30 September 2008

Petitionary and Intercessory Prayer: Forming the Communion of Saints

The following questions were raised on a listserve by someone looking for answers there and in other places; she is someone struggling with basic and very significant questions of faith. The ones given below deserve some attention, mainly because petitionary and intercessory prayer are difficult for most of us, and because looking at them can be instructive on prayer in general.

[[Most of my prayers are either "me" prayers (God, help me out here, or What a gorgeous morning--way to go), or "formula" prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary, etc). And for the most part, all of my prayers occur in solitude or in the context of liturgy at church. Outside of those types and locations of prayer, I'm uncomfortable, self-conscious, even skeptical. . .When others ask me to pray for them, I do, and occasionally I'll pray for others without being asked, but I have trouble with it. First off, I don't understand intercessory prayer, how it works. Will God only help someone if he's asked to in prayer? If I don't pray for someone, will God say, in effect, Well, no one is praying for Fred, so I guess he's on his own?

And if I do pray for someone, what exactly am I supposed to be asking God for? And what about prayers that are ignored? You can tell me that in that last case, the prayer wasn't ignored, that the answer was "no", but if the answer is no, then the prayer was pretty much useless, at least in terms of outcome for the person prayed for. What if I pray that so-and-so is healed, but that isn't what God thinks is best? And if I simply pray that God's will be done in someone's life, it seems to me a pointless prayer. Isn't God's will going to be done in that person's life regardless of what I pray? . . .Can someone give me their take on intercessory prayer, and how it works? ]]

Pretty common questions aren't they? I think we need to look at the role of asking questions and what happens there in order to understand intercessory prayer. Also, we need to look at the meaning of the admonition that "whatever we ask in Christ's name" will be done for us. After that, it make sense to look at some of the standard objections raised about intercessory prayer, whether raised above or in other places.

What does it mean to ask for something? A look at the Questions we are and pose:

So, first, what does it mean to ask someone for something? what happens in the asking? Is there more than the simple transaction of information involved and why is it especially important in prayer? Again and again I have written in this blog that human beings are relational in nature. God speaks and we ourselves and all we embody are the response. We look for and need this Word to bring us to this point of response. In other terms we ourselves are the question and God is the answer. We are incomplete without him just as a question is incomplete without a response, and especially an adequate response which demonstrates the meaning of the question as it answers it. (Have you ever had a teacher or professor who took a question of yours and answered it in a way which made you realize the question was far more profound than you thought it was? This is what I mean here. God does this with our lives drawing out the depths of meaning embodied there bringing them to articulation.)

Of course, it is also possible to receive an answer which convinces one of her stupidity and worthlessness, an inadequate answer which takes advantage of one's vulnerability, an answer which demeans and denigrates and points more to the failure of the teacher than to the student's own capacities. Still, questions are gateways to transcendence, and a good teacher (or a good parent, for instance) will answer them in a way which unlocks many of the hidden meanings or facets they contain or imply. She or he will unmask the real depths of the question and demonstrate its capacity for mediating mystery in all of its various depths. In so doing she will also affirm the capacity for meaning and transcendence which is the questioner herself.

Questions imply vulnerability and an openness to transcendence then. They are acts in which we risk ourselves and our further growth. They are the way in which we move beyond where we stand at the moment. (Two examples point up this capacity: first consider a time when you didn't know enough to even ask a question; you may have felt helpless, confused, and stuck --- and rightly so. Questions are the normal way we move into the future. Secondly, consider the little child whose questions are incessant. S/he is experiencing a veritable explosion of transcendence and growth, and questions are the means to this.) Further, questions are the way in which we open ourselves not simply to more information, but to the possibility of being heard where we are deficient and taken seriously as human beings. They are the way in which we reveal our own deepest and unmet needs, inadequacies, limitations and aloneness.

When we ask questions on behalf of someone we care about, we join our own faith and vulnerability to their's and on their behalf. We make sure that they are not alone in their neediness, and further, that our own faith and vulnerability can be of service to them giving them a place to stand which might not be available to them otherwise. In particular they acquire a conscious place in our own relationship with God (that is WE consciously include them in this relationship) which therefore changes our own relationships with God and the other. If they know of our prayer then their own relationship with God may also be changed. When we ask questions of God, particularly when we lay our truest needs before him we bring ourselves and give at least tacit permission for him to be the reply we need in what ever way he perceives is required and wills to be.

It is interesting to me that questions imply both knowledge and ignorance. We must know enough to ask the question, but at the same time we must require more information or knowledge in a way which makes a question necessary. In other words knowledge makes a question possible, but ignorance or lack makes a question necessary; questions are always rooted in both. Being and non being, sufficiency and need, immanence and transcendence, all of these make up the ambiguous reality we know as questions. They make us up as well. Is it any wonder theologians reflect on the human being as a question? Learning to honestly pose the questions we are (and in fact, to pose aspects of the questions others are) is an important part of all prayer.

Praying in the Name of Jesus: What does and doesn't this mean?

A number of months ago I told a story about a young girl who had attended an Evangelical summer camp. Included in the out takes were justaposed two tremendously ironic images. The first was of the camp director pontificating about the evils of Harry Potter, magic and especially the notion of spells and incantations. The second one was of a young girl who had just been taught to ask for anything at all in the name of Jesus, being assured that she would receive that. The girl was bowling and had just thrown a rather hopeless ball that was heading for the gutter rather than the pins. So, she began jumping up and down yelling, "In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, GO STRAIGHT!!!" In other words, this young girl was giving a perfect example of INCANTATION; she was doing as taught, but what she had been taught was not invocation as Scripture asks and empowers us to undertake; it was not faith but magic. In short it was a way of making void the Word of the Lord, and had nothing to do with authentic prayer.

How often do we tack the formula "we ask this in the name of Jesus (etc)" onto the end of our prayers as the magic key which will be sure we are heard? Because this tends to be a formulaic addition to all our prayers (and for Catholics, something which precedes all of our prayers as well) we might forget the deeper reality it points to. We might forget what it actually means. Name and person in Jesus' day, culture, and language are identical realities; the Jews did not have a concept of person per se, but they did have that of Name. To pray in the name of God is to pray in the person and power of God. It is to undertake prayer under the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit. It is to pray as Christ prayed and to become in our prayer part of who Christ was and is yet. What is imperative to remember here then is what Christ was about: his entire life was meant to implicate God into every facet and dimension of human life so that nothing separated his creation from him and would be brought to fulfillment/perfection in him. Our own prayer is ALWAYS meant to be a participation in this process, a participation in this BEING of Christ, this INCARNATION of God.

Thus, when we are told that whatever we pray for in the Name of Jesus will be granted, it qualifies our prayers quite a bit. While it may narrow what we ask for (we will not likely pray for a million dollars, or the newest electronic toy if we pray in the power and presence of Christ), it also challenges (and empowers) us to pray as Christ prayed and opens an entire world of prayer to us that would not be opened if our prayer remained self-centered and undertaken on our own power. The same narrowing and broadening happens when we realize that God himself is the answer to EVERY prayer, and that is especially true of every prayer undertaken in Jesus' name. The things we ask for are always secondary to the gift of God's own self: healing ALWAYS comes with the presence of God, even if it is not the specific form of healing we seek. Completion, security, consolation, joy, peace ALWAYS come with the presence of God, nor do they come to us without God's presence. Thus, it is not that God gives us these things apart from himself. It is that he gives us himself and we mark that gift by looking at these signs of that presence.

By the way, I suspect that some prayers "fail" because they are petitions for certain things but NOT for God himself. I can imagine some prayers asking for healing, or well-being, or security, or consolation from grief, etc, but at least implicitly the person is NOT asking for God himself. I can imagine the entire prayer (if the person was completely honest) sounding like: "God give me freedom from pain, but please don't give me yourself; I am not looking for that! I'm not ready for that!!" Ordinarily we don't express the negative portions of our petitions, but I think we ought to; they reveal another part of our hearts that we often ignore or deny. In any case, such prayers are simply not sufficiently open, nor are they sufficiently humble or generous, and yet, they still can be the work of the Holy Spirit and shine a light into the dark parts of our hearts thus serving to open us to the answer we really require --- God himself.

