28 September 2010

The Silence of Solitude and the Redemption of Isolation (#7)

[[ Sr. Laurel, Could you please say something more about the distinction between "validating one's isolation" and redeeming it? I don't really get the first part of that at all even if I see where the change from isolation to solitude is a positive thing.]]

Yes, sorry, I should have explained that better. What I mean is that many of us (and many who are called to the eremitical "silence of solitude") begin with situations which marginalize and even isolate us. Chronic illness is the most common situation I know of and it is the one I am personally familiar with. Chronic illness, as I have written here before isolates and causes various forms of dislocation. The rhythm and tempo of one's life is simply different than that of most people, and depending on the illness involved one may be unable to drive or even use public transportation easily in ways which allow one to be more independent. Ordinarily poverty accompanies serious illness or disability, due to the inability to work, study (perhaps), etc. One is dependent upon others' assistance more than usual and the relationships may be unequal and not those of peers. In terms of the Church those with serious illness may be ministered to but are rarely seen as a source of ministry themselves. Certainly they cannot usually become religious if they feel such a call, and as lay persons, their lives are also often undervalued. One finds that with every scale we ordinarily use, except that of the Gospel, the chronically ill are invalided and invalidated.

Canon 603, the Canon which governs the solitary eremitical vocation in the Church can seem like a way of validating this isolation. Here I mean that it may seem that this is a context for making this isolated life valid or worth something again. (Think of a parking lot ticket as an analogy for the sense in which I am using "validate" here. It can be validated during a visit to a nearby store or doctor's office, for instance. Unless it is stamped, approved, "validated" it is seen as being without value. Once this occurs it become worth something it was not worth before.) When I first began considering the place of Canon 603 and the nature of the life it outlined I sensed that perhaps this would be a perfect context which allowed all the elements of my own life to make sense: my gifts, talents, education, yearning for God and commitment to a vowed life, as well as my deficiencies, weaknesses, and brokenness. This is actually not a bad reason to begin discerning whether one is called to eremitical life, but it is a far cry from actually doing so, and even further from living such a life! Here one's solitariness is more a form of isolation and alienation. Even if one were prematurely allowed to make vows according to this canon, one would not YET have discerned a true eremitical vocation nor become a hermit as the Canon itself defines her. Something else must take place first.

That "event", that thing which must happen first is the redemption of one's isolation and the transformation of it into genuine solitude. It is this that allows a person to look around at what once was an apart-ment in both the usual and literal senses and say, "this is a hermitage and I am a hermit living in, from, and for communion with God!" It is this that makes of illness a subtext in one's life rather than its theme song! It is this transformation that makes of what was --- in worldly terms --- an absurd, merely tragic, or even meaningless life instead something of inestimable worth (not simply because every person has such dignity in the eyes of God) but because now this life, this way of being limited and marginalized, with all its weakness, brokenness, inability, etc is actually an effective and significant gift of the Holy Spirit to both Church and World. The accomplishment of this transformation is something only the grace of God can do. Thus, my other blog articles on "Lemons and Lemonade" or (a la Merton) the door to solitude ONLY being opened from within (by solitude itself), and thus too a part of the reason for my insistence that a candidate for diocesan eremitical life who wishes to make profession of vows in order to accept the public rights and responsibilities of this life must be, in some essential way, a hermit already.

What one must do is move from a life dominated by external silence and aloneness which are defined in terms of absence, alienation, and isolation, to a life where these serve and reflect the deeper and graced reality of "the silence OF solitude." Isolation must be redeemed or transformed into authentic (dialogical or relational) solitude, and this only occurs by the grace (i.e., the powerful presence and action) of God. One must, in some way move (and be moved) from the silence of voicelessness or the inarticulateness of a scream to the freedom and articulateness of what the New Testament calls parrhesia, an empowered and empowering speech --- even if this voice is rarely heard by the world at large. Further, those in the Church whose job it is to discern and profess those truly called to Canon 603 vocations must be clear on this distinction and affirm that the transition and transformation has been negotiated before temporary profession --- even if it still needs consolidation and internalization in more profound and extensive ways.

Again, this is one of the places where the distinction between "silence and solitude" and "the silence OF solitude" is crucially important. I suspect that this particular defining element of Canon 603 is NOT well enough understood --- not by chanceries, not by candidates or aspirants for profession, and not even by some diocesan hermits! (I say this because I myself wrote a Rule of Life which substituted "silence and solitude" for the accurate canonical phrase, "the silence of solitude" and that was only 5 or 6 years ago! I say it also because I think every diocesan hermit I have spoken to in the past several years has done the same thing at one time or another -- sometimes consistently -- despite the fact that available commentary on the Canon is clear about the special significance of this term!)

Validating one's isolation in the negative sense I am using the term involves applying a term to it which makes it seem more acceptable. It falls short of really giving meaning to something in a way which truly transforms it and makes it of great worth. We can call a loner or a chronically il;l person, for instance, a hermit and "validate" (try to make "valid" or meaningful) their isolation. Those who are isolated in some sense may seek to use Canon 603 in this way. This, of itself, does not change their isolation though it does appear to make it less worthless, tragic, or absurd. Of course, in the process it also effectively makes eremitical life itself essentially about isolation and alienation rather than authentic solitude --- only now we have sugar coated this with a bit of a lie (in the form of a stereotype or caricature) so the real bitterness is easier for everyone to swallow. Well-meaning as this might be it is a practice which empties the term ("eremitical") of real meaning and makes the life (both generally and specifically) incredible or unable to be believed or appreciated in the process. This will be true not only for the Church (meaning the whole People of God) and world who will recognize the fraud being perpetrated here at least enough to ridicule it or consider it unworthy of affirmation, but by the putative hermit as well --- who will know her "eremitical life" is a lie even (and perhaps especially) if she really is called to such a vocation.

