26 July 2009

Followup Question on Lay and Diocesan Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, you wrote awhile ago that someone preparing for consecration and profession as a diocesan hermit should live for some time as a lay hermit "in some essential way" before approaching the diocese to request admission to profession. But recently you also wrote that the call to be a diocesan hermit was a "new and different call" and a completion of the call the hermit felt in her heart. If that is the case then why should one wait to approach a diocese if one thinks one has such a call?]]

Dear poster,
your question is a good one, not least because it points up a place where I have apparently not been clear in what I have already written. Also, it points up one of the important aspects or dimensions of discerning a vocation to diocesan eremitsm, namely whether one is called to this or to life as a lay hermit. (These are the two forms of solitary eremitical life in the church today.) Dioceses often ask the candidate for Canon 603 profession why they are seeking admission to the consecrated state in this way (rather than religious life or consecrated virginity, for instance), but the question I think they need to ask, and the critical question a candidate needs to be able to answer is instead (or additionally). "Why are you not seeking to live the eremitical life as a lay hermit?"

One major point I made in past posts was that one cannot make vows (whether temporary or perpetual) without preparation. For that reason public eremitical vows require the preparation of eremitical life. Lay eremitical life ordinarily forms the context for one's study of, reflection on, and practical living out of the content or values associated with vows. (If one lived them in a different context they would look differently than they do in an eremitical context.) Since dioceses do not actually form hermits, but rather mainly discern the presence of a vocation and readiness for profession, one really needs to have this part of the process accomplished before one approaches a diocese or one risks being dismissed as a serious candidate for public eremitical profession and consecration.

A second point I made but did not really elaborate on was the more important one for the purposes of your question, namely, one needs to discern whether one is being called to lay eremitical life or life as a diocesan hermit. Because one feels called to the eremitical life does not mean one is called to the consecrated state or to the responsibilities and rights of public profession and consecration. In fact, as I have said before the majority of hermits are lay hermits and will likely always be lay hermits. Their vocations are especially significant in urban settings where so many people live in unnatural solitudes (Merton) and require lay prophets who remind them that such solitudes can be redeemed. One needs time and experience to explore this specific vocation because there is no doubt that God is calling people to this form of eremitical life. Our world needs it badly and one needs to have thought about it seriously BEFORE one petitions for admission to public profession and initiation into the consecrated state. Unless one has considered this calling, I suspect one's discernment of a vocation to diocesan eremitism is also incomplete and inadequate. For this reason a diocese considering someone as a candidate for Canon 603 profession will require (as well they should!) evidence of serious consideration of a vocation to lay eremitical life as well as alternate forms of consecrated life!

Now all of this is really foundational for answering your question, for the call to diocesan eremitism builds on this vocation, learns from it and from this initial discernment. What I wrote recently was that God's own call to life as a diocesan hermit did not come only in the privacy of one's heart (though it will first and continue to be heard there) but is itself mediated publicly and liturgically through the official actions of the Church. The Church not only discerns the reality of the vocation but she mediates what, in many ways, is a new and different call with new and different responsibilities, a new perspective on reality, a new context for living out one's call, etc.

While the vocation is new and different in many ways, it is anticipated in the call to lay eremitical life. Further it shares many of the same characteristics and sensitivities: stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance in the silence of solitude, a life of essential poverty of spirit, obedience to the Word of God and chaste (celibate) love. For this reason I said that the call to diocesan eremitical life was paradoxically (rather than absolutely) new and different despite all the elements it shares with lay eremitical life. I also noted that the call was new and different because of what such profession opens up to the diocesan hermit (something that happens even when the person has been living as a lay hermit for some time). Still, the simple fact is that unless the person is moving from vowed religious life to eremitical life, lay eremitism is the natural and necessary preparation for consecrated eremitical life. Lay eremitism is also a complete and significant vocation in itself and one which should be considered by both diocese and candidate before admitting to profession under Canon 603. After all, one cannot easily move in the opposite direction (from consecrated eremitical life to lay eremitical life) as this would require dispensation from vows. Such an arrangement would also be far from ideal because, while a person can relinquish the responsibilities, perspective, and commitment specific to diocesan hermits, a consecration cannot be undone.

I hope this helps. As always, if something is unclear or raises additional questions, please get back to me.

