25 December 2011

Hodie Christus Natus Est!! (Reprised with Revisions)



The scandal of the incarnation is one of the themes we neglect at Christmastime or, at best, allude to only indirectly. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We live through the struggles of our lives in light of the moments of hope and joy our faith provides and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the wonder and joy of the birth of our savior. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality nor with all the light and glitter and sound of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. For a brief time we allow the joy of the mystery of Christmas to predominate. We focus on the gift God has given, and the gift we ourselves are meant to become in light of this very special nativity.

Among other things we look closely in the week prior to Christmas at the series of "yesses" that were required for this birth to come to realization, the barreness that was brought to fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit. We add to this Zechariah's muteness which culminates in a word of prophecy and a canticle of praise, along with the book of Hebrews' summary of all the partial ways God has spoken himself to us; we then set all of these off against the Prologue to John's Gospel with its majestic affirmation of the Word made flesh and God revealed exhaustively to US. The humbleness of the birth is a piece of all this, of course, but the scandal, the offense of such humbleness in the creator God's revelation of self is something we neglect, not least because we see all this with eyes of faith --- eyes which suspend the disbelief of rationality temporarily so that we can see instead the beauty and wonder which are also there. The real challenge of course is to hold both truths, scandal and beauty, together in a sacramental paradox.

And so I have tried to do in this symbol of the season. This year my Christmas tree combines both the wonder and the scandal of the incarnation, the humbleness of Jesus' estate in human terms, and the beauty of a world transformed with the eyes of love. Through the coming week the readings are serious (Steven's martyrdom and the massacre of the holy innocents, a warning about choosing "the world," and so forth) for darkness is still very real and resents and seeks to threaten our joy. Yet, all this is contextualized within the Christmas proclamation that darkness has been unable to quench the divine light that has come into our world, and the inarticulate groaning which often marks this existence has been brought to a new and joy-filled articulateness in the incarnate Word. Everything, we believe, can become sacramental; everything a symbol of God's light and life amongst us; everything a song of joy and meaning! And so too with this fragile "Charlie Brown" tree.

All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide for all who read here, and to all of your families. Today the heavens are not silent. Today they sing: Alleluia, Alleluia!! Hodie Christus Natus Est! Alleluia!

18 December 2011

Annunciations


I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anxiety about what might be wrong, and then a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! I can be killed for this!" while only over more time comes the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her and that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real, parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's Word and Spirit calling her beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promises.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God dwells within us and only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to embody Christ and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the coming Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. But our own fiat will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

15 December 2011

Misunderstandings of the origins and Nature of Canon 603 (yet again)


[[Dear Sister, I have been reading online about Catholic Hermits. This morning I read the following passage and was confused by it. I have read what you have written on the origins of canon 603 and that is very different from this. This is from a Catholic hermit who is quoting a canon lawyer:

The Canon lawyer discussed Canon 603, of 1983 and explained it was a revision of the 1917 Canon regarding eremitic life. He said that laws are created due to abuses and also because of desire by some to have "official stamp" of approval. Perhaps there have been those, he pointed out, who said they were going to live a life of stricter separation from the world or in prayer and fasting, but did not. The law provides for the Bishop to step in and correct the abuses, if the hermit has been publicly avowed, and those vows received by the Bishop. . . .He said it is a legality, of publicly approving the hermit in the name of the Church, of it being of public record, regardless of how many were actually at the profession of vows. He said that may be just the hermit and the Bishop. But it is done in the name of the Church, with the Bishop saying he receives the vows on behalf of the Church. . . . Next he spoke of private vows. He said what has been written and repeated: that the privately avowed hermit is also consecrated, also approved, and in keeping with the Church's allowance of this form as well. This type of hermit is approved, but the vows have not been received in the name of the Church by the Ordinary of the Diocese. It is not under Canon Law 603.

How accurate is this? Does it cause you to amend what you have written?]]

Well, there is truth (or accuracy) and untruth (inaccuracy) in this account. Since it is a third party reporting a conversation with an unknown canonist, and since some of it is not included, even in your question, let me be clear that my comment refers only to what is reported. Also, one can report various facts but mislead in import, and I think that is one thing that has happened in the reporting of this conversation. (That is, I think perhaps the canonist may have been misunderstood or inaccurately interpreted in some things.)

So, what is true or accurate here?

1) the notion that public vows do not have to do with notoriety or the number of people at the profession, but instead with the nature of the commitment is true. A public profession and/or consecration binds the person publicly to live out their vocation in the name of the Church. The Church accepts her commitment officially, and commissions her to live it out in her name. The Church as a whole has the necessary right to certain expectations of one in public vows because they no longer live their lives as a private person, but a public one. So too does the world at large have the right to certain expectations in this person's regard if they wear a habit and or use a title in public. They have private lives, of course, but may be called on when out and about by those for whom the title or habit are signs of availability.

2) public vows are received by a legitimate superior in the name of the Church. Private vows are witnessed but not received or made in the name of the Church. The canonist is, of course, completely correct in alluding to all of this.

3) certainly laws can be legislated or turned to because of abuses. The canonist (or his reporter) is entirely correct in this, but emphatically not in attributing the existence of Canon 603 to this situation.

And, so, what is not accurate?

1) Canon 603 was not formulated or promulgated as a revision of the 1917 Code. As I have noted before, it is an entirely new canon which recognizes solitary hermits for the very first time in universal law. The 1917 Code had no canon referring to hermits, and I am surprised a canonist would make such an error. In any case, Religious hermits and religious who desire to be hermits within their own communities are generally covered by the proper law of their congregations. For these no canon is necessary; it is when proper law does not allow for eremitical life that something more is necessary.

2) Canon 603 was not formulated to correct abuses, nor, as a completely new canon rather than a revision could it have been meant to do this. Instead it was written and promulgated because there were hermits who had been religious or monastics for many years and had therefore been solemnly professed for some time, but who, in order to live out a call to eremitical solitude they had experienced years after Solemn profession, had been required to seek dispensation of their vows and secularization. This was necessary because their congregations did not have proper law allowing such a life. A number of these formed a colony of hermits in British Columbia. Bishop De Roo and others begged the Fathers at Vatican II to recognize the eremitical life as a state of perfection. Canon 603 is the eventual result. Of course, it is true that a Bishop who found a regular pattern of infidelity to one's vows could require the canonically professed hermit to submit to discipline including dispensation from vows, but I have to say, this is something which is VERY far from most hermits' minds or concern. The place of law in their lives is both far more positive and also more marginal than this. (For a more detailed account of Bishop De Roo's arguments to the Fathers at the Council, please see  Bishop De Roo's arguments under "The Heart of the Matter".)

Further, though, I think this view of the place of law in a diocesan hermit's life, and certainly of the creation of Canon 603, has things backwards --- especially since this is an entirely new canon recognizing a new form of consecrated life. The notion that the Church would create a canon for obscure, almost wholly unknown lay hermits who were not living their vocations, or admit one to public vows because they need some kind of policing seems ludicrous to me. As noted, religious hermits would be covered already under both canon law and the proper law of their congregations. No new canon is necessary for these hermits, whether to correct "abuses" or to maintain the discipline of their lives.

The point is that no one is going to admit someone to public profession because that person needs policing, or because the Bishop requires a way to correct a badly lived private eremitical life.  After all, in such a situation one also has to ask, "In the absence of a canonical commitment with canonical obligations and rights, what is being abused? What is being abused when there are no norms to govern this life, and no legal obligations one has committed by vow or other sacred bond to fulfill?" In such a case, an instance where some sort of weirdness or irregularity was present, the person would never be admitted to public vows,  nor to the consecration and commissioning associated with these given the public rights and responsibilities entailed. The Church would never initiate one into a public vocation in order to correct irregularities (at least not in a situation where the vocation is rare and abuses few and far between). One needs a proven track record of living as a lay hermit or religious living in solitude before the Church admits one to public eremitical vows under canon 603. For those who have a contrary track record, allowing them to remain unrecognized in the relative obscurity of a private eremitical life is a far more effective and prudent way to deal with their badly lived eremitical life.