(Thus it may be tempting for dioceses, in a misguided attempt to be pastoral, to profess anyone under Canon 603 who is chronically ill (or whatever the source of their isolation) and requests this, but it would be wrongheaded and destructive --- not only for the vocation to eremitical life itself, but for the individual professed in this way without an authentic vocation. Canon 603 is not a refuge for those without legitimate religious vocations or other access to public profession/consecration, or who are seeking to make isolation or simply being a loner legitimate or valid ways of living. Instead it is the way for the solitary hermit to assume the public rights and responsibilities of diocesan eremitical life; it is the way to profess one whose isolation and voicelessness has been redeemed and transformed by God into the solitary prophetic word of one dwelling consciously and responsibly in the heart of reality.)

Redeeming one's isolation, then, is a very different matter than merely validating (or trying to validate) one's isolation. Here the message of one's life is vastly different than it once was, for such a life attests to the power of God to bring meaning out of absurdity, life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, power and authority out of powerlessness and futility. Isolation is no longer that although superficially things may look similar. What replaces isolation is communion and community which is lived out as "inner" rather than merely external solitude, first of all with God and with oneself as one comes to accept one's whole self, and then with all others who are grounded in and linked to one through God. Illness (or whatever the situation that isolates one) may not change substantially but it is no longer the dominant reality in one's life. If one is in intractable and chronic pain, then the main message of one's life is what God does in spite of that --- and that is a joyful thing; it is evangelion or gospel in the truest sense. Will one struggle with illness and pain, in whatever forms they occur? Of course. But one does not struggle alone, nor is the struggle worthless to the broader Church and world. Still, it is not the struggle per se that is the first word the hermit articulates with her life, but the victory God has achieved in transforming isolation into the silence ,and so, into the song of solitude!

As always, I hope this helps but if it raises more questions or is unclear in some way, please get back to me. (I know, after today at least, that you don't need to be told that really, but the statement is for others as well!) All good wishes!

27 September 2010

Again, Followup on the Silence of Solitude (#6)

[[Dear Sister, Thank you for your responses. I think I might have understood better after the first one, but I appreciate the examples in the third one from the monastery. Does eremitical silence and solitude differ in any other way from ordinary silence and solitude?]]

The one difference I haven't mentioned because I was focusing on the distinction between "silence AND solitude" and "the silence OF solitude" is that for most people ordinary silence and solitude are temporary, sometimes even rare occurrences. For the hermit they are defining elements of the very environment in which the hermit lives (THE defining element of eremitical life, I would argue, is the silence OF solitude). While all diocesan hermits must travel outside the hermitage to shop, go to Mass, make doctor's visits, run errands, and sometimes even work, the overall environment in which they live is primarily or mainly one of physical silence and solitude. The times outside the hermitage are definite exceptions.

For some individuals though, large measures of external silence and solitude constitute their normal environments. Among these are some members of the marginalized groups I have spoken of before: the chronically ill, the isolated elderly, etc. However, here is where the distinction between the term used in Canon 603 (the silence of solitude) and simply silence and solitude becomes very important. As I noted we may try to validate our isolation with Canon 603 (and for those of us who are chronically ill a legitimate vocation can begin in this way!), but at some point that must change into the silence OF solitude which is rooted in communion with God if we are really to be hermits. I spoke earlier of the difference between validating our isolation and the redemption of that isolation; in earlier posts I have also spoken about becoming a hermit in some essential sense before approaching a diocese for profession. The transition from external silence and solitude (the silence and solitude of absence) to the silence OF solitude (the silence/solitude of presence) is behind this transition or redemption.

So, yes, there are several differences (and some similarities) between the silence and solitude we ordinarily experience and those lived routinely by hermits. I would need to think about this a bit more to know whether there are more than I mentioned here and in previous posts, but yes, I left out the notion that for some silence and solitude are respites or temporary pauses in the usual environment whereas for the hermit they tend to define the environment in which all else happens.

Followup on the Silence of Solitude (#5)

[[Sister, so are you saying that eremitical silence and solitude are different than ordinary silence and solitude?]]

Yes, and that's a great way of putting the matter. I would add that eremitical silence and solitude are more vital, a more living and communal reality than mere external silence and solitude because they are linked to the silence of solitude. When we go on retreat, for instance, we may enjoy the physical silence of the place, and we may enjoy being free of ordinary cares, worries, family members and responsibilities, etc. But no, these are not the same as eremitical silence or solitude, and even less are they the same as "the silence of solitude" though they contribute to these things.

The difference, which I will try to describe in a moment, was brought home to me by this year's retreat at the Cistercian (Trappistine) Monastery of the Redwoods (just as another piece was brought home to me last Summer by an incident on retreat!). It is the difference between absence (the absence of sound, of others, of external distractions, etc) and presence. The monastery is in the boonies, a 45 minute drive from the main turn off which itself is miles from real urban centers. As the name suggests it is in the middle of redwood forests but also pasture land and farms. It is quiet and physical or external silence reigns. But there is another dimension here, and that is the silence of solitude. It is the living, loving silence of people living (mainly silently) in communion with God and with (or at least in support of) each other.

