31 December 2009

Rule Of Benedict, January 1, May 2, September 1

Three times a year Benedictines read through the rule of St Benedict and tomorrow we begin anew. The tone is patient, the advice wise and measured. It is a good way to begin the new calendar year (and for me it is wonderful that the third time through begins again on my own birthday). In every way I get the impression that it is fine to begin anew. On a holiday when people are formulating resolutions, this passage from the prologue to Benedict's Rule strikes just the right note I think --- not only for our own spirituality, but for the world which so badly needs us to be what Saint Benedict describes.

January 1, May 2, September 1


L I S T E N carefully, my child,
to your master's precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father's advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.

To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.

And first of all,
whatever good work you begin to do,
beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,
that He who has now deigned to count us among His children
may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds.
For we must always so serve Him
with the good things He has given us,
that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children,
nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions,
deliver us to everlasting punishment
as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.

25 December 2009

Alleluia, Alleluia!! Hodie Christus Natus Est!

The scandal of the incarnation is one of the themes we neglect at Christmastime or, at best, allude to only indirectly. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We live through the struggles of our lives in light of the moments of hope and joy our faith provides and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the wonder and joy of the birth of our savior. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality nor with all the light and glitter and sound of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. For a brief time we allow the joy of the mystery of Christmas to predominate. We focus on the gift God has given, and the gift we ourselves are meant to become in light of this very special nativity.

Among other things we look closely at the series of "yesses" that were required for this birth to come to realization, the barreness that was brought to fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit. The humbleness of the birth is a piece of all this, of course, but the scandal, the offense of such humbleness in the creator God's revelation of self is something we neglect, not least because we see all this with eyes of faith --- eyes which suspend the disbelief of rationality temporarily so that we can see instead the beauty and wonder which are also there. The real challenge of course is to hold both truths, scandal and beauty, together in a sacramental paradox.

And so I have tried to do in this symbol of the season. This year my Christmas tree combines both the wonder and the scandal of the incarnation, the humbleness of Jesus' estate in human terms, and the beauty of a world transformed with the eyes of love. Through the coming week the readings are serious (massacre of the holy innocents, a warning about choosing "the world," and so forth --- all interspersed with reminders that darkness has been unable to quench the divine light that has come into our world, and the inarticulate groaning which often marks this existence has been brought to a new and joy-filled articulateness in the incarnate Word. Everything, we believe, can become sacramental; everything a symbol of God's light and life amongst us; everything a song of joy and meaning! And so too with this fragile "Charlie Brown" tree.

All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide for all who read here, and to all of your families.

20 December 2009

Fourth Week of Advent, 2009

16 December 2009

All the Nations Shall Proclaim his happiness! (Ps 72:17)

Tomorrow's Gospel is the Genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew. It is not unusual to have our eyes glaze over as this is read in Church. If we have to read it ourselves, we may scan the passage as we read along to find out just how much longer this goes on, how many more unpronounceable names we have in front of us! If we are particularly creative we may focus on the individual names and see how much OT history we recall. Feminists are apt to focus on the few but significant women's names included here quite against the tradition of such genealogies! Judith, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary are all mentioned --- important because they are women of ill-repute, irregularity, or barrenness graced by God in a way which makes them pivotal in both divine and human history. A very few will be excited by this long recital of somewhat familiar but mainly alien names, but generally, the genealogy is a challenge to listeners and preachers. What, after all, did Matthew intend here? Why did he construct this list in such a carefully theological (and historically inaccurate) way? What does he want us to hear?

The thing that strikes me most about this lection is the plan of God it outlines, and especially the patience with which God carries this out. Throughout history men and women have responded in greater and lesser ways and degrees to the Word and will of God. History is the story of the intertwining of divine and human destinies and in the Christ event all this comes to a climax. In Jesus divine and human histories are inextricably wed. God allows us to participate in his very future. He profoundly desires us to be a living part of that future. All throughout history he affirms and reaffirms that he has chosen not to remain alone; that, if we will only not refuse him, he will be our God and we will be his people. This is God's will and destiny. It is also quite literally his delight and joy!

There is a reason I hear this in tomorrow's Gospel. About 25 years ago I was struggling with quiet prayer. There comes a point in contemplative prayer marked by a letting go, and sometimes by a shift in consciousness and awareness --- a kind of altered state of attentiveness. I found, unfortunately, that some parts of this point or process reminded me of the sensations that accompanied the loss of consciousness and/or control preceding or accompanying the beginning of a seizure. Thus, as I approached this moment in prayer I found myself becoming frightened and I refused or at least resisted letting go and giving myself over to the prayer (and so, over to God's activity within and around me). One evening, I was working with my spiritual director and in order to help me through this, she held out her hands and asked me to rest mine on hers. Then she instructed me to just do what I would ordinarily do in approaching contemplative or quiet prayer. I did and immediately went deeper than I had perhaps ever gone before. God was waiting (indeed, he was really leading) and he was completely delighted! He "said" to me (silently but really), "Finally! I have been waiting SUCH a long time for this moment!" There was not a smidgin of recrimination, no blame, no reference to sin or to disappointment or sadness in my regard. God's joy was unalloyed and revealed his very nature in this and his complete patience.

I think we sometimes forget this side of things. Partly it is because we focus on ourselves in prayer, and partly it may be because we were taught some version of God's impassibility. But really, it is rather like something that always strikes me about the Sacrament of penance. We all know that this Sacrament is a gift --- that in it we receive the grace of mercy and forgiveness, love, support and encouragement. How often do we pause to ponder the gift our confession is to the confessor? And yet, that is one thing that is often very clear when we receive the Sacrament today. Similarly then, we rightly emphasize that God gives himself to us, that his love, mercy, and forgiveness are gifts to us, but how often do we regard ourselves as the gifts which God himself has patiently but ardently desired and waited through the aeons to receive? How often do we see God working unceasingly through generation after generation after generation just for the Word only we can speak and become in response, for the gift only we can become and give in gratitude and joy? How often do we consider that God is truly delighted with this gift --- whatever its condition or history? How often do we stop to reflect on the truth that, in fact, he desires nothing so much as this and, in some mysterious way, will be incomplete without it?

Christmas is the season marking the nativity of the One in whom both human and divine history reach their goal and climax. It has been long in coming, engineered and directed with infinite patience and desire despite all of the human resistance and refusal God has also endured. Tomorrow's Gospel marks all of this dramatically, but in a way which challenges us to hear with new ears what is most often a deadly dull wholly uninspired recital. On Christimas, we will celebrate the fact that God entrusts his Son to us --- fragile, weak, powerless and wholly dependent; God looks to us to mark the climax of a long preparatory history and reciprocate with our own lives. My prayer is that each of us can approach Christmas with a sense of just how ardently God desires and delights in the gifts we make of ourselves --- and of course, that, with God's assistance, we can find the courage to let go past our resistances, doubts, insecurities, fears, and guilt, and commit ourselves into the arms of an overjoyed God.

15 December 2009

A Closed or Hardened Heart: The Essential Blindness

I wrote this for last Friday, but didn't get it posted there in time. I am putting it up here instead for the time being.

Today's Gospel is sometimes trivialized. We think perhaps that people were upset because Jesus was some sort of "party animal" and that they contrasted that with the asceticism of John the Baptist and other prophets only to take exception to Jesus --- as though the Scriptures are really contrasting two different approaches to spirituality. But what Matthew is getting at in today's Gospel is that very often we are unable or refuse to see with the eyes of our hearts, and we therefore reject the very revelation of God that stands in front of us --- no matter the guise. We act childishly by refusing to admit either our needs or to humble ourselves in a way which allows God to respond to them as he wills (rather than as we will!). We neither repent nor do we celebrate God's presence in true faith; instead we concern ourselves with conforming the world (and the God who is its creator and Lord) to our own (often religious) demands and expectations.

Jesus has just finished a long exposition comparing and contrasting himself with John the Baptist. He is speaking to his own friends, family, and neighbors (Bethsaida is a center of Galilee and so, a center of Jesus' own home-life). And, as always, his speech is honest and challenging! He is reminding them they thronged out to see John and have now rejected him precisely because he WAS what they were supposedly looking for, and he does so by putting some sharp questions to them: What did you expect to see? A reed blowing in the wind? (Did you go out looking for someone tossed about by the wind of current fashion and concerns, or were you looking for something less transitory?) Did you go out seeking someone dressed in the clothes of nobles and Kings or someone dressed as a prophet, a true desert dweller and messenger of God? Were you seeking a prophet or not? Jesus completes his series of questions by affirming that indeed John the Baptist was precisely what people were looking for, and more in fact --- the greatest of the prophets and the forerunner of the messiah! And yet, a fickle people turned away from John and said he had a demon instead --- the surest religious way to denigrate and dismiss someone and the most effective way to be sure others don't follow him!

