28 May 2011

Followup Questions on Friendship, Facebook, etc.

[[I just wanted to write to say a big thank you for your blog - a great addition to the sometime idiosyncratic and opinionated blogosphere. I have been thinking about friendship in this modern age and would be very interested in your take on the question. I read your posts on Friendship and have thought about them a little. My question is centered on how friendship has been redefined by the use of new media (Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc) and how you as a hermit respond to these changes. People commonly speak about being "friends" on Facebook but one wonders how deep these relationships really are. (One also wonders if people can really have 5000 friends, the current limit of friends on Facebook.)

Allow me to rephrase with a question: should a Catholic/Christian be on Facebook? Thomas Merton wrote numerous letters while in the hermitage, would a modern Catholic/Christian log into Facebook and comment on Status Updates? Would some of the missionary saints be using new media today to proclaim the message of Jesus? I wonder how St Augustine would see the issue? Modern popes have highlighted some of the problems with the internet. Yet they have also called the faithful to be involved. Yet my question is centered on how - as a hermit - you see these things. And how you see the concept of modern friendship as a psychologist (which I think you are!?!).]]

Thanks so much for both your comments and your questions. First, though, I am not a psychologist. My field is Systematic Theology and I work regularly as a spiritual director. Formerly I was a hospital chaplain, and also worked as a phlebotomist and research assistant in neurosciences.

Facebook, Internet, and Christian Participation

Regarding your questions, I don't see why Christians shouldn't be on Facebook, but I believe they must be very cautious with how they use it (or let it "use" them!). It, like many forms of internet activity is completely capable of trivializing the concepts of friendship and genuine communication, often substituting superficial contact with unknown people for these. Likewise it can insidiously (or not so insidiously!) blur the very real line between a true honesty and openness which respects privacy and discretion, and a kind of careless "letting it all hang out" which seems to have no concept of genuine privacy. I am often appalled at how a phenomenon like Facebook erodes the capacity of folks to recognize the sacredness of friendship, or the distinction between openness, personal transparency, and complete indiscriminateness. Transparency is also actually a function of self-esteem, while indiscriminateness is just the opposite. The internet generally and Facebook more specifically can give us the illusion of being connected or participating in the rhythm and dynamics of life when this is really not true. Finally, social media can be used as a kind of narcotic to anesthetize ourselves from the pain of isolation, inauthenticity, or other difficulties when a major part of the answer is a degree of real solitude and the personal work that can occasion. As I think I mentioned in the earlier posts, what Facebook often offers is the notion of "friending" but, like cheap grace which is the fraudulent and empty version of the real thing, it is often a counterfeit version of "befriending."

As a hermit I generally see Facebook as a kind of noise. It is also something that epitomizes the way I regard "worldliness." It is an ambiguous reality which distorts (or can easily distort) what is truly sacred and can lead to Christ. But I think this means it challenges us to see and use it rightly for the gift it is and can be. I do belong to Facebook (my sister snagged me for it), but I rarely use it and almost never with good friends. It works especially well for allowing acquaintances to contact me on feastdays, birthdays, etc, and for me to do the same with them, or to contact people I have not seen since High School, for instance, but it is not a way I would nurture a friendship or proclaim the Gospel of Christ, etc. The same is true of other forms of internet interaction, message boards, chat rooms, etc.

In part this reticence on my part stems from experience. Back when I got the first computer I had with a modem, etc, I remember being really excited about the apparent opportunities the internet seemed to afford for teaching, sharing, etc, and I did find a few really special contacts who have, in time, become good friends. But generally, I found the faceless, anonymous character of the internet encourages people to behave at their worst, and contributes to acting out which includes outright cruelty, disrespect, bullying, dishonesty, fraud, and often creates a general environment which makes reverence or transparency very difficult if not impossible. One does (or should) not easily cast pearls before swine, and very often sharing online seems to be little more than this. Even this blog, which is limited in scope and readership and does not allow comments, sometimes receives responses via email or other blogs which make me question the prudence of continuing it --- or at least of posting/writing as transparently or autobiographically as seems appropriate given the topics I deal with.

However, there are excellent examples of the use of the internet to proclaim the Gospel, teach the faith, foster genuine community, and inspire friendship. One of the really stellar examples of this is the A Nun's Life website, which, in just the space of several years has grown from a simple blog to a full time ministry of two IHM Sisters of Monroe, Michigan encompassing podcasts, chat (and a community of followers), Q and A, guest speakers with genuine expertise and a down-to-earth approach to spirituality, etc. It represents one of the best examples I know of the use of the internet as something authentically edifying in the every sense of that term. Other religious and clergy, as well as a few diocesan hermits have blogs, and some of those I have seen are truly exemplary in Christian terms. I am positive there are others, but I am simply not knowledgeable enough of what's available to list them.

Granted, the internet is seductive in many ways, and sometimes a near occasion of sin. When I think of Thomas Merton alive in this time of almost instant access to everyone I can imagine his journals being filled with a struggle to balance the draw and capacity of this new medium with the cloistered character of his monastic and eremitical life. It would be a variation on the struggles that permeated his journals anyway of course, but I have no doubt he would have embraced it as a significant medium with great potential for good! Perhaps in some ways we are the better for the fact that publishing as he did required constraints the internet does not have. Had he written as the internet makes possible, we might have a vastly diluted and diffused body of his work. So, again, caution, restraint, and reverence for ourselves and those to whom we speak (as well as for Word or language itself) is essential in using the internet wisely or prudently and effectively. But, as any other thing the Christian (and even the hermit) approaches, we don't simply condemn or reject it. We must try hard to use it in the best way we can --- especially in a way which reflects our own genuine self-esteem in Christ and which contributes to the perfection of our world and the growth of genuine community.

