27 April 2009

A Final Farewell. . . for the Time Being

Today we celebrate the Mass of Christian burial and interment of Father Frank Houdek, sj. Those knowledgeable about Jesuit spirituality (and that of Paul, of course) will be familiar with the following prayer. This version was done by Dan Schutte formerly of the St Louis Jesuits. It is one of the hymns we will sing today, and it it summarizes well what Father Frank was all about. As a man, a priest, and a religious, he gave himself to God. He allowed God to take him and use him in his loving and merciful service every day of his adult life. Day in and day out he made this gift to his God anew, and day in and day out God gave his people this gift of Frank's life in return. Now he makes his final return to his Father, and we begin to appreciate the gift he was and remains to us as he journeys with us in Christ in a new way. May God grace him with his love and mercy. It always truly was enough for him, and in this truth we were and are yet extravagantly blessed.

Take My Heart, O Lord
Take my hopes and dreams;
Take my mind
with all its plans and schemes.

Give me nothing more
than your love and grace
These alone, O God
Are enough for me.

Take my thought, O Lord
and my memories
Take my tears, my joy,
my liberty.

Give me nothing more
than your love and grace,
These alone, O God
are enough for me.

I surrender, Lord
all I have and hold
I return to you
Your gifts untold.

Give me nothing more
than your love and grace.
These alone, O God
Are enough for me.

When the darkness falls
on my final days
take the very breath
that sang your praise.

Give me nothing more
than your Love and Grace
These alone, O God
Are Enough for me.

N.B., for the parish schedule today for Fr Frank, please see the next blog article. The schedule is found at the bottom in bold font.

24 April 2009

In Memoriam: Father Frank Houdek, SJ; June 16, 1935-April 23, 2009

In lieu of any personal blog entry at present, the following was the parish announcement of Father Frank's death from our pastor, John Kasper, osfs. A picture of Frank, I hope, will be forthcoming. For now, the only one I have is from the day of my perpetual profession. On that day Father Frank (right), as he always did, proclaimed the Gospel from memory. I am so privileged to have known and worked with him for the past several years. He was a fine priest and a man of integrity, deep compassion, and gentleness, a true Christian: the finest things I can say about anyone with such a vocation. We are all feeling an incredible loss (not least, given the quality of Frank's life and ministry, a loss for words) and we hope in the resurrection.

[[It is with great sadness that I announce to you the death of Father Frank Houdek, SJ. Father Frank was a Jesuit for fifty-seven years and has been part of our St. Perpetua Parish since 1991 as Sacramental Minister, while he served as a theology professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. Father died of cardio-renal failure after struggling with failing health for the past several months. Until the very end though he made ministry his primary goal and focus. Even when it was difficult he wanted to be at prayer with the community and to preside at the Eucharist. His last celebration was at our parish Lenten Penance Service in March.

To look at the walls in Father's room is to look at hundreds of books in his personal library on scripture, theology, spirituality and Church history. Those books include the one he wrote, Guided by the Spirit: A Jesuit Perspective on Spiritual Direction. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1996. Father Frank held a master's degree in theology from St. Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a Ph.D. in classics as well as a Ph.D. in Philosophy, both from UCLA. He taught at the University of Detroit and the School of Applied Theology at Berkeley and was an assistant professor of historical systematics and director of M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies) programs at the GTU/Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley. He was a nationally known retreat director and spiritual guide.

For all his higher education and scholarly background Father Frank was a down-to-earth guy, making the gospel come alive for us in his preaching and teaching. His intimate knowledge of the scriptures allowed him to proclaim the gospel without needing the printed text. Like the early Christians who shared the Word through oral tradition, Father Frank had committed the gospels to memory. His standard operational procedure of opening most homilies with a joke created anticipation for his hearers. As the joke began you wondered what in the world it had to do with the scriptures. He cleverly drew a thread from the joke that led to the key point of his homily - a point that often challenged and always inspired. He caught your attention with the joke, but more importantly, he uplifted you with his message.

As a spiritual director and counselor Father offered his wisdom and insight to many parishioners and others who sought his guidance. He was a faithful companion in prayer to people who were seeking a deeper relationship with God and a closer walk with Jesus. Our sympathy is extended to Father's two sisters from Ohio, Harriet and Jeri, and his two nephews from the Bay area, Phil and Joe and Joe's wife Kathy, as well as his colleagues from the Berkeley theological community, his longtime friend, Dr. Penny Pendola, and the many friends and parishioners who looked to him for support and guidance. I will greatly miss Frank's friendship, his assistance with our parish liturgy and the personal support he offered me as pastor and fellow minister of the Gospel.]]

In sympathy,
Father John Kasper, OSFS

Father Frank's life will be commemorated in prayer as follows:

Sunday, April 26 at 4:00 p.m.: Rite of Reception
when Father's body will be brought to St. Perpetua Church.
(Throughout the late afternoon and early evening there will be visitation at the church.)
5:00pm Rosary
6:00pm prayer with members of the GTU community

Sunday, April 26 at 7:00 p.m.: Vigil
including scripture, song and words of remembrance. (There will be an informal reception with refreshments in the hall following the Prayer Vigil.)

Monday, April 27 at 11:00 a.m.: Mass of Christian Burial
followed by a reception and refreshments on the hillside plaza behind the school.

Monday, April 27 at 3:00 p.m. Interment at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Lafayette. (Those attending the burial will leave the church and reception about 2:15 to drive to the cemetery.)

