is the visible reminder of the universal human condition. Chronic illness itself then, is symbolic of one side of the truth of human existence, namely, that we exist estranged from ourselves, from others, and from our God. We are alienated from that which grounds us, establishes us as a unity, and marks us as infinitely precious and our lives as richly meaningful and fecund. We live our lives in contradiction to what we are TRULY called to be.

We sense this instinctively, and this is the reason, I believe, personal sin has so often been associated with illness as its punishment (rather than simply as consequence or symptom). We know that this state (estrangement symbolized by illness) is not as things SHOULD be, not as we are meant to exist, not appropriate to persons gifted in their capacity for dreaming and effecting those dreams beyond anything else known in creation. Chronic illness, in particular, is an expression of what SHOULD NOT BE. It is a metaphor for the reality of (the state of) sin; of itself it is paradigmatic of ONE PART of the human condition, that of brokenness, alienation, and degradation. Of course, there is another part, another side to things for the Christian especially, and it is this which transforms chronic illness into a context for the visible and vivid victory of God's love in our lives.

The Image of sinfulness transformed

Authentic humanity is modeled for us and mediated to us by Christ. And above all it is a picture of a life which implicates God in every moment and mood of this existence. More, it is a life which is an expression of the deep victories and individual healing and unity God's grace occasions when it is allowed to reign. Whether to the heights of union with God, or the depths of godless sin and death, Christ's life is an expression of that openness and responsiveness to God which constitutes truly human being, and the supreme example of what it means for God's creative sovereignty to triumph over human sinfulness. Paul expresses the paradox in this way: "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." Jesus' entire life is an expression of the response to the vocation to allow this truth to be realized in human history in a way which makes it a possibility for all of us. It is an image of the unseen (and sometimes unfelt) God whose presence transforms human sinfulness into abundant and eternal life and wholeness. It is, in brief, what we ourselves are called to, and to what those with chronic illness and disability in particular can make manifest with a unique vividness and poignancy.

During the Christmas season, there is another figure who particularly captures our attention in her own capacity to embody the paradox which Paul affirms. Mary, in her own way, is an exemplar of the dynamic of God's power which is made perfect in conjunction with human weakness and even barrenness. The result is a fruitfulness beyond all imagining, a truly miraculous and awesome humanity, which, precisely in its lowliness can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, spill over with the majesty of God's own life in our world. This too is what we ourselves are called to, and what those with chronic illness and disability can especially reveal with special poignancy and vividness.

What a Vocation to Chronic Illness Actually IS:

First of all then, a vocation to chronic illness is a call by God to live an authentically human life. It is a vocation to ESSENTIAL wellness and wholeness. This will mean it is a human life which mirrors Jesus' own, as well as that of Mary, and the other Saints, in allowing God to be God-with-us (Emmanuel). Concretely this means living a life which manifests the fact of God's love for us, and the intrinsic inestimable worth of such a life despite the ever-present values of a world which defines worth (and happiness!) in terms of productivity, earning power, wealth, health, and superficial beauty.

Afterall, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that there is NOTHING we can do to earn God's love, and nothing we NEED DO! God loves us with an everlasting love, and he does so, as Ezekiel tells us,for the sake of his own self, for the sake of his own "holy Name". It is further, therefore, the very good news that with God being for us nothing and no one can prevail against us. God has entered into our human estate, and done so definitively. Objectively there is no dark corner, no place at all from whence God is absent --- for Jesus has implicated God even into the realms of sin and sinful or godless death. In fact, these become the privileged places which reveal God's face to us, the places where he is definitively present. I personally believe we have to say the same, therefore, of illness, which is ordinarily so clearly a metaphor for human brokenness, alienation, and godlessness. For the Christian, chronic illness in particular can become a metaphor for the triumph of God's love in the face of such brokenness. It can become a sacrament of God's presence in a world which needs such sacraments so very badly.

The vocation to chronic illness or disability is, like all Christian vocations, a call not to remain alone and self-sufficient, but instead to rest securely in God and in the esteem in which he holds us so surely. Like all Christian vocations it is a call to holiness, that is to ESSENTIAL WHOLENESS and perfection in and of God's own power, God's own "Godness". This requires we accept an entirely different set of values by which we live our lives from those put forward so often by our consumer-driven, production-defined world. It is a call to find meaning in a life lived simply with and for God, and to carry our convictions about this to a world which is so frantically in search of such meaning.

And, it means to learn to accept the suffering that comes our way as best we can so that He may "make up what was lacking" in the sufferings of Christ and one day be all in all. (Let me be clear that in no way is Paul suggesting Jesus' death was inadequate or did not definitively implicate God into the world of sinful godlessness; however, Paul is also clear that God's victory is not yet total; God is not yet all-in-all. Each of us has a part to play in the extension of Jesus' victory into the concrete and very personal parts of our own stories where God ALSO wills to be triumphant. While Jesus's victory makes God present here in principle, because these realms are personal, we must also allow him in to them. Evenso, we do so IN CHRIST, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, so this victory is an extension of Christ's, not our own in some falsely autonomous sense.)

Christians, above all, do not suffer alone, nor are they ultimately dehumanized by their suffering. On the contrary, suffering, as awful as it still can be, has now the capacity to humanize. This is not because of some power suffering has of itself. Rather, it is because suffering opens us to rely on someone larger and more powerful than ourselves, and to allow meaning to come to us as gift rather than achievement. It can open us in particular ways to the power and presence of God because it truly strips us bare of all pretensions and false sense of self. At the same time then, suffering can humanize because ours is a God who ultimately brings good out of evil, life out of death and barrenness, and meaning out of meaninglessness. This is, afterall, the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. If those with chronic ilness can live up to their calls to allow these simple truths to be realized in their own lives, and become clear to others, they will, in large part, have accepted and fulfilled their vocations.

25 December 2007

Christmas, 2007, Merry Christmas from Stillsong Hermitage!!

"Brothers and Sisters: In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; In these last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe." (Heb 1:1-2), Reading for Lauds, Christmas Day

"Here is the message we heard from him and pass on to you: that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. . . . Moreover, we have seen for ourselves, and we attest, that the Father sent the Son to be the savior of the world,

and if a person acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him/her and s/he dwells in God. Thus we have come to know and believe the love which God has for us." 1 John 1:5, 4:14-16.

23 December 2007

Sunday, Advent Week 4

"It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes: we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the Word of Life. This life was made visible; we have seen it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And we write this in order that the joy of us all may be complete." (1 Jn 1-4)

In memoriam: Anabelle Farrell, St Perpetua's Parish. Died December 23, 2007. For Anabelle, the real Feast of Light for which we all yearn has begun; her joy is complete, while we grieve her loss. Pray for us Anabelle!!

21 December 2007

Emmanuel, Naming the Communion Which is the Human Heart

How many of us are completely convinced of our need for God? For how many of us is he an occasional visitor we may or may not make time for, but not really someone essential to our own humanity? We are human, we think, without him --- not AS human or enriched as we might be otherwise, but human all the same. We are "just" or "merely" human without him, we think --- poor perhaps, and beset by this sin or that maybe, but still human all the same.

But no! The truth at the heart of our faith is otherwise; the truth which undergirds our prayer, worship, hope, and destiny is otherwise. The option before us is not to be religious people or non-religious people. It is not a choice between a merely richer or more impoverished existence, both equally human. The option before us is really to be human or not, to embrace the truth at the heart of ourselves and to be the responsive word event we are called to be, or to reject this truth, and our deepest selves as well. Mary's response to this call was "FIAT!" and it is the response, the ongoing hearkening which God seeks from us as well.

The image of God coming to us from outside us is a true one. Christmas is indeed a celebration of this kind of coming. But Christmas is also the fulfillment of a young woman's hearkening to the Word spoken deep within her, uniquely spoken within her, yes, but spoken within her just as it is spoken within each of us as well. The nativity of the One who would definitively incarnate God's logos is what we will celebrate at Christmas, but this event is rooted in the altogether human "yes" to God's proposal to wed his destiny to ours; it is a yes which is expected from each of us, and which was uniquely accomplished in Mary's own heart. It is the yes we are meant to be, and which our hearts are meant to sing at each moment and mood of our lives, the yes which will allow God's merciful love to transform the barrenness and poverty of our existence into fruifulness and new life.