Regarding Friendship

I don't know what more I can actually say about friendship that I have not said in other recent posts. It is true that there have been periods in the history of Christian spirituality when the value of personal friendships was devalued in the name of allowing Christ to be the one true friend. However, whenever Christology has adequately reflected and reflected upon the humanity of Christ and the texts in the NT that deal with relationships, the importance of personal friendships (and especially those in Christ) have come to the fore.

Human beings, as I have written here often, are communal realities. We are incomplete without God who, in part, constitutes a dimension of our very being. Not only does he dwell in our hearts, but his very breath enlivens and empowers us in a way which makes us truly human. Similarly, we are incomplete without others --- whom we are called to love and regard as part of the very same body of Christ we are part of (or are called to make up). Friendship, it seems to me, is one of the holiest realities we can know in our lives. Unfortunately, for that very reason, it is also one of the first things which is distorted and profaned as well. When sin distorts, fragments, alienates, and isolates, it is healthy relationships which are affected first after our own hearts. And so, our hunger for friendship becomes all the keener, but it also becomes distorted and tinged (or pervaded) by deficiency needs which makes our approach to others self-centered.

Our hunger (and also our God-given capacity) for friendship (or simply for connectedness) is something which phenomena like Facebook and the internet more generally both reflect, seek to provide a means to fulfill, and actually exploit and exacerbate. While these things CAN allow true communication, more often they substitute superficiality which does not truly satisfy and merely whets one's desire for more and deeper relatedness. It is a bit like being glutted with non-nutritious food when what one really wants are a few really nourishing bites. We suffer as people from lack of the real thing; we are dehumanized by it to some extent and left glutted but empty. Social media does some good things but it also contributes to this form of personal or social malnutrition. It also, unfortunately, trains or socializes us to accept the objectification, exploitation, and profanation of others as means to self-satisfaction. This can run the gamut from pornography, to the regular disrespect we see on message boards, to the simple counting of people as "notches" or numbers on our facebook "score sheet." It is astounding to me that anyone could read the "number of friends" tally that shows up there as something worthy of the reference to "friends."

Anyway, these are a few of my more critical thoughts regarding your questions. A more positive take on the internet (especially in regard to hermit life) is available in an earlier post. I will stop here or else I may never get this posted! Again, thanks for your comments and questions.

23 May 2011

Questions on the Concert, Oakland Civic Orchestra, etc.

[[Sister Laurel, how was your concert? Will you be playing others? Also, you said this was an amateur orchestra. Are there any pro's [sic] playing in it?]]

Ah, thanks for asking. The concert was really excellent! It went better than we expected even and the audience was very appreciative even giving us a standing ovation. It is an amazing experience for an amateur musician to come away from six or seven rehearsals and a performance and feel like she has actually played a Beethoven Symphony with 45 other performers! It is one thing to struggle and muddle through it, and entirely another to actually play it! Granted, we did not take the fast movements (or the presto climaxing the last movement) at anywhere near the breakneck speed some do, but it was still just fine!

Since I am still excited from the performance, I should note that my earliest significant experience of both transcendence and community was the experience of playing in an orchestra. The degree of interdependence and personal responsibility to make things work for everyone, but also for the greater goal of performing a piece of music is completely exhilarating to me. There's hard work, incredible excitement, joy, disappointment (when there are the occasional inevitable train wrecks), and a real sense of awe, humility, and triumph at what has been accomplished in and through us when all goes well. Yesterday's concert was one of those really satisfying ones when you know everyone did their best and it was what it was supposed to be --- something very much greater than the sum of individual parts. We made MUSIC, and there is something unquestionably holy in that experience.

The orchestra is a completely amateur orchestra. Some of us have played occasionally with pro-am orchestras in the area, but generally we are made up of folks who have full time jobs in something other than music and come to a rehearsal once a week in the evenings. Teachers, attorneys, software developers, psychologists, pastors (or hermit nuns!), nurses, physicians, full time moms, and any number of other fields are represented. Some members are professionals in music somewhere (choral music, for instance), but play an instrument as a secondary interest. Most of us played instruments in school and many desired to play as professionals but were discouraged by the dearth of chairs available (winds especially have this problem), or an inability to play at a professional level. Some went on to teach music, get married, enter the convent, go to medical school, etc. Many of us studied something else in college and may have minored in music. Some, involved in music in other ways most of their lives, picked up the instruments they play with us only as adults. The basic story is always the same though: the desire to make music, to play, and especially to play "real" orchestral music (not just light classical or abridged and simplified works) never really left us and this is the answer: Community Orchestra.

The Oakland Civic Orchestra is really fortunate to have an excellent artistic director and conductor, Marty Stoddard, who does not shy away from playing the classical repertoire. When she auditioned for the "job" (it pays hardly anything!), a number of orchestra members thought she would make us work too hard. They wanted a Wednesday night out, but not a difficult rehearsal, much less commitments to practicing at home! Well, Marty won the audition anyway. Those members left us long ago and we have grown as an orchestra in the intervening years. Next season is our 20th year, and we intend to continue doing so. We now are joined sometimes by the Oakland Symphony Chorus and each season dedicate a portion of a set to a young musician who has taken second place in the Oakland East Bay Symphony Concerto Competition. The second place prize is a chance to play with us (rather than with the OEBS) --- usually the young person's first chance to rehearse and perform as a soloist with a real symphony orchestra. It is an experience which provides an element of musical education that can't be gotten practicing alone. Another set is usually devoted to contemporary music and this allows us to do the work of living composers. (Some preview these works with us.) Sometimes we will do a children's concert. Next season for instance, our first concert is the eve of Halloween so we will do the Sorcerer's Apprentice and some other "scary" stuff for that. (I should note it is also the eve of Harold Camping's revised prediction of the end of the world! He claims it will be quick though!)

