27 April 2008

On Wearing the Cowl; Becoming the Hermit I Am

I received the following question from someone who read my first post on receiving the cowl canonically, and am posting it here because it gives me a chance to reflect on what wearing the cowl means to me now.

[[ When you were first told you would need a cowl you said you weren't prepared for that, and also that it was not as meaningful as it would become you thought. Could I ask if that has changed and if so, in what ways? By the way, why weren't you prepared for receiving the cowl originally?]]

Let me take the second part of your question first: why wasn't I prepared? The news that I was being admitted to perpetual vows came about six months before the profession ceremony itself, and I had been waiting for that permission for several years. In the Guidelines to the Eremitic Life once put out by the Diocese of La Crosse, I had read about the need for a prayer garment, but the nature of that garment was left unspecified (and in fact, there are several acceptable options for such a garment, a cowl is not the only possibility). However, this was a requirement in the Diocese of La Crosse, not a universal requirement canon 603 specifies, so an individual hermit needs to hear from her own diocese what her Bishop desires or requires in this regard --- if anything at all.

Though I was in communication with my diocese about all the things needed for such a profession, this "loose end" was not decided upon until the last moment (or at least it was not communicated to me until then). After hearing what the diocese required and determining that a cowl was appropriate not only as a hermit (which is its primary witness), but in light of my oblature with the Camaldolese (not because oblates wear cowls --- they do not --- but because I needed to be sure it did not raise objections), I also had to talk with the Camaldolese to see if they had any problems with it. Since they have another Oblate who is a first and foremost a diocesan hermit who wears a cowl because of that, they were essentially fine with the matter. The cowl could be Camaldolese white but I would also have the hood cut differently than that of a nun professed AS Camaldolese, for instance. Still, profession was only two weeks away. It was a lot to get prepared for, and to get my mind and heart around. That was why I also said I was certain my own appreciation of the significance of the cowl would mature in time.

So, what has changed for me in this regard? As a diocesan hermit there is sometimes the sense that one is cut off from monasteries, hermitages, and the like, and there is the temptation to see oneself as "simply" a contemplative sister living, praying, and working (to a limited degree) in a parish. People in the parish generally relate to you in that way because the whole idea of your being a hermit does not really "compute," so to speak. Hermits remain apparently anachronistic, and negative stereotypes relating to misanthropy and the like remain (not least because such would-be hermits actually exist --- though not as professed in the Church), so if one does not fit the stereotypes (and I certainly do not) it becomes easier to be thought of as a contemplative sister only. Now that is not universal of course, but it is generally so. Wearing a habit does not help this situation really; it just signals that today I am relatively unusual in this regard. The idea of a habit as specifically monastic garb has largely been lost because the wearing of it was advocated by church hierarchs for active religious sisters who were not essentially monastic at all. Thus, the wearing of a habit does not itself establish me as a monastic/hermit in peoples' minds even though it does so in mine.

My sense is a lot of that changes with the wearing of the cowl. People now expect me to wear it at liturgies --- and of course I do --- and it signals to them something other than my being simply a parish or diocesan sister. (In hot weather though, they kindly make sure I know, that as far as they are concerned at least, I can dispense with the cowl if I want!) It signals that a monastic, a hermit, part of a long history of hermits and monastics traced back to the earliest church days is in their midst, and it indicates that as involved as I may be in the parish, my essential vocation is to prayer in solitude and silence --- contemplative and liturgical prayer. It signals to them that the white garments used at baptism are not a one-use-in-a-lifetime garment, but something which, at least in our hearts, we should put on every day. (Recently we had several children baptized; the three older ones wore a white garment with hood, a garment which looked like a tiny cowl or tiny alb with hood. I had never seen this before in our parish, and it occured to me that perhaps my own cowl could have been part of the inspiration for this. If so, I think it is a very good thing.) So, I hope that it signals the importance of symbols, baptismal garments, yes, but also the cowl as sign of white martyrdom, consecration, and the counter-cultural nature of the eremitical vocation, even if they are only vaguely or unconsciously aware of these things.

The primary importance in my own appreciation does not have to do with what other people think, of course, but what they think and how they respond helps me come to deeper appreciation myself of the significance of the cowl. Also, I am personally amazed at how often now I see pictures of monks or hermits --- illustrations in books or on their covers --- wearing white cowls. I had simply never paid a lot of attention to this before, and when I did, I think I dismissed such garb as medieval and outdated!! But now, I see cowls all the time in the books I need for my own work and lectio. The cowl has sensitized me to things monastic where that sensitivity needed to grow. I mention this because each time it happens I experience a wave of fresh understanding and awe at the tradition I officially represent as perpetually professed hermit. Most people come to eremitical life THROUGH monastic life: my own journey has been to monastic life THROUGH life as a solitary hermit. Appropriating this tradition personally is an awesome, exciting, and very humbling challenge and necessity.

