26 September 2009

IT'S A BOY!!! Lennon Thomas Malanca

Lennon Thomas Malanca, b. September 24, 2009.

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

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

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

24 September 2009

Who Do You Say That I Am?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 September 2009

Question on a Post on Detachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 September 2009

Followup Question on Non-Hermits Writing Eremitical Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 September 2009

Questions on Writing a Rule of Life: Can I Write One Before I live as a Hermit?

[[Dear Sister, I would like to become a diocesan hermit in the future, but am not living alone presently and have not been able to do so yet. I would like to write a Rule of Life for that future time. I dream about it a lot. For example, I imagine what the life must be like and think I could do a good job of describing it and writing a Rule to reflect that. What do you think?]]

Hi there! This is a really important question. It is, surprisingly, also actually the third time this month I have been presented with a similar problem or scenario. One person, for instance, wrote a Rule of life a couple of months ago and only then started living as a solitary person according to this Rule; she wanted to know if it was time to approach her diocese at this point to petition for admission to profession. Another person began writing a rule of life as though he was already set up in a hermitage as a lay hermit (he does not have a hermitage, is not a solitary person, and will not be for some time); he wrote about what the ambience of the place would feel like and how he would feel walking in the door and into the silence and solitude, etc. And now you have written a question about the same kind of thing. The reason these scenarios and the questions which they ask are important is because they fail to understand how a Rule functions, how much life experience must exist before one can write one effectively, and finally, they are actually contrary to the very nature of contemplative life itself -- not least eremitical life!

It is true that Canon 603 says nothing about all this stuff and so is not clearly helpful. It simply lists a series of qualifications for admission to Canon 603 profession. Still, what is implicit in Canon 603 is the required experience of living a "Rule" to some significant if completely informal extent before one wrestles with it consciously and attempts to codify it in writing. It is easy to look at Canon 603 and think: what parts of this can I get out of the way so I can approach a diocese with my petition? The answer which comes, unfortunately all-too-easily is, "I can write a Rule of Life. That sounds the easiest!" (The same is a temptation for diocesan officials who look to the one concrete requirement in the Canon, and who then tell a person they need to write a Rule or Plan of Life; it is easiest to deal with this dimension of things whether a person is ready to write such a thing or not!) And then one looks to others and the Rules they have written, one copies from them (or is strongly tempted to!), borrows their ideas and theology, mimics their content and horarium, and passes it off as the fruit of one's own experience when one's diocese requires one submit a Rule that will pass canonical muster. The problem is that this is not based on lived experience and for that reason it does not indicate one's own hard-won wisdom (for one's Rule must reflect this even when it is consistent with the Rules of others). It is, to put it bluntly, fraudulent and hypocritical. If it occured in some other way, we would recognize immediately why such a thing would not work.

Let's say for instance that I decided I wanted to write a Rule of Life for married persons. I imagined myself as married, I imagined the way the house would be set up; I imagined the way it would feel when my husband came in through the door at the end of his work day. I imagined the love that would fill the house, the sounds that would and would not be there, the way we would pray together, our schedules and how we would live out our lives together, the problems we would have and how we worked through them, the strengths and weaknesses in the relationship and how we addressed and expressed those, etc. And then I wrote a description of all of that as though it reflected my own lived experience and described what was necessary for this to be true. Let's say I then submitted this to my diocese as a plan or guide to how married people (especially I and my "someday-husband") should live their vows. What is wrong with this picture?

Another example. Assume I have wanted to be a parish priest for as long as I can remember (this is actually NOT the case -- emphatically not!!--- but it's a good illustration). I imagine how I will deal with parishioners, how I will celebrate the Sacraments for them, how I will balance ministry with prayer, what training I will need and what reading I will have to do for continuing education, what I will wear and when, etc. I spend a lot of time dreaming and reading about what I think this vocation is about and I decide I had better write a Rule of Life for myself for when this becomes a reality. I address all the issues mentioned and many more. I describe what I imagine the problems and concerns a parish priest meets daily to be; I contruct a daily schedule which I believe will work for me in such a life. I even go so far as to describe the character of the priest's residence, what it will feel like to enter the door after being out, how this prayer or that devotional will comfort and soothe or strengthen and challenge me in given circumstances, how often I meet with a support group of other priests or spiritual directors and why it needs to be this way rather than another. I then submit this to the church as a guide or Rule for myself and for parish priests more generally. Should the church listen to me? Should they give the guide to diocesan priests as something they might use effectively or even normatively? Should they ordain me on the basis of this Rule? Again, what is wrong with this picture?