This was the last concert of the season (there are ordinarily four from Fall through early Summer or late Spring) with time off during the Summer. This Summer some of the orchestra (not me though) will be playing in productions of Les Miserables, and on Sept 11, 2011 at 5:00pm we will, as a whole, be participating in what is being called a "Rolling Requiem." We will be doing Mozart's Requiem with the Oakland Symphony Chorus at Oakland's new Cathedral, Christ the Light. Other orchestras and choruses will be doing the same all over the country, so you might want to keep an eye open for that in your area.

21 May 2011

Everyone Still Here?

Just a note, but do you suppose the fact that the word "Holy" is completely worn away from Mr Camping's Bible in the picture below is meaningful? Prophetic?

Well, it's 8pm here and personally, I am happy the world is still here. The Oakland Civic Orchestra has a concert tomorrow and along with a Mendelssohn Overture and Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess (which apparently has nothing to do with princesses, dead or otherwise), we are playing the Eroica by Beethoven. We've been practicing for weeks and finished our dress rehearsal at 3:00pm today --- right on time to be whisked away to heaven. Lots of traffic on the way home, but maybe we were in the wrong time zone for the prediction's given time. Of course sitting here now in my hermitage, darkness all around outside, maybe "the rapture" has taken place and all the good folks have been taken and here I am left behind! Now THAT would give a new meaning to eremitical solitude, wouldn't it? And assuming I have been left behind, what does that mean for my relationship with God --- or God's with me? Do I just treat it as non-existent? Has he turned his back on me? Left me completely alone??? Am I rejected? Condemned? Is my future simply a few months of misery as the world is assaulted by any number of scourges and woes followed by oblivion or hell? Hardly sounds like something the God of Jesus Christ would orchestrate does it?

Of course, I know I am not really alone. It seems that Harold Camping himself is alive and well about 15+ miles from here, as are his daughter and any number of his followers. Camping, by the way, said he was a bit bewildered by the failure of his prediction --- a prediction that had people selling everything they owned and driving to California to share in the terminal events with others who believed as they did. Camping's organization (right here in the Oakland area) has made and spent millions of dollars on this and now, well, I wonder if the explanation Camping will give will advert to more mathematical miscalculations or be an honest confession of the place of human hubris in the face of Divine inscrutability and Scriptural texts that cannot be read or mined for timetables and starcharts like a Farmer's Almanac.

The temptation to joke about this latest "prophecy" (which I am really trying to restrain) is tempered in part by my own sadness that such things actually happen and are given credence by those who supposedly believe in the same God Christ proclaimed. Even Christ said clearly that he did not know the hour or the day of the second coming and the day of judgment. In part it is also tempered by a sense that significant theological issues have been raised by Harold Camping's predictions. For now though, I need to practice a couple of passages in the Beethoven (a fugal passage which I thought I had down but blew this afternoon, and the finale which is simply WAY too fast for my sluggish nervous system!), then do some quiet prayer and get to Compline. There will be time (God willing) to think over the theological issues and reflect on why it is these predictions about the last days are always so credible to some --- and, along with belief in God, such complete nonsense to others. The truth is probably somewhere between these extremes. Personally, I am glad the OCO gets to play tomorrow's concert though. Amateur orchestra though we are, we've practiced hard for this last concert of the season and it should be a good one!

15 May 2011

Hermits as Desert Wanderers and Dwellers: On Blurring the Line Between Being and Doing

[[Sister Laurel, . . . I think . . .what you are saying is that becoming a hermit (or becoming anything) means necessarily that you start out on a journey which you yourself do not understand completely - and you learn along the way where it is that you are going (by working on that rule of life and by living out an obscure calling as well as you can). It's the journey of Abraham, isn't it - on his way to a country he hasn't seen, called by a God who is a stranger, figuring it out as he goes, blundering and straightening out the blunders.

So, in a different framework, I would say this: that I have read a hundred books or more on prayer, but I will not ever learn to pray from a book. To learn to pray, I must pray. And the books may cast light on what works and doesn't work - but reading the books will not make me a prayer. And studying and learning about God will not put me in touch with God unless I stand still long enough for him to grasp me. Since [details omitted] this has been my experience: after so many years of seeking God and longing for God and wanting to know ABOUT God, I have been totally surprised to find that God has grasped me. . . So, as you explain that it is only in really living the hermit's life that you learn what it is and how to live it. No one can teach it to you. They can only help you to recognize the process you are living through. That is what you are saying, isn't it?

Hi there,
Many thanks for your comments. I cut them some but hope I did them justice. Yes, you mainly have what I am saying and your journeying metaphor is excellent. (One of the most important images central to eremitical life is that of pilgrimage or sojourn and I am going to try to build on that here.) Your example of the difference between reading about prayer and praying is also spot on. However, I am trying (or think I am trying) to say something more too. As you well affirm, in many ways one always only learns to live one's vocation by actually living it. But the distinction which is critical here hinges first on the solitary nature of the eremitical vocation, and then too on its actual lack of destination in worldly terms. In the first place, then, the hermit life is, by definition, a solitary life "with God alone" where both the "initiation into" and "formation as" is essentially solitary. These occur between the person and God in a different way and to a different degree than initiation into and formation in religious life generally does, for instance.

But there is another quality too which the image of journey brings out. As you say, Abraham's journey (or that of Moses, et al) was, indeed, one of wandering in the wilderness, and of a certain degree of blundering along. A person desiring to be a hermit --- to the extent she truly wants to be a HERMIT and not just a lone religious person with canonical standing with the right to wear funny garb --- is really saying she desires to wander in the wilderness, to blunder along -- just herself and God --- to whatever "destination" and via whatever route God chooses. She knows that the journey itself is the goal and she mainly trusts that she is right where God wills her to be. She is becoming precisely who God calls her to be in this because she is with him. It is in making the journey that she learns to trust more truly and deeply in the God who dwells with and within her. More, however, it is only this faithful journeying together that is the real "destination" to the extent there is one at all. All hermit candidates (myself included) claim to want to become desert dwellers (eremites), but we also tend to object when the means to being that very thing seems TO NOT MEAN moving according to well-fixed and developed routes with lots of oases, guides, and the occasional motel or resort to provide food, and stopping places from which to measure our progress and supposed distance from our ultimate goal.

