24 April 2011

In Memoriam, Marjory C Folinsbee-Harlan, MD, deceased 24 April, 2009

[Marjory Folinsbee, MD (left) Marietta Fahey, SHF (right)]

Two years ago today I lost one of the most important people in my life. Marjory C Folinsbee - Harlan, MD, was my physician for @17 years until her retirement in @1989; thereafter she was my friend, unofficial formator, and mentor. In particular, she was one of those who taught me what it means to love and be loved despite every obstacle or resistance. Her consistent presence in my life since January of 1972 was a joy, and quite often, a major challenge I did not always appreciate as well as I came to later on!! I still grieve her loss but I also celebrate a new kind of presence because she has entered a realm which both transcends and interpenetrates this one of space and time. Especially, though, I rejoice with her as she has truly come home to God and is reunited with all those who died before her.

Marjory was one of the first and very few women in Medical school in Canada back in the days when it was truly a men's world and medicine itself a man's field. She was a pioneer in many ways, not least because she grew up on the frontier of Saskatchewan, went to a one room school house (she got there on horseback with her sister). Later on she went to medical school first in Saskatchewan, and then at Stanford. She was a pilot (her first plane was named "Therapy" because it functioned that way for her after the wholly unexpected, sudden death of her first husband), she pioneered programs for young women from difficult families, worked with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in San Francisco, pioneered programs in other countries to allow the very poor to become entrepreneurs. Professionally, though she had begun practice in internal medicine, she went back to school to study psychiatry because it was her experience that most people needed someone to talk to more than anything else. While she was known as an expert in neuropsychiatric pharmacology, she disdained the practice of psychiatry which was merely oriented to medicating the patient. When I first met her she was associate chief of neuropsychiatry at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center, also in San Francisco. She maintained a private practice as well, first in San Francisco, and then in San Mateo. Later she saw patients in Carefree, AZ, etc --- depending on where she and Ridge (2nd husband) were living.

When Mar first died, I simply had no words and though I borrowed a poem from the work of Jessica Powers (Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD), I never posted it. I think it still fits -- and it fits especially on this Easter Sunday as I imagine the welcome Jesus' death and resurrection made possible. (Ironically, it also echoes dimensions of the life I live now in part because of Mar's assistance!)

The spirit, newly freed from earth,
is all amazed at the surprise
of her belonging: suddenly
as native to eternity
to see herself, to realize
the hermitage that lets her be
at home where all this glory lies.

By naught foretold could she have guessed
such welcome home: the robe, the ring,
music and endless banqueting,
these people hers; this place of rest
known, as of long remembering
herself a child of God and pressed
with warm endearments to His breast

The Homecoming by Jessica Powers (Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD)

But today I need to add a little to this, and something far more personal than I usually post here. On this day when we celebrate the wonder that death no longer has the final word, it is especially poignant for me to celebrate her life. She struggled against death in many forms every single day of her adult life, and directly saved my own at least three times (e.g., via IV meds, CPR, and/or ventilation in the face of status epilepticus or serious seizures). More, along with my spiritual director, she worked consistently that I might have life and have it to the fullest. She knew that genuine freedom was the power to be the ones we are called to be despite constraints and limitations, and she wanted that for me. She reminded me of it in ways courses in theology, good as they are, could never do. When I was finally professed in community in 1976, she was present sitting right up front (she "wanted to see everything!"). And then again in 2007 for perpetual eremitical profession and consecration, she was present and carried up the gifts along with Sister Marietta and my sister (Cindy) and niece (Ellen). It seemed so fittingly symbolic to have Mar and Marietta, along with my closest family, carry up the bread and wine that would be so incredibly transformed into the very Body and blood of Christ.

In our last real conversation (November 2008) partly in honor of her birthday and partly for Thanksgiving, I thanked Mar for the gift she was in my life. We talked some about the death of her husband, Ridge Harlan (just a couple of years before this), about her own struggle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (a splenectomy a number of months before had improved things significantly for the time being it seemed), and also about the shape and richness of my own life --- how right the move to diocesan eremitical life was, and how I was growing in it in the unexpected ways it made possible. I joked that I suspected that for most psychiatrists having a patient (or former patient) who quite literally became an "official" hermit would be counted by the physician's peers as a "treatment failure." Mar laughed at the general truth of this and then became quite serious. She affirmed she had "never doubted that my life in solitude was a true vocation" (she had certainly never said so to me in all these years!), and further, that in her view, I "had taken a 'treatment success' and [with the grace of God] turned it into a way of life." She said she "could not be prouder of or happier for me." For my part, it was humbling and a very great joy to know what all of this added to her own life.

Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly. He came so that death, whether ultimate or in any of its lesser forms, would neither dominate nor define us and faith (trust in God) would replace fear. He came that we might be liberated from whatever cripples us and walk courageously, with integrity, wholeness, vision, and the wisdom and joy that comes when the exigencies of life meet the grace of God. When we are really fortunate, we find friends (and maybe even the occasional professional) who participate in this mission of Jesus and themselves summon us to its concrete realization --- even if they never speak in religious terms. Marjory Folinsbee (Harlan) was one such person for me, and on this day in particular I celebrate her memory and the gift she was, and continues to be in my life.

23 April 2011

Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!!!

Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!!! All good wishes for a wonderful Easter Season!!

For the next 50 days we have time to attend to what Jesus' death and resurrection changed. In light of these events we live in a different world than existed before them, and we ourselves, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ's death, are new creations as well. While all this makes beautiful poetry, we do not base our lives on poetry alone. Objective reality was transformed with Jesus' passion and death; something astounding, universal, even cosmic in scope, happened in these events which had not only to do with our own salvation but with the recreation of all of reality. One of Paul's shorthand phrases for this transformation was "the death of death." I have posted on this in the reprise of the Review For Religious article I put up last week sometime, but it was a long article written for another venue really, and it raised lots of comments and questions too (some quite good ones!). So, for the next few days, I am going to look a little at a time at how it is Jesus' death and resurrection "works" --- how it changes the world in which we live, what it means, that is, to say that our world is reconciled to God by Jesus' death and resurrection.

