27 November 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Sunday of Advent, 2010



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

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

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

26 November 2010

Followup: First and Last Word in Eremitical Life?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 November 2010

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Addition to the Original Post:

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

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

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

24 November 2010

The Individual Hermit and the Tradition of the Eremitical Life


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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope this is helpful.

Follow-up on Part-time Eremitical Life


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I hope this clarifies some points of misunderstanding.

21 November 2010

Feast of Christ the King: Looking at the Baptismal Call

It was hard not to think again of the issue of esteem for vocations to the lay state as I listened to the proclamation of today's second reading from Paul's Letter to the Colossians. It was especially hard not to do so as we approach Thanksgiving and celebrate the gift of citizenship in this country and the freedom it brings. All the more so should this be a day which allows us to call to mind our citizenship in the Kingdom where Christ is sovereign and the freedom and responsibilities which stem from THAT identity! Here are the words that called all this to mind for me: "Brothers and sisters: Let us give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin." In these words and those that follow (a very early hymn about Jesus as the image of the invisible God) we bring to a degree of culmination all the things we have come to share in more fully this liturgical year and we do so with gratitude.

Brothers and sisters, adopted daughters and sons of God in Christ, inheritors of the Kingdom of God that exists proleptically right here and right now in our world, those who truly image God in Christ and who recognize all of this as what it means to belong to the Laos (People) of God --- that is who we have been CALLED by God to be --- and who we are (hopefully) grateful to be --- for God's own sake, for our own, and for the sake of the Church and World. We would be none of these things without baptism. They are all implied by belonging to the lay state. In fact, they define what the lay state IS. Forgiveness of sin? Yes of course, but a forgiveness that makes us one with God through his Son and sets us apart from the rest of the world in a consecration we are called to honor.

Today in the liturgy and through the rest of the coming week we have some time to further recognize Christ as sovereign in our lives. More, we have a bit of time to invite him to become truly sovereign in our lives, time to claim the gift of Baptism more fully, time to esteem this charisma of God which is the foundation of our Christian existence, time to renew our baptismal promises and to reflect on how they oblige us to live in this world at this time now that we are adults and mature Christians. Next week we begin the liturgical year anew, so we look back this week at all the ways we have grown and failed to grow, all the ways we are grateful to God for his gifts, all the ways we have overlooked them as well.

In this regard we may find ourselves feeling a great deal of empathy for the thief who hangs next to Jesus dying and who finds in him hope for being remembered by God. In Luke's day God's remembering was not simply a kind of notional calling to mind -- akin to figuring out where we put the car keys, for instance. In Luke's world, and especially in the Semitic world, for God to remember meant for him to give life to something by holding it in his mind and heart. Remembering was very literally an act of holding in existence and in Christ holding in existence (com-prehending) was to do so in a uniquely intimate and comprehensive way which makes whole and coherent once again (as today's second reading reminds us, "He is before all things and in him all things hold together/cohere.") When, during Good Friday services we sing with this very thief, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom" we affirm him as sovereign or King and we recall the gift he gave us at baptism as we were plunged into his death and raised up with him to new life: we are the ones who were called and have been re-called; we are those who were broken and even lost and are now re-membered; we are the ones whose lives were once senseless but through baptism have been made coherent, meaningful, part of the very People (laos) of God whom he regards as uniquely precious and will never forget or let taste decay.

In these last days before the new Church and liturgical year begins please let us take the time to reflect on the meaning of our baptism (and our confirmation) and the promises that were made there: the renunciations and the affirmations or professions. This is no beginner's identity, no second class citizenship or childhood vocation, no half-hearted or pro forma adoption on God's part. Let us make sure we, no matter our vocation, both believe and embody the truth of all of this in our world! For God's grace and assistance in this for all of us, I especially pray this year.

17 November 2010

On Esteeming the Lay State and the Multiplication of Vows

[[Dear Sister Laurel, why do you think lay people feel a need to make private vows rather than living their Baptismal consecration more fully? You seem to suggest there is a failure here and that private vows are being made without good enough reasons, as when you refer to substantive reasons being needed to justify more vows.]]

Good question, but complex too and one I can only start to answer. I think the reasons are several so let me point out some I am aware of.

