30 August 2007

Profession Ring, "Power perfected in weakness"



This ring is the prototype for the profession ring I had made, and will be given this weekend. The difference is that the motto which is engraved on the ring is in Greek, and therefore does not cut all the way through the white gold to the yellow as Hebrew script allows. (Greek is composed of circles, so if they cut all the way through, most of the letter would fall right out!)

Also, it is taken from Paul's 2nd letter to the Corinthians, and is an abbreviation of his statement that, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is perfected (or made perfect) in weakness." This is, of course, the way Paul characterizes the sovereignty of God being revealed in our world through and in the Christ Event, but for a very long time now, I have known this verse also characterizes my own personal story.

So much of spirituality is a matter of "staying out of God's way" and letting him work in us! By that I simply mean that self-assertion gets us into more trouble in the spiritual life than we can ever guess! But we are indeed, poor, fragile and ultimately ineffective individuals (ineffective in the sense of doing good of ourselves, though not in the sense of doing evil!), and to succeed in the spiritual life we really do have to learn not only notionally that God's grace, his powerful presence, is sufficient for us; we have to really let that be the case.

We may be tempted to hear this motto that God's power is perfected in weakness in a cynical way --- as though God enjoys lording it over us, or takes advantage of our weakness, but the real meaning is far from such a reading. Where we are weak, broken, and godless, God will step in and make us strong, whole, and holy. Where we are unable to save ourselves, God will step in and save us, and in all of these cases he does so by assuming a position of ultimate weakness and loving vulnerability himself in Christ. Where we are wont to resort to self-assertion, God shows us the way himself in kenosis or self-emptying. Where we grasp at life (which is not at all the same thing as receiving life as gift!), God submits to death, so that ultimately life-as-gift may win out over sin, and even over death.

This was the story of Paul's life, and it is the story of most hermits I know (admittedly, this is a fairly small group!). Certainly it is my own, and is one of the key things being celebrated this weekend! (Postscript: I want to thank my sister, Cindy, who bought this ring as a gift for my perpetual profession! She has always been generous, and once again, she demonstrates that; it is just one of those characteristics that has made her so very special to me through our lives as sisters.)

28 August 2007

Dependence upon God


Preparing for perpetual profession has been stressful. And yet, there is a whole other side to it: the side of silence and of God's love for me, and my gradual, sometimes halting yielding to that love. I was rereading my favorite poet, e.e. cummings and the following poem reminded me of the journey these past years have been, and above all how it is that God's immense power is communicated to us in the weakness and self-emptying of Jesus' or the Spirit's gentle touch.

somewhere i have never travelled gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if it be your wish to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain,has such small hands

e.e. cummings LVII Complete Poems, 1904-1962

True and False Solitude/Solitaries

Recently a neighbor asked me some questions about the significance of my perpetual profession. She wondered what it meant, what would be different, what does it do? I started with the most basic ideas. Did she know what a hermit was? She responded, "Yes, it is someone who hides. . ." and then her statement sort of broke off, as if she realized how unflattering to me that definition must be!

And yet isn't my neighbor's idea pretty common? Isn't it true that even among hermits or those wanting to become religious hermits, there are strange ideas of what constitutes genuine solitude? Isn't there a sense sometimes that hermits embrace silence and solitude because they cannot and do not relate well to others? Isn't there a strong popular sense that hermits do not have close friends? That affirming that God alone is sufficient for us means we can dispense with the demands of social interaction, and beyond that, of deep friendship? Now let me be clear, reclusion is a unique vocation, and I am not referring to it here (though ordinarily authentic reclusion involves profound relationships and deep friendships too). I am talking about the genuine solitude of most hermits, a solitude whose heart is communion with God, and therefore, a solitude which spills over and finds another whole dimension of itself in relationships with others, and beyond that with the whole of God's creation.

Thomas Merton wrote about true versus false solitude and solitaries. For instance, he noted: [[“[the false solitary’s] solitude is imaginary … the false solitary is one who is able to imagine himself without companions while in reality he remains just as dependent on society as before – if not more dependent. He needs society as a ventriloquist needs a dummy. He projects his own voice and it comes back to him admiring, approving, opposing or at least adverting to his own separateness.”. . . “The true solitary does not renounce anything that is basic and human about his relationship to other men. He is deeply united to them – all the more deeply because he is no longer entranced by marginal concerns.”