It is probably good to recall that the early Church struggled to make sense of the cross, and that faith in resurrection took some time to take hold. Surprisingly, no single theology of the cross is held as official, and variations --- many quite destructive --- exist throughout the Church. Even today a number of these affirm that in various ways that God was reconciled to us rather than the other way around. Only in time did the Church come to terms with the scandalous death of Jesus and embrace him as risen, and so, as the Christ who reveals God's power in weakness. Only in time did she come to understand how different the world was for those who had been baptized into Jesus' death. The Church offers us a period of time to come to understand and embrace all of this as well; the time from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is, in part, geared to this.

But, today is a day of celebration, and a day to simply allow the shock and sadness of the cross to be completely relieved for the moment. Lent is over and the season of Easter has begun. Though it will take time to fully understand and embrace all this means, through the Church's liturgies and the readings we have heard, we do sense that we now live in a world where death has a different character and meaning than it did before Christ's resurrection. On this day darkness has given way to light, and senselessness to meaning -- even though we may not really be able to explain to ourselves or others exactly why or how. On this day we proclaim that Christ is risen! Sinful death could not hold him and it cannot hold us as a result. Alleluia! Alleluia!!

18 April 2011

Observance of Holy Week? Questions

[[Hi Sister Laurel! How do you observe Holy Week and Easter? Do you do anything special?]]

My Holy week is a lot like most weeks except that I, like most people, am in Church a bit more than usual. My horarium is essentially the same much of the week so I am not going to generally mention Office or things that don't much change here. One thing I do is focus on the theology of the cross. There is an incredible constellation of paradoxes and symmetries involved and I have a chance to explore these afresh. Since I have focused on the cross in a lot of my writing, and since it is certainly the heart of our faith and my own life, it makes sense to spend time studying, meditating on, writing about, and journaling on the place of the cross. The truth of the cross, because it is mystery in every way and so very paradoxical, is something that escapes our grasp so it really does need to be reappropriated again and again. Thus, I do a lot of reading and reflecting on this piece of things.

The first three week days of Holy Week I attend daily Mass, but the rest of these three days are mainly then spent in silence and solitude. I do have chores to do to get ready for the Triduum, but I try to get these done without disrupting things too much. Holy Thursday I attend the Mass of the Lord's Supper, and then spend more time in quiet prayer. That night can have a vigil character as we move into Good Friday --- especially since the tabernacle at my hermitage is empty (I return unused hosts to the tabernacle at Church or make sure they are all consumed prior to Good Friday). I attend all the services at the parish, but on Good Friday I will pass on Communion because I prefer nothing mitigating the weight of Jesus' apparently senseless death and the emptiness which results from that. (I admit that ending a liturgical memorial of Christ's passion and death with Communion makes no theological, liturgical, or personal sense to me so I may choose to forgo this.) From the end of Good Friday services through Holy Saturday day/evening I focus on what life would be like for me had Christ simply died under a just condemnation of blasphemy. I focus on the scandal and apparent failure of Christ's death, remember the struggle of the early Church to actually make sense of this, and try to allow myself to feel what Jesus' own disciples experienced on this day. The empty tabernacle is an important symbol here and I will also remove paintings, crucifix, statuary as well as pictures of friends who are an important part of my life because of Christ.

The hermitage itself becomes, at least potentially, a symbol of an ultimately senseless, foolish life during this time memorializing Christ's death (sans resurrection). The Faith I chose in the face of family disapproval, the books I read, the degrees (theology, etc) I spent time, money, and effort earning, the clothes I wear, the ring, crucifix, and cowl, my Rule, vows, virginity, etc --- all become signs of a life which makes no sense and perhaps has been wasted, a life which is marginal and counter cultural to be sure, but in a way which is merely weird and eccentric rather than significant or meaningful. I may even put some of the signs of my consecration aside until time for the Easter Vigil. During the vigil itself I wear my cowl as usual, but until the moment the lights are lit, the bells rung and the Gloria sung, I will keep the hood up. My own vigil is more isolated, more grief-filled or somber, and the raised hood helps note this. I try in every way I can to enter into the highs and lows of these days and external reminders are an important part of this.

One other thing I may pass on on Good Friday is Compline. Compline is one of my favorite hours of Office and no day feels complete without it (indeed the term compline means completion). It is a comforting, quieting, joyful giving of oneself over to God in rest or even in death. Certainly I know that Christ remained open to God even in his experience of a Godless death and sinful reality and entrusted himself to God despite an experience of abandonment (had he not, there would have been no salvation!), but I also know that apart from Christ there is no way I can easily or confidently entrust myself into God's hands. (Would that I could!) Antiphons like, "I will lie down and sleep in peace, O God, my justice," or verses like, "You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the plague that prowls in the darkness, nor the scourge that lays waste at noon," can become impossible on Good Friday when there is yet no resurrection. On the other hand, they can remind me of the need to hang onto my faith in darkness and death because out of these God brings unimagined light and life and so, praying Compline at this time can be especially meaningful. In any case, because this office cuts two ways, this is something I play by ear depending on what best serves a faithful celebration of the Triduum during a given year.

I participate in the parish festivities on Easter Including the champagne reception after the vigil), and later in the day I may go to dinner with friends, play quartets/quintets, or simply out to eat alone. Sometime after the vigil liturgy I will refill the tabernacle, replace the presence lamp and privately renew my vows. In the days of Easter week I replace anything I have taken down and spend time reflecting on the meaning of each thing, the memories connected, the growth or obstacles to growth, etc. Resurrection changes EVERYTHING so I try to allow myself time to look at things both apart from it and in light of it.

I hope this actually answers your question. Let me know if it does not, or if it raises further questions.

16 April 2011

A Theology of the Cross (Reprise)

Ministering to the Dying and Bereaved: Proclaiming a God Whose Power is Made Perfect in Weakness. Initially published in Review For Religious, January 2001

Death, and God’s relation to death is an overarching theme in human life, and certainly in the life of the Church. During Lent, for instance, we spend an entire forty days preparing to celebrate Christ’s victory over “sin and death.” During this season and others, images of these hostile forces, references to chaos, meaninglessness, and our bondage to all of them surround us. And in light of this, if there is anything we understand, (or should understand!), it is that these things are “the enemy.” During this time, for instance, we read in the Old Testament again and again that our basic choice, the really fundamental option that faces us in all of life’s moments and moods, is “choose life, not death;” and we know that these alternatives are not equivalent. After all, one is “of God” and the other is not. One is a choice for being, integration, re-creation, and meaning, while the other is a choice for diminishment, disintegration, destruction, and senselessness. One is the choice to respond to and fulfill the profound vocation to authentic existence spoken by God deep within us, while the other represents the repudiation of this summons and the rejection of our truest selves. One is, ultimately, a choice for an eternity in communion with the God who authenticates and completes us, the God who is the ground and source of life and meaning, while the other is the act by which we embrace the powers and utter emptinesses of hell.

