26 June 2008

Healing of a Leper

Tomorrow's Gospel is a challenging one for me personally, and I think for many of us despite our 21st Century sophistication regarding illness, etc. I have already written about my own difficulties with healing stories: one must both pour out one's heart regarding one's need to be healed, and at the same time know that miraculous healings happen VERY infrequently --- thus recognizing that either Jesus does not will one's healing (which is hard for us to believe) or that healing miracles simply cannot be expected by sophisticated believers today. For me personally, I balance the need to pour out one's heart with the belief that sometimes Jesus does NOT will one's healing, and that illness, can not only lead to a deeper healing, but witness to the Gospel in a more vivid way than physical health and healing might (again, God's power is made perfect in weakness). But, as significant as this is for me, I think it is not precisely where the challenge stands for us in tomorrow's gospel.

In Matthew's text for Friday we move from Jesus' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, his outline of the ethics and scope of the gospel, to his own making it concrete by healing a leper. The leper says, "If you will, make me clean" and Jesus affirms that he does will it. The sermon on the mount has reaffirmed time and again in the last two weeks that God's justice and values are not as the world measures them. It is the poor and disenfranchised that are called blessed, those who are hungry and thirsty in ordinary terms who shall be filled, etc. What God values is not what the world values. Most often God acts in ways which involve a reversal of values. And of course, again and again Jesus reminds us that what God calls us each to is an ethic that goes far beyond the law, far beyond the minimalism or defined norms of the Torah, divine though those may be. Jesus fulfills the law, that is, he perfects it and embodies in his own life all the Law is meant to foster and make possible among human beings. He lives out the fulness of the Law in his complete giving of self and in his communion with his Father and healing acceptance of all those the Father entrusts to him. If fulfilling the Law is a matter of generosity of heart, and not the cold calculation of what is required according to the letter, if it is the act of giving oneself and putting oneself on the line for others -- especially the marginalized, then Jesus is the one who embodies and demonstrates this most perfectly and paradigmatically.

And so, Jesus reaches out to one of the most severely marginalized of his culture. Lepers evoked horror, fear, and outright loathing. Such skin diseases (and many things passed for leprosy) were the externalization of one's own sin. As one commentator puts the matter, it is as though the state of the individual's soul was turned inside out and revealed for all to see in the skin lesions and distorted features! Physical infection was dreaded, but that combined with the ability of such a person to render others spiritually "unclean" was the basis of the fear and loathing which met the infirm. For God to heal such a one was to justify the ungodly. It represents the acceptance of the unacceptable and points beyond itself to the One whose Law is perfected in generous healing. While Jesus heals the leper physically, the deeper healing is the reconciliation of the leper to his faith community. He is asked to show himself to the priests in order to demonstrate Jesus is the one who fulfills the law, but in so doing, he is returned from marginalization to the heart of human society.

I am afraid we have not grown beyond marginalizing people for some illnesses. We do it with certain brain disorders, mental illnesses, AIDS, addictions, and the like. We may even link these illnesses to the notion of personal sin. But the challenge of today's Gospel for most of us is to put such ways behind us. We are asked to reach out to the marginalized and bring them right into the heart of our faith communities. We are asked to be Christ to others as Christ has been to us --- for once we were the unacceptable. If our faith communities are notable for the absence of the once-marginalized, for the absence of "lepers" of whatever kind, perhaps we are failing to be the people Christ calls and empowers us to be. Healing comes in many ways, and while we may be unable to heal people physically with our touch, we CAN make sure we work to overcome the marginalization that is still so-often with us. It actually will involve a generosity of heart that goes far beyond anything law can legislate, for it is a piece of the fulfillment or perfection of the law we have heard outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and seen embodied in the Christ Event we ourselves share in and are called to extend to the whole world.

20 June 2008

Self-centered vs God-centered Prayer and Spirituality: Some Questions

Not surprisingly, my posts over the last few days have raised several questions. The first ones are requests for where I got the information I used for the reflection on Matthew's text in "To turn the other cheek."