At the same time, Jesus has come with news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God and acts accordingly. No mourning ascetic He celebrates with his disciples by feasting and drinking! And so, his friends and neighbors label him a drunkard and a glutton --- an accusation, we should remember, a Son's family could accuse him of to Temple officials in order to have him stoned to death! [There was a precise formula in this matter and we read it today in Deuteronomy. The parents would come to the Temple and say, "This son of ours. . ." and accuse him of being a drunkard and glutton, disobedient and willful. If the charges were sustained, the Son would be put to death.] The fear was that through his disobedience, etc, this Son would bring evil upon Israel and perhaps even show himself to be a false prophet who would lead her seriously astray. Better deal with such a person in a preventative and definitive way than risk such damage!

Jesus uses the story of children at play with make-believe games to characterize the immaturity and hardness of heart of those he is addressing, those he calls, "this generation." He describes two groups of kids, one who tries to get the other to join in the games, and one who simply will not. The first group plays the wedding game and pipes a joyful tune, but the second group stands off refusing to be moved by the music, the song, or the comraderie. When this fails, the first group switches to the funeral game and sings a dirge --- something perhaps more appropriate to the second group's mood, but again, the second group of children are recalcitrant and simply refuse to be moved or join in. It is hard to imagine a symbol of something which is able to move us more completely than the music at either a wedding or a funeral. One form moves us to dance and the other to deep sorrow. This music speaks to our hearts, that is, to the core of ourselves and to that which symbolizes our whole selves in Scripture. And yet, John the Baptist came preaching repentance, moved by mourning over a badly sinful people, and was rejected by many of those Jesus now addresses as being moved by Satan. Jesus himself came "piping a song" -- so to speak -- of celebration and tremendous joy, and he too is labelled a false prophet, demon-possessed (later also in Matt), a danger to authentic religion, and set up for execution!

But perhaps there is one thing which moves us to open our hearts even more than the music mentioned: the birth of a baby, the appearance of an infant swaddled in his parents' arms or trundled around in a stroller. I don't think I have personally ever seen someone incapable of being moved by a newborn baby --- though of course there are stories where humanity's worst attrocities are marked by a hardness of heart to even these most helpless and fragile among us. In the NT we have the story of the massacre of the innocents. In contemporary history we have slaughters and holocausts which seem never to abate. Still, when I reflect on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ which we are each preparing to celebrate it seems clear that a huge part of our God coming to us in this way is God's desire to touch our hearts, break them open anew and rescue us from any essential blindness that afflicts us. Advent gives us readings which echo John the Baptist's "piping of songs" of repentance and mourning intertwined with Jesus' "tunes" of celebration and feasting. Christmas gives us the birth of an infant meant to break open even the hardest of hearts with gratitude and wonder so that we can begin to consider and shape our lives according to a God whose power is truly perfected in weakness.

Will we resist or join in wholeheartedly? Will we remain untouched and blindly cynical as the children in Jesus' parable, or will we "play the games" and dance to the tunes of authentic faith which allows God to reshape our lives as his true children and people of real vision? Will we see what stands right in front of us or turn away uncomprehendingly? My prayers to all for a good Advent as we each continue to prepare our hearts for the coming anew of such a surprising and challenging God!

13 December 2009

Revisiting the Question of Disedifying (reactive) Withdrawal

[[Dear Sister, for someone already professed as a hermit, are the dangers of withdrawing for negative reasons as strong as the danger of getting too involved (for instance, in parish life)? I wondered because your post on reactive withdrawal seemed to indicate this was the case.]]

Thanks for the question! Once one has, with the Church herself, discerned a vocation to be (and especially been professed as) a diocesan hermit, the danger of removing oneself from the solitude of the cell is more dangerous. In my experience, if one has discerned a vocation to eremitical life in this way then the major danger --- choosing solitude because one is withdrawing in a reactive or disedifying way --- shifts or changes. One's vocation, everyone now agrees, is mainly to remain in cell and live out one's solitude in this way. One does this because God calls one to this primarily. That is really the defining characteristic of the eremitical life. The temptation one faces more usually is now more that of leaving the cell for insufficient and disedifying reasons.

However, for the hermit who also finds herself called to some limited degree of parish ministry, it can happen that she might "duck" some legitimate challenges of the active dimension of her life for less than legitimate reasons. The need to discern what is happening remains, but now the presumption is that one is generally called to remain in cell and if one errs in discernment, one should probably err on this side of things. The burden of discernment shifts so that one must be more careful about justifying reasons to leave her hermitage. Note that the need to be able to discern one's motives has not changed. What changes is the perspective from which one decides. In my original post I was addressing the question of discerning the reasons one may feel drawn to solitude and noting that one should be aware that not all reasons are good ones or indicate a vocation to solitude -- especially to eremitical solitude. With regard to your question, the person has already discerned such a call and done so with the Church's assistance and approval. I hope this helps. Again, good question.

"Gaudete" by Karl Rahner

[[As the Autumn season fades and the Winter takes over, the world becomes still. Everything around us turns pale and drab. It chills us. We are least inclined to hectic activities. More than in other seasons of the year, we prefer to stay at home and be alone. It is as if the world had become subsued and lost the courage to assert its self-satisfaction, the courage to be proud of its power and its life. Its progressive growth in the swelling fullness of the Spring and Summer has faded, for the fullness has vanished, In this season, time itself bears eloquent witness to its own poverty. It disappoints us.

Here is the moment to conquer the melancholy of time, here is the moment to say softly and sincerely what we know by faith:"Gaudete, let us rejoice. I believe in the eternity of God who has entered into our time, my time. Beneath the wearisome coming and going of chronological time, life that no longer knows death is already secretly growing. It is already here, it is already in me, precisely because I believe."

Time is no longer the bleak, empty, fading succession of moments, one moment destroying the preceding one and causing it to become "past," only to die away itself, clearing the way for the future that presses --- itself already mortally wounded. Time itself is redeemed. It possesses a centre that can preserve the present and gather itself into the future, a nucleus that fills the present with the future that is already effected, a focal point that coordinates the living present with the eternal furure. The advent of the incarnate God, of the Christ who is the same yesterday, and today, and in eternity --- this advent has penetrated into this time that is to be redeemed.

A "now" of eternity is in you. And this "now" has already begun to gather together your earthly moments into itself. For into your heart comes the One who is himself Advent, the Boundless Future who is already in the process of coming, the Lord himself who has already come into the time of the flesh to redeem it.]]

From The Eternal Year, by Karl Rahner

12 December 2009

Advent 2009, Week Three

10 December 2009

Belated Good Wishes for Advent!!

Well, here it is, the end of the second week in Advent and I have added nothing to this blog except a picture for the first week! Life here at the hermitage has been fine. I have spent a few days cleaning out stuff I have accumulated over the years (mainly books and papers, but other things as well!) and still have some ways to go! My apologies to readers though! Sometimes preparing the way for the coming of Christ means getting rid of stuff and that takes time and energy away from other things.

This preparation happens on a number of levels of course, but it is amazing what material things can represent for us. The clearing out of stuff can be done prayerfully and when it is, that includes a period of remembering what was, what we dreamed of and hoped for, what we clung (and perhaps still cling) to for security or sentimentality, or that we just hold onto because we don't know what else quite to do with it! It can include gratitude for the present --- for the healing and love others have brought one to, and commitment to reflect more fully whatever vocation God has graced us with. All in all it is a challenging and compelling project, worthy of the beginning of Advent or Lent, and certainly worthy of the attempt to prepare oneself for a deeper and more complete dependence upon God and trust in the future he has opened for us.

Belated though this is, I wish readers a wonderfully fruitful Advent! May it be a time of preparation to meet anew and afresh the God who comes to us in weakness and who is found in the unexpected place. May it also be a time to look at the baggage we each carry around with us, and may we commit ourselves to letting go of whatever we no longer need and which serves merely to weigh us down in our journey to follow the poor Christ!

29 November 2009

First Sunday in Advent 2009

13 November 2009

Reactive Withdrawal vs Responsive Anachoresis: Followup Question

[[ Dear Sister Laurel, could you give some examples of the difference between reactive withdrawal and responsive anachoresis? I think I understand what you are saying but I want to be sure. How do hermits become aware of the difference? When you say one is edifying and one is disedifying what do you mean?]]

Yes, I can try to give some examples. Let's say a person does not do well with people and just withdraws from their presence to ease the discomfort of being in company. That is probably reactive withdrawal. Or, for instance, someone is having a bad day and is feeling depressed so they withdraw; that too could be reactive rather than responsive. If someone gets angry and walks away from a situation rather than staying and working it out, that is likely to be reactive rather than responsive. Or if one simply does not desire to deal with the complexities of society, withdrawal can be reactive. In each of these cases, one reacts to a situation and stimulus (anger, depression, dislike, fear, lack of desire, etc) by pulling or walking away. Their withdrawal is not a centered act of their whole person which is rooted in thoughtfulness, generosity, or love. In each of these cases withdrawal is a means of unconsidered almost instinctual escape from a stimulus, even if the escape later to be understood to have been a prudent thing which protected others from one's acting out one's anger, etc.