At this time of the year in particular, we examine our lives for signs that they are marked and marred by our own alliances with sin and death, and we participate in a more focused way than usual in activities which reject such alliances, and are geared towards breaking the bonds established between us and them. We make the concerted effort to acknowledge, “we are dust, and shall return to dust,” that death is something that threatens us not only from without, but that it is also something that we carry around within us. And of course, we affirm and celebrate that for our sakes, and in opposition to our misguided, misbegotten alliances, God’s own Son has dwelt amongst us, implicating the One he called “Abba” into the whole panorama of our fragile, flawed, finite, and mortal existences, ---- up to and including his altogether humanly contrived, and godforsaken death on a Roman cross.

We observe Holy Saturday as the day when sin and death have triumphed. On this day there is no Savior, no Church, no Sacrament, and no Gospel. There is nothing to celebrate or proclaim. There is neither hope, nor freedom, nor real future. Sin and death are the apparent victors, and the present is as empty and forlorn as the desolate plaint of the enfeebled and failed messiah, whom we heard cry out from the cross just the day before. On this day we recall the original disciples --- broken by disappointment, grief, guilt, and shame, and stunned to terrified silence when the powers of the world overcame the One they called “Christ.” Their shattered hope for the definitive coming of God’s reign, and the ignominious, apparently unvindicated, death of the man Jesus stands at the center of our vision as well on this day. And in the shadow of this recollection, the bleakness of a world dominated by a power that regularly opposes and subverts the work of the Author of Life is clear. On this day, our entire horizon is death and the victory it has achieved over God’s Son, over us, and over our world.

In light of all this then, how is it we still hear from those engaged in pastoral ministry to the dying and bereaved for instance, that God is either the “author of death,” or it’s agent, or that anyone’s death (with the single exception of Christ’s own) is “God’s will”? How is it, with all the scriptural and empirical evidence otherwise, our ministers and faithful continue to present death as something other than the implacable enemy of life and the God who authors life? How is it that death is conceived of as other than an entirely alien and antithetical element in our existence, which God works continually and indeed, suffered greatly to defeat --- an element that remains only on sufferance until “(God) is all in all”? How is it possible to hear from faithful who have been told that “God is the Lord of life and death,” that this must mean that when death intervenes, it is “God who KILLS us”? Yet, blunt and apparently absurd as this last formulation may sound to us, it is merely the clear spelling out of the implications of a flawed theology which considers death the event WITH which God punishes sin and calls us to judgment, rather than the hostile power he conquers, and the event IN which he intervenes in Christ, to raise us to eternal life.

Whether we are ministers trying to assist others with their own deaths, pastors comforting the bereaved, or simply persons who are trying to make sense of the reality of our own mortality, all too often we are burdened with vague, ill-defined, and even erroneous notions of death and the relationship between God and death. The situation is complicated by misreadings and distortions of Paul’s theology of the cross, and by fundamentalist interpretations of the creation narratives of Genesis. It is likewise made more difficult by anachronistic conceptions of the human being which see him/ her in terms of a body-soul dualism, as well as by simplistic notions of the sovereignty of God. The result is quite simply an inadequate theology that makes genuinely Christian ministry to the dying and bereaved difficult or even impossible, and caricatures God as the author of tragedy and absurdity in the process.

It seems to me therefore, that we must make a serious effort to correct our misconceptions of death, its relation to sin, and especially the relation of God to death. After all, how in the world are we to adequately celebrate God’s own triumph OVER sin and death, if we misunderstand these realities and posit God as their author? How can we make sense of the fact that God willed the suffering and death of his only begotten Son if we understand these realities as something God had complete control over in the first place? Are we really stuck with Anselm’s satisfaction theory, for instance, and the parody of God and God’s justice it is based on? And are we left only with the option of telling the dying and bereaved to whom we minister that “this is the will of God” or do we really have better answers at our disposal? Obviously, I am convinced there are far better answers available to Christians, and it is my intention to explore some of them, and their theological foundation, in this essay.

Common Misunderstandings of the Nature of Death

There are two basic misunderstandings regarding death and God’s relation to death, which seem to me to burden most Christians. The first is the notion that God is in COMPLETE control of human existence, and that because death is a part of that reality, this must mean that he is in complete control of it as well. There are various versions of this notion: “(Death) is God’s will;” “ Death is the way God punishes us for our sin” (especially original sin); “Everything that happens has a purpose;” “God gives and God takes away;” etc. Most often we hear versions of this theology from homilists and ministers trying to encourage us that God is omnipotent, and that everything that occurs, no matter how apparently senseless, is meaningful. We also hear these interpretations from ministers who believe that by affirming death is in God’s hands, by affirming it as the event WITH which he calls us home, for instance, some of the fear and sting of either dying, or bereavement is removed. Clearly, we sense that death is easier to bear if it is not simply perceived as an alien and hostile element in human existence, particularly if we can hear that it really isn’t the entirely senseless event it so often seems to be. In the meantime, however, we repress the serious theological questions such affirmations raise: Is all death and dying sent by God? Is God really their author? Are we expected to attribute instances of chance and absurdity to him as well, or are we expected to simply deny the existence of these things? Are so-called ‘acts of God’ really the work of God? Does “sovereignty” imply total control, or is the situation more complex than this? And of course, if God IS the author and agent of death as well as of life, what kind of God would such a deity truly be?

The second misunderstanding is related to the first. It is the notion that death, and here we are speaking of human death, is something that threatens us entirely from without, and so, is something which God can overcome by mere fiat. It is sometimes combined with the secular view that death is a wholly natural and neutral reality. This notion of human death fails to understand it as a partly, and indeed profoundly personal reality which is not simply part and parcel of our temporality, but is a special aspect of sinful existence. Because of this, it often goes unrecognized, much less acknowledged that God cannot force his way into this realm, nor overcome it from without. As in all else that is personal in our lives, God must be allowed or implicated into this realm if he is to bring it under subjection to himself and transform it. The logical consequences of this misunderstanding are also generally repressed, for such a misunderstanding of the relation of God to death generally raises the question: why did the Word have to become incarnate and God’s own Son suffer a torturous death by crucifixion, if God could have simply overcome sin and death by fiat?