The image of the human heart as a communal reality has been very rich for me this Advent, and I cannot let it go at this point (this blog has taken on the shape of a theme and variations, I know). The sense that I am not human alone is a freshly startling insight for me. It is not simply that I need others, nor even that my being embraces others as threads in the weaving which is my life. These things are true enough, and I can recall the times I came to understand these things, and the theological quandries they resolved. The truth goes deeper, is more profound, however: I am myself ONLY INSOFAR as I am a communion with God (and with others in and through him).

Communion with God is not simply something I am made for in the future --- as though I have the capacity for this relationship, but could, if I chose, forego it and still be myself. Communion with God is the NATURE OF my ESSENTIAL being. I AM --- insofar as I am truly human --- communion with God. My truest I is a "we".(Remember e e cumming's poem, we're wonderful 1X1? cf post for October 26, 2007 to reread this poem) To the extent God and I are a we, I am truly myself. This is true for each of us, no matter our vocation or state of life. For us, the choice is between a false autonomy which is really inhuman, and (as Paul Tillich would put the matter) a theonomy which constitutes us as truly human. Unless this exists, and to the extent there is no communion with God, there is no "I" --- not in the truest sense of that pronoun.

The circumcision of our hearts, the making ready "the way of the Lord" is not only the making ready for Christmas. It is the preparation for our own continued nativities as well. With Mary, we learn to say "Fiat" to the God who would be God-with-us as part of our very being. Prayer is indeed not something only specialists or the really religious do; it is the essence of being human, the activity which allows the God who would REALLY join his destiny with our own to be the One he WOULD be, and to be the persons he makes US to be as well. Therefore, we pray for two reasons: 1) because we are MADE for it and would not be authentically human selves without it, and 2) because GOD needs us to do so if he is ALSO to be the One he wills to be. Once again, our's is a God who has chosen and determined not to remain alone; he has chosen and determined that his lfe and our own are to be intimately linked, inextricably wed, in a Communion of shared destiny.

God-with-us certainly refers to the infant in Mary's womb as we approach the baby's nativity, but it also very much refers to the Communion God desires be born in our own hearts. Emmanuel, God-with-us, is the name given the truly human heart. It is the name given to anyone who fulfills their truest destiny, by allowing God to be God for, with, and within us.

19 December 2007

Advent, week 3: Alfred Delp, sj

Are you a person
whose concerns are with God?
Are you a person of whom it can be said
that your heart and mind are filled
with a peace that supasses all comprehension?
Oh, that we could be such people again,
intrinsically filled to the brim ---
not only with the knowledge,
but with the personal, prayed-in,
and wrestled-in reality and abundance
of our Lord God!

Alfred Delp, sj
Third Sunday of Advent, 1944

Our parish hosted a visiting priest this last Sunday, and he spoke about Fr. Alfred Delp, also a Jesuit who was executed by the Nazi's for treason. Delp's writings from prison and some of his Advent meditations and homilies had been inspiring to this priest since he was a novice, and he recommended them to us. The above is taken from the book, Advent of the Heart, Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings 1941-1944. It was written just weeks before he was hanged. The book is terrific and I will add it to the list at the right. I may also post excerpts of one of his homilies for the third week of Advent.

15 December 2007

Week 3: Advent 2007

I have continued thinking about the human heart as a relational or dialogical reality. I have also been thinking about the clear contemplative sense that we are called to be taken up into the very life of the Trinity itself,that is, into the very heart of God, where deep (God within) calls to deep (God without), and our lives (as words of this one God) become ultimately and definitively contextualized, and so, ultimately significant, ultimately meaningful. With regard to the human heart, Advent speaks so clearly: we are to make ready this dwelling place of the Lord, for the One who will dwell in the relative barrenness of our lives, and make of them a flourishing garden, wills to live here in smallness and obscurity --- often unrecognized even by the one who's heart it is.

It is striking to me that Benedictine spirituality is so strong regarding hospitality. It is a nonnegotiable element of the Rule of St Benedict and of Benedictine spirituality --- even for hermits! And yet, it is all rooted in the centrality of the Incarnation to our faith, and to our very being as well. We recognize that our monasteries or hermitages are meant to be places of authentic hospitality, not merely of other people -- though of course this is true since others are Christ's presence and imago --- but of God himself, for our's is a God who wills to dwell amongst us. Of course we know that in our prayer we do indeed create (or allow the Spirit to create!) a climate or environment of hospitality where God may dwell, but before our monasteries or hermitages become places of authentic hospitality, our hearts must first be transformed into cells of attentive love where God is entirely at home.

In Advent, we look towards the beginning of the "definitive incarnation" of God among us. We focus on the fact that he comes to dwell with us and becomes embodied in human flesh, and we refer to the second coming, but do we look enough at our own lives, our own hearts as the PLACE where that second coming is realized? How often do we consider that our own hearts are the wombs where God will become(or will be prevented from becoming) newly incarnated in our world, and where in fact, we "make up for what is lacking" in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Afterall, these are the places, the events where God speaks himself and us/our names --- looking for the responses we will be as we allow him to be God-with-us. These are the mangers in which new nativities are birthed, the arenas in which new martyrdoms are born and acted out, new missions discerned and motivated, and the sovereignty of God transformed into the Kingdom of authentic freedom and peace which will eventually transform the whole world. It is our hearts that are the contexts for genuine Christmas, and in Advent we focus on their preparation, purification, healing and capacity for hospitality.

10 December 2007

The Subversion of our Life Stories: the Coming of the Kingdom.

In reflecting on the Lord's Prayer this Advent, I came to understand the Kingdom of God as an ongoing, but yet-to-be-realized event, and that, with the particular character of story. Still, it is not simply a story talked about or narrated to others (though this may also occur); it is a story enacted, a Word event enfleshed, the dabar or Logos of God incarnated in human history. The challenge for each of us I think, is to make this story our own --- or rather, to accept the place in it which God offers and calls us to accept. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths which define who we are and what is success and failure, piety and impiety, truth and untruth, poverty and enrichedness, etc, etc. The story which is God's Kingdom promises to subvert these other narratives and myths; conversion means embracing this process and accepting a place in this parable of God with its new perspectives, new way of seeing, understanding, valuing and loving, etc.

Human beings are storytelling and storylistening beings. We are "hardwired" for stories. It is part of the fabric of our very being. We belong to and long for story because story contextualizes our lives, and contextualization gives meaning to them, or better, allows them in one way and another to realize the meaningfulness they are capable of. It gives our lives a trajectory and aim to follow or accomplish, values to embody, a role or roles to act out. But this means that some stories serve us better than others. Some will distort us, or allow us to develop in only this way or that while ignoring other potentials for meaning we have. And, because we really are part of a larger story and MADE FOR story, it means also that we will naturally embrace or adopt some unworthy controlling myths and narratives unconsciously as well as consciously, and be relatively unaware of their role in defining us.

When Jesus told parables he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life. Parables, Jesus' parables that is, throw down two sets of values, two perspectives beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign. The resulting clash disorients us; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness in other narratives, summons us to choose which reality we will inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author us. Will (to whatever extent) we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural or religious narrative, or will (to whatever extent) we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt a different story as our own? Who will author us, the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes it?

In church each year we begin the narrative again. We recount God's own story in the Christ event beginning with the history preceding the nativity and culminating in it as the first chapter of the incarnation. A God who comes to us, to actually dwell with us in obscurity and littleness is a scandalous God, and yet, the story is not yet so threatening as it becomes at Lent. Still, we are invited to allow it to begin to shape us and our expectations of what is truly human and what is truly divine. We are invited to allow it to begin to subvert the stories by which we have made sense of our lives up until now. But this will mean spending some time identifying the non-Christian stories which are or have been operative in our lives up until this point.

And here we begin to see the purpose of Advent: to allow us time to do this kind of identifying, to locate the values we have embraced, the themes and characters which mark a successful life apart from Christ, the goals and purposes which have devoured our energies and claimed our love where something other than God was sovereign, the definitions of central human realities (e.g., justice, peace, success, failure, freedom, bondage, richness, poverty, strength, weakness, holiness, piety, godlessness, etc) which have captured our minds and hearts and which God's reign contradicts and redefines. God's Kingdom comes as a story we can accept or reject, trivialize and sentimentalize or respect and elaborate appropriately. It comes with sets of values we may find unpalatable and unpopular, and a protagonist we may find either scandalous or foolish depending upon whether we are conventionally religious or commonly wise or intelligent. It comes to us clothed in swaddling and proclaiming majesty in a manger. And it comes to us offering a context for our lives we cannot create for ourselves, a context which will make meaningful or senseless so much of who we already are and are called to become.

