27 March 2011

On Struggle, the Peace of Christ, and Authenticity in Eremitical Vocations

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, you wrote, [[(Note, this does not preclude experiments with horarium, etc, nor times when one is ill and needs certain praxis relaxed, etc. Neither does it refer to a hermitage where the hermit sometimes truly struggles with the elements central to her life. Emphatically not!) Hypocrisy [and pretense], however, [are] symptomatic of "the world", not of a hermitage.]] Do you struggle with elements of your life? Does this happen only once in a while or is it an all-the-time kind of thing? I have always thought a hermitage was a tranquil place of peace and communion with God. I also always thought that peace is part of a true vocation and that struggle meant that one does not have such a vocation. Can you comment on this for me?]]

Peace and Struggle are Related

Hi there! These are great questions and I think the heart of the answer has to do with the difference between the peace of Christ and more secular notions of peace which preclude all struggle (or all challenge!). My own experience of the peace of Christ, or the peace of God, is that it is, at the same time, a very demanding reality which empowers an individual to grow and mature with confidence and security because they are aware of who they are in God. More about that below.

So, do I struggle with elements of the eremitical life? Yes, assuredly. Partly that is because one element of the eremitical life IS struggle --- the struggle between truth and falsehood in our own being, but partly (and this, though related, is more to the point) it is because I am growing in this vocation. Eremitical life is an exercise in living and learning to live fully in Christ. It is an exercise in learning to receive the gifts of meaning, and love, and so many other things which are occasioned by abundant life in Christ. All of the routines, disciplines, and concrete praxis in the hermitage, are at the service of this learning. In some ways the hermitage supplies an essentially tranquil context for the deeper struggles of becoming a truly human being.

But sometimes it is the elements of the context itself that give me trouble --- and for the same reason --- because they occasion inner or deeper struggles between truth and untruth and with becoming more truly human; I think that is what you are asking about. So yes, poverty is sometimes difficult for me, and so is one dimension of stability, namely the pilgrimage side of that (we need to be able to move freely and be detached even while we commit ourselves to community, diocese, etc; stability is not a matter of being stuck in a rut or one of "entrenchment". Stability requires detachment and openness to change as well, paradoxical as that sounds. Sometimes that is difficult for me.) Obedience is sometimes a real trial for me. I do not generally struggle with solitude or silence, nor with prayer in a general way or penance, for instance, but I do struggle pretty regularly with some of these other things.

The Paradoxical Nature of the Hermitage

I suppose most people have the idea that a hermitage is a fairly laid-back place of rest, and in a way, they would be right. But as I have also written, hermitages are laboratories or studios where the composition God wishes one to become is worked out --- often with lots of scratched out passages, unscored dissonances, misplayed notes, and very real anguish! The desert Abbas and Ammas were very clear about the fact that the desert was the place where one struggled regularly with demons, and, again, those demons are mainly our own, carried deep within our own hearts. Thomas Merton wrote that the hermitage was the place where we get rid of any impersonation that might be present, and I would affirm that here one works on the destruction of any discrepancy between role and identity and learns to be truly transparent, both before God, to oneself, and --- to the degree it is prudent and pastoral, with others.

The hermitage is the place one lives in a conscious way and as constantly as one is able before the face or gaze of God. That is at once both a wonderfully affirming and recreating, as well as a terribly demanding task and experience. All of those things which prevent us from loving well, all of those things which have wounded and distorted us as human beings eventually must be worked through here. Union with God is the primary goal of the hermitage to which all else is ordered; it is the reason hermitages exist, and while this does not mean a stress-filled vocation, it does indicate an intense one. For me it is akin to playing a Beethoven symphony with an orchestra: we work and work intensely --- individually, together in sectionals, with and without the conductor, with the whole orchestra in ways which are physically, intellectually, and emotionally exhausting, and yet, the invigoration and sheer re-creative power of the work is awesome. When the music is allowed to come to life through this orchestra, and through (for instance) my own heart, mind, and muscles as a functioning part of this orchestra, the experience is indescribably exhilarating and joyful even as it exhausts. Life in the hermitage is like that.

As noted in the beginning of this post, the peace of Christ (as Jesus himself tells us) is not as the world gives. It is a wonderful and deeply invigorating security which allows us to be essentially confident of ourselves and our value --- even when all the usual "worldly" props (success, productivity, achievement, health, etc) are kicked out from under us. We exist in Christ, and because we do, we know who we truly are and how very deeply loved and precious --- even when we are sinning, (". . .he died for us while we were yet. . . ungodly. . .Rom 5:6-8). THAT is the peace of Christ. But that also means it is a challenging reality which constantly summons us to more --- to greater integrity, greater wholeness, greater compassion and sensitivity, greater capacities for love and friendship and humanity. And of course, again, it does this in the face of those demons which are so deeply entrenched in our own hearts!