Thus, at meditation (silent or contemplative prayer), when 20 people are sitting silently for an hour*, something new comes to be, something larger and more vital than even the silence of the forest and grounds. It is a silence one can feel, a kind of awesome presence which is palpable, compelling, and which sings with the prayer and love of each person (and all of them together in God). Because this is the REAL and most profound silence of this monastery one finds that even when external noise occurs it needs not necessarily distract from this deeper silence of solitude. Of course, the silence of the forest, monastery, and guesthouse needs to be maintained or people may never be able to reach this other level of silence (in fact, this other reality), but external silence and aloneness is only a prerequisite to this "silence OF solitude".

Does this help further?

* Actually meditation included a period of sitting, one shorter period of walking, and another of sitting, but some sat the whole hour.

And even more on the Silence of Solitude (#4)

[[Dear Sister, are you saying then that external silence or "aloneness" is unnecessary to the silence of solitude? Does the silence of solitude depend on physical or external silence? Does it lead to it? I think you meant this but it was not clear.]]

Thanks. No, neither external silence or aloneness are unnecessary to the "silence of solitude" but neither of themselves (nor added together) do they equal this canonical element. The "silence of solitude" calls for these two realities. It needs them to a very large extent because communion with God and contemplative life requires them and will further call for their deepening and extension. However, just building in some external silence (or even nothing but silence) or external aloneness is not the same as the eremitical silence of solitude the Canon speaks of. These do not need to be functions of communion with God or with his creation. Instead they may, of themselves, be signs of a fundamental alienation and estrangement from God and all that he loves and delights in.

So yes, the silence OF solitude leads to physical or external silence and aloneness (just as it did in Jesus' life) but it will also lead to ministry in most cases. For the hermit though, I have spoken of always remaining open to the possibility that God is calling us to greater reclusion (or at least to periods of reclusion) and this is what I meant, namely, our relationship with God (characterized by or even as the silence of solitude) sometimes calls us to ever greater degrees of external or physical silence and/or solitude (as well as to an ever deepening silence of solitude). Alternately, when I have written about the contemplative (or even the eremitical) life spilling over into limited ministry I had in mind the silence of solitude leading naturally to some active ministry (as it ALSO did in Jesus' life).

Does this help?

26 September 2010

More on The Silence of Solitude (#3)

[[Sister, what is the difference between "silence and solitude" and the "silence of solitude"? You don't say diocesan hermits are called to silence and solitude, but "the silence of solitude." Is there really a difference here or are you just splitting imaginary theological hairs and playing intellectual games?]]

Thanks for your question. There are two other posts on this topic, so please check the labels at the bottom of this post for those. Some of my answer here may repeat parts of what those include, though I will try not to.

Yes, there is a very great difference between "silence and solitude" and "the silence of solitude", I think. The main thing to notice is that "silence and solitude" treats these realities as separate and mainly physical (or external), and therefore as things which may be included in greater or lesser degrees in any life either together or apart from one another. Thus, someone wanting to be a hermit might think that the goal of his or her life is to exclude noise, and to be merely alone. S/he might go about entering into this life mainly by building in more and more time to be alone, and by excluding anything that makes noise. If noise creeps in s/he might think she has failed with regard to silence but not with regard to solitude, for instance. If people need to come see her/him or call with an emergency she may feel that she has failed in both silence and solitude. If she needs to go out of the hermitage she may refuse to talk to people or only speak about "spiritual topics" and feel that in this way she lessens any fault against either silence or solitude.

And so her life goes on: a little tinkering with silence here, a little fiddling with alone time there, a little addition of prayer or other "hermit things" here, a little allowance of time outside the "hermitage" (or "worldly things") there. When these two realities are treated as something separate, the temptation is to search for just the right combination or just the right "amount" which, when combined then makes one a hermit. In this way of thinking or approaching the life, a little less of either and one becomes a semi-eremite or no eremite at all! But this approach is wrong-headed. Even if one lived alone in complete silence this would not make one a hermit, nor would it mean one was achieving the goal of Canon 603 or that one was living the essential element "the silence of solitude" with fidelity or integrity. In fact, one might not be living it at all. Instead one might be a misanthrope merely seeking to validate her isolation and her anti-social bent and lack of capacity to love others. There is lots of silence and (physical) solitude in the misanthrope's life (or in death of any sort), for instance (or in that of the artist, writer, composer, etc --- just to demonstrate there are positive ways of living these things which are not eremitical), but this is not what the Canon is talking about. (By the way, one need not be a misanthrope to use Canon 603 in an attempt to validate one's isolation. Valid vocations may BEGIN this way for those who are chronically ill, etc, but for there to be an authentic call to eremitical life there must be not only validation but actual redemption of one's isolation. In this too the term "the silence of solitude" is important and different than just silence and solitariness.)