Another Look at the Relation of Death to Sin and God

God created the world of time and space. He created it out of nothing (nihil), and it retains the ability to cease existing, to sink once again into nothingness. The created world continues to be conditioned by non-being. It is ambiguous and threatened. Non-being is an aspect of temporal-spatial existence. While created reality depends upon God for its existence, it is not simply from and of God. It is not, for instance, an emanation of God, and it does not possess its own being. It is finite and must be continually summoned and held in existence against the power of non-being also at work within and around it. Beyond this, and in part because of the presence of non-being as a conditioning element, this world also possesses potential. It has the capacity to grow and change. Non-being conditions this world as threat and as promise. It is both a condition of possibility and the condition of non-possibility.

When we consider human existence the situation becomes even more complex, because human beings are created with the capacity to reject God, and to ally themselves with that which is other than the One from whom life and meaning come, even looking to this as a source of life and meaning. Not only is human existence ambiguous in all the ways historical existence is ambiguous, but human beings can refuse to simply receive meaningful life as a gift from God. They can, as the OT puts the matter, “choose to know good and evil,” (in the very intimate way the OT uses the term knowledge), or “choose to be as Gods,” or again, they can “choose death.” Human beings can ally themselves with life and the author of life in total dependence, or (and there is no other option), they can ally themselves with the powers of non-being, the meaningless, anti-life, anti-truth, literally godless powers that are also part of spatial-temporal existence. And of course, they do. In fact they do so inevitably in one way and another. Without exception human beings embrace the powers and principalities of this world in a mistaken bid for autonomy and completion. They “live (and die) from” these powers, and in doing so give them greater standing, status, power, menace, and malignancy in the world than they would have without human complicity.

But where does non-being and the power of non-being come from in the first place? Is God its author? Is non-being a “something,” a form of matter as Manichaeism once suggested, and where else could it come from than the God who is the source of all that “is”? One of the better explanations comes from JÜrgen Moltmann in his, God in Creation. Building on a Jewish kabalistic notion , Moltmann explains:

<< God makes room for his creation by withdrawing his presence. What comes into being is a nihil which does not contain the negation of creaturely being (since creation is not yet existent), but which represents the partial negation of the divine being, inasmuch as God is not yet creator. The space which comes into being and is set free by God’s self-limitation is literally God-forsaken space. The nihil in which God creates his creation is god-forsakenness, hell, absolute death; and it is against the threat of this that he maintains his creation in life. Admittedly, the nihil only acquires this menacing character through the self-isolation of created beings to which we give the name of sin and godlessness. . . . This points to a necessary correction in the interpretation of creation: God does not create merely by calling something into being, or by setting something afoot. In a more profound sense he “creates” by letting-be, by making room and by withdrawing himself. >> (Emphasis added)

And what then of sin or estrangement from God? If non-being is a “natural” part of finite existence, then isn’t sin, which is primarily estrangement from God, also simply something natural, a part of historical existence? The answer is no. Sin, which begins as a natural separation or distinction from the God who dwells in eternity, occurs when human beings (who dwell instead in time and space) choose not to be entirely dependent upon God to save them from the threat of non-being. It occurs when human beings mistake actual independence from God for freedom, and when independence from God is pushed the further disastrous misstep, and mistaken for equality with God. It occurs whenever human beings decide that a humble response to God’s summons alone is not to be the only determinant of their lives, and align themselves with that which is not from or of God. It occurs when we make common cause with death and non-being rather than with the One who is the source of life and meaning. It occurs whenever human beings turn away from their creator toward that which is antithetical to him in acts of rebellion and apostasy, and transform a more natural separation-yet-communion into actual estrangement, alienation, and sometimes-outright antipathy. It happens whenever the “we” of our “original” state is rejected and/or betrayed, and thus transformed into the self-conscious, self-concerned, relatively isolated “I” attested to in the Genesis narratives.

Similarly then, death has also been transformed from something natural into something entirely unnatural. The death that we recognize as an integral part of human existence is something wholly unnatural. Just as human distinction and separateness was transformed into actual estrangement and alienation from God, from self, and from others, so too has normal finitude, ordinary mortality, taken on monstrous proportions in light of human sin. Human death is not simply a natural or neutral event. It is not simply the moment when non-being overcomes being, although it is certainly that as well. Human death is menacing; it is associated with human complicity and collusion with the anti-divine powers of nothingness, meaninglessness, and chaos. And of course, for this reason human death is “the wages of sin,” and implies the triumph of godlessness ---- a triumph which human beings have assisted, colluded, and become complicit in, in every possible way. Human death, apart from Christ, is a death of godforsakenness.

It is also, therefore, a death marked by the wrath of God, but wrath in the genuinely Pauline sense of the word. After all, God has created us with the capacity to choose something other than himself, or to be something other than we are created to be. And choose we do. And when we do, God leaves us to our choices. This is precisely what living under the wrath of God means. It does not mean that God is angry. It certainly does not mean that he punishes us in any way. It means simply that we are left to the choices we have made and the alliances we have forged throughout our lives. It means that, in fact, God respects (that is, he will not and cannot interfere with) these choices or alliances. It also means that those who are born into the world after us are touched by the same powers and principalities which we ourselves have elevated and magnified with our choices. Paul describes this in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans. The wrath of God implies being “given up” to the alien powers with which we have aligned and allied ourselves, and therefore, to the gradually worsening decadence and disintegration that afflict us, our society, and our world because we have made common cause with chaos and nothingness. It implies an inhuman death marked by the embrace of godforsakenness, one in which absolute godlessness triumphs. Whatever death is or would be apart from Sin, it is not this. Instead it is the enemy of sinful humankind and of God, and it is this situation which the Cross of Christ is meant to address.

The Cross of Christ and the Death of Death

There are times and situations in human life and history which demand we look again at everything we believe, every definition and presupposition we hold, every scrap of knowledge we think we possess, and every perspective which seems intelligent, or natural, or logical. The picture of reality gained from the perspective of Holy Saturday surely suggests that the cross of Christ is, at the very least, one of these events. From this perspective alone we have a picture of a failed and possibly delusional “Messiah.” After all, God’s Son had not climbed down from his cross. He had not saved himself as he had saved others, and in the process he died a completely degrading and entirely ignoble death. The one he called Abba with an unprecedented intimacy had not established his reign with a mighty and outstretched arm. The angel of death had not passed over, nor had the powers of Rome been routed in any way reminiscent of the Egyptians at the Exodus. Instead, sin and death were the apparent victors on this day, and a God whose power is, even today, mainly understood by believers and unbelievers alike in abstract, impersonal terms of omnipotence, had proved unable to deal with the consequences of human freedom and its abuses, much less with the destructive powers of the world. And yet, the Christian Gospel affirms that this evident failure was the ground of a far more awesome victory, the victory of a hitherto unknown God whose “foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.”