Back to the Questions Asked

So, with this background, how would I answer the questions posed regarding intercessory prayer? The first ones were: [[First off, I don't understand intercessory prayer, how it works. Will God only help someone if he's asked to in prayer? If I don't pray for someone, will God say, in effect, Well, no one is praying for Fred, so I guess he's on his own? ]]

And the answer to these is no, God is working constantly to bring his creation to fulfillment and completion. He does not WAIT for our prayer to start working. He does not leave us alone even in the depths of our sin. Our prayer, to the extent it is genuine, is a result of his working not only around us, but in our very hearts. Our prayers are indications of openness, of vulnerability and need; they are signs of love, whether of others, ourselves, life, or God and his Kingdom. And, as noted above, they may also be signs of what we are actually closed to. In all these things they remain the work of the Holy Spirit shaping and empowering us.

The second group of questions went as follows: [[And if I do pray for someone, what exactly am I supposed to be asking God for? And what about prayers that are ignored? You can tell me that in that last case, the prayer wasn't ignored, that the answer was "no", but if the answer is no, then the prayer was pretty much useless, at least in terms of outcome for the person prayed for. What if I pray that so-and-so is healed, but that isn't what God thinks is best? And if I simply pray that God's will be done in someone's life, it seems to me a pointless prayer. Isn't God's will going to be done in that person's life regardless of what I pray?]]

I guess my best answer to these is first, we pray for the person themselves, not for this or that thing, but for THEM. Then, yes, we pray for their needs, both those we are aware of and those we are not, but again, only as a piece of praying for THEM, for the persons they are called to be. Finally, we pray that God might do what he wills to do. We pray that God might REALLY be God, THEIR GOD and our own. (In saying this I mean that we ask that God be powerfully and effectively present in our lives in ways which allow his will to be Father, Creator and Redeemer to be fulfilled.) In all these things we admit that we do not know what is best for the person, nor do we know God's will (except generally that he wills to love them and be present to them in a communion which will give eternal life and bring creation to completion). We trust that our petitions are important for the risk, vulnerability, and love they indicate even if they are completely off-base in what they specifically request. We trust that even then they help bring about the Communion of Saints; even then they join us and God to others and ourselves in new and deepening ways; even then they help in the completion of Christ's mission, and this is true even when they seem not to have been answered.

In fact, God's will may NOT be done in a person's life without us and our prayer. It is not automatic. Partly that is because our prayer, love, and communion is PART of what God wills for them. He wills that we love others in this way, and that each of us are enfolded in a web of prayer grounded in and inspired by him. But partly it is because neither can God simply force himself on us or those we love. Openings must be granted to him and this is precisely what intercessory and petitionary prayers do even while they are also empowered by the Holy Spirit. When I try to understand petitionary and intercessory prayer myself I know, for instance, that in participating in the prayer chain in my parish, while I certainly pray all the specific requests that come to me and am overjoyed when someone is healed, etc, I am often more impressed with the community that is formed with each and every act of sharing, vulnerability, concern, love, risk, and support. Someone's pain may not be relieved in the way they or I and others hoped or conceived, but their place in the Communion of Saints has deepened, and the parish community as such becomes more the Reign of God here on earth --- just as it should be. Specific petitions are not unimportant, of course, but they are an essential part of a larger picture and pattern which must always be borne in mind.

Well, this is pretty long and still probably inadequate. I hope some aspects of it are helpful though to those trying to understand petitionary or intecessory prayer.

29 September 2008

Eremitical Horarium : Followup Questions

[[Hi, Sister Laurel! I read your post on your daily schedule from about a month ago. One thing struck me as very funny, probably because I am not a hermit and not called to solitude. You said you were taking one week per month of strict solitude or reclusion, but isn't that what you are already about? Isn't there enough solitude in your life already, or aren't you already living a pretty strict solitude? It seems like it to me! I don't get it I guess.]] (Questions are culled from email and put together en bloc. Pardon my redaction!)

Good questions. First, yes eremitical life is already about solitude and a hermit is committed to living a life of prayer and penance in silence and "stricter separation" from the world. As I noted in my earlier post, yes I do that already. However, my life in the hermitage is punctuated by several different activities which move away from strict PHYSICAL solitude. The first is some spiritual direction. The second is orchestra and quartets (each occurs once a week and is written into my Rule). Further, I attend daily Mass most mornings, act as sacristan on many of those mornings, and am occasionally responsible for other things in the parish. Now all of these things are important in various ways for feeding me and supporting my life, and they flow FROM my solitude, but they also tend to draw me away from strict anachoresis (withdrawal). What I must be sure of is that they continue to flow FROM solitude and lead back to it.

I referred to physical solitude so let me first be clear that solitude can be either physical (involving actual physical withdrawal and time alone with God) or inner solitude, a matter of the heart. Ideally they go together and should physical solitude be compromised to any extent solitude of the heart should remain. (This explains why a hermit can be involved in a parish to a limited degree without negatively affecting their own inner solitude or being a breech of the eremitical life.) For the hermit who is not usually a recluse it is often solitude of the heart which predominates. Evenso, it cannot exist without significant degrees of physical solitude (usually much greater degrees than are needed by the non-hermit, and more than that required by the semi-eremite, I think).

A second element which is related to solitude per se is prayer, in particular liturgical and contem-plative prayer. Every hermit builds significant periods of both liturgical and contemplative prayer into their days, and must be faithful to these practices if they are to remain healthy. I have done that and will continue to do so; evenso, contemplative prayer per se is not quite the same as a contemplative life. Even what is sometimes called "contemplative living" which focuses on attention to the present moment and a life lived in this way is not necessarily the same thing as a contemplative life (or the life of a contemplative!). What I came away from retreat convinced of was not only my need for regular extended periods of strict solitude, but that I am essentially called to a contemplative life, not just contemplative prayer and not even simply to what is popularly called contemplative living. (I am not sure how to make clear the distinction between these two things, but there is no doubt in my mind they do differ.) At bottom it is a way of putting God first (not the only way, but A way), of loving him and letting him love me.

So, don't I already live a fairly strict solitude? Yes, in the sense that I live a far greater level or degree of physical solitude than most people this is true, however like all hermits, my own call to solitude falls along a continuum. In order to be faithful to the activities I am called upon to undertake whether in the parish, or in my own writing, direction, etc, I also need periods of MORE concentrated time alone with God. For this reason, at present, one week a month is a more strictly reclusive time for me. It will allow more contemplative prayer and I will allow some chores and activities to wait until later for the time being (I may ask parishioners to take care of one or two I can't put off); finally, except for once or twice, I will celebrate Communion in the hermitage rather than attending the daily parish Mass.

In doing this, I am seeking to respond to a deeply felt need and call I experienced at retreat especially, and have sensed other times as well. God has called me to love him and to let myself be loved by him in this way generally, and so more concentrated time alone with him is a natural thing --- not a corrective for something I am not already doing. I think it is important to understand this. For the present this means one week a month. It could well require two, so time will tell. One of the things a hermit has to be open to is being called to greater and greater degrees of reclusion. At the same time she may be called to various activities on behalf of others as contemplative prayer spills over and outward. Besides attending to the call I have heard my secondary goals are severalfold: 1) make sure that inner solitude of the heart is adequately supported by physical solitude, 2) strengthen the solitary context for the things I do in the parish; in the end I think that these activities will benefit from this time, not that I will end up cutting them out. They will, as they should do, clearly flow from my solitude, and this solitude should help me serve better. 3) translate into the life of a solitary contemplative, not simply a solitary life where there is contemplative prayer or even one as noted above of what is commonly referred to as "contemplative living"

I hope this helps answer your question. As always, if it does not, or if something more needs clarification, please get back to me.

27 September 2008

The Making of a Cathedral: Dedication of Christ the Light

Well, Oakland's new Cathedral is consecrated and dedicated and it was truly an amazing experience! It began with a long procession up a long ramp called the Pilgrim's Pathway. At this point the diocese's presbyterate followed by Bishops from around the country and then a number of Cardinals, including Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles and William Levada of Rome preceded Bishops Vigneron and Cummins to the plaza in front of the great doors. After some introductory and celebratory speeches, the Bishop was presented with a master key to the complex and a certificate of occupancy. He then moved to the great doors and banged on them several times with his crozier; they were opened towards him and the procession moved inward through those doors for the very first time.