For those interested, I always use commentaries when preparing for lectio and doing reflections and there are three which I use regularly and like very much. The first is the Sacra Pagina series for the NT (Berit Olam for books of the OT). While this is a standard commentary series it is less technical than some and is readable even for those who have no Greek. The second series is the Interpretation Series which is meant for preachers and general teachers of Scripture (not exegetes or Scripture scholars per se). Finally, I ordinarily look at Tom Wright's,[Matthew](or whomever) for Everyone. Now, I have talked about this text in Matthew before so I am not sure which of the three has the most information right off the top of my head, but Wright's work is excellent for capturing the realities of the world Jesus lived in (not least Jesus' Jewishness and relation to Judaism and Rome) and the Interpretation series is good too. For those interested, I would start with Wright's books (they are more readable, cheaper, and can be used for lectio as well), move to Interpretation (a bit higher priced, available in hardcover --- the softcovers by the same name are a DIFFERENT SERIES), and finally, to Sacra Pagina (which is especially helpful if you are asked to do reflections for your community or are a preacher/homilist). SP is more expensive (though available in paper now, and used (but usually available in "as new" condition!) on Amazon); it is the more comprehensive commentary series of the three.

The next questions I received were not at all surprising and had to do with the post on the Lord's Prayer: [[ Aren't we supposed to bring our sins, concerns, etc to God in prayer? How can this be called problematical and self-centered? What do you mean when you say there are ways to pour out our hearts to God without being self-centered? Also, in spiritual direction, how can we talk about our prayer without being self-centered?]]

Let me try to explain some about this because I knew my comments would raise these kinds of questions. The only one I anticipated that was not included was, What can we say about, "What kind of experience" our prayer was for God?? We can't read God's mind!! First, as I noted, we will and SHOULD pour out our hearts to God. We should certainly bring our sinfulness, brokenness, weaknesses, foibles and failings before him. However, sometimes we are so focused on these things we forget WHY we are doing this, why we are opening our hearts to God -- not to mention WHO is empowering us to do so if we are at all successful (and even when we are NOT)! We are looking for forgiveness and healing, for comfort and strength, for nourishment and challenge as well, but WHY are we doing these things? Quite often we stop at the answer that "WE need these things" if WE are to become holy, or make it to heaven, or however we understand or state the matter. Sometimes we are so focused on "becoming detached" or "losing self" or "becoming humble" that we think that that is the whole purpose of our spirituality. When we fail, a session of spiritual direction can become a recital of our own projects, our own goals, our own purposes, inadequacies, and the like, and when the director asks about our prayer, this is all she will hear --- a litany of complaints which is a paean to self.

Now, it is important, of course, to be in touch with these things and be able to recount them to one's director; the director needs to hear them, but it makes all the difference in the world if we are considering them because of the way they affected God's plans for us, God's purposes in our world, God's needs for himself and his determination to love us with an everlasting love, or simply because we have in view OUR OWN goals, plans, aspirations, failures, incapacities, and the like. That is why I will sometimes ask a directee who seems to have lost sight of God in her prayer, "What kind of experience was this for God?" She will NOT usually be able to tell me what God felt (that kind of awareness, though possible to some limited extent, is a gift and occurs rarely).

Instead she will tell me again about her own lack of openness, her own resistances, her own fears, anxiety, boredom, exhaustion, or whatever, but this time she will do so because she is concerned about God and his purposes and love first of all --- or at the very least because she is now considering these first!! Instead of an egocentric soliloquy about self, her account will cover all the necessary matter for direction, but from a much more other-centered perspective! Further, when she returns to prayer once again, she is more apt to be able to get out of her own way so that the Spirit can really work in and on her! She will pour out her heart, but she will do so in order that God might enter it more completely and transform the world with his love. She will do it because God wills to dwell there exhaustively and the completion of Christ's mission with regard to creation requires it. She will do it because God himself URGES and empowers her to do so, and because she cares and is attentive enough to respond to HIS needs and desires.