One of the things that has become clearer and clearer to me as I live in solitude is just how much LIKE others I really am, and above all, how deeply related to them. This is true whether I am speaking about members of my parish, members of the orchestra I play violin in, clients, family, friends, etc. My vocation is unique but I am not. My circumstances are pretty common: a life marked and marred by illness, ordinary successes, some spectacular failures (some I am still coming to terms with and still feel embarrassment over), dreams yearning for fulfillment, a strong need to share what I have been given, etc. I spend a lot of time in silence and solitude, in contemplative prayer and study, and there is no doubt that I enjoy it and am sometimes tempted to use it as a way to withdraw defensively. But most of the time, so long as my life is profoundly prayerful, I do it because it allows me to be truly related in healthy ways with others, not to hide from those relationships. The hermit dwells in the heart of God, and the heart of God is a pretty populated place!!

[[The true solitary is not called to an illusion, to the contemplation of himself as a solitary. He is called to the nakedness and hunger of a more primitive and honest condition.”]]

Many things drive us to solitude and the notion of "hermitage", not all of them, or even most of them, necessarily positive. The immediate tendency when in physical solitude is to focus on self. One may be enamored of the IDEA of being a hermit, or even of the ROLE one is trying to assume instead of the person one actually is (not to mention the God who resides in one's heart). If one writes about eremitic life (or tries to do so!) this writing may simply be a not-so-veiled exercise in navel gazing and either self pity or self-aggrandizement. One could, conceiveably, justify many failures on many levels by considering oneself a hermit: social failures, emotional immaturity and the failure to achieve individuation, etc. Such a person might say to themselves, "Hermits don't have deep friendships!" "Hermits don't have to interact with the business/academic/ecclesial or other worlds; a hermit afterall, is 'dead to the world'", or again, "It is fine to rest in my suffering or to refuse to care appropriately for one's physical state, etc, because this is a form of 'mortification' in which I as victim participate in the redeeming suffering of Christ!", "God wills such suffering in my life," etc. Nevermind that such spiritualities are inherently dangerous and often the refuge of the deluded, or that their underlying theology is often bankrupt and a serious distortion of Christian theology.

But in an authentically DIVINE vocation to eremitic life, one will not indulge such pretense. If one has been brought to the desert by circumstances which are traumatic or negative and result in defense mechanisms which are destructive, in a genuine vocation, these will gradually be transfigured and transmuted into something far more positive and healthy. Religious language can be used to cover a plethora of sins: the inability to relate to others or reality can become a prohibition on particular friendships and allusions to dying to the world; a sense of victimization which casts the rest of the world in the role of perpetrators, can be recast and apparently (but not really) legitimized through the pious language of "victim souls" and "reparative suffering", one's own inner demons and need for either good spiritual direction or psychological assistance and personal work can be avoided, externalized, and superficially legitimated by calling our emotional states and defenses "attacks by the devil which God wills"

The hermitage is part sanctuary, part crucible, part battle ground, and part therapy space. No one comes to the desert for completely pure motives. We are all ambivalent. We are all complex and ambiguous mixtures of worthy and unworthy motives because at bottom we remain imago dei who are also sinners. At some point, in the authentic eremitic vocation though, the unworthy motives are worked through and discarded, while the worthy ones are purified and enhanced. If, once upon a time, our solitude, to whatever extent, was an escape and prison, it will become the doorway to engagement or communion and real freedom. If the subject of our meditations was ourselves AS SOLITARIES, our meditations will change and become those of a profoundly related solitary interested in and compassionate for others, and committed to God and God's OWN world of people --- with their problems AND possibilities.

Merton once pointed out that the person who went off into solitude also held a mirror up to themselves, and they would come away from that encounter either completely self-centered and insane, or other-centered and whole/holy (I admit this is a bad paraphrase, but it has been a number of years since I read this, and I would need to look up the exact statement to reprise it better; apologies to Merton). Either the things that pursued us into the desert will, with the grace of God, be met and transformed and transcended, or they will continue to define us, no matter what religious jargon we use to try to hide or "describe" the fact. Discernment of an eremitic vocation is not always easy, and when there are elements of a true vocation mixed with so much that is false, the job is always to move from inauthentic to authentic vocation, from false solitude to true solitude, from isolation and self-centeredness to a profound and compassionate relatedness established in the heart of God and spilling over into the rest of one's more tangible world.

Monastic (Eremitical) Cowl, Perpetual Profession


In preparing for perpetual vows this next weekend, I was informed by the Vicar for Religious that I would need a ring and a prayer garment. The ring I had had for several months, but the prayer garment? What really did they have in mind? Well, it turns out they were thinking of something like monastics use either in choir or in cell to pray in: a cowl or cuculla, a scapular with hood, or a tunic with hood.