At the same time, it is true that the fact that a commitment is public and binding in law does indeed assist the hermit to be true to that commitment when it is tempting to "do as one wishes" instead ---- for whatever reason that occurs. Still, this is at best secondary to the primary reason for legal standing and public commitment and consecration, namely, the fact that the Holy Spirit is working in this way in the Church and has called the Church to mediate God's call to this vocation and recognize it as a state of perfection for the salvation of the World. Diocesan eremitical life is a gift of God to the Church and canon 603 is the way this vocation is regarded, governed, and nurtured.

3) With the exception of the term "consecrated", every discrete fact in the last paragraph is mainly accurate. It is when they are put together that I have real problems with what they convey. As I have written several times now, it is more appropriate to refer to lay hermits as dedicated than consecrated. This may be especially true if they have made private vows, but consecration, despite the common use of the term, is something only God can do ---- usually via the mediation of the Church as she acts officially in the name of God. However, the emphasis of the paragraph as a whole seems a bit off to me. Lay hermits as individuals are not explicitly approved by the Church. The vocation of lay hermit itself is certainly accepted and a lay person may pursue the vocation as she feels called, but her own vocation is not per se either discerned or "approved" by the Church in the same way that happens for one entering the consecrated state. The entire emphasis here seems to be part of an attempt to say diocesan hermits are "technically," "formally," or "legally" hermits so that the Bishop may correct abuses or because the hermit "needs this formality as a matter of pride", but that otherwise there is no difference between them and lay hermits. If this is so then I would take exception to its accuracy for it is way off base.

4) While Canon 603 profession is a matter of law, I don't think I would call it a legality anymore than I would allow it to be considered a mere formality, at least not as I understand these words. For me "legality" sounds like a contraction of "legal technicality." But law ordinarily follows life and in this matter law has recognized and affirmed the way the Holy Spirit is working in the Church. It has also specified the essential elements of the solitary eremitical vocation, and these are not mere legalities or legal technicalities. To be bound by public vows issues in a number of rights and responsibilities; they are indeed matters of law, but they are not simply "legalities."

5) While it is true that profession under canon 603 makes this person's specific commitment and commission to live this vocation a matter of public record, the matter goes much further. As noted, a public vow allows the public to have necessary expectations of the person so professed. It also allows the hermit to have specific expectations of the institutional church and vice versa. In short, the fact that one is publicly professed sets up an entire constellation of relationships, legal and otherwise, that did not exist before, whether or not the person was living as a hermit up until this point.

The Catholic theology of profession recognizes that vows are a matter of performative language. Something new comes to be that did not exist before. In terms of public vows per se, this happens especially in the hermit's very speaking of the vows and the Bishop's praying of the prayer of consecration. Specifically, the person enters or is initiated into a new and stable state of life. God's grace is experienced in a new way as well, and the person assumes new public rights and obligations while, as already mentioned, those who look to her have their own legitimate expectations. Law both recognizes and allows for this, but it is not, I don't think, appropriate to call all this a legality or a mere "formality" either.

So, to answer your last question, no this series of comments by a canonist does not change what I have written before about any of this; if the reporter is accurate, the canon lawyer is mistaken in several fundamental ways and also correct in others which I have written in agreement about.

09 December 2011

Living Alone vs Eremitical Solitude


[[Dear Sister,
you said something interesting in your post from December 7th. You distinguished an eremitical life of the silence of solitude from that of people living a merely pious life alone. To be honest I thought that a hermit life WAS the pious life of someone living alone. Can you explain what you mean to me?]]

Yes, it is a really important distinction and one that is rarely sufficiently understood whether by aspirants and some candidates for canon 603 profession, by chanceries who are responsible for the mutual discernment and profession of these candidates, or by the usual person on the street. Your own description, [[ a pious life of someone living alone]] is not quite the same as what I said, [[ some... mistake living a relatively pious life alone for an eremitical life of the silence of solitude. . ]]. Lots of people live alone; lots of these are relatively pious, and some are downright holy --- holier than many hermits. Very, very few of these are hermits in the sense canon 603 defines. I am reminded of a friend (a very funny and generous friend) in my parish who sometimes jokes to people she introduces me to that there is nothing really different from her life and mine --- though she thinks she owns more shoes than I do! (In that I think she is right!) She is a faithful Catholic, spends her life in direct service of the church and parish, and she lives alone; she sees me as doing the same. I suspect there are many people who think something similar and believe canon 603 is meant to profess more than usually religious people who simply live alone.

But these opinions, despite elements of truth, are generally mistaken. While it is certainly necessary to have a regular spiritual praxis and to live alone in relative silence, there is something more involved. It is summarized in canon 603 with the term, "the silence of solitude." One of the things I have noted about this phrase is that it refers not just to the physical environment of the eremitical life, but to its goal, and gift quality or charism as well. The silence of solitude is an immensely rich symbol, then, and hard to define precisely; it refers first of all to God's own life, for God is the abyss of this kind of silence and solitude. It refers then to a continuing dialogue with God usually carried out in and constituting one's own heart, but also in the prayer and other activities undertaken in the hermitage which are expressions and explicitations of this inner dialogue.

It refers to the communion which comes to be between two freedoms (cf Wencel, Cornelius, Er Cam, The Eremitic Life), the freedom which is God and the freedom which is the hermit, a communion which we are each made for but often forget, ignore, or dismiss for any number of reasons. Finally it also refers to the redemption of isolation, alienation, and emptiness, the healing of sin and the effects of sin. It requires external silence and physical aloneness but is much much more than this. The hermit's life is devoted to "the silence of solitude"; it is lived out within it, in light of it, and for it because this "silence of solitude" is something the world is made and hungers for. It is, insofar as it involves a heart-deep dialogue and communion, something both God and the hermit herself yearn for. Living alone is one thing; living alone with and for God and for all that is precious to God is very different indeed.

Although canon 603 does not explicitly preference this element over assiduous prayer and penance and the other non-negotiable elements of eremitical life, I think the hermit must --- though only in a way which allows the other elements to inform and qualify it. Truly, none of the elements of the canon and the life (a vowed life of stricter separation from the world, assiduous prayer and penance, the silence of solitude, lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world) can be separated off from the others. As interrelated they form a complex and dynamic whole which constitutes eremitical life as something far more than just living alone --- even in physical silence or separation. Still, "the silence of solitude" is the truly distinguishing or definitive element of the canon, I think; it represents the depth dimension or inner heart and purpose of the other elements in the canon.

Dioceses and chancery officials and personnel must also preference this element in this way, I think; it is critical to discerning what kind of vocation one has before one. When I have written in the past that a candidate for profession under canon 603 must have become a hermit in some essential sense before a diocese can consider her seriously for even temporary profession this is what I was referring to: she must know the silence of solitude (in the above senses) personally, existentially, and she must have made at least some of the choices and sacrifices necessary to make this the defining reality and goal of her life while demonstrating a faithfulness and commitment to go wherever this gift of God takes her.

07 December 2011

Eremitism or Exaggerated Individualism?


Recently I was asked to consider whether there was a new resurgence in interest in the eremitical life, and, more importantly, what was driving that if I thought it was demonstrable. I happen to agree there is considerable interest in this vocation, but I am afraid I did not come away from the question of motivation with the most positive of answers. Similarly another questioner wrote:

[[Sister O'Neal, I have read that there is a resurgence in interest in the hermit life. At the same time I have heard that Bishops are reluctant to profess hermits. If the resurgence is of the Holy Spirit then why are Bishops unwilling to profess individuals in this way? I know you have written this is not a numbers game but if large numbers of people are interested in the vocation shouldn't Bishops be pressed to profess/consecrate them?]]

While there is a clear resurgence of interest, I don't think the actual incidence of the vocation has generally increased (except that the Church (meaning here the Western or Latin Church) now recognizes some very small percentage of these and admits them to profession and consecration; this has led, for instance, to a number of vocations among the disabled and chronically ill which would never have been recognized otherwise). In general however, what I am afraid is happening is that this interest is more a symptom of our individualistic and even narcissistic society and culture than it is a response to the impulse of the Holy Spirit. Further, I suspect that the failure to understand or to esteem the vocation profoundly enough leads some Bishops to profess individuals when this actually fosters an individualism (whether exaggerated or not) which is "worldly" in the most blatant sense possible.