But compare this approach to that outlined by Fr Jean Beyer in his commentary on Canon 603: [[ "It [the silence of solitude] unites these values. . . referring not merely to the external [physical] silence of the desert but to a profound inner solitude found in communion with God, who is the fullness of life and of love. It implies a lifetime striving towards union with God, a state which causes the one who becomes silent in this divine solitude to be alone with God alone. Such silence of solitude requires other silences --- of place, of surroundings, of action --- all that furthers the solitude and distances one from anything which could disturb it, from all which does not enhance the solitary mode of life." (Beyer, The Law of Consecrated Life: Commentary on the Canons 573-606)

In this paragraph "the silence of solitude" is integrally linked to communion with God. Yes, this will entail some preliminary (or subsequent!) clearing of the decks so the one seeking God can do so with minimal distraction, that is, one will certainly begin (and follow up) by building in some external silence and alone time, but the essential element of the Canon goes much further than this. It actually refers to the silence of one's communion with God. The silence and solitude (a communal or dialogical term) which result from one's prayer and life with God, from one's fundamental "custody of the cell" is what Canon 603 is referring to when it speaks of "the silence of solitude." In this phrase then, one is not merely alone and physical solitude which is about being separated from others is not primarily in view (though it will be included). Instead solitude refers to a state of communion in which one is alone WITH God and in God. This solitude approaches what psychologists refer to in the term individuation, or what we might call holiness or the life of authentic humanity --- only lived with God alone. Readers familiar with Eastern Christian contemplative thought will recognize in this term the hesychia or quiet and stillness of hesychasm. Thus, while "the silence of solitude" is identified as a Carthusian term, Carthusians writing about solitude note that it is a synonym for hesychia and hesychasm.

The silence which stems from this involves (and calls for) external silence, but it is also more primarily about the absence of inner distractions, superfluities, the inner voices we carry within us that are part of that theater of inner life (sometimes referred to by the term "object relations") which indicate division from ourselves and thus deflect from (or summon us to) our authentic humanity. The "silence of solitude" is the full and singing silence of the whole person, made one in and by the Word of God. It is the song of the "pure in heart," and is both something the hermit practices daily and a goal she strives for.

One part of the "silence of solitude" I have written about before is the corresponding distancing that occurs on some levels from other people, activities, etc. Thus I suggested that Jesus lived the silence of solitude because of his communion with God, and that that caused SOME distancing from others and perhaps an inability to share with them on some levels. Note that I do not mean Jesus was estranged from them, but he WAS marginalized even while he was deeply united in other ways. Canon 603 describes a solitary life which is similarly marginalized, not from essential estrangement or alienation but because of communion with God which both separates and unites on deeper levels or in differing ways than is normal in society generally. Because of this "the silence of solitude" is a bittersweet reality in some ways. What is most profoundly true for the hermit often cannot be shared directly with others. (Though thank God for the good spiritual director, or friend whose prayer life and/or vowed commitments allows her to understand!!) The reason one lives physical silence and solitariness cannot really be easily explained, and even less so can the deeper reality of "the silence of solitude." The true hermit accepts this marginalization as part of her commitment to, and living out of, communion with God, just as she accepts her call to love others as part of it. For more on this bittersweet quality, please see the other posts!

I hope this helps. It seems to me the difference between the realities you asked about is profound and I hope I have clarified some of the distinctions and overlaps here. If not though, please let me know!

25 September 2010

A Snapshot of Daily Life at Stillsong Hermitage?

[[Hi Sister, Just stumbled across your blog. Could you describe your daily life? And maybe write a little about what it means to be a Camaldolese Benedictine??]]

Dear Father,
thanks for the questions. Some of what you ask about in the first question is already on the blog under horarium, for instance, but I can say more about that. My days are somewhat variable, but the most central and stable time (if it is possible to qualify things that way) is from 4:00am until about 1:00pm. Except for the time before bed this is really the heart of my day.

I rise at 4:00 most days, pray Vigils and spend an hour in quiet prayer/meditation. Following that I pray lauds and then do some writing. That could be journaling, it could be blogging or articles, etc. About 8:00am I get ready for Mass at the parish. Sometimes I have rides, sometimes not so this changes the timetable. 8:30-9:15 is Mass (or, if I need to stay in for some reason, a Communion service at the hermitage) and most days that is followed by a return to the hermitage. The period from 9:30 to 12:30pm is used for lectio divina although occasionally I will have a spiritual direction client during part of this period. Then I pray a short Office or alternative and have dinner, and the first part of my day is finished!

The afternoons are the most variable part of my day. After dinner I have free time and usually rest. That may mean a nap, a walk or just reading something recreational. It depends on several different things, but mainly on how well I slept the night before! At 3:00pm I begin a period where I run shorter errands a couple of times a week (groceries, drug store, doctor's appointments), but if those are done the period from @3:00 to 6:00 is a work period. I may write, study, do chores around the hermitage, see clients, etc.

At 6:00pm I sing Vespers and have supper. From 7:00pm to 9:00pm is another period for prayer and work. The work done is not set simply because it depends on what I need to do still, and whether I have clients. Usually though (when there are no clients) there will be a briefer period of quiet prayer (@1/2 hr) following whatever activity I do and some journaling again. Compline is at @9:00pm and bed follows @9:30pm. (If I can move some of this to the afternoon and get to Compline at 8:00 and bed at 8:30 I try to do that.)

Wednesday evenings are different during the school year because I have orchestra rehearsals from @ 7:30-10:00 pm then. That means I am away from the hermitage from @7:00 to 10:20 pm or so. Compline tends to be at 10:45 pm those nights and Thursday rising is also correspondingly later. Sundays differ too. Rising and what follows is the same as usual but I go to Mass at 9:30 and usually spend some time with a Sister friend for coffee, or have coffee and doughnuts at the parish and catch up on news or touch base with people I haven't seen --- sometimes for several weeks. The schedule is about the same as the daily schedule after that. Saturday morning is the same from 4:00- 8:00 am as most other days but after that (9:00-12:00)  may include breakfast and chamber music with friends from the orchestra. Afternoons tend to be the same as other days. Occasionally (not often enough, but maybe once every 8-12 months!) I will join in a "game night" with some friends from the parish (I am a bit too shy for charades, but Mexican Train dominoes, as well as "Sez you" are favorites). Rising on Sundays is correspondingly later on those weekends!