On the other hand, responsive anachoresis is precisely withdrawal undertaken not as a reaction to some noxious stimulus, but instead is chosen out of love, generosity, and with reflection. One withdraws in this way because God calls one to do so, because solitude is life-giving to oneself and others, not merely because it is protective or simplifies the situation. In this form of withdrawal the act is not a reaction, but a response. It is not so much withdrawal from life or challenge in an unthinking stimulus-response way as it is a considered and thoughtful withdawal for the sake of life and challenge. It is a response to God's invitation, God's will that life prevail over death and meaning over meaninglessness.

When I say that hermits need to be able to discern the difference in their own lives I mean simply that we each feel the pull of situations both like those in the first paragraph, and those in the second. We need to be able to discern the distinction. (In the following examples I am assuming that one has truly discerned an eremitical vocation for the right reasons, not as a matter of reactive withdrawal. With this as a given I can focus on everyday discernment.) For instance, on a given day I may feel punk and wish to lay low (and, whether rightly or wrongly, I can always justify doing so on the basis of my vocational state) but I may feel genuinely called to go to the parish for Mass and morning coffee. On another day I may want badly to go to Mass and coffee, but feel that what is really God's will for me at that time (what is more lifegiving and important) is to remain in cell. In each case one action is reactive and one is responsive. In the first situation staying in is reactive withdrawal; in the second what I have described (staying in cell despite what I want to do) is responsive anachoresis. The problem, of course, is hermits can justify withdrawing for the wrong reasons fairly easily, and this would be a serious mistake in discernment. Because we sometimes feel both God's call, and the urgings of anger, depression, loneliness, etc at the same time, we can be either responsive or reactive. Telling the difference is not always easy and the situation may be ambiguous, but we need to work to be able to discern properly.

In a time when the hermit vocation is finding more adherents and many others who like to think of themselves as hermits, and when the stereotypical hermit is one who runs and hides from reality, we have to be really clear on the difference between reactive withdrawal and responsive anachoresis. Only the latter drives authentic eremitical vocations.

When I say that one thing (reactive withdrawal) is disedifying, what I mean is that such behavior does not build up the Body of Christ, does not serve the Gospel of Freedom, and does not bring light or life to the Church or world as a whole. (For instance if we merely react to anger, tiredness, depression, we remain in bondage to these powers in our life. This hardly builds up the Body of Christ.) When I say that something is edifying I mean the opposite: that is, it does build up the body of Christ, it does serve the Gospel of Freedom and its proclamation, and it does bring light and life to the Church and world. In particular responsive anachoresis says that God is always with us, always available to us, is able to transform even our most bitter moments with his love and mercy. It says that freedom to choose redemption in the face of bondage is possible at every point in our lives. It says that solitude is something other than mere isolation, something communal and ecclesial, something whole-making (i.e, sanctifying) and salvific. And for this reason it says to those who cannot choose other than physical isolation, that this can be redeemed and be a source of life and genuine freedom for the one isolated and for the whole world.

Excursus: By the way, I didn't note this specifically, but it should be seen that hermits can be reactive not only in withdrawing, but in running out to do errands, have coffee with parishioners, etc. One of the important aspects of eremitical stability is to learn to discern when love calls one to remain in cell and when it calls one out. Most of the time, one is called to remain in silence and solitude out of true obedience and love. In either case it is not simply what is loving, but what is most loving (and most serves the will of God in charity) given the state of one's life. As I have said before, in eremitical life the most difficult choices, I have found, are not between good and evil, but between competing goods. However, the main point is that withdrawal or the decision not to remain in (physical) solitude can both be either reactive or responsive. Again, the hermit must be able to discern which is which in her own life at any given point in time.

03 November 2009

Exclusion or Inclusion: How is God truly Honored?

Today's Gospel is the continuation of a series of stories in which Luke describes what happens when Jesus is invited to dinner. He is dining with Pharisees and for them it is a decidedly uncomfortable occasion. Jesus has brought them to a point of crisis or decision; he has challenged them far beyond their social or religious comfort zone, and he has asked them to change the way they behave towards others in absolutely fundamental ways in order to really do the will of God. You may remember, he has just finished rebuking them for asking friends to dinner instead of the poor and disabled, that is for seeking honor and avoiding shame by asking to dinner those who could reciprocate (and so, give further honor) rather than those who could not. He affirms that if they behave as he demands they will find their reward at the resurrection of the just.

At this point, the point where today's Gospel begins, one of the Pharisees (I imagine him as the parish armchair theologian or the believer who rejects social justice as having anything to do with the gospel or with Church per se!) burbles on with, "Blessed is he who eats bread in the Kingdom of God." In other words, he tries to divert the focus from the here-and-now demands Jesus has made to a far more comfortable and pious reflection on heaven and the eschatological banquet --- as though that was the real thrust of Jesus' instruction thus far!

But Jesus will have none of it. Instead he tells another parable which sharpens the demands he has already made of these Pharisees; he intensifies the crisis they face, and refocuses attention onto their present meal practices. As Robert Farrar Capon puts the matter, [[(Jesus) launches straight into a story which bumps his hearers off the bus bound for the heavenly suburbs and deposits them back into the seediest part of town!]] (Parables of Grace, p 131)

The story Jesus tells is of a Master who invites guests to a great feast, and who, in the ordinary scheme of things, is shamed when those who are "worthy" of attending refuse his invitation for religiously acceptable reasons. As a result he sends his servants out in two different forays to actively seek out those who are seen as unworthy of attending the feast. The progression is significant: first the servant seeks out the disabled and poor or oppressed. Then, the net is cast wider to the prostitutes, pickpockets, tax collectors --- in general the social riffraff of both town and country. According to usual standards the attendance of none of these would bring honor to the Master. Rather, it would shame him --- as would his actively seeking them out. But in choosing to bring them into the feast and sending servants out after them, the parable serves to criticize and subvert the foundational honor/shame value-system of his society. On this basis alone Jesus' story would be shocking to his hearers.

But there is another dimension which gives Jesus' choice of substitute guests an added importance --- and an added impact --- an even greater shaking of the foundations on which the Pharisees' reality rests. Remember that the Essene community of this time celebrated meals which anticipated the eschatological Banquet just as our own meals, and especially our own Eucharists anticipate this. The Essenes, as was true of many Jews in Jesus' day, saw themselves as participants in a holy war against sin and evil and to help ensure God's victory in this they stressed the importance of freedom from ritual and moral impurity. As a result certain people were ineligible to participate in community life, and especially in community meals. These included the lame, blind, crippled, paralyzed, and otherwise afflicted (never mind prostitutes, thieves, collaborators and tax collectors, etc)!! The basic religious strategy for winning this "holy war" was exclusion. This separatist strategy was one the Pharisees and most Jews also adopted with regard to the world around them --- at least if they wanted to worship as Jews.

Jesus' parable, however, overturns this basic religious stratagem as well. It is not just the foundational social structure and mores Jesus turns on their head, but the religious ones as well. What matters to the Master in Jesus' story (as Luke tells it) is that his house be filled, his feast be celebrated and enjoyed. Where that is done he is well and truly honored. As Paul has been telling us throughout Romans as well, God's strategy for dealing with evil is inclusion, not exclusion, participation in, not isolation from. Our God is one who himself goes out into the hedgerows to seek out and bring the unworthy back with him. He searches for and welcomes the ritually and morally impure, the godless and despised. (And yes, he of course sends his servants out in the same way!) He is honored only when NO ONE, and no part of ourselves, is excluded, only when those who cannot reciprocate and have nothing to offer on their own are brought into the feast. Our God is the One who brings all of us, each and every broken and unclean sinner of us, into the community of Christ so that he may love us into wholeness and holiness. That is our God's strategy for dealing with evil! This is the way he conducts a holy war!

Today in the Church there is a movement afoot to create a "leaner, meaner, purer" remnant community of "faith." If there is anything today's Gospel teaches with a startling vividness and a stunning contemporaneity, it is that such a church has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. An emphasis on purity and exclusion may work in some areas of the world (not the only example, certainly, but bioweapons labs come to mind here!), but not in terms of the God Jesus reveals to us, and certainly not in terms of any reality we would be courageous (or honest) enough to call the body or Church of Jesus Christ!

25 October 2009

Question on Horarium and the Divine Office

[[Dear Sister, I see from your horarium that you do not pray the minor or little hours of the Office. Why is that? Aren't you obligated to say the whole Office?]]