First, there is the "objective superiority" language of Thomas which has mainly been misunderstood by non-Thomists (and some "neo-Thomists" as well), and which is largely beyond reach now in our time and culture. (It is not a matter of translating words but instead of translating language as a whole: mindsets, philosophical categories, etc and often this is simply impossible to accomplish for any but true experts in scholastic thought.) Because Thomas (et al) spoke of vocations to "states of perfection" in terms of "objective superiority" we naturally translate this into the dichotomous or competitive language of superiority/inferiority, better/worse, special/ordinary, higher/lower, perfection/imperfection and so forth. But, as far as I can see, Thomas eschewed language of better/worse, inferiority, imperfection, or higher/lower better than those who followed him and failed to understand him as well as they might have. Even so this language is no longer helpful and has entered our culture and especially our church in ways which make it hard to properly or adequately esteem either the lay state, and within that, the married state or dedicated single life. We truly need to find ways to esteem the gifts which these are, and especially the ways in which they witness to God's love and reveal God to the world, which do not buy into the "this-worldly" competitive language. Similarly we need to find ways to esteem the gifts of consecrated life, priesthood, etc without buying into all-too-worldly concepts and language of competitiveness and status (in the common sense of that term).


Secondly, I think that there is simply too little personal reflection on what is entailed in Baptism/Confirmation and the commitments made there by the laity themselves. The institutional Church tries to make up for (or better, perhaps, encourage) this in homilies, adult faith formation, the commissioning of ministers, the sprinkling rite and renewal of baptismal promises done at various points throughout the Church year at Mass but the responsibility for reflection and expression here falls directly on the laity. In the main this failure to reflect adequately is due to a failure to implement Vatican II as thoroughly as it required. Part of this means that Baptism is still seen mainly as something done to babies which washes away sin rather than ALSO and even primarily being an act of consecration which should be ratified throughout one's life in decisions every bit as momentous as those flowing from religious vows, ordination, and entrance into the ordained or consecrated states.

Sometimes I receive emails from people thinking about making private vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Occasionally these are from married persons who feel something driving them to do this. When we explore what is going on it almost always comes down to two things: 1) they have not reflected at all on what their baptismal promises (or consecration more generally!) requires of them NOW, and 2) they have not done anything similar with their marriage vows. Once they engage in this kind of reflection and find ways to renew and specify the meaning of these vows in the present moment there is rarely a need for additional vows. After all, the evangelical counsels are meant to be entered into in some form or expression by every Christian. Working out within the context of a marriage how poverty, chastity (chaste love), and obedience (a faithful hearkening to the Word and Presence of God in our lives) are to be exercised by both persons is a necessary exercise. What must be remembered though is that Religious vows are specifications of baptismal vows, and I would suggest that marriage vows are also specifications of baptismal vows. They oblige us to reflect on this foundational commitment and to specify it further in our lives.

It may not be realized by most people, but religious vows are not made and then set aside as wholly understood or exhaustively entered into on the day of profession. (Though neither do I mean they are only half-heartedly or partially entered into on this occasion!) What I mean is that vows are not only contracts or covenants which bind legally or morally; they are doorways through which one enters the world (and the Kingdom) in a new way, from a new perspective, with a new mind and heart. One spends an entire lifetime exploring what they mean and oblige to; one spends an entire lifetime conforming oneself (or being conformed) to these. Obedience at temporary profession may look very different than it looks 25 years later. It may look very different to the superior than it does to the postulant. Poverty and chastity (or conversatio morum and stability) are similar and their shape changes as the person matures spiritually and personally. Thus religious or consecrated men and women regularly renew their vows (or other commitments) publicly (in community), and they do so privately much more frequently than that. (In truth every day is a lived reflection on these vows.) Baptismal vows are the framework for living a life of discipleship and if we have not reflected on our baptismal or marriage vows for some time, we may have failed to reflect seriously on the framework or shape discipleship is meant to take in our own lives.

Thirdly then, I think we need to provide liturgical options for the renewal of baptismal and other commitments. The Easter Liturgy is wonderful for this, the rite of sprinkling and renewal of vows which stems from this and continues throughout the church year, especially when it attends Baptisms of new members, can be helpful, but it must not simply become pro forma or routine. One reason people may fail to take these commitments seriously is because individual parishes do not do so either. Today, for instance, we have parishes which fulfill the directives and honor the teaching of the Church on baptism by requiring significant preparation on the part of families and godparents. They understand the theology of baptism and treat initiation into the faith community as something of great dignity. However, we also have parishes which "make it as easy as possible" despite knowing that once baptized the child will never be seen in the church again except perhaps for the occasional wedding or funeral. We are caught between two paradigms or theologies of baptism, the first which focused almost solely on the washing away of original sin, and the second which adopts the richer vision of baptism as the Sacrament which makes of the person part of the People of God, the LAOS, from which we get the theology of the lay state. The first paradigm and acquiescence to pressure to "just baptize the kid or I will find someone who will" is a source of our failure to regard adequately vocations to the lay state because it itself fails to regard initiation into the People (laos) of God adequately.