Peace and the True Vocation

Regarding your question about the nature and signs of a genuine vocation, then, it should be clear that SOME struggles are inherent in a true vocation. If a vocation or vocational path (marriage, religious life, eremitical life, etc) provides the context in which one discovers this peace of Christ and can grow to wholeness and sanctity in light of it, then I think that is a sign one has discovered one's true vocation. If, on the other hand, a person is generally miserable, and finds she is becoming less and less human in the process, less able physically or emotionally, for instance, to be honest with herself, or to live generously and joyfully the truth of who she is, then I don't think this person has found her true vocation --- no matter how intensely she desires it. The same is true when every element of a life is a torment, when they isolate and fragment the person, when they function like saltwater would for a thirsty person.

None of the elements of eremitical life are comfortable all the time (and as I have argued, neither should they be), but on the whole, these elements are life-giving pieces of a context in which one feels deeply at home, profoundly alive and at rest --- a sense one internalizes and carries with one even when one is outside the hermitage, for instance. As an example, it is a vastly different thing to struggle with poverty or stability, or eremitical silence or solitude because these are sources of life and verification (making true) for us, and to feel --- or evidence to ourselves or others!--- that these things stifle or even harm one's authentic humanity. Similarly, it is a vastly different thing to find that the disciplines of a particular vocation strip one of one's false humanity, than to find they actually contribute to the falsification or even destruction of one's true self because one is called to another vocational path. I suspect a lot of the latter dynamic can be found veiled in the language of unhealthy spirituality (often the language of some sort of pseudo-mystical misery), but how ever it is clothed, the bottom line is one often becomes less and less human in such mistaken vocations.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful. As I always say, if it raises other questions or has been unclear, please do get back to me.

N.B., the illustration above is a picture of a painting of St Romuald receiving the gift of tears --- the seminal event in Romuald's spiritual life, and in the life of the Camaldolese. It was done by Brother Emmaus, OSB Cam while at New Camaldoli. (Brother is now at Glenstal Abbey discerning his vocation there.) I chose it because of the joy which permeates Romuald, despite and even because of his tears. In any case, I think it symbolizes well what I have been writing about in this post.

Addendum: I was just informed that Brother Emmaus O'Herlihy has completed his novitiate at Glenstal Abbey and has made simple vows for the next three years. Brother was professed on September 25, 2011.

26 March 2011

Hermitage as Outpost of the World? Questions.

[[Dear Sister, you wrote recently that it was possible for a hermitage to become an instance of "the world." I think you have said that before and I don't really understand what you meant. Can you explain this to me?]]

Sure, I would be happy to give that a shot. Remember that "the world" means that which is resistant to Christ or promises fulfillment apart from him. It is not so much a distinct "thing" out there, some sort of "pure object" (as Merton explains) as it is something which is untrue or illusory with regard to reality. "The world" represents a falsification of what is real. What I wrote earlier was, [[. . . This sense of the term "world" refers to anything which is untrue, distorted, resistant to life, to love, and to all the rest of the values which constitute life in God. But it is not God's good creation, therefore, from which we mainly separate ourselves. It is "the world" of falsehood, chaos, and meaninglessness, and this means that it is not something distinct existing merely outside of ourselves, but instead is a reality which is intimately related to the darkness, woundedness, distortions, and sclerosis (hardness) of our own hearts.]]

So, bearing that in mind, how could a hermitage become an actual outpost of "the world"? What I originally had in mind was the falsehood that one could simply shut the door on "the world" and forget about "the world" represented by the wounded, distorted, and false parts of one's own heart. I was thinking of situations where a hermitage was treated as a holy place completely separate from the rest of temporal-spatial reality. It would be a fundamental untruth to deny that one carries the world deeply in one's own heart or to affirm that one can simply shut some physical door on "the world" and treat it as something merely "out there". Such a foundational falsehood would therefore become an instance of "the world" or "worldly (anti-Christ) thinking" and the hermitage (and the eremitical life!) built on and pervaded by such an untruth --- as well as by the resulting pretense that one does not need to depend wholly upon God's mercy and love --- would then become an outpost and symbol of these -- an outpost and symbol of the very reality they are meant to stand in opposition to. More, in embracing such untruth and pretense, the hermit abdicates her responsibility (and her capacity) to speak the truth into the situation outside the hermitage in a way which will redeem it.

It is true that hermitages can (and are meant to be) holy places, but they are also, for that very reason, places where the struggle between truth and untruth is often waged in earnest. This (struggle) is not always the dominant reality within the hermitage but to abandon this struggle by treating "the world" as something merely exterior to oneself and one's place, is to turn away not only from a central aspect of the eremitical vocation, but from the ministry of reconciliation --- which is every Christian's --- while embracing untruth and distortion instead. Other ways of abandoning the struggle include abandoning prayer or any other central discipline of the hermitage. (Note, this does not preclude experiments with horarium, etc, nor times when one is ill and needs certain praxis relaxed, etc. Neither does it refer to a hermitage where the hermit sometimes truly struggles with the elements central to her life. Emphatically not!) Hypocrisy and pretense, however, are symptomatic of "the world", not of a hermitage.