Good questions. I pray (usually singing) four of the Hours of the Divine Office, Lauds, Vespers and Compline and Vigils. (Vigils may be done in the middle of the night or a little before Lauds.) Between those periods I either work, study, or pray in other ways (including Mass or Communion services, lectio divina, and contemplative prayer). I will also run errands, take meals, or rest during some of those times. For me personally, I find that pausing to do the little hours fragments the day rather than helping me to pray better or make a prayer of my life. I tend to work better (especially if I am writing (including journaling) or studying) if I have a couple to several hours of dedicated time. Except for the work I do on computer this all occurs in cell so it is done in the presence of the Eucharist. That presence becomes a touchstone at those times especially. For that reason too I don't feel the need to pause to do the little hours, and my horarium is divided into blocks of time which are punctuated by the four main hours of the the Office.

As to what I am obligated to, the short answer is no, I am not obligated to say the whole Office. My Rule of Life includes the four hours I mentioned above. However, if I am away from the hermitage for some time (errands, trips to the City, etc) I will sometimes pray the minor hours while on the train. (Sometimes I will simply use a small bracelet of prayer beads I wear and pray the Jesus prayer as I look briefly at each person on the train with me and pray for them.) At those times the little hours do indeed help me to maintain a sense of quiet and continuity with the hermitage cell, but again, I do it because it functions for me in this way, not because I am obligated to do so.

Hope this is helpful.

On Lemons and Lemonade Revisited

[[Sister Laurel, Your posts on the time frame for becoming a hermit (On Lemons and Lemonade, etc) seem to be saying that young candidates for eremitical profession and consecration need not apply. Is that true? Canon 603 doesn't say anything about age, does it? Are there age requirements with regard to profession under Canon 603? How old were you when you considered you had such a vocation?]]

No, I am not saying that exactly, but there is no doubt that I believe it will be a rare young person from an exceptional life situation that would discover such a vocation at their own relatively young age. It tends to be recognized that eremitical vocations are associated with the second half of life. However, some of the things that affect us in the second half of life and suit us for eremitical solitude, or suggest that the door of solitude has indeed been opened to us as an invitation to enter do happen to young adults. When this is the case a young person might well find themselves called to eremitical life. In such a case, eremitical life in community (Camaldolese, Carthusian, etc) may NOT be open to the person, and solitary or diocesan eremitism might well be the avenue they should pursue.

Canon 603 per se does not mention age at all, however other canons do deal with age requirements (how old MUST one be at least --- there is no maximum age limit) for admission to vows and these would apply to the case of someone approaching a diocese for admission to vows under Canon 603. The point at issue is not chronological age really, but life experience and circumstances sufficient to nurture a vocation to genuine eremitical life. One should be an adult and capable of sustained self-discipline. One should have acquired sufficient education and religious formation to be able to educate themselves further in whatever way they need as well as to sustain them in the day to day tedium of solitude. One should be self-motivated and independent, and I think, one should not be in the blush of "first" conversion to Christ. Faith should be mature, a way of life for the person --- growing and developing still of course but --- not a new experience and especially not untested by the exigencies of life.

When I first considered that perhaps God was calling me in this way I was @34 years old. I had done most of my academic theological work and had been finally professed in Community for 8 years. I had lived with intractable chronic illness which was medically and surgically uncontrolled and chronic pain for at least 16 years, and I had worked in various ministries including hospital chaplaincy as well as in clinical lab and neurosciences. Getting all this to fit together neatly was not easy and was mostly a struggle. In 1983 the Revised Code of Canon Law came out with Canon 603. For various reasons it intrigued me, but I knew very little of eremitical life and frankly esteemed it even less. I began reading about it though and one of the first books I read was Dom Jean LeClercq's Alone With God. It was helpful in convincing me that eremitical life was something valid and even quite special --- even in the contemporary world. It also kept me reading. I then read Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action and was electrified by it and his vision of eremitical life. I began to live consciously as a hermit as a result, read and learned more about it, wrote about it, continued growing in it, and 24 years later was perpetually professed as a diocesan hermit under Canon 603. I celebrated my 58th birthday the day before that profession.

So, while I thought of myself as young at 34 yrs, I suppose I was not really so young. I do believe that solitary eremitical life is not generally a vocation for young persons. Circumstances can make for exceptions, of course, but by definition such a vocation would then be "exceptional". One should note that I have referred throughout here to the solitary eremitical vocation. The vocation of the religious hermit, that is the hermit who lives and is formed in community, is a different matter and probably admits of more young vocations than diocesan eremitism. I hope this helps.

23 October 2009

Anachoresis vs unhealthy Withdrawal

[[Dear Sister, could you say more about the terms "reactive withdrawal" and "responsive anachoresis" in your last post? I get the idea one is positive and the other negative, but why is one reactive and the other responsive?]]

Hi. I have written in the past about withdrawal as a negative reality and in those posts I offset this against the Greek term, anachoresis the state or act of retiring or withdrawing. Anachoresis is the form of withdrawal associated with monastics and hermits. From it we get the term anchorites: those who are connected to a local church or convent and practice an intense stability of place (living in a single room there off the altar, etc) while still remaining accessible to others in limited ways and degrees via use of a window or grill, etc. By extension anachoresis refers to the withdrawal of hermits and recluses, and not just to anchorites. As I understand this act of withdrawal it is a positive thing which is meant to serve communion with God and with others. Because of this, and particularly because it is a withdrawal which is done in obedience to the call of God in our lives, I have spoken of it as "responsive" rather than reactive.

Reactions and responses are different things after all! We react to stimuli in an immediate, relatively unmediated, and even unthinking or instinctive way. When we are acting up to our potential as human beings we respond to others in a thoughtful, loving, reasoned and generous way with not just some part of our nervous or limbic system dominating, but with our whole selves. Responsiveness can allow us to overcome merely self-protective or selfish impulses and lead to kenosis (self-emptying) and a life lived for others no matter the cost. Reactive "mechanisms" in our lives are more defensive and do not tend to involve the greater awareness of the needs of others (or sometimes the greater needs of our own selves) as human beings; they are, I think, more primitive --- a matter of the preservation of the organism we are and less a matter of attending to the demands of our humanity per se than genuine responses.

Because I recognize and appreciate this difference, I refer to "reactive withdrawal" as the kind of withdrawal from the environment which is defensive or the way we respond to the world when we are clinically depressed or perhaps ridden with anxiety and excessive fears (phobias) for instance. It is a reaction to stimuli, not a response of the whole person to the address and needs of God, another person or even our truest selves. Important as it can be in certain danger situations, apart from these it is less than worthy of the human person than is an obedient response, and this is especially true in the contemplative or the hermit. I distinguish the two this way precisely because while they can look the same superficially (they both involve withdrawal and physical solitude) they are radically different acts (that is, they differ at their very roots). What is difficult is the way they overlap in the lives of sinful human beings. Because they do, those who would be hermits have to learn to discern the difference and be sure their eremitical lives are governed by the responsiveness of a relatively mature and edifying anachoresis, not the reactivity of a more primitive and defensive withdrawal which is disedifying.

I hope this helps!

Mental Illness and the Vocation to Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, when you have referred in the past to "nut cases" wanting to be hermits, are you speaking about the mentally ill? Could and should the mentally ill (a form of chronic illness, after all) be hermits?"]]

This is a great question and points to a place I should be more careful with my language. Thanks for implicitly pointing that out! In fact, no, I am not speaking primarily about the mentally ill, at least not in any generally diagnosable way. In referring to "nut cases" I have generally been speaking about people who want to be hermits because it validates a kind of strangeness and anti-social bent in them. Sometimes this phrase simply means these people are bizarre and feel that eremitical life is the same and thus gives them permission to remain as bizarre as they wish. They are not so much concerned with discerning a vocation which is divine in origin or edifying to others as they are seeking a way to enshrine and institutionalize their own personal mental and emotional idiosyncracies and eccentricities. Especially they are often seeking a way to validate their own misanthropy, excessive or distorted individualism, and sometimes even a kind of selfishness and narcissism rather than looking for a way to love God and others effectively. When their motives are more positive and valid, it is sometimes the case that eremitical life will witness to the wrong things in this particular life, and so, not be edifying --- that is, it will not build up the Body of Christ or be sufficiently prophetic in the contemporary world. Now, let me be clear. Sometimes such persons may well ALSO be mentally ill, but this is not the main concern I was expressing when I have referred in the past to "nut cases."

The next questions are also quite good and more difficult to answer. Mental illness comes in many different forms and degrees of control and stabilization. My general answer to the first part of your question is yes, some mentally ill persons COULD be hermits, but not all and not most. Regarding the second portion of the question, those that COULD be hermits are those whose illness is well-controlled with medication and whose physical solitude definitely contributes to their vocations to wholeness and emotional/mental well-being. There should be no doubt about this, and it should be clear to all who meet them. It should assist them in loving themselves, God, and others rather than detracting from this basic responsibility. In other words, solitude should be the context for these persons becoming more authentically human and maturing in that fundamental or foundational vocation for the whole of their lives. With this in mind I am thinking too that some forms of mental illness do not lend themselves to eremitical vocations: illnesses with thought disorders, delusions, hallucinations, fanatical or distorted religious ideation, and the like are probably not amenable to life as a hermit.