Interestingly the longer I wear the cowl, the more sure I am there is no serious disconnect between my life inside and my life outside the hermitage, and also, the more I am challenged to be sure this is true and becomes more true over time. I am not merely playing dressup in this cowl, nor merely doing something I was required to do by the diocese without it really being natural or reflecting who I am (although I must say I clearly see this as a charge and responsibility given by the diocese on behalf of the whole church which I have gladly accepted). While I was concerned at first it might accentuate a difference or disparity (between role and reality), and also be affected and anachronistic, I am finding that the more natural putting on or wearing the cowl is (and at first it felt REALLY UNNATURAL!!), the more it works to define me when I take it off. Perhaps it is the case that the cowl signals I am a hermit and monastic, and for that reason I do not need to go out of my way to "play at" being these things. I am not sure of that, but what is clear is that in wearing it I am simply being myself. (Of course I believe I was doing that before, but I think we all need assistance in making sure the roles we play and the persons we really are coincide completely.) The cowl, I think, has helped me in that regard.

Also, at my perpetual profession Bishop Vigneron remarked during his homily that I would be exploring what it meant to be a hermit in the 21st century. He was clear that this perpetual profession as diocesan hermit both called and freed me to do exactly this. I must say that this particular aspect of the vocation is something which really appeals to me, and it is something I actually mentioned in my Rule. At the same time, again, I must become and stay more and more deeply anchored in the tradition of hermits through the centuries. The cowl is an important part of this, for it signals to me again and again that I actually represent an instance of a vocation that God has called people to in our tradition for thousands of years. The cowl is both prophetic sign, and symbol of an historical continuity and kind of stability; it is at once countercultural and traditional. For this reason it anchors me in the past and challenges me to embody the best of it more and more even while it calls me to make sure it speaks appropriately to people today. The irony is that as I become more integral to my parish and more and more capable of speaking to them of something contemporary, so also does my silence and solitude deepen. I suppose that is not surprising really, but for me it is a welcome discovery!

When I first spoke of wearing the cowl in this blog it was within the context of a reflection I was doing on the notion of putting on Christ. While that dimension is, of course, never absent from my wearing of the cowl, it is (or feels) stronger for me in the wearing of the habit itself. With the exception of the scapular, the cowl speaks more specifically to me of being a monastic and especially the eremitic expression of that, of allowing God alone to be sufficient for me.  Of course, that is the same as "putting on Christ" --- but in my own mind and heart it feels like a related but slightly different thing. This is partly because the cowl is also called cuculla, from the Latin for "little house" and for hermits it is meant to signal an extension of the hermit cell. Thus, for those living outside urban areas, it is worn (hood up) when one travels from hermitage to church in the mornings (or back at night) during great silence, or even around hermitage property on walks, etc to remind the hermit of the value and practice called "custody of the cell"; it signals that one carries one's cell with one in one's own heart and is always called to stricter separation from the world.

There is another thing the cowl has made a difference in, or at least has impacted. I wear the cowl (hood down) for liturgical prayer with others, that is, for Office and Mass and any other paraliturgical celebrations I attend. Praying Divine Office is different for me than it once was. Once I prayed it because it was a good thing for my own prayer life and to a similar extent, I think, because it was the official prayer of the Church. I did not sufficiently see the Divine Office as essential to my vocation itself; important, yes, but not sufficiently as essential. Now, however, it is essential to my call, and the cowl reinforces this sense of things for me by serving as a concrete linkage between church and hermitage. As I have said before here, the diocesan hermit is very much one who prays at the very heart of the Church AND IN HER NAME.She is one who embodies the Church's most fundamental vocation and ministry in this world, namely, to pray always! This, I think, means understanding the Liturgy of the Hours as an essential, not merely an important part of the vocation which punctuates and facilitates the prayer in the rest of the day. Of course, the Rule of St Benedict emphasizes this in its own way, and I am challenged by the Rule to make this true in my own life. The cowl, however, has been important both in visibly and symbolically affirming and extending this challenge to me throughout my day.

Finally then, the cowl has served to challenge me to grow in my vocation. Martyrs and Saints have worn this garment. Brother and Sister monks and hermits through the centuries have done so and embraced a call to holiness and prayer in ways which summon and challenge me as well. So, above all, the cowl calls me to grow daily, hourly, in this vocation. To see it hanging on the back of the door often stops me in wonder at the nature of this calling; to actually put it on and know that the Church herself has entrusted it and the wearing of it to me is an astounding, awesome, and powerful challenge. And it is one I accept with joy.

Thanks for the question, and the chance to actually reflect a little on what the wearing of the cowl has come to mean to me over the past 8 months. I really appreciate it and I hope I answered your question! (note, I hope the pictures help show that women monastics wear the cowl, or something very like it, more than is commonly realized.)

24 April 2008

Seeking God in the unexpected place, Acts 15:7-21

Throughout the last five weeks of Eastertide the Church has been reading through the book of Acts. We have been following the story of the early church's growing pains, and a learning curve that has been slow and painful going at times. At every turn the disciples and the fledgling church had to come to terms with a God who worked in unexpected and surprising, even scandalous ways.