Would you credit (that is, treat as credible) a user's guide written by someone who had never used the product? Would you adopt a guide to spiritual direction or marriage, or brain surgery by persons who have never done spiritual direction, never been married, never been to medical school (much less through all the specialty training in neurosurgery)? Would you discern that someone has a calling to live these or an eremitical life if they write a completely fictional account about what these vocations or life in the hermitage will be like? I doubt it. The problem with all these examples of course is that they are built on complete fiction; they are based on imagination and dreams, not reality and lived experience.

When a hermit writes about the silence of solitude it is about living the reality of that --- not some abstract notion of what it WILL be like and mean. The same is true of the other foundational elements of the life, poverty, consecrated celibacy, stricter separation from the world (what IS that and what is it emphatically NOT!?) assiduous prayer and penance, the relation between solitude and ministry or evangelization, the shape of hospitality, the degree of reclusion one needs for healthy solitary life, etc. How do these take shape in THIS person's life? How do they differ from stereotypes? How do they challenge a person, foster growth, create problems? How must classic formulations within Eremitical Rules change in THIS individual's life and in today's church and world? The questions one must consider are raised by the life itself and by the individual's embodiment of the correspondence (and conflict) between an ideal (or traditional) version of that life and the concrete circumstances in which she attempts to live it. One cannot simply imagine all this and write a cogent Rule; to do so in this way is a self-contradiction, an oxymoron in fact.

Rules of Life are not, as I have mentioned before, just lists of what one does or does not do. They do indeed list what practices are essential to the life one lives, but they include sections on theology, reflection on the nature of the essential elements of the life, sections on the nature and content of the vows, Scriptures that are especially inspirational to one personally and which may have been fulfilled in unique ways in coming to live this vocation. They serve to remind a person what they should be doing and why (and in fact, what they are bound to in obedience), but more than that they function to convey a vision of the vocation which continues to inspire not only the hermit's perseverence, but the church herself because this document was born in the conjunction of the Holy Spirit and the person's lived experience. Especially they are not documents reflecting romanticized versions of eremitical life or of the practices and promise which are part and parcel of it. A document with vision and a romanticized fictional version of a reality are not at all the same thing!

All of this implies that the writing of a Rule of life takes some years of experience, research (on all the elements of the canon, on eremitical and monastic life, on spituality, and lots else), reflection, and then the hard work of putting it all in words --- writing and re-writing, and re-writing again --- expressing the way God really works in solitude, silence, poverty, etc, and what is necessary to allow him to work thusly in YOUR own life. And of course, this is as it should be for a contemplative committed to attentive life in the present moment. Such a life is a reflective life rooted in the reality of the present flavored always by hope which itself is not a matter of wishfulness or fantasy but rather of certainty and promise functioning in the present moment.

What I would suggest you do with regard to this Rule of Life you propose to write is to write it on the basis of who you are right now. What is necessary for you to be healthy? What vision inspires you today? How do you pray now and how does that affect your own maturation and growth in holiness? What does holiness look like to you right here and right now? How do you embody the essential values of the eremitical life? How do they challenge you? What do you sense you NEED to live all these even more fully and why? Don't touch on the things you know nothing about yet. Make notes about needing to reflect on them, read about them, find ways to live them, but especially do not make a Rule of Life into a fictional account of someone who has not yet drawn breath!

In time you will revise this. Perhaps you will do so several times as you continue to read, reflect, pray and LIVE the life. As you grow in your vocation it too may become the document the church envisions in Canon 603, both completely personal and capable of guiding and inspiring you and others in the real living of the life. Only then will it be a document the Church can look to for her own edification and guidance. Only then will it be a Rule of Life which the Church can use to help her discern the nature and reality of true eremitical vocations --- first your own, if that is the case, and then those who follow you seeking admission to Canon 603 profession. This Rule of course will be yours, but it will also become the Church's and part of the tradition of eremitical life in the church. For all these reasons it is imperative it be based on lived experience and not a hermit candidate's imagination or romanticized ideas of what it will all be like.

10 September 2009

Remove the Beam from Your Own Eye: On Passions and Projection!