On the other hand, some forms of mental illness would (or rather, could) do quite well in an eremitical setting so long as the anachoresis (that is, the healthy withdrawal) required by the vocation is clearly different from that caused by the illness and does not contribute to it but instead even serves to heal it. Certain mood disorders, for instance, cause a defensive or reactive and unhealthy withdrawal, but it is not the same as the responsive anachoresis of the hermit. The person suffering from clinical depression who also wishes to be a hermit should be able to discern the difference between these two things and this requires a lot of insight and personal work. However, if a person suffers from clinical depression (or has done in the past) I would say it should be pretty well-controlled medically, and no longer debilitating or disabling before the person is allowed to make even temporary profession as a diocesan hermit. At the same time, provisions for adequate ongoing and emergent care and treatment should be written into this hermit's Rule of Life.

In any case, I think the decision to become a hermit when mental illness is a factor is something which requires the candidate and her spiritual director, psychiatrist or psychologist, and the diocesan staff to work together to discern the wisdom of. Mental illness per se should not always automatically preclude this vocational option, but there is no doubt that eremitical silence, solitude, prayer and penance can exacerbate rather than help with some forms of mental illness. Even in the completely healthy person eremitical solitude can lead to mental problems. Ordinarily we are made for a more normal type of communion or social interaction with others, and this is a particularly significant area for caution when dealing with mental illness. This is another place where some years spent as a lay hermit, especially under direction and regular and effective medical care, are especially helpful in discerning a vocation to eremitical life -- if initial permission to pursue such a thing is deemed wise at all. So, once again, thanks for your questions. They are quite good and, among other things, remind me to take greater care with language.

19 October 2009

Question on Chronic Illness and Urban Eremitical Vocations

[[I have degenerative disc disease, diabetes and asthma. I spend most of my time at home (alone) and use a wheelchair when I go out. Could you please elaborate on the relationship between chronic illness and the life of an urban hermit?]]

Thanks for the question. Please do look up earlier posts on this topic, especially the original article published in Review For Religious. I think those will really help you. You can do that by looking at the labels listed in the upper right sidebar and clicking on the appropriate links. Those posts will flesh out the brief response below.

For most people chronic illness results in some degree of dislocation and isolation. Sometimes this is extreme, sometimes not, but the basic root of the problem is the same in any case: the rest of the world simply does not move to the same tempo or rhythm nor do they share the same concerns or limitations. Further we live in a world in which worth is measured by productivity, what we do, what we earn, how successful in these terms we are, how educated, how active in civic and church affairs, et cetera. Because a person with chronic illness often simply cannot measure her life in these terms (or does so and comes up only with "failure" as the mark received) this also is especially isolating.

Now, isolation is not the same as solitude but it does call for redemption. It is meant to be transformed (at least in many cases and in the life of the hermit) into solitude. What I mean by this is that one central reality that remains to all of us when life robs us of other values, abilities, activities, relationships, and so forth is our God and the possibility of a relationship with him. That relationship is capable of redeeming all other loss and completing us as human beings; it is, afterall what we are made for. If we enter into that relationship wholeheartedly what was isolation becomes transfigured into solitude. Solitude is an expression of communion with God and eremitical solitude (a solitude which is more radical and extensive) is something that chronic illness can predispose us to embracing.

Likewise, the gospel gives us a set of values which are countercultural. Not only does Scripture teach us that we are precious to God no matter our success or failure in worldly terms, but discipleship is marked by "the great reversal" --- that is, what the world values is not the same as what is valued in the Kingdom of God. Success in the Reign of God is measured differently and not in terms of productivity, earnings, power, prestige, etc, as it is meaured instead in terms of self-emptying and one's faithfulness to God's call. Even more it is measured in terms of God's grace, freely given and received. The first shall be last, the last first. Those who allow themselves to be gifted by God will be first and richer than those reject God's gifts and attempt instead to wrest things from God's hands by the measure and tools of the world's judgment and success. Few people are in a better position to give the countercultural witness of the disciple of Christ than the chronically ill are.

What I am talking about here is not eremitical life, however. It is a vocation to be chronically ill within the church and world, a prophetic witness that human beings are precious for who they are, not for what they do, how much money they make, how much power they accumulate or exercise, etc. I believe that all chronically ill are called upon to give this kind of witness and that they can do it with a vividness and depth which few others can match. However, of these people who are chronically ill, SOME will also be called to eremitical life. These persons will, in their relationship with God, allow isolation to be transfigured and transformed into genuine solitude and the silence of solitude which serve as the context, goal, and charism of their lives. They will witness to all the things any person with a vocation to chronic illness with witness to and additionally they will say with their lives that "God alone is enough for us." They will witness to the essential wholeness and abundant life that comes from communion with God in Christ, and they will remind the rest of the church and world with a special clarity and power that we are all on a journey towards something far more lasting and fulfilling than this world with all its seductions and false promises --- and also, of course, that this reality is present and accessible to some extent right now interpenetrating our world with its presence.

Chronic illness is not ordinarily part of the eremitical life per se but for a relative few I believe that chronic illness will point to and predispose a person to embrace an eremitical call. In terms of urban eremitism this will specifically be a call to witness to the redemption of those unnatural solitudes which so characterize life in cities, the life of illness, bereavement, and old age marked by separation and lack of connectedness. Urban hermits (whether lay or consecrated) will witness to the redemption of such unnatural solitudes generally, but the hermit who is also chronically ill will do so, again, with a greater vividness and depth.

I apologize for the brevity for this response. It is more an introduction than anything else. Still, I hope it does help and even that it will raise more questions for you!

09 October 2009

Some Common and Pointed Questions re: Diocesan Hermits and Canonical Standing

The following is a compilation or aggregation of a number of fairly antagonistic questions or objections raised recently. They are important for any understanding of the importance of Canonical standing in the vocation of the diocesan hermit, and I think they are important in revealing the antipathy which exists in regard to canonical status. Because they are related I have combined them for the purposes of simplifying the process of responding in this blog.

[[Dear Sister, I just don't get why you stress the importance of canonical standing or why you see it as a positive thing. The earliest hermits were lay persons and lived a simple eremitical life which did not depend on egotistical statements of power or status. They were critical of the institutional church, not sellouts to its hierarchy or power structure! What has concern with law got to do with the love the hermit is supposed to represent? We all know what Jesus said about those who were more concerned with rules than with loving others. What has the hiddenness or spirituality of the eremitical life got to do with public vocations and canonical vows, titles, and habits? Isn't your proccupation with these things merely a sign of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement? Doesn't it indicate you do not respect or value the lay eremitical vocation?]]

Canon 603 (the Canon governing the life of diocesan or publicly professed solitary hermits) is only 27 years old. Prior to Canon 603 and since the time of Paul Giustiniani in the 16th century, the existence of solitary hermits, that is hermits who do not belong to a religious congregation which allows for their eremitical lives, was simply not supported by the Church in any substantial much less official way. Paul Giustiniani lived during a time when the Church recognized the importance of the faithful, and particularly religious men and women, receiving the Sacraments regularly and this recognition was codified in law (decretals, etc). Despite Giustiniani's esteem for solitary eremitical life, he was forced to conclude that it was no longer a valid way of living the eremitical life because it essentially cut one off from the life of the Sacraments, and so too, to some extent, from the life of the church.

And yet, solitary eremitical life continued to exist, sometimes more tenuously, sometime less, but without universal ecclesial support or approval, and so too then, without the encouragement or safeguards which could nurture such vocations. (Such vocations will always be rare, but their eccentricity should be a function of their prophetic quality --- the fact that they are out of the center or the commonplace --- not a matter of personal quirkiness or indiosyncracy. Ecclesial contextualization and canonical standing helps ensure this.) The first thing one should notice about the role of law in all this, especially with regard to Bl Paul's conclusions which are framed in terms of legalities and therefore could be mistaken as legalism rather than a more substantive concern, is that law is meant to protect both the integrity of the eremitical life (which is profoundly ecclesial) and encourage strong Sacramental lives in those modelling a particularly "heroic" spirituality for others. It reflects pastoral concerns and sensitivity, not an overweaning concern with rules for the sake of rules.

In 1983 Canon 603 was included in the Revised Code of Canon Law along with two other canons (cc 604 and 605) regarding "new" forms of consecrated life. For the first time ever solitary eremitical life was a possibility according to universal law. It was recognized officially as a gift of God to the Church and provision was made to allow individuals to pursue eremitical life as a specifically ecclesial vocation under the supervision of their local Bishop. The canon included a listing of essential or defining elements which characterized authentic eremitical life (silence of solitude, assiduous prayer, penance, and stricter separation from the world, for the praise of God and the salvation of the world), and set forth requirements to guide the stable and integral living of this life (for instance, a written Rule of Life which the hermit's Bishop approves, and public (canonical) vows of the evangelical counsels which establish the person in a public vocation within the church).