At first the challenge was to believe that a man they thought was messiah could die. Beyond this they had to come to terms with the fact that in Jesus, a man crucified as a blasphemer, one who therefore died a godless death according to the God-given Law they cherished and honored was actually vindicated by God; he was raised BODILY from the dead and then ascended to sit at God's right hand --- meaning he was present now in power! Believing in the events was one thing, but coming to accept all they implied about God and the way he worked in the world, as well as what these events meant for established traditions and praxis was another whole challenge. All of these events meant that the channels of grace they had treasured and honored were no longer the privileged place where God was to be found. The Law was no longer the privileged Word of God, the Risen and ascended Christ was. No longer was the temple the place where heaven and earth met and God dwelled; the risen and ascended Christ was the new Temple. No longer were the Jews alone to constitute Israel, but instead all who came to Christ IN FAITH and lived in him were the new and extended people of Israel!

It was somewhat analogous to our having another Catholic come to us one day and saying: "God has done a new and unexpected thing in the life and death of so-and-so! As a result, HE is the privileged channel of grace for us now! Our Sacraments have been relativized; they are no longer the privileged way God comes to us, the privileged way he is mediated to us. THIS MAN IS!" It would be a tremendous amount to take in, a lot to get our minds and hearts around --- just as the Christ event and all it implied was a tremendous amount for the early church to get their minds and hearts around. I think we can appreciate the kind of learning curve this would occasion --- and the kind of crisis!!

In today's first reading, we see the church facing such a crisis and coming to the critical point in this process of growth, this learning curve she has been on. Paul and Barnabas have been preaching the gospel to the Gentiles without demanding they take on the burden of the Law and circumcision --- that is, without becoming Jews in the process of conversion. They were allowing Gentiles to become part of the new and extended Israel without becoming Jews!!! In fact, he was insisting that this is what the Gospel of Christ called for! Others of course, in this case the pharisaic party of the community of believers, insisted otherwise and were harrassing the Gentile Christians with all kinds of demands Paul considered anti-Gospel! So Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem to resolve the issue, and what we have in today's readings is Luke's account of that event.

An image central to today's first reading is that God has purified the hearts of the Gentile Christians. What Luke is doing here in this reference to purification is calling to mind the tearing of the temple veil and noting that the boundary or wall between sacred and profane has been torn asunder. Peter's speech cannot be heard without also hearing echoes of the dream he had back in chapter 10 where a large sheet or sail is lowered and all kinds of animals are contained in it, both clean and unclean, and Peter is told to eat from it. Horrified Peter refuses, but is told essentially, "What I have rendered clean (what I have purified), don't you dare call unclean!! What I have made sacred, you do not call profane!"

And this is the final thing the early Christian had to get their minds around in terms of the Christ event, not only that he who was crucified has been raised and vindicated by God, but that through his death, resurrection, and ascension, the boundary between sacred and profane has been torn asunder. In Christ God entered into the realms of sin and death and transformed them with his presence. As a result, he is found in the unexpected place, the place where he once could NEVER have been found. In terms of today's reading, he is found active and powerfully present in the Gentiles, and he is so apart from the Law, apart from the temple system, apart from all those things which were sacred and once the privileged mediators of the sacred! Salvation comes to everyone equally and in the same way, through faith in Jesus Christ!! Through faith ALONE, not through law and temple, not involving circumcision!!

And of course, some Jewish Christians found it hard to affirm this original instance of "Through faith alone!" They demanded the imposition of the whole Law and circumcision to the Gentile Christians. But we know how the story ends: after long debates and listening to accounts of God's work among the Gentiles it was decided not to impose these demands, to allow them to be part of the new Israel without also becoming Jews! And as we hear from Jame's speech, a few conditions were applied, but minimally and just enough to insure that Jewish and Gentile Christians could come together around the table of the Lord. Jewish Christians compromised by letting go of Traditions and interpretations of Scripture they treasured, and Gentile Christans were asked to refrain from anything smacking of, or touching upon idolatry --- all so they could all comfortably come together around the Lord's table and share in covenant fellowship! It was an astounding and inspiring resolution.

Several things about today's reading struck me, especially regarding how this fledgling church faced and resolved the crisis.

First, despite (and through) all the arguing and debating, this is an inclusive church seeking to do all she can to bring about legitimate unity and fellowship. She is not trying to exclude people from table or covenant fellowship. She is seeking to find ways to make it happen, and in doing so she compromises; she lets go of treasured traditions and reinterprets Scripture in light of what God has done outside her visible or accepted boundaries. Secondly, she is a discerning church. She is concerned with seeing where GOD is at work, not with defining where he CANNOT be at work, cannot be found. She looks for him in the unexpected place because that is what the Christ event teaches her to do. Thirdly, she is a docile Church, willing to be taught by those outside her accepted or visible boundaries. In today's reading the heart of the Gospel --- that salvation comes to all by faith, and that God works in the same way among all people --- is re-taught to this church by Gentiles. And fourthly, therefore, she is a humble and obedient Church, one who listens for God's voice and submits herself to it, no matter how unexpected the place it comes from, and no matter how difficult that may be.