25 July 2009

Some Pictures From Retreat (Benedictine Experience)

The following pictures are from the sculpture "Cristo" which is new (and not yet finished) at Bishop's Ranch in Healdsburg. We took a trip up to the site on our desert day, left messages and prayers on the peace pole, and then took pictures here.

Personally, I love the way the light breaks through the sculpture, and the cross blends with the rest of the environment. Christ as Lord of creation and mediator of light comes to mind when I see these pictures.

The cross as the center of creation, and the place where divine and human lives are reconciled and destinies are inextricably wed.

It is hard to say how much I love this face. It captures so much. There is peace and pain, sadness and determination, and there is dying and living. There is absorption and detachment also as Christ models the work of being human. Above all it is the face of love and reflects the very human face of God-with us! I think it is just wonderful!

Eremitical Poverty and the Diocesan Hermit

I was recently asked how the eremitical vow of poverty worked for a diocesan hermit. Specifically, the question ran as follows:

[[I was wondering if you would blog about how hermits live out their vow of poverty, particularly with regard to their cession of the administration of property and how the hermit handles immediate financial needs and other requirements of life. This situation appears to be an oxymoron. I would greatly appreciate your insight.]]

The issue of cession of administration is not a central one in the grand scheme of eremitical poverty because not every diocese requires this of her diocesan hermits. On the other hand every hermit DOES vow religious or evangelical poverty and writes a Rule of Life which covers that. Unfortunately, while I can say a little about cession of admininstration, I cannot do so from a first hand perspective (at least not as a hermit) since my diocese did NOT require this of me.

Let me say up front that I don't understand how cession of administration works for individual or solitary hermits and I have asked a canonist for additional information on this. Generally it works better (as far as I can see) for hermits who are part of an Order/Congregation and who are in simple vows preparing for Solemn profession when they will give up all rights to ownership or acquiring of property. These hermits do not have the same requirements or responsibilities as diocesan hermits do re support of self, financial independence, etc, so the cession of administration while in simple vows makes more sense. It frees up the hermit for a life of contemplation, in a way which is optimal even while it allows for the possibility of leaving the congregation before solemn or definitive vows and makes sure the hermit will have property to return to to allow life outside the congregation should that be necessary.

However, for those really wishing more information on this than I can provide, I would suggest they contact the Vicar for Religious (or Consecrated Life) of Diocese of La Crosse (for instance), which I believe DOES require a document formalizing the cession of administration/usufruct of goods and property of its diocesan hermits. If you are a candidate for Canon 603 profession and are being asked to do this by your own diocese, contact the canonist there for more information and discuss the matter. When I have more information myself I will add that here or in a new post.

That said, I believe the questioner has put her finger on a practice which seems to me like a bit of a legal (and spiritual) shell-game when applied to diocesan hermits with perpetual vows. I personally see a conflict between requiring cession of administration and the requirement that the diocesan hermit be self-supporting and financially independent of the diocese. Neither do I personally understand how ceding the administration of property and yet retaining the use of it (again assuming one is a perpetually professed hermit) actually assists one to live out poverty in a responsible way. One has not really divested oneself of the property (it is really still one's own as far as I understand the situation) and one can fool oneself into thinking one is living poverty simply because one is merely "using" this property, etc.

On the other hand (trying to be evenhanded here), I can see how this could conceivably inhibit a hermit from acquiring more property and contribute to a careful use of what is at her disposal, and if it does this as well as remind the hermit that she is, in some ways, merely using or even "borrowing" what she needs and nothing more, such a practice could well contribute to her genuine practice of poverty.

The larger question posed by the questioner is how a diocesan hermit lives eremitical poverty despite being responsible for immediate financial needs and so forth. The answer is, I believe, that poverty must be understood in a way which makes trust in and dependence upon God primary and a correlative simplicity of life and relative financial poverty (NOT destitution!) a constant goal and context for who one is. I think that is true with regard to cession of administration of property for it MAY invite a person to depend upon and trust in God alone. What is most basic to eremitical poverty is always openness to and dependence upon God as the sole source of life and meaning. Any acquisitiveness which detracts from this is something the hermit deals with as it comes up.

