27 December 2008

Christmas at Stillsong







Christmas Morning (1:00 am, 2007 picture) prior to Vigils (Office). I love the way the picture picks up the reflections in the picture glass.




Christmas Night, also prior to Vigils.

24 December 2008

In Memoriam, Tom Malanca b: Jan 8, 1940; d: Dec 24, 2008



In the above picture, taken after Christmas eve Mass, 2007, Tom (above) is on the left with his wife Aggie, Sons (John and Robert) and Daughter in Law (Autumn). Today, just one year later, Tom Malanca died of a heart attack after a long and truly courageous struggle with illness. He had just returned from the hospital yesterday and was happy to be home. To say how much St Perpetua parish will miss Tom is impossible. Our celebration of Christmas is bittersweet and we trust that he is celebrating his own truest homecoming during this feast of light. We celebrate with him despite our sadness, for his faith was honest and profound, and he was a man of generosity and integrity of whom, in this season focusing on the Incarnation and our own vocations to incarnate the Word of God, I personally believe God is proud. Echoing the statement at Jesus' baptism, I can easily hear him summing up Tom's life, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased!" Picture Above right: Tom at Son, Rob's, and Daughter in Law, Autumn's, wedding. Picture taken by family.

Singing with the choir at rehearsal, Christmas Eve, 2007, Tom is on the right. Singing was one of the things he truly loved, and as our pastor announced tonight, we trust that now he is singing with the choirs of heaven.

I especially ask that you keep Aggie and the rest of Tom's family in your prayers this Christmas season.

SURPRISE! Christmas Eve Day 2008

(Artist unknown. Credit will be given as possible.)

This evening on Christmas we celebrate the response to God's Word Jesus is and will grow in grace and stature to become. (Remember that Christmas is the Feast of the Nativity and that Incarnation involves the whole of Jesus' life and death.) We should be clear that our own capacity for incarnation is similar to that of Jesus'.

Each of us is called to become an incarnation of the Word of God, though not in the precise sense as Jesus. Each of us is called to be Daughter or Son, a response to the One who calls us to authentic humanity and to be heirs of his own Kingdom, though again, not in a way which obviates Jesus' uniqueness as Incarnate Word. The need to hold together both parts of this paradox is one of the most serious in theology, and one of the most difficult.

It is interesting to consider "what if" questions from time to time, and the question regarding Jesus' gender is one of these. If we cannot at least understand that the Word of God COULD have been definitively incarnated in a woman, if we cannot understand the humor (and seriousness!) of the above cartoon, but instead become offended by it, perhaps we have yet missed the point of Christmas and a God who TRULY comes to us in the unexpected way and place.

21 December 2008

Week # 4, Advent 2008

20 December 2008

A Little Child Shall Lead Us (Penance Service Reflection)

(Part of the following will be familiar to some readers. I reused a story from the beginning of Advent for my parish's Advent Penance Service. It seemed important to share it there as well as here!)


In Advent we rehearse all the promises of God. It is a time of hope for us, and therefore, also a time of repentance as we get in touch with the hope that lives within us, but which we have often betrayed as well. In particular because of tonight’s readings (Isaiah 11:1-10, Luke 10:21-24) it is a time to look at the ways we have bought into false notions of adulthood and rejected our very best and most childlike selves.

The language we hear from Isaiah, the language of promise and hope is ordinarily the language of power and mighty deeds, breaking the bonds of slavery and returning us from exile, coming to us in powerful and unexpected ways with a love which is stronger than all of the other powers which mark and mar our world. But as we prepare for Christmas we especially mark the paradoxical way in which this occurs: namely in the birth of an infant, the coming of a child who, precisely his weakness and powerlessness, his lack of worldly stature or wisdom, is the hope of the world. Now this is not the way things ordinarily work in the “real” world, some tell us. For this reason today’s readings stress the idea of becoming truly childlike.

It is a childlikeness which involves growth in grace and stature --- as we hear about Jesus’ own growth later in the season. This maturity is what Isaiah is referring to when he says the spirit of the Lord will rest upon this child, a Spirit of Wisdom and understanding, Counsel and Strength. It is what Luke refers to when he contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of the child. But we must be clear. In growing in grace and stature Jesus does not relinquish his childlikeness, he allows it to develop even further as he becomes the Son his Father needs him to be living here among us. He lives FOR others in the power of his Father's love. He is a person of character (STATURE), of deep and true humanity. In his dependence upon God he embodies a Sonship , a childlikeness which is a model and challenge to us.

After all, as Luke reminds us, we too are each to become as little children, persons who are wise in the ways of God and loving in the way of Christ so that we too may guide our church and world in the ways of true peace and holiness. But this is actually not an easy thing to achieve sometimes. Our culture often encourages us to let go of and betray our childlikeness which is at the heart of who we really are. It encourages us to grasp at something else --- a worldy wisdom that often passes for growing up, but which has nothing whatever to do with growth in grace and stature Christians expect of themselves. And quite often we buy into this --- literally!!

Let me give you a picture of what this BETRAYAL of the hope and call which lives in us might look like. On one TV series I saw earlier this year 15 year olds embodied the very worst characteristics of what sometime passes for adulthood in our society: unbridled greed, undisciplined affluence, unmitigated self-centeredness, arrogance, and unrestrained consumerism --- (among other things).

In the segment I saw, an adolescent girl was, as the name and subject of the show itself indicates, being given a Sweet sixteen party. The whole shebang cost literally hundreds of thousands of dollars as parents rented a huge venue, limousines, hundreds of guests, etc. In preparing for the party the girl had a designer come in with a selection of clothes to show her. And she RAGED at him: “How DARE you show such clothes to me! Who do you THINK you ARE? WHO DO YOU THINK I AM???? I wouldn’t be caught DEAD in such rags!! Later she went to look at cars. She chose the most expensive agency and car she could find and sat in it posturing for the photographer, looking in the various mirrors, etc: She then exclaims, “I LOOK GOOD in this; if I say I want it, my Mother will buy it for me!”

As far as I can tell, the whole series uses kids like this and models a set of values which distort young people into something hardly recognizable as either childhood OR true adulthood ---- and it is something which is actually repellent, for it is a betrayal of genuine childlikeness and maturity. (For that matter, it doesn’t do much to model genuine parenthood either, does it??)

In particular, the notion that these young people are to be gifts to our world has never even occurred to them. Instead everything is there to serve and gift THEM, and nothing is either sufficient or good enough. They are like adolescent infants sucking hungrily on a bottle marked "SELFISHNESS, GREED, AND INGRATITUDE" and then expecting everyone else to change the diapers they still wear for them and to love doing it.

I am pretty sure the young people on this show are not the kind of young people Isaiah had in mind when he said "a little child marked with the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, Strength and Counsel will guide us" in the way of peace and freedom. They are certainly not the kind of young persons Luke was speaking of who give hope to our world. Just the opposite in fact. I found this portrait of affluent teenage really sad and discouraging. No growth in grace or stature here! No hope for the world here from a Child who will give herself for others in a life of love and genuine maturity!

But those who ARE the hope of the world do exist, and as we all know, they exist right here in our own parish. While at Mass and giving out Communion a couple of weeks ago, a little girl approached me with her Father. She was too young to receive Communion so I bent down to greet and bless her. As I did, she slipped a small folded square of paper into my hand. . .when I had time to look at it what I found was the name Jesus on the outside and a drawing of this little girl with a big smile on her face and her arms wide offering Jesus a hug. This young girl, without status in our world, and not even old enough to receive Communion yet brought herself to God’s altar as a gift. She has already grown in grace and the kind of stature Luke wants from each of us. On that day at least, she was the embodiment of Christmas and Advent for me. She was the hope of our parish, our church, and our world.




As I said in the beginning, Advent is a time of hope. But it rests on the tension between already and not yet. Christ has come to us already and we will celebrate this at Christmas, but to “come again”, he needs we who are part of his own BODY to truly embody him ourselves. That is, we are to become true daughters and sons of God and everything we are and do is to reflect (on) him.

Tonight we pause on the journey to repent not only of the times when we have failed to hope, but for all those times and ways we have failed to be the signs of hope our families, friends, church, and our world need so badly. We pause to attend to the places of darkness (greed, selfishness, ingratitude, etc) within us as we journey to the feast of Light --- i.e., the times we have truly betrayed and rejected the child within us, the adult child we are truly called to become. We pause to recommit ourselves to the unique growth in grace and stature that Jesus models for us and the world calls foolish and rejects.

To that end I encourage you to let THIS little child in the second story guide you in the ways of Christ. Let her be your model of true adulthood, of what one becomes when there is real maturity. She has certainly been my guide this Advent. Now, in doing this you and I will likely never get to star in a TV program, but we will be gifts to the world and stars in the Kingdom of God --- perhaps the very gifts and stars that are synonymous with hope and which lead others to the place where Jesus is to be found.

12 December 2008

Canon 603 as Male Counterpart of Canon 604?

[[Hi Sister O'Neal. Is it the case that Canon 603 is the male counterpart of Canon 604? I read recently that that was the case, but you are professed under Canon 603, right? So, how can that be? Are males admitted to consecration under Canon 604? Is there a male option similar to Canon 604 if they are not?]]