21 April 2009

Changing the world in continued faithfulness and perseverance

Deacon Greg of Deacon's Bench blog posted an astonishingly beautiful couple of picture symbolizing the impact of one person's prayer over time. Quoting the story he read, he writes: [[According to the report: "70 year-old Buddhist monk Hua Chi has been praying in the same spot at his temple in Tongren, China for over 20 years. His footprints, which are up to 1.2 inches deep in some areas, are the result of performing his prayers up to 3000 times a day. Now that he is 70, he says that he has greatly reduced his quantity of prayers to 1,000 times each day."]]

We often are tempted to think our prayers produce no fruit, no perceptible change, or that faithfulness especially to the tedium of monastic, eremitic, or lay lives is worthless. In fact we simply cannot see the effects of our faithfulness, our perseverence in all the small acts of faith and commitment to living our lives in Christ we undertake day in and day out. Remember these pictures. Beautiful as they are, they are but a shadow of the changes such faithfulness and perseverence bring in and to our world.

19 April 2009

Octave of Easter, Thursday Readings

Last Thursday there were two intriguing readings. The first is from the Acts of the Apostles where Peter stands up and castigates the Jews for what they did to Jesus, but also offers them a chance to accept a place in the new covenant. The second is from Luke and follows the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. In this lection they are explaining to other disciples how Jesus met them on the road and they recognized him in the breaking of the bread when suddenly he shows up in their midst. What is so striking is the degree of fear they experience. They are startled of course, but Luke makes clear that they are also terrified and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus has them touch him, shows them his hands and feet, allows them to know he is flesh and blood --- though not as they are used to given his capacity to appear and vanish at will --- and eats some baked fish.

Both readings mean to demonstrate that something astounding has happened, something which changes everything. Whatever this is, it gives courage to those who were hiding for fear of their own lives and allows them to speak about Jesus with a new kind of boldness (parrhesia). Peter, despite his own denials of Jesus is now a community leader and returns to his own people, the very ones who condemned and militated for the crucifixion of Jesus as a blasphemer and would certainly have condemned Peter and the others as well, to tell them about belief in a crucified messiah --- an incomprehensible combination of words until this point! What Peter knows is that the crucified messiah lives; he has been raised from godless death to new and eternal existence by his Father; he has been completely vindicated and the result is a new and everlasting covenant, a new and everlasting dialogical form of existence with God for all who will follow him and be baptized into his death. Awesome as this all is though, it is not enough, as the gospel reading makes plain.

It is not simply that Jesus has been raised to a new and eternal existence; he has been raised to a new and eternal BODILY existence, and this is something I think many of us miss when we think of resurrection. (Or we think of life after death as the real climax of the story when it is only the penultimate part of it.) Jesus moves between two worlds now; he moves between heaven and earth. In him these two realms interpenetrate one another in a way they had not before. The veil between sacred and profane has been truly torn asunder in the Christ Event. The life Jesus lives and offers to us is not simply life after death but a bodily existence in a remade world. When we speak of Christ as the new creation this is really what we are referring to --- to the fact that he has been remade by God to represent a new kind of bodily existence where heaven and earth interpenetrate one another in a new way and will do so more and more completely as Christians accept their own vocations to follow Christ until one day God is, in Paul's words, all-in-all.

I found the readings challenging in several ways. Once my immediate response to the lection from Acts would have been something like: "Oh, Peter, who do you think you are sermonizing in this way?" But today I see him as an image of the church with its commission to every Christian to proclaim the gospel with boldness in spite of past sinfulness, past betrayals and denials of Christ. Peter too has experienced the risen Christ, not least in the breaking of the bread just as we each do every day, and he has been transformed by the experience. And all the disciples have now had "the Scriptures opened to them" so that they may read older texts with news eyes and heart in light of their experience of Jesus' vindication by God. There is a new covenant, consistent with, but perfecting the older one, a new creation, consistent with but perfecting the older creation, a new Temple, a new Law rooted in Gospel, and in all this, a new hope for heaven and earth together.

The Gospel is especially challenging, not merely because it expects Jesus' disciples to put aside terror at something they were wholly unprepared for (THIS resurrection was NOT something they had foreseen really, nor was it something major versions of Judaism itself believed in per se), but because it expects us to accept that resurrection is a bodily reality, and that God's Kingdom will be realized here within space and time as eternity and spatio-temporality are allowed to more completely interpenetrate one another and God become all in all. We cannot simply hope for heaven and turn from efforts at building the Kingdom of God here on earth. We cannot simply relinquish a vocation to genuine holiness as something achieved elsewhere; instead God achieves it in our very midst, in the midst of space and time, in the midst of THIS life with these circumstances, weaknesses, and failings. Christ has obediently (responsively and openly) plumbed the depths of human existence, deeper than any of us will ever go ourselves (thank God!), and in so doing he has implicated God in every moment and mood of this existence.

He has made of us a new creation and asks us to bring it to completion in Him. So the good news of Jesus' resurrection is accompanied by a great commission issued to each of us. Proclaim the good news of a new creation with boldness. In me see with new eyes, love with a new heart, imagine with a new hope! In me make all things new! Resurrection, after all, is not simply life after death; it is a new bodily existence we already share in and owe to the world.

18 April 2009

The Death of Death (Reprint from Easter 2008)

What is it we celebrate today in proclaiming CHRIST IS RISEN, INDEED HE IS RISEN!!? In particular, what does it mean to say that Jesus has conquered death? Isn't death still with us? What has changed? A couple of people have written about the article I posted last week and asked for some clarifications. Since the explanatory notes that accompanied the original article in Review For Religious did not translate into the blog entry it is more than likely the article left readers in general with questions and the need for clariifcations. I will try to answer or address them here as they are raised in email.

