20 May 2010

Peter, Do You Love Me? Part 2

Tomorrow's Gospel portrays the reconciliation between Jesus and Peter occasioned by a dialogue in which Jesus questions Peter, and thereby reminds him of what is deepest and truest in himself. As noted in part 1, through Jesus' questions, Peter gets in touch with his heart of hearts and with the reality of agapeic love that objectively inspires him most profoundly. (What Peter feels subjectively is affirmed in his responses, which are expressed in terms of filial love.) From this experience, this reconciliation with what is deepest in himself comes Jesus' triple commission of Peter to "Feed my Lambs, feed my sheep." And of course, Jesus then reminds him that when Peter was younger he could dress himself and go wherever he wanted, but now that he was older (more mature), someone else would gird him in a new role and lead him where he did not want to go.

The point of course, besides referring immediately to the kind of death Peter would die, is that an Apostle's vocation and commission is a difficult one; it represents a kind of freedom which is far more mature and responsible than the liberty of youth. More, while Love speaks to us in our heart of hearts and is the basis of all Christian morality and ethics (something the Church affirms again and again, not least in her teaching on the primacy of conscience coupled with the idea that conscience is that sacred and inviolable place where God speaks to us), discerning how the imperative of that voice of Love works out in concrete terms is sometimes difficult and will always have significant consequences because the stakes are very high.

In recent days we have been reminded of this latter part of tomorrow's Gospel in a particularly striking way, not only of the difficulty of working out what is most loving and most inspired in concrete situations, but of the fact that sometimes our commitment to communion which is our deepest reality and the Love which grounds it and our vocation will take us places we would really rather not but certainly must go if we are to be true to ourselves and our God.

You may know the story: Sister Margaret McBride, a Sister of Mercy and member of a hospital ethics committee was presented with a really terrible situation. A mother of four children with an 11 week pregnancy had a condition which was exacerbated by the pregnancy. If she continued the pregnancy the prospect of both mother and baby dying was nearly 100%. If the pregnancy was terminated the mother had a chance of living. In either case, the baby would die. Church directives on the matter were clear and unambiguous: direct abortion is never allowed. One may not intend evil in order to do good. The demands of love, however, were not so clear in this particular situation. The abortion was done and Sister Margaret and all who participated in it in any way were automatically excommunicated, meaning the Church hierarchy did not act to excommunicate these people but rather, those involved incurred this ecclesiastical (not Divine!) penalty themselves as a consequence of their very action.

Now the classical position on the teaching of the absolute primacy of conscience foresees such a situation. Aquinas was very clear that one MUST act in good conscience (to do otherwise is to sin) and that if one's actions will take one outside the church, that is, if they will result in excommunication, one must act according to one's conscience judgment and bear the excommunication humbly. Again, to fail to act according to one's conscience judgment is to sin; to act in good conscience is not, no matter what the consequences or the correctness or incorrectness of that judgment. Sometimes we hear people suggest that if one acts in good conscience it can only be with a well-formed and informed conscience (this is true), and further that this must mean that one can only act in accord with Church teaching (this is not true). Of course, if this latter part of the statement were true, Aquinas' analysis with its prominent conflict between law and love would be meaningless; excommunication when acting in good conscience could never occur. Similarly at Vatican II it was proposed by some Bishops/Curia that the Council's teaching on conscience be modified to state explicitly that a well-formed conscience was one which was formed to be in accord with Church teaching in any given situation. The theological commission in charge of such a modification rejected it as too rigid and narrow to reflect the scope and wisdom of Church teaching on primacy of conscience.

What we see is that sometimes there is a disconnect or conflict between law (which deals with universals) and love (which not only is a universal imperative but which deals more adequately with concrete situations than law can ever do). Church teaching and the magisterium honors the fact of this disconnect by refusing to soften the crisis (krisis is the Greek term for a moment of decision) that can occur as a result and by commissioning us each to act as Love itself demands. Only we can bring love to a situation. Law cannot. Only we can act in an inspired and creative way given specific circumstances require. Law cannot. Only we can courageously negotiate the transition from universal legal norms in a way which truly chooses life in the best way possible. We are not prevented from erring, nor assured that every decision we make is correct, but the task and challenge of discipleship is this momentous and compelling nonetheless. The charge in tomorrow's gospel passage is a somewhat stronger version of Augustine's famous dictum: Love and do what you must! Love, and do what only you can do. Feed My Sheep!!