Baptism is not a right. It is a privilege. Belonging to the People of God is a gift and privilege --- though one we ordinarily do not exclude people from. Being a member of the Body of Christ is a gift and privilege with corresponding rights and obligations. We must, as a church, give full and consistent voice to this message across the board. Insofar as this means rejecting the older paradigm of baptism and its rather mechanical approach to original sin as inadequate, we must do that --- not just intellectually but in all of our pastoral praxis. Otherwise we give double messages and people come away thinking baptism (and entrance into the lay state) are merely received passively while implying no real change in our humanity (forgetting we become a New Creation!) or ongoing maturing commitment and personal engagement. In other words, we give the impression that except for washing away the stain of original sin when we were infants (whatever THAT means to us really) they are just not all that big a deal. The result is we mistakenly come to believe it is only through OTHER VOWS, entrance into OTHER states which are solely associated with adulthood and active and mature commitment that we reach the fullness of the Christian vocation.

I have to cut this off at this point. I hope this helps as a beginning answer (for there are certainly other reasons I have not mentioned). If it raises more questions or leaves confusion, please get back to me.

Part-time work, Hermitage Soup Kitchens, etc

[[Sister thank you for your posts regarding the part-time hermits. I remember reading a story about a hermit who stays with her mom.. I think it's very unusual. But do you think "hermit ministries" or works could be done at the hermitage. Would that deviate from the meaning of the name "hermit"? For example running a soup kitchen at the hermitage, or offering spiritual direction. Also I would like to ask how to address diocesan hermits. What other names could we call people like you? Could it be "professed hermit" "canonical hermit" and "vowed hermit"?]]

Working in the hermitage (or even part time outside it) is not a problem generally. The issue in my other post was full-time work. All hermits work to some extent. Not only do they need to support themselves, but work is simply a part of the dignity of the human being and is is surely a part of a contemplative life. The ideal solution is to work within the hermitage itself but that is not always possible. Further, some hermits are asked to do limited ministry in their parishes, and this too is fine within reason even though it is not usually stipended. Spiritual direction is a time-honored way of supporting oneself but there are many, many others which are fine.

The soup kitchen idea is interesting but I wonder both at the amount of work it would take and the degree of privacy it requires giving up. Ordinarily, while hermitages are places of hospitality, the degree of this is limited and done in ways which allows the hermit to maintain her privacy. So, with that idea I would need to know more about the logistics. My general sense is that a hermitage is not meant to be a soup kitchen and offering hospitality needs to be done on another level than a soup kitchen requires. This is especially so since such a hermitage (or the soup kitchen) would probably be an urban reality so there is likely no way to set up part of the property to be the soup kitchen while leaving the hermitage itself untouched on another part of the property. If a Bishop or diocese was looking for someone to open or run a soup kitchen, a diocesan hermit is certainly not the person they should be looking at for that. Again though, it is a matter of logistics and a very small and limited operation could be made to work (though I wonder how the hermit would support herself doing so).

Diocesan hermits are usually addressed as Sister or Brother. They are called diocesan or canon 603 hermits because their vows are made directly in the hands of the diocesan Bishop under Canon 603 as solitary hermits. For this reason they are bound to a particular diocese (rather than to a community or monastery) unless and until they should transfer that "stability" with the permission of both Bishops involved in the move. (A diocesan or Canon 603 hermit needs the permission of the Bishop of the diocese she proposes to move to as well as her own (current) Bishop if she chooses to move to another diocese and wishes to remain a diocesan hermit.) While it is true they are professed or vowed, consecrated, and canonical, it is the case that religious hermits (canonical hermits living in a community of hermits) are these things as well. Thus, the descriptors "diocesan" or "Canon 603" hermits seems to work best if we are distinguishing these hermits from others, but are also the most inclusive terms we have. The terms you suggested all work however, as does "solitary hermit" (or solitary consecrated hermit), but again, "Diocesan" or "Canon 603" include these other terms as well.