As I noted in that earlier post (A Theology of the Cross), in the Scriptures death has two meanings. There is the normal kind of perishing, the kind of perishing our pets do, the kind of perishing which is completely natural and untainted by sin. Presumably it is the kind of dying which is, for us, a natural transition to eternal life, the kind of death Mary suffered prior to her assumption, and the kind of death we might have known had sin never been introduced into our world. But there is also a second kind of death, the kind which we humans beings know and fear because it is unnatural, sinful, and therefore, by definition, Godless. It is a more characteristically PERSONAL reality created by human sin. It is also a power at work in the world, but twisted, distorted and made malignant through sin. For this reason it is variously described as sinful death, godless death, or the second death; it is symbolized by death on the cross, and what makes it horrific for us is the absence of God. It is completely antithetical to what we are made for or called to. When Paul writes that the sting of death is sin, this is what he is referring to --- death which is rendered Godless --- for we are rightly terrified of this death, and yet, every time we choose to live without God, we choose Godless death as well, for to choose life without God, is necessarily to choose death without him.

This second (kind of) death is the death which Jesus died for us, the death which he experienced in all of its depth and horror. It is marked, as his cry of abandonment tells us, by his loss of all contact with his Father. Jesus enters the realm of Godlessness, not simply that of death but of SINFUL death, the uniquely personal realm and power created by human sinfulness, and he does so OBEDIENTLY, that is, remaining open and responsive to his Father and the Holy Spirit, not turned in on himself or rejecting the dependence of faith by attempting to save himself or despairing of God. When Paul says Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, this is what Paul is talking about. Crucifixion symbolized godlessness, and being completely cut off from both human and divine communion. To die such a death while remaining obedient to God is to open this ultimate sinful and personal reality to God. It is, in fact, to implicate God into this reality thus transforming it forever.

And here is the key to understanding Jesus' triumph over death, sinful, godless death. God cannot force his way into a strictly personal reality. He must be ALLOWED in. That is true in our own hearts, and it is true of this uniquely personal reality as well. In our own lives, we are called to obedience, which means we are called to remain open to and dependent upon God and the life and meaning he gives. We are called to do that in all of life's moments and moods so that God is implicated in them --- our contribution to God's becoming "All in All"! And yet, in our own lives, when faced with threatening situations, we typically do NOT remain obedient to God. Instead we do what the crowd challenged Jesus to do: we attempt to save ourselves. This may mean doing all we can to extricate ourselves altogether from the situation APART FROM THE GRACE OF GOD, but it may also mean shutting down emotionally, doing all we can to prevent ourselves from really feeling what is happening to us or being vulnerable to all it implies. Unfortunately, we also cease to be vulnerable to or dependent on the grace of God at such times.

Jesus, however, does not shut down emotionally; he does nothing to ease his own vulnerability, and he certainly does not act to extricate himself from the situation. Even his request that this cup might pass from him is a way of remaining open to the will and grace of his Father and dependent upon that; it is an expression of vulnerability. His is truly an obedient death, and he remains open and responsive to God right to the depths of all this sinful, godless death implies. And it is here the miracle occurs. Because of this openness, this complete or exhaustive dependence and self-emptying, God is able to enter the situation just as exhaustively and transform the reality of godless death with his presence. Where once sinful death would have had the final word, it no longer does. Instead God will bring life and meaning out of even this reality. When Paul speaks of the death of death this is what he is speaking of: the triumph of self-emptying (kenotic) Love over sinful death. When he asks, "death where is yout sting?" he is pointing to this transformation.

In light of this, for those baptized into Christ's death and faithful to that baptism, death is what it can be for us: more truly a matter of natural perishing, a kind of transition to eternal life. It is no longer something we must fear in the way we once did for it lacks the sting it once had. It is instead, in light of Christ's death, the place or event in which we may meet God face to face. God forgives our sins, but he acts to reconcile us to himself, and part of that reconciliation is to defeat those realities which remain as obstacles between us and himself. Both death and godless death are among those. The post-resurrection world is not the same as the one that existed before Jesus was raised, for life has broken into some of the darkest most inaccessible places in light of Jesus' OBEDIENT death and resurrection. More precisely, heaven has broken in upon us and we are asked to be ITS citizens (that is, Daughters and Sons of God) right here and right now as a result of our baptisms into Jesus' death.

Viruses of Various Sorts

Well, my apologies for not posting recently, but Easter Tuesday saw me felled with a virus. I am really fine; just recovering, and that will continue a few more days. Holy Week and the Triduum were exceptional however and I will post about all of that and some of the readings I have been thinking about as soon as I can. In the meantime, one other thing fell ill, namely my laptop! I have never seen anything quite like this, but all of my email for about two months simply vanished, including all those posts I either hold to think about or "keep as new" in order to respond when I have time. So, if you have written recently and received no answer figure that your email was probably lost in the "great disappearance," and please write again.

15 April 2009

Christ Is My Utmost Need, by Jessica Powers (Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit)

Late, late the mind confessed:
wisdom has not sufficed.
I cannot take one step into the light
without the Christ.

Late, late the heart affirmed:
wild do my heart-beats run
when in the blood-stream sings one wish away
from the Incarnate Son.