So many of the things which pass for eremitical life, and which I have written about in the past several years, come together here and are definitely not inspired as truly eremitical. These include: 1) individuals who choose canon 603 on their way to community life (or community foundation) because it is supposedly the easy way to be professed; 2) individuals who mistake living a relatively pious life alone for an eremitical life of the silence of solitude; 3) those who wish to escape the complex and demanding life of ordinary social contacts or who have failed at life and seek to validate that failure; 4) those who see eremitical life as a part time activity and therefore seek to "have their cake and eat it too" by being recognized as a hermit while living just as they have always done in terms of work, recreation, relationships, and the like (this applies to those in #2 above as well); 5) married "hermits" or 6) those who work full time outside the hermitage, especially in highly social jobs while living a more or less prayerful life alone (some, as I have noted before, set aside one day a week for contemplative prayer and mistakenly consider this an eremitical life meeting the terms of the canon); 7) misanthropes looking for an escape and 8) folks seeking a sinecure who simply desire a way to validate their need for space to pursue their hobbies and avocations --- artistic, literary, etc --- but desire the church's stamp of approval on that. Note how easy it is to mistake these for authentic eremitical life which, when viewed only in terms of external characteristics or stereotypes, certainly seems to share some of these attributes.

But what is missing from them all is a sense that eremitical life is one of self-emptying and compassionate generosity for God's own sake, and the sake of those precious to God. What is lacking in these instances is a commitment to the silence of solitude and all that signifies. I don't suggest here that distinguishing between authentic diocesan or solitary eremitical vocations and these forms of hyper-individualism is always easy or completely straightforward; it is not. It takes time and serious discernment on the part of the candidates, their Bishops, directors, Vicars, etc. But it is a real problem today and one we cannot refuse to see as a threat to the eremitical vocation. Personally, I think the incidence of this kind of thing is very high while the incidence of authentic eremitical vocations is still as relatively rare as it has always been.

Thus, Bishops are right to be cautious in admitting aspirants to profession under canon 603. They are right to demand relatively longer terms of (personal) formation and probation of aspirants --- though at the same time these should be supervised and not inordinately prolonged. They are right to test candidates to see how committed to ongoing formation and how generously motivated they are. Where they are mistaken, I think, is in dismissing the vocation per se --- as though it is impossible to live, could have no really suitable candidates, or is without concrete value in our Church and world. (And again, it should be underscored that an understanding of and attention to the nature of "the silence of solitude" which constitutes the charism of this vocation is a significant if partial solution to such a problem.) In any case, presuming a higher instance of interest in this vocation, I think Bishops should take great care in discerning these vocations and should not be pressed unduly to profess diocesan hermits simply because a person demonstrates an interest in it. Given the individualism prevalent in our world today many candidates will not have vocations to eremitical life and of those that do, semi-eremitical or religious (communal) eremitical life on the one hand, or lay eremitical life on the other will often be the better option or context for living the life.

A Note on terminology: I have often used the terms aspirant, candidate, or even novice in my posts regarding diocesan eremitical life. Please understand that Canon 603 does not call or allow for an actual formal aspirancy or candidacy (postulancy). Neither is there such a thing as a formal novitiate. My use of such terms in this blog is entirely informal referring to someone who 1) literally aspires to profession and consecration, 2) who is accepted to participate in a process of mutual discernment by a diocese to see if perhaps they have such a vocation, or 3) who is relatively new to the life or who feels they are (something I suspect never really goes away; from what I have heard we all feel like novices even after decades of living eremitical life).

04 December 2011

What Should I Do Next? On Becoming a Diocesan Hermit


[[Dear Sister,
I went to my diocese this week to see about becoming a canon 603 hermit. They told me to "go away and live in solitude". They said that I don't need to be professed or consecrated (their word) to be a hermit. But I want to be a canonical hermit and I think God is calling me to be this. What do I do now? Can I move to another diocese that would accept me?]]

Hi there! I have written about this topic a fair bit here, so please check the labels below and to the right. See under formation of a lay hermit, time frames for becoming a diocesan hermit, ecclesial vocations, diocese-shopping, and similar topics. I will not repeat everything I have said in those posts, but perhaps I can summarize briefly.

If you have not ever lived as a hermit (which is not the same as simply living alone, even a generally pious life merely alone), then living as a lay hermit for some time is necessary before a diocese will even consider you a serious candidate for profession and consecration under canon 603. While this is not the only reason dioceses tell people to go off and live in solitude, it is a major one, for often people who have never lived in solitude approach chancery personnel with the expectation that the chancery will turn one into a hermit. Hermits are made in solitude; more importantly, solitude (which, again, is not simply being alone) must, as Thomas Merton put the matter, open the door herself to the would-be hermit. To find out if this will ever happen one must live in physical solitude and more specifically, in and towards what canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude" for some time before 1) one can discern whether one is called to eremitical life as a life commitment, and 2) whether this is to be lay or consecrated eremitical life. In other words, "just living in (physical) solitude" is a necessary (and minimum) element of discerning a vocation and the church must know that you have done this and in fact have reason to believe that it is your own personal way to human wholeness and holiness or they really mayn't profess you.

Secondly, canon 603 eremitical life represents an ecclesial vocation which means in practical terms that one CANNOT discern such a vocation alone. The Church herself must also discern the truth of the matter and call you forth from her midst. She must agree to publicly profess and consecrate you in a way which extends both rights and obligations which are not yours otherwise; she must, in fact, participate in the mediation of God's own call to you herself, or that call is not real (yet) in your life. You may seriously desire this, and you may be correct that God is calling you to some form of eremitical life, but in other words, until the Church agrees and mediates this vocation to you through her own actions and liturgy one has NOT been called to be a diocesan hermit. You MAY live as a lay hermit as a result of your Baptism. You have every right to do that (and actually, you are obliged to do that if you discern it is what God is calling you to for the time being) but on your own you cannot assume you are called to diocesan eremitical life.

So, what do you do? There are a number of things which are either necessary or prudent. 1) You must embrace an eremitical life (I am assuming you are not married, do not have children, or other obligations or encumbrances which prevent this) and live it to the best of your ability; part of this process will be getting used to thinking of yourself as a hermit and acting to structure your life and relationships as a hermit would. 2) You must be working with a spiritual director and continue doing so for the remainder of your life as a hermit of whatever type. This is non-negotiable. 3) It would certainly be advisable to check with the person you spoke with at the chancery and see if they are open to the vocation at all (some dioceses are not), and also whether they are open to meeting with you again in a year's time and then again in another year, etc, IF you continue to feel you are called to diocesan eremitical life. Much will depend on the answer they give to these questions and I am assuming at this point that they will be answered positively. 4) read all you can on eremitical life, on canon 603, on the vows, etc --- and especially read contemporary sources, commentary, the documents of Vatican II on religious life, etc. 5) Consider all the forms of eremitical life we have today, religious (communal), lay, and solitary (diocesan) as potential contexts for your life and see which one calls most to you and why. As I hope you can see, these are mainly things which will help you whether you are called to an ecclesial vocation under canon 603 or not.

Regarding moving to another diocese, my recommendation at this point in time is that you not even consider that so long as your diocese is open to the vocation generally and will meet with you again in the future. In such a case doing so can demonstrate impatience, a lack of commitment to monastic/eremitical stability, perhaps represent an unwillingness to be obedient in the best sense of that term, indicate you are more enamored with an image of the life than the life itself, and so, on a purely practical level, will generally result in "shooting oneself in the foot" with the diocesan personnel and Bishops of the dioceses involved.

Do keep in touch regarding your journey. Meanwhile I hope this is helpful.

02 December 2011

Another Snapshot of Life in the Hermitage



[[Sister Laurel, in the pictures of your hermitage you have a lectern in your chapel. Why is that? Do you have people come in to pray with you? I know the Carthusians make certain gestures or use certain postures even in their cells as well as in church. Do you do that when you pray? Do you wear your cowl at home or only in church?]]

