18 August 2010

The Laborers in the Vineyard 2

When I hear today's Gospel and the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard I almost always have something triggered in me. Today, for whatever reason, I thought of the TV series Star Trek Next Generation. In the episode I am thinking of Captain Picard is explaining to a financier from the 21st C. that in the 24th C they have done away with want. (The man had died, was put in a cryogenic chamber and launched into space; whatever killed him can now be healed and he is "awakened" by Doctor Crusher along with a couple of other characters --- it takes some suspension of disbelief, but it's a good yarn.) Three hundred years have gone by and despite the wonders set before him (including a new chance at life), all this guy can think of is the money he left behind and all the compound interest which would have accrued --- along with the power this would all broker. He is desperate to get hold of his bankers or financial managers, or whatever! Never mind that all of that has ceased to exist! So here he is, faced with all sorts of new possibilities in a world which has done away with poverty or want and which offers him the freedom to be (almost) anything he wants. Of course, this necessarily means they have also done away with greed (for money, power, etc) as well -- and this is the loss which is most challenging to Picard's unexpected guest.

We know that the statistics for our society tell us that the numbers of billionaires is rising. At the same time the number of the impoverished is growing alarmingly. The gap between the haves and have-nots just gets bigger all the time. And we know that one is a function of the other: in a world with finite resources greed ensures that some will go without. When power is a function of wealth the situation is exacerbated because the poor also become voiceless and powerless, and so, if we are to insure a world of limited resources where poverty and want are ended, greed will also need to be ended. I think it therefore also means working in order to be fulfilled as persons, in order to gain just from the fact of working, in order to share with others, and in a way which takes care of need and allows others who must work less, for whatever reason, to have all they need to truly live as fully as possible. Benedictines will recognize this as a very monastic approach to reality.

But the need to accrue, to measure ourselves according to how much we have done or how long we have worked is very deeply ingrained in us, and so too, whether we recognize it or not, is the tendency to exclude and diminish those who cannot give of themselves in the same way or to the same extent. The parable from today's Gospel underscores this and our tendency to judge others on their failure to measure up similarly. Laborers are hired at various times of the day. All agree to the daily wage, but when the time comes for payment, those who worked the whole day through the noonday sun grumble when those who worked only a portion of the day are paid first and given the same wage. The parable says almost nothing about why people only hire on later (as they note in response to the neutral question about their idleness, no one has hired them!) but it is typical to find people attributing motives nonetheless: Lazy sluggards, they were hanging about the middle of town drinking! What losers, this crew has no ambition! Probably were just praying no one would hire them! I'll bet these folks were on the public dole! Rarely do we hear someone lamenting that these people have not been given a chance to fulfill themselves as persons, to give to the community as they can and need to, to garner some small level of self-esteem. Rarely do we wonder if perhaps it is the entire value system that is skewed and dehumanizing.

But in fact, that is one of the things today's parable would like us to conclude. At the very least Jesus' story criticizes "business as usual" and suggests that the way justice is done in the Kingdom of God is very different than in the world we all know so well. It also suggests then that the way we do justice should be different here and now --- if, that is, the Kingdom of God is truly among us! If we are to end poverty in all its forms, then we must also end greed in all of its forms. If we recognize we are part of a reign where ALL payment is gift and everyone is given precisely what she requires (and always more than we can earn or merit) then our efforts can go into helping others accept the gifts God offers. We may even achieve some restructuring of our own society. In short, acceptance, compassion, and generosity become the measures of real achievement. Like the financier in the Star Trek NG episode it takes a complete reordering of standards and vision, but the parable asks nothing less from us, I think.

The Laborers in the Vineyard 1 (Reprise)

Today's Gospel is one of my all-time favorite parables, that of the laborers in the vineyard. The story is simple --- deceptively so in fact: workers come to work in the vineyard at various parts of the day all having contracted with the master of the vineyard to work for a day's wages. Some therefore work the whole day, some are brought in to work only half a day, and some are hired only when the master comes for them at the end of the day. When time comes to pay everyone what they are owed those who came in to work last are paid first and receive a full day's wages. Those who came in to work first expect to be paid more than these and are disappointed and begin complaining when they are given the same wage as those paid first. The response of the master reminds them that he has paid them what they contracted for, nothing less, and then asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own money. A saying is added: [in the Kingdom of God] the first shall be last and the last first.