Christ is my utmost need.
I lift each breath, each beat for Him to bless,
knowing our language cannot overspeak
our frightening helplessness.

Here where proud morning walks
and we hang wreaths on power and self-command,
I cling with all my strength unto a nail-
investigated hand.

Christ is my only trust.
I am my fear since, down the lanes of ill,
my steps surprised a dark Iscariot
plotting in my own will.

Past nature called, I cry
who clutch at fingers and at tunic folds,
"Lay not on me, O Christ, this fastening.
Yours be the hand that holds.

(1952, 1984)

14 April 2009

Network of Diocesan Hermits

In a recent post I noted that some diocesan hermits are trying to assist candidates for Canon 603 profession, as well as Dioceses who look for resources in this matter. The website now has an online presence, though it is still under construction. The main title is Network of Diocesan Hermits because we are specifically for Canon 603 hermits and serious candidates for profession and consecration in this way who are recognized as such by their dioceses. The subtitle is Eremita.org and either title will lead to the website.

The Network was begun by a hermit in New Zealand and myself under the sponsorship of Archbishop John Dew (New Zealand). At present we are an intentionally small group of diocesan hermits from several different countries, but now looking forward to growing. We are hoping to offer resources for formation, writing of Rules, issues raised by Canon 603 in the church and world, mentoring of hermit candidates by perpetually professed diocesan hermits, etc. Additionally, there is an online Skete (Mt Tabor Cyberskete) which allows Diocesan hermits to communicate with one another. The link to that and the NDH is found in the lower right panel of this blog. Please keep us in mind and keep us in your prayers especially.

12 April 2009

Christ is Risen, Indeed he IS Risen!! Alleluia!

Alleluia, Alleluia! Christ is RISEN! Indeed he IS risen!! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!!!

All good wishes for a tremendously joyfilled Easter from Stillsong Hermitage!

Love to all,
Sister Laurel, Er Dio
Stillsong Hermitage

06 April 2009

Approaching the Triduum. Another look at a Holy Week Exercise

Last year I posted about one of the practices I do each year during Holy Week especially in light of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Today after Mass I spoke to a class of eighth graders about Holy Week --- it was impromptu and not really prepared --- and one of the things I spoke of was this practice as a way of getting in touch with one of the dimensions of Holy Week and the Triduum. It is a time of great highs and lows and it is important to open our hearts to all of these for they are meaningless apart from each other and depend on one another for both depth and power.

We talked about how the disciples felt after the crucifixion and I reminded them of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. You remember the story, of course: while walking along they meet a man they do not recognize and he asks them what is happening. They look at him as though he climbed out from under a rock to not know what had gone on in Jerusalem, and they explain about Jesus' crucifixion:
"The man we THOUGHT (hoped) was God's messiah was crucified. He is dead. Some women went to his tomb and found it empty, but when our companions went to see for themselves, they found nothing." (see full text below.) And the implications are clear: "Everything we thought about him was untrue. However he did what he did, whether by magic or some other way, it could not have been by the hand of God, for he died a completely godless death, shameful, unvindicated. The Kingdom he announced is not at hand, the love, forgiveness, and mercy of God he claimed to model and mediate is not something we can believe in. He died an abject sinner, a blasphemer, and God did not save him but instead abandoned him --- as we heard from his own mouth! Godless death has triumphed."

For a period of days the disciples were left bereft. At the very least, Good Friday and Holy Saturday saw the end of ALL their hopes and dreams. During the Triduum it is a good idea to reflect on this, with how it must have felt to be so disappointed, to really be left with nothing but their old lives (to the extent they could simply go back to those), an older vision of God, of reality. With the kids I asked them what it would feel like if someone they loved and admired turned out to be a criminal, someone who had claimed to be one thing but was really shown to be something else entirely. What would it feel like to lose a best friend or hero to death but ALSO to find out they were something other than what they believed, that perhaps they were a fraud and even a blasphemer? THAT was what the disciples were experiencing on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. THAT is what they were experiencing before someone arrived with the news that he had been raised, that he was alive and vindicated by God, that he REALLY WAS the person they believed him to be --- and a good deal more besides. It is what they would have continued to feel without the resurrection and an experience of the risen Christ.

As I wrote earlier in reflecting on this experience of Good Friday and especially Holy Saturday: [[We observe Holy Saturday as the day when sin and death have triumphed. On this day there is no Savior, no Church, no Sacrament, and no Gospel. There is nothing to celebrate or proclaim. There is neither hope, nor freedom, nor real future. Sin and death are the apparent victors, and the present is as empty and forlorn as the desolate plaint of the enfeebled and failed messiah, whom we heard cry out from the cross just the day before. On this day we recall the original disciples --- broken by disappointment, grief, guilt, and shame, and stunned to terrified silence when the powers of the world overcame the One they called “Christ.” Their shattered hope for the definitive coming of God’s reign, and the ignominious, apparently unvindicated death of the man Jesus, stands at the center of our vision as well on this day. And in the shadow of this recollection, the bleakness of a world dominated by a power that regularly opposes and subverts the work of the Author of Life is clear. On this day, our entire horizon is death and the victory it has achieved over God’s Son, over us, and over our world. ]](Review For Religious, January/February 2001)

With the eigth graders today we talked about all the things that would simply "go away" had Jesus stayed good and dead. There would be no Catholic school (with ALL that implies) for them, and many of their best friends would not be part of their lives. There would be no church, and nothing they have come to know and love because of that connection, not to mention teachers who love and nurture them in Christ, a place where religion is practiced openly, etc. I spoke of Sisters I would not have had Jesus stayed "good and dead," a vocation and life I could never have discovered or lived had the world of sin and death been triumphant that day, a hermitage which would be simply a barren apartment otherwise, friends, teachers, mentors, etc, who would never have become part of my life, and I then described the practice I do each year on Good Friday and which I complete during the weeks (especially the first week) of Easter. I encouraged them to give this a try themselves, and I encourage you similarly.