Hi there. I read the same thing about a year ago in a newspaper article about the consecration of virgins citing an associate professor of religious studies at a Catholic college. The passage read: [[While men wishing to affirm their vows of celibacy cannot be consecrated virgins, they can become diocesan hermits, a lay group of men similar to the consecrated virgins said (name), associate professor of theology. The archbishop has the power to deny this sacrament from candidates who he may not deem mature or independent enough. . .(name), said.]]

Assuming the paper is citing accurately (and I am not sure they are), it is an astounding mistake (or series of mistakes!) to make, not only because Canon 603 is used to profess AND CONSECRATE hermitesses or female hermits, but also because the life governed by Canon 603 is vastly different than that of Canon 604 (Consecrated virginity). I suppose there are some stereotypes about hermits that suggest they are male, but history disproves this from the very first years of the Desert Fathers and MOTHERS. So, the notion that men become hermits and women become consecrated virgins is just silly. Also, calling this consecration (Canon 604) a Sacrament is misleading and just plain wrong. So is referring to canon 603 men as lay hermits. (These particular errors convince me that the paper is not citing accurately here for the professor associated with the comments is knowledgeable about consecrated life and would not make such egregious errors!)

As for Canon 604 itself, no, men cannot be admitted to this consecration. Perhaps that seems unfair but the canon represents a recovery of the very ancient Order of Virgins from the first years of the Church (men were generally called ascetics) and at this point the Church, despite discussing doing so has not opened this or a similar vocation to men. Today also, Canon 604 is for women in the world despite the fact that a version of the Rite is for nuns at solemn profession who are called to a strictly contemplative life; CV's living in the world (saeculum) may be drawn to contemplative prayer, but generally their entire lives as such are not separated from the world (meaning mainly that which is resistant to Christ and only secondarily to the saeculum and God's good creation) and involve direct apostolic service to the church and to the world to a much greater degree than a hermit's can ever do; nor are they strictly contemplative.

Further, their vocation, no matter the tenor and intensity of their prayer lives, is not primarily characterized canonically as the hermit life is by stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance. What I mean is these are NOT the defining characteristics of the life of the consecrated virgin living in the world per se. Instead what defines their lives is a consecration by God and a commissioning to serve God and his Church in the things of the spirit and the things of the world as paradigms of the Church as eschatological Bride of Christ. Neither do consecrated virgins make vows (chastity as a commitment is affirmed in the Rite of consecration itself but is not a vow), nor do they necessarily live according to a Rule of Life they write as do diocesan hermits.

Finally, as relatively uncommon as it still is today and will probably always be, consecrated virginity is much less rare a vocation than the eremitical call. Setting the two off against each other as male and female counterparts --- especially since there are female hermits --- completely neglects this reality. The comments cited above make it sound as if any male who wishes to consecrate his virginity in the service of God and his Church simply needs to approach a diocese about consecration and profession under Canon 603, never mind all the distinctions between the two calls. I suppose that is what is most frustrating about the comments cited. They show no sense at all that these two vocations are different in character and charism. It is for this reason the Church needs both --- not because they are male and female counterparts of one another.

11 December 2008

Diocesan Hermits and Lay Hermits, Once Again

[[ Are diocesan hermits lay hermits? I read recently that they were.]]

Hi, thanks for the question. I have answered it (at least indirectly) several times here, and will do so briefly again. Do check other posts on this matter (see the tags at the bottom of the post). Also, I hope that I can include a bit of new information which explains how confusion can arise. The short answer though is no, they are not.

The longer answer goes a little like this. By diocesan hermits I am referring to those who have been perpetually professed under Canon 603 and consecrated in that rite of profession. Consecration in such circumstances initiates one into or "raises one" to the consecrated state (again apologies, but this use of raises is the verb most often used; I prefer initiates one into, but this is something I am trying on for size and there may be a better term without the elitist conntations of "raised"). As the Church affirms in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the consecrated state is per se, neither clerical nor lay even though some members may ALSO be clerics. Now it is true that other and earlier church documents (especially from Vatican II) use a different schema: clerical or lay. Using THIS schema religious life is lay life because it is not clerical. However, since 1983 the schema we are using recognizes the consecrated state as neither lay nor clerical, and this means that all forms of consecrated life [religious, eremitical (Canon 603), consecrated virginity (Canon 604)] are not lay.

Eremitical life may therefore be lay or consecrated. That is, one may make private vows (or other commitments) and live one's eremitical life as a lay person, or one may make public vows and be subject to the ecclesial consecration associated with the consecrated state. There are positive and negative aspects to either arrangement, and despite huge overlaps in the life's nature ( a life of greater separation from the world, silence, solitude, prayer and penance), there are differences in witness, accountability, expectations, and charism. Diocesan hermits, however, are not laity or "lay hermits," but instances and representatives of the consecrated state of life. At the same time, diocesan hermits are not religious in the sense that they are not vowed within a community even if they come together to support one another in a Laura or Lavra. (Canonists call them religious however, and note that this word now applies to those without a link to a community or congregation. cf Handbook on Canons 573-746). Thus, it seems to me that it would be a mistake to call them lay hermits simply because they are not religious in the former sense (or clerics usually). I suspect that what you read was a statement by someone using the older or alternate schema instead of the one represented in the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law.

Hope this helps.

08 December 2008

Renunciation and Trust

[[You wrote that at bottom renunciation is really about trust. Can you say more about that please?]]

Sure, I am glad to, though I don't time to answer more than briefly. If you consider the context of my comments you know that I was talking about letting go of distractions, things that draw our attention away from the Word of God that sounds in the depths of our own being, and from the various feelings and sensations which rise up in our hearts when we are truly silent and refuse to distract ourselves in all the ways our culture offers us. (Distractions can anesthetize as well as merely diverting our attention from.) I was speaking about renouncing the kinds of things which prevent an experience in the desert from being a true desert experience, that is, an experience of being vulnerable and completely dependent upon God for the meaning and security of our lives.

The reasons we hang onto things seems to me to be about security, comfort, status, and meaning, as well as the distraction they provide from the struggles and difficult emotional dimensions of life. The latest electronic gadget may say that we "have arrived," whether in our careers, or just in keeping up with the Joneses or with advances in technology ("I need to be at the forefront here; it says I am knowlegeable and technologically savvy. I have important needs which these things symbolize and serve, and which other people don't really have --- and, after all, I can afford these where some cannot!" is one set of reasons, often unarticulated which we use to justify the latest acquisition). Similarly, we may need the larger and newer TV set or iPod, or whatever because media use distracts us from the demands and call of our own inner lives. We may keep UPS delivery folks busy with our purchases from Amazon despite the fact that we have not read what we already have because we are insecure, or bored, or struggling with depression and a new book (or anything else) relieves the symptoms temporarily. The same may be true with any shopping compulsion, the constant need for new clothes and the like. These are just a few of the kinds of things I was referring to in my earlier post.

Possessions become extensions of ourselves. They become sophisticated security blankets except that they also say that we are important or educated or affluent where childhood security blankets do not. They make us a little less naked it seems to us, a little less poor, a little less vulnerable because they comfort us, and a little less empty if, and to the extent, our hearts and lives are devoid of ultimate love and meaning. But as we heard in today's first reading, the inability to bear the anxiety and vulnerability of being naked selves gets us into all kinds of trouble. In today's passage from Genesis Adam realizes he is naked and becomes self-conscious. As a result, he hides from God and sins in the attempt to be more than he actually is. His heart is filled with anxiety and thoughts of himself and he no longer walks with God in the simple trust he was created for. For all of us this option is fundamental: we can either stand naked before God and trust in his love for us, or, because of anxiety and self-consciousness, we can cover ourselves with fig leaves (and all the more sophisticated contemporary equivalents in material possessions, status, etc.) and hide from him and ourselves.

If we can let go of the things we ordinarily cling to to comfort us and mitigate our "nakedness" and vulnerability we will need to turn to God instead. We will need to trust him and the sense his love makes of our lives. We will be challenged to come to terms with the emptinesses and wounds which afflict our hearts, and allow God to comfort and heal us as he wills. We will need, that is, as this season says so well, to learn to wait on him with open hands and hearts dependent and childlike. Renunciation itself signals our willingness to trust all things to God. It allows us to stand before him in all of our human poverty and discover where out true wealth lies. This was what I was referring to in my original posts on desert experiences, retreats, etc. So, a very brief outline of the dynamics of possession and renunciation which I hope explains why I suggested renunciation was, at bottom, a matter of trust. As always, please let me know if this raises more questions or leaves something obvious unaddressed.

07 December 2008

Second Sunday of Advent, 2008

05 December 2008

iPods, Technology, Retreat, and desert Experiences

[[Is it wrong for a person to have iPods and other technological conveniences? How about taking them on retreat? Is that wrong?]]



No, there is nothing wrong with iPods, laptops, or other conveniences in themselves. I hope I didn't give that impression in the posts I wrote on desert experiences! Someone else kidded me about something similar after reading them. Neither is it wrong to bring them on retreat depending on the use one makes of them of course. It is not even wrong to have these things as a hermit, and they can add greatly to the richness of one's prayer life. In the scenarios I drew a post or two ago (assuming your questions come from reading those) I somewhat overstated the differences between the two scenarios. I could have pointed out that the woman in the second scenario had an iPod with her as well, and used it at various points to assist with her prayer for instance. She has Morning and Evening Prayer settings from various artists and monasteries, a number of recordings of psalms and other liturgical or Christian music, and she uses these as appropriate to enhance prayer, but NOT to distract from the silence or from the feelings and sensations that rise up within her in solitude.