We are so often all about "arriving." This can mean achieving some goal, some status, a fixed place in society or the Church, financial security, etc. It often means set stages --- smaller pieces of a well-mapped excursion or day-trip marked out as goals or check points within the larger project. In most things this perspective is prudent and necessary. But eremitical life is not about having arrived, or even seeking to "arrive" for that matter. It is about the journey and most specifically it is about sojourning with God into the vast expanses of our own hearts, and as we do, moving into the very heart of God as well. No one else can make this journey with or for us, nor can they chart a course or provide a map for us to follow. Some may accompany us at a distance (as friends and spiritual directors do), and mark the fruit of this journey so that we may see it more clearly ourselves. They may help us pause from time to time to reflect with someone else about where we have been and the direction in which God is apparently (or not so apparently!) drawing us at this point. They may occasionally be there so we may share some of the joys and hardships of the vocation. They will, from time to time both challenge and encourage us so we may celebrate with them what God does in and with us, and in all of this they are necessary and blessings from God. But the journey itself is, by definition, a solitary one undertaken by ourselves and God alone.

While all vocations to authentic humanity are ultimately solitary (even marriage!), they are also usually and more immediately ways we come to ourselves and to God through and in the company of others. However, with solitary eremitical life one is meant to live out this ultimate solitude --- in an immediately solitary and destinationless wandering-with-God. We are called to do this for the whole of our lives as the very essence of our identity and response to God's call. One could even say, therefore, that we are to become this journey --- that when we speak of hermits, we are speaking of persons who ARE a solitary covenant journey with God -- forged in and marked by the crucible of wilderness. Of course, all of this raises questions about canonical standing and the various ecclesial "hoops" one needs to jump through to discern and embrace this particular form of eremitical life, but those are for another post. Answering them with one's life, however, still requires making the transition from lone person to hermit and thus, living as a lay hermit for some time before petitioning or otherwise attempting to make vows under Canon 603 as a solitary hermit.

13 May 2011

Followup Questions: On Formation as a Lay Hermit

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I understand why you insist one should live as a lay hermit for some time before approaching a diocese to be publicly professed as diocesan. I hear you saying Lay eremitical life serves as the usual formative and discernment framework for any call to [solitary] eremitical life. But how does one determine and get the formation necessary to live as a lay hermit? Is the diocese's advice you referred to, "Just go live in solitude; it's all you need?" really sound advice? Is it really all one needs or is this the diocese's way to shunt a person off and not take them seriously?]]

Great questions. Yes, you clearly heard what I have said recently and have written here in the past as well. Living as a lay hermit is the most common way to discover and discern the shape of a vocation to solitary eremitical life. It is therefore also the usual state against which one must weigh any possible call to diocesan eremitical life. The other main way is by entering a community or monastery and, over time, determining that despite being called to the consecrated state one requires more solitude than this context provides. Even if this is true and one has lived as a religious for 25 years or more, one is not yet a hermit. The essential truth is that hermits are formed in solitude. There really is no other way. Lay eremitical life is the usual way one is formed in the life. But within solitude what helps with formation?

Eremitical life involves prayer, penance, study, lectio divina, and manual and (for many of us) intellectual labor done within the context (and for the sake of) of the silence of solitude. Formation in the life then includes formation in all of these things. Work with one's spiritual director can assist with prayer (and in learning and discerning all the various forms of prayer to which one might be called), penance, as well as with lectio divina. The director will maintain the focus on God's own voice within our lives, but she will be sure we recognize this voice in all the ways it calls us to wholeness, as well as all the ways it summons us to more abundant life in Christ. This is really the heart of one's formative work since it is through prayer, lectio, and the resulting inner work these require, that we really become persons who listen to the Word of God and allow it to be our constant companion, counterpart, center, and challenge(r).

However, one will also read about these things and doing so will allow one to be taught by authors one will likely never meet otherwise. This reading does not replace prayer, penance, lectio, or the required inner work they call us to, of course, but it will support them. If one is going to be doing intellectual work (theological, psychological, historical, sociological, etc) one will need an academic grounding in whatever discipline one will want to pursue. This is meant to provide not advanced degrees (though it's fine if you can get them), but a strong background which supports continuing well-directed solitary reading, research, and reflection. If one is lucky one will find mentors within the field who will help direct one's reading and writing. All of this is formative --- not least in the self-discipline and inner directedness required to live the eremitical life with integrity --- and it is a formation which will continue as an ongoing need and responsibility for the rest of one's life.

There are a few pertinent areas a lay hermit will read regularly in including, the desert Fathers and Mothers, the history of eremitical life (including contemporary eremitical life), contemplative prayer, Scripture (including contemporary commentaries, books of homilies, etc), desert spirituality more generally, the evangelical counsels (important whether one lives these as a lay Christian or a vowed hermit), theology, monastic life -- its history and values, etc. Any specialized areas of interest, including those having to do with her work, will also be included in the hermit's bibliography. While these general areas of reading will apply to most serious hermits, the ways each one will specifically go within them -- the focus one will take at any given time -- is entirely up to what one determines one is called to. If one wants to take formal courses in monastic life under recognized specialists, these can be done online for very reasonable tuition. One should probably consider doing some work in theology in a Master catechist program, etc or online if one can. (Some dioceses require a Master Catechist's certificate for those aspiring to diocesan eremitical life just to be sure they have a minimum of theological grounding.) Meanwhile, any specialized areas of interest, including those having to do with her work, will also be included in the hermit's bibliography.