At this point the rest of us who were to be seated inside processed in and found our seats, though we remained standing at this point. The rite continued with the sprinkling of the walls, people and altar with holy water from the baptismal font. I was struck by the swash of water on the wall nearest where I was standing. It formed a large arc across the panel and reminded me of the marking of the doorways with blood in the OT narrative about the passing over of the angel of death. During all of this we sang first an Alleluia from "I saw water" and then the Gloria. At this point we prayed the opening prayer of the Eucharistic liturgy and celebrated the Liturgy of the Word. The responsorial psalm was 95 and the Alleluia was written by Fr Donald Osuna, choir director for the Cathedral of St Francis de Sales which was damaged in the Loma Prieta quake. A homily on Christ the Light by Bp Vigneron and our profession of faith followed.

Then came the official prayer of dedication and the anointings. All the assembly knelt and sang the Litany of the Saints. This was followed by the Prayer of Dedication and then priests went through the building anointing the walls in the sign of the cross with chrism which had been carried in procession to the front of the church from the ambry. The effect was powerful as they used their bare open hands and marked the walls. While the walls seemed to drink the oil in, the crosses remained visible throughout the cermony and thereafter. Then Bishops Vigneron and Cummins anointed the altar itself. Taking the large vessel of chrism they poured it directly on the altar while circum-ambulating it to do so. The oil was then wiped around to allow it to cover the whole altar.

Next came the incensing of the altar beginning first with the incensing of the assembly. In this act we were reminded that we first are the living stones of this new temple, we are each in fact, a living temple in which we ourselves are spiritual altars. In incensing the altar a large especially made censer is set in the center of the altar. The design of this was striking since it was a large bowl with metal ribs reminiscent of the huge wooden ribs of the cathedral itself. (Left click on the picture here and you will see the censer much more clearly in the larger version.) It will only be used this once, for it is brought out only for the incensing of an altar. The smaller censers were equally stunning in their own way (simple, brilliantly finished, fitting the design of the cathedral).

Finally came the lighting of the altar candles and also the lighting of all the wall sconces or candle holders around the cathedral walls. The Feast of Epiphany has been designated as the patronal feast for the new Cathedral of Christ the Light. Especially significant is the antiphon from that day's liturgy: [[Rise up in splendor jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See darkness covers the earth and thick clouds over the peoples, but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.]] (Isaiah 60:1-3)

Only at this point does the Eucharistic liturgy take place. The altar is kissed for the first time by Bishops Vigneron and Cummins and all proceeds normally. At the end of the Mass the Assembly was blessed with an Apostolic Blessing (plenary indulgence) and were sent forth singing "Holy God We Praise thy Name." The sound throughout the liturgy was outstanding, but this particular hymn was doubly so. If we didn't raise the roof with this hymn nothing will do that!!

Bishop Emeritus John Cummins (Making final comments)

One thing that was very special for me personally was that an artist friend of our parish, Marirose Jelicich was responsible for much of the metalwork in the new cathedral including the censers, candlesticks, communion cups and patens (see above. The band in the center of each cup is onyx), the vessels holding the sacred oils, Bishop's coat of arms, etc. Marirose, another parishioner (MJ) and I along with our pastor (John, who had collaborated on some of the liturgies for the dedication)) had lunch and talked about some of this before the dedication so seeing it all and recalling some of the associated stories was especially meaningful.

24 September 2008

Bound by Responsibility In Order to Be Truly Free

[[Dear Sister, I read a couple of your posts on your vows and on seeking canon 603 status as a hermit and one of the ideas you expressed was intriguing to me. You said that you sought canonical status in order to live more freely than you would otherwise be able to do. You made vows and sought the obligations of canonical profession in order to be truly free to live out your vocation as a hermit. It is a strange idea that we seek to be bound by vows and obligations in order to be truly free. Can you say more about this? Does it work like this for everyone or just hermits?]]

In a world where freedom is often defined as the ability to do anything we want, the ability to live without constraints or limits, I admit this is a pretty strange notion of freedom isn't it? But, as I have noted before here, in Christianity freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. This means that it exists in spite of constraints. In fact it is essential to the definition of Christian freedom that it exists in the face of constraints. To do so indicates that Xtn freedom allows us to transcend these constraints despite their still existing. Christian freedom is a responsible and transcendent freedom. It is a huge piece of what Jesus is describing when he says that his yoke is easy, his burden light. Although this commment first of all applies to freedom FROM the burdens of the Law (which have been distorted and exacerbated by the power of sin), it also implies, therefore, freedom for the authentic humanity which is the Law's fulfillment.

So, yes, in one sense this notion applies to everyone. We are not truly free unless we can and do take on the obligations of our state in life. That is true whether we are married, consecrated celibate (whether religious or eremitical), single, or clerical. Whatever assists us to do that can be helpful to authentic freedom and whatever prevents it can be seen as a kind of bondage which diminishes and detracts from our calling. However, in the post you are describing what I am speaking about is actually the assumption of a new state of life and responsibilities which went beyond those I had already taken on. So why would I want to do that in order to live the hermit life as authentically and well as possible? Afterall, it is possible to live as a non-canonical hermit. Probably more do this than live as canonical hermits, and presumably authentically, so why not simply go this route?

Let me reprise the paragraph you are probably referring to in your questions, and perhaps a similar one found in a post on a newspaper interview I did. It gives the basic reasons I provided to my diocese: [[. . . Personally, I have found it impossible to live a truly eremitic life without canonical status. Not only is such a life continually threatened by the ordinary values and conditions of society, but also it is eccentric [that is, it is out of the center] and tends towards inconstancy when this is its only real context. Law may generally follow experience, but it is clear to me that canonical status also conveys permission, freedom, and the means for consistency as well. Eremitism is a flexible life in many ways, but it remains an ecclesial vocation which witnesses to Gospel and Church, and to the reality of consecrated life within this Church.

Public profession under Canon 603 establishes the hermit in a new state of life with attendant support and responsibilities. Thus, in making vows under Canon 603, I am seeking to live in law, what I would otherwise be only partially free, and thus, attempting in vain, to live in fact. As I have attempted to explain the matter to others, this vocation is a heroic one which requires and deserves one’s best efforts. Because of this, one must be free to fail and to pick up and try again and again without regard to the apparent (though relative) eccentricity of one’s efforts with regard to the world. In other words, unless one lives this life in a context where it is truly understood and valued, and where one is truly responsible, one is simply not free either to fail or to succeed.]]

Note how important context is to this discussion. If one finds oneself in a context which does not assist one to fully live one's life, one needs to shift contexts. For instance, if one is attempting to learn to play tennis seriously, one cannot do so in a place which has no tennis courts. If one wants to play orchestral music one does not walk into the space where a rock band rehearses with one's violin expecting to perfect one's orchestral capabilities! Contexts are ordinarily the realities or environments which make sense of things within them. We see this with a word in a sentence, or a sentence in a paragraph, or paragraph in an essay, etc. Any shift in context can completely change the meaning of the embedded reality or object. Think of the word gay. It can mean many different things, but its meaning is more fixed within the sentence, "Don we now our gay apparel." However, should we take that sentence and move it from its own context of an old Christmas carol to that of a San Francisco Gay Freedom Day poster its meaning would shift considerably despite superficial similarities remaining. Similarly, consider the idea of a woman screaming. Without context we cannot say this act makes sense or is senseless for it is neither; it is simply a naked act devoid of meaning at all. Now, plug this image into the larger one of a cloister and the image becomes quite sinister even though it requires more spelling out. We might not know why the woman is screaming, but we do know some of the meaning of the act. Transfer the image into the larger picture of a super bowl where the woman's team just scored the winning goal in the last seconds and the image apparently takes on a completely different meaning, doesn't it!?

The same is true with our lives. If we seek to live them in a conflicting or less than optimal contexts they will fail to make real sense. More, they will become incoherent (for coherence, the "holding together" of meaning is a function of context). Each of us searches for the context, state of life, etc which allows our lives to develop and make the most sense they possibly can. Once, years ago now, a Sister in this area wrote for a newspaper article, " One does not need to be a nun to do what I am doing, but I need to be a nun to do what I am doing." I think she was getting at this very notion of the importance of contexts, and I have never heard it expressed more simply. Thus, in terms I am using here contexts can free and empower: free us from the pull of contexts which are less than optimal and can render our lives incoherent and conflicted just as it can empower us to embrace their potential meaning more fully or exhaustively. The language the Church uses to refer to these processes is that of grace: in entering a new state of life (the real context!) one truly called to this state is given the graces necessary to live such a life of coherence and meaning.