For instance, if she uses a laptop for journaling routinely, then that too is completely acceptable and CAN help enhance the desert experience, but if she is linking up to the internet, reading email, shopping on Amazon, etc, then that is another matter entirely. The same is true with a cell phone: it is good to have for emergencies, but otherwise should be left unused or even turned off. I think you understand what I am trying to describe here, right?

Retreats are meant to allow a person to have a desert experience. They are ordinarily designed to let a person sink into the silence and solitude and to listen to all that their hearts give voice to in such an environment. If anxiety and tension occur, bits of "cabin fever," boredom, and the like surface, then retreats invite a person to deal with these in prayer and in other ways one is not really used to (for instance, a quiet walk around the grounds instead of a trip to the mall, or without turning to the usual distractions), as well as to get some spiritual direction if that seems appropriate. Silence and the relative solitude of the retreat are lifegiving realities, as are the ordered days, the time away from ordinary responsibilities, etc. One should simply take advantage of all this as best one can. However, doing so may also mean sleeping a bit more than one is ordinarily able to, reading a bit of fiction here and there, listening to a bit of music, etc. One simply needs to discern what really serves one best here, that is, what allows the retreat to be what one's heart, mind, and body need at the time (and what one needs is what God wills for one, by the way)!

Personally, I would draw the line at bringing along a TV set (I am mainly kidding here since I doubt anyone actually would, but the example in my story included an RV with a TV set, so I am mentioning that -- and no movies on CD either for viewing on laptops!!) The rules for retreat are pretty general and simple. Take what you need to be comfortable and travel light. Trust that the retreat house or center generally has what you need (reading material, CD's, etc), and try to believe that God really does provide. Ordinarily that means he provides himself, and retreats are times and spaces set aside so that God may really have access to you he does not get otherwise. He is always knocking, always calling, but ordinarily there is simply too much noise, whether internal or external, for us to listen well. So the general rules of retreat "stuff" basically boil down to, "whatever helps you hearken (listen and respond)" in all the ways you are called.

Again, the scenarios I drew in the last posts were not meant to condemn modern conveniences or technology. However, there is no doubt that these things can and often do mitigate desert experiences. Hence, I will ask directees to put the iPod away more even if they are using it to listen to Christian music. I do the same thing myself and what I see and hear is vastly different when I am listening to an iPod while taking a walk, than when I am not listening to music. Desert experiences come in a variety of depths and intensities. So long as one is doing the will of God (again, taking care of our truest needs), and being sensitive to the retreat environment for others, limited use of technology can enhance the experience rather than detract and distract from it. One caveat however, since it is easy to rationalize and fool ourselves in this matter, one would do better to err on the side of caution and forego whatever one can.

At bottom desert experiences are about taking time with God to consolidate and deepen our identities as daughters and sons --- just as Jesus did, and, in becoming the People of God, just as Israel did in their extended time there. We do this by attending to God and our relationship with him in a way which makes us heirs and prophets of HIS Kingdom instead of the others at hand. If technology assists in this to some limited extent, then well and good. Otherwise, leave it at home! (The very fact that you do this is an act of renunciation and trust (because that is really what renunciation is about at bottom) which will help initiate you into a true desert experience long before you arrive on retreat.)

03 December 2008

Off to the MAGIC Kingdom!



Well, I will be blogging from time to time as possible, but for the next three days I am spending time with my sister and we are going to Disneyland! It is one of those places I have not been to for years so the chance to see it again with my sister and reminisce about growing up, memories of Disneyland, etc is one I have looked forward to for a while now. Seems like a good way to start Advent as well! Pictures of the trip to follow.

It's a Small World done up for Christmas is truly amazing; much of the ride is changed and Christmas Carols are added to the signature song.

Wooden soldiers in the Christmas parade starting in front of It's a Small world.


More to come!

29 November 2008

Sunday, Week 1, Advent 2008, A Little Child Shall Lead Us!



This morning (1st Sunday of Advent) I served as an EEM for one of the Masses. It is something I usually only do to fill in when someone else can't come for one reason and another, but I love doing it because of the unique dynamics of sharing and worship involved. Today a Father and Daughter appproached me, and the child was too young for Communion so she expected a word and gesture of "blessing". As I smiled at her and reached down to do that she slipped a small folded square of paper into my hand. Surprised and touched I looked at it very briefly, thanked her, wished her a wonderful season, and put the paper in the pocket of my habit beneath my cowl. I gave her Father, who smiled as he watched all this, Communion, and finished with the rest of this service.

Before I went back to my place though, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little square of paper. For the first time I saw that it had "Jesus" printed on the front. This little girl clearly knew who THIS was supposed to go to and I guess she figured I could deliver it! When I opened it I saw that the she had drawn a picture of herself smiling with arms outstretched. In approaching God's altar she had brought herself as a gift. It was the most incredible little "love note" I have ever seen, and it is precisely what Advent (or Christian life more generally) is all about.

When I got home I looked ahead to Tuesday's readings because we will have a Communion service that morning due to our Pastor's need to celebrate a funeral Mass elsewhere and the illness of our other resident priest. Imagine how I felt when I saw that Tuesday's Gospel was from Luke (Lk 10:22) and is the continuation of the passage where Jesus criticizes trusting the intelligence and sophistication of the world and tells his disciples they should become as little children! "The things of God are hidden from the wise and learned and revealed to the childlike." Well, the miracle I had just experienced is what he is speaking of: coming to Jesus without self consciousness, aware that anything is possible (including a hermit delivering a child's love note to Jesus!), and ready to give oneself and one's gifts, no matter how humble or silly in worldly terms, to become Christ for others, part of the Cosmic Christ no matter our apparent insignificance: it is to these that God's power will really be revealed. It is these IN WHOM God's power will be revealed to us! Afterall, we are the ones who celebrate that God himself could and did reveal himself exhaustively to us in human flesh. We are the foolish ones who believe that evident in the infant Jesus is the awesome power of a love which dwarfs and overcomes all other powers in our world and will indeed heal and perfect the whole of creation! We are the ones who believe that our's is indeed a God whose power (i.e., his sovereign, merciful, and infinitely creative love) is perfected, not mitigated, in weakness.

Now, before I received this precious love note we had just listened to a homily on being open to God acting in awesome and surprising ways and at unexpected times. The presider and homilist encouraged us to set aside our agendas and, as the Scriptures asked, to be aware and watchful: expect the unexpected, be open to the sovereign, Creator God who comes in surprising ways and meets us in the unexpected place. Well, I had expected to meet God there in the Eucharist, but I had not expected to receive a small and wonderful miracle like this: a living homily, an enacted parable, which itself was far more powerful than the priest or any theologian, with all their theological learning and sophistication could have given. As Jesus implicitly asks of us on Tuesday, setting the tone and agenda for Advent, "become as little children" for, as Isaiah tells us in the first lection, "a little child shall lead (us)". I encourage you to let the image of THIS little one in Christ -- whose name I do not yet even know -- lead you. It is certainly what I am going to do. Afterall, she writes love letters to Jesus and approaches God's altar to faithfully entrust them to hermit nuns for delivery when she is not yet even allowed to receive Communion! She understands Christmas and the reason for Advent completely. She embodied it perfectly at that moment. Standing before the altar of God she WAS the gift she was made to be; is there any doubt that God was absolutely delighted as he contemplated this pure instance of his Kingdom fulfilled right here and now?

P.S. the note resides in the Tabernacle here at Stillsong for the time being. My littlest homilist and living parable wanted it delivered, and, in more ways than this of course, delivered it has been!

27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!!



This is one of those really special days for Americans, where we pause and give thanks for all that we have and can aspire to as the result of our liberty as citizens of the United States. For me it is a joyfilled day because God has been so very good to me in so many ways. My life is rich with friends, love, meaning, and genuine freedom. In particular though, it is rich in the presence of God in a solitude which is full, empowering, and challenging. I am grateful beyond telling for this vocation and the freedom to respond to it. So many people have brought me to this place. . . ! I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving Day. May you celebrate well the gifts and callings you have been given by God.

Loneliness With Others: A Sign of an Eremitical Vocation?

[[Sister, if a person is lonely when they are with others, can this be a sign they are called to deeper solitude or maybe even to be a hermit?]]

Great question! I would have to say no, the chances are much better that this points to the need for inner work on one's capacity for and in relationships. We can be feeling lonely because we simply do not connect with others, for instance, or because there is something going on in us which keeps us self-centered and angry or unhappy, because we are unable to be truly vulnerable in the way the situation calls for, etc. If we are not really at home with ourselves we can feel this acutely when we are with others, but then we can mistake it for a sign that we are called to greater solitude and even to eremitical solitude.

So, the feeling of loneliness in a group I think is a signal to ask ourselves some serious questions and take some time do do some significant inner work, whether we do that with the aid of a therapist, a spiritual director, or simply our own journal. Some questions could include: what other feelings is this "loneliness" composed of? (This is one of the most important questions I think. Loneliness is often a complex constellation of feelings and it can help to identify what is actually going on. Thus, for instance, I can feel loneliness in one situation that is different from the loneliness I feel in a different situation. In the first I am anxious and ill at ease, in the second I am sad and tired. In a third I can simply desire to share something on a level which the group does not allow for. When I look at these experiences the roots of the feelings are actually very different. Only the third MIGHT signal the person has a call to eremitical life, and it might be correct to call this feeling something other than loneliness.) Other questions could include, when did I start feeling this way? When else have I felt this way? Am I afraid to be close to others? What happens when I try? Do I feel vastly different from these others (whether superior OR inferior, both are important)? Where does that come from? In any case, there are innumerable questions which might come up. The point is that the experience you describe is likely a sign that one needs to do some serious inner work with regard to relationships.