Your last questions regarding the diocese's response about "just living in solitude" are excellent and perceptive. Even so, while it is true that dioceses sometimes don't believe in or esteem eremitical life, have no intention of professing diocesan hermits under Canon 603, and sometimes use this line about "Just go(ing) and liv(ing) in solitude; it's all you need" as a way of shunting the person's petition aside, this is not, I don't think, the usual reason one hears this advice. Instead it is often given to those who have not lived as a hermit at all (merely living alone is not the same thing!), much less for any length of time, and who may tend to believe the diocese will make them into hermits by putting them through some formal formation program with recognizable stages and public recognition for those accomplishing those stages. In such cases the dioceses that use this line are really saying, "Go, live in solitude and see if solitude is what God is calling you to for the rest of your life. We cannot form you as a hermit; only God in solitude can do that, so if you feel called to the silence of solitude, go and live it out." This is advice the desert Abbas and Ammas would have also given, "Just dwell in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."

So long as the diocese is not simply dismissing the person in this way, and is being honest with them, the advice is sound. So long as this advice includes the requirement of regular spiritual direction with a qualified person, and allows for followup appointments with someone in the chancery the advice is sound. So long as the time one is asked to wait for more formal consideration is not more than several years and is at least loosely (but really) supervised, then the advice is sound. Finally, so long as the diocese will engage in serious and formal discernment of the person's petition for profession under Canon 603 if they persevere in this way for several years, then yes, the advice is far more than just shunting the person aside. It reflects the Church's wisdom on how it is any person comes to know a call to eremitical life, namely by living it and trying to persevere in it with God's help.

[[When you say that formation takes place in solitude, does this preclude spiritual direction, mentoring and other forms of personal work?]]

Not at all. As I have already written it includes these things in significant measure. However, the work of spiritual direction mainly takes place apart from the meeting with one's director. One prepares for these meetings and follows up on them with the kind of writing, journaling, prayer, reflection, reading, etc that the meeting points up the need for. In one's struggles within solitude one comes into contact with all of the false, distorted, and inauthentic parts of oneself. One meets face to face those characteristics which come from woundedness, sin, etc, and require healing and conversion. While these things may require the assistance of directors, physicians, etc, the work remains mainly done in solitude where one battles things out alone with God as one's only immediate companion and support. Mentoring is similar. The one being mentored may write or otherwise talk to the mentor about difficulties she is having and the mentor may make suggestions on ways to approach these areas, but the doing of it is up to the one being mentored to accomplish in the silence of solitude.

As I have written recently, my own life was especially blessed with people who assisted me in working through the things I needed to work through, but they could not do this work for me. Certainly they could and did meet with me regularly (and in some instances still do!) but I would never have become a hermit, much less a diocesan hermit, without the capacity to internalize and process in solitude what those meetings raised or revealed --- both the divine and the human realities this involved! Some have the mistaken idea that obedience means mainly doing as one is told, but actually, it is an attitude towards reality which one cultivates --- an attitude of active and respectful listening and engagement where one meets and comes to terms with truth as well as coming to love its source and all those who reflect it in even the slightest way. Learning this kind of obedience requires assistance usually, even if the majority of the cultivating occurs in the silence of solitude.

I hope this helps!

Questions on When to Approach One's Diocese and Formation as a Lay Hermit

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I find it difficult to understand how this [process of becoming a diocesan hermit] works. [It is especially hard to understand since there is no process of formation spelled out and no guidelines on when to approach one's chancery, etc.] For instance, when Entering a monastery or convent, one is guided in their discernment in the period of time as a Postulant and continues with studies as a Novice. As a Canonical Diocesan Eremetic, you work by yourself for the 2 years or so then approach the Diocese. I have the fear that after 2 years and I approach the V.G. or Bishop, only to find out that I don't meet the requirements that may be in place or that I have done something all wrong, making this life as an Canonical Diocesan Eremetic unreachable. If I was younger, 2 years would not be a long time to wait. Now, time is certainly at a premium:) . . . Would it be feasible for you or myself to write my Diocese so they could implement some sort of recognition and acceptance for those who would be interested in living the life as a Canonical Diocesan Eremitic?]] (Sections marked in single brackets [] are clarifications, additions, or other redactions added for the purpose of posting here. Sister L)

I can understand your concerns and frustration. Unfortunately, living as a hermit (an eremite) is ordinarily necessary before one can effectively approach a diocese about such a thing. It is necessary so that one will be treated as a serious aspirant who has been discerning seriously already, and also so that one is not told to "simply go live in solitude; that is all that is necessary." Yes, it is risky (desert-dwelling always is) and one may indeed discover at the end of several years that 1) the diocese will not profess one no matter what at this point in time, or 2) that one has made a mistake and that eremitical life (lay and/or canonical) is not what one is called to, but living the life already is what every diocese I know of requires as a prerequisite to consideration for profession under Canon 603. Risky though it is, it makes complete sense because of the very nature of the vocation itself: individual, solitary (worked out between oneself and God), marginal, countercultural, independent though ecclesial, generally statusless, and rare. Canon 603 itself is not about making or forming hermits out of whole cloth or according to a particular mold, nor is it about creating a queue of hermit candidates, but of recognizing and consecrating those hermits that exist who require this canonical protection, structure, and responsibility for the complete and integral living out of their vocation. This particular discernment can take many years to be clear, and there is simply no formal process which can replace something which happens in its own time and in solitude. Because of this dioceses are not apt to change the way they approach the matter, and while vocations might be missed in the process, those which are recognized are far more apt to be authentic.