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

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

This last paragraph above brings up another aspect of obligations taken on within a public social or ecclesial context: the power of others' expectations to summon and inspire. Admission to eremitical profession says that the Church has discerned this vocation with the hermit. They have mediated this call to her in various ways and stages. And finally they have called her forth, received her profession and consecrated her so that she may indeed live as she has been called to do. Granted, it is the case that expectations can be a burden as well, but generally, bearing the expectations the Church has of one now really does serve to urge, empower, and inspire one to live this vocation the best one can. Graces accompany these acts of the church, and her expectations themselves can be seen as graces. I am sure you can think of a number of examples where this is true for you or those you know no matter the vocation involved. It is true of marriage, for instance. We find that obligations and expectations carry us through the difficult times when motivation is weak, etc. We also find they remind us of the ways the Holy Spirit moves in our lives --- for the Holy Spirit will work in ways which are consonant with our call and both summon and empower us to live out that call fully and authentically.

I hope this helps. There is probably lots more to say on this, and I may add to this answer when I have a bit more time, but as always, please get back to me if anything needs clarification or expansion in the meantime.

15 September 2008

Problems Related to the Misuse of Canon 603 by Non-Canonical Communities

I wrote a post awhile back defending the linkage between Diocesan Hermits and specific spiritual traditions. What I argued there was that specific spiritualities (Benedictine, Franciscan, Camaldolese, et al) could contribute to rather than detract from the diocesan charism of the diocesan hermit. Hermits are part of both eremitical/monastic and, if they are diocesan, cathedral traditions and can draw from both in living out their eremitical lives. However, as I have also written in other posts, the diocesan hermit is first of all Diocesan, not Camaldolese, not Carthusian, etc. Better perhaps, they are Diocesan who MAY apply various spiritualities to their commitments as Diocesan. In particular they are not hermits who are merely using Canon 603 to circumvent the inability of a non-canonical community to profess members canonically. This would indeed, as the author of the Sponsa Christi blog wrote three months ago, defeat the purpose of being diocesan. More than that, in my estimation, it would be dishonest and create problems on a number of different levels.

The fundamental difficulty (or set of difficulties) relates to a lack of clarity as to what is the primary context for one's eremitical life. Is it one's community or is it one's diocese and parish? I have already seen one case where someone ostensibly professed under canon 603 approached the entire admission to profession to his Bishop (and to the public) as a canonical profession in community; canon 603 was supposedly the usual means the community's hermits used to make solemn profession. Because the community's status was misrepresented to the Bishop (inadvertently by the candidate for profession who was also deceived to some extent!) he later determined the vows made were private not public vows. (The situation is more complex than this, but this is enough of the "gist" of it to point to the kinds of confusions that can occur when Canon 603 is misused in this way.) One question in particular this raises then (others follow) is has one embraced eremitism because one has accepted the charism of diocesan eremitism? Or is this merely a way of achieving canonical profession when one's community is not allowed to profess canonically? Is one's profession first of all an expression of one's commitment to parish and diocese and does it especially reflect the kind of stability such a commiment implies, or is it an expression of one's more primary commitment to a religious community?

Problems regarding discernment and formation are pieces of this fundamental difficulty with context. First discernment: who is the primary ecclesial representative in the process of discernment? Is it the diocese, that is the Bishop and his representatives, or is it the community, and if a non-canonical community then who has discerned and formed the vocations of the formators? Is the Bishop admitting to profession (or presiding at the profession) on behalf of the community, or under the authority of Canon 603, and who will be the hermit's legitimate superior? Likewise, has the hermit candidate herself truly discerned a vocation to diocesan eremitism or is Canon 603 being used because access to it seems to be less difficult than the canons governing religious life and the foundation of institutes?

Questions relating to formation would also need to be raised then. Who is in charge of formation for such a hermit? Is it non-hermit members who are themselves not canonically professed and not preparing for this? Beyond this but related to it as well, who, besides the hermit herself, is responsible to the church for the this vocation? Who attests to it in the name of the Church? Who nurtures it and is officially responsible for its continued development and integrity? When a person petitions for Canon 603 status and admission to profession and consecration in this way, the Bishop and his own diocesan officials are responsible for discernment. They are also responsible for being sure adequate initial and continuing formation is gotten by the candidate or professed hermit. If a community is involved then does the Bishop or the community have the primary say in formation and discernment? (And of course, is this completely understood by all involved?) Who follows through on all of this; who is the legitimate superior? (In the situation described above, the Bishop told the person to go to his community for permissions, advice, etc. They, on the other hand told him to go to his Bishop as his "legitimate superior." Neither would take responsibility for the hermit and as a result, he fell through gaping cracks that should not have been there and would not have been had Canon 603 not been abused in the way it was.)

Related to both discernment and formation is the further question of who writes the Rule of life? In Canon 603 what we read is that the hermit lives her own Plan of life under the direction of the diocesan Bishop. While it is not stated specifically, I understand this as implying the person writes her own Rule. Why is this important? Why not just borrow a Rule that has already been written and approved, whether by another hermit, a community or Congregation, etc? Well, in this matter I think the Church has shown real wisdom, and I grow to appreciate it more and more as I see individuals borrowing from or adopting Rules they did not write themselves. In a situation demanding serious discernment of a vocation one of the primary ways to ascertain the nature and quality of the vocation one has is to look at how the hermit candidate lives her life. More, one needs to see the theology that informs it, the reasons for embracing the life, the values, goals, and practices underpinning and motivating it. The very best way to do this apart from (but along with) private interviews is to look at a Rule or Plan of Life which an individual hermit has herself written.

Not only is the writing of a personal Rule a tremendously demanding and probative exercise, it is also one of the most powerfully consolidating and formative exercises a hermit will undertake in preparing for profession and consecration. (By the way, it is an exercise I would recommend to anyone preparing for vows, whether under Canon 603 or as a member of a Congregation under another Rule. If you choose to take on such an exercise allow several weeks for its completion beyond the weeks and months you take considering it prior to actual writing.) To bypass this requirement of Canon 603 and allow the hermit to simply adopt a Rule which she herself has not written is to miss a particularly important element in the discernment AND formation processes. The results may be very disappointing, and they will surely mean that the hermit candidate misses an important opportunity to clarify and claim her own journey as completely as possible; additionally they will mean a failure to clearly embrace the charism of diocesan hermit (as opposed to being a religious hermit in a community with its own Rule). It is this I think the author of "Sponsa Christi" was partly referring to in her own blog, and if so, then she was completely correct in this.

Some canonists have been clear that Canon 603 is not to be used to give canonical status to members of non-canonical communities who cannot grant such status themselves. It is NOT meant to be a way of skirting the process and issues in becoming canonical as a community. As I have written before, there is a reason my Diocese insisted on the formula at the beginning of my vow formula per se: "I earnestly desire to respond to the gift of vocation to the eremitical life . . . as a solitary hermit." While I am an Oblate with Transfiguration Monastery, and am in that sense Camaldolese Benedictine, I am first of all a Diocesan Hermit, not a religious one. While I can join other diocesan hermits in a Lavra, I remain a solitary hermit with my OWN Rule of Life, eventhough that is subsumed under the Rule of Benedict and the Constitutions of the Camaldolese. (I must say that my command of the Benedictine Rule, or its command of me is still in its infancy, and while I live by it as PART of what my own Rule enjoins on me, I am very glad to be bound to my own Rule which, at this point in time at least, is far and away more intimately expressive of who I am and who I feel called to be.) While I maintain a good relationship with (my) Prioress (and one which is formative and supportive) my legitimate superior is my Bishop and those he has appointed or delegated. Above all then, my commitment is to diocese and parish and my stability is here. This is the charism I have discovered and embraced in accepting profession and consecration according to Canon 603. It is what I seek to reflect in the adoption of the initials recently authorized by my Bishop. This, I think, is what Canon 603 envisioned and continues to envision; to attempt to use the Canon in other ways is to betray not only its spirit but its very content.

One final note: my concern with this is not a concern for law for law's sake. As I have written in other posts the unique charism of the diocesan hermit can be framed or expressed in terms of expectations which others necessarily may have because of the hermit's status as canonical AND diocesan. These expectations are a direct outgrowth of discernment, formation, supervision, authorization, and commitment and consecration. While it is true that the non-canonical hermit may live the basic characteristics of the eremitic life as well as or even better than the diocesan hermit she does not share in their unique charism nor are others allowed to necessarily have the same expectations they have of someone with canonical standing. Canon 603 is meant to ensure the solitary eremitical life of the diocesan hermit and to do so on behalf of the church and world.