So then, how is it the Cross of Christ “works”? This question is often posed “Why did Jesus have to die this kind of death?” And implicit in this query are a number of others: “why couldn’t Jesus simply have died of old age?” or, “why would his Father allow such a thing, much less will it?” or, “what kind of God would demand that his Son suffer betrayal, torture, abandonment, and even godforsakenness or hell?” and, “if God asks that of his Son, how can I believe he will have mercy on me?” These are important questions, and they are variations on the questions raised whenever God is made the author or agent of death. They are also the questions which are at least implicitly raised by notions of the cross which make it the place where an infinitely offended God is appeased or placated. And the answer to them is as simple as it is almost incomprehensible in its wondrousness. For God’s sake and the sake of a divine justice which is defined solely in terms of mercy and which seeks the reconciliation and completion of all of reality WITH God, God must overcome everything which separates him from us. For this reason, in order to implicate God into the realm from which he is by definition absent and from which he has actually been further excluded by human sin, someone sinless and therefore still entirely open and responsive to God, must die such a death.

On the one hand, this death must represent the worst death a human being may die. It must be a death marked by failure, weakness, abandonment and isolation. It must be a genuinely “inhuman” (that is, sinful) fate, the death of one whose dignity has been stripped from him, and who is left completely powerless and alone, with nothing left to recommend him to God. It, above all, must be a death where this one is given over entirely to nothingness, to the emptinesses of hell. It must be the death we each deserve --- the death that, without Christ, we each will die because of the alliances we have forged, and the choices we have inevitably made and ratified. It must be the death we each merit for ourselves, and often visit on others. And it must be that death in which the wrath of God is experienced without mitigation or diminution, precisely so that God can instead become inexhaustibly present here under the aspect of grace. At the same time, it must have been the most genuinely human death ever died. There could be nothing present in Christ which mitigated or compromised his openness to and dependence upon God, nothing which prevented the entire will of God being done in him, nothing which spoke of misguided autonomy, collusion with the powers of death and sin, disobedience, or pride. At the precise instant Jesus’ death is the most inhuman (godless) imaginable, it must also be the most human (open to God) precisely so that genuinely human existence which is defined in terms of obedience to and communion with God once again becomes a real possibility in our world. And the result is not only the possibility of genuinely human existence, but also necessarily, the simultaneous “death of (godforsaken) death.”

As we noted above, human death, the “wages of sin,” the result of our alliances with the “powers and principalities” of this world, cannot be destroyed from without, by fiat, without God also destroying his entire creation and abrogating the freedom of those who would and do ally themselves with these powers. So God chooses to become present even here in the realm of nothingness. God empties himself completely of his divine prerogatives in order to definitively reveal and assert a novel kind of divine sovereignty, an incredibly paradoxical power defined in terms of weakness. Sinful death is the ultimate enemy, and so, God chooses to be subject to it so that he might transform it entirely. Thus, Good Friday and Holy Saturday [and all revealed there] are followed and rendered permanently valid by Easter, the definitive and wholly new “Passover.” After Christ, death is no longer the godless place, and it no longer has the final word. Because of Christ, and because he chose to become subject to sin and the wages of sin out of love for his Father and us, God has become present “in the unexpected [and even the unacceptable] place,” and the power of death, which was the power to separate us from God forever, is definitively broken. The God Jesus reveals--- the One whose Name he makes known and real among us, is the formerly unseen, infinitely paradoxical God who, from creating to redeeming his creation, “calls into being the things that are not, and raises the dead to life.” Most significantly, he does so with a sovereignty which is worked out in self-emptying and self-limitation, a justice which is defined in terms of mercy, and a “power (which is) made perfect in weakness.”

Paul summarizes this whole theology in one statement: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their transgressions against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Note well that Paul does not say, “God was in Christ being reconciled to a world that offended him infinitely.” Note as well that neither is Paul concerned with a kind of justice which is either familiar or comfortable to us. This justice is neither distributive nor retributive. In no sense is this a God “who gives us what we deserve.” Instead Paul’s entire focus is on the fact that in the Christ Event, and most especially on the cross, God asserts his rights over creation, and defines justice with an exhaustively kenotic and sacrificial mercy which secures our freedom on the one hand, and which transforms the very things we choose when we abuse and misuse that freedom on the other. In this theology, God’s justice is actually expressed as his refusal to allow anything to separate us from him. Here grace and justice, are largely synonymous. If wrath means allowing us our choices out of love for us even in full recognition of our sin, grace means allowing us our choices, but, out of an unconditional love, transforming the very nature of that which we choose so that we are no longer separated from God, or broken and estranged as human beings. If wrath means allowing us to choose the godless and godforsaken, grace means the transformation of these things, and especially the transformation of sinful death into an actual sacrament of God’s presence. If sin means our separation from God and the self-assertion and ingratitude that prompts it, divine justice is God’s assertion that we belong to him no matter what, and what is ordinarily called “justification” is the reconciliation that results when God acts out this judgement in the Christ Event.

All of this, of course, is the climax of the Divine self-emptying that began at creation. It contrasts precisely with the pretensions to divinity assumed by human beings in sin --- the same pretensions that crucified Christ in a riot of religious righteousness and political expediency. This is indeed the victory of a God whose “foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.” It reminds us that ours is a God who is folly to “Greeks” and a scandal to “Jews,” and as it does so, it calls into question everything we once held as conventional wisdom about God, his sovereignty, wrath, justice, power, and dignity, and it offers us alternative and paradoxical definitions of all of these, as well as our own notions of what constitutes genuinely human existence. What was true at the time Paul wrote about the scandal and foolishness of the cross is no less true now. For this reason we can be very sure that if the Cross has not challenged our notions of all we experience and know, we have not really understood it. Even more seriously, so long as we refuse to accept the redefinitions achieved on the cross, we make it, and what was achieved there, void. There is, I think, no place our success or failure in this has more serious consequences than in our theology of death, and our ministry to the dying and bereaved.