However, acquisitiveness aside, the diocesan hermit is responsible for her own income, rent, insurance (including medical insurance), transportation expenses, food, utilities, annual or bi-annual retreat, library and media, education (ongoing formation including professional and other continuing education is indispensable), spiritual direction, religious goods and supplies, clothes, computer and internet hookup (if she requires these), taxes, and burial expenses, etc. The diocese is responsible for NONE of these (some dioceses will include a hermit under their diocesan insurance I have heard, but it is not usual and not something one can count on), so religious poverty for the diocesan hermit means being very clear regarding what is essential in light of the above constraints and requirements. Remember that there are many expressions of religious poverty (Franciscan differs from Benedictine differs from Carmelite, etc). The hermit is responsible for deciding which of these best fits her circumstances, writing that into her Rule (which is then approved by her Bishop) and then living it out ever more fully and responsibly.

I begin (and end!) my own approach to and vow of poverty with humble (truthful and loving) dependence on God because I think it is the heart of religious poverty. For me the whole attitude and reality of this kind of poverty is summed up in Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is perfected in weakness." Religious and human poverty is the counterpart of divine grace. After all, one may live frugally or even in financially impoverished circumstances and not be living religious poverty because one is not essentially dependent upon God as the sole source of life, meaning, and validation. One does (or at least may) not allow one's innate poverty and weakness to be the counterpart of divine grace. When one begins with material poverty, this may or may not lead one to the necessary poverty of spirit the evangelical counsel requires.

I also find that once one begins to pay attention first of all to dependence upon God, and to being honest and transparent regarding our own essential and undeniable human weakness and poverty, the financial/material part of things falls into place and one simply needs less and less. (When expenses start to increase for some reason, for instance, it is a good time to look at the poverty of spirit side of things as well because the material part of eremitical poverty is affected directly by the existential or poverty of spirit part -- often more than economic inflation and other factors bring about!) Many hermits also make a yearly accounting of expenses for their Bishop and this too assists them to be careful and responsible in such matters. The two prongs of the vow of poverty, and of the life of poverty (poverty of spirit and economic and material poverty and simplicity) mutually influence one another so one needs to take care of both of them.

I realize this is a very general answer, and that perhaps the questioner had more specific things in mind. If so, I hope she will get back to me on this.

23 July 2009

Once again TCW vs MCW and Eremitical Life: A Question on the Division into Temporal and Mystical Catholic Worlds

Sister, I read the following recently and wonder if you would comment on it? To be frank, I am bothered by this division of the hermit life into two different worlds with one called mystical and the other temporal. I think it is especially wrong to insist that one interfaces with the temporal world and the other does not, or that one is devoted to contemplation and a total love of God while the other is not. That is even more true when the so-called "TCW" [the Temporal Catholic World] is linked to canonical status while the other, the "MCW" [the Mystical Catholic World] hermit is approved by God and that this is said to be an approval which is unknown to the "TCW hermit."

[[So what hermits ought consider in discerning their vocation, is if he or she is called by God to be a temporal Catholic world hermit or a mystical Catholic world hermit. The former would lend itself better in governance of temporal Catholic world matters, inclusive of canonical approvals, regulations and observance to prevent vocation abuses, and active involvement in such world venues as the internet, public speaking, published writings, known identity, and temporal Catholic world church work.

The latter, the mystical Catholic world hermit, would lend itself better, solely to attendance upon God (the Most Holy Trinity). This would involve an increasing affinity to contemplation and worship of the divine, with accompanying self-annihilation to less and less...to nothing. The approval for and of the mystical Catholic world hermit is nothing known to the TCW; it is a credibility and approval of a mystical nature, and thus is nothing necessary at all. What is necessary for the MCW hermit is to be in full attendance upon God, spiraling by degrees in servitude, knowledge and love of God.

While each hermit is called by God to his or her vocation, there is also a choosing that occurs--TCW or MCW hermit. God chooses, and the hermit chooses what God chooses. It takes some prayer and discernment, with the help of the hermit's confessor and spiritual director, the hermit's bishop, also--to know for sure, what God wills. Then the hermit must make necessary choices in response.]]

Dear poster,
I have written about a piece of this passage before and with regard to a question that was a lot like yours as I recall, so let me first refer you to that post. It is dated February 6, 2009 and the second half of the title and the article refer to this division between temporal and mystical Catholic Worlds. For that reason I will try not to repeat everything I said there, but also to expand on it somewhat in a couple of places. In fact, as I think about it, I may have written more than one post regarding this matter in the same approximate time frame, so please check through the posts from at least a week before and a week after Feb 6, 2009 as well. First though, I have read the post you refer to and I also find the division you refer to problematical in the extreme. Eremitical life is ALWAYS 1) temporal, 2) oriented towards God alone, and 3) simultaneously and paradoxically communal or ecclesial. Let me try to say more about the paradox involved here because I don't believe I said much about that in my earlier posts.

