25 February 2009

Ash Wednesday, Lent 2009


Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris

We used to use this quotation during the imposition of ashes. Today we tend to use, "Turn from your sin and be faithful to the Gospel." Whichever one we prefer, today is a sobering day with readings which stop us in midstride from our usual ill and unconsidered comings and goings, and ask us who we really are and more, who will we be? It is the perfect way to begin a prolonged period of introspection and recommitment --- both of which are the focus of Lent.

Lent is the period where we regain perspective and commit ourselves to reality from the long-view of someone who knows we are usually too short-sighted and too caught up in all that distracts us from seeing or loving properly. It is a holy season and a genuine gift, because it gives us the graced space and time to do that which our world does not ordinarily provide: the space and time to examine our hearts and lives, the space and time to consider and begin to attend to what still cripples us as human beings, what prevents us from loving as we ought and as we are called by God to do; the space and time to listen anew and with minds and hearts made for this listening and, with the grace of God, to decide to change, to be better and truer persons --- not just richer or more successful, better educated or better employed or whatever is usually compelling to us --- but better and truer human beings.

The value of any gift of such time is usually inestimable, but the gift of this time and space, this season of introspection and recommitment, is more intensely and profoundly so. My own prayer is that we will each receive it fully and use it well.

21 February 2009

Followup questions on story, fundamentalism vs atheism, etc

[[Dear Sister, thank you for your posts on story. I have heard Genesis called mythical before, but I was unclear why scholars thought that was a good thing and not a harmful one. I especially never heard before that taking such stories literally could actually be the most harmful thing we can do. It was interesting to hear you put creationists and atheists in the same box here. So here are my questions. Do all stories in the Bible work in the same way? Are you saying that creationists and atheists misread the Bible in the same way? Are these two really more related than not? What is it they are both missing with regard to the stories in the Bible?]]

Some stories in the Bible are more historical (and that is true in the later chapters of Genesis as well), but yes, they challenge us in SOME of the same ways I outlined in the earlier posts. Especially they challenge us to identify in one way and another with the characters and problems involved and make decisions on where we will stand as a result in our own world; they can stand temporarily as a space where we can explore ourselves, etc, but generally they do not ask for the same kind of suspension of disbelief I described before. However, two kinds of Scriptural stories especially work in the way I outlined: myths, and parables (especially Jesus' parables which are completely unique to him in the history of literature).

Both are especially good at providing a space where we can enter in and leave our own world behind (so to speak) for the time being, but only so we can return with our own hearts and minds changed in some way and engage that world differently as a result. One of the ways you will see that Jesus' parables differ from myth per se is that they draw us in, disorient us, and then, demand that we make a choice which reorients us, either to the world as we ordinarily understand it, or toward the Kingdom of God. They are more active or directed in this dynamic than myth per se; further, because they are less fantastic than myth they demand not so much a suspension of disbelief as a renunciation of belief. I will not repeat more of what I have written in the past about parables, but I would suggest if you have not read them, you check out the pieces on Thematic Aperception Tests and Parables, or, the Parable of the Good Samaritan for a more detailed explanation of the way Jesus' parables in particular work. They are tagged, so you can find them in the list of labels at the right hand side of the blog.

Yes, I am saying that creationists and some atheists (there are different kinds) do tend to read the myths of Genesis' primordial history in the same way. Both take these stories literally, and make them ridiculous in the process. The creationists read the stories as explanations not only of a sovereign creator God, but as descriptions of the way he creates. They rule out evolution (micro and macro), ongoing creation, a world which is moving towards perfection or fulfillment rather than (merely) falling away from it, etc. As a result they make faith look like an anti-intellectual act of people afraid of truth instead of a deeply intelligent act worthy of humanity and the profound mysteriousness of the cosmos. They do something similar with God, who is invariably treated as A BEING rather than as the ground and source of all being and meaning. Atheists do the same, but they do so in order to justify a lack or even refusal of faith, the transcendent, and the like. They do so in order to denigrate believers and belief, but also to castigate the parodies of God naive believers so often put forward --- itself a much more legitimate enterprise than is sometimes recognized. So yes, despite apparent differences, these two groups of people often have more in common than they have differences.

What both of these groups of people miss is the fact that stories are sophisticated even sacramental vehicles for encountering truth, and this is especially true of myth or the mythical elements in stories. Both groups treat literal truth as contrary to profound truth which needs to be conveyed with myth and the bending and shaping of the literal. Both forget how story functions in our lives. They treat these things as childish, something to be outgrown, rather than understanding how entering into stories allows for growth in transcendence. (Watch a child being read to and imagine the explosions of transcendence going on in her mind and heart as she places herself in the story and internalizes what she hears!)

They do this in different ways: the creationist, for instance, absolutizes elements in the narrative as literal or historical in the modern sense and loses contact with the depth dimension of the story. Thus when faced with scientific data regarding evolution, the age of the world, etc, they must deny these things; when told by other believers the stories of creation function as myth, their faith is threatened unnecessarily and they cannot see the deeper truths embodied as only story can do. The atheists on the other hand opt for the data of science as far superior to what can be conveyed in story and if told the account is mythical, dismiss it as nonsense or fiction on ALL levels. Both underestimate truth (its scope and mystery) and the God who grounds and is the source of all truth, but they do this especially by forgetting how story functions, and how human beings are by nature story-telling beings not because they are unsophisticated or primitive, but precisely because they are sophisticated and capable of transcendence and communion.

20 February 2009

More on Story (Myth) and the Tower of Babel, Friday of Week Six in Ordinary Time

Just this morning I wrote a reflection on the ways stories function especially in regard to yesterday's readings. I had not been to Mass yet, nor had I prepared today's reading ahead of time when I wrote that piece. Otherwise I might have saved my comments, or written about the first readings from yesterday and today. The story of the building of the city, the construction of the Tower of Babel, the coming down of God from heaven to scatter people and confuse their language is without a doubt one of the best examples of what I spoke about in the last post: stories create spaces in which we can explore complex realities by suspending disbelief, etc. What I barely mentioned in that post but which is made even clearer in today's is the fact that stories give profound explanations to or analyses of deep and complex realities it would take thousands and thousands of words to even attempt otherwise.