Implications for Our Ministry to the Dying and Bereaved

This brings to our ministry then, an alternative way of looking at death, tragedy, senselessness, and their relation to God. I believe this alternative perspective results in an altogether more extensively and intensively comforting pastoral approach, but there is no doubt that it is tremendously challenging as well. After all, it requires that both we and those we minister to, give up the facile answers and simplistic platitudes that have so long mistakenly passed for Christian faith and truth. This perspective demands then that we adopt a grammar of salvation built on the paradoxes embodied in a theology God worked out in creation and on the cross in terms of kenosis and asthenia. In this theology, the God who renounces his own prerogatives out of love for us is not in total control, but ultimately, he is the God who asserts his rights over all of creation and mercifully brings all things to fulfillment in himself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once rightly reminded us, “Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably nothing that happens occurs outside his will.” In this theology God has willed the sinful death of only one person, his own Son, but he has done so only in order that he might defeat godless death entirely. In this theology, God gives, sin distorts, desecrates and destroys, and death takes away, but God intervenes in death and robs it of any ultimate victory. And in this grammar of salvation, not everything that happens in our world makes sense or has meaning, but at the same time it can all be the basis for celebrating a God who will bring order out of chaos, life out of death, and meaning out of absurdity if we only give him the chance, and perhaps even when we do not.

In concrete terms this means that when dying or grieving persons ask us if this human death is the will of God, we must answer no, but what God will make of it in Christ is another matter. Death is the enemy, and it is both God’s and ours, but in Christ it is also the vanquished enemy whose power, for all its awfulness, is a merely a hollow shell of what it once was. If we are asked why God does not intervene to save a dying child, for instance, we must be clear that God has intervened, but he has intervened in death to transform its very nature, and make sure it does not have the final word. And when those we minister to rightly affirm that they have sinned, and are frightened of God’s justice, or that they feel guilty as death approaches, we have to be able to remind them that God’s justice has determined they will not be separated from him. No. God has asserted his rights over all of creation, and has promised to love us with an everlasting love. Perhaps it is the case that God’s mercy assumes an awful aspect for those unprepared to be nothing but forgiven, but for those who are prepared to accept this gift, God’s justice is a source of unending joy, and its promise is still ultimately comforting. So, while we cannot minimize or trivialize the sin and guilt anyone experiences, neither can we allow it to be perceived as greater or more powerful than God’s own solution for it. The wages of sin is godforsaken death. But an innocent Christ has died our own deserved godless death, and the wages of this death is eternal life in communion with a God who refuses to allow sin and death to remain godless.

Many Christians are scandalized or frightened by the suggestion that God is not in complete control of his creation. They believe it offends against a God who is traditionally described in terms of omnipotence. But they have not been introduced to the paradoxical sovereignty of the God of Jesus Christ who defeats sin and death by participating in them. Here God’s sovereignty is exercised precisely where he dies for us. A God who is said to limit himself in creating and redeeming a free creation, is a real stumbling block to many Christians, and more than this, many are made nervous by the notion that there are things at work in the world which God neither foresees in detail, nor immediately controls. This too seems to offend against the theology of an omniscient, omnipotent God. Many will be downright angry at a notion of divine justice where people “don’t get what they deserve.” After all, a God whose judgement IS his mercy certainly is a stumbling block. But, again, God asserts his rights over us as he will and for all these people, the paradox of a crucified God whose foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men, needs to be more convincingly proclaimed and taught. While some of us find the notion of God as the author and agent of death repugnant, many others are threatened by a notion of death where God is neither the agent nor the author. At the same time however, these folks may not have been taught that through Christ’s death and resurrection sinful death is miraculously transformed into a sacrament of God’s presence. And yet, it is certainly part of an adequate ministry to the dying and bereaved to make these central aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ effectively known. We will have failed badly if we are unable to recognize and adequately affirm either side of the God-death equation that is at the heart of Christian kerygma.

Every human life has its Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays. There is failure, absurdity, betrayal, collusion, isolation, injustice, cruelty, torment, and death. There are times when we are simply left helpless and mute in the face of our own and others’ inhumanity, and when we are bewildered by the tragic and inexplicable circumstances of our personal and collective histories, as well as by the silence and apparent inadequacy of God at these times. In the short term Sin often does triumph and the powers of this world are sometimes immediately victorious. After all, God is not yet “all in all,” and not all that happens is either from or of him. Ministers to the dying and bereaved have to be courageous enough to admit these things without mitigation or equivocation. And yet, there is another side to all of this that must be communicated clearly and persuasively.

Death and the apparent triumph of non-being are followed by resurrection, and as a result, we really can’t look at any of reality in quite the same way again. The negativities of life are real, but so is the God who chooses to enter into them and transform them with his own life and presence. After all, ours is the God of Jesus and Paul, the God who raises the dead to life, the God whose justice is defined in terms of mercy rather than wrath, and who refuses to allow anything to separate us from his love. Ours is the God who assumes a position of impotence in order that his sovereignty might be perfected and we might be saved when we are most helpless. And he is the God who does this so that even while we face squarely the greatest tragedies and senselessnesses life has to offer, we can exultantly cry with Paul, and help those to whom we minister to do the same, “Sin where is thy victory, death where is thy sting?”

09 April 2011

More on Writing a Rule of Life: Is it for Religious and Hermits Only?

[[Hi Sister Laurel! You wrote recently that you were editing your Rule. Do you have to do that often? What makes it necessary. . .does your Bishop require it? I am not and don't want to be a hermit because I am married. . . but I wonder if it would help me to write a Rule of Life? Any ideas?]]

Hi there, yourself, and peace! Yes, I am editing my Rule and no, it is not something I need to do very often -- although I do treat my Rule as a document I reflect on, and which I have completely covered with marginalia, etc over the last few years. I have written several versions over the 31 years I have lived as a hermit, but only two were submitted to the diocese. The one I am editing was submitted in 2005 so that is six years ago --- enough time to have grown in the vocation, changed some of my daily and weekly schedule, and come to reflect on and understand better central elements of the Canon governing this life. As a result I am mainly adding or expanding sections I either didn't discuss sufficiently or did not include at all. One of those has to do with stability; a second has to do with the charism or gift quality of the diocesan hermit; a third has to do with stricter separation from the world; and the last one is an expansion of the section on "the silence of solitude". My horarium has also changed enough to require rewriting --- though this is less significant than the other redactions.