Now these garments are very meaningful to monastics (and this includes hermits). In most communities, it is the cowl that is given at solemn profession, and the symbolism is rich and real. In the Camaldolese tradition the cowl is white, and reminds us clearly of white martyrdom ---the self-sacrifice of the hermit for the sake of Christ and his people, for instance. Echoes of wedding garments, baptismal garments, and putting on Christ are all a part of this garment's symbolism. It is designed so that one literally can do nothing other than pray in it! The sleeves are voluminous --- even on the modified version which my cowl will be. The hood closes one off to what is around one, and the full length ensures one is wholly covered, completely enwrapped.

I had not personally prepared for this, eventhough the cowl is also associated with perpetual profession in eremitic life. I was prepared for the ring (I will take off my silver band and replace it with a gold band), for my relationship with Christ has been nuptial for many years now and the bridal imagery of the perpetual profession resonated well with that. But, while I sometimes attend Mass and/or vespers at a Camaldolese monastery, and while I am used to the monks/nuns wearing cowls for choir and Mass, wearing such a garment myself much less being given one canonically to wear whenever I pray was relatively foreign to me! (And it was foreign to my sister as well, who, upon hearing the story, promptly responded: "Yo, Casper!")

I have had some time to work through this whole idea now, time to process it some, and it is meaningful to me --- though it is likely to become more so over time. It helped a lot that last week, the lections I chose for doing a reflection on were Thursday's! The first two lections were about vows and keeping one's vows, and the gospel was Matt's parable of the king who invites two different sets of people to the wedding feast. Once the second set have accepted the invitation and the feast is in full swing, the king looks around and spots a guy who has not worn the appropriate wedding garment, and without further ado, he has the man thrown out!!

Of course, the gospel is not about clothes per se. It is about God's unconditional love and the response it engenders and empowers. It is about "putting on Christ" in response to, and in the power of this love. What is clear is that if we accept the invitation of the king to the wedding feast, then we really do need to dress appropriately, and that means clothing ourselves in Christ. Even in situations where we will "look funny", be unfashionable, or out of step with our dominant culture, we really need to put on Christ. For me, the monastic cowl is a symbol of this --- and the fact that it does not represent just a sign of my new status as perpetually professed hermit, but is also still a bit "weird" is probably a good thing. Certainly it will not allow me to forget how truly marginal the hermit is, nor how truly countercultural either! Neither will it allow me to forget that the challenge to put on Christ is not an easy thing, nor one which is apt to keep me within some artificially determined comfort level. No, it will push the boundaries and take me where I might not have wanted or chosen to go otherwise.

This weekend, as a perpetually professed hermit, I receive canonically the monastic cowl. It is not yet as meaningful to me as the ring I will also receive, but it marks another new beginning to my hermit life, and one where every day I will struggle anew to put on Christ --- whether or not I put on the cowl (or a modified version of the same) at the same time!!

21 August 2007

05 August 2007

Sister Kristine Haugen, ocdh, "My Presence"

Thomas Merton, a brief public defense


Recently I participated in a discussion about Thomas Merton. It was a discussion in which some were quite critical of him, his later writings, and concluded that he was no real monk (he was said to be "inauthentic" and even supposedly hypocritical), and his later writings were to be eschewed except by "more advanced souls" who would not be led astray. Well, some of this discussion rankled with me, not only the idea that another monk could publicly state that, "He talked the talk, but he really didn't live the life," and especially the idea that Merton's work was B.S, in the sense that Merton had pulled the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting and gullible world. I believe that to be a misconstrual of Merton's actual meaning, even if the exact words are correct. The simple fact is I owe my vocation to Thomas Merton in some senses, and because of that, I also owe him a public defense. The following is an excerpt from the comments of a critic of Fr Louis's, and my response.

[[A Trappist monk once told me that Fr Merton entered into a room and saw bookshelves full of all his writings and he laughed. A friend who was with him asked him why he was laughing. He nodded towards his writings and replied " half of that is just B.S!!!! ]]

And Aquinas, at the end of his life, characterized all of his writings and thought as just so much straw, dross, waste ready for the fire. There are two ways to read the term bullshit. The first either is or includes a verbal or active sense: it implies the act of fraud or hypocrisy --- as a freshman in college might BS their way through a presentation without really knowing what they are talking about. The second is simply a comment on the quality of the work. It means that in comparison with real brilliance or the incommensurability or ineffability of the thing being described, one has done a terrible (that is, all-too-human) job. In fact, we don't know how Merton was using the term (as an apophatic contemplative he could simply have recognized every statement about God experienced in prayer is also a kind of betrayal of the God of intimacy who is always wholly other too), but I don't think we should conclude facilely that he meant his work was "fraudulent," any more than we should do so with Aquinas' comment about his own work.