I hope this helps.

16 November 2010

Nadine Brown: Disobedient, etc?? Followup Question

For those coming to this page, please also see: Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: In Memoriam, Nadine Brown

[[Dear Sr Laurel, I hope you have seen the statement put out by Mother Nadine Brown about how the Archdiocese treated her and the other Hermit Intercessors before the suppression. They brought in sheriffs, ousted superiors and councilors, refused to allow Mother to leave Omaha even to go on retreat elsewhere, and forced her off the main property with very little warning. I am sure it would make you sorry you suggested she has been disobedient and cause you to rethink whether you believe the Archbishop has really been unusually generous.]]

Thanks for your questions or comments. I was sent the statement while away on a trip back East, yes. I read it briefly then and couldn't make much sense of it. I returned last night however and read the statement a couple more times along with the original report by former intercessors. I think I understand what Nadine Brown is reporting happened. Let me recount what I heard from Nadine Brown's report combined with the other one --- a combination of the two reports. There is a little "pulling and tugging" as I make sense of things as I write so I see things through more than one lens as I come to clarity (or what I think is clarity) on all this.

First Nadine Brown was asked to resign from both her directorship of the HIOL and from the civil board. This she did and she signed a statement of resignation for each which the Archdiocese had gotten ready beforehand. (Let me note here that if Brown had no sense that this was going to happen beforehand it would have been very traumatic and she would not have fully processed all it meant in merely signing the papers. It would have been traumatic in any case and she is to be commended for this act of selflessness or obedience before any other conclusions are drawn.) The next morning the Archbishop himself came to the community and announced the resignations. He appointed a trustee for the community and that trustee accepted the resignations of all the councilors and current superiors of the women's formation houses, etc. Within a day or two those who had held office and lived in formator's houses were asked to move out of formation houses and into some of the nearby homes also owned by the HIOL or IOL, Inc. Their car keys were also surrendered (I am assuming the cars belonged to the the formation houses and the HIOL could give the keys to whomever needed them.) So far this seems fairly straightforward to me though it could certainly point to factions developing.

Then it gets a bit wonky (read "confused and hard to understand"). For instance, Brown states that a number of the sisters and a brother informed the trustee and new superiors that they had decided to take sabbaticals. Here it sounds like they decided they could not go along with the new arrangements and took time to decide the matter. Perhaps though they just needed time apart to process the changes and to allow others to do the same. Brown is not clear whether these 10 people were the former superiors and council members or not but it does sound like it. If that is true, then it does seem to change the complexion of the whole situation in light of the announcement to their superiors (note it is not a matter of them requesting, but rather informing their superiors) that they will be taking sabbaticals. Of course, again, there is the need to take time to process the transition occurring so the announcements per se may be understandable and not particularly sinister (that is not a matter of disobedience or recalcitrance). However, in reading between the lines it seems to me that factions are definitely forming.

I had to read the older newspaper report to make further sense of Brown's most recent statement, especially of the denial of her request that she be allowed to make retreat elsewhere, or leave the Archdiocese, and even then I have not been wholly successful. Clearly, however, something critical happened between October 2nd and the morning of October 4th to precipitate more desperate action or provisions than had seemed necessary to that point. Here is what other former HIOLs said about that period:

[[But on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 3 — two days after Brown's resignation was announced — people close to her began taking steps signaling that they would not comply with the archbishop, the three former Intercessors said. A board member and a man she identified as her lawyer walked into a house the Intercessors owned on a neighboring street and announced that they were there for the association's assets, Neuhoff said. She said they took computers and files with financial and personal records from the house. Then people began carrying boxes out of the main house on the Intercessors campus, including in the middle of the night. That was confusing and frightening, the three said. The three called police and archdiocesan officials. They were told that the civil corporation had the legal right to move its property. The corporation changed the locks on the Intercessors' homes and asked for their car keys, Nolte said. It was becoming obvious, he said, that the faction close to Brown would not budge. He said the situation became more tense in the two weeks that followed, culminating with Friday's suppression and the archbishop's offer of sanctuary at the retreat.]]