It is the difference between recounting one's own failings (and, sometimes, successes) in listening to a friend because one is primarily aware of the friend's desires and needs and the way they were met or disappointed , and recounting those same failings and successes because one is simply aware of and concerned with oneself and one's own performance. It is the difference between seeing with our hearts and navel gazing. Sometimes in our spirituality we become so focused on an abstract goal (becoming humble, losing self, becoming detached, becoming holy, being healed or reconciled, etc) that we really don't consider God in the picture except to the extent that he is the one we must turn to who is supposed to "make us" these things. Unfortunately, from this perspective it is all-too easy to treat prayer as our own accomplishment, God as OUR SERVANT and our project as HIS OWN WILL, rather than understanding we are to be HIS SERVANTS and our goals are meant to allow HIS PURPOSES to be realized in our world. Of course humility, selflessness, detachment, reconciliation, and healing are important goals but WHY is it we are intent on their achievement????

There is a vast difference between seeking these things because we are self-centered, and seeking them because God wills them if he is to accomplish his own purposes in our world. (And of course, a self-centered way of seeking them will actually lead to our greater entrenchment in their opposite and thus be self-defeating in the profoundest and truest sense!) Matthew's Gospel touched on this question of motives this week as well in the Gospel lection prior to the Lord's prayer, (Matt 6:1-5f). It is not surprising he follows up his discourse on hypocrisy and distorted or inadequate motives with the Lord's Prayer.

Unfortunately, it is all-too easy to kid ourselves in this matter: for instance, we read a book on spirituality and it tells us we should be humble so we begin a self-improvement regimen to become humble. We read a Saint's life that recounts this Saint as a paradigm of detachment, or holiness, or whatever, and we institute a self-improvement regimen designed to make us these things thinking they will please God and get us to heaven (or whatever!). But really, WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS? When we meet with our director we recount how miserably we failed in all our goals, how we failed at prayer, how we were bored, how we failed to be anything but self-centered, etc, but again, WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS? And when the director tells us, "It is NOT all about you" we acknowledge this and proceed once again to speak about our SELVES and how miserable, sinful, and inadequate we are! And again, WHERE IS GOD IN ALL THIS? Has he really been absent this whole time? Has he really made no overtures, done nothing for which we should be grateful, called us in no significant ways we can note with awe and appreciation? Are his own plans, purposes, and self really unaffected by our failures, and can we legitimately remain unaware of this?

Thus, I suggest there are ways to pour out our hearts to God which are self-centered in an especially problematical way (this qualification is important!!!), and those which are not. Yes, we should pray for humility or selflessness, but not PRIMARILY as a project of self-improvement. Instead it should be a piece of our enthusiastic engagement on behalf of God and his reign. Again, it makes a huge difference if I point to my own lack of humility and my goal to be more humble because my failure has served to hurt God and his plans for the world, or another person --- or instead, because I am on a private and self-centered quest for personal "holiness". While the shift required is a small one in some ways (humility, etc, remains the goal), it is also as vast as eternity since the way to achieving the goal and the reason for adopting it are vastly different, as is the overall focus of our attention and concerns.

Talking about these things in direction without being self-centered depends upon how aware of and concerned with God one really is. One can focus on self without being self-centered in a problematical way. Actually, to make progress spiritually one MUST focus on self without being self-centered, but rather because one is truly God-centered. One's director should be able to help one find their way in this. My question about God's experience in our prayer is not meant to have directees reading the mind of God, but instead to stop them with the realization that God was THERE in their prayer but that they only had eyes and ears for themselves. Further, it is meant to indicate that in telling me about their prayer they have completely missed talking about God's presence, purposes, will, gifts, comfort, etc, etc. It is a rhetorical question in some senses meant to shock and wake a directee (or myself) up.

I hope this answers your questions to some extent and clarifies what I meant in the earlier post! Thanks for emailing.

19 June 2008

On Spiritual priorities and the Lord's Prayer

Today's Gospel included Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. It forms a kind of climax to texts we have been hearing and reflecting on over the past week or so, the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew's focus on a genuinely spiritual life lived in, from, and for Christ. Yesterday's Gospel included the admonition that we go to our room in secret to pray in secret, and also that our right hand not let our left hand know what it is up to. The idea was that genuine spirituality is forgetful of self, that it "gets out of the way" and lays aside self-consciousness. Today, Jesus (via Matt) provides a model of prayer in which a way to do that is demonstrated. It is a model of prayer in which we concern ourselves first and last with God's own needs, and with being there FOR HIM!