Again, what one should notice about Canon 603 is its deeply pastoral character and concerns, not only for the hermit herself, but for the eremitical vocation generally as a reflection of the work of the Spirit within the Church, and for the local and universal church and world in and for whom this vocation is lived. After all, such a calling serves these when it is lived well and with integrity, and it wounds and scandalizes them when it is not. Profession according to this canon establishes the hermit in a stable form of life which is associated with correlative and public rights and responsibilities which serve the Body of Christ and the World. In other words, the provisions of Canon 603 are part of the actual commission of the hermit to live her life for the salvation of the world and they assist her in carrying out that mission. It is simply a case that in regard to Canon 603 (my main concern in this answer) law (and therefore legal or canonical standing and reflection on the significance of these) serves love; it does not contradict or conflict with such a vocation or mission but expresses and enhances it.

For instance recently someone asserted that physical solitude had literally "nothing to do with the hermit vocation." What was important this person contended (the only thing necessary in fact), was the inner solitude of the "cell of the heart." However, Canon 603 specifies "stricter separation from the world" --- a specification which covers BOTH inner and outer solitude and recognizes BOTH as essential. One of the witnesses a hermit gives to our contemporary world is that the unnatural solitudes and various forms of isolation which life in our world fosters (the isolation of urban life, bereavement, chronic illness, old age, failure of life commitments, etc) can be redeemed. But how would my life as a hermit speak of that specific hope and promise to people who have become isolated physically as well as emotionally and spiritually if I do not live a very real physical solitude which is completely redeemed with God's presence? I could not, and this is especially true with regard to those persons who cannot simply choose to end their physical isolation. Thus, Canon 603 includes this, not merely because it is essential to my own life as a hermit, or to the vocation generally, but because it is one aspect of living this vocation "for the salvation of the world." By including this element in the Canon the church ensures not only that it is a normative part of the eremitical life and that one cannot redefine eremitical life in terms merely of an inner solitude of the heart (important as that is!), but that the diocesan hermit will reflect on and live out this dimension more and more fully and diversely for the sake of others!

Similarly, reflecting on the unique charism of diocesan eremitism which flows directly from the rights and responsibilites implied by canonical standing has more to do with understanding what expectations others may necessarily have of the Canon 603 hermit than it has to do with legalism or concern with canonical standing for its own sake. By reflecting on the gift which Canon 603 represents to the church and world, the diocesan hermit begins to penetrate her own vocation more and more deeply. She will come to understand its implications more profoundly, and she will be challenged to live that vocation with greater depth and integrity. Especially she will be challenged and supported in her growing appreciation of the concrete ways in which this vocation is lived for the sake of others. In part, such a realization stems directly from the contemplative life she lives, but in part it comes from reflection on the fact that in professing/consecrating her publicly the Church has extended to her specific canonical rights and responsibilities. It has not done so to contribute to the hermit's self-aggrandizement or because she has "sold out" to the institutional or hierarchical power structure and is now to be included in the "old boy's club of the church," but instead to humble and challenge her with a continuing ecclesially-mediated call of God (and help equip her with the wherewithal) to respond fully in a way which serves others with her life.

Thus my own preoccupation with these things comes from several places: 1) a kind of awe that God has worked in my life in the way he has and has called me to this vocation not only for my own sake but especially for the sake of others, 2) a greater sense of the importance of the diocesan hermit vocation with the unique charism which characterizes it and flows directly from the fact that the vocation is canonical; I have written before about this and, as noted above, defined this charism in terms of the necessary expectations others are allowed to have of such a publicly professed person. 3) a growing awareness that canonical standing both defines and protects the integrity of the vocation even while it challenges hermits (including lay hermits) to live up to the essential elements of that vocation, and 4) a sense that hermit life is profoundly ecclesial and therefore is never a matter of exaggerated individualism (nothing characterized by isolation or simple individualism or merely personal eccentricity should be called eremitism). A theology of eremitical life is profoundly related to the theology of consecrated life and a theology of church. So is the life itself. Please note that all of these aspects of my "pre-occupation" with the importance and place of canonical standing for THIS vocation have to do with a sense that the vocation is meant for the sake of others. None of it has to do with personal aggrandizement or ego (and the commitment to make sure that these do not become problematical is part and parcel of the canonical commitment itself; canonical commitment and standing obliges to greater humility, not less).

Some false antitheses:

Within the questions put to me and the objections against canonical standing which were raised there are, both implicitly and explicitly, a number of false antitheses. Law vs Love is the central one which has been implicit in everything I have said thus far. However there is a related tendency to characterize a concern with Canon law as a concern for non-essentials, with things which are marginal to the heart of the vocation itself or is merely phariseeism. Drawing this dichotomy simply fails to appreciate how Canon 603 serves the vocation, and how reflection on what it defines and codifies can be profoundly spiritual and relates to the very essence of the calling. A second false dichotomy includes linking canonical standing with valid vocations to eremitical life and non-canonical standing with invalidity -- as though only the canonical vocation is valid and significant while lay eremitical life is not. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor from what the Church holds to be the case. What I have said here many times is that both lay and consecrated expressions of the solitary eremitical vocation are valid and significant; in fact they are profoundly complementary and mutually illustrative and reinforcing, but for those very reasons they differ in significant ways as well.

A third false antithesis (which was raised along with the questions above) is that of intellectual vs spiritual --- as though being a theologian and/or a scholar of the eremitical or monastic life, or intellectual in one's approach to their fundamentals implies a failure to be sufficiently spiritual. This stereotype is not uncommon nor is it new. Anti-intellectualism is (disappointingly) alive and well today, but in regard to this antithesis, we must remember that the notion of a theologian with strong intellectual gifts and no real spirituality is often a caricature. The Holy Spirit works on and through the intellect just as She works on and through the heart. In fact, the dichotomy which is sometimes mistakenly absolutized between mind and heart fails to regard the completely complementary nature of these realities which are at the service of one another in all genuine spirituality.

A fourth false antithesis is that of setting off the public vocation of diocesan hermit against the hiddenness of eremitical life. I have written about this before so for now let me point out that to embrace a public vocation means to embrace publicly and canonically (the two terms are synonymous here) the rights and responsibilities of a vocation in a way which allows others to have necessary expectations of the one so committed. Public does not indicate notoriety in this context. Thus, a hermit becomes responsible to the larger church and world to live out the essential hiddenness of her vocation. Others may necessarily expect that she does this with integrity and in a way which serves others. They may indeed hold her accountable in ways they may not do with a lay hermit who has not accepted the public responsibilities of Canon 603, for instance. All of this ties in closely with the charism of the diocesan hermit and its expression in terms of necessary expectations which others may have of her. The point here though is that the public character of the vocation does not conflict with the hiddenness of the vocation. Instead it protects and nurtures it.

Looking at the public dimension of the vocation

As for habit, title, etc. they are simply a natural part of the public (and monastic!) aspect of the vocation. They indicate the acceptance of a public ecclesial identity with commmensurate rights and responsibilities in relation to the Church's own commission of the person. While they can become problematical in terms of ego, etc, ordinarily they serve to challenge to humility and to recalling that the whole of one's life is given to and for others. Again though, they are not automatically (or even ordinarily) indicators of self-aggrandizement, but rather a visible sign of the way the Holy Spririt is working in the Church and world through this individual life and vocation. Personally I would probably never mention them except for those who adopt them on their own authority and pretend to the vocations they symbolize. While these persons may be very well-intentioned and seek to serve others in this way, the act is still a fraudulent one and I think demonstrates a failure to esteem the lay vocation the person is actually called to at this point in their lives. Both are in serious conflict with a Christian vocation.

It is sometimes argued that once people were more commonly able simply to adopt a religious or eremitical habit and go off to live the life. However, that is certainly not true today, and in fact it was not the case in the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers either. In those earliest days the habit was given to a young monk by an elder, and if the monk proved unworthy the habit was taken back again. Later the habit was given by a priest and it was again taken back from those expelled from the desert. From this point on the giving of the habit became a solemn rite. (Regnault, The Day-to-Day Life of the Desert Fathers in Fourth Century Egypt) There are even apothegms in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers denouncing the imprudence of young monks adopting the habit on their own and declaring themselves anchorites.