As you can see from this rundown, my life is essentially contemplative and given over to solitary life. However, it is not without qualitatively significant parish involvement, friendships, ministry, etc.

Your second question is more difficult although it also is the spirit and flesh to these "horarial" bones. Eremitical life is motivated by love and the Camaldolese "privilege of love" (koinonia) works itself out in what is called the threefold good: solitude, community, and evangelization. Camaldolese spirituality is a dynamic reality involved in the dialectical push and pull between these three goods. For me this means that everything I do is really communal at its heart for even I am communal at the core of my being: solitude is communal in the sense that it involves being with God, but also being closer to and united with/to all that is grounded in him. Contemplative life tends to spill over into some ministry besides that of prayer and the very work of solitude and eremitical contemplative life involves for me at least, a very limited call to minister in my parish and diocese. Concretely this means some (relatively little) adult faith formation (theology), writing reflections for Mass readings (these are then available for those attending daily Mass), leading an occasional Communion service in the absence of a priest or deacon, and being available for some spiritual direction. (You can probably see the accent on Evangelization here too.)

Eremitical life for the diocesan hermit is lived in the heart of the Church and more specifically, in the heart of the parish and diocese. In part because of Camaldolese Benedictinism I have a strong sense that my solitude is supported by and supports the parish faith community. More, I have a sense that this is part of the very charism of the diocesan hermit. I could not live this life without them and they find my life an important presence even (and in some ways, especially) in my solitude. For me Camaldolese Benedictinism is the best model available for living out this vocation. The Carthusian model could leave me out of touch with the parish (and vice versa), the Franciscan could have me swallowed up in active ministry, and so forth. For that matter, it becomes a wonderful paradigm for parish life as well and so parishioners begin to try to take on or are more open to experiencing the dynamic of solitude-community-evangelization themselves. It is not a matter of either/or here but of negotiating the dialogue which goes on between these dimensions of a healthy Christian spirituality. Still, the bottom line for me is Camaldolese Bendictinism provides a spirituality which is uniquely suited to solitary eremitical life within the context of a parish.

24 September 2010

What is a Diocesan Hermit?

I wanted to answer the basic question, "What is a Diocesan Hermit?" I have posted this elsewhere but not here. Though I have spoken about all this many times before, I may not have ever just answered this question per se. I realized that was kind of silly, especially since this is a question people ask a lot in a variety of ways! Note that I might nuance some parts of this at this point (the section on charism, for instance) as this was written several years ago now. The basic answer stands, however.

[[A diocesan hermit is a canonically (i.e., publicly) professed and consecrated hermit living primarily under Canon 603 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (other canons also apply but Canon 603 defines the fundamental vocation of the diocesan hermit). Accordingly s/he writes his/her own Rule of Life, has that approved by his/her Bishop, and lives his or her life according to that Rule and under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop who is the hermit's legitimate superior. (Bishops may also appoint or have the hermit select a delegate who may serve as a kind of superior for everyday matters, and who can assist in communications between the hermit and his/her Bishop.) Because his/her vows are public the hermit lives his/her life and exercises appropriate ministries in the name of the Church. Unlike lay hermits s/he may therefore wear a habit as a sign of both the rights and responsibilities which are part of eremitical consecration. For liturgical functions and prayer in the hermitage the cowl is more and more the typical prayer garment of the perpetually professed hermit. In either case (habit or cowl) the hermit adopts particular garb only with the approval or wishes of the diocesan Bishop.

Canon 603 defines the life as a vowed contemplative life of "the silence of solitude," assiduous prayer and penance, and stricter separation from the world --- all lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world (this last element ensures the positive nature of the vocation and disallows misanthropy, or other self-centered or unworthy motives). Each term in this definition has an essential or non-negotiable meaning but the way each hermit embodies the life is unique. The Canon is both demanding and flexible. One who lives in accordance with it can live a life of complete reclusion (one end of the eremitical spectrum) or a life involving some very limited work and ministry outside the hermitage (the other end of the eremitical spectrum) as contemplative life spills over into this service as well. (Note well, this is still and must remain a contemplative, eremitical life; it is not active or apostolic and the hermit's primary work and ministry is that of prayer in the silence of solitude!) Despite its flexibility, some daily practices tend to be fairly universal, the praying of the Divine Office, Lectio Divina, Contemplative prayer, Eucharist (C 603 hermits are ordinarily allowed to reserve the Eucharist in their hermitages), manual and intellectual labor, etc.

The life of the diocesan hermit is the life of a solitary hermit, not one living in community, but some suggest that diocesan hermits may come together in lauras for mutual support and encouragement (this is not an explicit part of Canon 603 itself, however, and some disagree with its allowance). Because of the solitary eremitical nature of the C 603 vocation, the hermit's main community of support is primarily the parish and secondarily, the diocese. S/he will also live her contemplative solitude and the fruits of that solitude FOR these communities in a more specific and recognizable or formal way than would either a hermit living in community (a religious hermit) or a lay hermit, for instance.