14 September 2008

Festival of Light, Sept 14th, 2008

The Cathedral of Christ the Light celebrated the setting of the foundations stones (one old one from our old Cathedral of St Francis de Sales), the blessing (and filling) of the baptismal pool, the blessing of the ambry and installation of the sacred chrisms the Cathedral will use for baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, and anointing of the sick, the blessing of the stations of the cross, and various other sacred art including the crucifix in the ambo. The liturgy was wonderful and very powerful. The portion I personally participated in was the transfer of water from my parish baptismal font to the new baptismal pool in Christ the Light. After being sent forth with a pitcher of holy water from our own parish fonts, pitcher bearers processed from the site of the old to the new Cathedrals and then into the new space. Water from Lourdes Shrine, St Peter's Basilica, the River Jordan, and our local Lake Merritt, as well as each of the 84 parishes in the diocese were emptied into the once-empty font.

Baptismal Font (Great doors and parish flags in the background)

The entire celebration was very powerful and moving. It was especially powerful seeing both Bp John Cummins and Bp Allen Vigneron acting equally in the blessing of the stations of the cross, for instance. I have included some pictures from the Cathedral below. There are others, and I hope I can put them up as well. Especially beautiful is all the wood, and of course the place of light in the whole. It is simple and elegant. For me personally one of the details I found most moving was the form and style of the confessionals: stark, and yet warmed by the wood and light, they involve as "S" shaped wooden screen (built from blocks of polished wood) with a simple wooden chair on each side in the niches formed by the curves of the screen. It could not be clearer that what occurs here occurs between a person and God with the mediation of the priest. Nothing else is needed, no other supports and no props --- nothing to cling to in terms of roles or worldly success. It is a powerful mix of intimacy and solitude and reminds us to remember (claim and be consoled by) who we are before God.

Confessional (Section in center swings open to allow face to face confession)

Crucifix in Ambo
New Tabernacle. (Tabernacle opens from the back; there is a smaller chapel of reservation behind the wooden screen in this picture.)
Main floral setting during celebration
Bishop's Coat of Arms (I will change this for the finished one at another time. The tan colored sections actually hide brilliant silver work which was seen only on the day of dedication.)
Corpus in one of the side chapels (Meant to accent the Spanish and Mexican dimension of CA history.)

See also the earlier post for the image of Christ as pantocrator (Christ in Majesty) formed by light on inner panels on the wall above the Altar. This is the most striking aspect of the the Cathedral, and though I have not yet seen it, is apparently visible at night outside the Cathedral when light inside projects the image outward.

12 September 2008

Lighten Our Darkness

This is the first paragraph of the introduction to Douglas John Hall's, Lighten Our Darkness, Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross Because we are celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on Sunday, and because I will be writing more on that in response to some questions I received, I wanted to post this. First, it is a fine paragraph in and of itself. Secondly, the tension between the elements in the paragraph are those present in the cross in so many ways and on so many levels. I hope it will serve to pique interest and also spur some on to meditate on the relation between expectation and experience in the theology of the cross. Perhaps too some will read this book!! Hall is a fine writer, especially on the theology of the cross in terms of the first world and its needs.

[[Human life is a dialogue between expectation and experience. The function of expectation is to deliver us from bondage to the past. When expectation ceases, there occurs what is called, according to the better understanding of it, death. The function of experience is to keep us tied to the life of the body, to history. When experience ceases to make itself heard in the dialogue, the consequence is illusion. Human life is thus a perilous journey between death and illusion. Few are able to reach the end of the journey before they capitulate to one or the other peril. Most people, before their time runs out, are acquainted with both.]]

Some questions for reflection (I will post more if there is interest; give these a shot!):

1) In what ways is the cross built on a clash between experience and expectations/expectancy? Consider all the characters in the passion narratives and all the stages or aspects of the Cross event; (don't forget to include yourself.)

2) When you err (or when you get "off balance" in your life and spirituality) is it on the side of experience or expectancy, optimism or cynicism? How does your faith in the crucified one correct this imbalance?

3) Does our society err on the side of experience (cynicism) or expectancy (optimism)? How is this clear? How would the Gospel "keep our society honest" or serve to rebalance matters?

Questions on Suffering and the Exaltation of the Cross

[[Could you write something about Sunday's feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

The above question which arrived by email was the result of reading some of my posts, mainly those on victim soul theology, the Pauline theology of the Cross, and some earlier ones having to do with the permissive will of God. For that reason my answer presupposes much of what I wrote in those and I will try not to be too repetitive. First of all, in answering the question, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative.

(Crucifix in Ambo of Cathedral of Christ the Light; Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Cathedral Sunday in the Diocese of Oakland)

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was ALSO a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph ONLY because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in ALL of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they are miniature instruments of torture, yes, but also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the asistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exult in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we MUST bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace ALWAYS results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will REALLY be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In ALL cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives IN SPITE of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in ANY situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We MUST do whatever it is that allows us to not close off to God, and to remain open to growth AS HUMAN. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act in ways which changes that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life) then we must act in ways which change that.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others TO THE GRACE OF GOD. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in Sunday's Feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the cross empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in THAT Cross in embracing our own.

I am certain I have not completely answered your question, but for now this will need to suffice. My thanks for your patience. If you have other questions which can assist me to do a better job, I would very much appreciate them. Again, thanks for your emails.

09 September 2008

Subjective vs Objective Reality in Atonement Theology

[[Sister Laurel, I think I understand what you have said, but could you please clarify what you mean by subjective and objective changes which are caused by Jesus' death?]]

Yes, good question because the distinction between these two is important in theology in many areas and especially in moral theology. It is also especially important in a somewhat different way in theologies of atonement. In the last posts I used "subjective reality" to refer to the reality within the subject himself, his inner perceptions and reality; "objective reality" refers to all that is objectively real outside the subject himself and includes the subject's objective, or externally verifiable  reality).

When I speak of changes in reality effected by the cross and look at Anselm's theology vs Paul's theology one basic difference is that Anselm's theology is rooted in the idea that there is some subjective change in God effected through the process of reconciliation. (That is, Anselm saw that God's inner life and attitudes rather than creation outside of him was the object of reconciliation; it posited a subjective change in God's attitudes towards his creation.) In particular Anselm sees Jesus' death as putting an end to some antipathy (offended state) that exists on God's part because God's honor has been infinitely wounded by mankind.

In Paul's theology however, there is an objective change in the world itself, not in God's attitude towards us. Further God is the subject of the process, the one carrying out the process of reconciliation. In this process of reconciliation, not only do sin and death which were formerly "godless" places or realities become God's new dwelling places where we may meet God face to face, but we ourselves are also changed and our hearts are remade in Christ. Meanwhile, as Paul puts the matter, God acts towards us with an unconditional mercy and love "while we were yet sinners"  and does this always and everywhere. In Paul there is no shift in God's (subjective) attitude towards us, no appeasing of anger, no quieting of his wrath, no reconciling of God. Instead it is is the world which is brought back (reconciled) to God (the subject undertaking this action). Wrath is seen to refer to the consequences of sin, not to a subjective anger on God's part; thus this reconciliation is God's own redemptive work in bringing justice (right order) to the world (the object of God's action).

Again then, too often Paul has been read as though he is speaking of Jesus' passion effecting a change in God's attitude towards us rather than effecting an actual change in the world pervaded and dominated by sin and sinful death (a reality which includes ourselves and our own domination by sin and death). It is seen as reconciling God instead or reconciling the world to God. But what we are actually looking at in Paul's theology is a God who enters into our world by becoming one of us and who transforms that world in an act of guerilla warfare; we are looking at the combating and defeat of sin and sinful death from within by the presence of the God of Life and Love! "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself" (2 Cor 5:19) Again, this is an objective change in reality, not a subjective change in God's attitude toward that reality.

I hope this helps. If I was TOO unclear on other things please get back to me.