The challenge today's first reading present us with is immense. We must be the kind of people who constitute THIS KIND OF CHURCH: intentionally inclusive in a seach for legitimate unity, discerning of the God who comes to us in the unexpected place, the unexpected person, the unexpected religion, etc, and docile: willing to be taught by those we thought could NOT teach us, willing to humbly listen to and submit to the Word of God however it comes to us. The veil between sacred and profane has been torn asunder by Christ's life, death and resurrection. He comes to us now bodily raised and present in the power of the Holy Spirit --- a spirit that "blows where she will"! As a result, we MUST BE a people who seeks God and allows ourselves to find him (and be found by him!) in the unexpected place, and not merely through the accepted and privileged channels of grace we know so well --- no matter the cost. This is the God today's first reading proclaims and the challenge it sets before us!

19 April 2008

There's Another World in There!

In Memoriam:
Daniel Patrick Hogan, Jr. (1928-2008)

Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas

This Thursday my parish celebrated a Mass of Christian Burial for Dan Patrick Hogan, Jr, an amazing man who lived his faith with integrity and zeal. Drawing on work by Jan Richards, my pastor's homily was really fine, and appropriate for the season, of course. With permission, I have posted it below. My thanks to Rev John Kasper, osfs for allowing me to share this in remembering Dan here.

To Holly, and to all of Dan’s children – Dan, Sue, Liz, Karen, Sean, Sharon, Sarah, to your spouses and to Dan’s grandchildren and his great grandchild Kai, I want to extend our heartfelt sympathy, prayer and support as we gather for this Mass of Christian Burial to commend Dan to God who has called him home. The many family members, neighbors, co-workers and fellow parishioners who have gathered with you are a great tribute and testimony to Dan’s grand spirit and expansive life. I will personally miss his constant encouragement and support in my ministry here at St. Perpetua’s. Five years ago, when we needed someone to co-chair the first Capital Campaign since the parish was founded, it was only natural to ask Dan to assume that role, and he did so gladly and helped to guide us successfully.

Yesterday evening, as we were leaving a touching and inspiring time of sharing memories and stories of Dan at our Vigil service here, I noticed some of his family members looking at the print of Caravaggio’s painting in the entry way. It’s part of our parish Easter environment. I’m sure you know the graphic scene from John’s gospel well; it’s usually dubbed “Doubting Thomas.” The apostle Thomas, who was not present the first time the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples after his death and resurrection, firmly declares: Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands, and put my finger on those scars and my hands in his side, I will not believe.

The author Jan Richardson offers a poignant insight into this gospel scene.[[As Caravaggio paints the scene, Christ stands to the left, chest bared, drawing Thomas’ hand into his wound as two other disciples look on. It is an intimate scene: Christ bows his head over Thomas’ hand, gazing at Thomas as he pulls him toward his wound; Thomas leans in, brow furrowed, the other disciples standing so close behind him they threaten to topple him straight into Jesus. Yet Thomas seems about to tumble into the wound of his own accord. He is doing more than merely looking where Christ leads him; his whole being is absorbed in wonder. We almost have the sense that Thomas was thinking, “There’s another world in there.”

[[The title sometimes given this remarkable painting, and this remarkable man -- Doubting Thomas -- grates a bit. Earlier in John’s gospel, Thomas is the one—the only one—who steps forward and expresses his willingness to die with Jesus. Here, in this Easter scene, Thomas once again crosses into a place where others have not ventured: into the very flesh of the risen Christ.

[[ Caravaggio’s painting illumines a point that the Gospel writers are keen to make in the Easter stories of Jesus, reminding us who bear the grief of Dan’s death, of the faith to which Dan so steadfastly and devoutly clung. The gospel writers want to make sure we know that the risen Christ was no ghost, no ethereal spirit. He was flesh and blood. He ate. He still, as Thomas discovered, wore the wounds of crucifixion. That Christ’s flesh remained broken, even in his resurrection, serves as a powerful reminder that his intimate familiarity and solidarity with us, with our human condition, did not end with his death.

[[Perhaps that’s what is so striking about Caravaggio’s painting: it stuns us with the awareness of how deeply Christ was, and is, joined with us. The wounds of the risen Christ are not a prison: they are a passage. Thomas’ hand in Christ’s side is not some bizarre, morbid probe: it is a union, and a reminder that in taking flesh, Christ wed himself to us.]]