My own prayer as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost is a prayer for the Wisdom, Love, and Courage of the Spirit (and any other gifts) necessary to accept the commission which comes with our acceptance of a mature Christian identity; it is a prayer for the Spirit which grounds, reveals, and allows our affirmation of that communion ---that agapeic reality which is deepest, most true and real within us. I especially pray for Sister Margaret who acted in good conscience (quite a high value and demanding reality), and showed us how the face of God is made manifest in the concrete situation. She did this not by thumbing her nose at law, but by relativizing it in light of the Great Commandment and the Voice of God she heard in her heart of hearts. I also pray that her Bishop will lift the automatic sanction, not because abortion is acceptable, but because sometimes, as Sister Margaret has shown us, there are even worse threats to innocent life in the concrete situation. Difficult as this situation is, we cannot allow people of faith, courage, and exceptional integrity to be automatically excluded from the Body of Christ in a way which suggests that church law trumps rather than imperfectly serves God's own Commandment.

May we, each of us, from the lowliest hermit, religious or lay person, to the highest Bishop or Pope act in ways which effectively bring the face of Christ's love, mercy, and compassion into the concrete situation. Law can assist us in significant ways, but will always fall short here. A heart forgiven by Christ and reconciled with him, a heart which knows its own frailties and failures even while it is inspired by and obedient to his Holy Spirit will not.

17 May 2010

Peter, Do you Love Me? Part 1

Spending time with Friday's Gospel (May 21th, John 21:15-19) marked one of those unexpected moments for me when the Holy Spirit empowers one to hear something completely new, and when the text takes on a new sound, a new perspective and lesson. Throughout the Easter season I had at least implicitly heard the question Jesus posed to Peter in this lection again. Partly this was because we read the Gospel of John and the command to love God and one another turns up again and again with this question tacitly embedded within it. Partly it was because of people who modelled such love for me again and again and were central to this year's Easter season -- not least Ann and Don and their family. Partly, I suppose it is the natural question of one who desires to love God and others but continually falls short.

Like most people I have always heard Jesus' questions to Peter merely as a kind of test. Clearly they follow Peter's triple denial of Jesus on the night he was arrested, and Peter's own affirmations serve to counter those. Perhaps Jesus really asked Peter these questions in precisely this way and this is a simple record of that; perhaps the questioning is a literary device constructed by the evangelist in order to mark Peter's renewed commitment to the Risen Christ as adequate to offset his denials and justify his leadership role in the nascent Church; perhaps there were three questions, or perhaps Peter heard this question in his heart dozens of times as he encountered Jesus after the resurrection (or maybe both of these are true!), but however the historical details shake out, I know that like most people I heard these questions as a test posed by Jesus to Peter, or to myself. Until last week that is.

In living with this text for those few days and sensing a climax to what I had been experiencing during Easter, I began to see instead what Jesus was doing with these questions, and testing Peter was not what he was about, at least not in the common sense. Instead he is attempting to move Peter past the denials on the night of his arrest, serious as those were, and put Peter in touch with the deeper truth, the truth which is more foundational for him than his fear, his self-centeredness, his drive for self-preservation and the like. It is a way of rehabilitating Peter and commissioning him for something more as well. It put him in touch with the truth which is life for him, the truth of his bond with Jesus which is deeper even than Peter's denials because God dwells within us, and because "Nothing can separate us from the love of God". At the same time the questions move Peter from his own certainty in himself (and about himself!) and an attitude of (perhaps defensive) self-assertion to a more secure place altogether: the point of humble submission to Jesus' knowledge of who Peter is, Jesus' certainty about Peter's capacities and constitution, Jesus' judgment of the nature, worth, and measure of his life and his plan FOR that life.

