22 December 2010

Fourth Week of Advent: Singing Our Magnificats



Today's Gospel is Mary's magnificat while the responsorial text is a similar song taken from the book of Samuel. I have put these up before though not recently. They are contemporary Magnificats. Two or three pieces of Ann Johnson's poetry in particular are especially lovely. They are taken from Miryam of Nazareth, Woman of Strength and Wisdom, Ave Maria Press, 1984. The first is called the "Magnificat of Acceptance." (My apologies that the original formatting does not come through when the poem is published here.)


My soul trembles in the presence of the loving Creator
and my spirit prepares itself to walk hand in hand
with the God who saves Israel
because I have been accepted by God
as a simple helpmate.

Yes, forever in the life of humankind
people will sing of this loving encounter;
through remembering this moment, the faithful
will know that all things are possible in God.

Holy is the place within me where God lives.

God's tender fingers reach out from age to age
to touch and soften the inner spaces of those
who open their souls in hope.

I have experienced the creative power of God's embracing arms
and I know the cleansing fire of unconditional love.
I am freed from all earthly authority
and know my bonding to the Author of all earthly things.
I am filled with the news of good things:
my favor with God,
faithful trust in the gentle shadow of the Most High,
the mystery of my son, Jesus,
the gift of companionship with my beloved kinswoman,
Elizabeth, who believes as I believe.

The place in my heart I had filled
with thoughts of fear and inadequacy
has been emptied and I am quiet within.

God comes to save Israel, our holy family,
remembering that we are the ones who remember
. . . according to the kinship we have known. . .
remembering that we are the ones who remember
and that where God and people trust each other
there is home.

The second Magnificat is called, the "Magnificat of Friendship" and calls to mind not only my own journey, but those who have made it with me, and especially (in light of this Magnificat) those women who have assisted and accompanied me, whether in religious or consecrated (eremitical) life, medicine, ministry, etc. I am excited about continuing this journey into ever fuller and more abundant life, and I can't say how grateful I am to God for these friends, sisters, mentors, directors, physicians, etc.

My soul flowers in the light of your love, my God
and my spirit sings Alleluia in the reality of your joyful presence,
because you have chosen my kinswoman and me with the
summons of your eyes.

Yes, we are known now and for all time. We are known as women,
blessed.
Holy is your name.
The tenderness of your hand rests on us as we journey in your way.
Your power in my life has led me into the embrace of loving arms.
You have exposed my lonely pride that I might turn my head to your
nurturing breast.

You have revealed the hollowness of achievements and have opened in
my heart a space filled with simple, loving moments.
My hunger you have satisfied,
my excess you have ignored.

You are my help as I remember your tender love for me,
. . .for we have touched each other you and I
and we have made promises. . .

I remember your tenderness for all that you have begun in me
and in those with whom I walk
and I respond with all that I am becoming
in this hour and in all times to come.

As the quote I like so much reminds us, "God sustains us as a singer sustains a note." Let us each spend some time before and during Christmas discovering the unique Magnificat God has made of our lives and sing it anew with Mary, Hannah, Elizabeth, and all those without whom our lives would be barren indeed!

19 December 2010

In Memoriam, Tim O'Neal b.1954 d. 2010



On Friday, and quite unexpectedly, my brother, Tim, died. Tim had had some back surgery done on Monday, had been in the hospital until Thursday, and spoke with my sister Cindy that night for over an hour. He seemed fine. The next morning his wife and daughter kissed him goodbye as they left for work and school. He did not wake but was snoring. When they returned that afternoon they found him dead.

Tim could be incredibly funny and had one of the best capacities for telling jokes I have ever seen. He was an accomplished cook (sometimes cooking on cruise ships), and animal lover (he worked as a veterinary tech until a few years ago). He also had his problems including drugs and alcohol for much of his youth and young adulthood. However he had turned that all around and become a husband and really devoted father. His family was, without doubt, the thing he was proudest of. He was the primary caregiver there, the stay-at-home father, and he took genuine delight in caring for his daughter Allie, taking her to dance recitals, lessons, school, activities of whatever sort, etc. He is survived then by his wife, Olga, and his 6 year old daughter, Alyson, as well as by his sisters, Cindy and myself.

The whole family is stunned, of course. My sister and I would ask that you please keep Tim and all of us in your prayers, but most especially Alyson who may well feel, and be affected by, this loss most keenly of all.

16 December 2010

A Bit on the Relationship of Hopes to Hope: Hopes as Obstacles to Deep Hope

Thursday, Third Week of Advent
Isaiah 54:1-10
Luke 7:24-30

Advent is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of God in any way he wills to do that. For this reason it is a time in which we prepare ourselves to be surprised by and grateful to a God who is truly unimaginable. At bottom then, Advent is a time for cultivating a deep hope which carries us through and beyond every exigency in life and opens us to reality which transcends all the specific hopes we hold onto. This deep hope is an orientation of our hearts. It is what traditional theology calls a virtue, an habitual way of approaching reality, an approach in which we see what is truly present and the God who grounds that.

There is therefore a distinction, and often a tension, between specific hopes and this deep or profound hope, this virtue which sustains us even when specific hopes have been dashed or shattered. The ironic thing is that among the obstacles to the virtue of Hope we might identify are the specific hopes we cling to --- sometimes all-too-tightly. This distinction and tension is at the heart of the readings for today.

In Isaiah we see this played out as the author lists the various seminal hopes we each have and the ways those are shattered. Women who dream of having children, and in fact, whose self-worth and significance in the People of God (Israel) is bound up with child-bearing remain barren. The hopes of married couples to live together to the end of their days are disappointed by the death of one of the spouses. Those who look to the intimate and exclusive love and commitment of a spouse are abandoned instead. Youth whose lives are full of personal promise ruin their futures by somehow shaming themselves and becoming bound to and by that failure and shame. Hopes here can block the development of deep Hope instead of being opportunities for inculcating the virtue. And yet, in spite of the ways hopes disappoint or are disappointed, Israel is called to something deeper, something transcendent and more eternal and sustaining. In particular, Israel is called to be open to a God who will surprise her with a life with him that is beyond imagining. Specific hopes are expressions of the imaginable. Hope opens us to the surprise of the unimaginable. Thus Isaiah outlines some really outrageous pictures of what Israel will come to know: a barrenness that will be made fruitful beyond all telling, an abandonment which is contrasted with a commitment which is undying and without limit or end and is redeemed by that covenant, a national smallness and marginality which will be transformed into centrality and worldwide scope as Israel is made a light to the nations.

Today's Gospel also contrasts Hope with hopes, the unimaginable with the imaginable, and it does so by pointing out a second way hopes may be an obstacle to deep hope, namely by our allowing our individual hopes to make us blind to the larger and more surprising ways in which God really does visit and dwell amongst us. In today's text from Luke Jesus turns to those who have been out in the desert to see John the Baptist and he asks them three times, "What did you go out to see?" The first two times the question is ironic: did you go out to see a reed swaying in the wind or someone in soft/rich clothes, someone who dresses as a King, for instance? Only the most foolish would have done this and most would easily answer, "Of course not!" The third time Jesus enlarges the question, "Did you go out to see a prophet?" and explains that yes indeed, that is precisely what they saw, but even more besides. In meeting John Bp people saw not JUST a prophet but the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah and Israel's reception of that Messiah. And of course, implicitly, the people to whom Jesus is speaking must begin to entertain the possibility that something even more unimaginable has occurred, namely, that they are looking at Emmanuel right here and now.

But, while Jesus focuses explicitly on the surprise and significance of John the Baptist, the text is also clear that some people allowed their hopes to prevent them from seeing what God was doing in their midst. The Pharisees and scholars of the Law "knew" what the Messiah and the final Prophet would look like and they grasped this hope a bit too tightly to allow themselves to recognize and be surprised by a God who would do the unimaginable in their midst.

The challenge of Advent is to prepare our hearts for Christmas. To that end we take time to become people who hold our hopes a little less tightly or rigidly so that profound hope may be the motive and orientation of our lives. We prepare ourselves in a way that 1) prevents the shattering of our hopes from overwhelming us with disappointment, and 2) allows us to see beyond those hopes to the deeper ways in which God surprises us. This preparation prevents our being disappointed or even scandalized or offended by the way he works his will among us. If we are not truly surprised by Christmas it is probably right to ask ourselves if we have not either let go of hope altogether or clutched at hopes so tightly we remained closed to the God of the surprising. In either case, we will have failed to be people of profound or deep hope, people whose God goes by the unimaginable name, Emmanuel!

NB: With gratitude to David Steindl-Rast, OSB, and his book, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer. Therein David draws the distinction between Hopes and Hope and speaks of the imaginable vs the unimaginable as well as Hope as unitive and hopes as potentially divisive. I have drawn liberally on his insights in this reflection. If you have not read this book, please get it for Christmas. It is one of the best books on the nature of prayer I know.