That's the brief answer. I hope it helps!

On Diocese-Shopping by Hermit Candidates, Stability, etc.

[[Hi, Sister Laurel. I guess my question has to do with "stability". I read in the blog of another hermit that she or he planned to go on a "road trip" to different abbeys and dioceses to find someone to make him/her a canonical hermit. Is this okay to do?]]

Interesting question. My own sense is that first of all such a quest would be fruitless, and that it ought to be fruitless except in limited instances. I don't think any Bishop would seriously entertain such a request from someone merely shopping for someone to profess and/or consecrate them. For that matter, a person in such circumstances is unlikely to even get an appointment with the Bishop.

In my own diocese, for instance, people work through Vocation directors and the Vicars for Religious before ever seeing the Bishop in such a matter. They do this in part because these persons can discern vocations and work with individuals in ways the Bishop cannot do. Once they have determined there is a likely vocation here and are willing to recommend admission to profession, the Bishop is notified and the candidate for profession begins meetings with him. He too needs to discern this vocation as well as make decisions for the diocese, for as I have written recently, the diocese is committing to a change in its own life here and taking a chance on this candidate in admitting her to profession. The Bishop is also responsible for making sure the eremitical vocation itself is protected and nurtured under his supervision, so his own discernment is required for this reason as well.

There are certain situations in which a person might legitimately consider moving to another diocese in order to eventually request profession/consecration as a diocesan hermit, but I would not call this particular situation "diocese-shopping." (What you describe is different, and not particularly edifying.) In my own diocese there was a time when the Bishop determined he was not going to profess anyone as a diocesan hermit. He had good reasons for this, but it also meant that for more than 23 years there were not going to be any professions/consecrations under Canon 603, and as a result individuals suffered inordinate waits which had nothing to do with a mutual process of discernment. In such a case, where the decision is a blanket one and not guided by individual concerns, a person may therefore have very good reason for moving to another diocese that already has diocesan hermits, or which is open to having them given suitable candidates. However, in doing this the person needs to understand that each vocation is mutually discerned (something which is always true in ecclesial vocations) and there is no assurance that they will be admitted to vows and consecration. It should also be understood that a time is required to establish one's relationship with a parish, find and work with a spiritual director in this place, work out suitable employment and living arrangements, and similar things before one can even consider petitioning for profession here.

The question of going to an Abbot is even more complicated and questionable. My sense is that Abbots generally do NOT have the power to consecrate hermits under Canon 603. They can certainly govern their own monks and admit to vows, etc, but their authority is limited here. In a few countries I think there are still Abbots with jurisdiction over a larger geographical territory than their Abbey per se, and in these areas they might well have the same authority as diocesan Bishops, but these are exceptional cases. I cannot see such an Abbot admitting someone from another country or at least outside their jurisdiction to vows as a hermit, even if he had that authority. Instead I suspect he would simply counsel the person to work through their own diocesan Bishop. This is especially true given the monastic value of stability and the Benedictine sensitivity to what were called "gyrovagues" --- monks who moved from monastery to monastery whenever things got difficult or too challenging, for instance. (The Rule of Benedict is quite harsh with regard to this class of "monk".) To do otherwise would involve the Abbot in an act which, potentially at least, disparages legitimate authority and the ecclesial nature of the vocation. It would also be meaningless unless the one professed decided to remain in this abbot's territory because for one's vows to be valid in another diocese, one requires permission of the ordinaries on both ends of the process.

All of this does raise the questions you ask either explicitly or implicitly: is shopping around for someone who will profess one the right thing? Does it violate at least the value of stability? I would add to this, "does it demonstrate too individualistic an approach to vocation?", which is really part of the question of stability. I am completely sympathetic to a person who determines they feel called to diocesan eremitical life but whose diocese has decided, for whatever reason, simply not to profess ANYONE. In such a case, I don't think there is a real problem with going elsewhere to engage in a more honest process of discernment with another diocese ---so long as the person does not intend to automatically move to another diocese if the determination does not fall her way. But diocese-shopping is a different problem, and it tends to say the person is insensitive to the notion of ecclesial vocations or how they are discerned or lived out.

As noted, stability implies a commitment to live with others, to cast one's lot in with them so that all may come together to fullness of Life in Christ. It is a generous rather than selfish stance which is marked by the sense of what is best for the community, and not simply for oneself. For the diocesan hermit who does not live in community, stability may mean a commitment to a particular parish --- to its life, and the well-being of those who comprise it. It certainly includes such a commitment to the diocese itself --- even when things are not going as one likes. Legally, of course, the hermit is bound to a particular diocese unless and until she is dispensed and/or transfers to another diocese. She is bound by vow in obedience to the Bishop as legitimate superior --- and this includes being committed to mutual discernment in matters regarding this particular vocation. The vocation is highly individual but not individualistic. But even before one makes such a vow, she must demonstrate the capacity for such a commitment and the sensibilities and personal requirements it necessitates. Stability is a communal virtue oriented to the good of the community as a whole, and all ecclesial vocations which are mutually discerned emphasize the same communal sensitivity.