If one is genuinely contemplative, and even if one is and/or calls oneself a mystic, the eremitical life is defined as one whose raison d'etre is in part the praise or glorification of God and in part the salvation of the world. For this reason, in one way and another it involves engagement with and on behalf of the temporal world. That engagement may "merely" be the contemplative prayer itself --- but such prayer is never a "just me and God" matter even though it involves experiences which highlight that dimension of reality, and even though no one else is bodily present in the cell or even consciously in the hermit's awareness. There is, this side of death, probably no purer experience of "God alone" or "God and me alone" as occurs in some contemplative prayer and the eremitical cell, but in my experience such prayer ALWAYS ALSO involves an awareness that while one dances with God (or whatever other images or experiences may be involved --- if any!), he is loving everyone else as completely and holding them as securely as he is oneself at that moment -- and one is glad, even delighted that that is the case! Further, one is aware that one is loved for oneself, of course, but that that love is meant to be shared with the world in whatever way the hermit feels called to do.

Even if one is a complete recluse one KNOWS that the transformation of oneself that occurs in prayer works as leaven in the world and transforms it as well. One knows that one's prayer is a doorway through which God is allowed to enter and become personally present in a way which transcends just this moment or just this small space. One knows that one is part of the Body of Christ and that, as it says in Ephesians, it is in the perfection of this Body that (we become) Christ come to full stature. Even when one prays "alone" in her cell, Church, world and God meet there within one and through one. This ceases to be mere abstraction when we consider the specific people we each carry within our hearts each time we pray. We are never without them, for in part they make us who we are. Consider all the people who have called us in one way and another to be, who have loved us, or in fact who have not; we carry them all within us in our memories and oftentimes deeper even than that; they are part of us. Beyond this group of people, ALL are grounded in God, and ALL are present in Him as well. To be truly in Communion with God, truly oriented towards him alone, is to be oriented towards and with all he cherishes and sustains as well. It is to be related to and concerned with the entire Communion of Saints and all those called to join this Communion. We are never less alone than when we are at prayer, and this is at least as true of contemplative or mystical prayer as it is of liturgical and other forms of prayer.

As far as divisions and approvals go, it is important to remember the Catholic theology of vocation. In Baptism we are each called to the lay state and within that state there are many significant vocations or callings. They have in common that they are callings to the lay life, but they may vary considerably otherwise. One vocation the Church recognizes today is that of lay hermit. The characteristics of the lay hermit are, in most ways, the same as those of the diocesan or religious hermit: it is a call to a life of assiduous prayer and penance, the silence of solitude, and stricter separation from the world. One may be a mystic and one WILL be a contemplative, but one will be these things as a member of the lay state. Because of this, one's eremitism will speak most clearly (but not only!) to others in the lay state. Beyond this (different but not better!) one may discover one is called to the consecrated state or to the ordained state. In either of these one may also be called to eremitical life. If one is called to the consecrated eremitical state one will make public profession and be consecrated publicly as well. One will assume a different set of responsibilities and rights in so doing, including public responsibility for the vowed eremitical life. One becomes a public representative of the whole long history of this form of response to the Gospel, and also, for working out and living publicly (even in hiddenness!) the significance and appropriate expressions of this form of life in the 21st (etc) Century.

Approval here, or rather admission to public profession and consecration, as I have written a number of times already, means admission to an ecclesial vocation. That is, it means that vocation is not discerned by the individual alone, nor is the vocation per se (the call by God) itself something extended to the individual ONLY in the privacy of her own heart --- though it will be heard there first and continually. By no means, as was at least implied by the passage you questioned, is canonical standing a merely a matter of preventing abuses in the vocation, nor does one require (much less will she be admitted to) canonical standing merely as a matter of living the vocation "safely"! Instead, God's own call is mediated fully to the person through the official Church. Responsibility for this expression of eremitical life is an ecclesial and public matter and because of this the call MUST come as something which, while a further specification of a Baptismal commitment, approaches the quality of "second baptism" and is extended publicly to the individual through the Church in a formal and official way so as to achive a stable state of life. One cannot be said to HAVE such a vocation unless and until the Church admits to profession and mediates God's own consecration of the person in a public liturgical act. One may be moving towards it, and one may even yearn for it in some way because of the anticipatory nature of the call one has truly already heard, but one cannot be said to "have" it fully apart from the Church's own mediation of it.