The element I was not paying enough (or appropriate) attention to was Jesus's commissioning of Peter and the way this commissioning functions in Peter's life. If I attended to these statements at all it was as a reward for answering correctly, "Yes, Lord, I love you!" In my mind I read the text this way: "Answer the question correctly, Peter, and Jesus will entrust you with great responsibility. Answer incorrectly, and he will not!" Now, there is a seed of truth in this --- Jesus entrusts those who love him with a great deal --- but Jesus's commissioning is not a reward for the right answers. It is instead a way of creating a future, for Peter, for the Church, for Jesus' life here among us. It is the way Jesus forgives, and it is an effective forgiveness which changes who Peter is in less essential ways and also builds on who Peter is most deeply and essentially, and so too then, the way Peter sees himself. It is a challenging forgiveness which empowers Peter to see himself as Jesus does, trust himself as Jesus does, embrace and live up to the vocation Jesus knows him to have and makes him, with God's grace, to be capable of.

These questions put to Peter by Jesus function similarly to Jesus' parables. They create a new future by allowing the one hearing and responding to them to opt for reality as Jesus defines it. Far from simply testing Peter, they are meant to encourage him -- though by challenging him to measure up to what is deepest in himself, what is truest and most real. In monastic life this is what it means to be addressed as one's true self and to heal and transcend his false self. Rather than questioning whether Peter loves him, Jesus uses these questions to remind Peter of the truth of his loving union with Jesus just as they remind him that this is the reality God sees in us beyond the sin, selfishness, fear, cowardice, etc which so often marks our lives.

It is significant then that when Jesus poses his question the first two times he uses the appropriate grammatical form of agape --- that quality of love which transcends all individual expressions of it, that form of love which is the principle of unity and wholeness in all forms or qualities of love (eros, bios, philia, etc), that form which points directly to God and the Spirit which inspires it within us. Only once Jesus has reminded Peter twice of this deep ground of all love and heard Peter's affirmations, does he ask him the third time if he loves him in the more particular form of philia. Peter is reconciled with Jesus. In dialogue with Jesus he comes to certainty about who he really is, and what moves him most deeply. He affirms himself and he affirms who Jesus is for him.

As a result or consequence (NOT as a reward!) Peter is commissioned to "feed my sheep". In accepting this commission he accepts his truest identity; in accepting his truest identity he experiences and accepts this commission. And this Peter will do because above all he has recommitted himself to loving, that is, to acting on what is truest and most real within himself in ways which will naturally affirm what is truest and most real in others.

15 May 2010

On the Feast of the Ascension, Continuing the Scandal of the Incarnation in the Very Heart of God

A couple of years ago I wrote about a passage taken from one of the Offices (Vigils) on the Feast of the Ascension. In that passage we hear the remarkable statement that, [[It is he who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers in roles of service for the faithful to build up the body of Christ, till we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God's Son, AND FORM THE PERFECT MAN WHO IS CHRIST COME TO FULL STATURE.]] It is an image that has intrigued me since, and of course, one that I hear and reflect on again each Ascension Day. Imagine that it is we-as-church who quite literally make up the body of Christ and who one day will be taken up into the very life of God just as Christ was --- and that in this way, Christ will have "come to full stature." He will live in us and we in him, and all of us in God as God too becomes all in all. (Sounds very Johannine doesn't it?)

When I was an undergraduate in Theology (and through a lot of my graduate work as well), the Ascension never made much sense to me. It was often mainly treated as a Lukan construction which added little to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and if my professors and those they had us reading felt this way, I didn't press the issue --- nor, at least as an undergraduate, did I have the wherewithal TO press the issue theologically. It didn't help any that the notion of Jesus' bodily ascension into "heaven" was more incomprehensible (and unbelieveable) than resurrection, or that I understood it as a kind of dissolving away of Jesus bodiliness rather than a confirmation of it and continuation of the Incarnation. (The notion that a docetist Jesus had just been "slumming" for thirty-three years, as one writer objects to putting the matter, and that Ascension was the act by which he shook the dust of humanity from his sandals when his work was done, was probably not far from my mind here.)

Finally therefore, it was really difficult to deal with the notion that Christ, who had been so close to us as to appear in his glorified body with which he walked through walls, ate fish, allowed his marks as the crucified one to be examined, etc, was now going to some remote place far distant from us and would be replaced by some intangible and abstract spiritual reality. Of course, I had it all wrong. Completely. Totally. Absolutely wrong in almost every particular. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that most Christians have it wrong in all the same ways. And yet, it is the passage from Ephesians which is one key to getting it all right, and to rejoicing in the promise and challenge that Jesus' Ascension represents for us.