09 December 2010

Jesus and John the Baptist: Two Approaches to Repentance and Forgiveness

Gospel Reading for Friday, 2nd Week of Advent: Matthew 11:16-19



Recently I watched story of a woman (Eva Moses Kor) who survived the holocaust. She was one of a pair of twins experimented on by Dr Mengele. Both she and her sister (Miriam) survived the camp but her sister's health was ruined and years later she later died from long term complications. Mrs Kor forgave Mengele and did so as part of her own healing. She encouraged others to act similarly so they would no longer be victims in the same way they were without forgiveness and she became to some extent despised by a number of other survivors. What struck me was the fact that Eva had come implicitly to Jesus' own notion of forgiveness and justice (where her own healing is paramount and brings about changes in others and the fabric of reality more than other notions of justice) while others clung to the Jewish teaching which states that amendment and restitution (signs of true repentance but more than this as well) must be made before forgiveness is granted. What also struck me was that she was indeed freer and less a victim in subjective terms than those who refused to forgive saying they had no right, for instance. Further, her forgiveness and freedom freed others (including another doctor at the camp (Dr Hans Munch) who had, until he met Eva and heard of her own stance towards Mengele, been unable to forgive himself) --- though it also pointed up the terrible bondage of either refusal or inability to forgive which other survivors experienced, especially as this became complicated by their newfound anger with Eva.

Today's Gospel reminds me of this video (and vice versa) because of the close linkage of John Bp and Jesus, and so of two very different (though still-related) approaches to repentance and forgiveness. On the one hand, a strictly ascetic John the Baptist preaches what John Meier describes as a "fierce call to repentance, stiffened with dire warnings of fiery judgment soon to come." (A Marginal Jew, vol 2, pp 148-49) In general John's preaching is dismissed and John himself is treated contemptuously as being mad or possessed by a demon. In the language of the parable John piped a funeral dirge and people refused to mourn.

On the other hand we have Jesus of Nazareth preaching the arrival of the Kingdom of God and offering "an easy, joyous way into [that] Kingdom" by welcoming the religious outcasts and sinners to a place in table fellowship with himself. Meier characterizes the response to THIS call to repentance in terms of the parable, [[With a sudden burst of puritanism, this generation felt that no hallowed prophet sent from God would adopt such a free-wheeling, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, hobnobbing with religious lowlifes and offering assurances of God's forgiveness without demanding the proper process for reintegration into Jewish religious society. How could this Jesus be a true prophet and reformer when he was a glutton and a drunkard, a close companion at meals with people who robbed their fellow Jews . . .or who sinned willfully and heinously, yet refused to repent. . .?]] In other words, in terms of tomorrow's parable Jesus piped a joyful tune, a wedding tune, and people refused to join in the celebration and dismissed Jesus himself as a terrible sinner, worthy of death.

There is wisdom in both approaches to repentance and forgiveness. Both are part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Both approaches are rejected by "this generation" --- as Jesus calls those who refuse to believe in him. Both lead to greater freedom. But it is Jesus' model which leads to the kind of freedom Eva Moses Kor discovered and which is supposed to mark our own approach to repentance and forgiveness. After all repentance is truly a celebration of God's love and mercy, and these we well know are inexhaustible. Still, entering the celebration is not necessarily easy for us, and we may wonder as some of the other survivors wondered about Eva's forgiveness of Mengele: do we have the right to forgive? Is it wise to act in this way towards someone who has not repented and asked for our forgiveness? Isn't this a form of "cheap grace" so ably castigated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer --- also a victim of the Nazi death machine? (cf The Cost of Discipleship) Where does forgiveness become enabling and does it demean others who have also been harmed? What about tough love: isn't John Bp's approach the better one? Am I really supposed to simply welcome serious sinners into my home? Into our sacred meal? To membership in the Church? To my circle of friends?

And the simple answer to most of these questions is yes, this is what we are called to do. The Kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus' example is the one we follow. It is this example which leads to the freedom of the Kingdom, this example that made Christians of us and will in time transform our world. In particular, it is this example which sets the tone for Advent joy and festivity and allows the future to take hold of our lives and hearts. It is not merely that we have the right to forgive in this way, but that we have been commissioned to do so. It is an expression of our own vocations to embody or incarnate the unconditional mercy of God in Christ.

Most of us will find ourselves caught between the prophetic example of John the Baptist and the Messianic example of Jesus' meal fellowship with sinners. We have great empathy both for the approach of Eva Moses Kor AND those survivors who could not forgive Mengele --- often because they felt that doing so was contrary to justice as spelled out in the Scriptures and elaborated in rabbinical tradition, as well as because it demeaned his victims. We know that "tough love" has a place in our world and that "cheap grace" is more problem than solution. Today's Gospel underscores our own position between worlds and kingdoms, and it may cause us to recognize that there was a deep suspicion of Jesus' table fellowship which was grounded in more than envy or fear. We may see clearly that the Jewish leadership of Jesus' day had serious and justified concerns about the wisdom of Jesus' actions and praxis. Even so, it is also clear regarding which model of repentance and forgiveness we are to choose, which model represents the freedom of the Kingdom of God, and which model allows us to be Christ for others. As Matthew's version of this parable also affirms, the wisdom of this approach will be found in its fruit --- if only we can be patient and trust in the wisdom of Jesus, the glutton, drunkard, and libertine who consorted with serious sinners.

02 December 2010

John Haught, the Future, and Advent

As a result of a panel discussion I listened to yesterday or the day before, I was reading God After Darwin again and came to an interesting passage on time and the idea of a metaphysics of future. In this book John F Haught tries to reorient both theology and science from an over dependence on (or bondage to) the past and turn them to a notion of future which is very different than the notion we are so used to. He is convinced this new perspective is (literally) the hope of both theology and science. For me personally his ideas imply a shift in the way I think of "the present moment" or the way I celebrate Advent or look to the Feast of Christ's Nativity.

Haught begins this section by describing faith as the state of being grasped (a la Tillich!) by "that which is to come." He then speaks of the future as having some kind of "efficacy" --- hard as this is to conceive of. He goes on to refer to a famous passage by Tillich in which he refers to being grasped by the "coming order." [[ The coming order is always coming, shaking this order, fighting with it, conquering it and conquered by it. The coming order is always at hand. But one can never say, "It is here. It is there!" One can never grasp it, but one can be grasped by it.]] (Shaking of the Foundations, p 27)

We are so very used to thinking of the future as that which is not here yet (because it has not yet been built out of the building blocks of the past and present), and the past as that which has been completed and gone (scattered building blocks, mostly turned to dust). We think of the present (the building blocks we can pick up and work with) as the only really real. But the situation is more complex and also more exciting than this. What we call present is the eternally-coming-to-be-and-also-passing (the eternally vanishing and ephemeral). It cannot really be fixed or pointed to, for the moment we identify it, it is gone and a new present has come into play (and gone again too). Meanwhile it is the future that takes hold of us and calls us to be. Haught writes:

[[In the experience of faith, it is the "future" that comes to meet us, takes hold of us, and makes us new. We may call this future, at least in what Rahner calls its "absolute" depth, by the name "God". In Biblical circles the very heart of authentic faith consists in the total orientation of consciousness toward the coming of God, the ultimately real. Beyond all our provisional or relative futures there lies an "Absolute future." And since our own experience cannot be separated artificially from the natural world to which we are tied by evolution, we are permitted to also surmise that "being grasped" by the absolute future pertains not just to ourselves but to the whole cosmic process in which we are sited. Theology can claim legitimately, along with St Paul (Rom 8:22), that the entire universe is always being drawn by the power of a divinely renewing future. The "power of the future" is the ultimate metaphysical explanation of evolution.]]

Later Haught explains: "by a metaphysics of the future, I mean quite simply the philosophical expression of the intuition --- admittedly religious in origin --- that all things receive their being from out of an inexhaustibly resourceful "future" that we may call "God" this intuition also entails the notion that the cosmic past and present are in some sense given their own status by the always arriving but also always unavailable future. . . . It should not be too hard for us to appreciate, therefore, why a religion that encourages its devotees to wait in patient hope for the fulfillment of life and history will interpret ultimate reality, or God, as coming toward the present, and continually creating the world from the sphere of the future "not-yet". . . .The past and present may seem to have more "being," in the sense of fixed reality, than does the future, which apparently has the character of not-yet-being. . . . In fact many of us think intuitively of the future as quite "unreal," since it has not yet arrived fully. [Haught notes this is a difficult and confusing idea at first, then says,] . . .perhaps this confusion is the result of our having been bewitched by a metaphysics either of the past or the eternal present. . . .]]

It seems to me that Advent is the perfect time to ask ourselves if we have been so bewitched, and to what degree we are really believers in the summoning call, promise, and power of the future which dwells within us and summons us from all sides as well. To what degree are our own lives an expression of the hope this future provides? (I would note that nothing unreal has this same kind or degree of power.) How truly attuned to the future are we? How truly capable of waiting, not in the grim sense of being stuck in the past, but in terms of orienting all we are and know TOWARDS the future that IS in God and is breaking in on us at every moment?