This is one of the reasons profession and consecration are such watershed moments for the diocesan hermit (or, for that matter, for religious or consecrated virgins). The vocation the diocesan hermit hears THROUGH and AFTER these events continues to be heard and it continues to be the same call in many ways, but now with different overtones and nuances she never expected prior to perpetual profession and consecration. She is a different person responsible for what is in many ways a DIFFERENT call she may have sensed vestigially as the incompleteness of the baptismal call she had heard in her heart and already answered with her life. Only now she begins to move from chaffing at incompleteness, or struggling to articulate some degree of dissatisfaction and unfreedom, to exploring the depths and implications of her new state and her new vocation. She is still a hermit and no more nor less a real hermit than the lay hermit, but now she is diocesan with all that entails and implies. Her experience of her call and her response to that call is PERSONALLY fuller because the call itself is different and SUBJECTIVELY fuller despite being anticipated in many ways during her life as a lay hermit.

God ALSO calls the Lay hermit, but not in the same way because the rights and responsibilities associated with that call are not the same as those associated with consecrated eremitical life. Thus, canonical standing does not represent merely the human approval of a vocation, nor does the diocesan hermit seek canonical standing because she yearns for human ("Temporal Catholic World") approval. It especially does not represent an individual's vain desire to be distinguished by title or garb! Instead title and garb represent/symbolize the rights and responsibilities assumed by THIS hermit via the mediation of Church authority and Divine Call. What the diocesan hermit yearns for is an eremitical vocation that is not the same as that of the lay or the religious hermit. She personally requires canonical standing because she simply is not called to this vocation apart from the Church's own mediation of the call, and because she finds after living lay eremitical life for some time, that she is simply not free to live out the vocation experienced in her heart as fully as she senses she might without what is mediated to her by the Church --- not because lay eremitical life lacks OBJECTIVE fullness (it does not), but, despite the essential similarities, because again it is actually different than consecrated eremitical life with different expectations and responsibilities. (Again, I have written about this before so please find posts referring to either the unique charism of the diocesan hermit or to those which refer to the expectations people have a necessary right to in regard to the diocesan hermit.)

The Church's own divisions and theology is far more adequate than the division into TCW and MCW. That is especially true when all eremitical vocations, no matter how mystical are temporal, and when all temporal vocations are meant to be touched by some degree of mystical prayer as well. Certainly the incarnation does not suggest that temporal involvement is to be separated from mystical orientation or experience. Nor do the Gospels. Luke's version could not be clearer that Jesus was both mystic and minister, and further than his ministry flowed from and was supported at every turn by his mysticism. The same is true of Paul who was indefatigable in his ministry on behalf of the Gospel, but who was known for his mystical experiences and prayer life. To divvy reality up into the mystical and the temporal Catholic Worlds and to associate canonical standing and consecration with the Temporal World is to dishonor the truth of the incarnation, as well as to repudiate the Church's own theology of ecclesial vocations. It (at least in the passage you quoted) also suggests therefore that those who seek admission to public profession and the consecrated state are not real contemplatives or mystics, do not love God sufficiently or seek to grow in that love, desire human approval and esteem and are dissatisfied with God's, and do not seek admission to profession and consecration because their very vocations as hermits demand it. Unfortunately, to cast the quest for canonical standing in these terms is either extremely and unfairly cynical, or it is simply ignorant of what motivates most diocesan hermits in what is often quite a long and difficult process.

I probably went on a bit more than you desired with your comments. I hope at least I was clear and addressed your concerns. However, if I did not, or if my comments raised further questions, I hope you will get back to me. Again, please read other posts on the topic of unique charism, etc and see if I have not already answered those questions or made things clearer though.