What actually happens in the Ascension? What about reality changes? What does it mean to say that Christ ascends to the right hand of God or "opens the gates of heaven"? The notion that Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension changes reality is novel for many people. They may think of redemption as a matter of changing God's mind about us, for instance, appeasing divine wrath, but not really changing objective reality. Yet, on the cross and through his descent into the very depths of Godlessness (sin and godless or sinful death), as I have written before, Jesus, through his own obedience (openness, and responsiveness) opens this realm to God; he implicates God into this realm in definitive ways. God's presence in all of our world's moments and moods is, in light of the Christ Event, personal and intimate, not impersonal and remote. And with God implicated in the very reality from which he has, by definition, been excluded, that reality is transformed. It is no longer literally godless, but instead becomes a kind of sacrament of his presence, the place where we may see him face to face in fact --- and the place where being now triumphs over non-being, life triumphs over death, love triumphs over all that opposes it, and meaning overcomes absurdity. This is one part or side of Jesus' mediatory function: the making God real and present in ways and where before he was not. It is the climax of God's own self-emptying, his own "descent" which began with creation and continues with redemption and new creation; it is the climax of God first creating that which is other so that he might share himself, and then entering into every moment and mood of creation.

But there is another aspect or side to Christ's mediatory activity, and this is made most clear in the Ascension. The language used is not descent, but ascent, not journeying to a far place, but returning home and preparing a place for those who will follow. (Yes, we SHOULD hear echoes of the parable of the prodigal Son/ merciful Father here with Christ as the prodigal Son journeying to a far place.) If in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, the world is opened to God, in Jesus' ascension, God's own life is opened definitively to the world. In Jesus' ascension, the new creation, of which Jesus is the first born and head, is taken up BODILY into God, dwells within him in communion with him. In Jesus we meet our future in the promise that this will happen to us and all of creation in him.

When Paul speaks of God becoming all in all he is looking at the culmination of this double process of mediation: first, God entering the world more profoundly, extensively and, above all, personally in Christ, and second, the world being taken up into God's own life. When he speaks of Christ coming to full stature, he is speaking of the same process, the same culmination. When theologians speak of the interpenetration of heaven and earth, or the creation of a new heaven and a new earth they are speaking again of this process with an eye towards its culmination at the end of time. The Ascension marks the beginning of this "End Time."

It is important to remember a couple of things in trying to understand this view of ascension. First, God is not A BEING, not even the biggest and best, holiest, most powerful, etc. God is being itself, the ground of being and meaning out of which everything that has being and meaning stands (ex-istere, i.e., "out of - to stand"). Secondly, therefore, heaven is not merely some place where God resides along with lots of other beings (including, one day, ourselves) --- even if he is the center of attention and adoration. Heaven is God's own being, the very life of God himself shared with others. (Remember that often the term heaven was used by Jews to avoid using God's name, thus, the Kingdom or Reign of Heaven is the Sovereignty of God) Finally, as wonderful as this creation we are part of is, it is meant for more. It is meant to exist in and of God in a final and definitive way. Some form of panentheism is the goal of reality, both human and divine. Jesus' ascension is the first instance of created existence being taken up into God's own life (heaven). It is the culmination of one part of the Christ event (mediation seen mainly in terms of descent and creation/redemption), and the beginning of another (mediation seen in terms of recreation/glorification and ascent).

When the process is completed and God is all in all, so too can we say that the God-Man Christ will have "come to full stature," or, as another translation of today's lection from Ephesians reads: [[. . .in accord with the exercise of his great might: which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.]]

For those who have difficulty in accepting God's assumption of human flesh and revelation of himself exhaustively in a human life -- most especially in the weakness and fragility of such a life, Jesus' ascension offers no relaxing of the tension or scandal of the incarnation. Instead it heightens it. With Jesus' ascension the Godhead NOW has taken created reality and bodily existence within itself as a very part of God's own life. This is what we are meant for, the reason we were created. It is what God willed "from the beginning". If, in the Christ event human life is defined as a covenantal reality, that is, if our lives are dialogical realities with God as an integral and constitutive part, so too does the Christ Event define God similarly, not simply as Trinitarian and in some sort of conversation with us, but as One who actively makes room within himself for us and all he cherishes --- and who, in this sense, is incomplete without us.