Stability is also a virtue of trust and patience. Eremitical life requires both in large amounts. Becoming a diocesan hermit rightly requires these virtues, for ordinarily it takes some time for dioceses to decide to profess people, and generally they will only profess those who have lived as hermits for some time (at least five years of supervised living is not an unusual number to hear from Bishops) before a person will be admitted even to temporary profession. Eremitical life itself is a function of time and grace. It is such an individual and disciplined vocation that growing sufficiently to be able to claim the label "hermit" takes time and patience. Becoming a person who lives "the silence of solitude" rather than simply with some silence and some solitude takes both time and grace. When it happens it is a gift to the person but more, it is a gift to the entire faith community, and for that reason a person who engages in diocesan Bishop/Abbot shopping just to get canonically consecrated is not demonstrating the right mindset or attitudes of heart either.

After all, one part of the witness the hermit gives to others is that some things (including, and perhaps especially, the fruition of the grace of God!) take time. Waiting (and especially waiting where we are, but without immediately visible results) is a skill we simply don't practice well in our society, but it is one we need, and a hermit witnesses to this in a special way. This is true with regard to the everyday discipline and even tedium of the cell, and it is true with regard to the process of becoming a person of prayer, particularly as a diocesan hermit. So long as one is being dealt with expeditiously and in good faith, and the diocese is honest with her about the possibility of future profession, none of this process is a waste. All of the time spent waiting is spent becoming, growing, maturing as a hermit who will be able to take on the additional rights and responsibilities of a diocesan hermit --- or, really, any vocation which requires substantial personal and spiritual formation. Stability, even without a specific vow, is intrinsic to the life of the diocesan hermit so again, it is only right she demonstrates a capacity for stability before a diocese even considers professing her. I wonder if this capacity is demonstrated by someone who is driven by a "my way or the highway" approach --- which, unfortunately, is what a diocese/abbot shopper, a contemporary form of gyrovague, seems to symbolize.

24 March 2011

Questions on Solitude, Occasions of Sin, etc.

[[Dear Sr. Laurel: I wonder if you could discuss at little bit on your blog the issue of what solitude means? Sometimes I think I have a hermit inclination, but I also fear it is just a desire to be away from people. Not a very loving thing. And too, it seems that since people seem to be my occassions (sic) of sin (gossip, envy, anger, hate) would being a hermit in order to avoid sin be an acceptable reason. I heard of a social worker at a nursing home who is a dedicated hermit, so I wonder how solitude works in a case like that. Thanks for your answer.]]

Hi there! Thanks for your questions. I have written a number of times about the nature of eremitical solitude as well as false and genuine solitude, so I would suggest you take a look at the labels in the column on the right. Look under solitude, false solitude, genuine solitude, etc. and you should find a number of posts which approach parts of your question. I will not repeat everything I have said there but I would like to address your questions about avoiding people, lack of charity, and avoiding the occasions of sin. I will also look briefly at your question re the hermit you mention and the requirement of solitude.

I think you should pay attention to what your heart tells you about avoiding people. From what you have written, it sounds like your deepest sense is that a desire to merely be away from people is not a legitimate desire and insufficient to justify eremitical solitude. I would generally agree. In eremitical solitude we must discover a profound love for others, and, in fact, live our lives for those others, or we are not talking about the same reality the Church is. It is also important to remember that every person requires solitude, sometimes even a great deal of it. The reasons may be therapeutic, or the solitude may be transitional, and so forth, but only very rarely will persons find this is a call to eremitical solitude. Finally, it is important to remember that traditionally people were allowed to pursue the eremitical life only after long experience in community. While this is not a strict requirement for Canon 603 profession today, the wisdom and life skills implied here are still essential. One needs to have learned to love others deeply and effectively before pursuing an eremitical calling. This implies an essential healing of one's own woundedness and a clear maturity in one's relationships with others.

While it is true that we are to avoid the near occasions of sin, it is the stuff we carry around within our own hearts which are the things which need attention. The passions you mention (that is, the distorting lenses which keep us from seeing people as God sees them --- envy, anger, hatred, perfectionism, hyper-criticism and the need for attention or belonging, etc, all of which can lead to gossip) would exist within you whether you were around people or not. Generally it is not people per se which are the causes of sin, but these passions or attitudes of the heart, and the woundedness or other personal issues which cause them. Were you (or anyone) to become a hermit in the mistaken notion that you were closing the door on "the world" or the "occasions of sin" these represent by avoiding people generally, you would find merely that you have closed the hermitage door and shut these real causes inside with you. This is one of the reasons I have written that "the world" is as much an inner reality as it is something outside us. My suggestion is that you find ways to work on the actual causes of the things which you have identified as problematical. You might want to consider working regularly with a spiritual director on these, for instance.