The strength and joy of Dan’s character, to which we testified last night, and will again this morning after we share the Eucharist, is the fruit of his faith in the Risen Lord. Through the Eucharist he shared week in and week out, Christ joined himself to Dan, and was intimately acquainted not only with the delights he experienced in his full and active life, but also in the ways that life broke him open in the losses he bore and the challenges he faced. That same love and intimate union with the Risen Lord can bring us great comfort on this sad occasion.

In the gospel passage that Dan’s family chose for our hearing today, we encounter Thomas at an earlier stage as Jesus was preparing his disciples for his imminent departure from this life. He promises that he will prepare a place for them and for us. Thomas again is confused and suspicious: Master, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way? It isn’t until after Jesus’ resurrection, the second time the Risen Lord appears to his disciples, that Thomas was convinced. His doubts vanished, his suspicions ceased and his only response to the Risen Christ was the response of pure faith: My Lord and my God!

In a recent poll, when asked about their religious preference, 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as "unaffiliated" — atheist, agnostic, or most prominently "nothing in particular." In many ways, Thomas is their patron saint. It took him a while to lower his defenses and place his trust in God’s providential love. Dan was blessed with a certitude that Jesus was the way, the truth and the life. He walked that path confidently and faithfully. He shared it with his family. He witnessed to it in his work and in all his associations. He nourished it within the community of the Church and at the Table of the Eucharist. He gave us all a profound example of Christian faith that lives fully in this life and joyfully anticipates the life of resurrection and the fullness of God’s kingdom.

If we follow the path of love and mercy that marked the life of Christ, we too, when we face the worrisome and fearful reality of death, can do so with grace and assurance. Jesus, who is the source of life and truth, is also our way to the Father’s house, that place of many mansions. His passage has assured our own. Instead of ‘Doubting Thomas’, we can now call the painting ‘Believing Thomas,’ or ‘Thomas of the Passage’, who reached out his hand to touch the wound of Christ and found what Dan had discovered throughout his life of faith: “There’s another world in there.”

Rev John Kasper, osfs
St Perpetua's Catholic Church
Lafayette, CA
17. April. 2008

See also Jan Richardson's blog, "The Painted Prayerbook" for the rest of her reflections on Caravaggio's work, as well as her own painting accompanying these reflections, "Into the Wound," or cf www.janrichardson.com.

13 April 2008

Followup Question on the Eremitic Vocation and Contemptus Mundi

It seems my last answer on the idea of hermits being motivated by the need to escape the world raised further questions. Here is the followup:

[[ Okay. I get what you are saying about the hermit needing to be motivated by love, not the desire to escape the world in both senses you used the term. But couldn't a desire to escape from the world, or a refusal to understand it, be a form of genuine holiness, or a kind of rarified eremitical vocation? Don't we hear a lot about the idea of "hating" the world in spiritual writing? Are you saying none of this is legitimate?]]

In my earlier post I wrote that the motivation for the eremitical vocation HAD TO BE love, not a desire to escape from reality. I maintain that is still the bottom line, and that a person who chooses to retreat to a "hermitage" because she cannot relate well to people, cannot delight in the world outside the hermitage, cannot (or does not desire to) understand that reality and sees herself as wholly different than it rather than an instance of it, is not a hermit in the Christian sense of that word. I would go somewhat further and affirm that she is unlikely to be genuinely called to eremitical life (especially diocesan eremitism) so long as this remains her orientation and attitude towards that world.

It is not the case that eremitism is a refuge for those who cannot relate well to the world outside the hermitage. It is a refuge, yes, but the genuinely holy space of the hermitage is meant to act as leaven, an instance of the coming Kingdom of God penetrating and transforming God's good creation. Everything within the hermitage is meant to be at the service of this process and this world, beginning with the hermit's own heart, and spilling over from there. In terms of the monastic concept of "contempt for the world", yes, that is valid, but only when we have defined "world" in the narrower sense of "that which promises fulfillment apart from God," and understand deeply that the world outside the hermitage is fundamentally good and MEANT TO BECOME part of what the Scriptures refer to as the new heaven and new earth.

It is completely appropriate to reject elements of the world outside the hermitage, and to refuse to understand them or seek to "know them" in the more intimate biblical sense of that term. But the idea that the hermit should not understand or wish to understand the very things that drive her neighbors, brothers, and sisters away from their own calls to holiness, or which wound and distort them in the name of this or that kind of fulfillment is something I cannot agree with. Again, hermits are called to love these persons, and I don't know how one can do so without a profound sense of solidarity with them which implies deep understanding. Let me be clear: I am not saying one must embrace the sin one finds in the world in order to love the world, just the opposite in fact. Neither, therefore, am I saying that one understands the world BY embracing its distortions and sinfulness. In fact, one does so mainly by a careful and discerning rejection of them. But, one cannot turn from the task of genuinely KNOWING these things and understanding them (first of all in oneself, and secondly in those one meets, etc) in the name of some supposedly rarified vocation to eremitical life. (Please note that rare --- which the hermit vocation is --- and rarified are not precisely the same terms.)