Dissertations could well be written on the nature of human sinfulness, the problem of pride and the need to make a name for ourselves at the expense of our own humanity, the insatiable, almost innate drive for control and power human beings seem to evidence, the reasons for diverse languages, the power of united peoples speaking the same language, the fact of tribal and national divisions and enmities which have plagued us from the beginning of mankind are still with us despite the sense that we are a global community (not really a new insight according to today's first reading!), the fact that beneath our external differences we are really one, or the idea that our very creativity, initiative, and inventiveness --- indeed, even our very religion --- becomes our downfall time and again which God must save or protect us from. And yet, in the space of two paragraphs or so, the authors of Genesis have captured all of this from a theological perspective which is insightful and compelling --- so long as we do not read the story literally, but let it function precisely as stories are wont to do.

Read literally, the story would be ridiculous: A people, in an attempt to secure and make a name for themselves, build a city and a tower which truly reaches to heaven. God, apparently threatened by this act of hubris, and after coming down to earth to examine the whole project, throws down the tower and city, confuses the language so that a concerted effort at some greater project cannot be made, scatters the people, etc in what is an attempt to save them from even worse pride and presumption. Towers which reach to heaven? A God who comes down to survey the project only to return to heaven and cast the whole human reality in disarray? The notion that all spoke one language only to have God turn it into relative babble because he was threatened by their unity? None of this makes much sense to us, but again, stories function on levels deeper than the literal facts. When we are dealing with stories that do this in the precise way this one does, we are dealing with myth, that is, we are dealing not with a fictional story, but with a story that tells us profound truths that can really be told in no other way. The literal truth is relatively unimportant, and if we insist on this (the literal truth) we can actually miss the profound truths we are being asked to consider and embrace.

Today's first reading is the story of sin, not the story of a particular sin (though pride is dominant) so much as the story of all sin. Human beings are made for more than they have here. We are really made for nothing less than communion with God, and --- through his grace and our own inspired assistance --- for the participation in the perfection or fulfillment of the world. We are created capable of this, capable of cooperating with (receiving) grace, which accounts for our own great giftedness, our abilities to dream, love, create, build, compose, order, etc. These are the undistorted verbs of stewardship. Of course, unfortunately, our very made-for quality also testifies to incompleteness and separation from God, and our very separation from what we are meant for makes us long for more, just as it makes us insecure in our world. And, when we try to achieve what we are made for through our own efforts, those undistorted verbs of stewardship are rapidly transformed into the distorted verbs of domination and destruction.

Instead of allowing God to be the source of any name (i.e., any personal reality and presence) we have --- instead, that is, of glorifying (revealing) God in all we do --- we seek to make a name for ourselves. We seek to build a way to heaven, to rejoin (bind back to) God on our own terms, and of course, to stand higher and dominate the rest of creation in the process. We seek to secure ourselves atthe word literally means those who bind back) rather than faithful people, people who receive all they have as gift. And, as today's story tells us, it is pride which is at the heart of this whole process, a kind of forgetfulness about the source of our giftedness and capacities and the misconstrual of these things as our very own.

Of course, the story in today's first reading deals with more than I have dealt with here, and more effectively as well, precisely because it IS narrrative, it IS story, it is myth in the proper sense of that word. If you noticed your responses to my own analysis of the theology of this story you might have found yourself saying, "No, you can't use the term religion like that!" or "How can she play faith off against religion like that?!" or any number of other things. You were likely unwilling to suspend disbelief long enough to explore these things (though I hope some will think about them over time!). My comments may have challenged you in one way and another, but the story in today's first reading more easily allowed as well as challenged you to locate yourself in the story, to suspend judgment and to feel these people's insecurity, to comment on the validity or invalidity of their efforts at building their cities and towers for your own edification, to dream of a world where everyone speaks the same language and tribal, religious, and national protectiveness, distinction, and isolation is at an end. It allowed you to recognize your own pride, the times you have acted in ways which might have "made God take a second, closer look (or come right down from heaven to check out the situation)," and perhaps even yearn for God to intervene in a way which protected you from yourself. In short, it allowed you to envision and even make a choice for the Kingdom of God and the fulfillment of creation therein without even necessarily knowing (in these terms, anyway) that was precisely what you were doing.

The stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are primordial history, not history as we use that term today, and certainly not science! They are mythical, not so much merely fictional or untrue as profoundly and powerfully true in ways which are often ineffable apart from narrative. Again, they create shared space in which we can suspend disbelief, bias, etc, and enter in to explore, reflect, pray over, etc. But we will miss all this unless we take the time to consider how it is that such stories work. In the last couple of days we have gotten a terrific lesson in this with the stories of Noah and the flood, the post-flood actions of God, and the story of the tower of Babel. Given all the recent stuff out on atheism and creationism (both of which read these narratives literally, and so, superficially and tendentiously!) it is a timely lesson, I think.

On the way Stories Function: Thursday Readings, Week Six of Ordinary Time


I have been thinking about yesterday's readings. Remember, they are the post-flood story of Noah's family, and of God determining to be faithful and merciful to humankind despite their continuing sinfulness, and the story of Peter's proclamation of Jesus as the Christ which is followed by his rejection of the notion that Jesus, precisely as Christ, would have to suffer and die shamefully, ignominiously. Both stories have at their core people grappling with a changing concept of God, and the realization especially that God's faithfulness and mercy is greater than anything which human categories of justice, etc, will allow them to imagine otherwise.

What was especially striking to me was the way the first reading functions precisely as story. I have always been troubled by the notion of a God who changes his mind. Though stories involving this kind of apparent theological "nightmare" are prevalent in the OT, they were really troublesome for me at some points. What I came to see with a new freshness and power in regard to yesterday's first reading from Genesis was that this story functions in all the amazing and wonderful ways stories usually function. One need not see the details as literally true to understand what is being said or why. In fact, understanding the story as literally true may prevent one from hearing what is being said, or appreciating in a deep way how the story really functions!