You have actually cited only two monks who made comments regarding Merton, and the simple fact is, we may be seeing their flaws (judgmentalism, envy, narrowness of vision for instance) more than we are seeing Merton's. (Anyone living in community for any time at all will recognize the phenomenon that occurs when a fellow Brother or Sister is brilliant or particularly gifted in some way, and those who are more mediocre in many (or at least some of those same) ways, evaluate them.Monasteries do not lack for pettiness just because the members are monks and nuns.) But we must ask ourselves, in light of such accounts, "If Father Louis was not living the life, why was he permitted to move through all the stages of formation, profession, ordination and the like? If his work was hypocritical, then why did the Order allow it to be published? Why was he allowed (indeed at times exhorted and commanded) to continue an activity which was contributing to and would therefore have exacerbated his hypocrisy? If he was not REALLY Cistercian, why, in fact, was he allowed an intimate role in the formation of novices, juniors, etc?" Other Cistercians and monks of other Orders and monasteries recognize Merton as "the real deal," and they know quite well, there is no ideal monk, no one who REALLY lives the life without ALSO struggling with the life.

Merton was a flawed individual, yes. But he was neither a dilettante, nor simply a monk "wannabe." There is, as far as I can see, no stage in Merton's life when he gave up on growing and maturing in his vocation. Did he match peoples' stereotypes of either monk or hermit? No, but then he did show us that stereotypes are far less real, less authentic than a flawed character struggling to grow in Christ and monastic life day by day. Hermits know there is no single pattern for eremitic life. There are constants or fundamental elements, yes, but it is both a flexible and extremely individual life. Looking at another brother/sister monk or hermit (presuming the one doing the looking is also a monastic), one can make serious errors in evaluating her or his life in two ways: one can focus on the constants, the fundamentals of the life and miss the individual elements which are as significant in the whole, or one can focus on the individual elements and either miss or downplay the fundamentals that are there while concluding the person is "not really living the life." In both cases, one has erred in determining what is authentic. In any case, some of us find that Merton's writings ring true, and that one cannot write thusly about something one does not KNOW in the biblical sense. Monastic gossip (and I am sorry, but I honestly can use no other word for the disedifying accounts mentioned) is not necessary to draw such a conclusion.

04 August 2007

Prayer, Maintaining a Human Perspective

(First published in Review For Religious, Nov-Dec 1987)

For most of us, prayer during desperate, frustrating, seemingly futile, or insignificant moments is itself often an experience in desperation, futility or insignificance. At these times, most of us have accused God of remaining remote and distant, and often we have attempted to blunt the sharpness of the accusation by clothing it in the misleading language of a shallow and inadequate pseudomysticism. We say, for instance, that God has "hidden himself," or "withdrawn" from us, and in fact, we turn away from the actual situation at hand, focusing instead on the supposed "absence of God". In the worst cases our prayer degenerates into attempts to induce God to return and redeem the situation in the way we believe best. All of this activity is irresponsible and essentially cowardly. Certainly it is inimical to prayer. Properly understood, prayer allows no appeal to God's "remoteness," and certainly it is never an occasion which prevents us from drinking as deeply as possible from the cup of human experience.

The fundamental premise on which all prayer is based and in which all prayer is grounded and enabled is the assertion that in Christ God has drawn near to us. Prayer always involves the recognition of this nearness. Prayer involves neither summons nor dismissal, that is, we do not actually ask God to draw near to us as though he had in some way remained distant from us. Rather, in prayer we open ourselves to the fact of God's presence. Prayer does not have the character of invitation so much as it does of welcome and appreciation.

Although the soundness of this premise rest on a clear Christological basis, that is, we know this is true because this is what the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus reveal to us, we can begin to develop the assertion by appealing to our fundamental experience of prayer itself. Prayer is the interpreted experience of being comprehended by God. (Isaiah describes the experience as one of "being held in the palm of his hand.") In prayer, we are known by God. In prayer we are loved by God. And in prayer we are served by God. Prayer is the conscious appreciation of His comprehension if us. If we have prayerfully attended to any moment in our lives, we know that we have first been known. Of course it is true that if our prayer is successful, we too will have known, loved, and served God, but the priority of experience is clearly God's total grasp of us. The psalmist, who shares the Isaianic experience, sings of this priority with wonderful awe and eloquence in psalm 139.