It is not clear to me whether you mean the person you referred to is a canonical hermit or not, but I will assume that is so and speak in generalities here. Diocesan hermits must be self-supporting and usually do need to work to do so. Some work part time outside the hermitage, but generally, we work from within the hermitage in ways which foster the eremitical life. Most Bishops will not profess hermits who need to work full time (I agree completely with this), and some will not profess people who must work outside the hermitage at all. If a hermit is already professed and they MUST work outside the hermitage for some reason, then ordinarily they will do so in a relatively solitary job which allows them to pray and generally maintain both an inner and an outer silence. For instance, one woman who desires to be a diocesan hermit cleans offices after hours. This does not conflict with her commitment to live a solitary life at all. Even so, her Bishop will not profess her. The situation you describe may or may not conflict with the demands of solitude. It may be part time, for instance, and be balanced by a fairly strict reclusion and contemplative praxis. If it is full time work, then I don't personally see how she can be said to be living an eremitical life, and I would question the wisdom and prudence of professing her. However, it may also be a VERY temporary situation and the person may be working towards a better arrangement which does not conflict with her vowed eremitical commitments.

Unfortunately, the desire for eremitical solitude, and even having discerned a completely genuine call to eremitical life is not the same as living an eremitical life and fulfilling the commitments required by Canon 603. Part of a living and vital call or vocation is the response and, as I have noted before, Canon 603 requires a life of 1) stricter separation from the world, 2) the silence of solitude, 3) assiduous prayer and penance, 4) the evangelical counsels, 5) faithfulness to a Rule of Life one composes oneself and 6) all of these elements lived under the supervision of one's Bishop for the salvation of the world. The Church is generally quite cautious about professing people under this relatively new canon, but occasionally in the past 25+ years it has been used to profess individuals who are not hermits at all as a kind of stopgap measure because there is no other canon available for the profession of individuals. In time, and with more genuine vocations and experience (not to mention people asking good questions like yours), this kind of abuse will hopefully decrease or cease altogether.

I hope this answer helps. If it confuses or raises other questions, please feel free to get back to me.

21 March 2011

Stability Revisited

[[Dear Sister, does monastic stability mean [i.e., refer to] emotional stability? I thought it meant committing to staying in one place for life . . .. As a diocesan hermit do you vow stability? What I am trying to ask is if monks and nuns vow to remain within their monasteries, do hermits vow to remain in their dioceses? What happens if your Bishop changes and its not a good change for you, or your external circumstances become very difficult?]] (Redacted slightly)

I think these are excellent questions and they are reminiscent of a question I was asked on the podcast I did last month re whether or not I was able to choose my Bishop! You will notice I have edited out the quotation you included as unnecessary to my answer. The primary meaning of monastic stability does not refer to emotional stability, but there must be some appreciable degree of emotional stability in order to make a vow (or commitment) of stability. Further, stability should contribute to emotional maturity and balance. The primary meaning of stability in the Benedictine schema however, is, as you suggest, a commitment to remaining in a particular monastery or community for the rest of one's life. The basic idea is that one is committed to grow here as a person, to grow, that is, in Christ and to commit oneself to the growth in Christ of those with whom one lives as well. Relationships in Christ grow over time and stability allows this growth. It is also an instance of trust in God that God's love is sufficient for one in this place, and that human maturity can be achieved here. In some ways the parable of the soils reminds me of the importance and nature of stability. It does so because I trust in faith that even when the ground is or appears fallow, rocky, thorny, and relatively bereft of nutrients (note I said relatively), God's grace is sufficient to bring necessary transformation and growth.

Stability therefore has an external and an internal dimension, but it refers first of all to the commitment to grow with others, to cast one's lot in with theirs in faith and in Christ. It is the quintessentially incarnational value in some ways because it witnesses to Christ's own choice to be God-with-us. Charles Cummings, OCSO describes these dimensions as follows: [[ Stability is the promise to stay here with Christ and with these others, and to stay awake to support each other during the struggle. The interior aspect refers to the heart awakened to the needs and feelings of others, to the will and the word of God in our midst. The contrary attitude is to stay on in monastic [or eremitical] life with increasing hardness of heart and dullness of hearing, until the sparkle goes out of our eyes and we only hang around waiting for the evening paper.]] (Cummings, Monastic Practices, p 173.) So again, while emotional stability will assist in one's ability to make a commitment of stability, that is not its meaning in monastic terms.

Diocesan hermits do not usually vow stability, but it is possible, and, I personally think, it is quite important to write this monastic value into one's Rule. This is true because eremitical life is lived for others and (even in one's physical solitude) with others in the heart of the Church. Canon 603 summarizes this pro nobis character in the phrase "for the salvation of the world." For instance, I am committed to a particular parish within my diocese. Because some were concerned I would be assigned elsewhere after perpetual vows, I remind them that C 603 does not work like that, and I kid them that they are "stuck with me". But really, we are a community and we bring each other to fulfillment in Christ --- even though the majority of my life is spent in physical solitude. In other words, we love one another into wholeness as part of the "ministry of reconciliation" Paul says we are each entrusted with. I have not vowed stability but my Benedictine commitments, and the ecclesial nature of C 603 eremitical life, make me sensitive to the importance of this particular bond with my own parish.