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values, one well-understood or common perspective, and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance. This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

So what happens in today's Gospel? Again, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and a master hiring workers. His readers know this world well and despite Jesus stating specifically that each man hired contracts for the same wage, common sense says that is unfair and the master MUST pay the later workers less than he pays those who came early to the fields and worked through the heat of the noonday sun. And of course, this is precisely what the early workers complain about to the master. It is precisely what most of US would complain about in our own workplaces if someone hired after us got more money, for instance, or if someone with a high school diploma got the same pay and benefit package as someone with a doctorate --- never mind that we agreed to this package! The same is true in terms of religion: "I spent my WHOLE life serving the Lord. I was baptized as an infant and went to Catholic schools from grade school through college and this upstart convert who has never done anything at all at the parish gets the Pastoral Associate job? No Way!! No FAIR!!" From our everyday perspective this would be a cogent objection and Jesus' insistence that all receive the same wage, not to mention that he seems to rub it in by calling the last hired to be paid first (i.e., the normal order of the Kingdom), is simply shocking.

And yet the master brings up two points which turn everything around: 1) he has paid everyone exactly what they contracted for --- a point which stops the complaints for the time being, and 2) he asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own gifts or money. He then reminds his hearers that the first shall be last, and the last first in the Kingdom of God. If someone was making these remarks to us in response to cries of "unfair" it would bring us up short, wouldn't it? If we were already a bit disoriented by a pay master who changed the rules of commonsense disbursal this would no doubt underscore the situation. It might also cause us to take a long look at ourselves and the values by which we live our lives. We might ask ourselves if the values and standards of the Kingdom are really SO different than those we operate by everyday of our lives, not to mention, do we really want to "buy into" this Kingdom if the rewards are really parcelled out in this way, even for people less "gifted" and less "committed" than we consider ourselves! Of course, we might not phrase things so bluntly. If we are honest, we will begin to see more than our own brilliance, giftedness, or commitedness; we might begin to see these along with a deep neediness, a persistent and genuine fear at the cost involved in accepting this "Kingdom" instead of the world we know and have accommodated ourselves to so well.

We might consider too, and carefully, that the Kingdom is not an otherwordly heaven, but that it is the realm of God's sovereignty which, especially in Christ, interpenetrates this world, and is actually the goal and perfection of this world; when we do, the dilemma before us gets even sharper. There is no real room for opting for this world's values now in the hope that those "other Kingdomly values" only kick in after death! All that render to Caesar stuff is actually a bit of a joke if we think we can divvy things up neatly and comfortably (I am sure Jesus was asking for the gift of one's whole self and nothing less when he made this statement!), because after all, what REALLY belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? No, no compromises are really allowed with today's parable, no easy blending of the vast discrepancy between the realm of God's sovereignty and the world which is ordered to greed, competition, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, nor therefore, to the choice Jesus puts before us.

So, what side will we come down on after all this disorientation and shaking up? I know that every time I hear this parable it touches a place in me (yet another one!!) that resents the values and standards of the Kingdom and that desires I measure things VERY differently indeed. It may be a part of me that resists the idea that everything I have and am is God's gift, even if I worked hard in cooperating with that (my very capacity and willingness to cooperate are ALSO gifts of God!). It may be a part of me that looks down my nose at this person or that and considers myself better in some way (smarter, more gifted, a harder worker, stronger, more faithful, born to a better class of parents, etc, etc). It may be part of me that resents another's wage or benefits despite the fact that I am not really in need of more myself. It may even be a part of me that resents my own weakness and inabilities, my own illness and incapacities which lead me to despise the preciousness and value of my life and his own way of valuing it which is God's gift to me and to the world. I am socialized in this first-world-culture and there is no doubt that it resides deeply and pervasively within me contending always for the Kingdom of God's sovereignty in my heart and living. I suspect this is true for most of us, and that today's Gospel challenges us to make a renewed choice for the Kingdom in yet another way or to another more profound or extensive degree.

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it. We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and dishelveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

To do so means to decide for his reign now and tomorrow and the day after that; it means to accept his gift of Self as fully as he wills to give it, and it therefore means to listen to him and his Word so that we MAY be able to decide and order our lives appropriately in his gratuitous love and mercy. The parable in today's Gospel is a gift which makes this possible --- if only we would allow it to work as Jesus empowers and wills it!

15 August 2010

Feast of the Assumption

Today is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin so perhaps it is a good idea to look, at least briefly, at what assumption actually means.

With the Feast of the Ascension we noted that Jesus as the Christ continues his bodily existence now in the heart of the God's own life. With all the other feasts we celebrate with regard to Christ we celebrate God's coming among us, God's self-emptying, God's limiting of self in ways which allows him to be present with us offering us his life and love and risking our rejection of those gifts. But with the Ascension God begins the process of taking into himself the Christ and all that is made a new creation in Christ. The many mansions are prepared and with the Ascension the extreme paradox of bodily existence in the heart of God's own self begins. It is first instance of the climax towards which all of creation yearns and groans, the beginning of God's own "fulfillment" as he becomes all in all.