Human being --- created, redeemed, recreated and glorified --- assumes its rightful and full stature in Christ. In the acts of creation, redemption, and glorification, Divinity empties itself of certain prerogatives in Christ as well, but at the same time Divinity assumes its full stature in Christ, a stature we could never have imagined because it includes us in itself in an integral or fundamental way. Whether this is expressed in the language and reality of descent, kenosis (self-emptying), and asthenia (weakness), or of ascent, pleroma (fullness), and power, Christianity affirms the scandal of the incarnation as revelatory of God's very nature. We should stand open-mouthed and astounded in awe at the dignity accorded us and the future with which we, and all of creation is "endowed" on the "day" of Christ's Ascension.

10 May 2010

Do Dioceses Support Diocesan Hermits?

[[Sister Laurel, does the diocese of the Canon 603 hermit support them in any way? What do you think about this? How about other diocesan hermits?]]

Really great questions, and ones which lots of people wonder about. I may have answered something similar before so please look for that as well; also some of what I say here will echo what I wrote about in regard to mediocrity as a danger to authentic eremitical life. The simple answer is no, diocesan hermits generally receive nothing from their dioceses in terms of stipends, transportation, living expenses or accommodations (place to set up a hermitage, etc), medical or other insurance, educational expenses, money for yearly or bi-yearly retreat, religious goods, books, etc. Remember that while diocesan clergy receive stipends for their service to the diocese, religious women and men usually do not unless they are contracted and work for the diocese itself. They support themselves and their congregations --- particularly their retired members and those in formation. (The idea that religious support their communities, and not vice versa is not well enough understood today.) Diocesan hermits differ from, but fall into this latter category. In fact, diocesan hermits ordinarily sign a waiver of liability (or claim) at their perpetual profession which says the diocese is not responsible for them in material or financial ways.

So, how do I feel about this? I think it is a wise policy for a number of reasons. Diocesan eremitical life does not have the kind of built in safeguards (for discernment or supervision of the motives behind and the quality of living) that life in community has. Discernment of an eremitical vocation takes time and the solitary (diocesan) eremitical vocation may require even more time. Because individuals embrace solitude for all kinds of reasons it often takes a number of years to clarify why they seek to make profession as a diocesan hermit. Unfortunately, it must be crystal clear that among these motivations the need to be cared for is not present. The tendency to run from responsibility and from the ordinary demands of life in society also must not be present. Eremitical life is a responsible life and one embraces it to give oneself in devotion and service to God, his Church, and world. Further, because the eremitical vocation is so independent, the individual and the diocese need to see signs that the hermit candidate is acting and living independently: providing for and securing education, caring for the normal needs of a deep spiritual life, independent work, taking initiative for education, etc -- all are a significant part of the eremitical life. It is simply right that a diocese expects hermits to care for these him/herself.

However, I have heard some hermits suggest that the church does not esteem the vocation highly enough and contributing in basic ways to the upkeep of the hermit would help do this. Additionally, because of the failure to provide in this way it happens that some persons who might have genuine calls to diocesan eremitical life, but who cannot find a way to support themselves which is consistent with a contemplative life, and who certainly cannot quit working their usual jobs, simply cannot be accepted for consecration under Canon 603. Also, because of this policy, hermits who have been consecrated for some time but who can no longer work, who have increasing health problems, and must provide for future burial expenses, etc, find themselves in difficulty and a dilemma. They have faithfully lived eremitical life and vowed poverty independently for years and maintained themselves in this way, but now the situation is changing. They must find a way to continue living eremitical silence, solitude, etc, because they are vowed to this (one does not simply retire from such a commitment or life), but they also may need more health care, assisted living, etc. These situations are more complex than I can discuss at this point, but they are important and give some import to the comment about the church's need to esteem this vocation in concrete and material ways.