Note that until this point it has seemed that the only taking of car keys was a piece of taking over leadership of the community and ensuring that things would continue smoothly. But here it is the IOL, Inc which is taking car keys, changing locks, etc, and Nadine Brown seems to be part of that. The Archdiocese actually affirms the corporation's rights to do so, so it seems clear that the Archdiocese was not instigating the taking of keys, etc earlier. From my own reading of both accounts I hear the Archdiocese trying to take steps which would preserve the community intact and allow it to have a genuine future. What seems necessary for that to happen was a change of leadership, and especially having Nadine Brown step down from all leadership roles. (It also seems to have meant disassociation from the civil board as it was then constituted so when I refer to Nadine Brown at this point I also mean the board she aligned herself with.)

What made no sense to me initially from Brown's account is the prohibition about leaving the Archdiocese. Her account made it sound unreasonable and punitive. If definite factions formed and there was a struggle over resources I can absolutely understand requiring Nadine Brown and the others to move off the Bellwether campus and into outlying houses. But the prohibition re leaving the Archdiocese or making retreat elsewhere simply requires greater explanation in order to make sense. I can imagine Brown going to other groups (of associates or companions) and whether she wanted to or not, carrying the problems of factionalizing, etc into other dioceses. Whether she purposely or consciously contributed to this or not she is a personality around whom others gravitate. It is also possible she was simply prohibited from travelling or making retreat while things were up in the air --- not least because the community needed her and the others on board to move ahead in a healthy way. This is the reading I prefer, the interpretation which makes the most sense I believe. I would think the new superiors (and the Archdiocese) wanted to move forward WITH Brown and not to cause a complete schism in the community. If I am at all correct in my reading of things, refusal of permission for leaving the archdiocese or making retreat make sense (which I believe was really a request that she not leave) --- and were not at all punitive or unreasonable.

Now, regarding the question of disobedience. Contrary to what you believe I said, I wrote earlier that I had no idea whether or not Nadine Brown had been disobedient or was being disobedient. I still do not. At this point (post suppression) she is clearly a lay person without private vows and no commitments beyond her baptismal ones. She is thus obligated as any lay person is with regard to the Archbishop. We should therefore be careful about leveling charges of disobedience! However, when I look over the pattern that emerges from the accounts of actions taken by Brown and the 10 or eleven that followed her prior to the suppression I can't say "obedience" is precisely the word that comes to mind. Clearly she did as the Archbishop required in relinquishing her position, but beyond that the situation is opaque because she had and retains influence over the group that went their own way. For these reasons neither humility and docility are words that come readily to mind either --- especially  on the part of this group as a whole. Of course, I need to remind people (and myself!!) that they may well apply in ways we simply cannot see. The fact is we do NOT know the whole story yet, from EITHER side of things. One thing I know firsthand is disobedience is not always easy to define from outside a situation; there are sometimes competing voices or mediations of God's voice and preferencing these can result in what merely appears to be actual disobedience. This difficulty of defining what is happening from the outside is even truer of humility which is a form of truthfulness and integrity, not one of obsequiousness. Think how many times St Paul has been accused of arrogance when in fact he was serving the Gospel of God and boasting in the Lord.

It is true that at this point in time it does appear that Brown has chosen the lay board and the original IOL, Inc over the the Archdiocese and its governance. It also seems that the 10 or so members that stayed on the Bellwether property have done the same. In other words, they seem to have chosen not to obey (or said they could not do so in conscience) and have left to resume private lives, but this is not the same as disobedience. However, should the small group act in ways or set up ministries at this point which go against what the Archbishop-as-pastor (as opposed to Archbishop-as-legitimate-superior) specifically requests and desires for his diocese, the situation could very well become one of actual disobedience or rebellion just as it would for any other lay person. The obligations of the laity are not the same as those bound to legitimate superiors by public vow (which is why lay persons ordinarily do not make even private vows of obedience), but real obedience (a considerate and open hearkening to), respect for, and cooperation with are owed pastors in the Church nonetheless.

Finally regarding the Archbishop's generosity: I have heard nothing yet which causes me to reevaluate my conclusions on this. I don't think Nadine Brown's latest account was clear really. I thought it tended to make the Archdiocese the bad guys and to whitewash the civil board, but again, we don't have all the facts. Even so I continue to think Archbishop Lucas has acted with great generosity with regard to the former HIOL's who remain together in the dormitory, and I understand the reasons for the visitation and I think (in a general way) for the suppression. Besides reminding you and others that the Archbishop acted completely within his scope in suppressing the group --- and could have done so at any time for any good reason --- I can't say more than this.

Saturday (or Part-time) Hermits Once Again: What's the Big Deal??