Personally, I will be spending the rest of this Advent trying to identify the elements of my story which still define me apart from Christ: the bits of script which recur from childhood even now, the values I have never fully let go of, the expectations which this culture both blatantly and insidiously inculcates on a daily basis and which I have allowed to shape my own mind and heart. To some extent the Kingdom of God IS my story; it has adopted me, and I have embraced it as well. But, like rereading a familiar and well-loved book, it can always be more completely appropriated and elements of alien controlling myths more completely relinquished. Make straight the paths of the Lord, we are told: let the valleys be raised, and the hills be made low. But the prophet might as well have said, "Listen! Examine your stories! Time to cut a few chapters, characters, themes, and restructure the plotline! Time to make this God's OWN story, not a tale he has a bit part in or no real ongoing role as author! Time to let him subvert the story you have been living and make a parable out of your life! Time to become aware of all those things which no longer (or never did) serve the REAL story! Time to enflesh the NAME God has called you by from all eternity. Time to be HIS story.

08 December 2007

Week 2, Advent 2007

It is true that the human heart is the "place where God bears witness to himself", and that therefore there is an ongoing dynamic and unremitting hallowing going on in the very core of our being. This profound reality seems a tremendous miracle and an awesome picture of what constitutes the human person. And yet, wondrous as it is, it is only a portion of the picture, a part of what constitutes us as human in regard to God, a portion of how it is we are related to the One who wills to dwell with us and to reconcile all things in and through himself. For it is not only true that God dwells within us, but it is also true that he exists outside of us, and in fact, is that ultimate reality within which we move and have our being.

Many images may be used to refer to this ultimate context of our lives, but the most intimate remain "womb", and "heart." We often have the image of a God who remains distant from us, remote and hard to reach or hear. In the sense that God is wholly other than we are, there is some truth in these images. And yet, what is also true is that God is the communion of being and love IN WHICH we are called to exist and out of which we are called to reach out to others. Whether we envision this reality as a womb, or a heart, or even a Word or story which we are allowed to enter and which calls us to rest securely within, ours is a God who in this way also has chosen not to remain alone.

When combined with the image of the Word or song of God dwelling actively within our own hearts, we have a really awesome portrait of human existence: we are made for divinity both within and without. God calls to us, and to Godself within us, from without; he summons us to greater and greater degrees of communion, greater and greater degrees of identification with himself. Word calls to Word; it seeks its own completion, reconciliation, or perfection in this way. And so too do we reach our own completion and perfection in this way. Just as an isolated word has no meaning without context, so too do our own lives remain senseless unless the Word spoken deep within our hearts, that Name by which God calls us to be, also comes to rest in the Word/Story which comes to us from outside. Augustine said it more simply: Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.

Advent is a time of preparation. We prepare our hearts, not only that God has a wider or more spacious place to dwell within them, but so that they may accept a place we are each offered in the infinite heart of God as well. We prepare our hearts so the Word God speaks within us will be able to be more perfectly attuned to the Word he speaks outside us. We prepare our hearts so that they may be more able to embrace their own place in the story which is God's Kingdom, their own seat at the Wedding banquet, their own role in the nativity of God-with-us in our world. In our own hearts the Word of God looks for an opening into our world; in our hearts God seeks a way to become personally present to his creation. But at the same time our hearts are summoned to rest in God's own heart, to allow deep to call to deep, and to be the everyday, day-in-and-day-out, kinds of mystics Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were. It is this double relationship to God's own Life that constitutes authentically human existence --- a kind of parabolic (parable-ish) existence which witnesses to and introduces others to the drama of communion we call Trinity --- and it is the birth of this kind of existence our continuing Advent preparations envision and facilitate.

03 December 2007

A New Year Begins: Week 1; Advent 2007

To everyone who visits these pages, I extend my sincerest wishes for a wonderful and very prayerful and fruitful Advent! We rejoice that ours is a God who, while completely self-sufficient in and of himself, and in need of no one or nothing outside himself, has also chosen from the beginning not to remain alone. Going out of himself, he creates the cosmos, and emptying himself of his divine prerogatives he wills the free response of those who would be his own; he creates, allows (and summons) that creation to evolve to greater and greater levels of complexity, rejoices as humanity-on-the-way-to-God comes to be, calls out of this humanity a special people who would be his in a special way, and waits for One to come out of this people who will incarnate his Word as uniquely beloved Son.

In Advent we prepare for the coming of this One, the Christ who reveals (makes known and makes real in space and time) true and authentic humanity marking us as called by name and capable of calling upon God in the same way. He is the one who exhaustively embodies the mutual story we call the Kingdom of God, the shared covanental destiny of God and humanity worked out in history. He is the one we know as Jesus, and the God he makes known is the One who comes amongst us in weakness and lowliness. May your preparations this year be fruitful and profound, and may you come more and more in your own lives to be drawn fully into the story of this One we call Messiah.

19 November 2007

In time of daffodils

Painting, Blue Lilies, by Sister Kristine Haugen, ocdh (Link to Sister's hermitage and art can be found in the second (lower and darker blue) right hand column; please check these out!)

in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how

in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so(forgetting seem)

in time of roses(who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if, remember yes

in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek(forgetting find)

and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me, remember me

e.e.cummings (16 of 95 Poems)

". . . Not my will, but Thine be done!" (or, "Jesus, Son of David, Have pity on me!!")

As part of a Communion service today, I did a reflection on the readings. I had agreed to do this service several weeks ago since the parish would be without a priest for today, and I first looked at the readings back then. I read the first lection from 2 Macc. where some of the Jews made relatively small compromises with the surrounding culture which eventually led them to fall away from their faith and headlong into apostasy, and I thought, "Yes, people could hear something helpful on that theme. Easy enough to do something on this!" But when I read on, I knew immediately that I did not want to talk about today's Gospel: "Please," I thought, "Not a healing miracle! I can't talk about such a lection!" (If you weren't at Mass today, it was the Lukan story of Jesus stopping on his way to Jericho to heal a blind beggar who calls out to him, "Jesus, Son of David, Have pity on me!!" Jesus asks him in return, "What do you want me to do for you?" and the beggar says, "I would like to see again." Jesus heals him and announces that his faith has made him whole.

Unfortunately, it took some time before I asked myself directly why it was this was such a problem for me, or went back to really do some serious lectio with this reading and the first one as well. When I did, the answer was embarrassing --- and not particularly edifying either, as that old-fashioned and VERY helpful word goes. Instead of saying to myself, "I can't talk about such a lection, " I should probably have said more openly, "I can't talk about such a lection to an intellectually sophisticated, well-educated group of 21st century folks; afterall, does God really work this way in our lives today?" And of course, the answer I implicitly provided was, "No, certainly he does not! He is not an interventionist God reaching in from outside to change the laws of physics and biology. Instead he works THROUGH these laws, he gifts physicians and scientists with the power to make well, and does his miracles in that way!" (Neither would it occur to us to blame people who are not healed for inadequate faith. No, our sciences, spirituality, and theology are more 'sophisticated' than this.)

As someone who deals with chronic illness on an ongoing basis, I have certainly prayed for miraculous healing in the past. But I realized that some years ago I stopped praying for physical healing, and, at least ostensibly adopted Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane as the "way to go" in the matter of petitionary prayer: "Not my will, but thine be done!" There were good and legitimate reasons for doing so: 1) God was NOT healing me or willing that I be healed (at least not apparently!), nor was medical science particularly effective either, 2) I needed to come to terms with the losses and disappointments associated with the illness, and I needed to see the value in it, if there was any, 3) I needed REALLY to bend my will to God's in this, and come to model my life on Jesus' more completely (that is, I needed for my will to be shaped in this way by the power of God's love), 4) I needed to move past any self-centeredness, any untoward focus on self and come to terms with present reality in a way which opened up the future as well. It did not hurt that others seemed to think this prayer of Jesus (". . .Not my will, but thine. . ."), was theologically and spiritually more sophisticated and less naive than prayers for miraculous healing. Nor did it hurt that moving on to this next "phase" of prayer seemed nobler, more pious, and also, that it allowed me to neglect looking at the inadequacy of my faith, or my fear of being completely in touch with how badly I wanted to be healed.