Today, the prudence shown in the desert is duplicated and developed in the contemporary Church. She is careful in mediating God's own call or extending the rights and responsibilities of ecclesial vocations precisely because 1) they are ecclesial and not discerned or lived privately, 2) they come with correlative rights and responsibilities which are a part of being commissioned by the Church. For this reason clothing with the habit occurs in liturgical contexts which mark the assumption of these under authority, and celebrate the actual commissioning involved. Self-assumption of the habit is empty of all of this meaning and actually conflicts with it. In many ways I personally find such a practice ignorant (not least of the theology of commission, but also of the linking of responsibilities with rights and the theology of consecration), thoughtless (of the needs and expectations of others and their rights to have these met in someone wearing a habit or using a title), self-absorbed, and so too, a matter of ego and literal arrogance (where one arrogates or takes to themselves something they need to be commmissioned to take on). This is simply the normative practice of the Church, and it makes profound sense, so the argument that because once upon a time it was possible to simply take the habit and live a religious or eremitical life so we should be able to do so today is simply not cogent.

It may be surprising that such questions are common, and astonishing that they are posed with real animosity, but again, I believe it is a natural consequence of the church's having treated the lay vocation as second class for so very long, and often treating it as no vocation at all (for instance, by meaning only religious or priestly vocations when one spoke of "having a vocation" or "praying for vocations"). We must certainly put the lie to such positions and work to heal the injury done to those whose vocations (and lives) were invalidated by such positions. Evenso we cannot jettison important theological distinctions or lay all the blame at the door of Canon Law or those who have vocations to the consecrated state and who therefore fall under the Canons related to these in the process.

Neither, by the way, can we forget that the church uses lay and clergy as the hierarchical division which is fundamental to church life, but that this is NOT the same as the non-hierarchical distinction between lay, consecrated, and clerical states of life --- also very real in the life of the church and recognized in Canon Law by its codification of rights and responsibilities which are linked to each! (Briefly, I am saying that diocesan hermits, et al, have rights and responsibilities which flow from neither the lay state itself, nor from the clerical state. These are codified in Canon Law and so, are both implicitly and explicitly recognized in Law as differing from the lay state. They are specifically noted in the CIC to be non-hierarchical. Additionally, Canon 588 distinguishes between states of life (identified as lay, consecrated, and clerical in sec 1), and institutes (which are either clerical or lay in sec 2 and 3.) For this reason people who write about the rights and responsibilities of the consecrated state do not generally do so to Lord this state over the lay state. When I personally write to stress the non-hierarchical nature of such states of life for instance, I do so precisely to disarm such a superior-inferior approach or attitude.

26 September 2009

IT'S A BOY!!! Lennon Thomas Malanca

Lennon Thomas Malanca, b. September 24, 2009.

On Christmas Eve of last year, just ten months ago, I marked with sadness the death of a wonderful man and fellow parishioner, Thomas Malanca. Today I mark Thursday's birthday of Lennon Thomas Malanca, Tom's grandson. (I had to wait for pictures before I could post!) Weighing in at 7 lb 9 oz, and measuring 20 inches, and sharing his dad's red hair, he is said to be "magnificent!"

There are few things as wrenching as life in a parish. Death is a constant reality, as are serious illnesses and tragedies of all sorts. But throughout there is also constant new life, the pulsing of hope and resurrection faith, support in friendship and prayer, challenges to one another to grow in love and integrity in service of the Gospel, and simply the fun and comfort of belonging. All of this is as true for the diocesan hermit as for anyone else. The parish family --- and it is undeniably that --- celebrates, challenges, and supports the hermit in her solitude as well as in community, and reminds her with vividly-lived example after example of what is truly most important and wonderful --- life shared with and given for one another in Christ. Lennon's birthday certainly is a standard of all that!

All congratulations to (from left) John Malanca (new uncle), Aggie (with new grandson Lennon Thomas), Rob (the new and proud father), and Autumn (new Mom -- not pictured --- unless a picture of her is what John is showing!). Also my sincerest thanks to Aggie, John, Rob, and Autumn for counting me (with so many others) as part of their family. We rejoice with and for you all today!!

24 September 2009

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Tomorrow's Gospel is always an incredibly challenging one for me. In Luke's version of the story Jesus is engaged in solitary prayer and enquires of his disciples, who have accompanied him, who people say that he is. The answer is various: Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the ancient prophets. Jesus then sharpens the question and ups the ante considerably. He asks who his disciples themselves say that he is, and Peter responds (apparently on the group's behalf), "The Christ of God." Jesus is said to then rebuke them directing them not to tell this to anyone. He then says that the Son of Man must suffer greatly, be rejected by the scribes and pharisees (the religious establishment), be killed, and raised on the third day.

On the face of it the reading is the story of Jesus beginning to redefine in a literally crucial way what being a messiah, God's own Christ, really means. The disciples have come to a sense that Jesus speaks and acts with an unusual authority and a significant relationship with God (the reference to solitary prayer as the context for this story helps establish that part of the picture at this point). They have considered him a prophet and now have come to regard him as God's Christ, God's anointed One. And yet, Jesus knows that they do not understand what being such a one really means. They expect a gloriously victorious and heroic figure who will stand in complete harmony with the religious establishment (Judaism), defeat the Empire, and bring an end to the People of God's exile.

But Jesus makes it clear that his Messiahship is not such a one -- not quite anyway. Instead, despite (and also because of) his continuity with figures like Elijah, John the Baptist and the ancient prophets, he will be rejected and killed by the powers of this world (including the religious establishment) and be vindicated by God in resurrection. Despite so much in Jewish history regarding the rejection and difficulties faced by prophets, the reality of a suffering servant (Israel herself), the disciples are not prepared for a messiah who will suffer scandalous and shameful death, who defines divine power in terms of weakness and kenosis, or victory in equally paradoxical ways as actual participation in our sinfulness and brokenness. They are not prepared for a different end to exile, a defeat of the powers of the world which is far more radical than leading Judiasm from under Rome's boot.

But there are other currents in this reading. One central one is the demand that the disciples move beyond accepting common notions of Jesus' identity (or traditional ones of the nature of messiahship) and state clearly for themselves, for Jesus, and for the world who they know him to be. (The prohibition on telling others is not a prohibition to follow Jesus or to act as those who know personally who he really is; it is not a prohibition of discipleship! It is a post-resurrectional theologumenon (or theological construct) which Mark developed and Luke borrowed which is geared instead to allow Jesus to live out completely his Messiahship in a way which redefines it in terms of suffering, weakness and self-emptying, and which also allows others to come to a point of faith or rejection of that without prejudicing them with preconceptions, etc.) There is no doubt tomorrow's Gospel challenges us each to move beyond the definitions and traditional identifications the Church has given us ABOUT Jesus, and come to a clear sense of who Jesus is for us personally.

Of course we may well agree completely with who others (the church Councils, for instance, or the catechism which outlines this) say that Jesus is, but we must also speak clearly with our lives (and sometimes in words!) what that means in concrete terms for ourselves and our world. So, for instance, Protestants often speak of having a personal saving relationship with the Lord, while Catholics commonly speak of believing certain things about Jesus as Savior. Tomorrow's Gospel regards both as necessary but challenges us to allow the traditional things we know about God's messiah to become realized or embodied in our own personal commitment to the risen Christ. We must know who others say that Jesus is, but we must also attend to and answer with our lives the question he puts to us each day, "Who do YOU say that I am?"

Secondly then, Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" is another way of asking, "Who do I, Jesus, say that you, Laurel (et al), are?" or even, "Who will you say with your life that you are?" It is something I was reminded of recently by a friend who prayed with this text and found herself writing about this second question. It is also rooted in the sense that Jesus defines and reveals not only who God is, but that he does the same with authentic humanity. For that reason, when we affirm the truth of Jesus' identity we affirm and commit ourselves to living the truth of the selfhood he calls us to as disciples of his. Once again Jesus' question takes us far beyond creedal formulations in posing this question. He does not ask us to affirm him verbally as consubstantial with the Father (though we may well want to do so), but he does ask us to allow him to be God's own Word of address, challenge, and healing in our own lives.

One of the things which stands out in Luke's version of today's events is that all of this occurs within the context of prayer, both Jesus' own, and the disciples'. Luke reminds us that we learn and affirm who Christ is and who we ourselves are in prayer. We might also say that wherever we affirm these things with our lives this IS prayer in the broadest sense of the word. Still, it is in praying regularly, deeply, attentively and responsively that we are confronted again and again by the questions, "Who do you say that I am?" "Who will you allow me to be?" and "Who will you say that I am with your very life?" In narrower and broader senses it is in prayer that we engage these questions, and Luke saw this clearly and challeges us to recognize and order our lives around this truth.

22 September 2009

Question on a Post on Detachment

[[Would you develop on your your meaning of the following extract from your paper on Detachment in July 2008, please?

Quoting St Paul you state that everything does work for good for those who love God (i.e. those who let themselves be loved by God) italics are yours. Letting oneself be loved by God or anyone is a life-long journey and struggle (in my experience) unless one has known the secure love of a parent or some significant other in early life. Your piece implies that only if we are confident enough to surrender to Infinite Love (God) will our lives and our stuff be resolved satisfactorily. But I feel certain that you mean something other than this interpetation of mine and I'd be very glad to hear what you had in mind when you wrote that paper.]]