There are a number of stereotypes which affect the way people think about hermits. One of these is that hermits are loner types who are uncomfortable in groups of people. While it is true that stories of hermits have their share of "gruff anti-social personalities," the truth is that in general hermits are quite comfortable with themselves and therefore with others. They are capable of delighting in the time away from the hermitage and in social gatherings. They know full well that the world they are called to greater separation from is as much a part of their inner being as it is reality outside of themselves. Thus, if they are alienated from others to some degree they also know it is likely that they are alienated from themselves and God first --- so much so that a large piece of the loneliness they feel may come from the very center of themselves, not from the external situation per se --- and this calls for inner work. After all, eremites are not escaping the demands of love, nor are they trying to fill (or avoid) a hole at the center of their being. Instead they are answering a call to a special kind of love, first of God and then of all that he cherishes.

23 November 2008

Followup Questions: Urban hermits and married hermits

[[Do your last two posts mean that you don't believe a person living in a city can live as a hermit? And why can't married people be hermits?]] (cf Married Diocesan Hermits and Nicolas of Flue)

Thanks for the questions. Let me see if I can clarify what I have written already. Regarding the first query, no, not at all. I have written about urban hermits in the past, about the unnatural solitudes of the cities Thomas Merton referred to and I believe very much that one can live as a hermit in such solitudes. (Of course I do that myself so it would be hard to believe it could not be possible.) In fact I believe it is important to do so so that people who have no choice BUT to live in such places and alone in all the ways cities and contemporary life imposes, can have a sense that such aloneness can be redeemed. That said, let me point out once again that some hermits DO believe that the term urban hermit is an oxymoron, and while I understand why they say so and agree that certain elements of the natural wilderness cannot be replicated here, I continue to disagree with their basic conclusion. My choice of setting in the stories I told in the other two posts was made simply to make it easier to illustrate a point. I could have used an urban setting, but it would have made the illustration more difficult.

Remember that I began discussing whether there could be part-time hermits. By that I did not mean someone who lives in solitude for a number of weeks or months and then travels to give retreats or something similar for a while, and who then returns to solitude. Neither did I mean hermits who may come together to pray Office, or celebrate Mass with others in their community during their day only again to return to their hermitage between times. These are both true expressions of eremitical life. What I was referring to by "part-time 'hermits'" were people who build a degree of solitude into their day, or week, but whose identity is not defined by that solitude, either because they are wives and mothers (or full-time teachers, etc), or because they merely go off to solitude "on holiday" at the end of the week or something similar --- and yes, I have heard both kinds of people describe themselves as hermits and insist they are right to do so.

What this discussion led to was a description of the difference between an experience of the desert and a true desert experience (there is a spectrum here, by the way). It also led to the assertion that a hermit is by definition a solitary, one who ultimately has only God to depend on and who chooses this identity because it is the way to human maturity and wholeness for her. Now, it may be that the urban hermit lives in a comfortable apartment, with books and stereo and maybe even a TV and computer. However, to the extent these are distractions or hinderances to her solitude, she will either forego or get rid of them. The urban solitary is always open to being called to greater poverty, greater reclusion, greater inner and outer solitude. She makes the renunciations required to be truly alone with and dependent upon God, and also to grow as profoundly as God wills and invites. But one must be a solitary. This is the sine qua non of hermit life, even life in a Laura or under the mentorship of an elder hermit. In contrast, it is not possible to renounce one's children or husband when one has a vocation to marriage and motherhood, nor to change the relationship to one of "just" two monks sharing their solitude, etc. Husband and Wife are one flesh, and the children are the fruit of that marriage; nothing changes that.

In pointing to married people becoming "one flesh" we have pointed out what defines them as people --- as "for others". By definition they are NOT solitaries. They give themselves totally to one another, body and soul out of love. They come to God together, and are called to bring one another to God. In all things they belong to one another, and are meant to. This is their God-given vocation and it is of immense significance and value. As noted, their children, if they have children, share in the dynamic of unity and themselves are brought to God in this way. The members of the family will certainly have desert experiences throughout their lives together, times of illness, dysfunction, bereavement, loss, but they are ALL in this together and that remains true even while one is off at work, or others are off at school. Thus, they will fall back on one another, and yes, on God, but they are not solitaries --- as lonely as they may feel from time to time. They live from, with, and for each other, and their relationship with God is a part of the way in which they are from and for one another. They share a family life and that remains true no matter if mom spends solitary prayer time during the day, dad spends solitary prayer time in the evening, or kids spend solitary time in their rooms or out in the driveway playing basketball.

As I suggested before, every person SHOULD build a certain degree of solitude (both inner and outer) into their days; that is only normal and good for personal and spiritual growth. Simply because a person does this does not make her a hermit, however. In the situation I am describing this person has wedded another, created new life with that person, and lives with and for her family. Even her time in solitude anticipates their return or includes them in ways that differ from people in the parish she may hold in her heart. The chores she does she does for and --- even if they are not physically present -- with them; the errands she runs she runs for and with them --- even if she is physically alone or prays and offers all this for various intentions. And of course, this is as it should be for this IS her vocation. Just as I have renounced certain things in order to truly be a hermit, so a woman who embraces marriage gives up certain other vocational possibilities as well: eremitical life is, by definition, one of these.

The hermit is in a very different position. Yes, she ordinarily has a parish community, and yes, they do indeed support her in her vocation. She may have relatively close friends in this parish (though no one she can actually hang out or spend extended time with), and the parish may certainly be "family" in the usual way we use that term of communities. But, when she leaves Mass, or the Cinco de Mayo parish dinner, or the Confirmation celebration, she returns to the hermitage where she is alone with God, and where she will sink further and further again into that special aloneness which constitutes the eremitical life. She continues to hold all the parish in her heart, and she replays and reflects on shared events in her mind to share with God, or she journals about them because they touched her and challenged her, but, apart from Christ, there is no spouse nor are there children to truly share her heart with in an ongoing way --- or in the way children natually occupy a Mother's heart. She has given up the right to these and this renunciation is part of her desert or solitary experience. If she is ill, she deals with this herself, if errands need running in the main she does the same again because this is who she is and who she has chosen to be. If it sounds lonely, in some ways it is, but it is never a malignant loneliness, never an anguishing to be with others, etc, for the truth is God is there, always and everywhere, and the hermit knows this and is consoled by it even when she does not experience God's presence.

Again, there are MANY MANY people in this world and in our church who live alone. Their spouses have died, their children have moved away, illness isolates them even further and claims more and more of their energy and time while as a result their lives seem to make little or no sense. These people have no choice about their solitariness. Nor is it a part-time or casual reality, but instead is something impacting them at every moment of the day and night --- even when they are visiting others. For these people the eremitical life might be really significant as a way to redeem their isolated solitariness (that is, with God's grace it can be a way of transforming this into a meaningful wholeness and communion). Solitude is not the same as isolated solitariness, although it might start there. But for this redemption to happen, we cannot allow the vocation to be co-opted and effectively emptied of meaning by those who are not even single, much less solitary --- those who still have a husband with whom they are raising a family, for instance. We cannot allow the term to be co-opted and thus emptied of meaning by those who are weekend-'hermits' in the same way there are "weekend-contemplatives," or "weekend parents" and thus empty the terms contemplative or parent of meaning.

I know I have repeated myself in this post, and perhaps it is simply redundant, but I don't know how to make the point clearer. Perhaps it would help if I described more what solitary existence is like and how it differs from marriage. Perhaps I need to go further into the theology of marriage vs the theology of solitary (eremitical) life --- especially in terms of eschatological significance. I suspect I really need to say more about contemplative life per se and too about how it is that the eremitical life culminates in a nuptial or spousal relationship with God that really does not allow for marriage to another. Finally, I have not really written at all about the dangers of using solitude to escape from the demands of community --- something hermits living in community recognize as a significant danger (as is using community to escape the demands of solitude --- something I have referred to already in recent posts); I suspect it is an even more acute danger in marriage. I will think about that. In the meantime, I hope this helps with your questions. Please get back to me if it does not help or raises more queries.

22 November 2008

Followup Questions, Experience of the desert vs desert experience

[[Hi Sister. You have written that hermit life is flexible, but at the same time you seem to want to rule out part-time hermits. You also distinguish between desert experiences and experiences in the desert. I sort of get what you are saying here but I am not sure I see the importance.]]

Yes, eremitical life is flexible, that is each individual hermit needs to work out her own needs for sacraments, work, prayer, study, rest and recreation. She also needs to work out when and where community can be part of her days, what kind, and how it is she compensates for or balances this. Further, hermits who are "night persons" may use a somewhat different horarium than a hermit who is not a night person, and this is true even if one lives in a Laura of hermits. However, there remain certain elements in each hermit's life which are non-negotiable: stricter separation from the world, a LIFE of silence and solitude (and more, the silence OF solitude), assiduous prayer and penance. While she is not a recluse (usually at least), she IS a SOLITARY (something which BY DEFINITION conflicts with the notion of being married, by the way).