Is there a satisfactory solution? Not at present. One possibility is that dioceses of aging hermits might provide some assistance after these hermits have lived perpetual profession for a number of years (say ten to fifteen or so (depending upon when the hermit is perpetually professed, or if extraordinary circumstances intervene otherwise). Such hermits might be included on diocesan insurance (we hear of this occasionally), be allowed to live on diocesan property without (or with nominal) rent, or be included on diocesan burial policies. However, whatever the solution for hermits in later life or which minimizes the risk that some few vocations are missed because of an inability to meet diocesan requirements, the policy dioceses have generally adopted is mainly a good one and I agree with it. Hermits themselves need to know that they are seeking profession without any ulterior motives, and they must be confident that they are able to live independently and responsibly without being cared for by the diocese before they are professed. Similarly dioceses need to know that those approaching them with petitions for admittance to profession are mature, responsible, self-sufficient, generous, and independent. They need to know these persons are not looking for a sinecure. It is simply part of discerning (and living!) an authentic eremitical vocation.

Hope this helps. As always, if it does not answer your questions, is unclear, or raises more questions, please get back to me.

06 May 2010

Regarding Diocesan Hermits: Hoods Up or Down? And what about Apostolic Activity?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I was just reading your posts on the cowl because I have been viewing a number of videos in which monks are wearing or not wearing their hoods up. I am wondering what dictates when the hood is up or down. Also, would you comment on the apostolic activity in the life of a hermit. I think that most of us have a picture of hermits as people (usually venerable old men who live in the desert in an isolated hut) who, other than offering spiritual direction to those who come to them, have little other contact with the "outside" world. I am so drawn to your posts and I thank you for them. They are so informative and inspirational to this closet contemplative.]]


Good questions! Regarding the cowl and whether one wears the hood up or down there are no real hard and fast rules for diocesan hermits, despite the fact that the right to wear this garment publicly is granted to diocesan hermits at profession. (After all, not all of us are asked or choose to wear a cowl as our prayer garment, and when we are or do, we do so as individuals in our parish/diocesan community, not as monks or nuns in a monastery or congregation!) Generally if I am praying at Eucharist with the rest of the parish community I always have my hood down simply because I don't want to be or feel cut off from the rest of the assembly. This includes the penitential rite right on up to the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass (where, for instance, Bishops will remove their "skull caps" (zuchettos, zuchetti) and go bareheaded). However, that general rule aside, I wear my hood up on Good Friday during parts of that day's liturgy, particularly the reading of the passion and veneration of the cross, and during parts of communal penance celebrations at Advent and Lent --- in this latter situation, I do so not only to ensure my own privacy, but to ensure that of others moving up to the stations where priests will hear their confessions.

At Mass I celebrate while others receive Communion and I love to watch fellow parishioners go up to receive; I pray for and rejoice with them, but penance services with the move to the confession stations is a different matter. I also wear my hood up during the periods of the Easter Vigil done outside, processing into the church, or where we sit in darkness hearing the Word of God while waiting for the announcement of the resurrection. At the point where the lights comes on, bells are rung, Alleluia's sound, etc, my hood comes down. At daily or Sunday Mass (before these actually) I may have my hood up if I have not yet finished quiet prayer because it tends to signal others not to approach me yet, or to keep things quieter for a little longer. However, this is not something I prolong and it is a rare occurence. (Remember that the hood is meant to serve as an extension of the cell.)

In the hermitage itself I tend to wear the hood up during periods of quiet prayer and some times of reading or study (especially if I am doing this outside in the evenings or night during the Summer), but not at other times (unless it is chilly and then the hood helps a bit!). Since I don't need to wear the cowl to or from chapel (or signal to others we are still in the period of great silence) there is no need to wear the hood up moving around the hermitage. Note that in communities where cowls are worn routinely there are customs which are followed, and so their practices are far more extensive and spelled out than mine; however it is a different thing when everyone wears a cowl, and not nearly so isolating or elitist-making as it might be in a parish setting where one is the only one wearing such garb. You would need to ask someone in such a religious community what their practices or customs are regarding hoods-up or hoods-down! In a parish setting it might be that some diocesan hermits signal some degree of separation from even the rest of the assembly at parish Mass by wearing their hood up most or all of the time, but, despite understanding why someone might wish to do this, I find that personally, liturgically, and theologically unacceptable.