Thanks for your questions. The lectern (ambo) in the oratory is used when I pray Office because I like to chant or sing it. It is easier to do this while standing, and even moreso with a lectern (ambo) so I can have more than one book open at a time and not have a problem flipping back and forth. It is completely movable so I shift it from the center of the space in front of the tabernacle off to the side at other times of the day or when I am praying quietly for instance. I do not have people come over to pray here (though I do pray with people who come over --- if that makes sense), and my own room (oratory) is generally off-limits to guests or clients. There are a couple of exceptions here --- people who are welcome in any part of the hermitage at any time.

Regarding certain gestures and postures, I do use some of the ones always used for church or for Office: a profound bow when entering the room, or at the first part of the Doxology, for instance, signs of the cross at usual places, genuflections or profound bows when opening or closing the tabernacle, and so forth. Occasionally I may use prostration, but (unlike the Carthusian usage) that is very rare and entirely spontaneous. As for the cowl, I use it for Office or Communion services and sometimes for quiet prayer and lectio in the hermitage. It reminds me that this place is not really my own and that what I do I do not do only for myself or in my own name. Otherwise, though it is not a liturgical garment per se, I also wear it for any liturgical/prayer function at the church.

Hope that helps.

01 December 2011

Eremitism, A Life of Continuous Vigil

Perhaps it is the focus of Advent with its emphasis on preparation and waiting, but I came today to see my life specifically and eremitical life more generally as one of vigil --- and continuous vigil. Whether the time in cell is obviously fruitful or marked by darkness and seeming emptiness, whether one turns to prayer with joy and enthusiasm or with resistance and depression, one waits on the Lord. One spends one's time in vigil.

Now this is ironic in some ways because despite loving prayer at night the Office of Readings which is also called "Vigils" has never been my favorite hour and this last two years I have substituted another way of spending the time before dawn which has been very fruitful for me. The time from 4:00am to 8:00am has been one of vigil but it consists of quiet prayer, Lauds, and writing with some lectio. A Camaldolese nun mentioned her own monastery (and the one I am affiliated with as an Oblate) treating these same hours as a time of vigil and I very much liked the idea. I did not know that it would define both my day and my life, however.

There is something amazing about living in a way which is not "just" obedient (open and responsive) to the Lord, but which is actively awaiting him at every moment.(Yes, these are intimately related, but not always practiced that way.) The heart of Benedictine spirituality is the search for God. When candidates for Benedictine monastic life arrive at the monastery, the goal they are expected to affirm is the search for God. This is the defining characteristic of the authentic monastic life and a significant point of discerning a vocation. We can hear that phrase as emphasizing an active, even desperate attempt to find something that is missing from our lives, or we can hear it as a process of preparing ourselves to find the God who is immanent in our lives and world at every point. In the latter case our lives become a vigil to the extent they are transformed into something capable of perceiving and welcoming this immanent God.

Another central Benedictine value is hospitality, and there is no doubt it plays a very significant part in this perspective. While we ordinarily think of hospitality as offering a place for guests who come to the monastery or hermitage in search of something, we should extend the notion to God. All of our prayer is a way of offering hospitality to God; it is a way, that is, of giving him a personal place to stand in our lives and world. While God is omnipresent and the ground of the truly personal, he does NOT automatically have a personal place in our lives. Like someone whose name we do not know, he may impinge on our space, but until we call upon him by name and give him a place he cannot assume on his own, he will remain only impersonally there. And so, in prayer we call upon him by name ("Abba, Father"), we carve out space and time for him, we give him permission to enter our lives and hearts and to take up more and more extensive residence there. We offer him friendship, hospitality, and we structure our lives around his presence. We continually ready ourselves and look for him just as we look for a best friend we expect any time and thus our lives become a vigil.

For hermits, whose whole lives are given over to God in a focused and solitary way, vigil is simply another description of the environment, goal, and gift (charism) of eremitical life we refer to as "the silence of solitude." Those four hours before Mass or Communion in my daily horarium define the characteristic dynamic of the whole of my life --- at least when it is lived well! It is a vigil which requires the silence of solitude (i.e., external and internal silence and solitude), leads to the silence of solitude (i.e.,communion with God), and gifts the world with it and all it implies. During Advent especially I think the call to make something similar of our own lives is extended to every one of us in a special way.

27 November 2011

First Sunday of Advent, 2011


Well, it is the first Sunday of Advent and I am feeling a mixture of excitement, trepidation and all of the other things that tend to come along with beginnings. I have to say I love the sense of new opportunities, a chance to "begin" once again in one's relationship with God and to one's faith even if that beginning is "just" another turn in the spiral of deepening communion. Ordinarily each day gives me the sense of such a new beginning, a sense that there will be fresh experiences, insights, and surprises ahead, but it is wonderful to have beginnings and times of preparation built into the liturgical year.

Each day, each week, and each year we are able to remind ourselves that Jesus needs to be allowed to reveal himself to us on his own terms. He comes as a human being and reveals divinity (and what it means to be human!) exhaustively by entering every moment and mood of human existence. It is a literally incomprehensible mystery and so each day, week, and year the dynamic repeats --- "Let me show you again," Jesus says, "deeper this time, more fully; let me invite you into my story so that you truly make it your own. Listen!! Let's begin at the beginning so that you can bring yourself in new ways, fresh and surprising ways as I call to you in my nativity, my hidden life, my public ministry, my death, resurrection, and my ascension so that in your response you become part of MY story as well --- so that you love with me, minister with and even to me, pray and suffer with me as I do with you."

Any real achievement takes preparation and Advent is such a time for us. The opportunity to begin anew is a gift of God. We rarely get such a chance otherwise, for without the grace (mercy, forgiveness, healing, and offer of new life) of God we are condemned to move ahead dragging our failed broken lives along with us. We might try to repress or forget all of this "stuff" of our lives, but without Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that will be either illusion or delusion. Yet with Christ and in the rhythm of liturgical time we can truly begin again. As I wrote last year, in Christ the future (where God is our absolute future) draws us forward and into itself. Whether that means a totally new beginning or the freshness of new opportunities for deepening and radicalizing our faith and lives, Advent invites us to conversion and so too, to a new chapter in our relationship with God and our deepest, truest selves.

For me, the focus in all of this this year will include growing in my participation in Christ's own life and story in a much more conscious way. My spirituality has most always, I think, focused on allowing him to participate in my story, to be "God with (me)." But, I have become aware that I have not really been open to seeing the truth of things from the other perspective, and I really need to do that!! (Parts of what sometimes pass for "suffering with Jesus" spirituality are not healthy and so I have eschewed them; I am not speaking of those here.) But friendships are really reciprocal and while I have allowed Jesus to be friend to me, it has not always made sense to me to "befriend" Jesus and to really be an integral part of HIS personal story, though it is, in many ways, the essence of discipleship. There is lots for me to think about in all this, and also significant places in my own heart which are touched by this perspective differently than with my more usual point of view. Excitement and trepidation. Trepidation and excitement. To become (more consciously) part of Jesus' own story. What an awesome invitation!! I love new beginnings -- whichever form they take!

24 November 2011

Ad Multos: What are we affirming in the New Old Translation?

The theological problems with the new translation of the Roman Missal have already begun to surface and we have not even officially begun using it. One of these involves the Missal's affirmation that Christ was sent to and died for "many" as opposed to the term "all" we have been using for the last decades. One priest commented in an article on the changes that he would not pray heresy and would not use the formula referring to Christ's mission to save many as opposed to all. I sympathize with him; he is correct on the serious theological implications of this change in an English speaking world.

With regard to this change in wording I think we must be aware of the fact that in the original Semitic languages there was no discrete word for "all". Instead they referred to the many which constituted the whole, and the emphasis was thus on the multitudes this involved, not on a single whole composed of a possibly sparse number. (Readers of Scripture or any literature are familiar with the use of metonymy or synedochy (a special form of metonymy) --- where a part may stand for the whole. This is at least similar.) Greek (Koine), on the other hand DOES have a word for (the) all and a different one for (the) many; when the NT authors wrote or taught in Koine, the word used was literally (the) many, but again, given the context of the original writers, speakers and hearers, it meant the multitudes which compose the WHOLE of mankind which were affected by the life, death, and resurrection of this one man, Jesus. However, when the Scriptures were translated into Latin we moved definitively away from this entire context and the term ad multos came to mean the many as contrasted with the whole.