Legally, of course, I AM bound to this diocese and could not live as a diocesan hermit elsewhere unless both Bishops (my own and the receiving Bishop) ratify this change. There are good reasons for making a change, but it must be considered that a particular diocese has discerned this vocation along with the hermit herself, admitted her to profession, and often done so when many other dioceses were not yet ready to accept Canon 603 hermits at all. In other words, in admitting me to perpetual profession my own diocese has risked something with regard to its own life, as well as my own, and it is my responsibility (and theirs) to honor this. I will do so so long as my vocation itself is not threatened in some way by remaining within this diocese and contributing to its life. From my own perspective then, remaining here is a piece of being responsible for the unfolding of this particular ecclesial vocation in the Church --- though, in certain instances, one could cogently argue that moving to another diocese could also be a way of breaking new ground for the vocation in general.

As for what happens if circumstances within the diocese (or parish) are difficult or I get a superior (Bishop) that is not a good fit for me, then, all of that would need to be decided on a case by case basis with more specifics to be weighed and values to be discerned. The situation would need to be pretty serious for me not to honor stability or to transfer that stability (and my vows) to another diocese. As noted above, the vocation itself would need to be threatened in some significant way for this to happen. Stability fosters and enhances genuine freedom; it does not hinder it because, as I have written often before, genuine freedom is the power to be who we are called to be within and even in spite of constraints and limitations. In another vein, I can envision something happening in my family where I might need to make a temporary transfer or something akin to exclaustration, for instance, in order to assist them, but I don't foresee this would be permanent. Difficult circumstances of themselves, however, would generally test and/or prove the vocation and foster further maturation in it --- not be an invitation to move elsewhere (that it could be a temptation is another matter).

That would be especially true if the difficulties were interpersonal or if they suggested or raised the question of my own need to get assistance or work through personal problems and immaturities that are a source of division or tension. After all, stability is a value which demands precisely this of the hermit (monk, nun, or oblate). At the very least stability would demand I try every reasonable step to resolve the difficulties, especially as they arise from my own personal "hangups" --- however personally demanding those steps might be. (Humility requires I be honest about my own role in the difficulties!) At the same time it is the relationships which grow from the soil of stability which support me in these efforts, just as it is my commitment to the life of others besides myself, and the eremitical tradition more generally, which does the same as a piece of this very same stability.

Anniversary of St Benedict's Death

Today would ordinarily be the Feast of Saint Benedict, for it is the anniversary of Benedict's death. The actual Feast was moved to July 11th because Lent always "obstructed" the celebration which is traditionally observed on the day the Saint "enters heaven"). Benedict was, without a doubt, one of the most influential men in the history of the Church. Benedictines, Camaldolese, Cistercians, and any number of other religious and, of course, lay oblates follow the 1500 year old Rule of Life he wrote for monks. Known (among other things) for its balance, its concern and for respect for individual gifts within community, for its strong accent on humility, and for the priority it gives to the Word of God in the Divine Office and Lectio Divina, this Rule serves literally hundreds of thousands of Benedictines today whether monks, nuns, hermits, married persons, dedicated singles, or other seekers of God. Indeed, Benedictines of whatever state of life are, by definition, seekers of God.

Benedict says in his Rule that all monastic life should have a Lenten character. He reminds us that this is a holy season in which we should look carefully at the integrity of our lives and get rid of any thoughtless compromises which may have crept into them. In this way each one of us "may have something beyond the normal obligations of monastic life to freely offer to the Lord with the joy of the Holy Spirit". (Chapter 49, RB) One Benedictine poet reflects on this chapter as follows. It seems a good way to celebrate both the day and the season:

SEARCH ME (Rachel M Srubas, Oblate, OSB)

Search me, penetrating Spirit,
Drag my depths for the sunken
accumulations of my life.
Retrieve it all:
the old, unhealed wounds,
the memories I've tried to keep
from you, who alone
can remedy and soothe.
Receive my sacrifice
of grudges, the sludge of unforgiveness,
the slights I horde like green pennies,
the pettiness I practice to protect myself
from pain. I offer you the worthless cache
of my spirit's cuts and bruises, the elaborate
self deceptions that have long outlived their use.
Take what you find in the sodden sea chest
of my mind, and show it all to me.
Let me see what I've submerged:
what I ought to salvage,
what it's time to purge.

Taken from Oblation, Meditations on St Benedict's Rule (Rachel is a Benedictine Oblate and Presbyterian clergywoman. She is affiliated with the monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration in Tucson, Arizona.)