Contemplatives often speak of living in the present moment or attending to the present moment and sometimes we have the sense that the present moment is a kind of static reality of some breadth and length. We may also think that this kind of spirituality locks away the past and blocks us from looking towards the future. But really, the contemplative "present moment" is precisely what Haught is speaking of here: the powerful and continual grasping of our lives by the power of futurity -- a futurity grounded and realized in the living God. To truly dwell in the present moment is to give oneself over to this absolute future, this God who creates by summoning us forth from death and the despair of the past-only into the hope and freedom of the dawning-future we call present. This I think is preeminently the spirituality of Advent.

Our own approaches to Advent will differ one to the next, but we should ask ourselves to what degree have we become bewitched by another metaphysics than the one Haught describes, a metaphysics of the past or of a static eternal present, for instance rather than a metaphysics of future. For some that may mean spending some time rethinking our own ideas of the nature of time. We must at least, I think, begin to get our minds around this idea that the future is more real than we have allowed thus far in our conventional wisdom re time, and that IT is the reason there is a present (or really, anything at all). We, our world, the whole of the cosmos is not SIMPLY the consequence of a series of past causal events. Instead we are the result of God summoning the real out of the unreal, the more perfect out of the less perfect, the more complex out of the less complex, etc. We are here because the future opens the way for us to grow to fulfillment, not as a void into which we might merely move or expand as the weight of the past pushes us onward, but as an effective reality which empowers and summons to encounter and surrender. For me this is a really new way of thinking or seeing --- something, despite my reading of Haught, Moltmann, et al, I had not really "gotten" before now in doing theology. And so, the prospect of exploring this is new and exciting. Personally, I love beginnings and the excitement linked to them! That is what Advent (and the power of future) are all about! Apparently that is also what remaining in the present moment is all about as well!!

P.S., for those looking for a challenging and very exciting read, check out John Haught's, God After Darwin, A Theology of Evolution. If you are not up to the whole thing (and I personally am not myself right now) at least read chapter 6, "A God for Evolution." Of all of Haught's books the one I have liked best to this point is Is Nature Enough?. Great ideas, central themes, but readable. There you might want to look at the chapter on "Emergence" or the last short chapter on "Anticipation".

01 December 2010

Questions, Lay Hermits and Canons 604 vs 603

[[I am a little confused by some of the things you have written on your blog. I remember [someone] talking . . .about living as a lay hermit and your response was " good, the world needs more lay hermits" but it seem at times on your blog that you are against lay hermits, that you look down on them, that they are not a true expression. On another note, can you explain the difference between code 603 and 604? I'm sure you've written about it before but if you could " dumb it down" for me. ]]

Thanks for the questions. I think it is probably important to read everything I have written about lay hermits, or at least to read about it apart from what I say about canonical or diocesan hermits. If one reads JUST what I say about diocesan hermits one could get the impression you have gotten. I am passionate and enthusiastic about my own vocation and I argue for its importance in a world which generally neither esteems nor understands it. Thus, I devote more energy and time to it than to the lay hermit vocation. If, however, you read what I say about the need for lay hermits, the dignity of the lay state, the need for all hermits to discern between calls to lay or diocesan eremitical life, I think the impression is more balanced and positive.

To restate briefly what I have said before on this, the two vocations are both valid expressions of the eremitical life. (Religious eremitical or semi-eremitical life is a third valid expression by the way.) Both are important and each may speak to different segments of the Church and world more effectively than the other. They have different rights and responsibilities within the church per se, though they overlap and may be identical in terms of the foundational elements of the life. Despite their hiddenness, one is a "public" vocation and one is not. The obligations of one flow directly from one's lay vocation and state, the obligations of the other do not but come from public profession and initiation into the consecrated state as well.

Yes, the world needs more lay hermits. It is my impression that in general lay hermits could speak to the problem of isolated people in unnatural solitudes better than canonical or diocesan hermits do (though I haven't seen or heard any lay hermits doing that, more's the pity)! They stand directly in the shadow and line of the desert Abbas and Ammas --- who were also lay hermits, and witness to a different kind of relationship with the local church than diocesan hermits do. They witness to the simplicity and freedom of the eremitical life in ways the diocesan hermit perhaps cannot do as easily or effectively (here some of the criticisms or concerns re institutionalization of the vocation may come into play --- at least in a cautionary sense). Lay hermits model the universal call to holiness, the universality of the call to contemplative prayer (which many people still believe is ONLY open to specialists), and the call to the silence of solitude (union with God) which every person is meant to embody in one way or to one degree and another; they can do all this better than the diocesan hermit who is perceived as a religious and, unfortunately, therefore somewhat distinct from the laity. I should note that lay hermits, precisely because they live without the benefits of habit, title, etc, also call diocesan hermits in a poignant way to live the life without becoming caught up in the approval/status game which is more typical of "the world" hermits and other Christians reject.

Regarding the distinctions between Canons 603 and 604, they are significant. Canon 604 is the canon governing the conse-cration of virgins living in the world (i.e., not religious or hermits). It establishes them as consecrated women and brides of Christ and is thus a renewal or revival of this ancient vocation in the Church. (Some cloistered nuns have historically used the Rite of Consecration of Virgins on the occasion of their solemn profession and continue to do so today. Canon 604 revives the practice of consecrating women living in the world to a vocation which both predated and stood side by side this practice until about 1200. Consecrated Virgins living in the world are thus not nuns or "quasi nuns.")


The life of a consecrated virgin under Canon 604 may be fairly contemplative or quite active. She is expected to serve the Church by her life in whatever way suits and may do appropriate ministry with her gifts. She does not make vows but instead makes a proposal to live a chaste life; like diocesan hermits she is consecrated by God through the act of the diocesan Bishop. (All religious enter the consecrated state because they are consecrated by God and so do consecrated virgins living in the world.) She therefore lives the evangelical counsels in a way which fits her secular state despite not making vows to do so and has what is described as a "special relationship" with her Bishop.

Canon 603 is the canon governing the life of diocesan hermits. Hermits do not live in the world but rather in stricter separation from it. Like consecrated virgins they are in the consecrated state. Besides "stricter separation from the world", their lives are characterized by "the silence of solitude," and "assiduous prayer and penance," all lived for the glory of God and the salvation of the world. They also live the evangelical counsels and are obligated to do so by vow or other sacred bond. Their legitimate superior is their Bishop who may appoint or ask the hermit to select someone to act as a diocesan delegate, a quasi superior who meets with the hermit regularly during the year and serves both the hermit and the diocese on the Bishop's behalf. Diocesan Hermits write their own Rule or Plan of Life which becomes a morally and legally binding Rule on the day of their Profession. The Rule is ordinarily approved by a Bishop's Decree on that day and becomes the equivalent of proper law at that time. All of these externals aside, the vocation itself is a call to live the silence of solitude in stricter separation from the world, and this is simply not generally true of the vocation to consecrated virginity which is secular (lived in the world). They really are different vocations despite the similarities that also exist.

Early in the history of these two canons (c.1984-90) we saw people being conse-crated under Canon 604 AND Canon 603, that is, they were consecrated under the second of these canons despite already being consecrated under one of them. (Usually 603 came second because it was not as easy to discern eremitical vocations and Bishops were less willing to profess individuals under it than to consecrate a virgin living in the world.) Those who wanted to be hermits accepted consecration under Canon 604 and were sometimes called "diocesan sisters" and only later were admitted to vows under Canon 603 (if this occurred at all). (Sometimes Bishops used Canon 603 to profess individuals but did not want to indicate these persons were diocesan hermits and also used the term "diocesan sister" to describe or designate them in the diocesan directory.)

However, this is no longer accepted or acceptable practice. The consecration of each of the two vocations is complete in itself and the vocations differ from one another (Cf Statutes of the Bishops of France on Eremitical life); each have their own dignity and character. One is secular, the other is religious. It is not acceptable to celebrate consecration under Canon 604 simply because a Bishop will not use Canon 603 in his diocese any more than it is acceptable for individuals in non-canonical or lay communities to use C.603 as a way to get canonically professed and consecrated. My point here is simply that one needs to truly discern to which vocation they are called (and the church needs to do this as well), for it cannot be both (the exception is when the CV later discerns a call to solitude and becomes a diocesan hermit under c 603; alternately, a hermit might find she is no longer called to solitude, be dispensed from her vows, and seek consecration as a Virgin living in the world).

I hope this is helpful. If it raises more questions please get back to me.

27 November 2010

On Waiting for the Coming of the Lord : Parable of the Foolish Virgins (reprised)

I am reposting this not only because some people have been looking for it, but because it is appropriate for the Advent season as well. The emphasis on opportunity which may become judgment and on the nature of waiting is especially fitting, I think.