But today's Gospel struck me with what I had hidden from myself, what I had forgotten about Jesus' prayer, and what I knew from my own more profound prayer experiences. First, that this prayer of Jesus was only a PART of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; as important as it was, it took a long time of pouring out his heart to his Father regarding what he really wanted, what he was profoundly terrified of, what he grieved losing, and what it was that really made him vulnerable in this world to GET TO this point --- to reach this conclusion and goal of authentic and kenotic living. Secondly, it was only in such vulnerability that he was truly and completely open to the Father's will: only in radically asking for what he wanted was Jesus open to the possibility that God might allow this cup to pass from him, and so too, to the possibility that God might indeed will something different for him at this point in time. And thirdly, that it was only in believing/knowing that God COULD work a miracle right here and now ("O God all things are possible for you!"), that Jesus actually came to know fully that God's will for him was different than this.

It seemed significant to me that in today's Gospel, Jesus does not ask the blind beggar what God's will is, or even what it is he needs. Jesus asks instead, "What would you have me do for you?" Of course, there is no indication the beggar KNOWS his plea will be answered positively in the very terms stated, but there is no doubt he knows his plea CAN be answered positively; what Jesus asks for from him is that he pour out his own heart in the matter, that he risk entrusting himself to Jesus on this level. The prayer of the beggar is indeed self-centered; it reflects his own deepest wishes. It is not cast in terms of the nobler sounding, "Not my will but thine be done." And yet eventually and paradoxically, it is precisely through the beggar's radical self-centeredness and resulting vulnerability that God is truly glorified and the beggar is open to His greater will being done. We do not glorify God if our prayer remains self-centered, of course, but neither will our prayer be sensitive to the will of God, much less glorify him, if we simply neglect or side-step this aspect of it.

In today's first reading Jews compromise their faith and fall into abject apostasy. By leaving behind the practice of praying for healing (in EVERY sense!) as well as failing to believe God COULD do a miracle right here and now, and adopting only the second part of Jesus' prayer, I am afraid I did something similar. In the name of scientific and theological sophistication (and avoiding owning up to the lack of courage and vulnerability REALLY involved in praying for a miracle), I actually left behind an integral part of my own faith and prayer, for from my own prayer I have experienced God's powerful presence, and have been convinced he CAN heal from within our world, from within us, in fact. I wonder how often something similar happens to each of us as we search for and try to adopt an authentic Christian faith in our contemporary world?

We want to have a critical rather than a naive faith. We want, of course, to pray and live in a way that says, "Not My will, but thine be done!" But today's Gospel reminds us that we do not come to this point without painful and risky pouring out of our hearts to God. We do not come to a genuine submission to the will of God in our lives if on some level we have ALSO foreclosed the possibility that God CAN and (sometimes at least!) WILL heal us miraculously right here and right now. Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane IS a model for us, but it is his WHOLE prayer there that is our paradigm. While Jesus' affirmation is our goal, we do not reach it without the neuralgic and sometimes messy egocentric baring of our hearts to him. Only in this way do we really remain open to and come to know what his will actually is; only in this way do we move beyond such self-centeredness and bend our own wills (or rather, allow them to be bent) to his. Only in this way do we come to understand that ultimately, the cry, "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!" IS the prayer that God's will will be done!

15 November 2007

The Lord's Prayer: Initiation into a life of Invocation (brief)

With Advent nearing I am looking afresh at the Lord's Prayer. After all, it summarizes what Jesus' vocation was all about, how he prayed, how he lived, what had priority for him, and what, by extension, constitutes Christian existence. Learning to pray this prayer is not a one-time task, and recitation of it is not without risks and challenges. Instead, we are invited to learn to pray as Jesus did, to pour ourselves into its petitions, day by day and "layer" of self by layer of self. It calls us, and provides a concrete way, to allow our hearts and lives to be shaped as Jesus' was. Yes, it teaches us to pray rightly, but more, it initiates us into a life of prayer; more correctly said perhaps, it molds and shapes us into the very prayers we are called to BE. (I am convinced that the admonition to "pray always" is a statement of the purpose of human life, and that prayer is not only an activity we are to undertake, but something we are to become. When we call Jesus "the Word made Flesh," we really are calling him an incarnate prayer, a Word event whose whole being glorifies (reveals and allows God to be) God in space and time.)

One of the things that comes up again and again is just how deceptively familiar the prayer is for us. We recite it daily, sometimes several times a day; and yet, almost every petition holds surprises for us. We simply don't know what the words mean or what they summon us to. The invocation is a particularly striking example. Luke's version of the prayer has simply, "Pater" (or "Abba"), while Matthew's has the more litugically suited and formed, "Our Father, who Art in Heaven!" Some people in parishes have problems calling God "Father," because they treat the word as a metaphor, and as an instance of human patriarchy or paternalism writ-very-large. Others love that God is called "abba, pater" because it apotheosizes or raises to divine level their own patriarchal pretensions. And yet, both groups have gotten something very basic wrong, namely, the invocation to the Lord's Prayer is not merely a metaphor describing divinity's "paternalness" --- one characteristic among others including maternalness. It is instead a NAME, and as a name it is symbol, not merely metaphor, and it FUNCTIONS as a name does. The Lord's Prayer begins with the revelation of and permission to invoke God BY NAME even if Matt's elaborate formulation obscures this for English readers. In Christ we are allowed, and in fact, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to call upon God as Abba, where Abba is a personal word of address which does far less to describe God than it does to give him a personal place to stand in our world.

We will miss this though, if we do not move beyond the prayer's familiarity and treat the invocation as a description of or metaphor for God. Remember, for instance, that the word "Abba" is in the vocative case, the case used for direct address. Remember that Jesus used the term "Abba" with a unique intimacy and familiarity, not as a description of God, but as direct address and name. Remember that his usage was unprecedented in Palestinian Judaism (Judiasm of the diaspora was somewhat different), not only because Jews tended to avoid referring to God as Abba (pagans did that all the time!), or because using Abba as a name and speaking it directly was too presumptuous (Divine names were not spoken or even written out), but also because the times they did refer to God as Father, it was in a collective sense and more metaphor or descriptor than name. Remember too that in Matt's day people LONGED to know both the REAL Name of God, and that their prayer was truly effective. So desperate were they that they stood on street corners reading from magic papyri which listed every known name of God. When Matthew warns us about using empty words in our prayers this is the practice he is referring to, a practice driven by the need to know and invoke God by name --- a need to pray with genuine authority and power.

But, along comes Jesus with his unique relationship with this One he calls by name as Abba, thus addressing God with an unheard of familiarity and intimacy. He speaks, lives, and teaches with a new kind of authority. To put it plainly, Jesus is on a first name basis with God; he speaks in the NAME of God. Their relationship is unique and the exchanges between them equally so. When we attend to his prayer, we see that Jesus calls upon God BY NAME as "Abba, Father." He gives this One a personal place to stand in the world in the way only invocation can do, invocation in both narrower and broader senses: that is, addressing or calling upon another by name and living one's life in the name of that other implicating them in all one is and does. Jesus reveals (makes real in space and time) a new Name for God. God is no longer simply the One who will be (present with us as) who he will be (present with us) [ehyeh asher ehyeh, YHWH]; he is Abba, and the One whom he will be is revealed definitively in Christ. By extension, Christians are those marked by this name, who, through the adoption of baptism live within its power and presence, who "call upon" or invoke God in this way. It is the symbol or name marking our vocation in this world, just as it marked that of Jesus.

As I have written here before, the life of Christian prayer is a life of invocation. The task before us and which we reflect on anew each Advent is to learn and embrace what it means to live as those who call upon and live life in the Name of another --- and not just any other, but the One Jesus revealed as "Abba, Father." The Lord's Prayer initiates us into this life, and the first line, the only non-petition in the entire prayer, embodies or symbolizes the whole of this vocation. It is both invitation and challenge: not only to take this Name upon our lips, but to glorify the name of God with our lives, to become those who truly are adopted daughters and sons of the One we call Abba, Father.

04 November 2007

02 November 2007

Living With and In the Eucharistic Presence

Apparently it is a surprise to some people that canonical or diocesan hermits are allowed to reserve Eucharist in their "cells" or hermitages, and also, as solitaries, to self-communicate during a Communion service on those days when it is impossible to get to or have someone come in to say Mass. More than surprise, there is dismay, indignation and concern for the legalities of such a situation. The idea that Bishops approve Rules of Life which may describe this arrangement for reserving and receiving Eucharist seems to be anathema to these folks, and they suggest that it is not surprising reverence for the Eucharist is supposedly declining in the post Vatican II Church given such praxis and permission. The idea, on the other hand, that a hermit might actually enhance reverence for the Eucharist through such praxis seems not to have occured to them.