O God, you have searched and known me! You know when I sit and when I stand. . .You come upon me behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Being known so (such knowledge)is too wonderful for me; it is beyond me in every way, I cannot attain it.

Neither is the psalmist's experience unique: his is simply the articulation of one who is intoxicated by his appreciation of something we have all known in those moments we have genuinely privileged with our attention. Simply, we are graced by the presence by the presence of God at all moments of our lives; the tragedy is we do not grace all of those same moments with our own presence. Stating this in another way, we could say that prayer is the experience of God as the One he wishes to be for us rather than as we alone are aware of needing him to be, or even as we alone believe him to be. Prayer begins, ends, and is sustained by our concern for our commitment to the life of God. We pray whenever we appreciate how very surely, gently, and completely God holds us.

Such an understanding of prayer undergirds our ability to "pray always," for it implies that we can learn to recognize, welcome, and appreciate God's presence, not only in our most positive and profound experiences, but in the most negative, and perhaps more importantly, the most prosiac and homely as well. Praying well insists that we learn to regard even the negative or seemingly insignificant as the potentially significant locus of revelation, profound in its capacity to mediate God's commitment to us. We must believe that not only that God is near to us in the apparently profound, but also that he is always profoundly near; to pray it is necessary to believe that in Christ God has drawn near to us in all experience and will not depart from our midst.

As long as we feel we must exclude negative experiences such as doubt and despair from the realm of faith or the province of prayer, or that we can blithely disregard the "mundane," we can be sure our prayer will remain severely inadequate and deeply troubled. For if the primary experience in prayer is that of being comprehended by God, to question that he knows, loves, and serves us in any of the moments of our life is to question the integrity of his commitment to and apprehension of his own creation in general. The result is human uncertainty and tentativeness in the face of divine assurance, and we will not be able to avoid asking whether his knowledge of us is incomplete, his love inadequate, and his grace uncertain if we cannot believe that his living presence is the ground of all of our existence and experience.

To exclude God, to assert his absence from any moment or mood of his creation, particularly our confession of our own sinfulness, is to abandon prayer. But note well, the failure of prayer results not when we experience absence, emptiness, or even abandonment; if that were the case much of our lives would cease to reflect God's real relationship to his creation in any way. Prayer fails when we forget that when we experience these, or any other feelings with regard to God, we can pray by attending to how God experiences us in these moments. Failure to evaluate the situation in this way can signify we have forgotten the fundamental experience of prayer and marks the most critical loss of perspective possible. Individual experiences are themselves wrongly interpreted in our interpretation is focused on our initiative rather than upon the initiative of God. Thus despair, for instance, does not represent the absence of God; rather it is a particularly difficult and intense, while mistakenly interpreted experience of God's nearness in conjunction with human brokenness and isolation.

But such an understanding of prayer is also necessary if we are to pray at all --- and for an even more significant reason: God is not someone subject to the coercion and whim of a human summons. It is true that the language of prayer uses expressions of invitation; but it does so only as expressions of our own desire for increased intimacy and in acknowledgement of the need for better appreciation on our own part. It is tragically misunderstood if it is interpreted as a form of summons, no matter how graciously extended; for no matter how "graciously extended," it will always lack the humility appropriate to humanity and necessary for prayer and summon a "God" who can only be inadequate to the role and a parody of the name. Prayer is the gift and activity of God attended to by sinners. It will always be inadequate insofar as it does depend upon our appreciation; however, prayer is possible only because God has acted, has loved us and determined to serve us in our need. Our prayer is required if God's activity is to come to fruition; it is never required, however, to summon God into action. If such an image lingers in our understanding of prayer, we can be very certain we have arrogated the divine initiative to ourselves, and diminished both ourselves and God in the process.

Yet, at the same time we renounce our supposed ability to summon God on the spot, we presume God's nearness. The Christ Event gives us the right to this particular presumption. In life, in death, and in our despairing over both, God has drawn near. Whether our experience sings of ecstasy or screams in doubt, fear, and hopelessness, above and below all, we presume God's nearness. Prayer is always an act of presumption, but it is the only presumption God's presence allows; it is always an act of profoundest humility. That God has drawn near, we who are sometimes aware of our seeing and tasting and touching of the Risen Lord, cannot doubt. But the paradox that we cannot doubt even when we feel we must, and even when we are only aware of doing so, must reduce us as it did the psalmist, and certainly as it did Jesus, not to arrogance but to awe.