The first thing we must realize about stories is that they create spaces where we can engage a world which is different from the one we ordinarily inhabit, and this includes different thoughtworlds --- inner worlds where beliefs and theologies differ, as well as seeing the material world around us through different persepectives and categories of understanding. Stories are places where we can enter in, suspend disbelief (or belief), intolerance, and biases (to whatever limited degree), and rub shoulders with ideas and characters we might neither have nor allow ourselves the freedom to experience otherwise. Stories, especially Scriptural stories, are the privileged spaces we can enter in order to entertain new possibilities for understanding God, ourselves, and our world. Similarly, they function as interfaces between worlds and world views, narratives which are told to break down barriers and create a SHARED space with others whose notions of the world might be radically different than our own. The storyteller is deadly serious in her purposes, and at the same time, completely free to bend and shape her material in order to invite the revisioning she wants to bring about.

And all this is what is happening in yesterday's first reading. Jews are telling a story in a world where everyone believes that God sends floods and other natural disasters as a judgment on human sinfulness; every natural disaster reinforces this sense. Over time this people have come to realize that their God is different than this. Instead he is faithful and committed to them no matter what they actually do, or in what ways they sin against him and others. They have come to see that their God does NOT abandon or destroy them but enters into covenant with them, and he will reaffirm this covenant again and again.(The climax of this growing insight is found in Ezekiel, where God reveals he does not act merely for our sake, but for his own. When people have sinned in every way possible and can never deserve God's love it is the ground of the surest kind of hope.) At the same time sin is serious business; the Jews know it is not merely dismissed, but that it effects all of creation and God's plans for it. They know too that sin is a costly matter for God himself. So, in a world where God's justice is still understood in a retributive or distributive way how do you get people to realize this is not the case? More, how do you get them not only to change their mind about this, but come to believe in a God whose hallmarks are creative mercy and fidelity? How do you get them to imagine a world where sin is taken seriously in a way which is costly to God while balancing these other foundational insights as well?

Well, you tell a story. The story of a God who does not take sin as a matter of course and could and should destroy the world because of it. The story of a God who continually creates not only out of primordial chaos, but also out of the chaos caused by human sinfulness, cosmic disorder, and even a local flood. The story of a God who is meciful and generous enough to "change his mind" so that creative mercy and faithfulness may win out.(God's change of mind also "saves face" for those who believe God is just in an all-too-human way still.) You tell the story of a God whose justice is not retributive, nor a matter of giving us what we deserve, but a matter of giving us what he wills and, in fact, what we can never deserve. A God who exercises sovereignty not with destructive power and threats, but with a love which is inexhaustible and creative, and with promises that this love will always be there for his own. We might be tempted to get hung up on the theological problems: a God who changes his mind is one of the big ones, for instance. How can God promise fidelity and yet be changeable? But if we realize the way a story functions we will let these kinds of details lead us instead to what is far more significant and challenging:

Will you allow your conception of God be stretched and changed? How about your concept of divine justice: will you accept a God whose justice IS his mercy, and who does not balance justice with mercy or vice versa? Will you participate in God's ongoing creation as stewards of the process? Will you enter into a covenant with this God in whose image you are made and whose covenant promise is part of the very promise of your own life? Will you not only enter into a covenant with this God but be the embodiment of a covenant which stands behind the whole of creation, and which is especially clear in the relationship between human beings and God? Will you allow God to be one whose sovereignty is revealed as self-emptying love and mercy, not a coercive power which threatens or intimidates? Will the irony of a God who is big enough to change his mind in the face of human sinfulness and intransigence help you to realize that it is God who is unchangingly faithful, and human beings who need to be big enough to change their minds and hearts? Can you believe any of these things? Commit yourself to any of them? Hear any of them as the good news they are? And if not, why not? Stories give us time for this kind of reflection, this kind of consideration --- without coercion or judgment.

The Gospel account yesterday does something similar. It describes the affirmation of a certain vision of God, a certain kind of Christhood or Messiahship and then justaposes an altogether more problematical vision, bigger, more challenging --- indeed, challenging in ways which would shake even the theology of the Jewish disciples to the roots: a God who is not only not a distant and uncaring judge, not only a God who cares about his creation and is committed to a costly faithful and merciful love of it, but a God who will enter right into the world as completely as he can and suffer and die the most shameful death imaginable for its redemption! Peter is the foil in this story. We watch and cheer him on as he echoes our faith (FINALLY!). We watch in silence as he voices our own unvoiced doubts about the necessity of Jesus' crucifixion and death, our own embarrassing concerns about the propriety of a God who loves so much as to die for us while we are yet sinners without first demanding repentance from us! We know deep down that his story is our own: for we too have a faith which only goes so far and is constantly challenged to be open to a less merely-human notion of God, a more awesome and unimaginable deity; we too are someone whose heart is dual, whose love is inadequate, and whose understanding is partial at best.

At liturgy we share these stories precisely because they are our heritage, but also because they call us to imagine and make our own something greater than we have yet accepted. They provide the space for hearing, reflecting, criticizing or applauding, accepting or rejecting a God who is ever greater than any we have yet TRULY known. In short, they are sacramental realities which become occasions of obedience, and we hope, the obedience of faith, for we cannot approach the altar otherwise. The challenge is to hear these stories not as "mere" stories, but as stories which function as only stories can by doing all the awesome things stories do; the challenge is not to insist on hearing them literally or dismissing them because they sound like theological nonsense at this point or that, but instead to recognize they are the privileged places where God resides and comes to meet us if only we will suspend disbelief (and all-too-human-belief) and enter in for a time.