Regarding ministerial activity outside the hermitage (I prefer ministerial rather than apostolic), the fact is every hermit has to determine to what degree she will undertake this for herself in conjunction with her director, delegate, Bishop and pastor. I have written about this in other posts so I will not repeat much of it here, but generally such activity must flow from and be an expression of a solitary contemplative life, and lead one back to the silence of solitude and contemplation. This is not a matter merely of balancing the contemplative aspects of a life with the non-contemplative aspects, or balancing "hermitting" kinds of things (whatever those really are!) with "worldly" things and activities (again, whatever those really are!). It is a matter of approaching whatever one does as a hermit for whom the silence of solitude and contemplative prayer informs and dictates whatever one does.

One of the truths of genuine contemplative life is that such life spills over into life for the church and world in concrete ways. When one experiences love in the way contemplative prayer allows for, one does not merely pray, but becomes God's own prayer and for this reason, one's contemplation necessarily spills over and outward. When this happens, the activity undertaken becomes part of authentic contemplative life --- it itself is contemplative in the best sense of the word. Should it become seductive on its own behalf and lead one away from the more strictly silent and solitary, or disrupt one's ability to center in and quiet oneself more deeply for solitary contemplative prayer, then something needs attention.

As for having little contact with the "outside world", it is true that hermits have a good deal less of it than most people, and maintain such contact as they do have with a care and attentiveness which many today do not exercise, but the Canon governing diocesan eremitical life speaks of "stricter separation from the world" where "world" has a very particular meaning, namely and primarily, that which is closed and resistant to Christ. (Holland, Handbook on Canons 573-746: definition provided by Ellen O'Hara in "Norms Common to All Institutes of Consecrated Life")) We need to remember that in this sense, the "world" may mean much of what lies outside the hermitage, but also, that it applies to much within our own hearts, and so, is something closing the door of the hermitage will not shut out but rather will shut in!

For the most part I remain within my hermitage so that I can spend time with God alone, and also so he may occasion the healing and sanctification of those parts of my heart which are truly "worldly" in this primary and limited sense. This necessarily means limiting or even avoiding aspects of God's good creation as well (another Johannine meaning of the term "world"), but, I am not a recluse, nor am I a stereotype --- venerable, bearded, or otherwise! --- and so, in limited and judicious ways I participate in activities and relationships which are both an expression of, and assist me in growing as a person AND THERFORE AS A HERMIT (and vice versa)! Again, each hermit will discern what is right in these regards for herself and for the vocation to eremitical life generally. Should, she find that she is called outside the hermitage too much, or that she is engaged in apostolic activity for much more than a very limited amount of her time, or even that this activity --- how ever limited (and beneficial) it may be --- is an obstacle to settling back into the solitude of the cell or hermitage, then, as already noted, something has gone awry and she needs to discern seriously what that is and where she is truly called.

On the other hand, a "hermit" who refuses to become involved in some limited degree of ministerial activity outside the hermitage because a stereotypical idea of eremitical life does not allow for it, or because of selfishness, misanthropy, lack of generosity, or a failure to discern what eremitical life needs to be in today's church and world in order to be a prophetic and contemplative presence there, may have failed her vocation every bit as much as the hermit who cannot stay in her cell appropriately (that is, as one who cannot maintain an appropriate "custody of the cell."). Clearly discernment does not cease once one has been professed and consecrated!

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if it raises more questions or is unclear in any way.

03 May 2010

The Greatest Risk to the Eremitical Vocation?

[[Sister, what is the hardest thing for a new person becoming a hermit? You write about it as a risky vocation. What is the greatest risk do you think?]]

It seems to me that the hardest thing about becoming a hermit is making the transition from being a person who does things associated with being a hermit to actually being one in some essential sense. One approach to becoming a diocesan (or a lay) hermit seems to be that of adding in pious and devotional practices without changing one's general environment. In this approach silence and solitude, for instance, are treated as things one adds in to one's life rather than being embraced as the very environment in which one lives. But becoming a hermit is not simply about living more or less of this or that: more prayers, more silence, more time alone, less contact with family or friends, less (or no) TV, etc. It is about a life with God alone which humanizes one and makes of one's life a prophetic presence in a noisy world devoted to self, dissipation, and distraction. Nikos Kazantzakis once said that, "Solitude can be fatal for the soul that does not burn with a great passion." I think that the movement from doing the things a hermit does to being a true hermit --- and the danger of never making this transition --- is a piece of what is behind this quote.