The significance of the distinction between an experience of the desert and a desert experience might be clearer, so let me try to make that so. Suppose a person goes into the desert with all her camping equipment, her RV, cell phone, TV, Stereo, etc. She drives into the desert and noticing the beginnings of a rise in temperature, cranks up the AC immediately; when she arrives at her destination she finds a suitable campground with amenities, and plugs in the RV. She sets out her chair and begins to sense the vastness of the place, the feeling of the air, the hugeness of the horizon, and her own insignificance in all of this. She takes a walk and for a while these impressions continue to speak to her in some way, but it is an uncomfortable experience. So, she takes out her iPod and turns it on to a favorite tune, one she listens to all the time at home. Immediately, the desert fades somewhat, the memories of home and all that is familiar resurface. She is still alone, but She has opted out of the desert experience, at least for the time being. Later, when she has eaten and the cold has set in and the fire died down, she spends a little more time looking at stars she never sees at home, but before long this too becomes a bit overwhelming and she feels somewhat uneasy, though she cannot put her finger on why that is. Besides, she thinks, there are animals preying about now, and bugs everywhere, so she goes into the RV shuts the door on her surroundings, takes a shower, climbs into a warm and comfy bed, turns on the TV set and forgets about all the desert itself. Soon she is asleep. Once again, she has opted out of the desert experience (and to some extent even out of an experience of the desert).

Note that despite the fact that she is alone and God is all around as well as within in no way is she really alone with God. While she begins to experience the awesomeness of the desert and also what calls to her there (the feelings of uneasiness or discomfort), she refuses to listen to these and distracts herself in various ways. She insulates herself from the desert experience, distances herself from her feelings and does not listen to God either within her heart or without. SO, there is physical solitude (there is no other living person around), but it is hardly an experience of solitude, much less eremitical solitude.

Imagine instead though that she arrives in a small car with cooking gear, sleeping bag, hiking gear and sturdy clothes, a journal, lantern, a book of psalms, and a New Testament. She sets up camp, sits quietly until the awesomeness of the setting touches her, and meditatively reads an account of Jesus in the desert while being sure to stay in touch with the sense of the awesomeness of her surroundings, and also her own solitude with God as she does so. Feeling a bit uneasy and restless, she puts on a jacket, gets a canteen, a compass and a bit to eat for later and sets out on a hike during which she drinks in her surroundings and continues to let the feelings that began to arise in camp intensify and speak to her. When she returns to camp, she chants a psalm, sits quietly meditating and attending to all that happens; then she pulls out her journal and begins to write. Later she prays again, lights a fire and cooks some dinner. She cleans up, watches the stars with God, considers the animals that are out there just beyond the light and warmth of the fire, prays in thanksgiving, but also with a sense of her insignificance and in supplication, slowly rereads the text on Jesus in the desert, commits herself into God's hands and climbs into her tent and sleeping bag to sleep. The next day will look very much the same except that the silence and solitude will continue to work on her heart and uncover darkness, fears, insecurities, difficult memories, and some joys she has lost touch with. She will deal with them in just the same way, and go to sleep to prepare for another day which will also look very much the same as those preceding it. There is nothing here to distract her from all of this. As her supplies dwindle she will use them even more sparingly and she will plan for a trip to a store to replenish what she needs. When she returns, she will settle in once again, and continue as before.

In the first situation I described, what I tried to show was the difference between a greatly moderated or mitigated experience of the desert (for it could have been vastly richer and more intense) and a desert experience itself . In the second the accent was on a desert experience per se, though clearly the woman involved also experienced the desert itself in a greatly less-mitigated and more intense way than in the first scenario. (Note that this experience was also mitigated, however. The woman had sufficient clothes, shelter, food, water, etc, so as not to feel completely at the mercy of the elements and God's mercy.) Despite the necessary overlap there can be a vast difference between the two, and between the types of solitude experienced. In the first scenario the woman was physically alone but hardly experiencing an inner solitude. Instead she resisted this and distracted herself from it at every turn. In the second there is both physical and inner solitude. It is a desert experience, an experience where she really does have to deal with the loneliness, the dangers, the inner demons and insecurities with nothing but herself and God. Her other life is far away; she has not brought it with her, and except for her car, her journal, books, and few clothes there is little to remind her of it. When she is reminded, it is with a keenness that affirms for her just how much she has left behind, how alone she is with God, how little resources OTHERWISE she really has at hand, and she deals with this in prayer/journaling.

The differences between the two pictures are important because one is eremitical and the other is not; one is an example of desert spirituality and in this case, solitary desert spirituality, while the other is not --- despite the fact that the person is alone. I hope this helps in drawing out the distinction and also pointing up its significance. If it does not help enough, or raises more questions please get back to me.

Part-time Hermits? Objections?

[[Dear Sister, you have objections to "part-time" hermits. You also are emphatic that the word hermit should not be used for just anyone. Can you please say more about your objections?]]


I am not sure how much more I can say about this topic, but yes, I will be happy to explain what I have written up until now. First, the use of the term hermit for just anyone: apparently there is something intriguing to people about the idea of being a hermit but what is focused on is the physical solitude, and not the underlying motivations for the life, the community or ecclesial aspect, nor that this is a contemplative life rooted in a relationship with God and all that he cherishes. What the hermit says with her life is that God alone is sufficient for us, and I mean that in two senses: 1) we are made for communion with and in him and all else (including all other relationships) is a piece of this, and 2) if we live with and for God alone, as hermits do, then that provides all we need for authentic human maturity and psychological well-being. Thus, hermits in their solitude affirm the first statement with their lives: God alone is sufficient for us, and they witness to others that the same is true for them. Of course others may also witness to this and be very far from being hermits. Every Christian, in fact, is called to make this statement with their lives, no matter their state of life. But hermits really accent the second statement, and no one else does so in the same way. It is what makes their lives eremitical: they live with and for God alone in a more literal sense (others are a significant piece of this because the hermit cherishes what/whomever is cherished by God), and that is sufficient for them and their achievement of human maturity and psychological well-being.

While the first aspect mentioned is critical to the quality of the eremitical life, it is this latter aspect of the eremitical vocation which makes it truly eremitical. The hermit vocation is the vocation of a SOLITARY, not merely an introvert or loner (indeed, the hermit may be neither of these), not someone who has a bit of physical solitude on the weekends or when the spouse and children leave the house for a few hours, but a true solitary --- one who has given her life, body and soul to God and witnesses to what life with God alone can be. Hermits are those persons who live with, in, and from God alone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While their love for God, and his for them will spill over and touch and include others, there should be no doubt that the primary environment of their lives is both the physical and inner solitude peculiar to the hermit. There should be no doubt that their inner and outer lives consciously reflect an accepted identity as a hermit.

So, why is all this important? Why can't a mother who prays while others are out of the house call herself a hermit, and why shouldn't she? Why can't a person who goes off to solitude on the weekends call himself a hermit, and why shouldn't he? I may have used the term "truth in advertizing" before somewhere in these blog posts, but let me use it again. The first reason these persons cannot call themselves hermits has to do with truth in advertizing. They ought not call themselves hermits because they simply are NOT living contemplative lives in solitude (each word in this phrase is important to the definition of a hermit). The second reason is related and has to do with witness. Hermits are the ones in the Church who say with their lives that it is possible to live ALONE with God for the whole of their lives and that their lives are meaningful, and in fact, that one may come to human wholeness and holiness in this way. They say that while this is a rare vocation, the person who finds herself in physical solitude and cut off from others for whatever reason: illness, bereavement, etc, has a life which is still infinitely precious and significant, and can continue to grow or develop into greater and greater fruitfulness --- an almost unimaginable fruitfulness in fact. The hermit witnesses to this truth even if the person can no longer work, has lost friends whose lives move at a different speed and rhythm, or struggles with illness which seems to dehumanize and cut off all human possibilities for growth or life, because these things are merely one side of the equation; God's grace is the other, and the hermit witnesses to what is possible when human weakness and limitations are joined by the grace of God.

The hermit's life therefore speaks in a special way to these people, people who will not have a husband (wife) and children returning at the end of the day, people who cannot spend their days cleaning FOR husband and children or planning outings, or shopping for them, people who have no one to comfort them in their pain and no breaks in the continuing solitude of their situation. The numbers of persons who live like this today are phenomenal, and someone calling themselves a hermit when they no more live a solitary life without respite is insulting and insensitive not only to authentic hermits who do live healthy and truly solitary lives, but to those living in the unnatural solitudes of illness, bereavement, old age, abandonment, etc, without choice or options otherwise.

These reasons all have to do with the witness value of the eremitical life, but we need to look at the reasons which have simply to do with the nature and quality of the hermit life itself even apart from witness value --- and again, it is a matter of truth in advertizing. By definition eremitical life is solitary life, that is, life lived in, with, for and from God ALONE. Solitude (inner and outer) does its work over time, it develops, grows, changes the human heart only over time and in physical solitude. Consistency is necessary, and consistency here means long term ongoing physical solitude. This is not necessarily the same as complete reclusion, but to call oneself a hermit when one simply spends a few hours a day alone, but waits for the return of husband and children, or when one works with others all week (even if one never speaks to them), and then goes camping or fishing alone on the weekend is analogous to someone calling herself a mother because she baby sits several days a week a few hours in the morning and afternoon. I suspect any mothers reading this would merely laugh at how ridiculous such an idea is. The same is true when hermits hear of people who build a little solitude into their lives calling themselves hermits. We both know "these people don't have a clue" --- not about real motherhood and its unceasing demands and concerns, or about giving one's life (one's whole life) for these others, nor about solitude or what it means to live as a solitary, and certainly not about what it means to be thrust back on God as the sole source of strength and meaning in one's life --- the essence of Christian eremitism.