From last year's post: [[I remove or cover anything from the environment of the hermitage which is meaningful in light of the Risen Christ. Of course that means an empty and open tabernacle, removal of the presence lamp, etc, but it also means any pictures, statuary, pictures of friends who are part of my life because of a shared faith, books . . . certificates or other pictures, etc. Again, anything which points to the meaningfulness and richness of my life because of the Risen Christ is removed and put away or covered. Ordinarily I take time as I do this, and consider what life might be like without these or what they represent. When it is the picture of a friend, I might focus on some of the times I failed to love them adequately, or some of the challenges to grow which their friendship confronted me with. Still the accent is on what life would be like without them and who I am because of them. I cannot reproduce the grief of the disciples, but I can get in touch with the times in my life where things have seemed senseless, or where I have struggled with grief, depression, loss, etc, and imagine what these would have been like without faith and the Risen Christ

Beginning Easter Sunday I begin putting things back --- slowly. And as I do so I take time to pray in gratitude for what it means in my life. If it is a picture of a friend, then I take time to remember some of the times we have celebrated together, some of the victories their love has made possible. Ordinarily this process takes some days, a little each day during Easter week. Thus, while the Eucharist is immediately brought back to the tabernacle and the risen Christ is present in this way once again, Easter week continues to remind in small ways of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.]]

If we are to really celebrate Easter we need to spend time with Good Friday and Holy Saturday as well. If we are to appreciate the meaning and experience the joy of the resurrection, we really need to understand what the world would have been like in light of Jesus' crucifixion and death alone, what, as one eigth grader put it, would "go away," and what we would really be left with. For most of us it is a stark and awful vision, not unlike the vision of reality Elie Wiesel saw with particular clarity on the day the innocent boy was hanged. (See post from last week.)

Excursus: Text from Luke 24: "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days:" And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see."

02 April 2009

More Followup Questions, "On Lemons and Lemonade"

[[Dear Sister O'Neal,
Again, thank you for your responses to my questions on vocation about taking lemons and making lemonade. I do understand the benefits of some of what you are saying, but a lot of it seems to conflict with the idea that the eremitical vocation is the highest form of a monastic vocation or that one needs to live a monastic life for years before being allowed to live as a hermit. It sounds to me like you believe just anyone can become a hermit and should if life has knocked them around a bit and created isolation and dislocation. Even if we are more careful than this about accepting people to become hermits doesn't this idea of the vocation have less dignity than the one which is more traditional in monastic life and church history?]]

Hello again. First let me respond to the overstatement you made regarding what I believe about the eremitical vocation. I don't think we will get anywhere so long as you believe this is what I am saying. No, I emphatically do not believe just anyone can become a hermit, nor should they simply because life has knocked them about and created isolation and dislocation. By far and away the majority of folks in such situations will be called by God to remain "in the world" reconnecting with people and serving both church and world from this vantage point. A relatively few people will rightly discern that they are called to be lay hermits, and a far fewer number will discern a call to diocesan eremitism or a community of hermits. While I DO believe there are some segments of the population who might have greater numbers of vocations to lay or diocesan eremitical life than others (chronically ill or single elderly in particular), the relative incidence of these vocations will ALWAYS be rare. I admit to being really surprised you thought I believed JUST anyone should become a hermit because I have actually been concerned that my posts are discouraging or overly cautious about this matter, and perhaps even elitist sounding. I would never have thought I was giving the opposite impression, but in a way, that is also reassuring.

Now, onto your real question. It is absolutely the case that eremitical life has been seen as the highest form of monastic life throughout much of the history of the church. This is true despite the origins of the vocation which pre-dated cenobitical monastic life altogether. By recognizing or allowing for the possibility that a number of people come to eremitical life without this formal monastic background and formation do we really diminish the dignity of the vocation itself? This question prompts others: Do we change the vocation's character in doing this? Is it wrong to admit lay persons to eremitical profession and consecration without this specific foundation, for instance? In doing so don't we detract from the idea given to monastery monastics that eremitical life is the highest form of monastic life?

Although I think your initial question raises all these additional ones, I am not sure I can answer them all, and certainly not right here. However, I can answer your original question about the dignity of the vocation, and my answer is really pretty simple: the vocation has dignity because and to the extent it is a call from God, not to the extent it measures on some scale of vocations in human terms. I believe that all eremitical vocations are essentially monastic because the heart of the term monastic really means "one" or "solitary." True inner solitude is developed over time, and it is in this regard especially (though not only) that eremitical life can be seen as the apex of monastic life. I also believe that some degree of monastic or religious formation is important to live this life, however, this does not mean one needs to get that formation IN a monastery or as a monastery monastic. Neither does it mean that monastics look at "graduating" to eremitical life as a goal any more than hermits per se think of entering reclusion as "graduating" or see this as the goal of either the eremite or the cenobite. While it is true that only a few monastics will ever hear a call to eremitical solitude, and even fewer to reclusion, and while it is true that eremitical life has in some ways rightly been seen as the epitome of monastic life, none of this can constrain the Holy Spirit from calling whomever s/he will and from whatever situation life creates.