Today's Gospel [August 28, 2009] is one of the "parables of judgment." And in this context it is judgment in the uniguely and interrelated Christian senses of 1) harvest, and therefore 2) something which is not punitive, but merely involves a recognition of and commitment by God to the truth of what is. Evenso, as a story of an awful judgment, it is chilling too, for at the end the bridegroom will not unlock the door for those knocking NOW to be allowed in, but responds instead, "No, I did not know you." We have heard similar stories of course: apostles are sent out to proclaim, "The Kingdom of God is at hand," and are told to shake the dust from their sandals and leave the town, still saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." What was a tremendous opportunity becomes an awful judgment and moment of failure for those addressed by them. Similarly then, in today's parable what is meant to be the wedding feast becomes a moment of rejection, exclusion, and terrible judgment for some even while it is one of great rejoicing for others.

Where is it the foolish virgins fail in this parable? What is it they cease doing, for instance, which causes them to come under such a chilling judgment? At first it looks like they are guilty merely of failing to be prudent; they have lamps with insufficient supplies of oil to refill them should the bridegroom be delayed. But one might also ask "what kind of wedding is held at midnight" or "why should virgins be prepared for ANY eventuality, no matter how remote?" No, simple prudence is not their failing eventhough the wise virgins were MORE prudent than the foolish ones. Next it looks like perhaps they are guilty of falling asleep while the wise ones stay awake, but no, ALL the virgins, wise and foolish, fall asleep, so that is not the failing either. Instead, as far as I can tell, the foolish virgins really fail to wait for the Lord and the wise virgins continue to wait for him no matter the time or season. While it is unclear what the foolish virgins have begun to do instead, it is clear to me that they fail to wait for him.

If I am correct about this it opens the way to understanding "waiting" -- and particularly waiting for the Lord -- as something tremendously active and demanding, not passive or lacking in challenge. I suspect it is also something most of us are not very good at, especially in terms of the coming of the Lord! So what does waiting mean and involve? According to today's parable waiting involves the orientation of our whole selves towards a reality which is still to be fulfilled in some way. It means the ordering of our lives in terms of promise, not merely of possibility, and it means the constant reordering of our lives accordingly as time goes on. Waiting involves the acceptance of both presence and absence, reality and unreality, already and not yet, and the subordination of our lives to the dynamics these poles point to or define.

For those of us living in California we understand this kind of waiting because we live in earthquake country. At our parish school for instance we have supplies for all the students, et al, and these are stored away for the time when they WILL be needed. This is not merely a possibility, but an eventuality. Further, it is not enough to simply lay the supplies by and forget about them. They must be changed periodically, updated, modified, and so forth so that they reflect genuine preparedness. Families often do the same thing in their own homes --- and of course, some simply allow their supplies to expire or never get around to taking care of the need for such things at all. Real waiting is an active process of attentiveness and orientation. Filling our lamps, bringing extra flasks of oil, trimming the wicks, and all these actions symbolize the ongoing and ever-new ordering of our lives to the coming of the Lord.

Unfortunately, I suspect that most people's spiritual lives (my own definitely included!) are similar to either those foolish Californians who never set aside or fail to update necessary supplies for the eventuality of the "Big One", or to those foolish virgins who were unprepared to enter into the wedding feast with their bridegroom when he arrived. We may be baptized, confirmed, etc and consider that "that is enough." We may try to get by on prayer lives that were sufficient for us 20 years ago, but no longer. We may attend Mass once a week, and lull ourselves into believing that we have really ordered our lives in a way which is truly prepared for "the coming of the Lord." Similarly we may say to ourselves, "I prayed the night before last; I can skip it tonight!" -- or something like this with regard to quiet prayer, journaling, or other spiritual practices until without even realizing it we have failed to pray much at all for a week or two (or more)! And we may be comfortable letting things slide in this way --- as some are wont to do in their own marriages or other "significant" relationships, for instance! Until, that is, we find ourselves being told (with its exaggerated semitic emphasis), "I never knew you!" and have to recognize that indeed, yesterday's prayer prepared us for yesterday and was a response to yesterday's love. Yesterday's relationship with Jesus prepared us for yesterday's coming of the Lord. What is required is the active and complete ordering of our lives TODAY in a way which allows us to really say, "I am waiting for the Lord!" and allows Jesus to say, "Yes, you are my bride; I know you well. Welcome!"

Some commentators have remarked about the apparent "unChristian" (read selfish and even cruel) attitude of those virgins labelled "wise" in today's Gospel. Afterall, shouldn't they have lent the oil to those without? How silly (and even dangerous!) to expect the others to travel abroad to buy oil from merchants at midnight, especially just when the bridegroom is arriving! But the wisdom at work here is simple. Some things can only be done by us. No one can do them for us. Allowing the establishment and growth of a relationship with Christ is one of those things. Christ will always take the initiative, the Holy Spirit will always empower our assent to such a relationship, but no one can take on this responsibility for us. Only we ourselves through and in the grace of God can truly "wait on the Lord" as today's parable calls upon us to do. And only we can embrace a relationship which is vital and expectant, or succumb to one which stagnates and fails in hope and genuine love. Only we can become the human beings whose lives are centered on Christ today and provide a welcome place for him in this world; no one can do this for us.

May we each truly learn to wait on the Lord as the wisest of virgins, day by day and moment by moment! Only then will God's judgment be the harvesting of rich and abundant fruit rather than the rejection of something that withered on the vine days, weeks, months, or even years ago.

First Sunday of Advent, 2010



Beginnings are such wonderful gifts! Tonight we begin the new Church year and do so with anticipation and hope, the hallmark attitudes of the Christian life. One small candle in the darkness of the hermitage marks this beginning. It is a sign of hope and anticipation of the Christ light that will blaze with the other Advent candles on Christmas as the Word Made Flesh enlightens my own darkness. And it is a sign of fragility, smallness, but also great power as well. The single light of our own hearts is fragile and small when compared to the darkness of our world, and yet that light shines forth for miles signaling warmth, hope, and life.

This year I can't help but see it as an echo of my own baptismal candle -- the beginning of a long and wonderful but often difficult journey from isolation to solitude. The double temporal perspective of today's responsorial psalm marks well the promise I heard and knew that day and know this day as well: [[I rejoiced when they said to me, "We will go up to the house of the Lord." And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem.]] When I was baptized (at the age of 17) the Church did it on Saturday afternoons in a darkened Church with just the baptistry lit. (The baptistry was off to the side behind a locked gate so I appreciated showing up to find it unlocked and standing open waiting for me.)

There was no church community present, no real celebration of the awesome initiation taking place there. Just myself, the priest and two friends who served as sponsors or Godparents were there. A single new light of Christ kindled by the Spirit in the darkness, a single candle entrusted to me to keep burning brightly. And yet, the whole Church in heaven and on earth were present that day, just as they are present here tonight in this small hermitage with its single lit Advent candle. And today brings all that and so much more back to me. Beginnings are such wonderful gifts!

26 November 2010

Followup: First and Last Word in Eremitical Life?


[[ Dear Sister O'Neal, I don't think you really responded to one poster's point. She/he said, "The point is that I am and many are pushing the meaning of words and of particular callings. You are not, and neither is canon law, the first or last word on what constitutes an eremitic life. You certainly are the last word on what it constitutes to you and those of your persuasion or particular charism, but that's it. Period. Don't lay down roadblocks to others. The fact that is that there IS a groundswell, a grass-roots movement of folks, in the married or other secular states looking for a deeper commitment to their spiritual development, with expression in their lifestyle and self-styling--they are allowed to use old words in new ways. Especially when they don't impinge on the nature of the sacramental forms." Isn't it true that people are allowed to define these things the way they feel called to do? Isn't this the way things change and grow?]]

Thanks for the question. I believe I did respond to this person's point and actually have done so in a number of posts on this blog over the past couple of months even, but you are correct, I did not respond to the comments about being the first or the last word in what is eremitical life or setting up roadblocks to people, etc. First, I do agree that people should explore new ways of embodying older vocations (or the values of those vocations). For instance, we see today a tremendous growth in the popularity of oblature --- a way of living an essentially monastic life or the values of that life in ordinary society. We see Public Associations of the Faithful with domestic expressions, cenobitical or monastic, and even eremitical expressions. I absolutely agree that in much of this ferment the Holy Spirit is at work in new ways --- but not all and not when the movement actually empties words of meaning in the process, especially in ways which prevent or shortcircuit the serious pastoral applications of the original meanings.

Despite the poster's contention that I am not using words in new ways the simple fact is that diocesan eremitism itself is a NEW form of eremitical life, one which does indeed stretch the meaning of the term hermit in some ways. Most diocesan hermits are urban hermits and despite the history of anchorites or urbani who did indeed live in towns, the term hermit meant desert or wilderness dweller and this was taken in a literal sense. Even today there are Canon 603 or Eastern Hermits who reject the notion that there is such a thing as an urban hermit. The notion that urban life itself can represent an unnatural solitude because of the poverty, extreme mobility, and alienation of contemporary urban life is new, as is the idea of hermits living in the midst of such centers in order to witness to the redemption of such unnatural solitudes. Similarly where once the laura was the ordinary and accepted way to provide the necessary community and support for hermits, diocesan hermits explore the notion of parish and diocese as primary community. They live, as hermits always have, in the heart of the Church, but they often do so now very literally in the midst of the local church.