While diocesan hermits may associate with, live from, and reflect any spiritual tradition (Carmelite, Camaldolese, Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian, Franciscan, Dominican, etc) their primary identity and charism (i.e., their gift-quality to the church and world) is linked to their identity as diocesan. That is, it is their presence within and commitment to the local church that is the basis for the unique charism of the diocesan hermit. For this reason some diocesan hermits in a number of countries have, with their Bishops' permissions, adopted the initials Erem Dio or Er Dio (Eremita Dioecesanus) rather than some other form of initials which can be mistaken for the post-nomial initials of a particular Order or congregation. The practice is not universal, but it reflects a recent development in the appreciation of the nature and importance of the diocesan hermit to the Church and World no matter what her/his basic spirituality or secondary affiliations. ]]

14 September 2010

Feast of the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross (Reprise)

[[Could you write something about Sunday's (Tuesday's) feast of the Exaltation of the Cross? What is a truly healthy and yet deeply spiritual way to exalt the Cross in our personal lives, and in the world at large (that is, supporting those bearing their crosses while not supporting the evil that often causes the destruction and pain that our brothers and sisters are called to endure due to sinful social structures?]]

The above question which arrived by email was the result of reading some of my posts, mainly those on victim soul theology, the Pauline theology of the Cross, and some earlier ones having to do with the permissive will of God. For that reason my answer presupposes much of what I wrote in those and I will try not to be too repetitive. First of all, in answering the question, I think it is helpful to remember the alternative name of this feast, namely, the Triumph of the Cross. For me personally this is a "better" name, and yet, it is a deeply paradoxical one, just like its alternative.

(Crucifix in Ambo of Cathedral of Christ the Light; Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Cathedral Sunday in the Diocese of Oakland)

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivializes what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance (and personal risk) than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was ALSO a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. (In fact one could argue it was a true divine triumph ONLY because it was also these all-too-human things.) Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in ALL of God's victories in our world. It is this tension our jewelry and other crucifixes embody: they are miniature instruments of torture, yes, but also symbols of God's ultimate triumph over the powers of sin and death with which humans are so intimately entangled and complicit.

In our own lives there are crosses, burdens which are the result of societal and personal sin which we must bear responsibly and creatively. That means not only that we cannot shirk them, but also that we bear them with all the asistance that God puts into our hands. Especially it means allowing God to assist us in the carrying of this cross. To really exalt the cross of Christ is to honor all that God did with and made of the very worst that human beings could do to another human being. To exalt in our own personal crosses means, at the very least, to allow God to transform them with his presence. That is the way we truly exalt the Cross: we allow it to become the way in which God enters our lives, the passion that breaks us open, makes us completely vulnerable, and urges us to embrace or let God embrace us in a way which comforts, sustains, and even transfigures the whole face of our lives.

If we are able to do this, then the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we MUST bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not.

That means we must look for ways to allow God's grace to triumph, while the triumph of grace ALWAYS results in greater human freedom and authentic functioning. Discerning what is necessary and what will REALLY be an exaltation of the cross in our own lives means determining and acting on the ways freedom from bondage and more authentic humanity can be achieved. Ordinarily this will mean medical treatment; or it will mean moving out of the abusive situation. In ALL cases it means remaining open to and dependent upon God and to what he desires for our lives IN SPITE of the limitations and suffering inherent in them. This is what Jesus did, and what made his cross salvific. This openness and responsiveness to God and what he will do with our lives is, as I have said many times before, what the Scriptures called obedience. Let me be clear: the will of God in ANY situation is that we remain open to him and that authentic humanity be achieved. We MUST do whatever it is that allows us to not close off to God, and to remain open to growth AS HUMAN. If our pain dehumanizes, then we must act in ways which changes that. If our lives cease to reflect the grace of God (and this means fails to be a joyfilled, free, fruitful, loving, genuinely human life) then we must act in ways which change that.

The same is true in society more generally. We must act in ways which open others TO THE GRACE OF GOD. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it ---- much less allow the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relieve poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death, and especially the suffering that comes when human beings institutionalize their own sinful drives and actions. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

The paradox in Sunday's Feast is that the exaltation of the Cross implies suffering, and stresses that the cross empowers the ability to suffer well, but at the same time points to a freedom the world cannot grant --- a freedom in which we both transcend and transform suffering because of a victory Christ has won over the powers of sin and death which are built right into our lives and in the structures of this world. Thus, we cannot ever collude with the powers of this world; we must always be sure we are acting in complicity with the grace of God instead. Sometimes this means accepting the suffering that comes our way (or encouraging and supporting others in doing so of course), but never for its own sake. If our (or their) suffering does not result in greater human authenticity, greater freedom from bondage, greater joy and true peace, then it is not suffering which exalts the Cross of Christ. If it does not in some way transform and subvert the structures of this world which oppress and destroy, then it does not express the triumph of Jesus' Cross, nor are we really participating in THAT Cross in embracing our own.

I am certain I have not completely answered your question, but for now this will need to suffice. My thanks for you patience. If you have other questions which can assist me to do a better job, I would very much appreciate them. Again, thanks for your emails.

07 September 2010

Questions and Suggestions

[[Hi Sister,
Do you still want questions and suggestions about things we would like to see here? Your earlier post on this had a deadline.]]

Hi there!
Sure, yes. I am actually always interested in suggestions or questions, especially having to do with spirituality generally or eremitical life more particularly. I am also sure that while some questions recur again and again, others are never posed at all. I know that I may do a good job with some aspects of eremitical life, but that there are things I am not clear about and some that I never even consider writing about. Hearing what people think or want to hear, or what is confusing, troubling, or just a matter of curiosity is helpful to me.