The history of eremitical reservation of the Eucharist is as old as eremitical life itself. The following is EWTN's desciption of the situation: [[Under the impact of this faith, the early hermits reserved the Eucharist in their cells. From at least the middle of the third century, it was very usual for the solitaries in the East, especially in Palestine and Egypt, to preserve the consecrated elements in the caves or hermitages where they lived. The immediate purpose of this reservation was to enable the hermits to give themselves Holy Communion. But these hermits were too conscious of what the Real Presence was not to treat it with great reverence and not to think of it as serving a sacred purpose by just being nearby.]] See also: Notes from Stillsong Hermitage: On the Reservation of Eucharist by Hermits

Recently I had the occasion to hear actual accusations that the Eucharistic praxis here at Stillsong detracts from reverence for the Eucharist and belief in the Real Presence because I am allowed to open the tabernacle, open the ciborium, and remove the Eucharist so that I may receive it in Communion. Given the contents of this blog thus far (there is nothing in text or pictures which points to a lack of appropriate reverence for the Eucharist), I found the accusations disingenuous, and beyond pointing out that my Rule of Life was accepted by my Bishop and had been thoroughly checked over by several canonists, I sought to move the discussion to greater levels of reflection, and more significant Eucharistic questions than the important but BEGINNING questions about legality and conditions of reservation and reception. I think these are the questions that any hermit, consecrated virgin, or religious considers when they live with the Eucharist in their most intimate space. While none of us is worthy of the privilege of retaining and receiving the Eucharist in such solitary circumstances (or any other for that matter), the simple fact is I live with what I consider to be much more profound questions and demands because of the Eucharistic presence and reception here in Stillsong. I honor the canons on proper reservation and reverence toward the Eucharist, of course, but they are merely the starting point for a life of living with Jesus in the Eucharist.

So what questions, does this raise for me? What ARE the questions I live with which help challenge and define me and my Eucharistic adoration? Well, they are more foundational and more concerned with going beyond the letter of the Law than the concerns and questions of the accusers. For instance, what is it that constitutes appropriate worship of Eucharist? How should it function in our lives in order to indicate a GENUINE and even PROFOUND belief in the real presence? Is it enough to adore it remotely, or are we to consume and be consumed by it to truly adore it? What are the dangers of someone having Eucharist in their hermitage or home (as in CV's or religious Sisters and Brothers) --- assuming normal prudence and limited access of others to the Eucharist? How does one protect against such dangers? What are the benefits and what does such a thing say to others ABOUT the Eucharist? How would having Eucharist in one's hermitage, home, or cell change the way one relates to her environment? Does the idea of worship begin to change? Should and does it, for instance, come to envelop the smallest thing one does so that the most ordinary tasks become a matter of worship?

All of these questions are part and parcel of Eucharistically oriented prayer. They are certainly questions someone who LIVES WITH the Eucharist considers on a regular basis. And then of course, there are the very personal questions about one's own living and loving, one's being and failing to be what the Eucharist calls us to be. They are questions about the state of one's heart, the way in which one really serves or fails to serve the God who reveals himself as God-with-us in every moment and mood of our day. How has one grown in prayer? In service to the Church and World? How is the dialogue with God which one IS, maturing and coming to greater articulation because of the constant Eucharistic presence? How has it failed to happen and what are we being called to that very day or hour? How constant is the state of gratitude one finds oneself in in light of lving with such a precious gift? How pervasive is the sense of giftedness in all things? How aware is one of the capacity of the most ordinary piece of reality to mediate the presence of a Living God? And how well has one maintained an environment of silence, solitude, prayer, penance, AND hospitality which are appropriate to one living with such a Presence?

The questions of canons regarding appropriate reservation and communication of the Eucharist, are important questions initially, but for one to really REVERENCE and WORSHIP the Eucharist as it is meant to be, one needs to move to all those more profound and personal questions, questions of relationship, questions of vulnerability, questions of increased sensitivity and true worship --- especially worship which embraces the most ordinary and everyday aspects of one's day. (When one lives in the presence of the Eucharist, and with a presence lamp always burning, it tends to encourage one to superimpose these images onto every place and situation into which one enters. Everyone and every place becomes holy, and potentially eucharistic.) Those who are allowed to reserve and receive Eucharist in solitary circumstances (hermits, CV's, small houses with a single vowed religious) serve the Church by raising all these questions (and forcing others to raise them instead of remaining simply on the level of law); so too do they serve the church by becoming a living symbol of the realm where the Eucharist is REALLY and visibly central in an individual's life, and without which the individual would be very much more alone and even bereft.

It seems to me that such questions point to a profound (if ever-growing) reverence for the Eucharist and commitment to the Real Presence --- even where the quality of these things needs to continue to mature and deepen every day. I suppose I also think that remaining on the level of Law in one's considerations of eremitical praxis today in regard to Eucharistic reservation and reception represents its own form of lack of reverence and failure to worship the Eucharist appropriately. No hermit could live this life and take Eucharist for granted or fail to genuinely and profoundly worship and reverence it. More, I think every hermit must (and does!) develop a practical or pastoral theology of worship which extends to the most ordinary moments and moods of one's day --- because these moments occur in the Eucharistic Presence, that is, they occur in an environment which is completely oriented towards and conditioned by that Presence. I think this leads to genuine reverence, a more profound reverence than might otherwise be the case, and a theology of worship which is more adequate than one which brackets Eucharist off from everyday life and circumstances even while surrounding its reservation with the appropriate, but relatively remote trappings of more usual Eucharistic adoration.

The original accusations stung a bit; they were directed to precisely where I care the most and so, am most vulnerable in some ways. However, they also served to allow me to reflect on the kinds of questions and challenges that are more important and far reaching than those of rubrics or law, but which are also served by those rubrics and law. So, I come away grateful for those persons who raised the issues and objected that such praxis as found in hermitages and the residences of CV's throughout the world contributes to the decline of Eucharistic worship and reverence. In so doing, they allowed me to begin reflecting anew on what Eucharistic reverence and worship really consists of. They return me anew to the center I had never really left. For this, I owe them my profoundest thanks!

26 October 2007

"We're wonderful One Times One"

I read today a blog entry by someone talking about "studying about love" and "reading about union with God." I was struck by how important it is to be instructed in love by loving (and failing to love!), and to learn about union with God by allowing him to love us and falling in love with him in return; we learn about union by being estranged, reconciled, and united. Afterall, there are some things we only really learn about in the doing of them, and while I am a great student in the academic sense, I know too that there are simply some things that reading "about" really means postponing the doing of. Mysticism is a fascinating subject; so are eremitism and prayer more generally. But at some point, books fail. They are completely inadequate to the incommensurate experience of union with God --- to ANY degree at all, even the slightest inkling of such a state!

In this context, I was reminded of the line of a poem by e e cummings, "(and birds sing sweeter than books tell how)"! In fact, when I looked up the poem, which I had last read many years ago, there were a whole series of comments on the inadequacy of book learning in this matter of love, and also, a focus on the reality of the union of love. As the poet also affirmed, when we have experienced genuine union, whether that is with another person, or with God himself then, "(books are/shutter/than books can be)"! So, while I suspect e e cummings was speaking of falling in love with another person, there is no reason this poem does not refer equally well to contemplative knowledge of communion with God gleaned from prayer.

In fact, the rhythm and structure of the poem catch at my heart like Celtic fiddle music, and I am reminded of the joy captured by Charles Schultz and the animators that collaborated with him in his pictures of "the Snoopy Dance"! These always make me think how "right" they are to the experience of prayer, how well they express the joy which results from a life lived in light of such a reality. Once again e e cummings has said something better, with greater charm, spontaneity, and joy, than I could ever hope to.

if everything happens that can't be done
(and anything's righter
than books
could plan)
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
around we go yes)
there's nothing as something as one

one hasn't a why or because or although
(and buds know better
than books
don't grow)
one's anything old being everything new
(with a what
around we come who)
one's everyanything so

so world is a leaf so tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
than books
tell how)
so here is away and so your is a my
(with a down
around again fly)
forever was never till now

now I love you and you love me
(and books are shutter
than books
can be)
and deep in the high that does nothing but fall
(with a shout
around we go all)
there's somebody calling who's we

we're anything brighter than even the sun
(we're everyanything greater
than books
might mean)
we're everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
alive we're alive)
we're wonderful one times one

(From the Collected Poems, "1 X 1", or "One Times One")

This is who you are!