A few days of solitude is usually welcome for most people: time to rest, read, pray, reflect, and even then the first 24-48 hours might be very difficult as silence challenges them initially. A few hours of solitude a day can also be quite welcome, and can be used fruitfully for prayer, rest, chores, etc, but in each case the solitude is temporary and one does not need to deal with the dark parts of the human heart, with the demons which inhabit our personal worlds. These things can be put off, and may not even appear because after all, the solitude is only partial. As noted above, one is not completely thrust back upon God alone to make sense of one's life, one is not faced with ALL OF ONE'S SELF AND LIFE in an environment where it MUST be faced. Distractions one has left behind (TV, work, relationships, etc) may not fill the hours of solitude themselves, but they wait in the wings moderating the solitude, either because someone is coming home at the end of the day, or because one can return to one's REAL world if one just guts this relatively brief period of solitude out. One's life makes sense APART from solitude: marriage, children, work, etc, and solitude itself may be the real distraction (even prayer can be a distraction!).

The point here is that such part-time solitude is relative, and also that it is neither as deep nor as intense nor as all-claiming and challenging as is genuine eremitical solitude. A trip to the desert is simply not truly a desert experience if one arrives in one's RV and drives away at the end of the day or week, even if one hikes out for a few hours each day. One may experience the desert to some extent in this way, but it is not truly a desert experience. (That could be had if one hiked out a few miles and then realized one had forgotten one's compass, lunch and canteen and would need to spend the night out alone without food or shelter, for instance. THEN one begins to sense the difference between an experience of the desert and a desert experience.) You see the distinction I think. Similarly then, one may experience solitude without ever coming close to solitary experience, without ever being a solitary.

But this is not true of the hermit. Her life makes sense within solitude, as a solitary because her life says that these things are an essential function of her relationship to God and living with and for God alone. Her experience of solitude is a desert experience. It is in solitude that she comes to grapple with the darknesses of her own heart, with the demons that do indeed inhabit this desert in which she lives. Yes, there can be occasional distractions (a direction client, Mass (I use the term distraction here only to the extent this is not a solitary experience), an orchestra rehearsal, an occasional dinner with friends), but unlike the person whose "solitude" is merely part time, whose children return to tell about their days, whose husband comes home to eat together and share the same bed, the hermit's solitude always beckons, at meals, at bedtime, while one does laundry or cooks for oneself alone. Every activity, and even the distractions merely point to her solitary existence. She knows she cannot justify that existence with motherhood or marriage, or even with productive work. Prayer cannot be just an important aspect of her life, much less a pleasant distraction from her usual activities. It must be THE work of her life (the work of God in her), her very lifeblood which sustains her without question. Either her life makes ultimate sense in and through her solitude because God has called her to this WITH and in HIM, or it is the greatest and most tragic absurdity a person can devise. This is the risk the hermit takes in faith and the desert is the place this is lived out.

I think there is still a great deal to say here (especially since I have not spoken of semi-eremitism), and I had not expected that, but hopefully I have begun to answer your questions. We ought not allow just anyone to call themselves hermits because doing so empties the term of meaning. It strips away the boundaries which definitions set up. Definitions are drawn on the basis of experience, they are not arbitrary. There are many many people who live lives with some degree of time alone to pray. Every person actually fits (or should fit) this picture in one way or another. Do we call all these people hermits? Of course not, no more than we call teenagers who babysit regularly Mothers. These people have time for solitude and should take it, but they do not live solitary lives with all that means. On the other hand there are many people in our world living true desert experiences already who could find the word hermit gives meaning to lives that otherwise seem to have none in worldly terms, but that cannot happen if the word hermit is emptied of meaning by dilettantes.

14 November 2008

How Credible are my statements on the Importance of the Lay Eremitical Vocation?

[[Doesn't your own Canonical Status undercut your ability to speak to the importance and witness of the non-canonical or lay hermit? Doesn't it make what you say even a bit hypocritical? You have written any number of times about the importance of canonical status/standing so how believeable are your opinions on the lay eremitical vocation? Why didn't you become/remain a lay hermit instead of seeking profession and consecration according to Canon 603 if you believed as you say you do in this?]]

These questions were not raised by a hostile reader, but in my own prayer and reflection on the matter. However, I suspect that they are questions which my own status and comments might well occasion in others, so I am including them here. First. let me say that there is truth in each question: to each, except, I think, for the one about hypocrisy and the last one which asks "Why didn't you become/remain a lay hermit?" which does not allow a brief answer. Apart from the exceptions I have to answer these answer positively while I deny hypocrisy. With regard to the last question, let me say right up front that I do not have a complete answer at this time, but only large parts of one, and that those parts involve both positive and negative elements. (Note that this answer was completed in another post. Please check posts including the label "lay hermits".)

In my previous post on the importance of lay hermits (hermits living this life while in the lay state vocationally speaking) I noted that I had not realized how effectively I was cutting myself off from witnessing to particular segments of our church and world. My life as a canonical hermit still speaks to these people, I know that full well, but I suspect not nearly as powerfully as had I eschewed profession and consecration under Canon 603 and embraced a vocation as a lay hermit. I would have needed to find ways to do this, but those avenues are open to anyone really. This blog is an example. On the other hand, I have experienced both sides of the fence here and am aware of the shift (in witnessing) which has occured. Thus, I think I am able to speak effectively to the importance of both the lay and the consecrated (state) eremitical vocations. The point of course is that a person who is consciously and voluntarily lay and eremitical can, in some ways. do so better than I can ever do.

So what about possible hypocrisy? Well, it is true that I am unabashedly excited by and enthusiastic about the eremitical vocation which is canonical, and that personally I see a lot of reasons to seek canonical standing, especially as a diocesan hermit with its unique charism. It is also true that on this blog I have posted a lot in order to combat misconceptions about canonical status, etc. In my Rule I wrote (several years ago now) that I felt that canonical status was imperative except in the early stages of a vocation or foundation --- though my views on this have changed considerably in the meantime. Is it possible to be enthusiastic about the graces and benefits of one way of living an eremitical life without denigrating another? I sincerely hope and believe so, otherwise there is no way to be honest about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in one vocation without denigrating them in another. And despite seeing this happen often in the history of mankind with regard to different religions, etc, surely none of us believe that is necessarily the case!

With the issue of canonical and non-canonical hermits I believe the Holy Spirit is working in both ways in our church and world, speaking to different segments and calling them to different responsibilities, emphases and witness. So long as the eremitical life is being led with faithfulness these differing emphases, commissions and witnesses will emerge and reveal themselves clearly. That said, I must also say that I don't believe just anyone should call themselves a hermit, and I especially don't believe that someone who simply has a bent for some degree of solitude part of the time should do so, or be allowed to do so. (Here is one of the real benefits of canonical standing and oversight: one knows, at least generally, that the term is being used accurately and that the witness being given is genuine.) Still, if someone is living a fulltime life of prayer and penance, a life centered on God in silence and solitude --- not reclusively necessarily, but really --- then they have every right to call themselves a hermit and should do so, for this too is the work and gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and world.

Again, it is not that canonical hermits are "real" hermits while non-canonical hermits are "pseudo" or "wannabe" hermits. While it is true that sometimes people use the term hermit too casually (for an active life with chunks of solitude, a part-time semi-solitary existence, for instance, as in a married life where the days are spent in prayer and work while children and husband are off to school and work!) or for the wrong reasons (social awkwardness or misanthopy, the need for self-indulgent introversion or simply for creative time and space are among these) -- these folks ARE pseudo hermits or wannabe's --- when the term really applies (that is, to a LIFE OF fulltime and genuine solitude lived for and in God) it signals the "realness" or inspired nature of the vocation, and whether this is a call to eremitism of the consecrated or lay states does not matter.

And regarding the last question, "why didn't I become and remain a lay hermit?" well, I am going to leave that for another time and more thought. The simple answer is that initially and eventually I determined I was not called to this as did the Church, but that can be evasive as well as being true. Part of the answer is that it was this context which made sense of the whole spectrum of my life and the kind of freedom needed to live this call fully and faithfully, but that too needs some explaining --- which again requires both more thought and time to write. Still, the question is important, not only for me personally, but because it is really the question every hermit must answer in some form in discerning and embracing the call not only to eremitical life, but to lay or consecrated states as the critical context for their own charism, witness, and mission. At this point I wish to say merely that whichever choice one discerns and makes, the eremitical life they are discerning and choosing is a real and significant vocation and that we must learn to esteem not only the similarities they share with their counterpart (lay or consecrated), but especially their unique gift quality and capacity to speak variously to different segments of the church and world.