[[ I agree that full-time work is incompatible with the EXPRESSION of the eremetic life. The only caveat is that many folks are called to it but just can't swing it financially. As for them, their options are a monastic expression or simply a 'non-canonical' (if I'm saying that correctly) expression of their vocation without worrying about whether they are recognized by the Diocese/Bishop or not. I really don't understand the hang up about this. If you are able to be a hermit on Saturday only, want to wear a habit--go for it! I don't understand all the angst. Why do we look to some imprimatur from Mother Church for our vocations? The church has room for all of us. Just go out and live your life and stop worrying whether you are fitting under a particular canon or not. Mon Dieu! Are we Pharisees? Go out and preach the gospel in whatever way you must---whether or not there is an example for it---and, of course, if you dig down far enough, there are always champions of the church that have faced the same circumstances and made it work. ]]

Thanks for your comments. Let me be clear that when I write about eremitical vocations I almost always clarify them with terms like "diocesan", "Lay", or "religious", and sometimes as semi-eremitical as well. In the post you are commenting about I referred to diocesan hermits but I need not have. In this case I can't agree with you about "If they are able to be a hermit on Saturdays only, want to wear a habit, then go for it" (etc). What you have just described is not a hermit of any expression. It is a person taking a day off and playing dress-up in the process.


Someone who says it is possible to be a hermit only on Saturdays and that such a person should just wear a habit, call themselves a hermit, and just generally "go for it," does not understand the idea of an ecclesial vocation generally nor the idea of what a hermit truly is specifically. (Another alternative is persons who speak this way are really poking fun at my posts, and I certainly don't think that is the case here.) It is possible I am simply misunderstanding the point which is that everyone needs silence and solitude in their lives and taking off time on Saturdays to devote to this is a good thing. If this is what you are saying, then I agree but I would point out you are not really speaking about a person being a hermit.)

But let me be completely honest about how I hear your comments: what you have said seems to me to be analogous to saying to a woman, "If you want to be a mother and can only take care of children on Saturdays, then by all means do that! Change out of your business clothes, babysit a child (even your own!) on Saturdays, and feel free to call yourself a mother." Or perhaps the analogy to marriage would work here: "You want to be married but can only manage to do that on Saturdays? Well, put on the ring, grab the guy, make life vows (or not) and "go for it." Hermits are people who live eremitical LIVES for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. Yes, there are different expressions of this, but they are expressions of something specifically meaningful and responsible in terms of a life commitment, not expressions of nothing (or just anything at all).

As for angst over whether the Church gives her approval or not, here the expression of eremitical life does matter. A person who wishes to live as a hermit without any of the specific rights or obligations of canonical standing can certainly do so in the lay or non-canonical senses. As I have written before, baptism itself gives such persons the right to do so and no further discernment or approval of the Church is required. This has certain limitations of course (including no right to publicly wear the habit, which is an ecclesial symbol), but it also has a different level of freedom with regard to others' legitimate expectations and so forth.

However, for diocesan, or religious eremitical life --- ecclesial vocations which the church herself is involved in nurturing, mediating, and governing --- then the Church's formal participation and approval is necessary at every point. This is because in these instances the hermit cannot discern such a vocation alone and lives her eremitical life in the name of the Church. She represents the eremitical vocation (and becomes responsible for personally continuing a long tradition) in a public and canonical (legal and normative) way. In none of these cases would a person just going off and "being a hermit on Saturdays ONLY" actually be a hermit. The only thing they would truly be doing as far as I can see is emptying the term of meaning and trivializing the lives of those who DO live full-time lives of assiduous prayer, penance, and stricter separation from the world in the the silence of solitude --- especially those who have been publicly entrusted with and assumed all the rights and obligations which are part of such an ecclesial vocation.

You see, it is not merely a matter of "fitting under" a canon or finding one I fit under. It is a matter of discovering a vocation to eremitical life and then allowing one's life to be molded into a complete response to that. Beyond this initial determination, one would then need to discern whether one is called to do so in the consecrated state or not. If not, then one lives as a lay hermit. If so, then one is speaking not of a merely individual vocation, but an ecclesial one, and one would prepare to embrace this fully. If one then discerns a vocation to diocesan eremitical life rather than religious eremitical life one seeks profession under Canon 603 and in doing so, is both invested with and assumes all the rights and obligations which attach to to such a life. No one is forced to do this, but if they do, if the Church decides they are genuinely called to this and if such persons are admitted to profession in this way, then yes indeed, the Canon does define and govern their lives (as do a number of other Canons as well). Living the life with integrity means respecting and exploring this every day in every way, as the saying goes.