Icon of the Transfiguration

Throughout the last two weeks' readings Paul has been trying to speak to the Church in Rome (both ancient and modern!), and getting them to understand who they really are now in light of their Baptisms, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus and their incorporation into that reality. I was particularly struck by how he emphasizes, despite all his seeming equations between the old Adam and the new, our slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness, the power of sin and the power of grace, the old law and the new, just how truly different and incommensurate are all the things on the second side of these equations. Paul builds on equations where the second term is completely unequal to the first. He is not really building equations but comparisons of qualitative disparity. And this is what he really wants us to get: Who we are in Christ is a new kind of humanity. Paul's term is "a new creation," but how often do we really take this seriously?

When I was originally catechized I was taught the older theology of baptism that described the Sacrament in terms of the "washing away (of) the stain of original sin", or, "the restoration of our friendship with God," and the reestablishment of a state of Grace. It seemed to me that in Baptism, I had been restored to something very near the state Adam and Eve (not understood as a corporate identity) found themselves in in the Genesis narratives. When the newer theology of Baptism came to accent our being incorporated into the Body of Christ, and baptized into his death and resurrection, it added an important ecclesial and communal aspect to things for me, but it was not radically different than what I had been taught before. But Paul's theology is far more radical, I think.

In every case, with every one of his comparisons, Paul ends the discussion by emphasizing the qualitative difference between the old and the new. He says that "grace abounded all the more"; he says we are now the slaves or servants of God rather than of the lesser, though terrible, power of sin; he says that despite what happened in Adam, how much more in much greater measure is given (lives and reigns) in Christ Jesus, and of course, he says that we are a new creation, not simply the restoration of the old. How are we to think of this, and doesn't it sound elitist or exclusivist to suggest that in Baptism we are so radically remade as to become a new kind of humanity whose truest end is the Kingdom of God, and, in fact, life within the very heart of God?

First, in thinking about this new creation we become, let's be clear that Paul ALSO says that we remain at war within ourselves. There is the inner (or true) person, the person who truly exists in Christ and in the power of the spirit, and there is the "person" (the unverified, not yet made true person) who is still subject to sin, who does what she does not want to do, and fails to do what she really wishes. Paul is not unrealistic about our ambiguous existence in this world. Eternity has broken in on us, yes, but it is not yet all in all. God is not yet all in all. The yeast (to use another and non-Pauline image) has been included in the dough, and it is therefore a completely different dough than it would have been otherwise, but the yeast is not yet all in all. I admit, the analogy limps (I would be more concerned if it did not!), but it helps me think of the paradox that is involved here.

One of the newer readings of the Genesis narratives associated with theological reflection on the theology of original sin and the reality of Adam and Eve is diachronic rather than synchronic. It looks at Adam and Eve, not simply as corporate identities (another new feature of theological reflection on this whole constellation of problems), or as individual ancestors in the past, but as a reality which stands in our future, a reality which all human beings are called to, the seeds of which exist in the heart of each and every one of us. It is, in some way a different reality, a different humanity than we actually know here, an "evolutionary" leap, even while it is also consistent with who we are now. Except that this evolutionary leap is not accomplished by shifts in DNA as the shift from homo erectus to homo sapiens was accomplished. This shift is accomplished in Christ, in being baptized and living into his death and resurrection.

But, isn't this elitist? No, I don't think so, at least not so long as with Paul we ALSO realize that Christ's death and resurrection was for ALL persons, and that at some point God truly WILL be ALL in ALL. Every person is MEANT for this "evolutionary leap." Every person is called to this transformation, however it is to be accomplished. (For us Christians it has been accomplished in Baptism and continues to be worked out or realized in our lives on a daily basis, and in a conscious way through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a very great gift which allows us to walk through the world differently than those who do not know God as we do, but God is not constrained in this way and ultimately, in ways we may never even imagine, he will accomplish his purposes for each and every person that exists.)

Also it is not elitist because, of course, it imposes a tremendous responsibility on Christians to really BE who they are at the deepest core of their being, to really embody or incarnate this new humanity FOR others! Others will be brought to this new life in God only to the extent we do this credibly and cogently, only to the extent we, like Christ, live our lives truly FOR THESE OTHERS. (We call the Jews God's chosen people, and we call Christians today by the same title, not in an elitist sense, but in the sense that we are forerunners of something that will be extended to everyone through us. In the case of Christians, we are responsible for extending this new humanity to the rest of the world. One real betrayal of our "status" as chosen people (or as "New Creation") is to suggest or imply in any way that others are NOT also and equally called to this, and that we are not responsible for mediating this call to them with our lives.)

There are so many theological problems to work out and think through with regard to all this. But despite all of these, I think what is clear from the lections we have read in Paul's epistle to the Romans in the past couple of weeks is how qualitatively different he believes the new creation is from the old. We who are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, have also been remade, not simply restored to an older or more original wholeness (though this is also true, of course). This talk of being a "new creation" is not just poetry, or rather, it is deadly serious poetry which is also to be taken with a kind of literalness we often miss. When Paul says "how much more did grace abound" he is not merely saying God's love is extravagant; where Grace abounds all the more, something new comes to be!

We are a new humanity charged with the responsibility of embodying this in our world in an authentic way. We say of Christ: ECCE HOMO! And, unlike when these words were first spoken, we mean that he is TRULY or AUTHENTICALLY human. For us it is a proclamation, not a condemnation, something to be awed by and to wonder at, not a source of shame. The Pauline (and derivative) truth is that in him (and to the extent we are truly in him), this is who we are as well. This is the identity and vocation Paul is asking us to claim and incarnate as fully as possible in our world. A new creation. A new Adam. A new humanity. Not homo erectus, and not even homo sapiens, but homo Christus. This is who we are, and for the sake of the world and Kingdom, who we are called to be.

15 October 2007

Magnificat: On the song Which IS the Hermit

Theologians often think of the human being as a "word event," that is, we are responses to the words and being of others, crafted and shaped by those words and persons and creating ourselves (or being created) in response to reality around us. We can wander lost through the world, unformed and unknown, we can even impinge on others' lives without the dynamic of dialogue, or address and response, but it is only in response to another person's address that we actually have a personal place to stand, or that we come to be the persons we CAN be. More fundamentally, theologians recognize that we are each the answer or response to a divine word of address and summons spoken in the very core of our being. We speak of this reality variously: "God calls us by name to be"; "we have a vocation or call to authentic humanity"; "the human heart is, by definition, a theological reality and the place where God is active and effectively present in the core of our being", etc.

Of course, the definitive image of authentic humanity is Christ, Divine Word-made-flesh. Theologians reflect that each of us are called to be "Word made flesh" --- though not as definitively as that incarnation accomplished in the Christ Event, still with coherence and cogency, articulateness, truth, and power. Throughout our lives the incarnational word we are is shaped and formed, redacted and composed, in response to the Name or summons God speaks in the core of our being, and which ALSO comes to us (or is sympathetically sounded in us) in a variety of forms and intensities from without in the Scriptures, Sacraments, other people, nature, etc. And of course, it is also distorted and falsified by our own sinfulness, and by our defensive responses to the sinfulness and influence of others in our lives. While we are called to be joyful and coherent embodiments of the Word of God incarnated in our world, we are as often cries of anguish, snarls of anger, sobs of pain, and the lies of insecurity and defensiveness which so lead to the falsification of our being.

Ordinarily, of course, the responsive composition we each are is a mixture of true and false, real and unreal, coherent and incoherent, articulate and inarticulate, anguished and joyful. Only in Christ are we rendered more and more the response we are MEANT to be. And yet, deep within us God speaks the Name we are to embody, the vocational summons we are to incarnate in all of its uniqueness AS our own lives in this world. It is an unceasing, unremitting hallowing right at the core of who we are, and when we are truly in touch with this and truly responsive we become the Word event which God wills us to be. If, as Fr Robert Hale, OSB Cam, once remarked, it is true that "God sustains us as a singer sustains a note," then we are each called to become a song, a particular fiat witnessing to the grace (that is, the powerful presence) of God in our lives. God is the breath which sustains us moment by moment, and we are the song which embodies this breath.

The hermit's existence is paradigmatic of this reality. She really is called to be the song at the heart of the church. Birthed in silence and solitude, shaped by obedience to the Word and breath of God, exercised in the singing of psalms daily --the regular chanting or recitation of the divine Office, the reading of scripture both aloud and in silence, held in the heart of God and steeped in the formative rests of contemplative prayer and shaped by the stories of all those persons she holds in her own heart, the hermit moves day by day towards becoming the articulate and coherent expression of God's creative providence we recognize as a magnificat.