Thomas Merton once asked, [[ Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time?]] He continued: [[If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love, and nowhere else will I find myself, and my brother and sister in Christ. It is not a question of either-or but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivity and "purity" but of wholeness, whole-heartedness, unity, and of Meister Eckhart's gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.]]

I think here is a major part of the answer to your questions. There is a paradox, indeed a series of paradoxes involved in the eremitic life. To name a couple, we leave the world to a greater extent than most in order to love the One who grounds its existence, and to love all that he loves as well. We become contemplatives not to escape from the world, but to confront it and transform it, to bring it to wholeness and fullness of life --- though I grant you this confrontation is different than most would ordinarily conceive. Still, what is true is that eremitic life is a life of profound engagement with the world and its God (or, better said, perhaps, with God on behalf of and in solidarity with that world). One may shut the door of one's hermitage, but not to close out the world (if by this we also mean turning our backs on it in self-centered introspection); instead, one does so to relate to it more honestly and lovingly. One point I think is that engagement does not imply enmeshment, just as escape from the world outside the hermitage does not equal monastic "contemptus mundi". Solidarity does not mean complete agreement; indeed genuine solidarity can be profoundly critical and SHOULD BE deeply challenging even while it remains radically supportive. Conversely, the witness of the hermit is meant to challenge the world outside the hermitage, but that presupposes a significant degree of solidarity with it as well.

So, my answer to your questions (except to the last one) amount to a yes, with serious clarifications and qualification. I have seen persons who desire to be hermits speak of their hermitages as places of retreat from a world they claim openly to neither understand nor wish to understand. In these same instances I have heard descriptions of not relating well to others, being estranged from and disliked by them, out of step in normal social situations, constantly at the center of misunderstandings and crises, and the like. In such cases these persons seem to want to get back to the hermitage that makes relatively few personal demands on them in terms of others. The "loving" described" by these persons, when it is mentioned at all, is a safe, abstract, personally-undemanding love which involves little giving of self and no real death to self in Christ. (This is so because, in fact, there is a failure or refusal to recognize the self as at least a partial source of many of the problems described. There is a failure to see "the world" which one carries within oneself, or to confront and seek sanctification and healing of that reality.) These particular retreats from the world are exercises in illegitimate escape, NOT engagement. They represent misanthropy, not eremitism. Such retreat is capitulation to the very world one seeks to reject, not a matter of contemplative engagement or the legitimate "greater separation from the world" mentioned in canon 603.

I suppose one thing I have not emphasized enough in this post is the fact that "greater separation from the world" in the canon which governs eremitical life in the Roman Catholic Church implies first of all, rejection of that reality in oneself. If one speaks of the world as something merely "out there" and runs to the hermitage to escape from that reality, instead one will find that it has been locked inside the hermitage with one --- and it will devour the one who does not recognize and confront it. Too often people have spoken of "the world" as something which exists merely outside themselves, something which can be escaped by shutting the door and refusing to go out. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I read your question, I took it as describing this kind of situation, so feel free to correct me or clarify further if I was mistaken in my reading.

12 April 2008

The Importance of Jesus' Bodily Resurrection. . .a beginnning. . .

For the last three weeks we have been celebrating the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There is no doubt that despite the fact we spend a lot of time on the Easter event, we really do not appreciate what we celebrate. It is common to hear Christianity characterized as a religion which is based on illusion, or a desire to escape the real world, or both. We hear it referred to as, "Pie in the sky by and by" or see Christians characterized as, "so heavenly minded they are (of) no earthly good," and the fact is many times these derogatory characterizations are true. Christians have a right to hope that in this world sin and death do not have the last word, but the idea that our salvation ULTIMATELY rests in a heaven distinct and removed from this world is something BODILY resurrection does not support.

I am only just beginning to explore this topic. I began as a result of readings from the first and second weeks of Easter. In those readings what was clear was how truly astonished and overwhelmed by what had happened to Jesus in the resurrection was. They were joyfilled, but also terrified, astonished, curious, disbelieving, etc and there was no way in light of those readings one could come away thinking that the resurrection was merely something occasioned by wish-fulfillment or the disciples' inability to deal with their own grief. What they experienced was discontinuous with what they knew or had conceived of --- not completely so, but enough to underscore how truly real in an objective sense this resurrected Christ was for them. This was no resuscitated corpse a la Lazarus, for this Christ walked through walls, came and went in an instant, was not recognized except as he called a disciple by name or in the breaking of the bread, etc. And yet, neither was he a ghost or mere "spiritual being" for he could be touched (not clung to perhaps, but touched nonetheless!), and he ate fish! Nor was his resurrection merely symbolic of the return of Israel from exile (though it signalled the return from exile of the true Israel nonetheless.)