Today (and whenever the Semitic context is lost --- as, for instance, in our naive adoption of Latin or translations of merely formal equivalence!) we normally and unthinkingly use "many" in contrast to all. Thus, in the process, will have changed the sense of the original: namely, the whole composed of the many (or of multitudes and multitudes). Additionally, since Latin does not use separate definite articles, what could have been translated as "the many" --- which at least has a sound of synedochy and the ability to symbolize the whole --- is instead eventually translated into the English, "many," and the contrast with "all" is strengthened. Theologically, this indeed constitutes a heterodox notion of the scope of Jesus' mission and a serious misstatement of the Gospel his life embodies.

Of course we absolutely must not pray or proclaim heresy. Jesus did not die for many AS CONTRASTED WITH ALL. He died for the multitudes (the many) which in fact both represent and constitute the whole throughout all time. This is one of those (in this case, wholly impossible and tragic) "catechetical moments" the hierarchical church is using to sell the new translation. It is impossible because 1) we will not be able to improve on using "all" to convey the theological truth of the matter while 2) people will automatically (and mistakenly) assume they know what "many" means. Pastors, catechists, others absolutely must know and communicate the fact that Jesus died for THE many (not many) and more, that "the many" refers to an ALL which is composed of MULTITUDES!

20 November 2011

Consecrated Virginity, Response to Sponsa Christi's Author

I had heard from several people that Jenna Cooper of the Sponsa Christi blog has responded to the series of posts I put up on Consecrated Virgins and what I have called a vocation to consecrated or sacred secularity back in September-October. Since then I have had time to read Ms Cooper's post on the matter a couple of times now and I appreciate the time she took to put it together --- especially given the fact that she is newly studying Canon Law in a language she has never studied until now. Unfortunately, I also found the response disappointing in several ways, and a bit frustrating as well. I am going to limit this response to those main points.

It was a bit frustrating because Ms Cooper never actually quoted me directly. She depended instead on characterizations of what I said and why, and she got some central things wrong; she also treated theological, canonical, and historical conclusions as "presuppositions" and "assumptions". However, because she didn't quote me directly, responding to these mischaracterizations with any specificity is frustratingly difficult. I understand that the blogosphere is not necessarily the realm of scholarly discussion, but I don't think one has to be a scholar to respect an interlocutor enough to actually quote what one contends or disagrees with. One vague but significant assertion Ms Cooper made was especially troubling in preventing any specific response.

She wrote: [[I don’t think it would be possible for me to respond to every point Sr. Laurel makes in her series on consecrated virgins, especially since it seems that we may disagree on some very fundamental philosophical and ecclesiological premises (such as the inter-relationship between a person’s identity and his or her concrete actions and choices, the nature of the Church as an institution, the role of the hierarchy in relationship to the Church’s charismatic dimension, and the objective theological superiority of consecrated life.]] I could respond that I am personally surprised to hear Ms Cooper believes there is an acceptable disjunction between one's identity and one's concrete actions and choices --- especially for those with ecclesial vocations (though I would be even more surprised to hear someone suggest I believe this!!), or that she doesn't believe the hierarchy has a significant role in relation to the church's "Charismatic dimension," or even that she doesn't accept the institutional as well as the charismatic nature of the People of God, for instance, but I suspect this is not what she was trying to say. So, specific citations are important, both for understanding, accuracy, and out of simple courtesy and respect.

In any case, Ms Cooper's response was also disappointing in some significant ways as well; these include:

1) a failure to cite relevant legitimate and authoritative texts as fully as needed, especially where they disagree with her own position. Similarly Ms Cooper dismisses expert commentary out of hand as non-authoritative --- apparently because they are not de fide teaching. (There are a number of degrees of authoritativeness which must be recognized in ecclesial documents --- sometimes co-existing within the same document. We need to be clear what level of authoritativeness we are demanding.) Further she asserts that [[no one can read the authoritative documents on this vocation and come away with a sense that it is a secular one]] --- despite a plethora of evidence that members of the USCCB hold a contrary position, theologians and canonists write about it and come to different conclusions, or that the USACV generally seems to hold this view. The problem is familiar: Ms Cooper reiterates her opinions but does not support them with specific citations, expert commentary, common Episcopal or Papal opinions and praxis, etc. A mere handful of examples of the numerous passages Ms Cooper neglects or dismisses include:

a) a passage from the homily of the Rite of Consecration of Virgins Living in the World which reads: [[Never forget that you are given over entirely to the service of the Church and of all your brothers and sisters. You are apostles in the Church and in the world, in the things of the Spirit and in the things of the world.]] (Ms Cooper cites the first part of this statement, but fails to cite or address the emboldened portion.) Now it should be noted that even if the phrase "living in the world" merely means "not in a monastery" in the very restricted sense Ms Cooper asserts (an assertion I and others disagree with), even that is, if it merely locates the virgin superficially as outside a monastery and simply proclaims she is not a nun, the highlighted phrase from the homily in the rite clearly refers to being not only a sacred person, but a secular one as well. With the phrase "the things of the world" it points to all the areas a person living in the world works out her salvation (family, business, politics, economics, etc) and indicates a complete giving over both to the things of the spirit and to the things of the world. It is a significantly qualified secularity, of course, but secularity nonetheless.

For instance, Religious men and women --- even apostolic or ministerial religious are never commissioned to be apostles "in the things of the world," and of course hermits are called to stricter separation from the world so are even less called to any form of secularity. These persons' vows significantly qualify their relationship with the main dimensions of the world, power (obedience), economics, etc. (poverty), and relationships (celibacy) and thus reflect a canonical and real separation from the world; however they are certainly not necessarily living a more consecrated life than CVs living in the world. Such consecrated virgins, on the other hand, are not canonically called to a life which is "separated from the world." They are absolutely set apart by and FOR God, but this is not identical to being called to separation from the world; rather, for those called to be CVs living in the world, it is a call to a complete involvement with and in it --- though clearly and unambiguously from the perspective of a consecrated person who shares in a special way in the the spousal, virginal, and maternal love characteristic of the Kingdom of God. I don't know if Ms Cooper ever deals with this particular phrase of the homily ("in the things of the world") at other places in her blog, but I know she does not do so in her response to my posts, and that is certainly disappointing.

b) admonitions of John Paul II which include, [[On this meaningful occasion, I am happy to stress some fundamental directives that can guide your special vocation in the Church and in the World.]] or [[According to the Apostle, the virgin “gives her mind to the Lord’s affairs and to being holy in body and spirit” (I Cor 7:34). She seeks “the things that are above, which Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” (Col 3:1). And yet this does not estrange [her] from the great values of creation and from the longings of humanity, nor from the suffering of the earthly city, from its conflicts and from the sorrows caused by war, famine, disease, and the wide-spread “culture of death.” Have a merciful heart and share in the sufferings of the brethren. Commit yourselves to the defense of life, the promotion of women and respect for their liberty and dignity.]] There is a clear sense here of being about the things of God right in the midst of the earthly city (Saint Augustine's term and a synonym for the world). It is, as I have already written, a paradoxical presence where one is present within this world, not estranged from it precisely because one is concerned with the things of God and more, because one lives the fundamental charism of virginal, spousal, and maternal love precisely in a context which needs this unique gift of the Holy Spirit.

c) an example of a certificate of consecration which reads: [[Virginem vitam saecularem agentem (i.e., a virgin living in the world). . .]] Note that the qualifying vitam saecularem is not really necessary if there is no significant distinction between the life of the cloistered nun who is consecrated as a virgin and that of the consecrated virgin living in the world. If this distinction is merely a matter of identifying superficial locations, the qualifying phrase would be omitted in a certificate of consecration since the vocations would be identical for the cloistered nun or the virgin living in the world and need not be specified. This suggests to me that the Church sees "vitam saecularem" as a significant qualification (or expression) of the foundational vocation to consecrated virginity.

d) However, much more compelling I think, is the article by Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, "Consecrated Virgins for Today's Church." This document was written by a (now) former "capo d'ufficio" or section chief with the congregation for religious (CICLSAL) --- meaning Sister was the third highest member of this curial department only behind the Cardinal and any Bishop with decision-making power (this authority is tied to ordination so being a Religious woman and the next one in line is no small matter); it should be clear that this article can hardly be dismissed out of hand. Even if one disagrees with Sister Holland's positions, one needs to contend with her article on its own terms (historical, liturgical, theological, etc) rather than simply dismissing it as unworthy of serious or considered attention.