If one really believes she is called to canonical solitary eremitical life (under Canon 603), she will live this call out without canonical standing as a lay hermit for some time first. The only way to discern the vocation is to live it, and the only way to know whether one is called to Canon 603 profession/consecration, is to live as a lay hermit first. This, so far as I know, is the only way a person can really get her "ducks all in a row" so to speak, apart from originally entering religious or monastic life, being formed in that life, and then finding one requires greater solitude than that supplies. Even then, there is no guarantee a diocese will profess her or anyone else under canon 603. At that point the hermit may request canonical standing and be rebuffed (by this I mean one may be told the diocese is not ready to profess anyone under Canon 603, not that one does not have such a vocation). That can go on for quite some time (23 years 17, years, 10 years, etc, are all numbers that I have heard from diocesan hermits who waited a long time for consecration under Canon 603). On the other hand, the diocese might respond positively (or negatively) to one's petition right away. There is no two year period written into the canon anywhere even though that is a commonly used number to indicate the usual time to live something out before contacting the diocese. Even here it is a completely minimal guideline number, not a hard and fast rule. (In fact, Bishops I know of tend to require one live as a lay hermit for five years before revisiting the question of even temporary public profession.)

What is profoundly and historically true is that if God is calling one to eremitical life, one will embrace that life alone with God whether or not canonical approval is anywhere in one's future. She, for instance, will embrace it and risk never having such legal standing because that is what the desert Fathers and Mothers did, and what all solitary hermits before her have done. One will do it because one is called to maturity as an obedient person and, so, answers God's call to be with him in this way no matter where it leads or does not lead in terms of canonical standing. One will do it because its very anonymity and lack of standing prepares her for the paradoxical reality of eremitical life lived in terms of canonical responsibility and status. One will do it because it serves the Church and world, and because only those who have lived such service are in a position to teach the church about their vocation.

Canon 603 is designed to protect and nurture solitary eremitical life, but not really to cultivate it except in those who have already embraced the relative statuslessness of such a vocation. It is an interesting and difficult paradox: status (legal standing) for those who have discovered they do not really need status (social privilege) at all. When dioceses tell potential candidates they need to just go off and live in solitude (something that happens a lot really), or that they do not need to be professed under Canon 603 to be a hermit, etc, they can certainly be mistaken in individual cases, but at bottom of such advice or insistence is the recognition that Canon 603 will always be the rare and paradoxical way for hermits in the Catholic church to embrace eremitical statuslessness. It will always be a life formed and discerned in solitude with the initiative and discipline provided by God's own immediate call itself. Lay hermits will always be the more prevalent and normal form of the life, and lay eremitism will always the main way which precedes and illuminates one's discernment of a call to Canon 603 profession as well.

Again, my best advice is to work regularly with your director. You are not yet free to live a solitary life, but when you are, embrace it and discern whether you are called to this as more than a temporary and transitional reality. Consider making private vows with your director (or pastor) witnessing to assist you. Will your diocese accept you as a candidate for canonical eremitical profession if you do this? Not necessarily. There are no guarantees at all. However, if you are living the life, meet the requirements of the Canon (stricter separation from the world, silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance), have written a Rule of life reflecting your own lived experience of the life, demonstrate a personal understanding of the vows (from having lived their values) and the elements of the canon, and are canonically free from impediments to public profession and consecration (prior marriages with divorce sans annulment, for instance), there will be no reason for the diocese to suggest you have done something wrong, etc. They will ordinarily work with you at this point as they discern the character and reality of your vocation; they will look at your own personal maturity, the integrity demonstrated in embracing and living out this life without canonical standing, etc, and their eventual decision will be on the basis of whether you have demonstrated to them you have such a vocation and the capacity to live it out even apart from them. IF you can do this your chances of being accepted for canonical profession are very much better, but so too is your own ability to live this life for some time or the rest of your life even if the Church declines to profess and consecrate you under Canon 603.

The Guidebook on Eremitical Life from La Crosse was a good, if limited, guidebook for those who would eventually seek to become diocesan hermits (as well as for those who might profess them!). It covered the qualities needed by the person, the education (gotten by personal initiative), the requirements of the diocese (spiritual direction, self-sufficiency and maturity, temporary profession, etc.) and a number of other things. If you can get a copy of it, I would recommend it. It did not establish a postulancy, novitiate, or juniorate for hermit candidates, nor could it really have done so without giving the wrong message about the life and the wholly individual and solitary process of formation involved. Many dioceses have access to this guidebook and require SOME of the same things La Crosse did (my own borrowed from it, but not slavishly). Usually, however, dioceses turn to this guidebook only after they have a good candidate. In my experience dioceses don't usually know much about eremitical vocations (some few do) and one role of a serious candidate may well be to help educate them. Again, only one who has lived the life for some time will be able to do that.

08 May 2011

In Memoriam, Lillanna Kopp, SFCC, Deceased 24, April, 2011

I was waiting to post on this until I got more information. Fortunately, The Oregonian put up this obituary just one week after Lillanna's death, along with a more recent photo than the ones I had. I knew Lillanna personally as the foundress of the Sisters For Christian Community. She was an amazing woman and I count myself fortunate to have known her.

SFCC (Sisters For Christian Community), Lillanna Kopp, 91, Nov. 25, 1919 April 24, 2011 Lillanna Kopp was born in Bozeman, Mont., the youngest child of John and Leila Shotwell Kopp. A 1937 graduate of Portland's Roosevelt High School, Lillanna later entered the Convent of the Sisters of Holy Names in Marylhurst, taking the name of Sister Mary Audrey with her vows. She went on to earn degrees in education and psychology from Marylhurst College and Seattle University respectively. She earned her doctorate degree in sociology from St. Louis University in 1960, where she was the first female recipient of a teaching fellowship from the previously all-male educational institution.

Lillanna went on to have a very successful career as both a teacher and a scholar. She taught at almost every level of schooling including St. Peter, Our Lady of the Lake, and The Madeleine School of the greater Portland area, and St. Mary's of Medford. In addition, she was the principal at The Christie School and the Job Corps director of Center Life at Tongue Point Women's Center. Lillanna also held teaching positions in sociology and anthropology at Webster College, Marylhurst College, the World Campus Afloat for Chapman College and Portland Community College. Her commitment to education was only surpassed by her commitment to social justice and religious life. In 1961, she served as a delegate to the General Assembly of the U.S. Commission on UNESCO, and in 1965, actively participated in the civil rights movement as one of the founding members of the Traveling Workshop in Inter-Group Relations sponsored by The National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice (NCCIJ). She went on to be named the Director of Research and Curriculum for the Education Department of the NCCIJ in 1968.