What makes these changes necessary? As noted, I may not have written about these sections sufficiently or at all even. I may not have understood them sufficiently, and have only come to this as I have lived the Rule and reflected on either Canon 603 and its central elements or those of monastic life more generally. They may have assumed a place in my life they did not have 6 years ago, or I may only now truly appreciate their importance for my own vocation and the vocation to diocesan eremitism generally. For instance, stability is a significant Benedictine value and vow, but Canon 603 uses the three more typically Franciscan vows (poverty, chastity, obedience) instead. Because of this, I had not consciously lived stability or explored it from the inside out until after I had made final oblature with the Camaldolese, attended a couple of Benedictine experience retreats, and considered how stability fit in with the three perpetual vows I had made in 2007. I think stability is something one needs to live for a while before one presumes to write about it. While it is not explicitly mentioned in Canon 603, it is really central to monastic life and to the life of the diocesan hermit who is vowed within a specific diocese.

The same is true of stricter separation from the world. One needs to learn what "the world" really is in this canon as well as in one's own life, and then too, what fosters one's ability to live out real separation from this. Paradoxically, one must also determine what is necessary to live one's vocation with integrity and in a way which nurtures one's own growth in wholeness and holiness. The things which truly do this are not "the world" in the sense the canon means and must be accommodated without compromising other elements of the life (the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance) for instance. Again, this is something one learns only in the living of the vocation. Otherwise, one is tempted to simply say "the world" is anything not explicitly "spiritual" (for instance) and then reject this global reality without really knowing how elements within it truly affect one's life --- do they lead to growth or the dissipation of one's vocation, for instance? Do they enhance one's spirituality or detract from it? When and to what degree, if any, do they fit the eremitical life, and why and how does the individual hermit decide that?

An example of what I mean here is the movie I went to see recently, Of Gods and Men. I went with friends from the parish and yes, we went during Lent when my own solitude is even stricter than usual. A while back I went to see The King's Speech -- though that time I went alone. In both instances the movies were incredibly well done and incredibly moving. Of Gods and Men reprised the story of the quiet, faithful, and deeply communal nature of the Cistercian life which, especially in its vow of stability leads these monks to martyrdom. That I attended with other Christians also celebrating Lent added to the meaning of the experience, but since I was working on stability in my own Rule, this film served to encapsulate many of the dimensions I had come to know myself and is still informing and inspiring my own work and prayer.

In The King's Speech a man finds his true voice through the hard work of therapy and comes to inspire his entire country thus helping them to win their war with Germany. In this movie I saw clearly the recovery of the true self and the coming to parrhesia (bold speech) which is so important in the New Testament and discipleship. People are called to be speech events and in The King's Speech we see a man redeemed to answer that very call. Both of these themes: stability and speech events are central to my own theology and spirituality. Both films touched dimensions in me, nourished and fed me in ways which were completely consistent with my vocation.

Were these "worldly" activities? I don't think so, for worldly events don't feed, nourish, challenge or inspire in this way. Instead I approach these as exercises in Lectio --- where I will listen carefully and over a period of time, reflect on and journal about what I experience, etc. Is God present here? Of course, mediated clearly and eloquently in the films. Is this true with any film? Of course not. Should a hermit be going to movies regularly? No, probably not --- though I could see a hermit legitimately going to a carefully-chosen movie every other month or so if this was the one solitary activity outside the hermitage she allowed herself regularly (and if she could actually find a really good film to see this frequently!). More likely the hermit will see occasional movies once they are out on DVD and remain in the hermitage while she does that. In any case, such things must be discerned carefully, and part of that discernment is a careful assessment of what the effects on the hermit's life are. Six years ago, as I considered the meaning of "Stricter separation from the world" I might not have considered going to any movies on an occasional basis as a piece of genuine lectio, but today experience tells me I can do that --- at least at the present time --- though it is far from stereotypical notions of the hermit life.

Stereotypes of eremitical life work by generalizing without adequate experience or true reflection. If one proceeds in this way one may end up saying simplistic things like: hermits don't need friends, or hermit conversations should avoid anything but the strictly spiritual (what is the strictly spiritual anyway?), or one must never eat or do anything which gives one pleasure since, "One is to take pleasure in God alone" (never mind all the myriad ways God's own wonder and beauty is mediated to us on a daily basis, apparently). It is bad enough to have non-hermits believe stereotypes, but it is tragic and completely disedifying to have would-be hermits representing living instances of them as a pretense of something more authentic. One can read everything there is to read on the values which are central to eremitical life, but until one embraces all the rights and responsibilities associated with the life and makes (or struggles to make) these values one's own in response to God's own Word and will, one is unlikely to understand or be able to write about them sufficiently well for a Rule of Life.

To get back to how all this ties in with your questions, what is generally true is that the changes in a Rule are driven by the hermit herself and her experience of the life. While I suppose it is possible for my Bishop to require me to rewrite it (or to refuse to allow a certain practice), the Rule is the most highly individual element of the Canon. It is here that constant or uniform elements are combined in a unique and, one prays, inspired expression of this life.

Writing Your Own Rule of Life

Regarding writing a Rule of Life for yourself, I would enthusiastically suggest you give it a try, but expect it to be a demanding job, and let it take some time! As I have written in the past I have rarely experienced such a formative process as the writing of my Rule. I suspect it is the same for everyone who tries it. A Rule is a document embodying the values which are central to your life, and the praxis which allows you to live these out with genuine integrity. A Rule tells the story of how it is God works in your life to bring it to wholeness and holiness. It inspires, encourages, challenges, and focuses. In writing such a "Rule" you don't have to use the very same values a hermit or monastic uses. You could (and really should) begin with your own understanding of the Gospel and determine how it is God calls you to live out a commitment to this within the context of lay life. Instead of building parts of the Rule around religious vows, you could reflect on and build things around your marriage vows, for instance. Of course, you might also use monastic values as well, but tailored for lay life. What would stability (for instance) look like in the life of a mom or dad, husband or wife? What values would it serve? What needs in the family or community? Would it be countercultural or prophetic? How about conversion of life? Prayer and Penance? What about issues of economy, ecology, health, etc? All of these could fit well in a Rule of Life and be a source of inspiration for others.