17 March 2011

Hermits and Vacations, A few Questions!

It is rather amazing to me but my post regarding a few days away from the hermitage triggered a number of disparate reactions. Some were quite positive and noted the similarity to retreat. (Had I called this very same period of days away retreat or even a home visit or something similar, I am sure there would have been no problem!) Others were glad for me and for the post itself, and, additionally, for the post on friendship that preceded that one. But there were a couple of reactions which were downright nasty, and one or two that were sarcastic (or perhaps only ironic?). One of the latter treated the combination of the terms "hermit" and "on vacation" as a kind of religious oxymoron, while comments took that term in the direction of other such "oxymorons", like "homocelibacy", for instance. One of the more downright nasty ones sent by email said the following: [[It was nice you had a good time at Tahoe with your friend and all, but is this really the right Lenten practice for a hermit? I mean really, a vacation? At the beginning [of] Lent and a time penance and fasting and all? . . . and you didn't even think about going to Mass on Ash Wednesday. [Sure seems] pretty hypocritical to me! Some hermit?]] The ungrounded assumptions marking the critical comments were as amazing as anything else.

I thought about how to respond to these kinds of things, and in fact IF I should respond. Generally, my sense is that defending or explaining my actions is silly and unnecessary. It could even serve to denigrate or taint the significance (and even the sacredness) and memory of the time I had away. So, to be clear, I have no intention of justifying my own actions or referring further or directly to my own time away. On the other hand, I also have to ask whether these reactions imply questions about hermit life or the state of Canon 603 vocations which should be addressed? Perhaps. For instance, there are questions associated with vacation generally which might be good ones to look at. Some further questions dealing with friendship might also be interesting to look at. The problem of stereotypes crops up again too. I need to think more about all of these. At this point, though, I merely want to raise some of these questions and some observations I personally associate with the notion of vacations.

After all, why do people take vacations? Why, in fact do any of us any recreation at all? Is it simply because our lives are so onerous and demanding of energy and focus that we need to escape it, or are there reasons which are more integral to living our lives with focus, intensity, joy, gratitude, and integrity? Does recreation serve to re-create, to renew, etc or is is really all about abdication of responsibility for who we are and what we are called to generally? On a more immediate or "micro" level, why do we rest our eyes when reading or watching TV, for instance? Why, when driving long distances, do we stop to get something to drink or to stretch our legs? Why is it that a person doing a longer period of contemplative prayer might need to stand and do a walking meditation after 40 minutes or so before returning to their sitting/kneeling posture to continue the prayer period? Why do all religious schedule time for recreation each day? Why do Carthusians take a long walk once a week where they have the chance to talk with one another and relax from the discipline of the cell? While I know these kinds of images could be multiplied many times over, my point is simply that these are important practices for one to function well as a limited and living being. They are necessary psychologically, physically, and spiritually. I suspect every reader would agree with me in this.

My own appreciation of the need for vacation comes from my sense that we each need to see reality occasionally from a new perspective --- a perspective which may allow one to see day to day life more clearly and prevent one from veering off the path altogether. Vacations give us each the chance to step out of our usual public roles and reclaim our more integral identity in case --- and to whatever extent --- there is any discrepancy between the two. They also do so in a somewhat different way than a retreat serves to do. After all, we each need a chance to step out of public roles occasionally to experience a kind of vulnerability and intimacy those roles may not allow. This is not a matter of dropping some sort of pretense (for filling a public role may not and should not be about pretense at all), but rather of relaxing boundaries which cannot and should not be relaxed publicly. Time away provides opportunities for renewal and growth -- growth of self, of relationships, and development of gifts which ordinary circumstance don't allow --- or at least do not allow in the same way. It also provides a chance to try different schedules, to see different scenery, try new activities, and to have experiences which enrich one's life generally. One of these, by the way, is an opportunity to pray in new ways --- ways one is not used to or particularly good at, perhaps. (For the hermit this may mean shared reflections!) And of course, such periods give us the chance to allow friendships the time and focused attention they deserve so they may continue to mature during periods of "unshared" solitude.

In any case, I actually think vacations are pretty serious things --- important times which can function as a servant of living well and with focus, discipline and integrity. Of course there are limits involved when a hermit (or anyone else, for that matter) takes a few days away --- but these are imposed by her identity which does not change. By the way, since it is unlikely that what I say will be convincing, perhaps the following from John Cassian's Conferences will help:

