29 November 2009

First Sunday in Advent 2009

13 November 2009

Reactive Withdrawal vs Responsive Anachoresis: Followup Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 November 2009

Exclusion or Inclusion: How is God truly Honored?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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