New Web Site: Transfiguration Monastery (Camaldolese Nuns)

Well, the long-awaited website for Transfiguration Monastery is up and running, and though it needs some tweaking according to Sr Donald, it is great to see!! I have added the link above as well as in the lower sidebar, but just in case the above link does not show up, the URL is: www.transfigurationmonastery.org. Please check out the pictures, read over the inspiration for the Community, and plan to return when the store is up and running especially. Or plan a retreat at this genuinely Camaldolese house. They are known for their hospitality which is generous and intimate (it is a small house and nuns and retreatants share the same refectory, etc)! (The monastery includes a guesthouse with six rooms, hermitages for those seeking this kind of experience, and spiritual direction as desired.) For those interested in Camaldolese life, especially mature vocations, be sure and contact Sister M Donald at the included address, etc. (Link is included in lower sidebar.)

08 September 2008

More Questions: Does God Will ANY Suffering?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal. Again, thanks for your response. It is clear you don't believe God causes chronic illness, nor that he actively wills it. Do you believe that ANY suffering is the will of God?]]

Actually, I do believe that God wills some suffering. This would include forms of suffering that are simply part and parcel of being (or becoming) authentically human on and in their journey towards union with God. Such a journey involves struggle and struggle involves suffering. For instance, loneliness would be a form of suffering I think God wills because it causes us to be open to others, to our own sense that we are not isolated or non-relational monads. It also underscores the gift quality of the love relationships we share in; these are not things which are necessary (in the technical sense of that word). That is, they might not have been and in fact they might not be again. Above all this "existential" or "ontological" loneliness marks us a made in the image of the Triune God, relational and made for love in all aspects of our being --- solitary (eremitical) as our lives might also be.

I think that some non-pathological forms of anxiety are normal and willed by God, not only because such anxiety marks us as incomplete and finite of ourselves and also opens us to those things which bring comfort and actual joy, but because we find creative outlets for it. The peace of Christ is not the numbness that can come with drugs or other forms of artificial distraction, etc. It includes a kind of anxiety, a yearning for more, a sense of being made-for more and challenged to embrace it. Similarly, temptation is part and parcel of the human situation (temptation is clearly present in Scripture prior to sin) and leads either to sin or to self-transcendence. Of itself temptation is neutral but it can serve life and spiritual maturity.

Even death itself (the greatest cause of anxiety) is intended by God. But this is, as I referred to in my earlier post, death-as-transition, not sinful, godless, death-unto-oblivion. We are made for eternity. It is death as limit (and this includes all the limits of contingent being we meet each and every day) that reminds us we have but one life which we are called to live and in which we are called to achieve authentic humanity. We are made for eternity, and God sustains us eternally, but growth into authentic graceful humanity is a task we have only a limited time to complete. We need the spur of death to put things into perspective, to remind us who God is and who he is for us, who we really are and what the ultimate challenge before us is. But note well here that ordinary death does not call attention to itself, it does not serve itself. (Sinful death is a different matter.) Ordinary transitional death witnesses to the eternal "more" or fullness and abundant life we are called to. This is true with each of the forms of "existential" suffering I have referred to here. None of them call attention to themselves. They all witness to something other and more than suffering itself. They are life-serving and it is this that predominates.

What I think we cannot do is make a religion out of suffering. Our experience of the God of life and wholeness, the God who enters our existence exhaustively, must be what puts suffering in perspective, not vice versa. The living God can use suffering and transform it with his presence, but he does not wield it like a weapon nor does he send it directly; some of it it is built into the situation and structure of human life and is necessary for growth and development in authenticity and maturity. Other suffering is the result of sin and evil per se and we especially cannot trivialize this by minimizing its reality as evil and an example of the absurd. Especially we cannot attribute such evil to God. Ultimately, as those who proclaim the Gospel of the God of Jesus Christ however, our witness is to be to life, to wholeness and holiness, and to all the ways God empowers transcendence, not to suffering per se whether that suffering is existential or the result of sin.

Followup Questions: Chronic Illness, Victim Souls, God and Suffering, etc

[[Hi Again, Sister O'Neal! Thanks for answering my questions [about a vocation to chronic illness] with more of your own story. You said, "Especially, I am no victim!" Are you familiar with the idea of "victim souls"? Do you think this is a helpful idea? What do you think about the notion that God sends suffering to one person and then eases the suffering of another as a result? I have even read where one person who has been characterized as a victim soul receives some grace and then EXPECTS to suffer because of this grace that was given. That doesn't make sense to me. Yet is it really so awful to be a "victim"? Wouldn't being a "victim soul" be a very special vocation?]]

Victim Soul Theology, an Introduction

First, let me be clear that this whole notion of victim souls is not official Catholic theology. There are some superficial precedents for it in Jewish theology of scapegoating, and superficial correspondence with Sacred Heart theology and the like. For this reason teasing out the legitimate from the illegitimate is not always easy to do. But generally, what commonly passes for "victim soul" theology is a misguided attempt to make some sense of personal suffering which is rooted in a REALLY bad reading of Paul's notion that we are to "make up what was lacking" in the sufferings of Christ. More, it is based on a terribly distorted idea of God as the one who sends suffering, and indeed, who bargains with people to accept additional suffering in order to relieve someone else's, or (worse yet) who even punishes one with suffering after gracing them with something joyful. What kind of God works this way? Not one I could ever believe in, and certainly not one worthy of worship --- at least not if worship is a function of love, as I believe it must be!!!

Also,(with the exception of the Christ Event, where God in Christ took on suffering himself and in the limited sense the word actually applies, was OUR VICTIM) to believe that God causes one to suffer (or sends suffering) and applies it to another means that one believes God is playing some great game with each of us and is in complete control of the suffering in this world. More, and even more problematical, it is a "theology" which believes that God can be convinced to relieve someone's suffering if another person is willing to undertake it in her place. It is as though there is some great quota of suffering in the world as a whole which God needs us to experience in order to be placated or satisfied or something. Even (or perhaps especially!) Anselm's theory of satisfaction never got this crude, and it was already a complete misunderstanding of Paul. Let me explain.

Another look at the Theology of The Cross: Paul vs Anselm

Despite some strands of common piety which hold otherwise, it was not Jesus' suffering per se which was redemptive (though it was absolutely essential), but rather his entering exhaustively into the realms of human sin and death while remaining obedient (that is, open and responsive) to God in spite of the depths of his failure, fear, suffering, etc. This obedience unto death, even death on a cross (that is, not just natural, death-as-transition, but sinful, godless death-unto-oblivion!) meant that God could now enter completely into these realms from which he would otherwise be excluded by human sin in order to transform them with his presence. Once this occurs, their power (which is the power to isolate and separate one from God, and thus from life and meaning) is broken definitively.

In Anselm's satisfaction theology Christ's death makes up for the infinite dishonor done to God. Christ's suffering is not a way to enter exhaustively into our situation so that situation can be objectively changed. Instead the debt of sin, a debt owed to God's honor, is paid in terms of suffering. God is offended and needs to be reconciled, placated, his anger etc, assuaged. But this, despite superficial linguistic similarities, is precisely the antithesis of what Paul provides in his theology of the cross. For Paul, the Christ Event works to overcome the objective chasm that exists between the world and God. It works to bring the world back to God and to friendship with him. It works to overcome the estrangement, alienation, and antipathy towards God, and it does all these things not by appeasing God's anger (which would be a subjective change) but by implicating God in precisely those aspects of his creation from which he has been excluded (i.e.,his death effects an objective change in reality). Thus, Jesus' suffering is necessary for he must plumb the depths of human sin and sinful death; unless he does there will remain depths of Godlessness which are not overcome by his obedience (openness and responsiveness) to God. However, it is not the suffering per se that is redemptive. Instead it is is Jesus' complete dependence on God in spite of everything which might otherwise separate him from God by tempting to sin (that is, to remain dependent upon himself and his own resources) that is salvific.