In the first three petitions (and the invocation too, though that is a topic for another time!) we concern ourselves with God's very self (holiness and name refer to God's own self, not to mere characteristics or tags); we ask that he might be powerfully present in our world (because both name and the hallowing he is refer to a powerful presence which creates and recreates whatever it is allowed to touch and consecrate). With the second petition especially, we open ourselves to his sovereignty, that is, to his very selfhood and life as it is shared with his creation. God assumes a position of sovereignty over that creation when his life is truly shared and that creation achieves genuine freedom in the process, but the reign or kingdom of God refers to God's own life once again --- this time as a covenantal or mutual reality. And, with the third petition in particular, we open ourselves to the will of God --- to the future and shape of a reality which is ordered by his sovereignty and fulfilled by his presence.

Now, it is true that God possesses what is called aseity. That is, he is completely self-sufficient and in need of nothing and no one. But that is only one part of the paradox that stands at the heart of our faith. The other side of the paradox is that our's is a God who has, from the beginning, indeed, from all eternity, chosen not to remain alone. He creates all that is outside himself and he summons it (continuing the process of creation) to greater and greater levels of complexity until from within this creation comes One who will be his true counterpart and partner in creation. At bottom this is a call to share in God's very life. In fact, it is the ground of an existence which can only be fulfilled when it shares in the Divine life and God himself becomes all in all!

All of Scripture attests to this basic dynamic, whether cast in terms of creation or covenant. All of Scripture is about God's determination to share his very life with us, and his creation's capacity in the Spirit to issue forth in, or become his own unique counterpart in the fulfillment of this plan. When God's plan is fulfilled, when his very life is shared to the extent he wills, everything he creates reaches fulfillment as well, but it is the human vocation in particular to allow this to become real in space and time. And afterall, isn't this what prayer is truly all about: allowing God's plans to be realized in his creation; cooperating with his Spirit in ways which let his own life be made PERSONALLY real here and now so that EVERYTHING acquires fullness or completion (perfection) of life in God?

Unfortunately, one of the most pernicious problems I run into as a spiritual director is the occasional inability of directees to "get out of the way" of the Spirit or to "forget self" in their prayer. (Note well, I did not say "lose self", for we are not called to lose our true selves, but rather to FORGET self and to BECOME (or find) our true selves in the process!) Prayer (and it goes without saying that I am quite often guilty of this too) seems always to be about us, our problems, our sinfulness, our needs and concerns in ways which contribute to our own self-centeredness. (Let me be clear: I am NOT suggesting we neglect this side of things, but I am suggesting that there are ways to pray about these things which are NOT self-centered.) Because of this, one of the most significant questions I can ask a directee (or myself) when probing the quality of their prayer (or my own!!) is, "what kind of experience was this for God?" Ordinarily this puts a full stop to the sometimes problematical self-centered chatter about ME in prayer, and puts the focus back where Jesus clearly wants it --- on God. What today's Gospel tells us in giving us this model of prayer, is that contrary to much popular thought and practice otherwise, prayer is really the way we give or set aside our lives for another, namely, for God and his own Selfhood and destiny. And while it is absolutely true that in the process our own hearts will and SHOULD be poured out and our own needs met, prayer is first of all something we are empowered to do for God's own sake!

Thus, on this day when we celebrate the Sainthood of Romuald, and especially when we pray the Lord's Prayer -- whether in preparation to receiving Christ in the Eucharist or during Office, etc --- let us allow ourselves to truly be here for God's own needs. Let us open ourselves to his life, his purposes, and his future even while we pour out our hearts to him. Afterall, it is the very reason we were created.