The notion that Christians are those who must escape from this world to a remote heaven was contradicted by the fact that Jesus' resurrection was a bodily resurrection and thrust him back into this world to serve it, first in the Easter appearances, then at the right hand of his Father where he continues as the crucified and risen one, and so, one presumes, the incarnate God who is bodily present to the world, and in the giving of the Holy Spirit who makes both Father and Son present in power. In this resurrection heaven and earth interpenetrate one another in a way which allows us to see that the ultimate Christian hope is a new heaven and a new earth in which God is all in all --- not a remote and distant heaven! It seemed to me that Christians may in fact be the ones who are called not only NOT to escape from this world and all its evils, but to confront them face to face, not only because we know sin and death to be defeated in Christ, but because we know he remains committed to this world's transformation in him.

I moved next to consider the ascension on the basis of a comment I read by Kenneth Leech that dovetailed with what I had been thinking about bodily resurrection. Leech says:[[ to many people the doctrine of the ascension spells remoteness --- Jesus goes away into a remote heaven. . . .In fact the whole point of the ascension is missed here. Heaven and earth become crude geographical entities. But the New Testament teaches that Christ ascended so he might be CLOSER to us in his risen body, and that he might fill all things (Eph 4:10).]] (Leech, True Prayer, p 15).

And then I picked up Tom Wright's book, Surprised by Hope! Now, a couple of years ago I had read his work on the resurrection over a period some weeks, and Surprised by Hope is in some ways, a more readable version of that more technical work. Still, it is an amazing book and brought home to me just how common is our misunderstanding of what it is Christian hope truly consists. Most important are the implications for missiology of the bodily resurrection and the fact that we await a new heaven and a new earth. We really are called to transform this world because ultimately we hope to participate in that new heaven AND NEW EARTH the Scriptures talk about.

Over time I will write more about this because it is an idea too little heard about, and too often contradicted by various forms of spirituality and (non-Christian or insufficiently Christian) theological ideas. (It is also an idea I have not sufficiently grappled with myself!) For now, let me leave you with the questions: 1) how often have you thought about the significance that Christ was raised bodily, and that our ultimate hope is for bodily resurrection? 2) How often have you thought about heaven as someplace remote from this world rather than as the power of God which interpenetrates this world and, through the work of the Spirit, is the means by which this world is recreated? 3) And how much more compelling would your work to preserve, honor, and transform this world be if you grounded it in a theology which recognized that ultimately we hope for a new heaven and a new earth in which God is powerfully and fully present and which itself is completely part of (or, better put perhaps, taken into) the life of the Trinity?

10 April 2008

Why isn't it enough. . .???

I received the following question via email: [[How does one determine one is called to an eremitical vocation? Why isn't it enough to be uncomfortable with the world or to desire to avoid it, and to wish to retire to solitude? Is this at least a sign of a genuine eremitical vocation?]]

In order to answer this (or at least the second part of the question, because I will need to answer the first part separately), I want to first reprise what I wrote in an earlier post (cf Post on January 14, 2008, The Unique Charism of the Diocesan Hermit) : [[One embraces eremitical silence, solitude, prayer, penance and greater separation from the world in order to spend one's life for others in this specific way. Whatever FIRST brings one to the desert (illness, loss, temperament, curiosity, etc) unless one learns to love God, oneself, and one's brothers and sisters genuinely and profoundly, and allows this to be the motivation for one's life, I don't think one has yet discerned, much less embraced, a call to diocesan (Canon 603) eremitism.

[[. . . let me say something here about the phrase "the world" in the above answers. Greater separation from the World implies physical separation, but not merely physical separation. Doesn't this conflict with what I said about the unique charism of the diocesan hermit? No, I don't think so. First of all, "the world" does NOT mean "the entire physical reality except for the hermitage or cell"! Instead, "the world" refers to those structures, realities, things, positions, values, etc which PROMISE FULFILLMENT or personal [dignity and] completion APART FROM GOD. Anything, including some forms of religion and piety can represent "the world" given this definition. "The world" tends to represent escape from self and God, and also escape from the deep demands and legitimate expectations others have a right to make of us as Christians. Given this understanding, some forms of "eremitism" may not represent so much greater separation from the world as they do unusually embodied capitulations to it. (Here is one of the places an individual can fool themselves and so, needs the assistance of the church to carry out an adequate and accurate discernment of a DIVINE vocation to eremitical life.)

reprise continues:

[[Not everything out in the physical world is "the World" hermits are called to greater separation from. Granted, physical separation from much of the physical world is an element of genuine solitude which makes discerning the difference easier. Still, I have seen non diocesan hermits who, in the name of "eremitical hiddenness" run from responsibilities, relationships, anything at all which could conceivably be called secular or even simply natural (as opposed to what is sometimes mistakenly called the supernatural). This is misguided, I believe, and is often more apt to point to the lack of an eremitical vocation at the present time than the presence of one.]]