17 February 2009

St Bernard of Clairvaux on the Relation of Active and Contemplative in the Spiritual Life


I recently wrote a couple of posts decrying the auntithetical division into contemplative vs active, temporal vs mystical, but in writing them I didn't cite anyone really to support my positions. This morning I began reading an essay by Martin Smith, SSJE, entitled "Contemplation and Action in the pastoral Theology of St Bernard." It is from a lovely collection of essays on St Bernard, called, The Influence of St Bernard, and is published by the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres Press.


The point of the essay is to demonstrate how intimately related and dependent upon one another contemplation and action really are in the thought of St Bernard for the development of the capacity to love and live fully, the capacity, that is, to be all that we are called to be. Some of the essay deals with the problem of monastic life vs life in the world (especially with regard to a monk called to be Pope!), but most of it deals with the tricky balancing of active and contemplative dimensions in the monastery itself. What Bernard concludes again and again is that these two realities require each other. They are not really conflicting or antithetical realities, but instead need and come to fulfillment only in relation to one another. Especially, Bernard sees clearly, contemplation finds its completion in pastoral zeal and fervor which then itself leads back to contemplation. Most importantly, Bernard understands that God himself calls to activity as the natural fruit and completion of contemplation and vice versa. He writes:

[[ After this Divine look, so full of condescension and goodness, comes a voice sweetly and gently presenting to the mind the Will of God; and this is no other than Love itself. which cannot remain in leisure [contemplative withdrawal], soliciting and persuading to the fulfillment of the things that are of God. Thus the Bride hears that she is to arise and hasten, no doubt to work for the good of souls. This is indeed a property of true and pure contemplation, that it sometimes fills the mind, which it has vehemently inflamed with divine fire, with a fervor and desire to gain for God others to love Him in like manner and to that end willingly lays aside the leisure of contemplation for the labor of preaching. . . . And again, when it has attained the object desired, to a certain extent, it returns with the more eagerness to that contemplation, in that it remembers it laid it aside for the sake of more fruit.]] (Sermon 57 on the Song of Songs)

None of this means there is not tension between the two, nor "psychological suspense and misgiving," as Smith puts the matter. There is. Always. Contemplatives know this, and so too do those involved mainly in apostolic ministry. And yet, just as we cannot ignore either of the two essential forms of relatedness (to God and others) which are foundational for genuine humanity, or the intrinsic relation they bear to one another --- especially in the name of a self-absorbed and selfish 'contemplation,' or a soulless activism that lacks a contemplative underpinning and telos --- neither can we ignore the intrinsic relatedness of contemplation and action. It is the two together which witness to the authenticity of either dimension alone, and it is the two together which make us true contemplatives and mystics.

14 February 2009

"This Trackless Solitude" by Jessica Powers

Perhaps on Valentine's day there are many poems of Jessica Powers which could be used to signal the love which is the hermit's and which calls to all of us, whatever our vocation, but I think the following one is lovely. Romantic love, wonderful as it is, is a shadow and sacrament of a love which is even deeper and summons us from within; in this poem Sister Miriam captures this beautifully.


Deep in the soul the acres lie
of virgin lands, of sacred wood
where waits the Spirit. Each soul bears
this trackless solitude.

The Voice invites, implores in vain
the fearful and the unaware;
but she who heeds and enters in
finds ultimate wisdom there.

The Spirit lights the way for her;
bramble and brush are pushed apart.
He lures her into wilderness
but to rejoice her heart.

Beneath the glistening foliage
the fruit of love hangs always near,
the one immortal fruit; He is
or, tasted: He is here.

Love leads and she surrenders to
His will, His waylessness of grace.
She speaks no word save His, nor moves
until He marks the place.

Hence all her paths are mystery,
passaging a Divine unknown.
Her only light is in the creed
that she is not alone.

The soul that wanders, Spirit led,
becomes, in His transforming shade,
the secret that she was, in God,
before the world was made.

(1984)

11 February 2009

Followup Questions: Should a Hermit Care about canonical standing and the like?




[[Sister, should hermits care about things like canonical standing, and the like? If one is truly a mystic, or truly a contemplative then should such things as legal standing, dress, identification, and other things associated what you referred to as the "temporal world" really matter? I read that for authentic mystics such things would not matter. God gives the vocation and all the credentials such a hermit needs.]]

It's hard to know where to start in answering your question. Let me assume this is a followup to the earlier one about the terms "temporal Catholic world" and "mystical Catholic world", and that you have read the post on that --- as well, I hope, as others on the importance of canonical status, lay hermits (with or without private vows), etc. If you have not, please at least look at these entries as well. (Some prepare for or repeat what is here; some add to or enlarge on it, and some just do a better job of addressing the issues.)

First, let me say that any division into authentic and inauthentic must not be done on the basis of canonical standing or lack thereof, nor on the basis of whether one is reclusive and involved in mystical prayer or not. Authentic and inauthentic in the hermit life must instead be a reflection of how truly the hermit's vocation of silence, solitude, prayer, penance, and stricter separation from the world serves the more basic or foundational requirements that this be a vocation to discipleship and love. This love is an expression of the goals which serve as the heart of Canon 603: the vocation is for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. BOTH aspects (a commitment to God and to ALL he cherishes) are required for this to really be a vocation of authentic loving eremitism. The means to this are the elements already mentioned: silence, solitude, etc, but the REASON for these things is that one wishes to glorify God (meaning praise and reveal him in this world) and contribute to its salvation. One may have (and, in fact, NEED) canonical standing to do this, or one may be (and NEED to be) a lay hermit and do it equally effectively without such standing.

If by "car(ing) about" you mean, "Should a hermit want canonical status (standing), the right to wear a cowl and habit, the right to a title (Sister, Brother), or to do ministry besides what is done in the hermitage itself because of the public recognition and perks these things can give her?" then my answer is no, she should not care; she should be relatively indifferent to these things in themselves. However, if you mean, "does she really need such things to grow in and live out her vocation with integrity?" then the answer is a resounding yes, in some cases she absolutely DOES need to care about such things, and this remains true whether she is given to mystical prayer or not.