I saw a TV program a couple of years ago where a brilliant eye surgeon became schizophrenic soon after finishing his residency and establishing initially himself. His symptoms included visual hallucinations and an extensive delusional system so, delusional and in denial about his own illness, he attributed his symptoms to a mysterious eye problem which he decided to research and work out a treatment for. Most of the research involved taking poor and disabled persons in halfway houses and convincing their caregivers that they required SIGNIFICANT eye treatment including multiple laser and other surgeries. He sincerely believed that this work was helping people and that it would save his own life and career (this was all part of his illness afterall), but what he did was both criminal and destructive. Minor all-too-usual untreated eye-problems in the poor were magnified in the doctor's mind and became the justification for sadistic and careless experiments which always did more harm than good and were often irreversible. In a way it illustrates what happens to all of us in smaller and less floridly psychotic ways with regard to our own faults and the faults of others, and especially it reminds me of tomorrow's parable from Luke.

Jesus reminds us that a blind person who tries to lead others will lead everyone into the pit. He notes that an untrained person is apt to harm someone and needs to get proper training before trying to act as a teacher. And he reminds us via this parable that we ourselves are often afflicted with a beam in our own eye but that we are equally often one who blindly criticizes and offers to extract a splinter from another's eye. We hear one of Jesus' most damning judgments as he says: "You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from in your brother's eye!"

Jesus clearly understands several things: First, humility is the opposite of hypocrisy rather than of pride, just as Matthew told us a few months ago. Secondly, he knew that the way our attention is avidly drawn to the splinter in another's eye SHOULD lead us to suspect the beam in our own. And thirdly, I think Jesus understood very well what became the monastic teaching on the passions: namely, that passions are those habitual ways of seeing and behaving, those characteristic attitudes of the false self that serve as lenses which distort our own vision and prevent us from seeing rightly with the heart.

We use the term passion today very differently than 3rd and 4th Century monastics, and very differently from the use of the term in monastic literature generally. For us passions are strong emotions or desires: we say John has a passion for social justice, Ted has a passion for health care reform, Mary is passionately in love with her husband, Nadja has a passion for playing the violin like no one you have ever seen, etc! But monastics use the term in a different sense. Passions in this literature are invariably negative and need not involve strong emotion. In fact they may prevent us from feeling emotions which are really one way of perceiving and appreciating the world around us.

The passions are obstacles to humility, that is, they are barriers to recognizing and celebrating that loving truthfulness about who we are in regard to God and others. They are most often the beams in our own eyes and hearts which cause us to overreact to the splinters in our brother's or sister's eyes. They are the symptoms of woundedness and disease in our own hearts which cause us to project onto others and fail to love them as we ought and as they deserve. As Roberta Bondi reminds us, "a passion has as its chief characteristics perversion of vision and the destruction of love." (To Love as God Loves) Common passions we are all too familiar with include perfectionism, a kind of habitual irritation with someone, anger, envy, depression, apathy or sloth, gluttony (which often has more to do, Bondi points out, with requiring novelty than it does with eating), irritable or anxious restlessness, impatience, selfishness, etc. In each, if we consider their effects, we will notice these habitual ways of relating to ourselves and our world cause us to see reality in a distorted way (this is one of the reasons we think of seeing reality through the green haze of envy, or the red film of anger, or the icy wall of depression, and so forth). Further, they thus get in the way of being open to or nurturing the truth of others --- that is, they are obstacles to love.

Similarly they are destructive of sight and love because they cause us to project onto others our own failings and woundedness. Recently I had the experience that what I wrote on a listserve was misinterpreted negatively. Even the way I punctuated posts was taken to mean something completely negative as was my writing nothing at all! (For instance, because I rarely mentioned God in my posts on eremitical life, I was considered to have no genuine spiritual life or be inadequately centered on God. When I noted that my writing (or anyone else's) should be read without attributions of negative motives and attitudes, something I considered possible because I had not written them with those motives or attitudes, I was instructed that my conscious motives were one thing, subconscious ones were another --- as though the reader could claim to know these better than I did myself! Projection. It is a serious disease Jesus apparently understood well, a result of our own brokenness and sinfulness, and it assures not only that the person being projected onto CANNOT be heard or seen for who they are, but that the one doing the projecting becomes more and more locked into their own blindness and inability to love the other as neighbor. The wisdom of Jesus' admonition, "Remove the beam from your own eye before you attempt to remove the splinter from your brother's" as well as the apropriateness of his anger in calling hypocrisy just that is evident.