Touching on just a very few points of this article, it affirms variously, [[Over the centuries, the use of the rite of consecration was quite completely reversed becoming common in monasteries of nuns with solemn vows and gradually disappearing from use among women remaining in their secular condition. By the time of the Lateran Council II (1139). . . the practice of consecrating women living in the world had ended]] Note well that this historical fact destroys Ms Cooper's argument that CV's living in the world were proto-nuns. In fact, other sources besides Sister Holland's are clear that there were 2 distinct rites of consecration in existence until this time, one for women living in the world, and one for nuns. In other words CVs from the first 3 centuries didn't simply develop into the cloistered vocation. This was one charismatic expression that developed, but the secular charismatic expression continued alongside it for another 8 centuries. Thus, the Code of Canon law 1983, and the revised Rite of 1970 (which specifically dropped vesture with a habit) are ways of recovering the distinctly secular (and consecrated) vocation of virgins living in the world which was wholly lost around the 12th century. Nothing less, nothing other.

Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, also reminds us: [[The Canon speaks of service to the Church "in harmony with their proper state." As has been seen, their state is of publicly consecrated persons in the Church and as persons who have received that consecration as individuals, remaining in their secular condition.]] In concluding her article, Sister notes, [[In 1996, the consecrated virgins also found their place in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata (N.B., this is, of course, an undeniably authoritative document) . . .[where the Holy Father adds], "Consecrated by the diocesan bishop, these women acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve while remaining in the world." (VC 7)]] Sister Holland explains something of the meaning of this sentence in the following, [[. . .Consecrated virgins may be working as university professors, parish secretaries, nurses or pastoral ministers; they may be working purely secular jobs during the day and volunteering their services in a variety of charitable works on behalf of the sick, elderly, handicapped, or homeless in their time off. Wherever they are, they will be present as one consecrated, bearing witness to the love of God for all, made visible and mirrored in Christ's love for the Church.]]

Another disappointing area of Ms Cooper's response is 2) a complete failure to deal with the heart of the theological argument which grounds my opinion in the paradoxical and, through consecration, the highly qualified secularity of the consecrated virgin. (In regard to this last point, Ms Cooper sees consecrated life as mutually exclusive with secular life (except perhaps in the case of secular institutes, though she is unclear on this) rather than as a call to a redeemed and even a perfected form of secularity which reflects the Sacramentality and transcendent origin and goal of the created order, and which, for that very reason, has much to offer the world pastorally and prophetically. She writes, [[If consecrated virginity is indeed a vocation which calls one to be more “consecrated” than “secular,” no amount of pastoral need is going to change this fact.]] or again, [[ Therefore, every area of consecrated virgins’ lives should revolve unambiguously around the direct service of the Church and intimacy with God in prayer. Given this, consecrated virgins would therefore NOT ordinarily be called to be Christian witnesses in politics, purely civil affairs, the secular professional world, or the business or financial community.]] One has to ask what, for the Christian, is ever a purely civil affair given our belief that the Kingdom of God is a present reality realized within and through the things of the world. One also needs to ask if Ms Cooper's hypothetical here, "If they are called to be more "consecrated" than "secular", can be legitimately assumed (much less demonstrated!) to be true. Again there are other conclusions possible and I would argue they are theologically more cogent and compelling.

Further, while I have already cited Sister Sharon Holland's article on the diversity of ways consecrated virgins are at work in the world, I think one has to emphasize that no where in the Rite of Consecration does the Church specify that direct service to the Church (meaning working full-time in a parochial position of some sort) is the unambiguous focal point of one's life. God is this focal point, and clearly the Church is important in this as is service to the Church, but Ms Cooper's assertion conflicts with the Church's own position on this matter which she affirms by consecrating women living in the world in the fullest sense of that term.
(If the Church did not mean these women to live a form of sacred secularity it would be necessary to require they adopt a different way of living BEFORE consecrating them. Discernment of the vocation, at the very least, would require this. Integrity of witness and life would require it. Thus, in consecrating women living in the world with all that entails as a consistent and normative pattern of praxis, the Church officially says this is a secular vocation at the same time it is a consecrated one.)

With regard to this second area of disappointment then, Ms Cooper does not address arguments rooted in Christology (for instance, the notion that Christ was paradigmatically secular in the life he lived even as he incarnated God exhaustively and thus witnessed to transcendence at every moment and mood of his life), sacramentality (most especially the sense that the world is meant function as a Sacrament of God's presence, just as Jesus' life and death did), eschatology (especially as it relates to our hope for a new heaven and earth, or to God's reconciling work in becoming all in all), missiology (especially the way a mission to the world and in the things of the world qualifies a charism), nor the difference between a more Greek way of thinking (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) and Christian paradoxical perspectives (cf my post on the paradox of sacred secularity). Neither does she deal adequately with the implications of the Church's liturgy and consistent praxis. I have already written about these things so I will not reprise them here.

Finally, I found it disappointing that 3) Ms Cooper's notion of charism was static and dismissive of the changing historical or pastoral situations or dimensions. Related to this I admit to being completely dumbfounded that Ms Cooper denied there was any pastoral need for the secular witness of Consecrated virgins. As she wrote: [[Whether or not there actually is such a pastoral need in the Church today (and I personally would tend to think that there is not), this kind of premise is actually kind of irrelevant to the question of whether or not consecrated virgins should live strongly secular lifestyles.]] Charisms are gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church and World precisely because there is a need for these gifts. Charisms thus actually cease to be or are renewed in light of pastoral requirements. (For instance (to use really vivid examples), communities whose charism involved ransoming captives of pirates, or those who were involved primarily with the conversion of Jews, might well find these dimensions of their charisms void or theologically illegitimate today and would need to look more closely at who they are today in light of the grace of God. cf Schneiders, Finding the Treasure on charism.) More specifically, consecrated virgins live a life of wholeness and generosity marked by spousal and maternal love precisely in their consecrated virginity. How is it possible to suggest the world at large which is loveless and sex-saturated in ways which trivialize this gift of God and whose capacity for personal commitment is diminished at every turn does not need this precise witness?

In other words, the essential vocation (Consecrated virginity lived in the world and committed to both the things of the spirit and the things of the world) was renewed by the Church, not simply because the vocation had been allowed to be eclipsed by its use by cloistered nuns and because a few hundred contemporary women thought perhaps they might personally be called this way by God, but because this essential gift is needed in a world of increased narcissism, sexual trivialization, and profane secularity. Charisms ALWAYS share these two poles, the eternal or transcendent and the historically particular dimension. Otherwise charisms would exist like rocks thrown into a pond --- an objective reality with no real relationship to the world which God loves and seeks to redeem, and therefore, with no power to transfigure that same world. They would be irrelevant at best, wholly anachronistic, and even destructive at worst. One certainly wonders why God would call virgins to receive consecration according to a solemn rite, compare these women with Mary, identify them as icons of the Church as Bride of Christ, and ask them to serve their brothers and sisters in a multitude of ways (but especially women, for instance) in the things of the spirit and the things of the world if their virginal, spousal and maternal love was not specifically needed by both Church and world (or if such need was considered irrelevant to the vocation itself). In any case, Frederick Buechner once defined vocation as that place where our own deep gladness meets the world's deep need. The same could be said of genuine Charisms, which are dynamic, not static realities and as such are always discerned in relation to the historical context or situation.

Much more could and needs be said in response to Ms Cooper's own response (and many more passages from various Bishops could be cited -- some very compelling), but, again, I will need to do that in other posts --- if, in fact, it seems prudent or desirable to continue the conversation.