A hermit will also care about canonical standing and all that entails to the extent she is committed to the witness that a canonical hermit can and needs to give to the contemporary world for its own benefit. (Lay hermits also witness in their own way so they too express caring about status precisely by retaining lay standing.) By the way, the diocesan hermit need not choose to wear a habit or be addressed as Sister (some countries do not use the title at all for hermits), but ordinarily the liturgical garment given at perpetual profession is worn in public so there is some symbolic and recognizable presence in this way. She will care about being present to her parish and diocese despite the essential hiddenness of her life of prayer, and should her contemplative life and prayer spill over in various ways, she will find appropriate ways to express this and she WILL care about this process. Whether diocesan or a lay hermit, mystic or not, there is no doubt that the temporal world MATTERS and the hermit expresses caring and concern for it. She is part of it, responsible for it and its redemption in her own way, but as I have noted a number of times, she can never simply abandon it or turn her back on it completely in the name of the (fictional) "mystical Catholic world." Even authentic recluses do not simply abandon the world. Again, hermits, of whatever stripe or degree of reclusion, are bound by the essential goals and reason for their vocations: to praise God and (help bring about) the salvation of the world.

The last two sentences of your question are provocative. Authentic mystics is the term in the first one that niggles at me some. What is an "authentic mystic"? Is it one who has what are called "mystical experiences" in prayer or does it go beyond such stuff? How would you define this term (or how would the person you read do so)? Mystical experiences happen from time to time in contemplative prayer but does that really diminish the person's concern for the rest of creation? Is it a term associated with union with God for you? And again, if one is really united with God in this way, do they also cease to be concerned with the salvation of the rest of his good creation? Perhaps you can tell I don't think so. We are all grounded in the same God, linked to one another in him, so union with God means union with others as well. Granted, someone who has had a mystical experience or two might be temporarily and selfishly caught up in the experience and desire to leave the world behind, but my own experience is that this is the temptation of the beginner. As growth in mystical prayer continues the dynamic changes. (It is also true that mystical experiences per se do not make the mystic; sometimes when one is being initiated into contemplative prayer, one will have a mystical experience or two, but these tend to be God's way of encouraging the person to persevere. They tend to say, "See how much I love you! Never forget this!" and they also challenge, "Will you love me in return even without such experiences?" Finally, they also remind us of where our lives are going and what they are meant for ultimately. They are a taste of what we will come to want for everyone, not just ourselves.)

In particular, if mystical experiences continue, one begins to be reshaped by them, just as in any prayer. One's heart is remade. One's mind is transformed, and one begins to look at the world with new eyes and a deepening compassion and love. Does one simply not care? No. One cares all the more deeply because after all, GOD CARES DEEPLY, and through prayer one is more profoundly united to God and his will for creation, as well as to creation itself. The mystic is one who, whatever else is true for her, can truly say, "I, yet not I but Christ in me!" and such a one will care deeply for the world and whatever is necessary to bring it to the perfection God wills for it. The Church, and aspects of the Church (including Canon Law, status/standing in law, public profession and consecration, or lay status among other things) are pieces of this. Only the individual concerned, mystic or not, can, with the grace of God, determine what is necessary for her to receive, respond to, and live out God's own call to her with faithfulness and integrity.

The second sentence I found provocative was the one regarding God providing all the credentials and vocation one needs. Unfortunately, this is not strictly true, or rather, the way in which God provides these things may well, and often does include the mediation of the church, canonical status and the like.

Since the hermit is concerned with praise of God and the salvation of the world, she obviously is concerned with the effect of her life and vocation on others. Some of this happens completely mysteriously, without visible evidence through her prayer. In no way do I wish to minimize the truth of this really amazing reality. Through prayer itself the hermit draws the world into God's ambit more and more personally, and through that prayer she can contribute to the world's salvation. I do not see this, nor can I explain it very well theologically, but I know absolutely that it is the case. But this is only a part of the picture, and unless one has a vocation to complete reclusion (a vocation which is VERY rare and generally needs to be vetted by the Church), one ordinarily contributes and witnesses to the world in other ways as well. And if this is the case, then one's vocation must be authentic and one's credentials established one way or another. (By the way, I would suggest that in the case of a vocation to complete reclusion and mystical prayer, the discernment and approval of the church is even more important than for non-recluses. Reclusion per se need not be eremitical, and selfish reclusion, or reclusion based on deficiency needs does not praise God nor particularly contribute to the salvation of the world. Meanwhile, mystical prayer needs also to be genuine and for the benefit of others; ordinarily one needs the assistance of the church in determining and growing in this.)

Expectations, Accountability, and Canonical Standing:


In the Catholic Church some vocations are known as "ecclesial vocations." They involve a number of ecclesial dimensions, but among them 1) the church is responsible for discerning these vocations; 2) the church herself mediates the vocation from GOD to the individual. One may feel called to priesthood or religious life, for instance, but the church herself, mediating God's own call, must admit the person to vows and consecration or to ordination. Individuals cannot assume such vocations on their own initiative alone; 3) the person with such a vocation is directly responsible to the church (hierarchy, superiors) for the living out of this vocation; 4) one is additionally responsible or accountable to all the church for his or her vocation and acts in the name of the church in living it out, ministering to others, etc. The diocesan hermit vocation is one of these ecclesial vocations, and in such a case credentials, those things that establish us as credible in the eyes of others and suggest they can safely entrust themselves to us do not come from God alone.

For instance, as I have written here before, canonical status means that the people in my parish have a right to certain expectations of me in light of my standing in law. These include personal, psychological, and spiritual wholeness or well-being, adequate formation and oversight, appropriate education and training, theological and spiritual competency, professional competency (if different than these two), integrity in living out my Rule of life, the right to expect my life will be lived FOR them in all appropriate ways, the right to expect that my Rule of Life is sound and could be adopted by others if this seemed helpful, the confidence that I will continue to grow in this life and remain committed to the parish and diocesan communities, and that my own life will challenge them similarly, etc.