There is also a bit of monastic wisdom here we should remember which is closely related to the importance of dealing with our passions. In our own time we are very used to acting as though we only know someone really well when we see their flaws. We approach people and things "critically," searching out their failings and weaknesses and when we have discovered them, we believe we have discovered their deepest truth. How often have we heard someone say something like: "I thought I knew him, but the other day, he acted to betray me. Now I really know who he is!" But monastic wisdom is just the opposite of this notion of knowing. It is strikingly countercultural and counterintuitive. In monastic life we only really know someone when we see them as God sees them: precious, sacred, whole, and beautiful. We only see them rightly when we look past the flaws to the deep or true person at the core. We only see them truly when we see them with the eyes and humility of love. As we were reminded by Saint-Exupery and as tomorrow's Gospel implies strongly, "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly," --- and only once we have removed those distorting lenses monks call passions, that is, only once we have removed the beams from our own eyes!

09 September 2009

Secularism, a Disease of Heart and Vision

I was most struck by today's first reading (Col 3:7-13) and its relation to what Pope Benedict has described as a crisis of our world --- rampant secularism. It is common to think of secularism as an inordinate esteem for the profane, something that reaches idolatrous proportions at times. But contrary to part of this analysis I think that at its root secularism has more to do with the failure to regard reality, ALL reality, as fundamentally sacred, as gift of God, as that which is to be honored and regarded in light of the One who grounds and gifts it. Secularism occurs precisely when we compartmentalize reality into the sacred and the profane. It occurs when we refuse or are unable to see the innate tendency of all things to reveal to us the God who grounds them, or to participate in and contribute to the goal of human and divine history: that God might be all in all. In short, it is a failure to take a sacramental view of reality.

Once the sundering of reality from its ground occurs, once that is, we begin to divvy things up into sacred and profane`we actually ensure that secularism can gain the ascendancy. Religion occupies a compartment of our lives, business another. Prayer and worship occupies a piece of our lives, sex (or food, or relationships, or material goods and our relation to them) another. And on it goes through all the dimensions and activities of our lives. But the fundamental truth for Christians is reflected in yesterday's Gospel. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. In him the veil between sacred and profane has been rent in two and the distinction no longer holds. As Paul is at pains to convince the Colossians in today's first reading, in Christ all things are reconciled to God. In principle nothing is profane or "outside the temple". In him God (will be) all in all!

Evenso, we are called upon to make this truth real in our own lives, to embody it as fully as we are able. Secularism begins with the divisions in our own hearts, and the end to secularism comes only as we allow God to heal the divisions there and begin to see with the singleness and purity of what the Gospel writers call "new eyes" or with what Paul calls the remaking of our own minds -- eyes and minds sensitized and commited to honoring the sacredness of all of reality.

As Paul turns to the new church in Colossae he advocates "putting to death" all those ways of immorality which were so common as a piece of putting on Christ and becoming the imago christi baptism makes possible. His list of sins fall into two broad areas, sexual sins and sins of the tongue, or affective and expressive sins. What Paul knows I think is that there are two broad dimensions to us which are uniquely human. They are central and pervasive, and they distinguish us from mere animals and constitute us as reflective of the divine. Both are relational dimensions of our existence; they constitute us as capable of loving others, of giving ourselves and receiving the love and being of others in a way which creates abundant and expressive or revelational life. These two dimensions, the sexual and the expressive or verbal, symbolize the whole human being.

What seems clear to me from the list of sins Paul compiles, whether they belong to the dimension of speech or of sexuality is that none of them would exist if we were truly able to regard ourselves, others, and our world as essentially holy. How often sex is used in ways which trivialize it and those who engage in it! How often it is used to demean, exploit, punish, etc. The same is true with speech. How often we trivialize it, distort it, use it to separate, exploit or punish or demean! Our world is innundated in torrents of meaningless "speech," instead of speech which creates community and gives others a place to stand in our world and God's Kingdom; this grows more catastrophic almost daily as people simply treat everything as important to say --- and lose sight of the significance of real speech (not to mention the context required for this which is silence!). Beyond the actual trivialization of speech we have Slander, lies, rage. And yet, how possible would these be if we truly regarded reality, ourselves and others as fundamentally sacred?

Secularism is indeed a crisis today. The solution is what Paul calls putting on Christ, allowing our hearts to be remade, allowing our eyes to see as God sees, acting towards the world, ourselves, and others as they truly are in their profoundest reality. It was the answer and the challenge when Paul wrote from prison to the Colossians. It is the answer today as well.