22 July 2009

The Good Soil of Humility

I was struck today by the Gospel for ordinary time and the possibility of the Word of God taking such root within us that it would produce a fruitful harvest in an almost unthinkable range. We all know the parable: a sower goes out to sow in the Palestinian countryside --- a harsh and difficult territory for farmers --- and therefore sows seed all around, hoping to maximize his return. Some seed falls on rocky ground, some on a pathway where it was immediately eaten by birds, some on ground choked with thorns, while some is snatched away by "the evil one," and some falls on good soil. The seed which falls on rocky ground where there is little soil springs up quickly but dies in the sun because there are no real roots to hold and nourish it; the shoots from the seed which fell among thistles is choked out by the stronger, more rapacious plants. But the seed which fell on good soil grew well and produced a rich harvest of 30, 60, or even a hundredfold (an amount the Palestinan farmers would have found unimaginable).

Jesus goes on to explain to his disciples who are troubled and perplexed by the fact that he is always speaking to others in parables (they want something more straightforward, something more informative than formative I think!), that the seed is the Word of God and the various soils represent various kinds of hearers, one whose hearing of the Word causes immediate joy, but because the Word strikes no root in him, has no staying power. When troubles come on account of the Word he falls away at once. Another hears the Word but is so taken with "worldly" cares and wealth (including status, etc) that the Word has no way to grow and so is barren in his life. In another hearer who has no understanding of what he has heard, the evil One snatches the Word away and carries off what was "sown in his heart". And in one person who both hears and understands it, the Word bears an immense harvest.

A couple of things are interesting in this parable (and in Matthew's interpretation of it). The first is that the Word which represents the Sovereignty or Kingdom of God is "sown" in our hearts and it is there that the seed finds the soil in which it will either grow to fruition, wither and die, be carried off by some other power or choked to death by other values and concerns. I have written a number of times here about the human heart as a primarily theological term and a dialogical reality, the reality created by God's call, voice, breath, song, etc, and the response we give to that, so I am not going to go into that further here except to refer the reader to past posts (cf labels, heart as a dialogical reality, for instance).

The second is that one must hear the Word in a way which includes understanding. Now this notion of understanding has come up for me recently in several ways. First, during retreat Fr Basil Matthews made some comments about understanding [the Word of God or the Rule of Benedict] being a form of "standing under." Just as knowing God is really about allowing ourselves to be known intimately by him, so too is understanding God a matter of allowing him to have sovereignty over us. Real understanding or knowing is not an intellectual act (or certainly not only that), but what happens when we allow God to dwell and act within us as sovereign Lord.

Secondly, I ran into the same notion of "standing under" while working on a homily there when one of the readings (Proverbs) connected real understanding with a way of being vis-a-vis the Wisdom of God --- something we were to assiduously seek out like buried treasure, the reading noted. At the same time I also read a passage from Gerald May's book on The Awakened Heart which referred to understanding as "standing under." And thirdly, here it is again with a reference to a person not understanding what they have heard and so, having the Word snatched away and carried off from their hearts by "the Evil One." In this case too, understanding is a matter of really standing under this Word in a way which marks one as being from and of it, as one belonging to it and as one who carries it into the world as the standard (and basis) of their lives. To not understand, to not hold this Word as precious, to fail to allow it to govern our lives and be sovereign in them is to allow another power or principality to steal it from us.

It is important to say something here about the soil of our hearts which either allows the seed to take root, or not. In fact I know that my own heart is as diverse as the terrain of the parable. There is soil packed down as well-worn paths (the places --- or the self-images --- I am comfortable and safe travelling on --- or moving through the world with); there is rocky ground (places of hardening due to woundedness, stubbornness, fear and insecurity, etc), thistle-strewn soil (the stuff that grows up because barrenness is a bit too scary, for instance, or because the Word had not been heard despite a hunger for it: nature abhors a vaccum and the human heart is the same). There are vast regions of wilderness I have never explored (and some I have!) which are inhabited by all manner of demons, and there are patches of good soil as well.

What I am aware of is the need for cultivation, a clearing of the rocks and thistles I allow to take the space God created for himself, for instance, or the need to feed and water the soil which is, or will soon be, ready for the Word --- and of course, something which requires the exploration of those desert spaces which remain largely unknown and frightening to me. What I know is that in my own heart the soil is not all the soil (humus) of humility -- the rich ground out of which life really springs and all the other virtues grow; it is not all the ground which allows God's Word to take root and his sovereignty to come to fruition in the Kingdom --- the garden of real and sustaining friendship with God --- and of course, that is precisely the soil which is needed.