As in Christ's life, of itself suffering is not redemptive; it is our dependence upon God, our remaining open to God's grace (God's living self) in spite of and within that suffering that is redemptive, for it implicates God into the places or realms from which he would otherwise be excluded. (Realms like sin and death are also personal realms, and God cannot simply force his way into them, or overcome them by fiat; they imply human decisions to live --- and therefore to die --- without God, and thus they come to be embodied realities which are deeply personal. This is why Paul refers to "this body of death," and describes death as a power or principality with influence in our lives. God does not force his way into any area of our lives, though he is present both within and without those lives, and eagerly waits to be allowed to be sovereign over even their darkest regions or dimensions.) This is what Paul is referring to when he writes in 2 Cor 5:19 that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

To reiterate, in Paul's theology of the cross and contrary to Anselm's version, God is not in need of reconciliation: we are. God is bringing the far places we journey in and through, and our own prodigality under his own sovereignty; he is transforming godless realities within and around us into sacramental realities where he may be met face to face. God's wrath is not an all-too-human anger or emotional response, but the fact that God allows the consequences of our sins to run their course. (Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle) We use anthropomorphic terms to speak of divine wrath, but they are singularly inadequate. Meanwhile, Jesus' passion is not inadequate; it has dealt a definitive and terminal blow to sin and death. However, that victory must become personal to us; it must touch and redeem the sin and death we have embodied within ourselves, our lives, and all our lives touch. It is only in this sense that we are called upon "to make up for what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ". We allow the suffering and obedient Christ into our PERSONAL realm, and through him in the power of the Spirit work to bring all of it into the life of the Trinity.

So suffering does not appease or placate God. Suffering is a consequence of creation's estrangement and brokenness and one which God takes on himself. It becomes the gateway into the realms of sin and death because largely it is the result of the effects of sin and godless death in this world and tempts (or leads) us either to depend upon ourselves or to hand our lives over to God. Therefore, at the same time then, these can be gateways of grace for they open us to the need for God's love and mercy, but they do not come directly from his hand. Especially, God does not send suffering nor engage in some kind of distorted calculus of suffering where SOMEONE must suffer and the question is merely who will be made to do it. Examples of such a perverse calculus would include the following: "If I suffer willingly, God will relieve x's pain," or "If I suffer, a person a world (or era) away (and unaware of me) will be prevented from sinning," or again, "I am suffering this pain so that x's painful dying might be eased (also where x is unaware of me and we are not speaking about her being edified by my own suffering, etc)." These beliefs are superstitious, not expressions of faith.

Beyond being superstitious, what kind of God would such a calculus of suffering reveal? First, it would be a "god" who directly sends both suffering and its relief, and who, for arbitrary reasons might relieve some suffering so long as someone else can be found to take it on. He would be a "god" who bargains with his creatures, a tyrannical torturer or sadist who somehow needs a certain amount of suffering to be "satisfied" and never mind who does it. In such a scheme suffering is not merely the result, the tragic consequence of sin created and exacerbated by our inhumanities or by the brokenness and incompleteness of creation, but is the result of a God who directly punishes his creation for sin. And of course this punishment falls arbitrarily on the heads of the innocent and the guilty alike while asserting that God can PERHAPS be convinced to relieve the suffering of some and apply it to others. The notion you referred to in your question that God will grace a person and then punish them with suffering because they were graced is simply too perverse and unChristian to respond to. It sounds more like a portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic parent dealing with a child than the God of Jesus Christ. Sorry, but in my estimation, these notions are perversions of the idea of divine justice, and parodies of the God of Jesus Christ --- not one whom we can really love or worship.

Legitimate Views of Suffering?

It is one thing to act as Maximillian Kolbe did and give away bread and soup while being fed in other ways, and eventually to even ask to stand in and be executed in another's place so that that man might live and return to his family. It is entirely another to believe that one's own physical pain can/may be used by God to relieve the suffering of someone dying of cancer in a crude kind of substitution for instance. To believe this presupposes a God who could stop or mitigate a person's suffering but does not do so because the suffering is needed to fill some cosmic quota or something. (The idea that God requires our suffering to appease his being offended by sin is certainly no better.) It is one thing to accept the suffering that befalls one with equanimity and courage, and as an opportunity to share in Christ's own cross by remaining open to and dependent upon God therein; when one does this, God is implicated in one's suffering and redeems it. Again, it is entirely another thing to beg God to send suffering so that he might relieve the suffering in another, or to attribute suffering to him which is some sort of payback because he graced one with something wonderful or joyful that day. In the first instance there is some generosity involved we should honor (the willingness to suffer in another's place), but the theology involved is simply unjustifiable and possibly unconscionable.

Magical Thinking is not okay.

It is one thing to know that if one suffers well (that is, suffers patiently in complete dependence on the love and support of God in this suffering), God is allowed to dwell more fully in our world and one becomes a part of Jesus' own work of bringing the Kingdom. In such a case one's suffering may indeed touch and edify others; it may indeed convince them of the grace of a God who enters exhaustively into our reality and transforms it with his presence. It will also contribute to the healing of the whole world in the sense that personal holiness does this. But it is entirely another thing to think in magical terms, or in terms of a religious quid pro quo, or to suggest that (with the exception of the Christ event) God makes one suffer so that he may have mercy on someone else and relieve their suffering. As one friend of mine points out, such a God is not the God of Jesus Christ; he is Moloch! (And, should you doubt that there are those who hold such views, search the web; this kind of nonsense is not hard to find. It is a holdover of some of the very worst French Revivalist piety and deserves a quick and deep burial.)

Rejection of the Term "Victim Soul"

Even when I think of Maximillian Kolbe I can't accept there is a place for the category "victim soul" and I especially doubt it is a phrase or status someone like Fr Kolbe would have applied to himself (or that anyone living should do), particularly given the degree of suffering that went on all around him in Auschwitz. What defined Fr Kolbe was not his suffering, though that was plentiful and profound; what defined him was his love of God, his own experience of God's love, and his authentic humanity and selflessness in spite of his suffering. He was known for and was transparent to being nourished, fed, and consoled in ways which make the term victim particularly inadequate, I think. Ordinarily, as the Bishop of Worster noted in regard to a celebrated case of a comatose girl in his diocese who was "billed" as a victim soul, this is a term the Church herself uses for Christ alone; at best we can use it for others only with very great caution.

Generally, at least when it is self-applied, it is often an arrogant term associated at best with people who simply have suffering in their lives and must deal with it as we all must; too often these persons are unaware of how much suffering others undergo on a regular basis. At worst such a self-applied designation is associated with unstable narcissists struggling to find a way to give meaning to the suffering in their lives (which, historically at least, they often willfully exacerbate) while inadvertantly denigrating or distorting the God of Jesus Christ in the process. This is especially true when it is based on theologies which see God as the sender of suffering who doesn't care who does it just so long as the cosmic quota of pain is met, or when it assumes one's own suffering makes one special and allows one to forego ordinary treatment and prudent behavior to minimize it. It is also especially true today when everyone is tempted to see themselves as a victim in one way and another, and when victim status is one of the most disedifying and truly "worldly" dimensions of our society. Since the phenomenon of the "victim soul" is particularly linked to women, many of whom were completely oppressed in one way and another, and often have a history of self-mutilation, cutting, binding, etc, it is one of those phenomona about which the Church is indeed right to be skeptical, or at least VERY CAUTIOUS.

We ALL Share the Cross of Christ

It should go without saying that we are all called upon to share in the cross of Christ. We are called upon to bear the suffering that comes our way in union with him and in complete dependence upon his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, we are called upon to believe that our own suffering and its redemption has dimensions and scope which transcend our own private world. It contributes to the perfection and fulfillment of God's creation, and when undertaken in faith, can edify others who come to recognize the victory of God in the transformation of one's life and the transfiguration of one's pain. We join ourselves to the crucified and risen Christ and in this sharing of HIS life our own pain becomes a holy space where light may be brought forth from darkness, life from death, and meaning from absurdity. Suffering in this way implicates God more fully into the pain and brokenness of the world. It allows even pain to become sacramental. This is a completely legitimate theology of suffering.

Once again, Suffering Does not Appease or Reconcile an Angry God

But note that what suffering in this way does NOT do is make up some sort of cosmic (or Divine) quota, as though there is a fixed price for sin which God exacts, and nevermind who pays it.  As I noted above, God does not need to be reconciled; we do. It is not the case that God needs us to suffer to be placated or appeased or in order that "payment" be made for our own or others' sins. (The question of why Paul uses such terms in his theology of the cross is another question, but for now let me say he has been misread more often than not.) If someone is dying of cancer, for instance, I cannot bargain with God to ease their pain and give it to me instead. I cannot treat God as though he is the cosmic distributor of suffering, or some sort of punisher. What I CAN do is sit with the person through the pain of their illness and dying, and share in that. I CAN and SHOULD bring Christ to her in whatever ways possible. Sin has consequences and suffering is certainly one of them, but this does not make God the direct dispenser of pain or the One who demands retribution. This is a completely illegitimate theology of suffering. Much commonly-held Victim soul theology is at least implicitly based on such a perverse notion of God and those who claim to be victim souls need to consider this.