The Feast of the Assumption continues this movement of the new creation into the very life of God's self, movement into God's own heart. Today we celebrate the fact that Mary, Mother of the Word incarnate, exists body and soul in the heart of God. She, despite death (or "dormition") is indeed a citizen of heaven (the very life of God) and is universally available to us as Sister and Mother. She has, through the grace of God, achieved the goal which is our own, the goal of all creation in Christ, the goal of resurrection and judgment, and so we celebrate that achievement for it means that God's own purposes are coming to fulfillment, and his creation is coming to perfection in him. We celebrate for Mary, we celebrate for God and his Christ, we celebrate for ourselves and all of creation.

09 August 2010

Memorial of Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Virgin and Martyr

Today marks the day on which Sister Teresa Benedicta, OCD, was martyred in 1942.

"We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting ... and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God." These were the words of Pope John Paul II when he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne on 1 May 1987.

Sister Teresa Bendicta was, by all accounts, a brilliant philosopher. Of Jewish parentage, she was academically gifted throughout her life. She studied under Edmund Husserl the celebrated phenomenologist at a time when women were rare in this field, and in fact worked as his assistant. She received her PhD, Summa Cum Laude (with highest honor). Subsequently she established herself as philosopher, translator, and writer, and then, after turning to Christianity, sought the greater solitude of the Carmelite Order. When WW II broke out she transferred from a Carmel in Cologne to another house (Echt) in neutral Holland so that her Sisters might be protected from Nazi persecution due to her presence.

When the Bishops in the Netherlands protested the removal of Jewish children from Catholic schools and the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps, the Nazis retaliated and arrested all Catholic Jews in Holland. Sister Benedicta, who could have escaped this fate, went with them as a sign of personal solidarity with her people and a witness to Christian love and solidarity as well. The Carmelite was taken to Auschwitz where she died on 09.Aug.1942 in the gas chambers there. As noted, she was beatified on 01.May.1987, canonized on 11.Oct.1998, and remains a witness to the triumph of the cross of Christ, in her thought, writing, piety, and above all, in her living and dying in the hope of Christ.

For a good biography of Sr Teresa Benedicta, try Edith Stein, The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, by Teresa Renata Posselt, OCD, ICS Publications. Posselt was the Novice Mistress and then the Mother Prioress when Edith Stein lived at the Cologne Carmel. The text has been reprinted and enlarged with scholarly perspectives published in separate "gleanings" sections, so they are available, but do not intrude on Posselt's text.

Another excellent biography you might check out is, Edith Stein, A Biography by Waltraud Herbstrith, OCD, Harper and Row. Sister Herbstrith knew Edith Stein well and has apparently spent a large part of her life making sure the story of Sister Benedicta's life and martyrdom was completely told.

06 August 2010

Feast of the Transfiguration (Mainly Reprised from 2009)

I am reprising this (with some additions at the end) because it really does speak to the themes I have touched on recently, especially in terms of reference to the recent lections. I hate missing posting on significant feasts, and I really could write nothing better for this one this year! Thanks for giving it another look.

Throughout the past few weeks the daily readings, especially in the Gospel of Matthew have echoed the refrain: "And there is something greater here than (Solomon, the Temple, Moses, Elijah, etc). . ." whenever Jesus speaks of himself. In today's Gospel we have an illustration of this refrain when Jesus is transfigured in front of some of his disciples (Peter, James, and John). Following this Elijah and Moses appear and converse with Jesus. Peter, terrified and "hardly knowing what to say" exclaims, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here!" and then suggests that they make three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Following this suggestion the mountain is covered by cloud, and there is a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him." Moses and Elijah have disappeared and we are told that the disciples "no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them." They are warned to say nothing of these events until after the resurrection from the dead, and though they do not really understand what resurrection means --- or even who Jesus really is in all its implications, they do indeed understand that right here with them in One who, though continuous with the rest of their history, is greater than Solomon, the Temple, Elijah, Moses, etc.