Canonical Standing actually says these things are reasonable expectations of a diocesan hermit which others can necessarily have. While a lay hermit might well be able to meet such expectations, parishioners do not have a right to these expectations NECESSARILY in their regard. Yes, God gives the grace of a vocation, and if one wants to go into complete reclusion, they may not PERSONALLY need any more credentials than the call to reclusion, but for hermits generally, the discernment and vetting processes that are part of extending canonical standing serve to be sure the vocation is an authentic eremitical vocation, not simply the selfish solitary life of someone who is unhappy, having delusions or weird psychiatric symptoms, or someone who simply can't abide others or deal with the real world of space, time and people. This is generally true for recluses too since their vocation is even more countercultural and eccentric (out of the center) than non-reclusive eremitical life. Canonical standing does benefit the hermit, but it benefits those who meet her and require her assistance too.

And of course, what we have been saying then is that canonical standing establishes one as forever accountable to those who have summoned them forth to respond to the gift of this vocation. When I refer to expectations, I am really referring to elements of the canonical hermit's foundational accountability. The rite of profession, as I have noted above, begins with a calling forth of the candidate and she responds, "Here I am Lord, I come to do your will!" She lives her life not just on their behalf but specifically accountable to them through legitimate superiors for a vocation and commission mediated to her by the church itself through her own local (diocesan and parish) communities. Beyond this, they support her in her vocation and are themselves challenged by it. Such relationships then are not insignificant but essential to the eremitical vocation and the life of the church itself. They are part of what I have identified in other places here as the "unique charism of the diocesan hermit."

One friend, and also a diocesan hermit of 25 years explained it this way on hearing your question: [[. . .I can only say that for myself it was important that I would be called to accountability by the Praying Community, the Church for the vocation that God has given to me, I have been called by God from the praying community and for the Community and if I am to be authentic then I need the Church to hold me accountable for what God has given to the Church and to me. Also, in a way I am called to hold the Church, the praying community, accountable to support by their prayers and other means the gift that God has given the Church. I did not do it for "stature" in the church or recognition by the community but because we are all connected by God in whom we dwell. My understanding of Ecclesiology moved me to make vows within a diocese.]] (Sister Janet Strong, Er Dio, Diocese of Yakima)

I think Sister Jan says it very well. Diocesan hermits care about canonical standing because it establishes them in a formal relationship which is lifegiving to both the hermit and the community from and for which she is called. We care because we know that such committed relationships are willed by God, and necessary for the salvation of all. We care because it is the will of God that we do so, because discipleship (ours and that of those we touch with our lives and witness) demands it, and because formal (canonical) standing allows us to live out our eremitical lives with faithfulness and integrity.

I hope this helps. If it raises other questions or leaves aspects unanswered, please get back to me on it.

06 February 2009

Confusions regarding the notions of "Catholic Hermit", "Temporal vs Mystical Catholic Worlds," etc.

Please note, this article is not meant to answer the simple question about what a Catholic or diocesan hermit is. If you are looking for that kind of post, please see Notes From Stillsong Hermitage, What is a Diocesan Hermit?. The following article is concerned more with the misuse of the term Catholic hermit in contrast to the sense in which the Church uses the term.


Sister, could you please comment on the marked passage? I am confused by some terms, like "temporal Catholic world", but also by the reference to a canonist who seemingly should not be trusted in some of her comments, especially re the definition of "Catholic hermit." Thanks.

[[This was in reaction to being told of some person who may or may not have a canon law degree writing online that hermits who are not canonically approved are not to refer that they are Catholic hermits, for that implies they are canonically approved. Also, such hermits should not have confessors to guide them.... So, we have here an example of someone out in the blogosphere interpreting canon law using personal augmentation and opinion. The reality of a statement of fact can be twisted any which way, but fact is fact. What another wants to think depends upon that others' frame of reference. To be a Catholic hermit means just that: Catholic and hermit. It does not imply or infer the status in the temporal Catholic world known as canonical approval or disapproval. Also, there is nothing in Canon law that states a Catholic hermit ought not be guided or supervised by his or her confessor. Ask a priest canon lawyer.]] (Emphasis added)

Yes, I have actually recently read this very passage even apart from your question, and I also know (as a superficial online acquaintance only) the Canonist who is being maligned and deemed mistaken. She has written that the term "Catholic hermit" necessarily implies canonical status or standing, and I completely agree. I have referenced her comments a number of months back, so you can look for those too if you care to. (The poster who wrote the above passage is correct about frame of reference being important. This person I have cited previously is a canon lawyer who specializes in consecrated life, so she is well-qualified here. She works in and for the Church in this capacity, and her blog is an instance of authoritative information.) But let's look at this now.

On the term Catholic Hermit

If a man says "I am a Catholic priest" does he merely mean, "I am a Catholic and a priest by virtue of baptism into the priesthood of all believers?" No, certainly not, at least not if he means what the Church herself means by this. Does he mean "I function as a priest in the private sector with my minister's web license and am a Catholic, so therefore, I am a Catholic priest? Again, no, of course not. Does he even mean, "I was an Anglican priest, but have since become Roman Catholic; I have not been ordained in the Catholic church, but I am a priest forever, and therefore I am a Catholic priest"? No. Similarly, if a lay woman says she is a Catholic nun, does she mean she is Catholic, dresses simply, is cautious in her spending habits, and prays regularly? Again, not if she means what the church means by these terms.


We could extend these examples further, and perhaps gain greater clarity too: a policeman who resides but does not work in or for the City of Las Vegas is not a Las Vegas police officer according to normal usage, for instance; a platonic friend who is a boy is not a Boy Friend (though young people do play games with language to taunt their parents in this regard!), but the bottom line is the same: The terms Catholic priest, Catholic nun, or Catholic hermit mean that the people so identifying themselves are these things (as the church herself defines them!) through the authority and mediation of the Catholic Church. They mean they undertake and represent these states of life or vocations in the name of the Church who authorizes this, and not in their own names. It means they represent ECCLESIAL vocations in the way I have explained in the past (please see tags below).