Feast of Saint Romuald

Congratulations to all Camaldolese this day, the feast day of the founder of the Camaldolese Congregations! Saint Romuald has a special place in my heart for two reasons. First he went around Italy bringing isolated hermits together or at least under the Rule of Benedict --- something I found personally to resonate with my own need to subsume my personal Rule of Life under a larger more profound and living tradition or Rule, and secondly, he gave us a form of eremitical life which is uniquely suited to the diocesan hermit. St Romuald's unique gift (charism) to the church involved what is called a "threefold good", that is, the blending of the solitary and communal forms of monastic life (the eremitical and the cenobitical), and the third good of evangelization or witness.

So often people understand the eremitical life as antithetical to communal life, and opposed as well to witness or evangelization. Romuald modelled an eremitism which balances the human need for solitude and a commitment to God alone with community and outreach to the world. The vocation is essentially eremitic, but rooted in what we Camaldolese call "The Privilege of Love" and therefore it spills out in witness and has a communal dimension or component to it as well. This seems to me to be particularly well-suited to the vocation of the diocesan hermit since she is called to live for God alone, but in a way which ALSO specifically calls her to give her life in love and generous service to others, particularly her parish and diocese. While this service and gift of self ordinarily takes the form of solitary prayer, it may also involve other ministry within the parish including limited hospitality --- or the outreach of a hermit from her hermitage through the vehicle of a blog!!! So, all good wishes on this feast of Saint Romuald!!

And for those who are not really familiar with Romuald, here is the brief Rule he formulated for monks and oblates. It is the only thing we actually have from his own hand.

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you
can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

16 June 2008

To turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38-42)

Throughout the past few days we have been listening to the sermon on the mount in bite-sized pieces. Today's Gospel (Matt 5:38-42) may be a bit more difficult to swallow than most. Our immediate reaction may be one of inner protest, a complaint that Jesus' demands are unrealistic, that they will lead to increased rather than decreased violence, that to act as he requires is destructive of self-esteem, human dignity, and even good social order! Throughout the sermon on the mount Jesus has laid before us the requirements of living as a light to the world and witnessing to the astoundingly patient and generous love of God. But today we are especially asked to witness to the dignity and inner freedom that results when we are loved with God's "everlasting" and unconditional love.

Jesus gives us three examples of what he means. Each one makes a shrewd kind of sense within the culture of his day. Each one involves a non violent response to some kind of oppression or injustice and each one involves a letting go of a "worldly dignity" (self-worth or dignity measured in terms of the world) while claiming a deeper identity and self-worth in Christ. Finally, each example is therefore marked by the peculiar freedom of the Christian, the freedom to act as the daughters and sons of God we are called to be despite the limitations and constraints placed upon us by life.

In the first example, Jesus tells us that if we are struck on the right cheek, we should turn the other cheek to our oppressor. Now in Jesus' day, to be struck on the right cheek implied a backhanded slap which indicated an unequal social situation and was understood to be an insult. A master might strike a slave in this way, or a child might be struck thusly, and in some cases even a woman might be. To turn the other cheek meant the person who had been insulted or demeaned (and who might indeed occupy an inferior social position) assumes the position of an equal and requires the oppressor to recognize this either by striking her again with the front of his hand or desisting entirely. In either case, the equality of persons is affirmed and the person struck witnesses to an inner freedom which goes beyond anything the world knows.

The second example is drawn from the law court. Jesus admonishes us that if someone wishes to sue us for our tunic, we should give them our cloak as well. Implied here is an image of someone powerful and possibly rich suing someone who is less powerful and poor for the shirt off their back. (Luke uses the term "robbery" when referring to this particular saying of Jesus.) What is envisioned is the powerful person reducing the poor one to a state of nakedness, but what is also the case in Jesus' image is that the one shamed in such an act would be the powerful person, not the one deprived of their clothing. The act of handing over one's cloak as well serves to reveal the venality of the one suing even while it witnesses to a greater inner freedom and deeper dignity than the world knows. To live from and of the love of God allows a kind of detachment from the more usual honor/shame categories which characterized Jesus' world, even while our actions unmask these categories as less than authentically human.