05 September 2009

Question on the Education of a Diocesan Hermit

I have written that diocesan hermits are expected by dioceses to acquire a certain degree of education and formation if they are ever to be professed as a Canon 603 hermit, and that most of this will be expected to happen before a candidate approaches a diocese with their petition. This is a position I agree with. The Diocese of La Crosse has a rather clear list of expectations in this area which includes (but is not limited to) the nature and content of the vows, the nature and history of eremitical life, theology, Vatican II, spirituality, etc. The idea that dioceses expect hermits to have much of this formation/education under their belts before they petition for admission to profession (which usually means before they approach the diocese in re to C 603 at all) raises questions for some. I received the following recently:

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, How would you compare [what you say about hermits educating themselves as part of preparation for profession] to a person entering a monastery? For example, one feels a call...visits a few places....then finds one that is "home." And then visits a few more times before entering. But, they don't enter with full knowledge of theology and monastic history, for example. For a much better term, they learn "on the job." So, just wondering your explanation on the difference.]]

As I have noted before, it is important to remember that dioceses do not form diocesan hermits. They discern the nature and quality of vocations that stand before them, and also evaluate the readiness of the person involved to take on the rights and responsibilities of public profession and consecration. There is no FORMAL entrance, novitiate, juniorate or scholasticate as part of Canon 603 even though one will move through various stages of discernment and formation before making a formal commitment of any kind, and, if candidates are admitted to vows at all, they will generally make temporary profession for three years prior to perpetual profession. Because of this the individual needs to take responsibility for a lot of the education and formation which would be part and parcel of communal formation and education. No one else will do it for a hermit candidate (though the diocese MAY point to some resources one may avail oneself of on their own once one is recognized as a strong candidate) and the Church (rightfully I suggest) expects it of those who would be professed as Canon 603 hermits.

Beyond this, there are many reasons solitude may call to one. The rarest and most radical involves a call to a life of eremitical solitude, but every Christian life and vocation involves some requirement for solitude. Unless an individual takes the time to understand themselves, the vocation to eremitical life, the nature of monastic and vowed or consecrated life more generally, and uses that time to experiment with eremitical life and explore the various ways solitude may and does call one and why, one may make a serious mistake in concluding one has a call to hermit life. For instance, one may be comfortable or "at home" with solitude at various points of one's life and not actually have a call to a life vocation as a hermit. These points in one's life may be transitional, the result of grief or loss, or even represent less legitimate desires for disengagement with others and one's ordinary world. They may stem from health or unhealth and it is only through time and serious learning, reflection, and discernment that one can come to clarity on these things. This is one of the reasons dioceses expect C 603 candidates to live for several years as a lay hermit before approaching a diocese re profession. Only in this way can one determine that eremitical solitude (not any other form or either legitimate or illegitimate need for solitude or withdrawal) is really the essential call one has experienced.

Education in the areas mentioned earlier can assist one in understanding and discerning the nature of her own call as she comes to appreciate the variations, challenges, responsibilities, and nature of eremitical life. If one spends time living as a lay hermit and educating oneself in theology, spirituality, church history, Vatican II and its challenges to the contemporary church and the modern world, as well as the nature and history of monastic and eremitical life (etc), one will learn much of the theology one needs to 1) write a Rule of Life, 2) understand the nature, content, significance, and challenge of the vows within a post-Vatican II church, 3) embody the eremitical life (lay or consecrated) in a way which speaks clearly to the contemporary church while it is consonant with the history of monastic and eremitical life through history, 4) engage in the limited ministry one MAY be called to do as either a lay or diocesan hermit, and (if called to consecrated eremitical life) 5) prepare for a future representing as fully as possible a rare and wonderful ecclesial vocation. Alternately, if they determine they are NOT called to life as either a lay or diocesan hermit they will still be better-prepared for ecclesial life in active ministry whether as lay persons or as religious.

There is a certain amount of learning "on the job" in every vocation, and eremitical life is no different. This learning never ceases and one never has a "full knowledge" as you put it; but unless one enters religious life to accomplish the basic education and initial formation required --- as well as undertake in a supervised and disciplined way the discernment they require --- then one has to provide for all this for oneself. There are no shortcuts, no alternatives with Canon 603 for those who do not come to it through monastic or religious life. Consider that all of this independent learning is a kind of variation on the old saying, "dwell in the cell and the cell will teach you everything." The eremitical life will involve independent study, lectio, solitary liturgical prayer, quiet or contemplative prayer every single day year in and year out, and in all these things it will also involve an initiative and capacity for independent work and direction. In some ways this is all part of the ongoing formation of a hermit; (this is the reason I suggest it is a variation on the more central meaning of the desert saying about dwelling in the cell). Dioceses rightfully expect to see that a person has developed such a capacity and has the initiative and independence which are so characteristic of diocesan hermits before they seriously consider admitting that person to profession.