The church herself has raised the publicly vowed eremitical vocation to the consecrated state and public standing in law, and because she has, a Catholic hermit is not simply a "hermit" (in the common sense of the term) who is Catholic. (To be very blunt, if that were the case, and were he Catholic, Theodore Kasczynski (the "hermit" Unabomber) could have called himself a Catholic hermit; so could any curmudgeonly loner, misanthrope, or agoraphobic living alone, for instance, so long as they were baptized Catholic). A Catholic hermit, on the other hand, is one whose vocation is discerned and mediated by the Catholic Church in whose name and in direct and real responsibility to whom the hermit lives her life. Both terms, "Catholic" and "hermit," are important and qualify one another. Not just any form of solitary living is authentically eremitical despite the common sense of this term (cf Kasczynski or the misanthrope again). Similarly then, not every form of genuinely eremitical life is Catholic in the normative sense of that term; that is, not every genuine eremitical life is undertaken with the authority and in the name of the Catholic Church. In this matter the Church recognizes certain individuals as publicly representing the vocation, and she grants both commensurate rights and obligations along with the title Sister or Brother to these. The RIGHT to call oneself a Catholic hermit is implicitly granted by the Church in a definitive liturgical act (". . .be faithful to the ministry the church entrusts to you to be carried out in her name"); it is not and cannot be assumed by the individual on her own authority.

Similarly, if the term "Catholic hermit" is used by someone to describe herself, others have have every right to infer that the person has the official standing to act and style herself thusly in the name of the Church. The rights and obligations of the Catholic hermit do not stop at the hermitage door, nor do they fail to impact others. The vocation of the Catholic hermit, hidden though it may be, is still a public vocation. Again, rights have correlative responsibilities and the designation "Catholic hermit" comes with both. Misuse of the label opens the way to misrepresentation of all kinds simply because one who is not canonical may not understand, appreciate, or even care about the commensurate obligations that come with profession and consecration as a Catholic hermit, much less feel bound to exercise them. Accountability, formal, legitimate, and real is associated with the term Catholic Hermit.

The Canonist referenced in these comments has merely pointed out the normative Catholic meaning of such terms, and in this I believe she is completely correct. She has twisted nothing and her credentials are not in question. Neither, as far as I can tell, is she merely offering personal opinion here; she speaks as a Catholic canonist!

Note: after I wrote this article I discovered Canon 216. It says the following: [[All the Christian Faithful, since they participate in the mission of the Church, have the right to promote or sustain apostolic activity by their own undertakings in accord with each one's state and condition; however, no undertaking shall assume the name Catholic unless the consent of a competent ecclesiastical authority is given.]] Thus, the prohibition is present in black and white. The argument that one need merely be Catholic and a (lay) hermit to call oneself a "Catholic hermit" is specious. The same is true of a religious community and the term Catholic. One must be using the term in the way the Church herself does, and be doing so with the authority of the Church, otherwise the usage is illegitimate at best. See also Canon 300 which applies to groups: No association shall assume the name "Catholic" without the consent of ecclesiastical authority in accord with the norm of C 312

Can Hermits be Guided by Confessors?

As for the issue of not being guided by a confessor, you didn't ask about this explicitly, but it is included in the passage and is one of the things the canonist was said to be wrong about so I will address it here: I believe the author of the passage you asked about is referring to the same entry on eremitical life by the referenced canonist, but has completely misread or miscontrued what she said. What was affirmed was that a hermit's spiritual director ought not to also be her superior. Here is the accurate passage, at least from the same entry on hermits: [[. . .Normally, it is best if the superior is not his [the hermit's] spiritual director unless exceptional circumstances call for it and if the extent of the obedience owed is clearly spelled out in the hermit’s rule of life. Otherwise, the private hermit should not make a vow of obedience but should content himself with the vows of poverty and chastity. The vow of obedience more properly belongs to the applicable canonical forms of consecrated life, not to private individuals who are not living in community or under hierarchical authority.]] Despite it not sounding like the correct passage (it does not mention confessors), as far as I know, this is the only reference to hermits in which the same author refers in wisely cautionary terms to specific arrangements re spiritual directors as superiors, but in no way does this suggest a spiritual director should not guide a hermit. Quite the opposite, in fact, is presupposed.

Temporal vs Mystical Catholic Worlds

The term Temporal Catholic World (and its implied "opposite," Mystical Catholic World) can indeed be confusing. It is a neologism of sorts, so is somewhat idiosyncratic and eccentric. In some senses I find it theologically objectionable because in the passages I read at least, it is counterposed with the phrase Mystical Catholic World and the two tend to be played off against one another as though they are completely distinct and oppositional. [The marked passage above does not refer explicitly to "mystical Catholic world" but others did.] But for the Christian this cannot be claimed to be true without emptying the Incarnation of meaning. Is there any question that Jesus was a mystic? No. So was Paul, but neither of these played off the temporal world against the so-called mystical world. Neither rejected one in the name of embracing the other. In fact, Jesus' entire role as mediator is a matter of making sure these two dimensions of the one world interpenetrate one another in a more and more definitive way.

A Catholic is called to live in this world of space and time. She is called to live out her faith in Christ in a world which is yet incompletely redeemed, and in this way to be in it even if not "of it".
She is called to understand that with Christ the separation between sacred and profane has been broken down, the veil rent in two. S/he may be called to be a mystic, and yet, his/her contemplative life can spill over into ministry other than prayer. It MUST spill over into love of others! Those who are truly contemplatives or authentic hermits know this phenomenon well. Does it require care in making sure the active ministry one undertakes is the fruit of contemplative life? Yes, absolutely. Should active ministry always be undegirded by and lead back to prayer? Again, absolutely. But union with God necessarily leads to love of others in unmistakable and concrete ways, and therefore quite often to more direct or active ministry, how ever that is worked out by the individual.