The third example Jesus gives involves the demand that if we are pressed into service and asked to go a mile, we should go the extra mile as well. This example was drawn directly from the culture of the day. Jews were often pressed into service by Roman soldiers to carry equipment and the like. The law allowed a citizen to be impressed into service for one mile, but no more than this. The practice caused all kinds of resentment and the development of zealotism with the threat of armed rebellion was a dominant reality as well. For a person to voluntarily go the extra mile demonstrated a capacity to resist evil (oppression) without violence even while he assumed the position of Roman peer. (Remember that if the soldier's superior's were to hear a citizen went the second mile during impressed service, the soldier was open to discipline. In this sense, the one who voluntarily goes the second mile could be said to gain a superior position to the soldier!) In any case, once again, the Christian is asked to witness to a greater personal freedom and more profound dignity than the world marked or knew.

As we have been hearing in so many of the readings since Easter, the challenge before us is to live lives of genuine holiness, not merely lives of simple respectability. If Jesus' examples shock us and ask us to imagine God's will for us as more demanding, more counter-cultural than we might often do otherwise, well and good! The key to understanding how truly reasonable these demands are is to recall they are not rooted in some abstract code of behavior or ethics. Instead we must recognize that Jesus has lived them out himself: he has turned the other cheek, given his cloak as well as his tunic, and gone the extra mile in ways, and to a degree which cause today's examples to pale in comparison. Likewise, by revealing (that is, by making known and making real among us) the God who loves us with an everlasting love, he empowers us to live our lives similarly. How ever it is we work out the application of these examples from Jesus' world in our own, we are being asked to witness to a love which goes beyond anything the world has ever known apart from Christ, and to demonstrate this with a freedom and sense of personal dignity which is deeper than anything the world can give OR take from us.

[Pictures are those of the prominence where it is believed the sermon on the mount was given, the church built on this site, and a view from the "mount" looking over the plain of Genesseret.]

05 June 2008

Essential hiddenness and the Vocation to an Extraordinary Ordinariness

[[Thank you for answering my questions about the hiddenness of the hermit life. What you write about its "essential hiddenness" sounds like the same "hiddenness" which is true of the lives of many people living in the world. You and other hermits seem to make a virtue of this, but isn't it pretty ordinary?]]

Yes, it is very ordinary, and in fact, that is precisely its virtue. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the hermit is meant to witness to those whose lives are ordinary in ways which may cause them to question the meaning and value or significance of their lives. I have written about those in unusual circumstances (chronic illness, disability, etc) who are called upon to witness to the Gospel in vivid and poignant ways, but I have not really said much about those who work day in and day out at menial jobs and who see their lives as essentially meaningless or unimportant. I think the hermit can remind us each that every life, no matter how apparently unproductive or ordinary, is really (or is certainly meant to be!) part of a profound dynamic where the Kingdom of God comes to be realized more and more fully in our world. That happens, for the most part and for most persons, in the daily perseverance and day by day faithfulnesses exercised in ordinary life.

There is nothing spectacular or even very remarkable in the ordinary sense of that word about the hermit's life. It is very much a life of day to day faithfulness to the call of God, and that call summons the hermit to prayer, work, study, and some degree of outreach or evangelization every day in a way which repeats again and again. No one much recognizes what happens here in the hermitage as special, and from one perspective, there is nothing special about it. It is completely ordinary whether one is writing an article, doing the laundry or cleaning the bathroom, praying Office, doing personal work, studying, or meeting with occasional direction clients. Even contemplative or quiet prayer is pretty ordinary stuff from one perspective. From another perspective, of course, it is all very special, because it is all done in and with God, and in order to foster the coming of his Kingdom. When the ordinary is undertaken with and in the grace or presence of God it always becomes extraordinary, and yet, no one is likely to see that really. When I wrote in my earlier response that even my telling you what I do during the day would leave the essential mystery of the life intact, that is what I meant.

The challenge to each of us is to undertake the ordinary in a way which is attentive and sensitive to the presence of God. It is the challenge to undertake these things with a care and even love which, through the grace of God, transforms them into something extraordinary. This is basic spirituality and it is this which the hermit's day to day life accepts and affirms as infinitely valuable. I can say without question that although I do not know how it happens, I know without a doubt that my life in this hermitage, my daily perseverance in cell, my faithfulness to prayer, work, study, and the ordinariness of life, allows for God's Kingdom to be more fully realized right here and right now. I know without question that Stillsong Hermitage is a small bit of leaven in the loaf of my community and the world, and that it contributes to the transformation of that whole eventhough I may never see that in my lifetime.