Jesus wants us to hear and understand (stand under) the Word of God. In the Markan version of the parable the passage begins with the imperative, "Listen!" and in today's version from Matthew, the parable closes with the command, "Listen, those of you who have ears to hear with!" Once again he makes it clear that we share in a singular way in the story of God's search for a unique counterpart, one who is from God and of him, one who responsively embodies the Word of God in a unique way. He wants our hearts ready for this Word (a Word already present and active within us) in a way which allows it to be sovereign in our lives and in our world. He wants us to reflect as exhaustively as he does the truth of the dialogical reality we are at the core of our being. The ground in which this Word springs to fruition, the humus which is rich and capable of sustaining the growth of the seed in today's parable is the good soil of humility, the good soil of truthfulness about who we are in light of God. If, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can cultivate this soil and allow our hearts to be seedbeds of genuine humility, then the Word of God will indeed come to an immense harvest -- one which we ourselves could never have imagined.

15 July 2009

Saint Romuald and the Camaldolese Charism (paintings)

I mentioned getting two paintings while on retreat. Father Robert Hale brought a number of books and other things from the gift shop at New Camaldoli, and these were really exceptional --- and certainly appropriate for a hermitage chapel!

The Camaldolese charism is threefold: solitude, community or koinonia, and evangelization or mission. Brother Emmaus O'Herlihy, a Camaldolese monk (though currently discerning a vocation at Saint Andrew's in Valyermo) painted a series of pictures which begins with St Romuald in ecstasy after receiving the gift of tears. This is the picture immediately above (sorry for chopping off the top portion of the painting).

The series continues with a Camaldolese monk in solitude, another of two monks together with one holding a Bible (koinonia around the Word of God), and another painting of two monks each turning from one another to go out in different directions on mission. The second painting shown above is "solitude".

Update: Brother Emmaus has made simple vows with Glenstal abbey and will be eligible for solemn vows in 2014. His work (certainly this series of paintings) continues to be available from New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur.

14 July 2009

Back from Retreat (Bishop's Ranch, Healdsburg, CA)

Thanks for your patience with my lack of posts. I was away on retreat and returned Sunday late afternoon. During retreat I was able to preach once on the solemnity of St Benedict and I will post that as soon as I am able. The readings for this week are also terrific so perhaps I can get some reflections up on them as well. Finally, I came home with two new paintings by a Camaldolese Monk (Brother Emmaus O'Herlihy): 1) St Romuald in ecstasy (after receiving the gift of tears), and 2) a painting called "Solitude". These are two paintings in a set of four exploring the Camaldolese charism or "triple-good," so I will post pictures of them and write a bit about those too. In the meantime the above picture was taken of most of the group (five were missing at this point) after the final Mass on Sunday.

Retreat itself was quite fine (though, of course, not what I expected, or at least planned for, in terms of personal work, etc!). It was, as last year's, a Benedictine Experience retreat and each day was modelled on a monastic horarium with sung Office three times a day, Mass at midday, silence throughout, choir practice and conferences in the mornings, lectio and work periods in the afternoon, and a meditation in the evening before Compline. On Thursday the schedule shifted some to accommodate a desert day, and people went off to do whatever they needed and wanted to do after the morning session. Each evening after Vespers and prior to dinner we had a half hour recreation where folks got to meet and talk, share wine and cheese, etc.

We humans were certainly not alone at Bishop's Ranch. Two of the nights we heard coyotes making kills not far from our rooms, and one of those Sister Donald (OSB Cam) heard a mountain lion make a kill about 2.5 hours earlier than the coyote sounds I heard that same night (Sr Donald thought it occured about 300 yds from our rooms). Other wildlife was around as well: rabbits, quail, and unfortunately, rattlesnakes --- though no one but Ranch staff ran into these!! (A baby rattlesnake was found where some workers were clearing brush and dead wood; it was eventually relocated to another ranch some miles away where it could live in peace --- and let us do the same!)

(Sister Donald and myself one morning in front of Webb Lodge where we had rooms.)

The moon was full and wonderful. The first night it woke me at 3:30am shining full in my room, and at first, confused on waking in a new place, all I could think was, "It CAN'T be dawn yet!" I watched it set into the trees of a nearby mountain two hours later, still brilliant, and still framed by my bedroom window. The moon remained almost as full the whole week (it was waning, and one night there was also an eclipse which was not really visible), so while the nights were not as dark as last year, they had a loveliness which was every bit as great.

So, more about all this and other things in the next posts (or perhaps as additions to this one!