The ability to see what is really present despite outward appearance is a challenge to all of us. To see Christ in the neighbor, sometimes to see Christ in ourselves, to see the presence of God in a world it is much easier to castigate as evil or profane, to find that ours is a creation where heaven and earth interpenetrate one another in a significant way especially in light of Christ --- all of these are parts of the challenge today's Gospel puts before us. Further, to see that our God comes to us in weakness and ordinariness is part of that same challenge. And yet, we are a people called to recognize and embody this presence wherever we go. These are the two sides of the command to obedience: recognize (hear, see, taste, etc) and embody this for others. Rooted deeply within us by virtue of our baptism, there is something greater here than Solomon, Moses, or the Temple or the Decalogue --- a Wisdom and Love which transcends them all and marks us as disciples. If we can take seriously the vocation to live this out in a way which allows our more prosaic existence and being to be transfigured in the power and presence of God, we will begin to understand the challenge and imagery of today's Gospel: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him!"

My best wishes especially to my Camaldolese Sisters at Transfiguration Monastery in Windsor, NY. on this Feast Day. As Benedictines they take seriously the call to obedience as the challenge to recognize and embody God in the ordinariness of every day which epitomizes Christian Life. I also pray that all of us are open to the Transfiguration of selfhood which God calls us to daily. The light of such existence is brilliant, and lifegiving to all who experience it. It is the life of those who have "caught up" with the fact that the stone has been rolled away and live from and in that new reality!

01 August 2010

Questions on Becoming a Diocesan Hermit

Hi Sister Laurel! I am . . .from the Philippines. I am a reader of your blog, and I am just amazed with your life. . . . So, my questions are, 1. how does one start the process of becoming a diocesan hermit, let say after living a eremitic life after some years. How does he approach the bishop? And what if the bishop is not supportive, should he give up his vocation. 2. I understand that there are hermits who live in the urban area. What could be the best explanation if someone asks why he's not in the desert or in the forest? 3.How does one support himself? Is he allowed to work? What kinds of work? . . .]]

Hi there!
Assuming one has lived an eremitical life for some time (a few years as you say and under the direction of a competent spiritual director), one would contact the chancery and ask to speak to the Vicar for Religious or the Vicar for Consecrated Life. Sometimes the Vocation Director will be the person one will first speak to. In my experience one does not speak to the Bishop immediately. This can differ from diocese to diocese, but in my own diocese it is only once the Vicar(s) are prepared to recommend a person for profession that the Bishop actually enters the picture. At that point discernment continues and the Bishop will meet with the person several times usually, read their Rule and anything else that is pertinent, and make a decision.

At this point a person may be admitted to temporary profession or not. Further, the decision can take some time (including time working with Vicars, etc). Several years is not unusual. Even once the Bishop has received the recommendation the process may take a couple to several years more. If the Bishop is not supportive one should not give up "on his vocation." If one is clear that one is called to live an eremitical life then one can continue to do so as a lay hermit, for instance. The Church badly needs the witness of lay men and women who live authentic solitude in a world that militates against it in every possible way. In time the Bishop's position may change, sometimes because the Church's experience of diocesan hermits is increasing and because other Bishops have found the vocation significant in their own dioceses, sometimes because the lay hermit's persistence is edifying and helps clarify doubts or concerns. In time too, the aspirant's experience may lead him away from solitude. What is important is that one follow one's heart (and that means the call of God to be yourself) as well as one is able.

Bearing in mind that there have been urban hermits ("urbani" (etc) as well as anchorites who lived in the midst of towns) at a number of points in Church history, my own explanation for living in an urban area is that this is what Thomas Merton might have called an unnatural solitude which needs hermits to witness to the redemption that is possible there when isolation is transformed into genuine solitude by the grace of God. However, my own answer is not your answer and only you can explain why you have CHOSEN to live where you do. Only you can explain why it is possible to live an authentic eremitical life in an urban setting --- if indeed you believe it is. Like all other things this is a conclusion you come to with experience, study, reflection and prayer. Thus, how you answer the question is something which is truth, but it is your truth and, if you become a hermit, it will be one of the ways you become responsible for the living tradition of eremitical life.

Regarding support of oneself, one must usually work to do that, and ordinarily Bishops look for hermits who can support themselves in ways completely consonant with a contemplative life. It is generally solitary work whether done in or out of the hermitage and there are many possibilities here: writing, art, spiritual direction, cleaning (some clean buildings at night or after hours, for instance), beekeeping, writing icons, editing copy, woodworking, pottery, medical billing, etc, etc. The ways of doing this are only limited by one's imagination (and location --- though with the internet even that has changed somewhat). You would need to work this out over time and eventually (if admitted to a process of discernment for profession as a diocesan hermit) with your Bishop, delegate, etc to determine what works best and most contributes to your eremitical life.

I hope this helps. As always, if it raises more questions or requires clarification, please get back to me.