In that same year, she published two manuscripts, "The Myth of Race" and "The New Nuns: Collegial Christians." It is the title of the latter that best represents Lillanna's greatest passion and life work. Initially as co-editor of TRANS-SISTER, a grass-roots newsletter for American nuns, and later as founder of Sisters for Christian Community (SFCC), Lillanna was a leader in the movement to transform the private and public lives of American nuns to better serve our communities and the Church. Founded in her North Portland home in 1970, today the SFCC is an international organization with members on every continent across the globe, committed to religious life and service via self-determination and collegiality. Lillanna continued her work for new non-canonical communities for American nuns throughout her retirement at her shared Sunspot in Waldport.

In 1983, she published her final manuscript, a sociological analysis of women's religious communities, titled "Sudden Spring: 6th stage Sisters: Trends of Change in Catholic Sisterhoods," and became the president of the National Coalition of American Nuns. Lillanna died Easter Sunday. As a young woman, Lillanna was preceded in death by her brothers, John and Charles Kopp; and more recently by her sister, Mary Leila Kopp Wolf, with whom, over the last two decades of her life, she shared a home, garden, a large extended family and a nightly game of Rummikub. She is survived by nieces, Diane Wolf Wheeler of West Linn; Mary Jane Wolf Aman, Linda Wolf Meacham and Nancy Wolf John, all of Portland; and Cindy Wolf Wyllie of Aloha; as well as 13 great-nieces and nephews; and 13 great-great-nieces and nephews who share her love of family and community. Lillanna's family and friends would like to thank the staff of Assumption Village and Avamere of Beaverton for their generosity of spirit and care. A celebration of her life will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, May 13, 2011, at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Tigard. Please send memorial contributions to St. Vincent de Paul Tigard Conference, 9905 S.W. McKenzie St, Tigard, OR 97223.

06 May 2011

On the Term "State(s) of Perfection"

On a list serve for those interested in Catholic eremitical life the concern about the danger of terms like "states of perfection" was raised. I want to try to explain the term, not least because Canon 603, the Church's response to Church Fathers at Vatican II, established diocesan eremitical life as a "state of perfection" which has a unique sign value to the whole Church. The term is so widely misunderstood that it has led to all kinds of destructive tendencies in thinking about vocations --- not least, the notion that some vocations are "better" than others! (This attitude, unfortunately shows up at all levels of the Church.) It has also, therefore, led to simply rejecting the meaning and import behind the actual term, rather than to attempts to clarify its meaning and embrace this accurately.

State of perfection as we are speaking of the term (e.g., eremitical life or other forms of consecrated life as "state(s) of perfection") is not the same as being (subjectively) perfect. Even so, the term is a helpful one which says something significant about certain vocations in the Church. We need to preserve the notion of states, I think --- i.e., stable ways of living the mystery of the Church --- since (perpetual) profession and consecration, as well as marriage, baptism, etc, establish persons in a stable state (status) of life which is a gift to the church via the grace of God. (Note that status or state does not mean higher and lower; it is not a comparative term.) The term "state of perfection" has been especially problematical, however, and yes, the danger of misunderstanding is huge and of significant consequence. Again, however, it does not mean that the person established in this state of life is more perfect than those who are not so established, but that the way chosen is a more perfect MEANS of achieving the goal of witnessing to the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ. Since this is true, this state of life can therefore witness to the values of poverty, chastity, obedience, in a more effective and edifying way than some other states will necessarily do. This witness serves to call all Christians to embody these values and the shared and universal goal to which they point. Persons in other states of life are challenged by and benefit from this witness. The entire Church does.

Again, this does not mean one's own discipleship of Jesus (which is not the same thing as a state of life) is necessarily better than another person's if one is vowed/consecrated, nor especially that discipleship in married life (for instance) is defective compared to that of religious life. Of course not! It does mean that mirroring the poverty, chastity, and obedience of Christ is something this (consecrated) state of life makes more truly or radically possible and more clearly visible because the entire life is structured through and around these values. Married life will embody these values, but not to the same degree or extent --- not, that is, in the radical way religious or consecrated life does, because, at the very least, one can neither have nor raise children well in the same celibate, poor, or essentially insecure situation signaled by religious or eremitical profession and consecration. I would agree we absolutely must avoid characterizing the consecrated life as a better way of life, or otherwise buying into competitive mindsets (x is "higher" than y, etc), but I understand why it is characterized as a state of perfection. If Christ had been married and raised children, we would no doubt be calling marriage a "state of perfection," not because the married couple is perfect or in a subjective state of perfection, but because marriage as a state of life would then be a more perfect MEANS to mirroring Christ's own life than celibacy would be. In fact, it would witness to values or realities consecrated celibacy (celibate love) could not witness to --- values or realities like sexual or married love, parenting, etc.

Now, it may be that the term "state of perfection" has been misunderstood and misused for so long and so thoroughly it cannot be rehabilitated, but that is another question. (I do acknowledge that it might not be salvageable; it certainly almost invariably causes misunderstanding and always requires explanation --- even amongst those who belong to states of perfection. However, I sincerely believe we must at least try to truly understand it before deciding this!) Certainly it is destructive if misunderstood, but helpful if explained and understood accurately. My own question, the one I use to help explain the meaning of the term "states of perfection" is, "Which states of life most perfectly point to the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ in a way which challenges everyone to embrace these values in some way and to some degree in their own discipleship?" Given this question, I think the answer is "those states of life which the Church has, for good or ill, therefore termed 'states of perfection.'"

01 May 2011

Thomas called Didymus: What's his Doubt Really About?