Personally, I believe that every person is challenged to embrace his or her life in this way, especially in its ordinariness. God transforms everything he is allowed to touch with his hallowing love, and our job is to let that happen in all the ways day to day living puts before us. If we can do that, and to the extent we do it, again, the ordinary will be transformed into something extraordinary because each task and moment becomes the occasion where God's grace is allowed to enter in and to triumph. So, in each and everything we undertake, we strive to be attentive, aware, care-full, loving, and (describing all of these together) truly present. Nothing in this life is really ordinary unless we allow it to remain that by foreclosing it to our own conscious presence and the effect of God's grace. On the other hand, the really extraordinary in our daily lives is likely to remain hidden from most people for the whole of our lives.

I am thinking of the husband or wife who cares for his or her sick spouse day in and day out for weeks, months, or years, for instance. The most mundane act is transformed when carried out with loving awareness and openness to God's grace, and yet no one sees this or thinks much to remark on it. It is unspectacular in many ways, but clearly extraordinary at the same time. And yet it is essentially hidden from the eyes of the world.

So much of our lives really is hidden in this way. I think the hermit witnesses not only to this essential hiddenness, but to the humility and faithfulness that is so necessary in a world where everyone seems to need to make a name for him or herself --- even if the only name they can claim is that of victim --- a thriving category of dubious "achievement" in the contemporary world! At the same time though, she witnesses to how truly extraordinary is the life of "ordinary" faithfulness, "ordinary" perseverance, ordinary "heroism," and "ordinary" love undertaken in God. She witnesses to how infinitely meaningful is the life our contemporary world dismissess as trivial and insignificant, if it is lived in and through the grace of God.

01 June 2008

On the Essential Hiddenness of the Eremitic Life

Ah, well, I received another set of questions which, despite seeming a little confrontational, are really good questions and deserve an answer --- or the beginnings of an answer which I can enlarge on over time.

[[Okay, so why would one want people to know they are a hermit unless they want notoriety or recognition of that? You have referred to the essential hiddenness of the vocation, but you also write that people in your parish might think you are just a contemplative sister without the cowl and other trappings. So, what do you really want, to be hidden or to be known? Isn't this, along with the emphasis on active participation in the parish, kind of hypocritical or at least inconsistent?]]

First, let me point out I referred to "merely" a contempla- tive sister (with merely in quotes) so that, hopefully, I indicated that I think very highly of such a vocation. My point was simply that that is not all I am. I also think it is desirable to have others recognize at least the general nature of a vocation which someone was called to out of their midst and on their behalf (as happens in the call at the beginning of the rite of perpetual profession). However, that aside for the moment, the eremitical vocation is both ancient and relatively new in the church. The existence of hermits remains quite rare, and despite a modest increase in numbers (and a larger increase in those who have climbed on what is a faddist bandwagon but will never actually be true hermits [see note at bottom]), it will, I suspect, always remain quite rare.

What is not rare in today's world though, is the alienation, estrangement, and isolation which affects and afflicts so many --- especially the single elderly, the chronically ill and disabled, the isolated poor living in the unnatural solitudes of blighted urban areas, those working day in and day out in an "ordinariness" which leads to the questioning of their own value or that of their lives, etc. It is to these people especially I think the hermit can speak in a special and powerful way, for the hermit says with her life that isolation can be transformed with the grace of God into something far more meaningful and fruitful, namely a solitude which witnesses with special vividness to the Gospel of God in Christ.