Of course, gestation and birth are both (or together) demanding, painful, and messy businesses. So is the composition of a truly responsive life. Those cries of anguish, snarls of anger, defensive lies, and sobs of pain we ALSO ARE, don't simply "go away" of themselves without the hard work of recognition and repentance. Healing, sanctification, and verification (making whole and true) is God's work in us, but it requires and involves our active cooperation. It is this dynamic that makes of the eremitical silence, solitude, prayer, and penance a therapeutic crucible or editor's desk where we are --- sometimes ruthlessly --- revised, redacted, and recreated. Evenso, at bottom eremitic life (indeed ALL christian life!) is a joy-filled reality; we incarnate the merciful love of God which heals and sanctifies, enlivens and sustains. We become a coherent articulation or expression of the breath and word of God spoken both in the core of ourselves, and in so many ways in our church and world. We ARE the songs which God sings in the heart of his church, magnificats of God's love and mercy sounding in (and out of) the silence of solitude.

12 October 2007

Hope: Shamelessly Persistent Trust

The readings yesterday were all about hope. In the first reading, there is a shift from the focus on our obedience to God such as we saw the day before when Mary sits at Jesus' feet to listen attentively to him and learn from him, to God's own attentive listening to his people. If we are going to be people of hope, we need to keep this image in mind. Ours is a God who attends carefully to everything we say, do, think, feel, need, want, and dream of. While he is completely different, or "wholly other" than we are, he is also intimately involved and concerned with all we are and do, and invested in more ways than we can describe in what we both are and are to become.

The psalm announces the theme of the lections explicitly: Blessed are they who hope in the Lord!! Happy indeed those who trust in God's loving attentiveness. Those who believe in God are people of hope. Hope is the hallmark of a faithful and faith-filled person.

In the Gospel we really do hear what it means to hope, and in particular, what makes living hope differ from a simple act of trust, and even more from an act of wishfulness. Two elements together in particular constitute hope. The first is indeed trust, not simply trust in God's attentive listening to our needs, but trust as well that he knows our needs better than we do ourselves. "Which of you would give a child of yours a snake when they ask for a loaf of bread?" and, "If you who are wicked know how to give good things to your children, then how much more does God know to give to those who ask him?" The second element, however is perseverence or persistence in turning to God with our needs (even if our own perceptions of them ARE limited!). Luke describes a shameless persisting in asking for what is needed, a persistence that goes beyond the bounds of good taste or politeness.

As I reflect on these two elements, it seems to me that they temper and condition each other. For instance, sometimes we are timid or reticent in what we ask God for; sometimes we are really disbelieving that our prayer can or will be answered or that God cares, or that we are worthy of his attention, and we fail to pour ourselves into our petition as deeply as we can or should. Perhaps we are afraid of disappointment, or perhaps we are simply embarrassed at our own neediness; there are many reasons that may constrain us, but in any case, often our prayer is more superficial than it should be, more "polite," more "civil," more restrained or tentative. Sometimes too we pray for a short period, but give up when we don't get what we have asked for. We pour ourselves out to God once or twice, or for a period of a few days, weeks, or months, but then we simply stop.

Other times we assail heaven with our petitions taking seriously the Gospel image that recommends we be truly shameless in our asking, that we do indeed importune God with our petitions and needs, but our prayer is not really hopeful, not really trusting in the way the Gospel recommends because we have forgotten that God knows what we need better than we do ourselves. It is this particular form of trust with its openness to God's faithfulness and wisdom that transforms our persistence from mere stubbornness --- or even obsession --- into hope, and from mere self-centeredness into prayerful (God-centered) openness to the future.

Today's readings invite us to a passionate and persistent prayer life, the prayer life of a genuinely hopeful person. When we truly ask for what we need, we place ourselves in God's hands, we lay ourselves "out there" to some extent. If we persist in this, over time we pour ourselves more and more into God's hands. And if we also persist in this while trusting both that God attends carefully and lovingly to us, and too, that he knows our needs better than we do ourselves, we allow him to give us what we need most of all, and what contains all other things within itself: God himself. Afterall, Luke's gospel is also very clear that what we will be given is God himself, that this is the true answer to ALL of our prayers, all of our desperate and persistent searching. In this kind of prayer, we are shaped, and so are our needs and desires, but in this kind of prayer we are also completed and all of our concrete needs and desires met --- for everything and everyone are also grounded in this God; they exist in him, and in him they will either be given or returned to us in due time.

04 October 2007

A missed opportunity, a moment of judgment

In today's readings, there was one of the most chilling images of judgment I have ever read. No, there was nothing about God's anger, or the fires of hell, or other dramatic and apocalyptic images of such scenes we so often imagine. Instead there was a picture of opportunities lost, of a word unheard, a response ungiven, an apostle unrecognized, and the brief ritual of someone looking on and shaking the dust from her sandals while saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you." How often does the worst judgment against us come in terms of our simple failure to recognize and respond in the present moment to God and the very best news we could ever be offered?

I imagine a village full of people going about their work, restless in all the usual ways people are restless, concerned in all the normal ways people are concerned in everyday life, busy in all the varied ways people will and must be busy. Most are completely unaware of the apostle who has shown up on their "doorstep" so-to-speak. They will never hear the words, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you today!" and they will not even be aware as the apostle leaves again, having shaken the dust from her sandals! Yet in that moment of unawareness, that "non-moment," judgment has come and gone, and indeed, even Sodom will not be in as much trouble as the one who has simply missed God's overture on this day. It is so easy to picture --- it is so simple, so quiet, so routine, so unremarkable --- yet, it is a moment of judgment (the Greek word KRISIS, or decision, fits SO well here). The image chilled me deep down precisely because of this complete ordinariness.

Contemplative life is essentially one of dwelling in the present moment (this is almost a cliche today, though most of the time I think people confuse it for being focused on today's agenda!). But really, it means being obedient (attentive and responsive) to reality in all the ways we can, and with all the levels of our being. We are ALL called to be contemplatives in this sense of the word (that is, we are all called to this kind of obedience, this kind of "hearkening"). Sometimes our attention can be drawn away from the Word being spoken in our midst by activity, worries, other voices we DO attend to. Sometimes, we refuse to dwell in the present moment because we are disproportionately concerned with past injuries or future hopes --- our own bitterness over how things have unfolded in our lives, and our own frantic efforts to cause something to unfold in the way we envision it! Sometimes we are afraid of the Word (or the silence it requires to be heard), and we have distanced ourselves from it with activities full of their own noise (reading, TV, music, computer, etc). Most often, our own hearts are simply so full and noisy that the apostle (or the One she heralds!) walks through unnoticed, her peace remaining unshared, leaving unrecognized footprints and small drifts of sand as tacit testimony to the awesome judgment passed on us in this moment.

In today's first reading the people of Israel (or was it Judah?) have to be urged to recognize that today (this very moment, in fact) is Holy, and they are commanded to turn from their sadness to rejoice in the Lord. Eventhough it was the reading of the Law itself which reduced them to grief, they were not really hearing what was being said, or at least not ALL of what was being said. Repentance for sin, grieving for the past, amendment of purpose, and planning for the future are important, and the Word of God certainly occasions these, but with God's Word comes real rest as well, genuine joy. It is a Word which allows us to rest in IT, a word which makes a Sabbath of our busy lives, and a place to be ourselves when we have been, and often seem unable to create, any other. Of course, such rest can sometimes never come, the place we so yearn for can be lost to us because of the preoccupations of our minds and hearts, the Word spoken within us goes unheeded --- empty of issue, void --- and becomes instead a Word of judgment against us.

What I think the lections from today suggest is that as momentous as such judgment is, it happens routinely, moment by moment, and in mainly undramatic ways. And that is what is so very chilling for me in today's image of this. I can imagine being addressed tonight (or right now!): "The Kingdom of God was at hand for you today, Laurel, and you were simply too busy to listen, too preoccupied to attend to it, too full of your own thoughts and concerns, too caught up in what was "important" (or frightening, or disappointing, or exciting, etc.) to even notice! I sent an apostle to you today --- poor, no special garb, no worldly status, in every way someone just like you --- and you never even saw her, much less gave her a hearing! You didn't even notice when she simply shook the dust from her sandals in judgment against you while still proclaiming the coming of My Kingdom for you!" More likely, despite the truth of all that, what I will hear when I FINALLY hearken is simply, "Laurel, I Love you!" (or just, "Laurel," said with unimaginable love) and there will be an accompanying sense of great (indeed, infinite!) patience along with an unabashed Divine joy that I have finally managed even this single moment of attention! It is the very same Word I more typically do not hear, the same word which turned to judgment on God's lips, in the face of my more usual deafness.