As for Canon Law not being the first or last word in what constitutes an eremitical life, I would actually agree with that, but with serious caveats and nuances attached. Canon law, like all law, follows life and is an expression of what history has shown us to be true and necessary. The history of Canon 603 itself is an important example of this. People have been called to and lived eremitical lives in the Catholic Church for 18 centuries and never before has there been a recognition of these persons or their vocations in universal law. As I wrote recently, even Vatican II made no mention of the eremitical life until pressed by Bishops who had hermits in their dioceses who had been forced to leave their vows and the consecrated state behind in order to follow a call which was actually an outgrowth and intensification of their consecrated lives. Canon 603 grew right out of this situation which demanded the revision of Canon Law according to the spirit of and emphases of Vatican II' conciliar document; the terms of the canon, the non-negotiable elements seen as foundational, did the same.

Canon 603 is the result of reflection on the lives of hermits and the nature and value of these lives. It is the result of reflection by and on the lives of those who have taken on the history and tradition of eremitical life and carried it on through 18 centuries of Church life. It is not an arbitrary piece of legislation made up merely by those who have never lived the life and do not understand it. And so, while law is not the first or last word regarding what eremitical life is, it remains normative of what authentic eremitical life has been in the Church in the past 18 centuries as well as how the Holy Spirit continues to work in contemporary times. Because Canon 603 consists of both non-negotiable elements and allows for personal expression it does not stifle the Spirit but respects the way she works. In reflecting on the meaning of the Canon's terms someone may certainly argue differently than I have regarding married hermits or part-time hermits, just as I argue differently than those who assert eremitical life doesn't allow for urban hermits, but I don't think they can simply use the term hermit without regard for the terms of this Canon or create new meanings out of whole cloth. That way lies the emptying of terms of meaning and the loss of significant history and living tradition.

So, I appreciate that people feel called to experiment, but I think they disregard Canon Law in this instance at their peril --- especially if they wish to claim that they are responding to a divine vocation, and not merely to the urgings and yearnings of individualistic hubris or need for novelty. I promise you that Canon 603, for instance, while it is clear about non-negotiable elements has immense room for experimentation and diversity of expression. What Canon Law ordinarily does with regard to authentic vocations, in my experience, is to be sure the non-negotiable elements anchor experimentation and diversity. It sets up parameters within which those who feel called to experiment, for instance, may roam freely, intelligently, prayerfully, faithfully, and with care. It helps individuals be sure they are listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit and not to their own egos. It is not, therefore the first or last word exactly, because it begins with reflection on real lives and experience and leads to more of the same, but it is surely an anchor which helps make certain our experiments in living are exercises in fidelity to God's own voice and the application of living tradition and not more of the addiction to novelty or our own resistance to authority and the heightened voice of excessive individualism which so characterizes contemporary life.

What should be clear is that my own reflection is of course neither the first nor last word in what constitutes eremitical life, but it IS based on serious reflection on the canon, on the history of eremitical life (which I am coming to know better myself), and on the life lived and struggled with FROM THE INSIDE rather than as a mere outside observer or dilletante. People should of course feel free to contend with my conclusions, but they should also be able to do so with reasons which are more substantive than, "I think it should be this way" or "Well, this definition seems good to me." It should also be clear that Canon Law is no straightjacket used to stifle the Holy Spirit; using it in this way is an abuse of the Spirit every bit as much as libertinism or failure to regard Tradition at all.

By the way, I personally have no desire to set up roadblocks to others undertaking legitimate experimentation, or seeking ways to live authentic vocations (and why my own opinions posted on a blog would have the power to do that is completely unclear to me). Neither am I opposed to authentic development and growth. However, I do wish the eremitical vocation to be understood and especially to be understood as a signifcantly pastoral reality which, in Christ, is capable of redeeming hundreds of thousands of lives marked by isolation, alienation, a sense of meaninglessness, abandonment by God, etc. THAT vocation with THAT capacity is not a part time avocation, nor is it the "vocation" of dilletantes, misanthropes, or social misfits and failures. THAT significantly pastoral vocation is the one the Church has codified in Canon 603, for instance, and I personally believe that anyone who wishes to use the term hermit for themselves HAS to seriously come to terms with that canon in one way or another or risk undermining the power of the term "hermit" to do what it is truly capable of doing.

I hope this is a more complete answer than you felt my first attempt was. If not, please get back to me and explain what you felt was lacking. That would be of assistance to me.

Have I Softened my Stance on Assistance to the Former HIOL???

[[Sister Laurel, since it is Thanksgiving, I wanted to ask if are you still against providing assistance to the former HIOL? If so why, and if you have not softened your position on this, why not? They have proven obedient to Archbishop Lucas when others have not.]]



Yes, I am still adverse to providing relief for this group of people except an immediate emergency fund which should be administered to individuals (not to the community) for their immediate needs. Again, my reasons have to do with transparency, responsibility or acountability, prudence, and equity or justice --- reasons which are interrelated and segue into one another. Obedience to Archbishop Lucas is not an issue here. Other issues with this claim aside, Christians are not rewarded financially for keeping the commitments they have made freely.

First, transparency: I have seen no indications that any of these members is working or seeking jobs, applying for government assistance (if truly destitute and/or unable to work) which vowed religious also have to apply for, etc. I do not mean to say that I assume they are not, but simply that I don't know. They are said to be spending the next year discerning but there is no indication what this means. Does it mean determining what shape a new community will take, how they will support themselves, how active or contemplative they are, etc? Communities (lay or consecrated) seeking to live contemplative lives MUST be able to support themselves. That is simply part of the legitimate expectations belonging to discernment of genuine vocations and healthy communities. If they are going to do so by mendicancy then that needs to be clear. Again, the point here is information.

It is one thing for the Archdiocese to promise an accounting of where the money goes that comes to the relief fund. Well they should. It is another for the community itself to indicate what the former HIOL members are providing for themselves and how. There has been no indication that the latter will be forthcoming and ordinarily that would be fine (it would be a more or less private matter), but NOT when the public/laity are expected to support the group, especially in the long term. We do not do that for any other group of CANDIDATES for consecrated life, not contemplatives, apostolic religious, or even solitary eremites or consecrated virgins in the Church. Again, we don't do it for Public Associations of the Faithful much less for private associations. Nor should we. My question is, "How and when will we start expecting this group as a whole (if they choose to remain together) to support themselves as any other group in the church consecrated or lay is expected to do?"

A second part of transparency comes with my felt sense that the HIOL were imprudent in the first place by making vows which left them destitute. I don't know why canonists in the Archdiocese were not overseeing things or if the civil board eschewed this oversight right along but I do know that it seems to me that either IOL Inc bears the brunt of responsibility for supporting these people, or the Archdiocese as part of its own admission of inadequate supervision needs to pick up the slack here. (We are told that members of the community approached the diocese months ago with concerns; why were these not thoroughly investigated THEN?) At least, it seems to me, there needs to be an honest accounting of why it was these persons were left destitute, allowed to make private vows of poverty in a risky situation which are less prudent commmitments than the commitments of those in institutes of consecrated life, etc. If Archdiocesan officials warned people about the imprudence of their vow and the vows were made anyway then it really seems to me the consequences fall directly on the shoulders of those who acted despite the warnings. Again, too much of the situation is obscure and I personally cannot see assisting people in a way which does not call to real accountability at the same time.

Here we have verged into the second realm, responsibility or accountability as well. Besides the Archdiocese's role, and the individual responsibility of those who made vows, there is simply the (at least moral and possibly legal) responsibility of IOL Inc. As already noted I would want to understand why they are NOT assisting their former members, members who presumably bankrolled the community at some point. Perhaps there is no way to make them step up to the plate here, but I would want to know their place in all this --- which again returns us to the issue of transparency as well.

I have already spoken of prudence and equity really. In fact we have no way of knowing anyone in this group truly has a contemplative (or any other specific) vocation (remember they are discerning both their vocations and the shape those will take), and even presuming they do, I would want them to be responsible in the same way any other fledgling or established contemplative community (or solitary) would be. One question that comes up again and again is how were they supporting themselves before and why can't they continue to do that now?? I doubt very much all 56 were doing sufficient spiritual direction to support the community (and I would certainly wonder what was happening to other directors in the diocese if this were the case). Anyway, if they were doing paid ministry besides direction why can't they continue it now? They were in a process of discernment already. They are in one yet again. Continuing working would surely help with the process of transition. And if they were bankrolled by someone or some group of people, why was this allowed by the Archdiocese without backup plans in place? And again we get back to the questions of prudence, accountability, and transparency as well.