The process of becoming a diocesan (or, for that matter, a lay) hermit involves a transition to being at home in an environment of the silence of solitude. It involves a transition from being a person who prays occasionally (or even often) to being a person who is prayer in some fundamental and conscious way. Because this transition is so all-encompassing, and because it cannot be engineered, the time frame for becoming a diocesan hermit is ordinarily lengthy and individualized. Negotiating this transition is one of the more difficult aspects of becoming a hermit, it seems to me --- particularly if one is not willing to let go of one's previous life, or, similarly, if one is trying to accommodate "hermiting" to a more normal parish or religious life. The call to eremitical life is different not simply in degree, but in kind; a candidate to diocesan eremitical life must understand and embrace this difference.

The greatest risk to eremitical life, in my estimation, is mediocrity because mediocrity is a form of inauthenticity. Because the life is so independent, because there is little direct oversight, it is easy to lose oneself in this or that distraction. No one but the hermit and God knows if the hermit lives her Rule or horarium. No one knows if she shows up for prayer or spends appropriate time in lectio or study. No one knows when legitimate recreation slides into more dangerous distraction and dissipation. And of course, even if she is dilligent in doing all the things she is obligated to in her Rule, she still may not be growing sufficiently in holiness, human maturity, and the capacity to love and serve others. This too can be a kind of mediocrity. Yes, she lives this life under the supervision of her Bishop and those he delegates to serve in this way. But in most ways these individuals cannot do other than take the hermit's word about the quality of the life she is living. (Directors and delegates can and do ask probing questions and challenge to ever-greater fidelity to God's call, but ultimately, they do not live with the hermit and cannot measure mediocrity. Only the hermit can do that.) Here Kazantzakis' quote also is helpful, for the hermit will be one with a great passion and that passion will not allow mediocrity.

This tremendous independence and inner directedness (development of a truly great passion) is also one of the reasons the period of discernment and formation for a diocesan hermit is often quite lengthy. Again,the person seeking to make and live this commitment needs to make the transition from "doing hermit things" to being a hermit in an essential way. They are persons who have come to terms with their own poverty and realized that communion with God is, for them, found only in silence and solitude. Human wholeness and the community necessary for that is for them a paradoxical reality realized in the silence OF solitude. For them the ability to love and serve others requires an unusual degree of silence and solitude, prayer, penance, personal work, etc, and they MUST be committed to that. That is, they must be embracing this vocation because they love, and are committed to loving more and more. Diocesan representatives, the person's spiritual director, et al, must come to assurance not only that all this is true for this person, but that the person is capable of living out this truth with self-discipline and integrity and that she has a track record of faithfulness to the Rule of Life which reflects the truth of her life with God.

By the way, there is no formula for what this faithfulness means in any given individual's life. Canon 603 defines the essential elements of the life but does not quantify these. It says this is a life of the silence of solitude, and that it is marked by assiduous prayer and penance, a living out of the evangelical counsels, and stricter separation from the world, all lived for the salvation of the world and according to the person's own Rule of Life. However, it does not indicate any single picture of what these things mean. Because of this one must find out what each of these terms will look like in her own call to eremitical life. Again, discovering this, building it into a life which genuinely loves and serves others, which leads one to genuine holiness, and which is also consistent with eremitical tradition takes time, discernment, and consistent and focused work.

The risk, of course, (and an ongoing, every day risk in fact) is that one will fail in some part of this challenge, whether that is by buying into a stereotype of eremitical (or contemplative) life which allows one to cease discerning how the life is to be lived lovingly and prophetically in this time and place, or whether it means convincing oneself that certain evasions and compromises are legitimate when they are not. Mediocrity can take many forms and wear many guises (some of them quite dramatic or extreme in normal terms) even once one has made the transition from doing hermit things to being a hermit in an essential sense. It has a number of roots as well: failure to love, disobedience, selfishness, various forms of fear or resistance, arrogance, complacency, etc. In any case, while it is important to deal with each of these roots, I think mediocrity itself is really the greatest overall risk that faces someone trying to live an eremitical life.