Hi there. Thanks for the question. In that post I reprised both a definition and a poem my pastor used for a homily, and I made two main, but related points: 1) that detachment is first of all about appropriate attachment and only secondarily about the stripping away of inappropriate or less worthy attachments --- though the reality assuredly involves both, and 2) that if one can just allow God to love them (a central sense of what it really means to love God -- selfish as that might first sound), then all things will work towards good in one's life (another way of saying everything will fall into place). The definition of what I called detachment was, "having found a love so great that everything else falls into place," and the poem, which illustrated this, I thought, was from a confederate civil war soldier and read as follows:

[[I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked God for health, that I might do great things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for
- but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among men, most richly blessed.]]

At the time of that homily I found myself fingering my final (eremitical) profession ring with its motto: "My power is made perfect in weakness," and knowing that what this soldier described was the truth in my life as well. In particular what I have come to know is that if we allow God to love us, and if we act in and from that love, our lives will begin to make an almost infinite kind of sense and be fruitful in ways we never imagined (or prayed for!). But I certainly don't mean to suggest that allowing God to love us, and coming to see ourselves as God does (good, precious, loveable despite our brokenness and sin, and full of infinite promise despite these things as well) is something easy or quickly achieved. As you note yourself, it is a lifelong journey --- but also one that has stages or signposts including a fundamental if vestigial acceptance of God's love for us, even as that fundamental acceptance continues to grow the remainder of the journey.

Faith is a matter of trust. We entrust ourselves to God. We trust that what God says about us in the Scriptures and through the Christ Event especially is the truth. We trust that if we learn to see ourselves as God does (even as impaired as our vision still is), we have come to see ourselves rightly. And we trust that if we are able to behave as people who know ourselves in this way, our lives will be fruitful rather than barren in the ways Christ's was fruitful, in the ways Mary's and the Saints were fruitful, in the ways Elizabeth's and so many women throughout Jewish-Christian history's lives were fruitful. Finally, we trust that even in the face of life's meaninglessness, cruelty, betrayals (our own as well as others'), and other evil (none of which God wills!), our God wills to and is capable of bringing good out of all this. Even when we cannot quite believe any of this, faith can involve an acting as if it is true --- and if we can, with the grace of God, do just that much, we will find in time that the risk was worth it and the truth was as we hoped in the deepest parts of ourselves it would be.

But everything depends on allowing God to love us ever more deeply and completely and living from and in light of that love. Everything depends on entrusting ourselves to this love despite everything we have been taught (and often mistaught!) by others about such things. You write, [[Your piece implies that only if we are confident enough to surrender to Infinite Love (God) will our lives and our stuff be resolved satisfactorily.]] Partly. Let me give you an example which may clarify my point.

Let's say that a person is abused as a child and the result of that abuse is a kind of crippling of the potential of her life. She will, if she is able and motivated, spend a lot of time healing from the abuse and that means that this is time that might have been spent otherwise. One of the things which can aid this healing greatly besides the consistency of a good therapist is the conviction that God loves us no matter what, and that we need do nothing at all to earn this love. The fact of God's love does not take away the abuse or its effects, nor does it eliminate the need to heal and grow beyond all of this, but it CAN allow a person's weakness and brokenness to become a sign of God's powerful love --- a love which can bring good out of even the tragedies of early life. God's love does not wipe away the past, for instance, but it does create a future where perhaps it seemed like there really was none.

Similarly, let's say a person is chronically ill and this also cripples her life in many ways. She will spend a great deal of time coming to terms with all the ways her dreams cannot be met or achieved. But, if she can allow God to love her as she is and without a need to make herself acceptable to God, then what she is apt to find is that God's love will bring life out of death here and again, make of her life something of almost infinite worth. Worth is not calculated in terms so precious to the world: productivity, competitiveness, and the like, but instead in terms of what God says is true about us --- how truly good and precious and lovable we are to him! When we come to accept this basic truth (and commit to allowing it to be more and more the guiding truth of our lives) we will find that in our lives all things will work for the good. All things will serve to witness to that essential life and sense-making truth, and this will be true no matter the evil that befalls us because it is a love which transcends these things.

I hope this helps a little. If I haven't quite caught your question or objection please get back to me.

17 September 2009

Followup Question on Non-Hermits Writing Eremitical Rules

[[Dear Sister, Thank you for your response to my question on writing a Rule of Life. What about a person who proposes to live as a hermit and needs a Rule to do that? Can't a person who has not lived as a hermit write such a Rule? By the way, wasn't the charge of fraud and hypocrisy in your response pretty harsh?]]

Let's consider the person who has determined s/he wants to be a hermit and is beginning to live the life in some conscious way. Wouldn't it help to write a plan of life to get one started? Could it be just a working-paper kind of thing? Yes, and so long as we are clear that these are NOT the Rules of Life called for by Canon 603, but merely ideas to get the new hermit-candidate started, such a practice would be fine. (I don't entirely see the need for a formal plan of life to begin living a solitary eremitical life. Some guidelines are important though (especially regarding TV or other distractions and entertainments) and over time, and with some judicious experimentation, writing one would be advantageous.)

In such a case, as I have noted in other posts, a person would be well served to write about what practices in particular keep them healthy and centered in their spiritual life in the present. But note well, they will not be writing about being a hermit at this point --- merely what unofficial Rule of Life they have already been keeping in terms of personal prayer, liturgy, work, study, lectio, ministry, spiritual direction, journaling, etc.

As the person begins to live in solitude this "Rule" will change. The hermit candidate (for, assuming she has made the transition from isolated person, she is now a hermit living in solitude, though still very much a novice!) will begin to reflect on the life God is calling her to live, what values or elements in particular that life reflects, how these are best embodied in her daily routine and circumstances and the like. The hermit will begin to read more and study about eremitism, the vows, the history of monasticism, various rules written by hermits through the ages, forms of prayer, spirituality, and a lot else as well.

She will begin to think about her relationship to the local church and parish, how her life does and can serve them as an eremite, and how they do and will support her in her vocation. She will deal with problems in prayer, difficulties with silence, solitude (and the silence OF solitude), finances, work, maintaining one's balance (or centeredness), contact with others, hospitality, ministry besides prayer, the ingrained habits and thought which constitute "the world" in her own life etc, and with the help of God and her director she will find ways to resolve all these things. As she does her Rule will become clearer in her own mind and heart and over a period of months or more she will approach the time when she really needs to work out a cogent and coherent vision of her life. It will be time to write a draft of a Rule of Life which might one day serve as part of the basis of her vow of obedience for Canon 603.

What I have tried to make clear is that there is a difference between a non-hermit writing a Rule she THINKS a hermit should live by, and a hermit writing one a hermit can and will live by (and perhaps even will publicly VOW to live by). The first one is an exercise in fantasy and is simply not rooted in reality. No good spirituality is based in fantasy rather than reality! The second is a matter of attentiveness to what is real. It takes cognizance of ideals, etc, but does so with an eye to real life. It cares deeply for eremitical life per se, but it does so not only with an eye to the tradition she wishes to represent officially but with an eye to the needs of the contemporary church and world as well. Obviously such a thing can only come in time from WITHIN the eremitical tradition/life.

So yes, begin with a draft "rule" of what is essential to your prayer and spirituality outside the eremitical life, and when you have begun to live in solitude, allow that to shape your sense of what is NOW essential, what no longer works, etc. In time you will be able to write an EREMITICAL rule which serves both your own eremitical life, and the contemporary church as well. It will be capable of speaking to individuals in situations of isolation --- unnatural solitudes, as Merton put the matter --- who are looking for a way to redeem their aloneness and isolation. It will also be able to speak to other hermits who recognize the lived-wisdom of it. And it will be able to assist the Church in evaluating Rules of Life submitted to them by candidates for profession under Canon 603 as well.

As you can tell, I don't believe a person who has not lived as a hermit can write a Rule which can effectively inspire, guide, or govern their own or anyone else's eremitical life. For that reason, except in the sense I defined above --- a tentative working-draft kind of Rule --- (or perhaps in the case of some Saint or spiritual genius!) no, a non hermit cannot write a Rule which is deeply wise in the lived experience of eremitical life. As for my conclusion that a Rule based on imagination and complete fiction is both fraudulent and hypocritical being a bit harsh, perhaps it is, but I would say it is also justifiably so. That is so because I believe the notion of writing a Rule AS THOUGH one is a hermit when one is not can be both essentially dishonest, and seriously lacking in humility. This is especially true if one were to submit such a Rule to one's diocese as though it were the basis of lived experience for approval and discernment of the vocation in front of them! So yes, the description (which was of the practice in general, not of any one person's) was harsh, but I think it was reasonable too. My apologies if I offended.