[[IT is said that the blessed John, while he was gently stroking a partridge with his hands suddenly saw a philosopher approaching him in the garb of a hunter, who was astonished that a man of so great fame and reputation should demean himself to such paltry and trivial amusements, and said: "Can you be that John, whose great and famous reputation attracted me also with the greatest desire for your acquaintance? Why then do you occupy yourself with such poor amusements?" To whom the blessed John: "What is it," said he, "that you are carrying in your hand?" The other replied: "a bow. "And why," said he, "do you not always carry it everywhere bent?" To whom the other replied: "It would not do, for the force of its stiffness would be relaxed by its being continually bent, and it would be lessened and destroyed, and when the time came for it to send stouter arrows after some beast, its stiffness would be lost by the excessive and continuous strain. and it would be impossible for the more powerful bolts to be shot." "And, my lad," said the blessed John, "do not let this slight and short relaxation of my mind disturb you, as unless it sometimes relieved and relaxed the rigour of its purpose by some recreation, the spirit would lose its spring owing to the unbroken strain, and would be unable when need required, implicitly to follow what was right."]] I think I am in good company when the Desert Fathers, in this case Abbot Abraham, write in this way. (cf, Conference of Abbot Abraham, chapt XXI, but cf. chapter XX of the same book which is also very helpful in this matter.)

Happy St Patrick's Day

All good wishes on this "high holy day" (well, High Irish Holy Day, anyway)! Of course, it does seem that everyone is Irish on this day, so I guess that makes it a universal high holy day! We are celebrating after Mass today with a little Irish soda bread and stuff (meaning coffee --- and not Irish coffee either!) It seemed to me that McGinley's poem captured the fun as well as the seriousness of this Saint and his day. Enjoy.

St Patrick the Missioner, by Phyllis McGinley

Saint Patrick was a preacher
With honey in his throat.
They say he could charm away
A miser's dearest pence;
Could coax a feathered creature
To leave her nesting note
And fly from many a farm away
To hear his eloquence.

No Irishman was Patrick
According to the story.
The speech of Britain clung to him
(Or maybe it was Wales).
But, ah, for curving rhet'ric,
Angelic oratory,
What man could match a tongue to him
Among the clashing Gaels!

Let Patrick meet a Pagan
In Antrim or Wicklow,
He'd talk to him so reachingly,
So vehement would pray,
That Cul or Neall or Reagan
Would fling aside his bow
And beg the saint beseechingly
To christen him that day.

He won the Necromancers,
The Bards, the country herds.
Chief Aengus rose and went with him
To bear his staff and bowl.
For such were all his answers
To disputatious words,
Who'd parry argument with him
Would end a shriven soul.

The angry Druids muttered
A curse upon his prayers.
The sought a spell for shattering
The marvels he had done.
But Patrick merely uttered
A better spell than theirs
And sent the Druids scattering
Like mist before the sun.

They vanished like the haze on
The plume of the fountain.
But still their scaly votaries
Were venomous at hand.
So three nights and days on
Tara's stony mountain
He thundered till those coteries
Of serpents fled the land.

Grown old but little meeker
At length he took his rest,
And centuries have listened, dumb,
To tales of his renown.
For Ireland loves a speaker
So loves Saint Patrick best:
The only man in Christendom
Has talked the Irish down.

13 March 2011

First Sunday of Lent: We Must Walk this Road Alone

I was unable to post for Ash Wednesday because I was away for a few days with a friend at her congregation's house in Lake Tahoe. These few days of vacation were a gift in every way. Truly wonderful. There was a lot of time for our own prayer, reading, study, and work, but quite often we each did these things in the supportive presence of the other. Evenings we prayed together using the daily readings and then sharing Communion; afterward we ate dinner in front of the fire and spent time just talking. Dishes came next, and afterward we just flaked out --- still in front of the fire --- on either end of a very long (and sort of funky) curved sofa. We read quietly or talked some more until either or both of us were ready for bed. During the week we also sometimes went our own ways of course, my friend off snowshoeing or visiting a relative who lived nearby, I practicing violin or off on a walk (or taking a nap), for instance.

When I look back at the week, I have to characterize it as one of "shared solitude." I would guess that my friend, who is an apostolic religious, might call it one of "community." Anyone at all would call it friendship, and we would each be right. As with any friendship we shared our journeys with one another in many ways and on many different levels, but we also walked them alone. For me it was a time to recall and reflect on the solitude that is my vocation, and that such extended shared moments are necessarily relatively few and precious; but it was also a special reminder of both the communal dimension of true solitude and the solitary dimension of real community. Whether we live our lives in marriages, in apostolic or contemplative religious life, as dedicated singles, or as hermits, we must walk this road alone. To do so effectively requires friendships. One part of the incredible gift we give one another is to make our own journey well, and in a way which enriches the other when we come together. Another part of the gift we give each other is precisely the permission and courage to walk our individual roads alone -- but accompanied in a way which does not allow aloneness to degenerate into isolation or despair --- and also challenges to and empowers hope and integrity. It was wonderful to begin my own Lent in such a way.

For all those who read this blog, it is my sincerest prayer that your own Lenten journey may allow you the solitude and the community you require to live and grow as daughters and sons of God with integrity. We walk this road alone, but at the same time as integral and intimate members of the Body of Christ. May you grow in this paradox in whatever way you need to during this season of discipline (i.e., this period of special focus and instruction) --- and may God give you companions to support and challenge you on the way.