Is the Church willing to support every suppressed (or even every fledgling) community in this way until they transition back into ordinary lay life OR become institutes of consecrated life --- or at least every one that wishes or chooses to wear a habit (yes, I believe this is part of this particular equation)? When the next private association of the Faithful fails to become a public association, or a public association fails to become an institute of consecrated life will their respective dioceses advocate for them in the way this is being done? Remember that there are many of these extant right now and usually they are simply experiments which will and should fail. If not why not? Why do these reasons apply in this particular situation? And if so, then really, where do people who want to quit working and establish themselves as contemplative communities (or even as diocesan hermits or consecrated virgins) sign up for this new form of ecclesiastical welfare while they discern their vocations? (As I already mentioned, ordinarily they would need to be able to provide for themselves or be turned away from consideration as even serious candidates for canonical consecration. I don't think this is a precedent we want to change.)

Again, I am all for assistance as a short term, emergency fund to be administered to individuals with special needs, especially while they apply for government assistance if that is what is required. I am fine with helping individuals with the clothes needed for job interviews and anything associated with that on the short term. I am grateful to know that these people have been gifted with food, clothes, and other material needs for the time being, but the list of things needed for the next year at least continues to rankle: $25,000 a month for rent, and when they are settled, cars, trucks, computers and printers, gift cards (which suggests to me that some of these former HIOL are already getting government assistance and cannot receive cash), furniture, etc. Again, while they would LIKE to stay together as a community I wonder if it is really the church's (read the laity's) responsibility to make this possible financially, and, should they choose to do so when they ordinarily do it for no other similar group, then for how long should they continue? When does assistance become enabling? How do we know it is not that already?

In my first post on this I said I personally would need answers to lots more questions than had been forthcoming to this point. Nothing has changed in this regard, except that the "Intercessors' relief fund" makes the issue of transparency and accountability even more pointed. So, no, I have not softened my stance on this particular point yet. I am open to being convinced with information and signs of individual accountability on the part of these former members and on the part of the Archdiocese as well as IOL Inc, but no one (IOL Inc, Archdiocese of Omaha, former HIOL, etc) seems be providing that.

25 November 2010

My Own Credibility in Speaking of Valuing the Lay State (Reprised with Additional Explanation)

Originally posted in November, 2008 (Heading for the additional section is marked in bold below)

[[Doesn't your own canonical status undercut your ability to speak to the importance and witness of the non-canonical or lay hermit? Doesn't it make what you say even a bit hypocritical? You have written any number of times about the importance of canonical status/standing so how believeable are your opinions on the lay eremitical vocation? Why didn't you become/remain a lay hermit instead of seeking profession and consecration according to Canon 603 if you believed as you say you do in this?]]


These questions were not raised by a hostile reader, but in my own prayer and reflection on the matter. However, I suspect that they are questions which my own status and comments might well occasion in others, so I am including them here. First. let me say that there is truth in each question: to each, except, I think, for the one about hypocrisy and the last one which asks "Why didn't you become/remain. . .", I have to answer "Yes" before I qualify or nuance my responses. With regard to the last question ["Why didn't I become/remain. . .?], let me say right up front that I do not have a complete answer at this time, but only large parts of one, and that those parts involve both positive and negative elements.

In my previous post on the importance of lay hermits I noted that I had not realized how effectively I was cutting myself off from witnessing to particular segments of our church and world. My life as a canonical hermit still speaks to these people, I know that full well, but I suspect not nearly as powerfully as had I eschewed profession and consecration under Canon 603 and embraced a vocation as a lay hermit. I would have needed to find ways to do this, but those avenues are open to anyone really. This blog is an example. On the other hand, I have experienced both sides of the fence here and am aware of the shift (in witnessing) which has occured. Thus, I think I am able to speak effectively to the importance of both lay and consecrated eremitical vocations. The point of course is that a person who is consciously and voluntarily lay and eremitical can, in some ways. do so better than I can ever do.

So what about possible hypocrisy? Well, it is true that I am unabashedly excited by and enthusiastic about the eremitical vocation which is canonical, and that personally I see a lot of reasons to seek canonical standing, especially as a diocesan hermit with its unique charism. It is also true that on this blog I have posted a lot in order to combat misconceptions about canonical status, etc. In my Rule I wrote (several years ago now) that I felt that canonical status was imperative except in the early stages of a vocation or foundation --- though my views on this have changed considerably in the meantime. Is it possible to be enthusiastic about the graces and benefits of one way of living an eremitical life without denigrating another? I sincerely hope and believe so, otherwise there is no way to be honest about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in one vocation without denigrating them in another. And despite seeing this happen often in the history of mankind with regard to different religions, etc, surely none of us believe that is necessarily the case [with different vocations]!

With the issue of canonical and non-canonical hermits I believe the Holy Spirit is working in both ways in our church and world, speaking to different segments and calling them to different responsibilities, emphases and witness. So long as the eremitical life is being led with faithfulness these differing emphases, commissions and witnesses will emerge and reveal themselves clearly. That said, I must also say that I don't believe just anyone should call themselves a hermit, and I especially don't believe that someone who simply has a bent for some degree of solitude part of the time should do so, or be allowed to do so. (Here is one of the real benefits of canonical standing and oversight: one knows, at least generally, that the term is being used accurately and that the witness being given is genuine.) Still, if someone is living a fulltime life of prayer and penance, a life centered on God in silence and solitude --- not reclusively necessarily, but really --- then they have every right to call themselves a hermit and should do so, for this too is the work and gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and world.

Again, it is not that canonical hermits are "real" hermits while non-canonical hermits are "pseudo" or "wannabe" hermits. While it is true that sometimes people use the term hermit too casually (for an active life with chunks of solitude, a part-time semi-solitary existence, for instance, as in a married life where the days are spent in prayer and work while children and husband are off to school and work!) or for the wrong reasons (social awkwardness or misanthopy, the need for self-indulgent introversion or simply for creative time and space are among these) -- these folks ARE pseudo hermits or wannabe's --- when the term really applies (that is, to a LIFE OF fulltime and genuine solitude lived for and in God) it signals the "realness" or inspired nature of the vocation, and whether this is a call to eremitism of the consecrated or lay states does not matter.

And regarding the last question, "why didn't I become and remain a lay hermit?" well, I am going to [mainly] leave that for another time and more thought. The simple answer is that initially and eventually I determined I was not called to this as did the Church, but that can be evasive as well as being true. Part of the answer is that it was this context which made sense of the whole spectrum of my life and the kind of freedom needed to live this call fully and faithfully, but that too needs some explaining --- which again requires both more thought and time to write. Still, the question is important, not only for me personally, but because it is really the question every hermit must answer in some form in discerning and embracing the call not only to eremitical life, but to lay or consecrated states as the critical context for their own charism, witness, and mission. At this point I wish to say merely that whichever choice one discerns and makes, the eremitical life they are discerning and choosing is a real and significant vocation and that we must learn to esteem not only the similarities they share with their counterpart (lay or consecrated), but especially their unique gift quality and capacity to speak variously to different segments of the church and world.

Addition to the Original Post:

Why did I not become or remain a lay hermit? Why pursue a call to the consecrated state if I truly value the lay vocation? I have thought about these questions more since I posed these queries to myself and here are the elements of my answer: 1) I felt called to an ecclesial vocation, one which the Church also discerned, 2) I did so because I became aware of a particular gift or charism this vocation was to the Church and world with regard to those who were marginalized in both church and world by chronic illness, old-age, and other isolating factors. Eremitical life spoke directly to these situations and their redemption whether or not any of the persons were called to eremitical life (though I supposed some would be and wished to assist them in knowing about and even hearing this call). 3) There was a certain unfreedom I experienced personally with regard to representing this charism fully as a lay hermit despite the fact that I published about it and had come to terms with the diocese's unwillingness to profess anyone under Canon 603 for the time being. I concluded (after another @20 years) that I still needed canonical standing to put an end to this "unfreedom".

(The solution to unfreedom of this type is often the assumption of new responsibilities. So it was for me. The assumption of the rights and responsibilities associated with canonical or consecrated eremitical life freed me to live the life (and my own life of course) as fully as I felt called to do. For some, as for instance the person who writes about the taint of increased institutionalization and the constraints of that preventing her living fully in the present moment, this would not be true. The same is the case for the person who wrote most recently with regard to, "what's the big deal?" or who desires to push the meaning of words in whatever way he personally likes. It would also be true for those who (more positively I think) just want to live in solitude without more ecclesial rights and responsibilities, or who wish to imitate the lay status of the desert Abbas and Ammas.)

4) I was living the final vows I had made in 1978 and desired to do this within the context of Canon 603 in a specifically eremitical framework and with the guidance, supervision, and assistance of the Church rather than privately in a way which did not allow others to have necessary expectations with regard to these vows. It also meant being present in a way which allowed others (lay, consecrated, and clerics) to appreciate the way the Holy Spirit was working in their midst with regard to both chronic illness and eremitical life, and 5) I had become more knowledgeable about the nature and history of eremitical life as a still-vital tradition and I wanted to assume what I discerned to be my own place in that tradition in ways which were both faithful to it and yet enlarged or added to it in contemporary terms. This included wishing to bring the diocesan hermit dimension more strongly into the Camaldolese charism while allowing the Camaldolese charism to be more explicitly present in diocesan eremitical life. In both of these I had the sense of being called to be part of a tradition, creatively, in faithful dialog with it, not in unthinking or careless rejection of it as I simply "did my own thing".