Early on, in the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers, as you probably know, hermits were drawn from laity. It is probably true that as intriguing as this way of life was for thousands of folks, not all of them had calls to strict eremitical life. We would likely not have seen the development of cities in the desert or actual monasteries had all of these people been called to be hermits in the sense we use the word today, or in the sense of the desert Fathers and Mothers were who were called to the greater or inner deserts. Still, eremitical life was the life of a committed and devout laity. The process of becoming a hermit was individualized and much simpler than it is today: an elder in the life would take in the person to mentor, grant them the habit, and teach them all they needed to know by some direct instruction and insistence on the discipline or custody of the cell. To some extent, what we are seeing today is the resurgence and reappropriation of elements of this original calling.

What my posts have actually been calling for is the best of both worlds: the original call to the desert of the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers, and the formation, experience, focus and disciplines of monastic life itself. IF Bishops were to admit people to profession willy nilly, without sufficient formation (formal or informal), insufficient life experience, education (theological and spiritual), psychological health, and the ability to articulate clearly how it is God is calling them to a vocation which is grounded in love and is at once solitary and communal, then yes, there is a distinct danger that the eremitical vocation will be diminished in the process. So long as Bishops take care in these matters and with regard to the forms of consecrated life entrusted to them in Canon 605 I don't think the danger is very great. Education is needed, of course. Even Bishops need to read up on eremitism and especially contemporary diocesan eremitism. Meanwhile the lay eremitical vocation also needs to be made more well-known. All this will help with the concerns you raise.

The bottom line remains though, that the dignity of a vocation is a function of the divine call involved. So long as people take care to truly discern that action of God in people's lives, the vocation they discover will be divine and of infinite dignity --- whether it is also the epitome of monastic life or not. Such vocations should be treated with care, nurtured, cultivated, formed, but it is without question that the flower that sprouts from between the cracks of a residential sidewalk is of no less worth or validity than is the bloom that has been nurtured from seedlings in a monastery hothouse. Similarly, the flower that gives joy to those who see it springing from the cracks in the sidewalk has achieved its end and goal no less than the one decorating the church at Easter. Both are and are doing precisely what God has created them to be and do.

Again, I wish you peace, and a wonderful Holy Week.

01 April 2009

To See with New Eyes: Elie Wiesel's, "Night"

Throughout Lent many of the readings have presented us with symbols we see rather differently than non-Christians, and that has intensified as we near Holy Week itself. Further, the praxis we have each adopted for Lent with its penance, prayer, and almsgiving has been done with the intent of allowing us to come to see and understand our own needs and excesses a bit better, as well as the needs of others. All of this is meant to allow us to see the world with new eyes, in particular, with the eyes of faith, the eyes of Christ who finds (and creates) hope in the apparently hopeless, and meaning in the apparently absurd.

Unfortunately, as we approach the passion we are in danger, I think, of failing to see its wonder precisely because it has become too familiar to us. The cross is not the scandal or offensive stumbling block to us it was to the Jews; it is not the foolishness it was to the Greeks, to men of philosophy and wisdom. We do not see the presence of God here as strikingly as we ought, because we have never seen the absence of God here -- we have never seen this as the place where no true God of majesty and power COULD or SHOULD be found; neither then can we really see his scandalous presence anew or afresh as easily as nonbelievers are capable of as they are confronted for the first time by the awesome paradox involved in the cross. We do not see the wisdom and foolishness of the world turned on its head here so clearly as we might because the cross has been domesticated for us; this happens with familiarity --- and with theologies of the cross uncomfortable with paradox.

For this reason each year before Passion/Palm Sunday and Holy Week, each Good Friday, I reread sections of Elie Wiesel's book, Night. I want to enter these days with a sense of "the wisdom of this world" Christianity rejects, with fresh images of the passion in my head and heart, with the world's question, "Where is God in all of this?" ringing in my ears and heart, and this book helps me to do this. The answer some give to this question when faced with the brutal excution of innocence is vastly different than the answer a Christian will give --- even if they use the exact same words when they respond.

In the following passage, one boy (the author) loses his faith. He concludes that all he sees and experiences is a sign of God's absence or death. A just God is not to be found here. He cannot be. It is scandalous (offensive) foolishness to find God here in the face of such human barbarity and cruelty, such depravity and inhumanity. But for Christians the answer is different. We do not merely find God in the unexpected place, we find him in the unacceptable, offensive place, asserting his rights over every moment and mood of sinful human existence in a power the world despises because it is perfected in divine self-emptying and weakness. He IS here in this place of sin, death, and godlessness, and because he is, nothing will ever look nor be the same to us.

[[I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears.

Except once. The Oberkapo of the fifty-second cable unit was a Dutchman, a giant, well over six feet. Seven hundred prisoners worked under his orders, and they all loved him like a brother. No one had ever received a blow at his hands, nor an insult from his lips.

He had a young boy under him, a pipel, as they were called --- a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in this camp.

(At Buna, the pipel were loathed; they were often crueler than adults. I once saw one of thirteen beating his Father because the latter had not made his bed properly. The old man was crying softly while the boy shouted: "If you don't stop crying, I shan't bring you bread anymore. Do you understand?" But the Dutchman's little servant was beloved by all. He had the face of a sad angel.)

One day the electric power station at Buna was blown up. The Gestapo, summoned to the spot, suspected sabotage. They found a trail. It eventually led to the Dutch Oberkapo. And there, after a search, they found an important stock of arms.