01 July 2009

"And When they Saw Him They Begged Him to . . ."

I have to say that today's Gospel always suprises and delights me. It is the story of first, Jesus' sending the demons which possess two men into a nearby herd of swine thus freeing the men from the bondage to brokennness and inhumanity which marks and mars their lives, and then, it is the story of what happens when he approaches the nearby town (Gadara) whose residents have heard of what he has done. Despite knowing how the story goes, I admit to being surprised everytime Matthew's last line which begins, "Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him. . ." concludes with, ". . .they begged him to leave their district."

Now, granted, Jesus just destroyed an entire herd of swine, and they must have been someone's livelihood --- perhaps many people's (and presuming Jesus was approaching Jews, it is a livelihood which contravened the Law as well). Some unhappiness with this would have been understandable. And Jesus has healed a couple of men whose conditions had made travel along a certain route unsafe, so one would expect a mixed response to that perhaps -- these men now will need to be accommodated in some real sense --- not simply treated as wild animals or aliens of some sort. I begin have a sense why Jesus was not welcomed here. But I admit to still hearing in the back of my mind cheers of welcome, beseeching of Jesus to come and change lives, a positive and welcoming response like that in fiction stories where the conquering hero comes back from slaying the dragon, or like the narrative in the New Testament where Jesus is welcomed as King with waving palm branches and cries of Hosanna --- temporary as that moment was! In a way, perhaps the "back of my mind" wants a costless or "cheap" grace, a "good news" fit for escapist fiction or an incredibly naive reading of the NT --- but not for the real world.

But the Gospel is good news in a much more realistic, paradoxical, and problematical way -- especially in regard to the first example above --- and today's Gospel lection highlights this for us. As we have heard over the past few passages from Matthew Jesus reveals himself to be a man of extraordinary, even divine authority --- a man with authority over nature, illness, the hearts of men and women, and now over demons. He heals, feeds on a profound and lasting level, frees, and provides true meaning and dignity for those lost and bereft. He is the Son of God (a title Matthew has on the lips of the demons in today's story)--- very good news indeed --- but he acts with an authority which is genuinely awesome and which turns the everyday world of politics, religion, simple ordinariness, and comfortable respectability on their heads. The Gadarenes in today's Gospel see this clearly and they are unprepared for it. Far from misunderstanding Jesus and refusing to welcome him on those grounds, like the Scribes and Pharisees they understand precisely who Jesus is and want no part of him. Far better to simply ask Jesus to leave the district than to have to come to terms with who he is and what that truly challenges and calls forth in us!

One of the current complaints by some traditionalists is that Vatican II gave us a God of love (they frequently spell the word "luv" to denote their disparagement of it) and lost the God who inspires fear, etc. They may well be correct that there has been some "domestication" of God and his Christ in popular piety --- but then this is not because of Vatican II; it is a continual temptation and sin besetting the Church. Afterall, how many of us when faced with the daily prospect of renewed faith recognize that acceptance of Jesus' authority -- expressed as an unconditional love which is stronger than death -- will turn our world upside down and call us to a radical way of living and loving which involves renunciation, self-sacrifice, and commitment to a Kingdom that is NOT of this world and often is at distinct odds with it? The equivalent of a herd of swine or the accommodation of the mentally ill is the least it will cost us --- precisely because it is unconditional. How many of us choose not so much to be loved -- with all that implies for growth, maturity and responsibility -- but instead (at least with some part of ourselves) would prefer to be coddled and cajoled? How many buy into (and construct our lives around) a religion which is at least as much OF this world as it is IN it?

So yes, today's Gospel both surprises and delights me. It does both because of its honesty; and it does so because it is genuinely good news, rooted in the awesome authority of the Christ who loves without condition but not without empowerment, challenge, and commission. Such a Christ will never be really popular I think. Many of our churches and cities are far more like Gadara than not. Sometimes, I am sorry to say, my hermitage is as well. The authority of Jesus over illness, fear, meaninglessness, and the demons that beset us is an awesome and demanding reality and our hearts are more often ambivalent and ambiguous than pure and single. I suspect that domestication of our faith is something most of us are guilty of every day of our lives. With that and today's Gospel in mind, let us summon up the courage to beg Jesus to enter into our towns, homes, churches, and hearts, and remain with us; let us give him free access to move within and change our world as he wills! That is my own prayer for today.