A Note: for those wishing to respond to this post in some fashion, please read the posts on consecrated virginity which precede it (September-October 2011; see the list of labels on the right). Especially important is the post on the paradox of Secular or consecrated secularity, but other posts provide basic definitions which are necessary for those proposing to respond. This post is merely the latest in a series and assumes one is somewhat familiar with the posts that preceded it.

09 November 2011

Questions on "Inner Work", and the "Theology of the Cross"



[[Peace Be with You, Sister.

I am glad for my sake you . . .answered the question at the heart of your latest post. Sometimes a point can hit the mark when it is iterated for the nth time to someone; I read all your posts and this post seemed to come a little more clear to me. . . . You spoke of "prayer and inner work." In your profile you mentioned the "theology of the cross". I do not want to become burdensome or intrusive, so if I do, please tell me. What is "inner work"? Are there particular practices you do in your daily eremetical life ? Are there such practices you can recommend? I have not been a novice in a novitiate. Is there a book, especially one available online that I could download, that outlines the theology of the cross? I have not studied theology at all either in an in depth way. . . .?]]

Many thanks for your questions and also for your comment on my last post. Sometimes it feels like I have said all I can say, and have done so innumerable times so I wonder if doing so again is anything more than just boring and tedious to everyone. For me it mainly points up how little I actually understand things sometimes!!

Anyway, regarding your questions, "inner work" is work that eventuates from spiritual direction, meditation and prayer, life with others, difficult situations, or just reflective living. It usually leads to greater growth as a human being and in one's relationships with God and others. It is any focused and conscious approach to maturing in virtues, healing from woundedness, becoming a more transparent and true human being. Apart from prayer which is the ground of this work, the primary tool for inner work is often journaling and there are various approaches to growth work which utilize journaling and provide specific ways of doing this. There are a number of formal approaches with workshops and lots of writing with specific questions for reflection, etc. Even if one does not do something systematic and formal with workshops, etc, regular and sustained growth in the spiritual life tends to require ongoing spiritual direction. Most directors I know stress journaling as a tool and will assist a directee in finding their way here.

There are also approaches to spirituality which involve lots of inner work (after all, all authentic spirituality is about transformation). The exercises of St Ignatius is one of these. Currently I am working VERY SLOWLY through a book based on the spiritual exercises called, The Gift of Spiritual Intimacy by Monty Williams, sj. The reflection questions which accompany every step of this book are terrific and plentiful; they are challenging, progressive (they build on and contribute to one another --- though they can be used in any order as well), and can be used as part of a group, on one's own --- though working with a director would be even better --- and so forth! (By the way, if one wants to use the book in a systematic way and actually do the exercises by using it, I definitely recommend working with a director. There are enough questions at every step to allow one to return to them anew again and again (year after year) in order to work with those which really speak to one at this point in one's life. Without a director the book can be a bit overwhelming in its richness and possibilities.)

For instance, the section I was spending some time on this afternoon is on the Beatitudes, and specifically the first one, "Blessed are the poor in spirit. . ." The questions accompanying the reflection for this Beatitude include: [[1) What are your gifts? How do you use them? How are you trapped by them? 2) What are your poverties? How do you hide from them? What happens to you when you enter into those areas? 3) What are the areas in which you do not believe in yourself? What are the areas in which you do not believe in others or in God? 4) Where do you feel threatened? Where does your body tell you that you are threatened? 5) How are you threatened by God? by your family and friends? by yourself? by your prayer?. . .6) What are the areas of vulnerability in your life? . . .9) poverty takes only what is needed from this world, nothing more. Can you distinguish between what you want and what you need? 10) What aspects of you own poverty of spirit do you feel called to spend some more time with?How will you do that? Can you sit in the presence of God and allow God to encounter your own poverty of spirit? What happens when you do that?]] etc.

I try to do this kind of work regularly in the hermitage --- daily when that is possible --- and I meet with my director regularly about the work I am doing as well. Writing about such questions and the reflection it demands is helpful, but sharing these with someone who can help take one further is also very helpful. For instance, it is one thing to answer questions on the nature of one's personal poverties or the ways one hides from these, and another thing entirely to work in a way which heals and allows one to live these things exhaustively with the grace of God. Conversion and growth in Christ's own life is a never ending task and challenge for the Christian. Monks and nuns, as you know, actually are vowed to this, "Conversatio morum". "Inner work" is really any kind of personal growth work that assists in this, that helps one to grow in generosity and compassion, that stretches, heals, and enlarges one's heart so that God might dwell there as fully as possible.

As for the theology of the Cross, I'm sorry, but I don't know of any single source for this, especially online. Theologically there are various approaches to the cross and the way it works. When we use the term "Theology of the Cross" however, we tend to be referring to Paul's own theology of the way Jesus' death and resurrection work to reconcile all of creation to God (God is NOT reconciled!). The basic idea is that God asserts his rights over a sinful world by loving and having mercy on it. In Christ, and through Christ's obedience to him (his openness and responsiveness to God) God enters into every moment and mood of sinful existence including godless or godforsaken death (symbolized by death by crucifixion), and transforms these with his presence so that nothing at all can separate us (or the rest of creation) from the love of God. For Christians God is the one who is present in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place, the one who died for us "while we were yet sinners". There are innumerable books on Paul's theology -- often lengthy and dense. Pope Benedict has some marvelous reflections on the Cross in his small book, Behold the Pierced One. Despite the fact that this is not exactly a systematic theological presentation, you might consider starting with that one.

I hope these answers are helpful. If they are unclear or raise other questions please do get back to me. Thanks again for your email.

05 November 2011

Follow-up on Part-time Eremitical Life (Yet Again!)


[[Sister, I am a lay person and live in solitude two days a week; I consider myself a hermit. I read where you would not. I also see where you have argued against extending the term "hermit" to part-time hermits. Is your own solitude really so different than mine? Is it really so much better? Like an earlier reader, I am offended you would be stuck in outdated definitions and not be open to people opening up this category of life to people like me. I am also in disagreement that a vocation to solitude would take as much time to discern as you seem to believe it does. . . . Get over yourself!]]

Thanks for your questions and objections. To be frank, I don't think I can set forth any more clearly why I believe what I believe than I have already done --- and done in posts which it seems you have read yourself. My own solitude is "better" mainly in the sense that it may speak more clearly to those who have no choice regarding their circumstances, that is, those who find themselves isolated and alienated because of life circumstances they cannot change. I think that this is the only way I might use the term "better" in comparing the solitude I am vowed to live with your own. Otherwise, yes, it is different, and I think it is different in significant (very meaningful) ways.

The Place of Eremitical Solitude in Confronting oneself and in Self-Emptying

Besides being able to speak more effectively to those whose physical solitude is not chosen or needs redemption another piece of this difference is the fact that eremitical solitude is one which ensures that one discovers and confronts one's own essential poverty when left to oneself. Over time in silence and solitude one faces oneself in a multitude of inescapable ways; with prayer and inner work (which mediate the grace of God), one comes to exist more truthfully and transparently. God is central to this whole process because it is in extended silence and solitude that one comes to know God's love. It is this love which allows one to participate in the kenosis or self-emptying accomplished in the desert as well as in the process of perceiving and embracing the authentic covenantal identity God calls one to. In the desert, solitude is not a distraction from one's usual environment. Neither does it allow for much distraction, for distraction in the desert can be deadly. I believe eremitical solitude is the solitude of the desert where I believe yours is not. (Please see the articles on the difference between an experience of the desert and a desert experience.) Further, because the heart of eremitical solitude is union with God, the silence of solitude reflects both the environment and goal of the hermit's life where yours, it seems to me, represents either a respite from these or something which MAY contribute to them some but without being them.

The Total Demand of Eremitical Solitude

In reflecting on this notion of "part-time hermits" or of folks' inability to see the difference between a life of solitude and occasional periods of physical solitude I am reminded of a couple of passages from a Carthusian monk's notes for a conference given to new postulants and novices. Dom Joseph wrote: Many "try" solitude and come away in raptures. But they have never really experienced its total demand on human nature; whilst they were in cell, they knew that at the weekend they would be back home at the sea-side. But solitude is far from romantic.