The Oberkapo was arrested immediately. He was tortured for a period of weeks, but in vain. He would not give a single name. He was transferred to Auschwitz. We never heard of him again.

But his little servant had been left behind in the camp in prison. Also put to torture, he too would not speak. Then the SS sentenced him to death, with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms.

One day when we came back from work we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony, Three victims in chains --- and one of them, the little servant, the sad eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. he was rigidly pale, almost calm, biting his lip. The gallows threw a shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together on the chairs. The three nooses were placed around their necks.

"Long live liberty!" cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

"Where is God?" someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting.

"Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.
"Cover your heads!"

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive. . .

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red. His eyes were not glazed.

Behind me I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is he? Here he is ---He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ." That night the soup tasted of corpses.]]

Followup, On Lemons and Lemonade

[[Dear Sister, I wrote [the following question], {{Dear Sister O'Neal, is your idea of the eremitical life a case of taking the lemons life gives us and making lemonade out of them? So the Church actually professes and consecrates people whose claim to have a vocation is that they have managed to find a way to make lemonade out of lemons? This seems like a pretty negative or undignified way of receiving an actual vocation from God!}}

(The email continues:) Thank you for your response, but maybe I wasn't clear about what I found objectionable in your description of the eremitical vocation. I was brought up to believe that we were born with a particular Vocation. I was taught that that was a great dignity and part of who we really were. No one said anything about the "exigencies of life" or "life breaking us" and then discovering a call coming out of those things. God knew from the beginning that he wanted me to be a wife or a nun, for example. He wasn't playing catch up, or trying to repair what life had done to us. The Vocation was eternal, and could be missed, rejected, and/or lost altogether. Your view of the vocation to eremitical life sounds pretty different than all this and lacks nobility. It is a kind of solution to what life throws at us, and therefore it lacks the dignity of an eternal vocation. Do you see what I mean?]]

Well, there is no doubt that in some ways our visions of vocations and how they are mediated to us, are heard, or are responded to, differ from one another's. I maintain elements of a theology of vocation which are identical to yours, but I also modify others to allow for the way real life works most often. You see, the view of vocation you grew up with does do a wonderful job of conveying the dignity and the urgency of a call from God, but on the other hand, it can lead people to despair that indeed they have missed their vocation, have settled for a second class life instead, and even that God no longer is calling them to anything substantive. What I try to do when I write about vocations generally is to combine the eternal element, the "noble" element you refer to with its characteristic urgency, but also allow for all the twists and turns of life we experience while we are discerning our vocations, and even while we are living them out. Especially I have to allow for the fact that God's call never goes away, that it is a dynamic and ever-renewed reality which is constantly proferred but is able to allow for the "exigencies of life" at the same time. I don't know there is anything ignoble in any of this.

One thing I particularly can't agree with is the idea of a missed vocation precisely, but I readily admit that throughout one's life various paths to the fulfillment of one's vocation will open or close, be followed or missed, thus requiring one discern the best paths remaining to one (or needing to be forged BY one with the grace of God!). You were taught we had a single vocation, and that was seen as a vocation to religious, priestly, married, or single life, for instance. I understand, on the other hand, that we each have a single vocation, namely authentic humanity in and of God in Christ, but the paths to the achievement or realization of that vocation are potentially many and varied and include what you identified as Vocations with a capital V, so to speak: religious, priestly, married, or single life, etc. Missing a Vocation in your schema means to get married when God is calling one to be a religious (or vice versa, though one rarely hears this situation characterized thusly!). Missing a vocation in my schema means falling short of the greatness and authenticity (that is, the holiness) God means and empowers us to achieve with his grace. In that sense, we almost all "miss our vocations" to some extent, but it is a far less hopeless situation than the term means in your schema on vocation.

This is not to say that falling short is not a serious business, but in the theology of vocation I am working with, whatever path one chooses --- even if one chooses badly --- is still a means of growth in one's fundamental or foundational Vocation. Down the line other paths may open up to one: another marriage, religious life, eremitical life, etc (along with all the little "side paths" that each of these can involve: teaching, nursing, homemaking, ministry of all kinds, etc), but they will serve the larger or more foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Such a view certainly allows for a single path as the main way towards fulfilling one's foundational vocation should a person pursue marriage or a religious vocation right out of high school or college, for instance, but if these do not work out in some way one need not conclude they have "missed their vocations" or believe that God had one plan for them which they (whether culpably or through the circumstances of life) have now blown.

Further, this notion of vocation does greater justice to God's ability to call life out of any situation, to redeem any situation, to call to discipleship out of any set of circumstances, etc. It does greater justice to the ongoing and faithful nature of God's call which is always creative, and never JUST a message he communicates to us (a message like, "You should be married" or You should be a nun!" or even "Come, be this or that," for instance.) Vocation is a call to something, yes, but it also summons forth life and meaning and hope from within a person, and it continues to do so so long as the person lives. It is not so much a message as it is a name, "Laurel! [with the subtext:] I call you to yourself and to myself!" What I am saying, badly perhaps, is that a vocation is not something one hears once upon a time, but a Word of God that one allows to work within oneself over the whole of her life and her life is shaped in response. Vocation is something God does within us, and something he will continue to do until we make our final responses in death. OF COURSE it is something which accommodates the exigencies of life. Of course it must be heard in light of these! Of course they will alter its shape and timbre even while the essential theme remains the same.