Victim Souls, a Special Vocation?

As for whether this is a special vocation I have to disagree. We are ALL called upon to accept and join our sufferings with Christ so that they and our world may be redeemed (that is brought to wholeness and perfection by being reconciled and transformed). Do SOME suffer more in this world than others? Undoubtedly, but how really are we to either quantify or qualify this? More, are they victims? Of what or whom? Certainly not of God! Personally, I find the entire terminology objectionable. As I noted above, our world (especially the 1st world portion of it) is too enamored of victimhood. Everyone is a victim, and they exalt in it! It becomes their whole identity, and that is truly tragic. The notion of a victim soul in such a milieu is particularly unacceptable or objectionable. What this world needs are martyrs (witnesses to the grace and Gospel of God that brings wholeness and peace in spite of their suffering), or prophets (those who speak God's Word into the present situation with a power that transforms it). What we need are men and women with the courage to be something other than victims!!! We do not need more victims, especially those who dress up such status in perverse piety and the notion that somehow such perversity glorifies the infinitely merciful God of Jesus Christ.

06 September 2008

Christ the Light Cathedral Prepares for Dedication

This morning I attended a rehearsal for the first celebration next Sunday culminating a week and a half later in the dedication of our Diocese's new cathedral (Christ the Light). The interior was not finished so I took few pictures this time, but one of them is very cool and is part of the "back wall" (the Omega Wall) behind the altar. It is made up of a myriad of pin holes which then project the light allowed through onto panels. The result is the above image of Jesus as Pantocrator (called Jesus in Majesty in this context).

Next Sunday there will be a festival including a procession from the old Cathedral site (demolished because it was irreparably damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989) with representatives of all the parishes in the diocese. Each parish will have a rite of sending and send a pitcher bearer with water from the parish baptistry along with a flag bearer. These people, as well as a couple of other representatives of the parish will gather at the old site for the beginning of the ceremonies where our old Bishop (Bishop Emeritus), John Cummins, will preside and then ritually hand his pastoral staff over to our new Bishop, Allen Vigneron (who succeeded John Cummins in 2003). After processing to the new cathedral, the new and old foundation stones will be laid and trowled into place, water from the Jordan, from St Peter's and from Lourde's as well as from Oakland's Lake Merritt and from each parish will be used to fill the baptismal font of the cathedral baptistry. Also there will be the blessing of the stations of the cross and other sacred art, installing of the various chrisms in the ambry, etc.

On the 25th the actual dedication of the cathedral with Mass will take place. There will be about 40 Bishops attending, several Cardinals, and should be a terrific celebration. Hopefully I can get a few more pictures on that day eventhough we are supposed to be travelling light!!

02 September 2008

New Initials for the Diocesan Hermit: Erem. Dio. or Er Dio (Diocesan Hermit)

Awhile ago I requested permission from my Bishop to adopt the use of certain initials to indicate my status as a diocesan hermit. The initials suggested were Erem Dio, or Er Dio standing for the Latin version of diocesan hermit (eremita dioecesanus). It was understood that this would be precedent setting, and could well be adopted by other diocesan hermits (hermits professed under Canon 603 and responsible to their local Ordinaries for the general living out of their profession and Rule). Up until this point individual c. 603 hermits have adopted initials which indicated their personal spirituality (Franciscan, Benedictine, Carmelite, etc) but have had to take care not to use the initials of a particular community or congregation since they are not professed as part of said community. Unfortunately, this was really inadequate as it missed completely their status and charism as diocesan. There has been no standardized designation for diocesan hermits, and there has been a felt need for several different reasons:

First of all, the diocesan hermit who is a solitary hermit shares a unique relationship with Bishop and Diocese. She has a unique charism and place in the life of the Church which, so far as I can tell, is not matched by non-canonical hermits or by those canonical hermits living in community. Whether the diocesan hermit's spirituality is essentially Benedictine, Franciscan, Carmelite, Augustinian, Cistercian, Carthusian, etc. what is more important is the fact that they are professed and find their most fundamental identity in their solitary and diocesan status, responsibilities, and affiliation. This fundamental identity translates into a unique charism (gift quality) and mission; the hermit is a gift to church and world, but this is particularly worked out on the diocesan level in terms of her own parish and in obedience to her own Bishop. Thus, while I am Camaldolese Benedictine (I am not A Camaldolese Benedictine because I am not professed as one!) and while I highly esteem and honor this tradition, first and foremost I am A diocesan hermit who happens to also be Camaldolese Benedictine in spirituality and as an oblate.

Secondly, it has become somewhat common (though illegitimate) for some hermits who are non-canonical (and not in the process of becoming canonical per C. 603) to use the title Sister and even adopt initials after their names despite not being publicly professed. One person I corresponded a while back with used HS (apparently for Hermit Sister) followed immediately by a lower case "p" (HSp) for private vows. Since only those publicly professed (or preparing for this) have assumed (or are preparing to assume) the juridical rights and responsibilities associated with either the title or such initials, this was confusing and, as far as I could tell, contradictory and misleading. (Why use what indicates a public vocation and juridical status --Sister, HS --- and then add a letter that proclaims one as privately professed??) Several diocesan hermits liked the idea of identifying themselves as a hermit sister (or brother), but we came to see that it was our status as solitary and diocesan (Canon 603) which really distinguished us so that HS, HB, Er or Erem were really inadequate unless, for instance, Rome decided only Canon 603 hermits could use such initials. That was unlikely to happen for some time, if ever. Thus, adding Dio (for diocesan, dioecesanus) became a significant clarification of canonical standing as well as pointing to the Canon 603 hermit's unique charism.

Thirdly, it has happened that individuals with no sense of a diocesan eremitical vocation have begun unofficially to embrace Canon 603 as a possible way to circumvent the lengthy and somewhat difficult process of canonically establishing a community. (A semi-eremitical or eremitical community living under a single Rule is not the same as a Laura of diocesan hermits who come together but retain their own individual Rules. Canon 603 (it is suggested implicitly, though not explicitly) allows for the latter; according to canonists it is not meant to be the means to the former, nor should it be used by those looking for a canonical loophole to get themselves professed as a hermit who is really part of a community or would-be community.) Again, there needed to be a way of designating the hermit whose immediate LEGITIMATE superior was her Bishop per Canon 603, and who, as perpetually professed as a SOLITARY hermit was not on the way to becoming a member of a community of hermits under another superior and single Rule. Erem Dio (or Er Dio) seemed to do this. The same was true with regard to non-canonical (lay) hermits who use the language of Canon 603 without ever being consecrated by the Church under this canon. They are significant and important instances of the lay (and eremitical) vocation, but despite similarities in life (silence of solitude, prayer, penance, etc.) do not share in the charism of the diocesan hermit nor in a public vocation to the consecrated state. The public has a right to a clear distinction between these two vocations because the rights, obligations, and expectations of one differs from that of the other. (Please see other blog articles on this topic.)

Fourthly, at least in the USA, it is common for religious men and women who publish to use their first and last names along with congregational initials while dropping Brother or Sister or Father. (Actually this is common in many contemporary contexts.) Thus in Review For Religious and other journals, for instance, my name would show up as Laurel M O'Neal, but with no real indication that I was consecrated (or in what way) because (except for those associated with oblature: (OblSB Cam, or Oblate, OSB Cam --- which are usually not used publicly) I have no congregational initials. (Review For Religious usually adds a small statement referring to the person as Sister or Brother, etc, but this is not really enough to immediately indicate one's state of life as a consecrated hermit. For this reason too we looked for a way of adopting US usage while clearly indicating consecrated standing. Laurel M O'Neal Er Dio, or Laurel M O'Neal, Erem Dio seemed to fit the bill.

Today, on the anniversary of my perpetual profession I heard from my Bishop on this matter. He gave permission for the adoption of the initials mentioned above, (Erem Dio, Er Dio). It was, I think, a thoughtful decision which involved discussion on several levels and comes at a perfect time. Thus, we have a new designation in the Church (my Bp was clearly aware this was precedent setting), and one which, it is hoped, other diocesan hermits may adopt and find helpful in a number of ways --- not least in spurring them to further reflection on, definition and claiming of their identities and charism as diocesan -- that is, as solitary hermits who are publicly consecrated..