Why All the Angst?? The Pastoral Import of Canonical Standing

But, as you ask, why all the angst? I've written about this before under the idea of necessary expec-tations and charism, but let me draw out a picture of "why the angst?!" Let's take the two examples of eremitical life outlined in your own email and mine: 1) a person takes off on Saturdays for some prayer time, dons a habit, and calls himself a hermit even adopting the title "Brother." (What he does the rest of the week, exemplary or apostolic as it may be, I have no clue, nor does anyone else.) He then goes forth to proclaim the Gospel as he can. 2) a person lives the silence of solitude (and the rest of the elements of Canon 603) on a full time basis. She publicly vows her entire life to God (and so, to all those he cherishes) and is consecrated in a way which signals the grace to live this life. She is invested with the habit and given the right to the title Sister by the Church who recognizes the meaningfulness and import of these things. She then goes out to proclaim the Gospel within this context. Both persons identify themselves hermits, one is lay and one is consecrated. One does so according to his own understanding of the term, the other according to the Church's understanding and traditional meaning of the term.

Meanwhile, their parishes have a large number of chronically ill and frail elderly on fixed incomes, most of whom are isolated from the parish as a whole or the surrounding communities in significant ways/ None of them can work, few of them can drive or get away from their situations on a weekend, and none of them can take a day (or even an hour) off from their state of chronic illness or frail elderliness. What they do know is that they might be called to lives of prayer and solitude, lives which represent a kind of counter-cultural witness even. They are looking towards someone who can proclaim the Gospel to them in a way which is specifically helpful in their situations. They think (and their pastor agrees),  that surely a hermit will be able to witness in a way which helps us makes sense of lives of poverty and isolation, whose witness will assist in negotiating the transition from isolation to solitude, who can reminds them that a life of physical, financial, and personal poverty can still be rich in God alone and all God makes possible.

So which hermit should the pastor call on to assist these parishioners in this? Which hermit should he call on as a true representative of desert spirituality? Which hermit has accepted freely and fully all the dimensions of the eremitical life which allows him/her to witness truthfully and EFFECTIVELY to these poeple? Which hermit knows intimately the struggles of full-time solitude or silence? Which one has dealt with these and does so day in and day out along with all the other demons which attack the solitary person from within our own hearts or from the surrounding competitive, workaholic, productive and consumerist world? Which one will be able to effectively proclaim the Gospel to these people? (And NB, I could have contrasted the Saturday-only hermit with any full-time lay hermit and most of the points would have been the same here.)

You see, going out and preaching the Gospel is not merely a matter of proclaiming a canned text or message to people one does not know. It is not a matter of proclaiming the unconditional love of God without applying that in the way one knows it intimately oneself AND in the way people NEED to hear it. Instead proclaiming the Gospel means proclaiming with one's life the TRUTH of the way God has worked and is working in it so that others might find hope and meaning in that. As St Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary." Proclaiming the Gospel, I would suggest, also does not allow for pretense and the "hermit" in the situation you described appears to be all about pretense --- at least with regard to calling himself a hermit, donning a habit, etc. He cannot relate particularly to the situation these people are in or the good news they really need to hear. He does not live full-time solitude nor has he assumed any of the rights or responsibilities of such a life (the habit in the scenario you described is little more than a costume he takes up to play a role on weekends.) And yet, the habit and titles (Brother as well as hermit) give these people the right to expect he WILL BE ABLE to speak to their situation in a helpful way from his own life experience. They have the right to expect these things to mean something --- not least a counter-cultural life of total dependence on God lived on the margins of society in the silence of solitude.

This is why all the angst over Canonical standing. Such standing generally indicates the acceptance of rights and obligations by those who are discerned to have such a call, etc. It is not because we are Pharisees, but because law often serves love. It does so in this case. By the way, I would personally disagree that many people are called to diocesan eremitical life but just can't swing it financially. I do agree that those who are able-bodied and need to work full time are not called to diocesan eremitical life at this point in time, but then, as you say, they can enter a religious eremitical community --- something which is NOT ordinarily open to those who are disabled or chronically ill. Regarding the other points you bring up, benefactors, etc, I will hold those for another time.

All my best.