Finally then, I think this notion of Vocation (with a capital V) does greater justice to the reasons for changing vocations (with a small v) over the span of one's life. With regard to the eremitical life which is very poorly known and less well understood and which is more usually associated with the second half of one's life anyway, it is not at all unusual for a person to enter religious life or marry only to discover many years later that life and the grace of God has opened the door to eremitical solitude to them. Active religious discover a call to contemplative life, contemplative and cloistered religious discover a call to even greater solitude, married people are bereaved and after some healing and time has passed, discover the call to the desert, those who are chronically ill and could not enter a community (or remain within one) find that God continues to call them but in a new direction which esteems their weakness and allows it to be the soil in which his own power is perfected. These are just a few of the scenarios possible here. VERY FEW people consider an eremitical vocation early on. Even fewer are called to it. And yet, these vocations growing out of the exigencies of life AND the grace of God are completely authentic, miraculous calls in fact.

I hope this clarifies where I am coming from in this matter of vocations. While it is wonderful when a person discovers early on the vocational path that will serve them all their lives, focusing on this one way of things happening creates serious pastoral and theological problems for many. It can prevent them from seeing the dignity and nobility of all vocational paths, or of even guessing that they exist. It can lead to despair over missed opportunities, and the failure to attend to new ones every bit as important and "noble" as the early missed opportunities. More, it can distract us from the primary focus and unceasing challenge of our lives, the eternal call to authentic human existence in and of the grace of God --- no matter what vocational path one takes to realize that.

I wish you peace, and a wonderful Holy Week.

On Lemons and Lemonade

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, is your idea of the eremitical life a case of taking the lemons life gives us and making lemonade out of them? So, the Church actually professes and consecrates people whose claim to have a vocation is that they have managed to find a way to make lemonade out of lemons? Seems like a pretty negative or undignified way of receiving an actual vocation from God!]]

LOL! Well, let me apologize if the idea that life creates solitary persons and the grace of God creates hermits sounds a bit like a negative or undignified idea of vocation. Honestly, to me it sounds like the story of sin and redemption, the healing and transformation of the broken and unworthy into something reflecting and revealing the power and presence of God --- hardly a negative dynamic as I understand it. But let me enlarge on and perhaps extend your metaphor in order to try and be clear about what I am saying about the nature of and way a person generally becomes a hermit, and in particular, a diocesan hermit.

First, the general truth of your metaphor: Yes, I have said that life tends to break us, and that it is only the grace of God which can bring wholeness out of that. Sometimes, rarely, this grace is received as a call to eremitical solitude for the whole of one's life. (For some it may be an eremitical vocation for a shorter period of time, a period of transition, for instance -- thus the place of lay eremitism in some instances, or temporary vows which are not renewed or do not lead to perpetual profession. Note here that I believe all vows are made with the sense that they are for life, even "temporary" vows, but sometimes it simply does not work out that way.) I personally think that the notion that there may be a call for the whole of a person's life (meaning as something more than a transitional period) is especially true in the case persons with chronic illness, and also for some who are older and single and/or bereaved, but obviously it can happen to anyone, and in such cases it may be a call to either lay or consecrated eremitical life.

Please realize I am not simply saying that eremitical solitude is the reasonable expedient in such a case, the avenue a merely clever person could seize on without a genuine call. It might serve in that way in the short term (especially the very short term), but I (and those who really live solitude full time) honestly believe that a person must find they are truly called to solitude by God or their lives will not be fruitful, they will really be frustrated and reflect the lack of life, the resentment, hopelessness, and so forth that is always associated with a life which is crippled and unable to reach its true and full purpose. More bluntly, as I put the matter earlier, solitude will chew them up and spit them out, or as Merton described it,either it will invite them in or it will drive them nuts.

But vocations come to us in the midst of life's realities. God speaks to and calls us forth in ways which transform and transfigure them, and in ways which allow them to take on a genuinely sacramental character. The realities themselves may seem unworthy, and --- as in yesterday's readings with regard either to the serpents, the serpent on a staff, or the manna in the desert --- even be disgusting or repugnant in themselves; still, it is the nature of God's grace to render them sacramental. God's call is always to life --- life in the midst of death, wholeness out of and in the midst of brokenness, righteousness out of and in the midst of sin, etc. The experience of being called is not usually dramatic and extraordinary. Instead it comes over time with moments of quiet with increasing joy, greater clarity and meaning, fuller life, greater capacity for loving oneself and others, etc. It is a fact that vocations are the path by which a life that would be relatively meaningless otherwise, comes to make an almost infinite sense, not only for oneself alone, but for the world one inhabits as well. There is no lack of dignity in such a call.

But as I just suggested, diocesan hermits go one step further than the lemons/lemonade metaphor you supplied. It is not enough for them to take the lemons life hands them and find ways to make lemonade out of them. God must do this, of course, for we alone are unable. But even more, the diocesan hermit is also deeply convinced that the world is desperately thirsty for this very lemonade; she becomes a hermit not ONLY because this solitude is a way of transforming the lemons life gave her, but because God, the church, and the world needs her to do this in THIS SPECIFIC way. And in this way she will allow the grace of God to transform her life as well as empower her to pour it out for others in a way few others will be able to do. I think all these components must be present in an authentic eremitical vocation, and I don't find anything in this essentially negative or lacking in dignity. As I understand it, it is really something quite awesome --- that God could (and WOULD!) take the brokenness of my life and fashion it into a drink for a thirsting world is pretty amazing, and the essence of Catholic Sacramental and vocational theology.