13 November 2008

On the Importance of Lay Hermits and the Lay Hermit Vocation

I know I have written a lot in this blog about the significance of the call to diocesan eremitism and about the theology of the vocation to the consecrated state, the importance of canonical status, etc. Thus, while I believe strongly in the importance of the lay vocation, it is not always one which I can convincingly argue for as a diocesan hermit myself. However, the truth is that in our church and world, the majority of hermits will always be lay or "non-canonical" hermits, not those called to consecrated life (i.e., the consecrated STATE of life), but called to a dedication of self rooted in their baptismal consecration and every bit as real and demanding.

Because I belong to a listserve of those interested in becoming hermits, or in aspects of the life for other reasons, the whole question of approaching dioceses for admision to canonical profession and consecration comes up often. In the last few days however I received letters from 1) a priest who had decided NOT to seek canonical "recognition" because of something I had written (I put the word recognition in quotes because it needs to be seriously qualified to be used), and 2) a woman living as a hermit who had found some of what I had said on this matter helpful; she may seek canonical approval and standing, but then again, she may not. Both reminded me that the lay hermit has really significant witnesss and encouragement to give to this world, and to our church as well. Because of this, I wanted to post some of what I wrote recently in response about the lay hermit vocation. It is similar to a post I put up recently on the notion of becoming living temples of the Holy Spirit/God. The letter I am responding to is included in italics and emboldened. I have not included the entire text here.

[[May God Bless you for your wonderful replies. I can not tell you how much you have helped me in this understanding of different, yes, but yet not. How often I have read this law, and so often lost some part, an important part of its beauty and grace and open call to us all so inclined to give our lives in holy consecration and celebration of God with us in the ordinary of life now.
In my own part of the country there is little understanding of Canon Law 603. I have been living my life as one of the "non"s for some time, several years - ten years with spiritual direction and a rule of life, waiting on the Lord for the "recognition" from the church ( I have not made "final vows, in the wake of scandals and finance problems and illnesses we have gone through a few Bishops in our post in very recent years and those who have come are not as familiar with this calling as it would be in your country.


Well, don't be too sure there is a huge familiarity in the US either! There is some, certainly, but Bishops remain hesitant and some are suspicious. My own journey to perpetual eremitical profession (I was already finally professed otherwise) took almost 25 years precisely because my (former) Bishop had reasons to back off from professing ANYONE under Canon 603. Thus, Vicars accepted candidates -- only later (several years down the line) to learn there would be no professions. Others on this list have similar stories in terms of length of time (17 years, etc.) to perpetual profession. There remain dioceses that either have never had strong candidates or who continue to have no experience of the Canon for other reasons -- including a refusal to use the canon at all.

It is quite common to hear stories from persons approaching dioceses wishing to be professed as diocesan hermits who are told, "just go off and live in solitude; that is all you need" or who run up against Vicars who neither understand nor see the importance of the life. I think it is a huge responsibility for a Bishop to take on a person in the way Canon 603 envisions (not that it is an onerous one though!), and many seem resistant to this for one reason and another as well. Anyway, what some of us have found is that dioceses across the board need education, resources, and assistance in understanding the vocation and how Canon 603 plays out on the ground. It is more unusual to find a Bishop open to Canon 603 and willing to accept responsibility for diocesan hermits than not.

[[However, I have a very close relative who is "recognized" and this has been a great support to me and my own journey. I know too my own efforts to authentically live this call and service has encouraged her too...she often considers herself an urban hermit - one who lives in an urban area ( there really is no official title as such is there?) where as, I live in a very rural and secluded area. There have been times I have felt real persecution by those who were "really consecrated". I have been told that I was a "pseudo-hermit" and "not real", or not deserving of the same benefits and graces of this special call.]]

One of the things hermits generally know is that whether canonical or non-canonical, consecrated or lay, the eremitical life is a significant one which speaks in different ways to different segments of the church and world. The Church wants so much to truly esteem the lay vocation today and eremitical life lived apart from Canon 603 is one of the really significant ways the Holy Spirit is working in our church today. The notion that someone who is not Canon 603 is not a ""real hermit" or is "pseudo" is plain nonsense and must be combatted. One of the ways that will happen is if people get on with living eremitical lives without worrying about consecration and profession or the legal rights and responsibilities which come from these things. Some will discover they actually require the canonical standing and structure -- and are called to take on the added responsibilities of this state, but others --- MOST others --- will begin to discover the mission and vocation to lay eremitical life which is capable of speaking so poignantly to a world in need of this witness. Whether canonical or non-canonical the call is real and significant. I personally think it is important to know that experientially BEFORE one approaches a diocese for admission to public profession, and that requires time.

I also am an urban hermit. It is a term I first heard used by Thomas Merton when he reflected on the need for hermits in the unnatural solitudes of the cities. However, there were a kind of hermits in the Medieval Church in Italy known as urbani, so the term is not novel with Merton. It is an historical term, not merely a neologism, therefore, a designation which contrasted with hermits living in other situations. Evenso, the idea of urban hermits is one which some hermits reject because the idea of wilderness is being defined so differently than they are used to. However, I cannot tell you the number of ill and elderly who live lives of what could well become eremitical silence and solitude in these places (eremitical, that is, instead of isolated) --- eremitical vocations we have only just begun to recognize and understand.

For these people in particular, people who have no choice about physical solitude or leaving it for weekends, etc, the witness we hermits each give is that such unnatural physical and emotional solitudes can be redeemed and become true oases in the desert. That is, what is physical and emotional isolation can be transformed into genuine eremitical solitude. And, while I am consecrated under Canon 603 and very glad of it, I realize that it is the lay hermit who would witness more powerfully for these people. Yes, I have things to say with my life to such people because of my own circumstances, but in some ways my consecration ALSO distances me from the witness I could give them, for they know they will never seek such standing in Law (they do not FEEL CALLED TO THIS) even while they yearn to know that the lay vocation they are living right now is ultimately meaningful. A cloud of lay hermits in the church could do that and I pray that it happens in the 21st century as it did in the 3rd and 4th (etc), or the 10th and 11th C.!!

We need laity living eremitical solitude faithfully to speak in the ways only they can. It is SO very important, and actually not something I realized I would be definitively distancing myself from in various ways until after it had happened. In any case, hermits are hermits, and whether consecrated (made part of the consecrated state by God through his Church) or lay, both are real, both are significant and inspired, both speak to our world and church in their own ways. Part of the problem is that we really still are suffering from the failure to esteem the lay vocation. We misunderstand the notion of states of perfection and refer to some vocations per se as higher than others --- again misunderstanding and misconstruing what SHOULD REALLY be meant by such feeble and dangerous language. The Church has not completely managed to free herself from this tendency, or from associating the notion of status with higher and lower levels of contribution to the life of the Body of Christ and to the world. If we do manage to free ourselves from these things I predict it will be non-canonical or lay hermits who are pivotal in the achievement. But that means, at the very least, refusing to buy into the notion that Canon 603 eremiticism is better or more genuine than non-canon 603 eremiticism. It is different in its responsibilities and witness, but not better.

[[I thought it was a strange mentality to have towards others, it was wounding and hurtful to me and for a number of years I considered not living this call on my heart for fear of their words being true and I was not worthy to be mimicking others in such a way or worse, that I was offending in some way Our Holy Mother Church by my actions!. Your words are surely Spirit led, especially in these times of changes and concerns, where there sometimes seems to be more church closings than vocations.]]

There seem to be more church closings than new RELIGIOUS vocations, which is what I know you meant, but vocations per se? Not at all. Again, as I posted a few days ago, we are so used to associating the term vocation with religious vocations or vocations to the priesthood that we do not adequately esteem what it means to be called to LAY life. And again, apart from Vatican II, the Church hierarchy has not always been helpful in correcting or rectifying this lack. Instead she has underscored it and we are reaping the harvest of that as we speak. She has also contributed to the mistaken idea that only religious with vows of celibacy, etc., REALLY live lives of prayer, of wholehearted generosity and self-gift. Most of us are called to lay vocations, and that means most hermits as well. It would be wonderful to see the widespread recognition that this is a HUGELY significant vocation and to watch it flourish.

Many thanks for your kind words. They mean a lot to me. Continue to take hold of your eremitical vocation and see where the Holy Spirit leads. The need for hermits in our contemporary world cannot be overstated but only a few of these will be called to the consecrated state of life. After all, that is not really where the need is most outstanding, I think. Wherever the Spirit leads it is to a REAL vocation and REAL eremitism. There is no doubt about that.

Sincerely,
Sister Laurel, Er Dio
Stillsong Hermitage

03 November 2008

Questions on your Rule of Life. It is Missing!

[[Hi Sister O'Neal. I have been reading your blog regularly for some time and I was looking for some of the older posts you had put up from your own Rule of Life. I can't locate them though. Did I mistakenly miss them? I have been writing a Rule and wanted to compare what I have with yours.]]



LOL! I have been waiting for someone to complain (or ask anyway) about the missing posts! Over the past year I have received a number of requests for assistance in writing a personal Plan or Rule of Life. Several of these (three quite recent and not counting your question) were from serious candidates for Canon 603 profession. In the meantime I have worked on a couple of serious revisions of my own Rule which still need to be incorporated and approved by my Bishop, and I also am working on a project which would provide an eremitical Rule and essays on aspects of the contents -- sort of a Rule and Commentary -- as a model for those interested in writing and living their own, for whatever the reason. (As noted in other posts, many could benefit from writing such a Rule, and my own Rule has been used by non-hermit seniors who live alone and deal with many of the dynamics of the hermit.) In discussing the project with my diocesan delegate about a month ago we talked about publishing a kind of "how to" book on writing a Rule, and while I could not do that precise thing I could address some of the issues involved which hermit candidates should consider in undertaking the writing of a Rule. That is the project on hand and I am pretty excited about it.