The simple answer in light of what I have said before, then, is no, it is not nearly enough. We are speaking of a religious (and, in fact, Christian) hermit --- one for for whom the heart of her vocation is love, not only of God, but of all that God cherishes as well. I am interpreting your question to mean that avoidance of the world (in this case I mean the whole of reality outside the hermitage) is the dominating, even sole reason for embracing an eremitical life, that no other reason even comes close. Even if one finds oneself out of step with that world, determines she cannot fathom it, is misunderstood herself by it, and desires nothing more than to retreat from it, this is NOT the basis for an eremitical life, nor is it, all by itself, a sign of a genuine vocation. In fact, it is more likely a sign one is NOT called to such a vocation. This is especially true if one who is a novice to spirituality and eremitism takes one's sense of being out of step with the world, misunderstood by and unable to fathom it, as a sign one is radically different than it.

It is true because it neglects the simple fact that we are each and all of us part of the world, shaped and formed by it, and so, to greater and lesser extents, carry it deeply in our own hearts, minds, and limbs. This is true whether one is speaking of the world as all of reality outside the hermitage, or "the world" in the strict monastic sense of "contemptus mundi" --- that which promises fulfillment apart from God. We carry the world within us in both senses, and of course, are called to love, transform and heal the world (in both senses) outside of the hermitage. In the negative or monastic sense of the term (that which promises fulfillment apart from God) we bring this to the hermitage in order to deal with it, to subject it to God's love and healing touch. We bring it to the hermitage not because we cannot understand it --- or it us, but because we understand it all too well and know that God's love is the only alternative to our own personal enmeshment in it. The dynamic you described is of a person running from this reality (and, in fact, from the whole of God's world), but the hermitage cannot be used to run FROM ONESELF, nor from God's good creation; it cannot be used as a place of escape, but must instead be a place of confrontation and transformation, of love and healing.

To attempt to escape from the demands of the physical world outside the "hermitage" is really to actually transform the "hermitage" into an outpost of what monasticism calls "the world." This is so because one of the signal qualities of "the world" in the monastic sense is a refusal to face reality, and thus will also involve an inability to love it into wholeness. Thus, if the "hermitage" is merely or even mainly a refuge from all that one cannot face, understand, or deal adequately with, it has ceased to be a genuine hermitage in any Christian sense and instead is predicated on the very values of distraction, avoidance, escape, and inability to face forthrightly or love truly or deeply that which constitutes "the world". It is itself an instance of that world, an outpost of it and no true hermitage. To bring "the world" into the hermitage in this sense is far and away more dangerous and destructive than bringing in aspects of it openly and cautiously like TV, movies, news programs, computer, etc --- and we know how assiduously careful we must be about (and even generally resistant to) these latter inclusions!

There is a reason hermitages have been characterized as places of battle, as crucibles as well as oases of God's peace. Above all they are the places where, in the clear light of God's truth and love, one is asked to confront the demons one carrries within oneself. Thomas Merton once wrote that the purpose of the hermitage was to allow a hermit to face the falseness, and distortions in oneself: "the first function of the hermitage is to relax and heal and to smooth out one's distortions and inhumanities." This is true, he says, because the mission of the solitary in the world is, "first the full recovery of man's natural and human measure." The hermit "reminds (others) of what is theirs to use if they can manage to extricate themselves from the web of myths and fixations which a highly artificial society has imposed on them." However, Merton knew all too well that the battle is waged inside the hermitage as well. One cannot witness to a world one refuses to understand as though one were really all that different from it. One cannot do so because one has not dealt with "the world" one carries deep within oneself, and which, in fact, one IS until one has been completely remade by God's love.

By the way, it is, of course, true that the hermit comes to love the solitude and silence of her hermitage, and she desires to be there, to go about her daily routine, to do all the small and large tasks and chores that come as part of the life there. A certain degree of discomfort with the world outside the hermitage will exist since she wants always to get back to the sacred space of silence and solitude which is her cell. However, and I cannot emphasize this enough, when she is outside the hermitage, she is completely capable of relating empathetically to others and so, understanding them and what drives them; she is able to delight in this world to the extent it is evidence of God's creativity and wonder, and to care deeply for it when it falls short of that glory. These people, places, and things are given her to love, to cherish in so far as they are God's own, and in so far as they possess the potential, no matter how yet-profoundly-unrealized, to mediate God's presence and love. This is a world the hermit knows to be very like herself in every way. Her vocation may be unique, but she is not. To the degree she is really a hermit she carries these persons, places, and things with her back to the hermitage to continue to love them, to pray for them, and also to let them love and shape her own life to the degree that is appropriate.

In NO WAY is the hermitage an escape from the world in this sense. It is the place from which the hermit lives to allow God's presence greater intensity and scope so that he might one day be "all in all" as the Pauline phrase goes. Again, this all gets back to what I said at the beginning: The basis for the eremitical life must be love; it cannot be escape. We are called to greater separation from the world only because love requires distance as well as closeness. But we embrace this separation in order that we may allow God's love full rein and scope, first in our own lives, and then, in the lives of all those others for whom we live.

I hope this answers the second part of your question! Please let me know if it does not, or if it raises more questions. In the meantime, all my best.