The deadline in the earlier post had mainly to do with the fact that I was on my way to retreat soon and wanted to have things in hand before that. However, like most retreats God takes us where s/he wants to, and it is rarely where we propose we should go! So, while I had writing to do "in case", and a project for after retreat (which is ongoing), the deadlines proposed in the earlier post were not absolute. Again then, yes please send on questions and suggestions. They are always welcome and, once more, very helpful to me personally.

06 September 2010

On the title "Catholic Hermit" (Response to Question)

[[Dear Sister, I am a lay hermit. I have read blogs by other lay (privately professed and consecrated) hermits who call themselves Catholic Hermits and also online comments by a canonist saying this is improper. I am Catholic and a hermit. Why aren't I a "Catholic Hermit"?]]

Hi there,
I have written about this before so please check for these under the labels in the right hand column, but the bottom line answer (and something I did not originally mention in the pertinent post) is that the importance of being officially commissioned to live, act, or minister in the name of the Church is addressed in canon law. One is prohibited from calling oneself a Catholic hermit, religious, etc, unless specifically authorized to do so. Let me begin there and then explain the reasoning for this.

Canon 216 states that any person may adopt apostolic activity through their own undertaking as appropriate to their own state and condition in life, but no such undertaking will adopt the name Catholic without the express consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority. What this means for you is that you may indeed live as a lay hermit without further permission; your baptism gives you this right and responsibility if you discern God is calling you to this. But you do this in your own name, not in the name of the Church for the Church has not been involved in the discernment or the mediation of such a vocation. Similarly then, you do not publicly represent the eremitical vocation on behalf of the Church, for the Church has not publicly accepted your commitment and commissioned you to do so. In other words you have not been commissioned to live eremitical life in the name of the Church. You DO represent the lay vocation on behalf of the Church and your own eremitical vocation is a part or expression of this.

Canon 216 may have been formulated to deal with new groups wishing to become religious institutes (though this is handled by C 300 which also limits the use of the term Catholic), but it works as well for hermits too. (By the way, it also works for theologians. Some of us are theologians while others with a specific commission from the Church have a right to the title "Catholic Theologian." Such a "missio" can be withdrawn and the person no longer has the right to call him or herself a Catholic theologian. One cannot, on one's own initiative, then, call oneself a Catholic Theologian simply because one is a theologian and a Catholic, for instance.) The reasoning, I think, is sound even if one is doing Catholic theology without a missio: One must be doing what one does in the sense the Church uses the term and with her formal approbation. We must be acting in her name when we use the qualifier "Catholic". Otherwise almost anyone could call themselves a Catholic theologian, or a Catholic Community/Congregation, etc and, unless they were working in academia, there would be no oversight at all --- and the meaning of the terms could be lost in the process. (Note well though:  because one has not been given the right to call herself a Catholic theologian in no way indicates the person is anything other than profoundly Catholic IN her theology. It simply means she is not doing theology in the name of the Church with an actual formal commission or mandatum and all these entail or require.)

With regard to hermits, I think this reasoning is especially sound. We have people experimenting with all different degrees and expressions of solitary life. Only some are authentic life vocations. Some are transitional paths which are primarily therapeutic, for instance; others are attempts to build appropriate degrees of solitude into an active or apostolically oriented life, but are not really essentially eremitical. Some experiments are done by married people, some by those who really desire to live in community but have not been able to make that happen, and some are merely the choice of isolation (not eremitical solitude) by those who have been unable to succeed at life and whose motivations and lives are far from those the Church necessarily associates with Catholic hermits. Some bear no real resemblance to eremitical life at all, and only some are inspired by the Holy Spirit in a way which gives them lasting value. Only a few, therefore, fulfill all the requirements the church affirms should be absolutely characteristic of eremitical life in the Church --- and this includes the significant mutual discernment and mediation of the vocation which includes a public calling, consecration, and commissioning by ecclesiastical authorities and the acceptance of this by the hermit herself in a corresponding public act of dedication (profession).

The vocation of the Catholic Hermit therefore also includes embracing all the rights and obligations of such a commitment because this life is understood to be a gift to the Church and world given by the Holy Spirit, and one must consciously and publicly undertake the commitment to live out this charism (gift) as gift with integrity. (I think there is a huge difference between living a life because it works for me, and living a life because it is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit to Church and world. In my own eremitical commitment, for instance, a significant focus for reflection is on precisely the way this specific life is charismatic and meant to be lived for the good of church and world, and not simply on "what works for me". It continues to challenge and console me every single day, but it is NOT something I appreciated clearly before perpetual profession under Canon 603. I think this gift of appreciation is a piece of the grace that comes with profession. The reflection is certainly part of the commission of the diocesan hermit. My Bishop indicated this in his homily during the profession Mass when he noted for the assembly that I would be exploring what contemporary hermit-life meant and should look like.) For all these reasons then, it is these rare instances that the Church affirms with consecration by allowing public profession under Canon 603 (or under Canons governing religious eremitical life) and signals with the descriptive term "Catholic Hermit."

As noted in my prior post then, the term Catholic Hermit is applied to those who are canonically constituted and consecrated as hermits. It is applied to religious hermits as well as to those who have entered the consecrated state via Canon 603 and are examples of consecrated solitary eremitical life in the Church. These latter are persons whose entire life is publicly defined in terms of the central elements of the Canon, and the way they live these elements out is supervised by ecclesiastical authorities. As also noted in the earlier post then, parishioners and members of the dioceses where these persons live and are professed are allowed, necessarily, to have certain expectations of them which they are not necessarily allowed to have with regard to the lay hermit living some form of solitude in her own name (that is, privately). The key word in all of this is 'necessarily,' because public profession is linked to legal rights and responsibilities which are publicly assumed. It absolutely does NOT mean the diocesan hermit is a better hermit than the lay hermit, but merely that they each have assumed different rights and obligations; some (the lay or non-canonical hermits) have assumed those that come with and from baptism alone, while others (canonical hermits) assume rights and obligations that come from both baptism and public (canonical) profession and consecration.