Because of this project, and my hope to publish my own Rule as a piece of it, along with concern about giving too much assistance to folks , I have removed my own Rule from this site for the time being. While I want to assist people in writing Rules, I am completely convinced of the messy but undeniable wisdom of the person muddling through until they come up with their own Rule, and that includes doing as many drafts as it takes to come to clarity on what they are living and why. Writing is a creative act --- we all know this. But what some may not understand, especially if they do not spend much time writing, is that writing is also an act where we come to know things which were hitherto unclear or even completely unknown. We write to learn, not simply to share what we already know.

Further, as I noted in a couple of earlier posts, it remains the case that dioceses look to the quality and content of the Rule to assist in discernment of a vocation to diocesan (C 603) eremitical life. Now, I know that my rule of life gets lots of hits by readers as does the key phrase "writing a Rule of Life" and I suspect some will miss these posts. Hopefully I can restore them when the project is finished or largely completed. I am hoping to do this in several months. For now, I am sorry for the inconvenience and offer my thanks for your patience. In the meantime, if you have specific questions or are struggling with some particular issue, feel free to write me about it. If I can help, I will be happy to do so.

Questions On Stricter Separation from the World


I received the following questions by email and have decided to answer the followup ones here. The initial exchange is also included to provide context.

[[I have read a little on your website and I am curious about your interpretation of "stricter separation" in Canon 603. There is a lot of discussion among eremites as well as non eremites. Do you feel that the concept of what one might call "traditional eremitic life" is not possible to live in this century in terms of stricter separation? Just questions that have cropped up over time.]]

I am afraid, you will need to define your terms better for me to answer you. . . . What is "traditional stricter separation" to your mind? I find the term actually has had many legitimate variations and degrees over the centuries, so if you have a particular idea you need to spell that out. I believe that eremitical life is completely possible in most of its traditional forms (Stylites is one form that is probably less possible or even desirable today though certain ecoactivists still embrace it in order to save stands of trees), however, the way one defines "world" in the phrase "stricter separation from the world" is, as it was in the day and counsel of St Isaac of Nineveh, something that requires definition, otherwise, we will actually misunderstand the nature of eremitical life, including completely reclusive eremitical life --- and note that while the Canon can include reclusion, it does not need to mean this. What it DOES mean has to be determined by the individual hermit, her Bishop, director, delegate, and the Holy Spirit. This is where it becomes important to know the legitimate variations in the way eremitical silence and solitude has been lived out through the last 19 centuries in particular.

[[ What I am asking is how does one understand the mind of the church when it comes to the term "stricter separation as used in Canon 603. Can one live that "stricter separation" as understood by the church in the 21st Century. Somehow one's own interpretation of this canon law can reflect a great deal of confusion as to what eremitic life is about as understood through the centuries. Do Bishops and those whose counsel they would seek (to determine a candidate for this life) truly understand the vocation as understood in the mind of the church? For instance, if a bishop were to seek the counsel of a religious of the diocese regarding the rule and plan of life. Let us say one who does not understand what the mind of the church is in this regard - then the rule and plan of life might be accepted based on the necessary canonical wording, but not necessarily the charism of the life. We have in our diocese a sister hermit who basically promised to live the life and was received by the Bishop with no rule or plan of life, which is the second part of the canon. Eremitic life as experienced through the centuries and I speak of solitaries, not
lauras, seems to be more specific in terms of its tradition than what I see in this day and time. Hence the question.
]]

First, remember that Canon 603 is only 25 years old. It was included in the Revised Code of Canon Law in October 1983 and had never been part of any previous code. (In fact, the eremitical life per se was never included in the Code as far as I know. Eremitical life, if it was provided for at all, was provided for in proper law, that is, in the Rule and Constitutions of individual orders and Congregations). The point here is that we are not speaking about a canon which may have become anachronistic over time therefore, but something meant to accommodate the experience of the church precisely as she neared the 21st century and sought to provide for hermits in contemporary terms. As far as the mind of the Church goes, it is up to the Bishops, canonists, hermits themselves and their directors all listening to the Holy Spirit to determine together what stricter separation from the world will and will not mean in each case. There is no single established meaning although there are certainly recognized parameters which excludes part-time or casual eremitism. Bishops are primarily responsible for discerning the presence of such vocations in their dioceses. Had the Church as a whole meant absolute reclusion, she would have said so in the canon. However, she did not.

Instead she used a relative term, "stricter separation" rather than "strict separation" or "absolute separation" and again, she is guided by the entire history of eremitical and monastic life in her understanding of this. Had she envisioned such a vocation for those who were not required to work at all to sustain themselves, she would have said so, and made provisions for the church supporting her hermits. And of course, she has done neither. In any case, in this matter, one understands the mind of the church precisely by listening to her Bishops. After all, it is significant that the responsibility for discernment of new forms of consecrated life (C 605) is placed directly in the hands of Bishops and immediately following both Canons 603 and 604, which were included in Canon law only for the first time in 1983. THIS is the mind of the Church on this matter and I suspect most Bishops meet their responsibility well.

As for canonical wording, there is, so far as I know, no fixed canonical wording required for a hermit's Rule. (There are fixed elements for the vow formulae but even then the candidate writes her own vows and this is a different matter.) Yes, canonists pass on the document to be sure it meets certain standards, but a number of others (Vicars, vocation directors, spiritual directors, priors and prioresses, etc) do the same and it is a completely individual document. No one gives the candidate a list of formulae to include or even a list of elements which should be addressed. Because of this, and especially because the Rule is so completely individual, the rule can be used to primarily guide discernment of the vocation. The Bishop's approval is the final and incredibly important step in a rather long process of discernment and evaluation, and the least part of that is vetting the Rule for canonical muster. Far more important is the Rule's capacity to reflect and nurture the nature and quality of the person's eremitical life. Thus, it is possbile for a Rule to be judged acceptable for purposes of the Canon at the same time a candidate is not admitted to profession. The contrary is also true. While Vicars, et al, meet and generally speak regularly with the candidate after she has become a serious candidate, it is the Rule itself which ordinarily serves as a definitive element in discernment.

Again, the charism of eremitical life can be reflected and lived out in a variety of ways. This has been true throughout the history of the Church and it remains so now. As I noted in my earlier response, the eremitical tradition is quite varied and that includes, but is not limited to solitary hermits. St Romuald would be a good example of this. The same is true of St Francis, as well as of hermits who became Popes, etc. etc. The hermit vocation has never been a one size fits all kind of thing eventhough the broad strokes are the same. There are standards for physical solitude without which a person will not even be considered a serious candidate, but what true eremitical solitude consists in, again, Bishops themselves determine by speaking to other Bishops re their own experience in the matter, to established (canonical) Congregations like the Camaldolese, diocesan hermits and their delegates, as well as by steeping themselves in the history of eremitical life in the past and present. Solitude is also a matter of the heart, and how a hermit defines "stricter separation" will be apt to change and develop over time based on what is required for the individual to maintain THIS solitude. Remember that eremitical life is a living reality, hence Bishops will be careful but also open to forms which differ in small ways from others but which share the same broad strokes. Again though, it is up to Bishops to determine what is the mind of the Church in these matters. More strongly put, it is up to Bishops to establish the mind of the Church over time and with experience, for they are the ones seeing, discerning, and guiding these vocations. Rome's understanding of these matters will depend on her Bishops' experience and wisdom.

By the way, please be aware that asking a diocesan hermit about the possibility of living "traditional" stricter separation from the world according to the mind of the church is a lot like asking a consecrated virgin today if it is possible to live such a life of chaste espousal to Christ in the 21st century according to the mind of the church. I would bind myself to neither (consecrated celibacy nor stricter separation from the world) if I thought that either was impossible, or that I was not living according to the mind of the church, nor would any of the hermits I personally know. The obvious answer is "Of course it is possible! Hermits, including myself, are doing it as we speak." Again, this is why I asked you what you meant by "traditional stricter separation" from the world.

Finally, regarding the Sister in your Diocese, I personally have never heard of a Bishop simply disregarding the requirements of the Canon in the way you describe. It would astonish me if it were truly the case. The Canon binds BOTH hermit and her Bishop in a mutual relationship; it would be more than a bit empty if there were no Rule guiding BOTH of them in this enterprise. Now, if the Sister is living as a hermit but NOT under Canon 603 it would be another form of eremitical story. (The Church recognizes both non-canonical and canonical hermits as valid forms of the life; only the latter requires a Rule which is approved by the person's Bishop. That said, to my mind, only an idiot would try to live such a life WITHOUT any Rule at all. That is begging for trouble.) With regard to the general situation you describe, there are other possibilities as well. For instance, this Sister could have been professed in community and be living as a hermit now while remaining part of her community or even transitioning to profession as a SOLITARY hermit under canon 603. Further, if she has been accepted as a candidate for eventual profession under Canon 603 but not yet written a Rule it would be a different and more understandable matter. There are a number of possibilities here which completely respect the provisions and requirements of the canon. Without more information it would be imprudent at best to criticize your Bishop in this regard.