It is true that there is a rare vocation to actual reclusion, but recluses are also in communion with the church and larger world -- in some ways to a greater extent than most people. Their reclusion is actually a paradoxical way of assuming responsibility for (and in) "the world", both within and without the recluse's own self. Remember that prayer links us in God to all others (we all share the same Ground of Being and Meaning), and that love of God issues in love of others, a concrete love, not love as an abstraction or pious parody of itself. At the same time, our love for others reveals God to us and casts us back into his arms so that we can be remade sufficiently to love all the more truly and profoundly. As a friend recently reminded me, "In solitude we should hear the cries of the world. It takes strength. And if you don't hear that cry, you are not mature enough. . ."

Mystics though any of us may be, we are all still "temporal world Catholics". Or perhaps the paradox is stronger and truer as it often is in Christianity: to the degree we are true mystics and citizens of heaven, we belong even more integrally to the temporal world loving it deeply and profoundly into wholeness. Never do we abandon it! Eremitical vocations (including reclusion), undoubtedly require "stricter separation from the world," in the sense defined below, but they do not allow us to divide reality into a temporal Catholic world and a separate and opposing mystical Catholic one, especially when that division (which could be used in a more typological sense otherwise) is accompanied by the implication that hermits in the "TCW" (read canonical or diocesan hermits!) are not given to contemplation or union with God, or the direct affirmation that a hermit needs to discern whether she is called to one or the other of these "worlds." [[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. . . .]] This kind of stuff is simply theological nonsense, not least because any hermit alive today and every living Catholic mystic is alive in the "temporal Catholic world" (how could she NOT be?); further, both requires much from, and owes much to, that very world --- not least the recognition of its sacramental character as well as commitment to its continuing redemption and perfection in Christ! It is precisely the mystic (hermit or not) who appreciates all this most clearly!

The term, "world" in the phrases "hatred for the world" or "stricter separation from the world, " as I have written before, needs to be defined with care to prevent such theological nonsense. In Canon Law the term refers to "that which is yet unredeemed and not open to the salvific action of Christ," not least, I would add, that reality within ourselves! (A Handbook on Canons 573-746, "Norms Common to All Institutes of Consecrated Life," Ellen O'Hara, CSJ, p 33.) I have referred in the past here to "the world" as that which promises fulfillment apart from Christ. Neither of these complementary definitions suggests the wholesale renunciation of temporal for mystical, or supports the invalid and simplistic division of reality in such a way. Instead, both look to a certain ambiguity in temporal existence, and look to its perfection and fullness of redemption in Christ; rightly they expect Christians to open the way here. I hope you will look past relevent posts up --- especially re the notion that the world is something we carry within us, and not something we can simply or naively close the hermitage door on!

Again, I am reminded of several passages from Thomas Merton in regard to this last issue,

"When 'the world' is hypostatized [regarded as a distinct reality] (and it inevitably is), it becomes another of those dangerous and destructive fictions with which we are trying vainly to grapple.

or again,

And for anyone who has seriously entered into the medieval Christian. . . conception of contemptus mundi [hatred for or of the world],. . .it will be evident that this means not the rejection of a reality, but the unmasking of an illusion. The world as pure object is not there. it is not a reality outside us for which we exist. . . It is only in assuming full responsibility for our world, for our lives, and for ourselves that we can be said to live really for God."

as well as,

"The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.. . . This 'ground', this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door. When I find the world in my own ground, it is impossible for me to be alienated by it. . ." (The Inner Ground of Love)

or again:

"There remains a profound wisdom in the traditional Christian approach to the world as an object of choice. But we have to admit that the mechanical and habitual compulsions of a certain limited type of Christian thought have falsified the true value-perspective in which the world can be discovered and chosen as it is. To treat the world merely as an agglomeration of material goods and objects outside ourselves, and to reject these goods and objects in order to seek others which are "interior" or "spiritual" is in fact to miss the whole point of the challenging confrontation of the world and Christ. Do we really choose between the world and Christ as between two conflicting realities absolutely opposed? Or do we choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in him, that is to say, redeemed by him, and encountered in the ground of our own personal freedom and love?" (The Inner Ground of Love, Emphasis added)

And finally (I have quoted this before):

"Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our own alienation and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time? If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love and nowhere else will I find myself, the world, and my brother and my sister in Christ. It is not a question of either/or, but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivity and "purity" but of wholeness, whole-heartedness, unity, and of Meister Eckhart's gleichkeit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything."

I think, unfortunately, it is possible to read a lot of medieval mystical theology which is built on a notion of the world and contemptus mundi or a mundo secessu (as used today in Canon 603) that does indeed falsify the situation and makes difficult to see or make the real choice before us Christians. Yes, we must discern whether we are called to contemplative or active life (or to which of these essentially or primarily), to eremitic or even reclusive life or to apostolic or ministerial life, and of course, if God gifts us with mystical prayer, we need to honor that, but again, all this happens in the temporal world and as a gift to that world. In light of the incarnation, and especially in light of our own relational human constitutions as imago dei trinitates and grounded in God who speaks in and through us, that is precisely where God is to be found. Heaven and earth interpenetrate one another in light of the Christ Event and our task is to allow that to be more and more the case in Him. Setting up false, absolute, simplistic, and destructive dichotomies is no help at all.

I hope this helps. As always, if it is unclear or raises further questions, please email me.

02 February 2009

The Will of God, Jessica Powers

Time has one song alone. If you are heedful
and concentrate on the sound with all your soul,
you may hear the song of the beautiful will of God,
soft notes or deep sonorous tones that roll
like thunder over time.
Not many have hearing for this music,
and fewer still have sought it as sublime.

Listen, and tell your grief: But God is singing!
God sings through all creation with His will.
Save the negation of sin, all is His music,
even the notes that set their roots in ill
to flower in pity, pardon or sweet humbling.
Evil finds harshness of the rack and rod
in tunes where good finds tenderness and glory.

The saints who have loved have died of this pure music,
and no one enters heaven till he learns
deep in his soul at least, to sing with God.

Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (Jessica Powers), 1951