24 November 2010

The Individual Hermit and the Tradition of the Eremitical Life


{{Dear Sister, I hear you saying that hermits take on the entire tradition of the eremitical life. Is that true? Can one be a hermit without doing so? Does this change the seriousness with which one lives the life? I am guessing it does so my question is more like how does this change the seriousness with which one lives the life?]]

In answer to the first couple of questions, First, yes and second, no. Whether one does so as a lay hermit or a canonical hermit one enters into a process of allowing God to mold one's life into one which embodies the foundational elements which have ALWAYS been a part of this life: the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world --- and if one is to accept the public obligations and responsibilities of this life, public profession and consecration and a Rule of Life lived under the supervision of the Bishop of one's Diocese. Again, whether non-canonical or canonical, one does this for the praise of God and the salvation of the world so another obligation of either the lay or the consecrated eremitical life is that one gives one's life in response to God for the salvation of the world. In accepting these foundational elements and making them one's own one enters into a long tradition of eremitical life. For many this entrance may not be conscious (or at least not completely conscious), and that may be truer of lay hermits than canonical ones because canonical hermits often take on (or consciously decide not to take on) the garb and other trappings of this history where lay hermits do not. But this is not necessarily so since lay hermits commonly identify closely with the lay status of the early desert Fathers and Mothers too.

Even so, I would wager that as one grows in the life, she will become more and more interested in the history of others who have lived the life of desert solitude. She will learn about the ways the vocation has grown, varied, and often failed to be lived as some failed to embody it with fidelity. She will learn how the life grew (or was even deformed) at certain times in the church and disappeared (including being suppressed) in others. She will comes to know that it speaks to the life-situations of some in ways which are immensely fruitful and she will thus become responsible for this charism herself. She will learn how rigorous a life it is, and how free despite the constraints and discipline which mark it. She will come to learn how mediocrity has always endangered the vocation, and how its freedom and communal nature counters the libertinism and hyper-individualism of the 21st century (for instance). She will come to regard the wisdom of Canon 603 and its history --- even if she modifies parts of it, and she will begin to see herself more and more as a representative of this vital stream of tradition or at the very least as one in serious dialog with it.

For the person who seeks and is admitted to canonical profession the sense of becoming part of a living and fragile tradition is even stronger --- at least I find that to be true. Again, the use of the habit, the cowl in "choir" or at Mass, encourages the sense that one is publicly responsible for the life of this tradition in one's own world, space, and time. So do things like rings, titles, and of course the Rule of life which becomes a normative document with a Bishop's Decree of Approval. This means that while it is a Rule which guides one and which one is publicly both morally and legally responsible to live out, it is also one which may be used by others in situations of isolation who are looking for ways to transform those into genuine solitude. (I note this because I have had this happen.) One may be living a form of life that works well for oneself and which is essentially hidden, but in doing so one does so for others too and reminds them of a strand of tradition in the Church which is 1800 years old and may speak directly to them in unexpected ways.

Regarding your last question, again, I think the answer is yes. Remember that in saying this I am not comparing lay vs consecrated or canonical vs non-canonical eremitical life; I am saying that if one takes on a conscious place in a long, storied, and fragile but resilient history, whether one does so as a lay or consecrated hermit, one will live the life with greater seriousness. One becomes part of something that is far bigger than oneself or one's own individual vocation. One becomes responsible for both fidelity and creativity --movements which prevent and contrast with the individualism or "anything goes" mentality which is so very prominent in our world today. One becomes responsible for the faithful living out of something that is a gift of the Holy Spirit to Church and World and which therefore does not leave one free to do anything at all and call it eremitism.

One of the stereotypes of eremitical life is the curmudgeonly, misanthropic character who is only out for himself. (Remember the post I put up a month ago or so regarding Mr Leppard.) Another, however is that of the dilettante, the dabbler, the person who believes she can live in silence and solitude one day a week no matter the activity, apostolic work, etc of the rest of the week, and consider herself a hermit. Both of these do a disservice to the men and women though all the Church's history who have given all to witness to the world of the promise that "God Alone is Enough!" And here of course is the heart of the eremitical life: hermits witness day in and day out, in the brokennesses and wholenesses, the lightnesses and the darknesses, the poverty and richness of life that God alone IS enough and that THEREFORE solitary life is a fully human, essentially selfless, loving, fruitful life that does not leave our world unchanged. So yes, in one way and another, hermits take on the eremitical tradition in becoming hermits. At the very least anyone who calls herself a hermit lives her life in dialogue with this tradition --- even if she is wholly unaware of the gravity of the step she has taken in characterizing herself this way, or the complete contradiction to it she sometimes represents. Ideally, of course, true hermits (whether lay or consecrated) take on this tradition in a more positive way. Anyone using the title "Catholic (or Diocesan) hermit" and assuming public standing under Canon 603 is certainly accountable for doing so.

I hope this is helpful.

Follow-up on Part-time Eremitical Life


Well, I've riled some feathers in responding to questions about the "Saturday-only" hermit. Mainly, I think I have been misheard or misunderstood so I am going to post the comments received and try once again to make clear what I am and am not saying.

[[For heaven's sake, the life of the monastic or hermit is not holy orders. I don't think you have the right to claim that if one's particular vocation in that mileau is not precisely what has developed heretofore (or, considering how canon law develops, which flavor or style of the life 'won out' over others) that they ought to go back and reconsider their baptismal vows. My goodness, what an uncharitable remark. My mother is a Ph.D. in nursing; is she a better nurse than a first year? She'd be the first to tell me, after 45 years in nursing, it depends on the nurse. All of your arguments in your responding post seem to follow the fallacy that more time in service or more closely aligned with a particular mode of canon law makes one a better hermit. Bah. Is my close friend, a Jesuit of 50 years a better priest than the newest member? Is a Saturday only theologian better than a 7-day-per-week theologian (frankly a closer analogy since neither involve a sacrament)?]]

I am honestly not sure what I said that was uncharitable in suggesting that anyone in the lay state (or for that matter anyone in any state) reconsider their baptismal promises and commitments. The situation I was addressing was this: there is a failure throughout the church to esteem the lay state, to see it as possessing the dignity it does. What has happened over time and for a number of reasons (including the clericalization of the church) is that when adults desire to make adult commitments to and in Christ they look not first to their baptismal promises (or even to their marriage vows) and to specifiying those vows as needed at this point in time, but automatically to the idea of multiplying vows (and so making private or public vows) as the only form of adult commitment possible besides ordination. Sometimes these even conflict with marriage vows as when married people seek to make vows of celibacy.)

Further, because the Church has consistently given the impression or explicitly stated because of a misreading of Thomas that the laity are in an inferior state of vocation, those who really desire to live the fullness of discipleship have come to believe it will only be possible for priests, nuns, brothers, sisters, monks, hermits, and consecrated virgins --- and not as lay persons. But this is untrue. Vatican II was clear about this. The lay state is part of a universal call to holiness, an adult and exhaustive form of holiness which glorifies God every bit as much as any other vocation or state of life. How it is uncharitable to ask people to START here, and if they are in the lay state to take responsibility for that and for the call to holiness and the dignity of this vocation, I really can't see. This has nothing to do with hermits or non-hermits. It is a problem in the church as a whole, and a quite serious one. We have hundreds of thousands of lay people who believe their vocations are second-class or juvenile and less exhaustive forms of discipleship than those of nuns, brothers, priests, etc. They live and are pained everyday by the sense that their call from/by God is an inferior one. I have simply said this is not the case. The Church has emphatically said this is not the case. So I don't see this as uncharitable but charitable.

I do not know why the discussion morphed into terms of better/worse or younger/older either. I have tried assiduously to reject characterizations framed in terms of better and worse. For instance, I have written time and again that consecrated hermits are no better than lay hermits, but rather that the rights and obligations they have in the Church because of their canonical standing are different. Again, I think we are seeing in your comments the deeply entrenched holdover from the misapplied scholastic language of "objective superiority". That is especially true of your comment that neither monastic nor eremitical lives are holy orders or matters of a Sacrament -- as though that makes them less significant. It does not. For certain, the better/worse language did not come from my posts because in regard to vocations and states of life I reject it absolutely. Thomas also rejected this language and so he drew careful arguments noting that an objectively superior state of life does NOT mean a subjectively better or more holy Christian. Today, the solution needs to be formulated differently than Thomas did; the various states of life are different from one another, with different rights, obligations, and responsibilities, but none are better than the others. Each one is rooted in a call by God and is invested with infinite worth and dignity. Again, different, not better.