By the way, recognition is not necessarily a bad thing. What God does in our midst deserves to be made known in one way and another. This does not necessarily conflict with what I have called the essential hiddenness of the vocation either (which is defined by Canon Law as a greater or stricter separation from the world, rather than as absolute separation or reclusion). The identity of the canonical hermit is a public one in the legal sense of that term. So, the canonical hermit lives out the witness of the core of her vocation, namely that God alone is sufficient for us, that he will always work to bring life out of death, light out of darkness, meaning out of meaninglessness, and wholeness out of brokenness. She says this with her life, and this is the case whether she has been brought to eremitic life through illness (or other challenges) herself or not. She also clearly says that any person is made for communion with God, that God lives at the heart of each person and wills to love them exhaustively, just as he wills them to return this love as exhaustively as they can. To live a serious prayer life, and in fact to be God's own prayers in this world is the essential vocation of every person, and the hermit lives as a reminder of this. I personally believe my life bears witness to much of this, and I seek to do so more profoundly and extensively.

As for what I want, well that is fairly simple and straightforward: I want to do what God wills for me, by living my Rule of Life, the Camaldolese charism, the unique charism of the diocesan hermit, according to the discernment I come to with the help of my director, pastor, Bishop, and others. The Camaldolese charism is particularly significant here since it involves a three-fold set of dimensions or "goods": 1) the cenobitic (communal), 2) the eremitical (solitary), and 3) the evangelical (the dimension of proclaiming or witnessing to the Gospel whether this be through hospitality, spiritual direction, writing, painting, etc). The Camaldolese charism itself justifies my limited active participation in the life of my parish community, but so does, I believe, the charism of diocesan eremitism. While it is true my life is lived with and for God alone, that is expressed in a concrete commitment to those he cherishes, particularly my diocese and parish. On the other hand, what is also true is that the majority of this commitment is lived out "in cell," not in direct participation in the events and activities of the parish. My limited participation enlivens and concretizes what happens within the hermitage, while what happens in the hermitage deepens and universalizes what is celebrated in the events and activities of the parish.

While it is common to think and question in sort of black and white, either/or terms and queries, the truth is that quite often Christian discipleship (of which eremitism is one expression) must be lived out in paradoxical ways, not either/or, but both/and. As I have said before, one must be careful not to fool oneself --- and we are all more than a little capable of rationalizing behavior which runs counter to that we are truly called to --- but once one determines the Holy Spirit is behind a certain impulse, etc, one must go with that. By the way, perhaps you are envisioning more than what I am envisioning when I use the phrase "active participation" in the parish. I have described this other places so I won't do that again here, but I will say that it is not an "emphasis" in my life (real though it may be) and is truly minimal when I consider what is actually possible for me.

This brings us back to the question of the nature of the hiddenness which is the hermit's. What is this essential hiddenness I have spoken of, and others have also written about? Well, it has to do with who I really am, where my "real work" takes place, and just what that separates me from. For instance despite your reading of my blog, you really have very little sense of my day to day life. People who see me daily at Mass or at an occasional parish event do not see me in the hermitage, tend not to be able to imagine what the shape of my days are like, etc. The hermit's life really is essentially hidden, and most specifically, hidden in the cell where the largest part of her life actually takes place. It is hidden in God, hidden in prayer, hidden from the eyes of those who might want to see inside, hidden even from the Church who commissions the hermit to withdraw (from the Gk, anachoresis) in this way.

Yes, she can list the various things she does: Office, lectio, quiet prayer, personal work, ordinary chores, study, writing, direction, but really, what does this actually reveal? As far as I can tell, it leaves the essential mystery of the life intact. No, the life is one of essential hiddenness even if one does not remain completely anonymous, leaves the hermitage on occasion, wears a recognizable habit, or participates in the occasional parish or other activity. (And of course, non-parishioners don't know any of this at all; they see a sister -- no more nor less.) As you can tell, I don't think there is necessarily any real contradiction or hypocrisy involved so long as one is very clear where one's real life and ministry lie and does not allow that to be compromised. I hope this helps clarify matters.

[note: my reference to the faddist bandwagon was not directed to non-canonical hermits who live a truly eremitical life. The church clearly recognizes these hermits as a serious eremitical expression. It is directed, however, to those persons who think they can be hermits "on the weekends," or something similar. There are many "wannabes" out there in this as in any field or vocation, but most will never really embrace true solitude, nor will they therefore be able to witness to those people who cannot CHOOSE their (physical) solitude but need to hear it can be transformed with God's grace.]