After thinking of the applicants who had left, often during their first night in cell, Dom Joseph continued: Before entering, the postulant dreamed of closing his door upon himself and calling to Jesus the Beloved, but he did not dream that it would be a desperate cry for help. That is, the only prayer he now knows. It is just, "Jesus mercy, Jesus help" all day long. All his pretensions, all his confidence in self, all his assurance that he was strong enough for solitude, have gone long ago. MacGuire, Nancy, An Infinity of Little Hours (p 74)

It is the notion of total demand on one's human nature and the way one is cast upon God in complete dependence which defines the seriousness of a life commitment to "the silence of solitude." It also explains in part the reason that discernment can only occur over time frames which are ordinarily longer than those required by other vocations to consecrated life. When a hermit is canonically professed, for instance, the Bishop asks a series of questions regarding her readiness to make the necessary commitments in preparation for accepting the hermit's vows. He asks publicly if she is resolved to "give (her)self to God alone, in solitude and silence, in persevering prayer and willing penance, in humble labor and holiness of life". To be honest, I don't see how a person can answer such questions in an informed or affirmative way without an existential background in their meaning. This raises several points pertinent to your comments: 1) the Church understands the eremitical vocation as a serious and full-time proposition, 2) one must know that eremitical solitude is a LIFE call, not a transitional or therapeutic period leading to something else --- significant as these may be, and 3) the ability to say yes to such questions, to make a life commitment to them and to God in this way, requires one experience them over a significant period of time prior to such a commitment.

In other words, one needs to know the experience that Dom Joseph describes in his conference notes first hand, and I honestly don't think that spending two days a week in solitude allows for this. There is simply something different in an experience of solitude where one's time there is not going to end in a day or two, a month or two (or even in a year or two!), where the wrestling one does with one's own incapacity is not something one has the resources to end or resolve of oneself, where distractions are, in the main, something one is obligated by choice and by vow to avoid while one faces full on the things which cause us all to turn to distractions in the first place. There is a vast difference between solitude as respite and solitude as a committed way of intense encounter and life. We all know how different a difficult experience is when one can see a light at the end of the tunnel from an experience where there is no light, no real end in sight.

Tedium, Boredom, and Doing Battle with Personal Demons

Now, obviously I don't experience solitude as generally miserable or as bleak as all that (at least I hope it is obvious from this blog!), but rather as amazingly compelling and humanizing in its communion. It is ordinarily a source of joy in God. However, neither do I want to sugar coat the nature or difficulties of eremitical solitude. Even when one is sure that solitude herself has opened the door to the hermit and that the silence of solitude represents a life vocation, this does not mean that one's experience in cell is unending bliss. Prayer may be a joy, but it is also demanding, intense, and challenging in ways love and any genuine commitment to another is always challenging.

Beyond this, the tedium of one's day to day schedule (horarium) in cell means that boredom can be a real problem as can fidelity be in such instances. Stability and one's commitment to it demands that one live through the difficulties, not avoid them with this distraction or that, this shift in place, activity, focus, or that. Despite common misunderstandings of solitary life in a hermitage, it is not an extended vacation, nor a time to simply kick back and do what one likes. It is often less about peace and quiet than it is about doing battle with personal demons. One experiences peace and is able to rest in Christ, but entrusting oneself to Him is also demanding and something which one must grow in one's ability to do. Eremitical solitude, as I have said several times now, is a vocation and a way of life which, when lived well, is a gift to Church and World. Lived badly it is more apt to be an instance of our culture's (or sin's) exaggerated selfishness and individualism.

The Bottom line Questions

My bottom line questions to you (or to myself, for that matter) are, "Is there a way you can say definitely and concretely that your own solitude is a gift to Church and world? Is it consistent with the tradition of eremitical solitude in either Western or Eastern Churches before and even while it varies in some way? Does it speak in some prophetic way to any particular segment of the population?" And finally, "is it something worthy of giving your very life for --- not just abstractly, but in terms of every minute, and hour, and day, and month, and year for the rest of your life?" My own answer to these questions is yes --- even when I live that answer badly at this point or that. It is this affirmative answer and all it implies that allows me not simply to succeed in living this solitude, but to renew my efforts when I have failed to live it well. I suspect this too is a very big difference between the solitude you describe and the solitude I call eremitical.

02 November 2011

Immaculee Ilibagiza, Author of Left to Tell at Saint Mary's College, Moraga CA



This evening I was able to attend a talk by Immaculee Ilibagiza, the author of Left to Tell, Led By Faith, et al, and the survivor of the Rwandan genocide who is most associated with her three month vigil of terror and prayer in a neighbor's 3' by 4' bathroom. (The neighbor was a Christian pastor and friend of the family and belonged to the Hutu tribe which was murdering Tutsis like Immaculee; there were seven other women including a seven year old child in that bathroom!!) More, she is known for her forgiveness of those who murdered nearly her entire family and most of her neighbors, her best friend, etc. Her story reminds me very much of the story of Eva Moses Kor (cf links for most popular posts in the right hand column) and her own forgiveness of Dr Mengele who committed atrocities involving Eva, her Sister, and other twins, as well as other Nazis involved in the holocaust during WWII. Both of these women discovered a tremendous freedom in their graced ability to forgive and both discovered a commission by God to make this call real for the world.

In fact, one of the stories Immaculee told this evening in explaining why she was going places to talk about her story was about having met a holocaust survivor at one of her own talks. The aged holocaust survivor thanked Immaculee and expressed a kind of relief and peace that now she could die in peace because someone else had taken on the same message from a similar experience of torture, terror, grace, transformation and forgiveness. I wondered at the time if it might not have been Eva Moses Kor whom Immaculee had met that night. I would have given a great deal to have witnessed such a meeting first hand. There is something so inspiring in the forgiveness these women have "achieved"; not only have they forgiven the killers who took their families and changed their lives forever, but both have met with those persons among us who insist the genocides they survived and witness to never occurred at all!

I have read Left to Tell and it was riveting and terrifying. It was also inspiring and personally challenging. I am reading Led by Faith right now, and one of the things I have been most taken by are the descriptions of Immaculee's prayer. They are compelling and I had the sense in reading them that Immaculee is a true mystic. Labels aside, Led by Faith deepens the portrait of this young woman's faith and prayer in significant ways which make it completely credible and compelling. Tonight, one of the most powerful parts of Ms Ilibagiza's presentation were the moments when, in the midst of reflecting on a truly horrifying and horrific story, she spoke of the way her own prayer had developed and did so with an amazing transparency and humor. These moments were like sparks of fire in the darkness. It was a truly humble presentation of her struggle to come to faith, and to move from faith to faith in relation to and relationship with an inescapable God she discovered dwelling in her own heart!

If you have not read either of these books I recommend them both. Start with Left to Tell and move from there to Led by Faith. The subtitle of tonight's presentation was, "Surviving the Rwandan Genocide." The picture one gets from these two books is first the story of the narrower meaning of this subtitle --- surviving the immediate bloodbath --- and secondly, the broader and perhaps more difficult bit of "survival" which is necessary, namely, becoming whole human beings capable of loving, forgiving and otherwise moving out through our own pain, woundedness, and loss to bring hope to a world that needs it badly. Many of us are survivors of various traumas and tragedies as both Immaculee and Eva Kor were, that is, survivors in the narrower sense of the term --- even if those traumas do not seem as extreme to us. The challenge both Immaculee and Eva (and of course, Jesus!) present us with is that of moving with the grace of God beyond survival in an immediate sense to survival in the broader sense of a grateful, forgiving life in abundance and true freedom. In the process of coming to forgiveness, one ceases in fact to be a victim and becomes a victor while assuming the mantle of prophet and healer in a somewhat lost and undoubtedly broken world. It seems to me that on a solemnity like All Saints (today's Feast) it is important to hear stories of living saints who inspire us to embrace such a calling and commission. Both Immaculee Ilibagiza and Eva Moses Kor are such persons, but for Christians today, Immaculee speaks with a special poignancy and urgent contemporaneity.