No, contemplative life (and I really am referring to all truly prayerful life) is not about peak experiences, ecstasies, and awesome insights (though it may certainly be sprinkled with these). It is about being truly present to the present moment and the One who is its source. Neither is judgment awesome in its imagery of anger, fire, and destruction; it is terrifying in its ordinariness, its coming to pass within us without notice, without drama, even without appreciable affect --- except over time, as death, chaos, and meaninglessness replace life, order, and meaning. Indeed, in light of such ever-present judgment --- as the psalmist reminds us --- "If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?"

25 September 2007

Some questions on Eremitic Life, Canonical Status, "Success"!

This week I was interviewed for a local newspaper article --- apparently being a diocesan hermit is a bit of an unusual thing, and people are interested in it (no, this is not REALLY a surprise to me, at least not entirely). One whole area of interest is the question of canonical status versus non-canonical status, though raised in a new way. For instance, the reporter wondered why one would want to become a diocesan hermit if the diocese has no financial obligations toward the hermit. Why, afterall, would one want to become perpetually obligated with a vow of obedience, become "locked into" (not her actual words) the diocesan structure with delegates, Vicars, Bishop, etc, to whom one is answerable, if the diocese does not assume financial responsibility, provide a hermitage, insurance, etc?

I answered the question in terms of freedom and integrity, and I want to try to reprise and elaborate on some of that here --- if only because it is a common question, and one asked by others, including those who are or who desire to be noncanonical hermits. The simple fact is that as a diocesan hermit one acts in the name of the church. One prays in the name of the church, and if one does other ministry, she does so in the name of the church; in a society where contemplative life is a rare commodity anyway, and where there are constant pulls on the hermit of whatever status to join the rest of society in their quest for "success," having the commission to BE A HERMIT in the name of the Church is a freeing and empowering thing.

In my Rule, I described eremitism as an eccentric way of life, and one which I personally found impossible without canonical status. What I did not describe particularly well was the constant pull from society and even the church and religious life to engage in active ministry, to use one's gifts in more usual ways to benefit one's sisters and brothers, to help bring the Kingdom/Reign of God in fact. Of course other Christians are prayerful (no doubt as prayerful as hermits are); and of course contemplative prayer itself is esteemed and understood to some extent. But eremitic life is generally not, and it is a fragile thing, easily compromised, easily lost in activity and other things which are -- of themselves --- also quite positive. Acting in the name of the Church, remaining in one's hermitage when "cabin fever" hits, turning to prayer instead of to some other way of being a Christian in the world, trusting that one lives at the heart of the church and the heart of others' lives even when they are not aware of that, is part of what is empowered by canonical status.

For one given canonical status, and especially for one admitted to perpetual profession, the Church says, you are a hermit: "With the help of Almighty God we confirm you in this charism and choose you for this consecration as a diocesan hermitess." (Allen H Vigneron, Perpetual Profession Liturgy, Sept 2, 2007) All of the theoretical justifications of the eremitical life, all of the talk of the hermit's marginality, the reflections of the benefits and justification of the eremitical contemplative life, the confirmation and mediation of this as a Divine call, and all of the reasons for persevering in it come together in this one sentence. The canonical or diocesan hermit has been confirmed in this vocation from God and given the permission and freedom to live this life in whatever way GOD calls her to do, nevermind what society says or understands to be legitimate, nevermind even what other Christians say or understand to be legitimate. One has been given a context in which this can be accomplished, a context which frees and empowers --- and of course which challenges to consistency and integrity on a continuing basis.

Interestingly, there are actually arguments against canonical status put forward by those who choose not to pursue it. For instance, in the earliest history of the eremitical life hermits were marginalized even from the institutional church. One of the reasons for leaving for the deserts (remember eremites are desert dwellers, from eremos, Gk for desert) was the fact that the Church's own integrity was compromised to some extent by the surrounding culture, and the struggle to be a Christian in the world was no longer as it once was. Not only were Christians not persecuted for their faith, but over time Christianity had become a state religion. Martyrdom simply was not the everyday vocation it had once been, and as a result, everyday faith suffered as well. So, some went off to the deserts to lead a more penitential and integral Christianity. They did so as lay people without the benefit of canonical or other official status --- though they also became highly esteemed, and the vocation sought after. For those who argue that eremitic life should be lived with this particular kind of purity, the idea of canonical status can seem a kind of betrayal.

At the same time, there are those among the institutional church who do not encourage or foster vocations to diocesan eremitism. It is hard to know the number of times I have heard stories from those who either want to try, or believe they are called, to be diocesan hermits who were told by their local Vicar, Bishop, Spiritual Director, or Vicar General, "just go live in solitude; that is all that is necessary." Of course, I understand that in the initial (or other) stages of discernment, a person SHOULD be able to go off and live in solitude --- and in fact, this period of time might last for years! I also understand that simply because one approaches a diocese regarding canonical status and eremitical consecration, this does not mean one should be encouraged in this, much less actually professed and consecrated; the capacity to "just go and live in solitude" is an important one and needs to be gauged. Evenso, the eremitic vocation (and I am thinking especially now of canonical forms of this life) is essentially an ECCLESIAL vocation, and it makes sense that the hermit should ask, "Just going off and living in solitude is all that is necessary for WHAT?" If one wants to live an eremitic life in the heart of the Church, and in service to the church, then the Church should be open to it ---- careful and assiduously discerning, of course, but open to it.

Let me be clear, the ability to go off and live in physical solitude itself is NOT enough for a person to live as a Christian hermit, much less be professed and consecrated as a diocesan hermit, and telling a person that this is all that is required indicates a failure to understand (or at least to communicate!) the essence of the vocation itself. Living in physical solitude is only one aspect of the ecclesial vocation we call eremitism, and the misanthrope or otherwise psychologically wounded can manage this as well as (and sometimes with a good deal less struggle than) the genuine Christian hermit. One must also relate well to the community of the church, manage to balance the demands of the community and those of solitary life (this is true even in reclusion), be genuinely prayerful, hopeful, faithful, and loving (not only of God, but of oneself, one's sisters and brothers, and the whole of creation), and in one's life witness to the triumph of Grace that God manages when the truly humble and poor are empowered by and made to be truly rich in Him! The question, "Just going off alone and living in (physical) solitude is enough for WHAT?" has to be asked of diocesan representatives by hermit candidates precisely because the diocesan hermit represents an ecclesial vocation which is far richer than this flawed advice sometimes given by Vicars for Religious and Consecrated Life, or Vocation Directors itself reflects. The same is true of the non-canonical Christian eremitic vocation, though in somewhat different ways. Evenso, as critical an element of discerning an eremitic vocation as it may be, just going off and living in solitude is especially NOT enough for the diocesan hermit.

There is nothing demeaning in admitting that one cannot live this vocation without the assistance of the church. No, the church does NOT offer financial support or assistance, and this opens a whole other set of questions which some diocesan hermits are legitimately raising at the present time, but the Church DOES validate and mediate God's call to the individual, and she does offer the context which frees the hermit to live her life with integrity and consistency. In a world which seems to have less and less time or inclination for reflection, silence or solitude, prayer or penance, or even a personal orientation to reality which is other-centered, this is a tremendous gift, for it means being given a place to stand where the meaning of life can be discovered and lived out without reference to what one spends, or produces, or exploits, or consumes.

The reporter asked me what success meant in terms of this life. What would success at the end of the day mean? I answered in terms of integrity: A successful day would be one I lived with real integrity. I probably should have spelled that out more directly, and I am sorry I did not. For instance, I should have said that integrity means living a life of prayer, penance, silence and solitude where one's love for God and one's fellow human beings, as well as one's ability to suffer with and for them (compassion) grows, where communion and reconciliation are central values, where one can say at the end of the day, "With the grace of God, I did the best I could do and I was obedient to the will of God in my life today." I know this is not an unusual goal for most Christians (at least I think it is not!), but for the diocesan hermit it is a goal which canonical status makes easier or more approachable --- something that is good not only for the individual hermit, but for the Church herself and the world she touches -- sometimes secretly, and always mysteriously --- as leaven at every point.