Regarding younger/older and experienced/in-experienced, there is no doubt that we all grow into our vocations. Those who wish to be hermits may begin by building in silence, solitude, prayer, penance, and stricter separation from the world. In and of itself this does not make them a hermit. At some point solitude herself MAY open the door to these people and a change takes place if they accept the invitation to enter. In such a case they are no longer solitary persons grappling with the individual elements of the canon or life. Instead, they are hermits in a fundamental sense now living the silence of solitude and allowing (or learning to further allow) everything else to flow from and support that life. Once the door has been opened and one has walked through it in response, growth continues (or should continue). Meanwhile, the central reality of these persons' lives -- the silence of solitude which is a short hand reference to union with God and the quies that flows from it --- will call for greater external silences, stricter separation from the world, etc. Again, not better or worse, but different!

[[And please, Sister, let's not use the straw man fallacy. Comparing a person's Saturday only eremitc life with a saturday only state of motherhood is pathetic. Sorry, it is. Do I need to spll (sic) it out? If one has committed one's heart to a solitary life as best as they are able, but it involves work outside the home, what is that to you? A mother and spouse have an entirely other promise--of course they don't get (much) time off. The point is that I am and many are pushing the meaning of words and of particular callings. You are not, and neither is canon law, the first or last word on what constitutes an eremitic life. You certainly are the last word on what it constitutes to you and those of your persusion or particular charism, but that's it. Period. Don't lay down roadbloacks to others. The fact that is that there IS a groundswell, a grass-roots movement of folks, in the married or other secular states looking for a deeper commitment to their spiritual development, with expression in their lifestyle and self-styling--they are allowed to use old words in new ways. Especially when they don't impinge on the nature of the sacramental forms.

I think the analogy holds. If a person babysits a child once a week, that does not make her a Mother no matter how badly she would like to be one. If a person lives an eremitical or desert day once a week, this does not make her a hermit or desert dweller no matter how much she would like to think it does. The illustrations can be multiplied: if a person leads a Communion Service once a week (or even several days a week) on his pastor's day(s) off, this does not make him a priest or pastor (though he may be very priestly and pastoral). If a person prays contemplatively once a week this does not make them a contemplative. A person who spends a day a week at a monastery or enclosed in their own house is not necessarily a monk or nun who lives a cloistered life. It is simply not appropriate or accurate to speak of a Saturday-only eremitical LIFE as you have done --- unless you are speaking about a hermit who is actually failing to live her call to a LIFE of the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, and separation from the world, etc. Here the distinction another diocesan hermit once drew might be helpful: many people are called upon to build in elements of eremitical spirituality in their lives, but this does not make them hermits nor argue that they are called to eremitical life per se. Put another way we could say that some people's lives have an eremitical flavor or cast without being eremitical lives.

You can and probably should feel free to push the meaning of words all you like, but in doing so you need to beware of emptying them of meaning altogether and making them incapable of communicating anything substantive. You should also not be surprised however when the onus of demonstrating the legitimacy of your usage falls directly on you. Whether we like it or not, the Church has a normative understanding of what constitutes eremitical life. Those of us who live that from the inside know the wisdom of this definition. We know from the inside what the struggles and joys of FULL-TIME silence of solitude, etc, mean -- as opposed to a single desert day a week -- for instance. There is simply no comparison. Both are good, but they are also not the same thing, and they require different names as a result. The Church's normative statement (Canon 603) has been formulated in a way which ensures certain non-negotiable and foundational elements even while it allows flexibility and diversity in expression. You are mistaken then if you believe canon law is not open to newness in this regard, and you are certainly mistaken if you say that I am not. However, to push words in ways where they may mean anything one would like is simply to ensure they mean nothing at all.

As I have written now a number of times, a hermit who needs to work outside the hermitage on a part-time basis is not ideal but this can still be made to work on a case by case basis. However, someone who needs to work FULL-TIME, especially outside the hermitage has, I sincerely believe, ceased in essential ways to live the fundamental elements which define the life. Meanwhile, back to the Saturday-only example which is even more troublesome:  one day a week of contemplative prayer, silence and solitude is NOT an eremitical LIFE. It is a wonderful and helpful thing, but it is not what Canon 603 (or the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the whole eremitical tradition) recognizes as an eremitical LIFE. The reason this is important is because the Church recognizes eremitical life as she discerns it is to be defined as a pastoral gift to the Church and world. (See  below.)

[[So, I think we should just agree to disagree. I guess it comes down to who is the more accepting here? What is the most compassionate response? For that matter, why don't you go back and consider your own baptismal vows---why weren't they enough? What makes your life intrinsically 'other' than other's? It doesn't sound very nice the other way, does it?]]

While we may agree to disagree, there is a distinction between being genuinely accepting and merely being uncritical and uncaring of meaning or truth. Compassion requires that we be truly loving, and it is not loving to allow a person to live a lie, or to empty meaningful terms of content when that content is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and World. Canon 603 is such a gift. It defines the nature of eremitical life in a world and at a time when dislocation, isolation, alienation, and the search for meaning in our isolation and alienation are rampant. Even so, it is a canon which allows for great diversity even while (and perhaps because) it clearly spells out foundational, or non-negotiable elements comprising authentic solitary eremitical life. It is the entire vision of eremitical life which it provides us which is a gift of the Holy Spirit to both the Church and world.

I will repeat my main point from the other post because this is the true answer to "What is it to you?" above as well. FULL-TIME hermits who have allowed isolation and marginality to be redeemed and this transformed into the "Silence of solitude" can speak effectively to all those persons in our parishes, dioceses, neighborhoods and world who CANNOT leave their situations for time off one day a week -- those who are chronically ill, disabled, the isolated elderly, impoverished, etc. Hermits' lives are compassionate answers to the questions these myriads of people have and are. These people need to know that their aloneness is not a sign of the senselessness of life or abandonment by God, but the ground out of which God can call them to the silence of solitude and union with himself. I don't think a person who is busy, engaged, working, socializing 5-6 days a week, and then takes a day for silence, solitude, and contemplative prayer can effectively serve in this way. Hermits, whether lay or consecrated, who live the terms of Canon 603 with the whole of their lives CAN minister to these people in a way I believe no one else can do quite as fully or effectively. I believe this ministry is part of the charism of eremitical life and a reason the life (not the avocation) is growing today. It is certainly a reason eremitical spirituality is growing today, but again, embracing elements of this spirituality does not make one a hermit anymore than my own embracing of elements of Ignatian spirituality makes me a Jesuit.


Finally then, on the question regarding my own call to something other than the lay state. This is not a new question and I have written on it before two years ago or so, so please check that out. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: My credibility regarding the Importance of the Lay Vocation My own discernment of this took several extended periods of time, and my discernment of a call to consecrated eremitical life rather than lay eremitical life took about 25 years. In answering that call finally (with perpetual profession and consecration) I did so because I felt called to accept rights and responsibilities that did not flow from baptismal commitments, but from a different call as well: I was called (both subjectively and objectively) to consecrated celibacy and a nuptial or spousal relationship with Christ, and I was called to witness to that publicly with a form of love which was more eschatological and universal than otherwise. I was called to be obedient in a way which specified my usual call to obedience with a legitimate superior, the elements of Canon Law, the Church's definition of eremitical life, etc, and again, I was called to do that publicly. The same is true of poverty. I felt called to a degree and kind of poverty which does not automatically flow from the baptismal or lay state. I found I needed this commitment to live freely what I felt called to.

But let me be clear, I did indeed live my baptismal commitments fully before this and I realized that I might well never be admitted to the consecrated state as a hermit if the Church did not agree that this was God's own Call for me AND FOR THE CHURCH. (In that case, I would need to come to terms with the idea that perhaps I had not discerned properly). In fact the Church DID agree, and mediated God's own call, my response and profession, and God's consecration to me. Had the Church said no, I would have remained in the lay state, a lay hermit, and tried to live this full-time life in a way which glorified God and gave honor to the lay state. It would have been a different life, one where I would still be doing much of what I am doing now, but with different rights and responsibilities in terms of the Church. (I need to say here that the fact that I DID come to terms with living as a lay hermit is important to who I am today as diocesan hermit and allows me to esteem lay eremitical life better than I think some do. It also allows me to appreciate the differences between the two forms of eremitical call. So again, as I well know --- these are not to be seen in terms of better or second-best, but different.)

Those different rights and responsibilities include the living out of Canon 603 with the whole of my life in as faithful a way as I can. Part of the responsibility means learning more and more about the forms and fundamentals of the eremitical life over the past @2000 years of Church life and why they are included in the canon. It means standing in that tradition and taking it on in ways which allow it to speak to the contemporary world. It does not mean emptying the term of meaning or trying to apply new senses to it before I understand from WITHIN the life and have thus accepted a personal responsibility for it. "Hermit" is not a word without history or meaning, and while the application of this meaning can certainly vary, like most things we need to accept the basic meaning and live it before we start jettisoning bits in the name of some sort of individual liberty.

I hope this clarifies some points of misunderstanding.