Your Rule would not necessarily ask you to do anything new (though of course it could), but it would focus your life in various ways, and it would require (and give you a vehicle which allowed) you to grapple with the various priorities and tensions you experience everyday in a conscious and reflective way. Hopefully it would serve to articulate how it is that love governs your life --- love of God in Christ, of course, but love of your husband, children, friends, community, Church, world, etc. I would personally love to read the result because all too often Rules are associated with religious life and not with lay vocations. If you could create a Rule over time which allows you to live your marriage/family and community commitments more care-fully it would be wonderful, and something others might learn from or be inspired by.

By the way, a book you might be interested in reading given this last question is Margaret Guenther's, At Home in the World, A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. Where I use the image of Rule as a rail on a stairway as my primary metaphor for the way a Rule functions, Guenther refers to it as a trellis supporting the growth of a vine. She adds a number of questions for reflection which will help a person determine the place of certain elements in their life --- many you might not otherwise consider. I do recommend it.

02 April 2011

"Of Gods and Men" and the Commitment to Stability

Last year (maybe even the year before that) I read the story of the Cistercian Monks who were living in Algeria and eventually were martyred for their faith. This last week I had a chance to see the movie made of this story with a couple of friends from my parish.

There are a number of wonderful aspects to this movie. It paints a beautiful portrait of monastic life and the centrality of liturgy in the life of the Trappist monk, but especially it makes clear the place of the psalms/Scripture in that life. The chanting was excellent and moving (not professional!) and the lyrics of the psalms mirrored the lives of these monks -- particularly as the crisis which enveloped the countryside also increasingly threatened the monks' own lives. The film clearly demonstrated the simplicity of the life, the silence and solitude, but also the community and the presence to others as the monastery becomes an integral part of the fabric of the local region --- trusted and beloved by the local residents. Especially wonderful (and deserving of a post all its own!) was the monk's ecumenical presence and sensitivity which is part of genuine Christianity. Scenes showed the Prior studying the Koran, a number of the monks celebrating Muslim festivities with local families, and of course, the monastery "doctor" was the doctor everyone -- including Muslim women -- turned to in need.

The aspect that was most moving to me was reflected in this last ecumenical dimension and bond; it was the struggle by the individual monks to determine how monastic stability would shape their lives as they, and everyone around them, undeniably came under threat and remained under threat. The threat to the monks grows. One knows that the alternatives are "stay and die" or "leave and live." Over the length of the film several monastic chapters are held --- periods where the monks meet (in this case) around a table and are given a brief lesson by the prior. (Chapters are a regular (daily or weekly, etc) part of monastic life and the prior or prioress is ordinarily the one who gives a lesson; in his or her absence monks and nuns might, for instance, listen to a series of tapes on the Rule or some other dimension of their lives.) Afterward there is a discussion and in Of Gods and Men the monks state honestly what their own feelings and discernment are regarding staying or returning to France in the face of the danger that accompanies their lives and grows evermore critical.

Initially several monks want to leave and return to France and monastic life there, but as days and weeks go by each man comes to terms with his fear and his commitment to remain here in this monastery and among these people --- all of whom are as threatened and terrified as the monks themselves. The psalms prayed during Office take on a sharper poignancy and striking relevance. Individual prayer in chapel or in their cells at night show them wrestling with their fear -- and with their commitment both to their brother monks and to the people they serve and rightly call "neighbor". At the final chapter shown in the movie, each man expresses his discernment that he is called to stay here. The choices are made in complete freedom, but they are anguished as well. The film flinches from neither the profound faith nor the abject fear which co-exist in this process of discernment and commitment.

Soon after, there is a scene where a military helicopter flies right up to the windows of the chapel, machine guns seemingly ready to annihilate the little community who prays within. The monks stand together in their cowls, hands around waists or on shoulders in affection, support, and solidarity, as they sing a hymn which grows in power and expression of conviction. It is almost a perfect portrait of the peace of Christ -- the peace the world cannot give, and of course the peace which is not without pain, fear, or struggle. As one of the monks summed up at the last chapter: "I am not afraid of death; I am a free man." These men know who they are most fundamentally, and why they are as well. They remain in Christ, and so too, they remain committed to one another and to all around them. They come to possess themselves completely in giving themselves over to that which is outside their control. Soon after, the monastery is broken into in the middle of the night and all but two of the monks (one of whom crawls under a bed and is missed) are taken further into the mountains where they are executed.

In the past weeks I have been reflecting on and writing about stability -- not merely for this blog, but for my own Rule which I am revising some. Some of the impetus for this reflection involved the recent questions on the relationship between struggle and the peace of Christ in authentic vocations, and this movie would certainly illustrate some of what I said in reply in my last post. For that matter, Lent also has been a stimulus to this reflection as the stories of Jesus lead into the increasing tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day -- and to a sense that there is an inevitable and apparently senseless execution in the offing unless Jesus chooses another course. But of course, Jesus does not move on or away; he chooses to cast his lot in with sinful humanity -- and with God's own purposes. And so too with these Trappists. They cast their lots in with one another in THIS monastery and with the Muslim people of this area of Algeria, and they lose (and find!!) their lives in the process.

Here again is part of Charles Cummings', OCSO, description of stability which I posted several entries ago: [[ 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.)

In today's highly mobile society where convenience often wins out over commitment and we live among others we generally allow to remain strangers -- who, that is, we never make neighbors (much less truly love as we love ourselves!), where we parish shop to find the perfect faith community which best serves us, and where sometimes even our own spiritual sojourning is less a journey in Christ than it is a search for the next spiritual high or a way to fulfill our own wholly selfish desires, we need the story of these monks. Martyrdom is not merely an ancient reality but a contemporary one, while stability is not merely a monastic discipline and value, but a human one --- necessary for finding and claiming ourselves, necessary for truly loving others. It is, as I noted recently, the quintessentially Christian value --- the commitment to remain with (and in) Christ in this place and with these people so that we may all grow to fullness of humanity together.

Addendum: Last Will and Testament of Father Christian (Prior)

If it should happen one day - and it could be today - that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.

I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the "grace of martyrdom" to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to soothe one's conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it. I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.

Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!" But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,

You are the hundredfold granted as was promised! And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing: Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a "GOD-BLESS" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours.

May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.


Postscript: Despite winning a number of international awards, "Of Gods and Men" is not playing at many theaters and it will probably not be out much longer, but I sincerely recommend you see it if you can. It is perfect for Lent, of course, but is simply wonderful generally.