I hope this helps. As always, if it raises more questions or is unclear, please get back to me. Also do check the labels below for related posts. Some will be repetitive and some will approach from a different perspective. They also may raise more questions.

03 September 2010


Friday night and I had a date! Well, not exactly, of course, but for my Birthday (the 1st) I went with a friend from quartets and orchestra to see the extended 3D version of Avatar. To engage in complete understatement, "WOW!"! I was completely blown away! Bill had seen it three times before but not the extended version. I had only heard about it from Sr Marietta, and knew it was about incarnation in some sense, and focused some on the idea of "seeing" and knowing the true person, but I didn't know much more than that. While I knew there was a Christ figure I knew nothing about him mediating (literally) between two different worlds (a definite parallel to the Kingdoms of God and an anti- Kingdom of man and the one who works to reconcile them), or about a world which was so completely grounded in God it had achieved a kind of sentience. (We Christians talk a lot about the day when this world will come to fulfillment and God will be all in all. I felt like I had seen a symbolic representation of this in Avatar.) I don't intend either to analyze or review the film (I am in no position to do either), but I do want to note some of the other symbols I thought were prominent in it.

References to The People recalled not only the Apache and other Native Americans, but also the chosen People of Judaism and the Body of Christ of Christianity --- people who become One in communion with God and/or with the earth. Then there are the trees in this film: the Home Tree and the Tree of Souls and it is through these that there is communion with those who have died (Christian Communion of Saints) as well as rebirth or resurrection (death in one form and re-embodiment in another). While the industrialists and military complex bulldoze these (or blow them to smithereens with missiles) they proclaim "they're just trees!" ("It's just a tree",". . . just a cross", ". . .just something we can get good food from," etc. . .). The notion of stewardship, of cultivating an attitude of reverence and gratitude for everything --- of actually living reverence and gratitude in everything --- as one realizes (in every sense of that word) the interrelatedness of all life is real and prominent.

And linked to this way of living is the notion of responsible or authentic freedom. Jake Sculley is a wounded, paralyzed veteran, who takes his brother's place in the Avatar program (a program which allows the combining of his twin's and the Na'vi's DNA to create a host or Avatar which can move amongst and interact with the Na'vi), but as an Avatar he moves freely and with increasing strength and grace in ways he never imagined possible as he becomes attuned to this new world and the opportunity he has been given. The world he leaves (and carries with him) is the world of science (at its best and worst) and objective measurement ("I've got to get a sample!"), mere utility and exploitation, and so, isolation where who Jake is is measured more by what he can or cannot do than by who he is in himself. It is the world where people are largely blind to the mystery that is right in front of them (scientists begin to get a clue here that this goes way beyond anything they can get their minds around!) and where, if only he can pay the price, he can get his old legs back.

The world he moves into is akin to the world of prayer (a whole other kind of original research with a whole new way of seeing!), a world of both immanence and transcendence where individual potential is always greater than the individual herself precisely because of the communion linking all things. Here Jake does not get his old legs back. He gets a new body, and is reminded early on and quite forcefully that he is but an ignorant child in its regard. Over time he learns to use that body to respond to and participate in a new vision of reality --- just as over time he learns to "see with new eyes" or "with the eyes of his heart," and to not trample upon this new world as swine trample pearls. I loved that this was a world whose characteristic values were vision, reverence, and celebration, but in light of these authentic freedom ("the power to be the persons we are called to be") was also primary.

There is tragedy aplenty in this movie seen in the truly wonton and greedy destruction of the unappreciated and unreverenced, but also and not least, in the conclusion of the People to send the humans back to their dying world with the judgment, perhaps, that they cannot "be cured of their insanity." It is too deeply ingrained, too pervasive and destructive --- and too strongly clung to. Only a handful are offered the chance to stay as the others leave this new world. "Many are called, but few are chosen," Christians will be reminded --- and it becomes clear that part of being chosen is the responsibility to make the choice ourselves and to really and fully become part of the People body, soul, heart and mind.

So all this was one level of the movie for me. There was also the sheer beauty of it all, the really dramatic scenery with "floating mountains", etc, the colors --- especially the nighttime colors full of fluorescent and iridescent greens, blues, and pinks, animals that were both wonderfully fragile and full of light, and those which were huge, powerful, and capable of great violence, flying saurians (reminiscent at least) which bonded with members of the People (Na'vi), etc. It was absolutely wonderful visually, stunning again and again --- so much so that one would need to see the move several times to take it all in.

My own celebration of my birthday and anniversary of profession extended for three days and ended with Avatar (well, I think it ended there; one never can tell). It was outstanding in so many ways (the people in my parish are so wonderful and celebrated with me and so did friends from my quartet, the orchestra, etc --- another several stories!), but this will surely be a high point. If you haven't already and get the chance to see Avatar, do so. If you get a chance to see it again (or even yet again) do it! Consider it an exercise in Lectio Divina --- not because it needs this justification, but because this is how it should be approached --- as something capable of mediating the transcendent and holy which can "speak a Word" of reminder, challenge, and encouragement to us in our need and our potential!