Today's Gospel focuses on the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, and one of the lessons one should draw from these stories is that we are indeed dealing with bodily resurrection, but therefore, with a kind of bodiliness which transcends the corporeality we know here and now. It is very clear that Jesus' presence among his disciples is not simply a spiritual one, in other words, and that part of Christian hope is the hope that we as embodied persons will come to perfection beyond the limits of death. It is not just our souls which are meant to be part of the new heaven and earth, but our whole selves, body and soul.

The scenario with Thomas continues this theme, but is contextualized in a way which leads homilists to focus on the whole dynamic of faith with seeing, and faith despite not having seen. It also makes doubt the same as unbelief and plays these off against faith, as though faith cannot also be served by doubt. But doubt and unbelief are decidedly NOT the same things. We rarely see Thomas as the one whose doubt SERVES true faith, and yet, that is what today's Gospel is about. Meanwhile, Thomas also tends to get a bad rap as the one who was separated from the community and doubted what he had not seen with his own eyes. The corollary here is that Thomas will not simply listen to his brother and sister disciples and believe that the Lord has appeared to or visited them. But I think there is something far more significant going on in Thomas' proclamation that unless he sees the wounds inflicted on Jesus in the crucifixion, and even puts his fingers in the very nail holes, he will not believe.

What Thomas, I think, wants to make very clear is that we Christians believe in a crucified Christ, and that the resurrection was God's act of validation of Jesus as scandalously and ignominiously Crucified. The resurrection, I think Thomas knows on some level anyway, insofar as it really occurred, does not nullify what was achieved on the cross. Instead it renders permanently valid what was revealed (manifest and made real) there. In other words, Thomas knows if the resurrection is really God's validation of Jesus' life and establishes him as God's Christ, the Lord he will meet is the one permanently established and marked as the crucified One. The crucifixion was not some great misunderstanding which could be wiped away by resurrection. Instead it was an integral part of the revelation of the nature of truly human and truly divine existence. Whether it is the Divine life, authentic human existence, or sinful human life --- all are marked in one way or another by the signs of Jesus' cross. For instance, ours is a God who has journeyed to the very darkest, godless places or realms human sin produces, and has become Lord of even those places. He does not disdain them even now but is marked by them and will journey with us there --- whether we are open to him doing so or not --- because Jesus has implicated God there and marked him with the wounds of an exhaustive kenosis.

Another piece of this is that Jesus is, as Paul tells us, the end of the Law and it was Law that crucified him. The nail holes and wounds in Jesus' side and head -- indeed every laceration which marked him -- are a sign of legal execution -- both in terms of Jewish and Roman law. We cannot forget this, and Thomas' insistence that he really be dealing with the Crucified One reminds us vividly of this fact as well. The Jewish and Roman leaders did not crucify Jesus because they misunderstood him, but because they understood all-too-clearly both Jesus and the immense power he wielded in his weakness and poverty. They understood that he could turn the values of this world, its notions of power, authority, etc, on their heads. They knew that he could foment profound revolution (religious and otherwise) wherever he had followers. They chose to crucify him not only to put an end to his life, but to demonstrate he was a fraud who could not possibly have come from God; they chose to crucify him to terrify those who might follow him into all the places discipleship might really lead them --- especially those places of human power and influence associated with religion and politics. The marks of the cross are a judgment (krisis) on this whole reality.

There are many gods and even manifestations of the real God available to us today, and so there were to Thomas and his brethren in those first days and weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus. When Thomas made his declaration about what he would and would not believe, none of these were crucified Gods or would be worthy of being believed in if they were associated with such shame and godlessness. Thomas knew how very easy it would be for his brother and sister disciples to latch onto one of these, or even to fall back on entirely traditional notions in reaction to the terribly devastating disappointment of Jesus' crucifixion. He knew, I think, how easy it might be to call the crucifixion and all it symbolized a terrible misunderstanding which God simply reversed or wiped away with the resurrection -- a distasteful chapter on which God has simply turned the page. Thomas knew that false prophets showed up all the time. He knew that a God who is distant and all-powerful is much easier to believe in (and follow) than one who walks with us even in our sinfulness or who empties himself to become subject to the powers of sin and death, especially in the awful scandal and ignominy of the cross --- and who expects us to do essentially the same.

In other words, Thomas' doubt may have had less to do with the FACT of a resurrection, than it had to do with his concern that the disciples, in their desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced, had truly met and clung to the real Lord, the crucified One. In this way their own discipleship will come to be marked by the signs of the cross as they preach, suffer, and serve in the name (and so, in the paradoxical power) of THIS Lord and no other. Only he could inspire them; only he could sustain them; only he could accompany them wherever true discipleship led them.

Paul said, "I want to know Christ crucified and only Christ crucified" because only this Christ had transformed sinful, godless reality with his presence, only this Christ had redeemed even the realms of sin and death by remaining open to God even within these realities. Only this Christ would journey with us to the unexpected and unacceptable places, and in fact, only he would meet us there with the promise and presence of a God who would bring life out of them. Thomas, I believe, knew precisely what Paul would soon proclaim himself, and it is this, I think, which stands behind his insistence to see the wounds and put his fingers in the very nail holes. He wanted to be sure his brethren were putting their faith in the crucified One, the one who turned everything upside down and relativized every other picture of God we might believe in. He became the great doubter because of this, but I suspect instead, he was the most astute theologian among the original Apostles. He, like Paul, wanted to know Christ Crucified and ONLY Christ Crucified.

We should not trivialize Thomas' witness by transforming him into a run of the mill empiricist and doubter!! Instead we should imitate his insistence: we are called upon to be followers of the Crucified God, and no other. Every version of God we meet should be closely examined for nail holes, and the lance wound. Only then do we know this IS the God proclaimed in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, the only one worthy of being followed even into the darkest reaches of human sin and death, the only One who meets us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place, the only one who loves us with an eternal love from which nothing can separate us.