20 July 2011

Kohlberg's stages, Ego, and the Desire for Renown

Sister I read the following online. It was written last September and I wondered if you could comment on it since you have written on the issue yourself.

[[As for someone who keeps tabs on such matters has informed, there is still the niggling over what hermits call themselves or not, whether a Catholic hermit or a whobody hermit, whether Jesus' Catholic hermit or Canon Law's Catholic Hermit. Whether a priest can call a hermit a Catholic hermit, or whether a Bishop must call a hermit a Catholic hermit.

Of course, ultimately and presently, it does not matter. Such niggling only brings the nigglers to the imprisonment of Kohlberg's fourth stage (or even down to the second) of moral development. To a hermit of Christ, a Catholic hermit without identity, it does not matter. It does not matter to pew Catholics, nor to non-Catholics. And it will never matter to anyone but those few who are caught up in identity and need for renown in the visible Church.

Yes, I have read the comment, but as you note, it was a while ago. In fact I also responded to a question regarding another post from the same blog just a month later so I am certainly familiar with it. The author has an interesting and, to my mind anyway, somewhat cynical perspective on diocesan eremitical life. The question from the same time period I already responded to had to do with visibility as a betrayal of the authentic eremitical vocation. In answering that I referred to the essential hiddenness of the hermit life. I also clarified the source of Canon 603 and how both Canon Law and the Catechism impact the life of the canonical hermit --- for they do so quite in different ways. At this point I should note that the blogger in question is no longer adding posts to this blog, and claims to have moved beyond the designations "hermit" or "Catholic hermit" --- though of course the older posts are still extant and apparently still being read. Because of that, I suppose I will continue to respond to occasional questions regarding older posts.

Kohlberg's Stages Misunderstood

In dealing with Kohlberg's stages of moral development, it is probably important to clarify that, at least as I understand the matter, when one moves to another stage of moral development, elements of the earlier stages do not simply drop away. Instead, they are transcended through integration into a more comprehensive and less one-sided or undifferentiated stage of moral decision-making. So, for instance, a person who went through a stage in moral development where law was their driving concern (and we all do this) may still allude to law in making moral decisions without becoming legalistic, or to the place of authority (4th stage development) without subscribing (or regressing) to a "law and order" way of justifying moral behavior and choices. We see this in people who respect the law and authority but who are capable of creative responses to moral situations law is too general to address. That person might well refer to law or legitimate authority, but be quite far from being driven by a "law-and-order" mentality or legalism of any kind. In fact, it is a sign of relative maturity that in their creative responses to reality they can allow law and authority a proper place.

Thus, one may be well-anchored in what Kohlberg identifies as the post-conventional or more mature and less self-centered stages of justifying moral decisions and still point out that law is important. The same with genuine authority. My own position that Canon Law serves love in various ways (to the extent this is actually true and allowed to be true) is an example of this kind of justification I think. What is preeminently important in determining what is moral (and truly human) here is charity, but the person who loves well does not simply or generally jettison law or authority in the process. Neither does a theologian who refers to authority in the Church, or to the rightful (pastoral!) application of canon law, automatically regress to earlier stages of moral development and motivation in so doing. The opposite is more likely true if the emphasis is truly on the pastoral. On the other hand, the person who dismisses the rightful place of law and authority in life may well be regressing to a more infantile and individualistic "anything goes so long as it serves me" stage of moral decision making.

So Who Cares?

The second point the poster makes is that who is or is not a Catholic hermit does not matter to anyone except those "few who are caught up in identity and need for renown in the visible Church." I suspect the author meant ego rather than identity (for existing in Christ is a matter of significant identity, though not of ego) but I can only respond to what she said. Of course I disagree, and I do so because words have meaning and the meaning of words (and the lives and other realities they describe) is important to people. As I have noted before, there is a thing called "truth in advertising" and if one says they are a Catholic Hermit, others have the right to expect that they are using the term in the way the Catholic Church uses it and have accepted all the rights and commensurate obligations which are linked to it. That is only fair and only charitable to others who seek to understand and trust the reality to which the term points. It is also only fair to the word itself, for to use it any way one wishes is to empty the word of meaning and make it untrustworthy or unbelievable. As I have noted before, a word that comes to mean anything at all simultaneously comes to mean nothing whatsoever.

This blog has noted a number of times that the term Catholic Hermit indicates a public vocation accepted and lived out in the name of the Church, and perforce, it therefore means that others necessarily have a right to certain expectations of the one so designated. They do not necessarily have the right to those same expectations when the person is a privately dedicated hermit. Again, while this emphatically does not mean that the lay hermit is less a hermit or lives the life less well than the diocesan hermit, it does mean that 1) the diocesan hermit is responsible to the Church and in a formal and objective way that differs from the more private responsibility of the lay hermit, and 2) this results in expectations on the part of the faithful which are their right by virtue of the hermit's public profession and consecration.

To argue that speaking of the import of canonical standing or the designation "Catholic Hermit" and all these things mean for the hermit and others is "niggling" or that people in the pew don't care who is called these things is naive, and perhaps disingenuous. If a person showed up at Mass and introduced herself as a "Catholic Hermit", but later on made it clear that she really only meant she was Catholic and living a relatively pious life alone, one doesn't have to think hard to see what the result would be. It would be especially problematical if, for instance, that person calling themselves a hermit proved to have serious emotional difficulties and used the term hermit to justify social isolation, an inability to love people, or a spirituality which was so individualistic as to interfere with one's capacity to participate in or build community. In all these instances the person would be furthering destructive stereotypes of the term "hermit" --- something which is, unfortunately, not uncommon. (Remember the post about Tom Leppard.) It would, if qualified as the life of a "Catholic Hermit", be especially detrimental to a general understanding of the vocation the Church has only recognized in Canon Law for the first time beginning just 28 years ago.

Of course, it is absolutely true that most people are unlikely to care which Canon prohibits the use of the term "Catholic" for individuals and groups except as appropriate authority allows, but they will surely care whether a person IS what they claim to be or not, especially if they are not using the terms in the same sense the Church does more generally. The above examples of stereotypes aside, consider a person showing up at a parish in a habit, or using the title Sister or Brother (and expecting others to do likewise in their regard) because by baptism we are all sisters and brothers to one another. Would a parish congregation really not care that the title and garb were self-assumed? Would it really not matter that the person has no authority to do this, no formation, no legitimate supervision, no formal and binding commitment in law, and apparently, no real concern for or responsibility to the people (or local church and community) to whom they are presenting themselves? I have to say my own parish and diocese would certainly care. In any case, even if they failed to care would this be a cogent argument? Do we really want to say, "No one really cares about the truth here, so it doesn't matter"?

On A Desire For Renown

Finally, a note regarding identity and being caught up in the need for renown. First, as noted above, ego and identity are very different things and should not be confused with one another. As Christians we have a unique identity in the world. It is a significant identity, and one which is a gift to us and to the rest of the church and world whenever it is lived with integrity. To be clear about our own identity can be a way of honoring the Spirit who graces us and forms us in this identity. To indicate that one is a diocesan or "Catholic" Hermit is a way of being clear that the Holy Spirit is working in the Church this way, and in fact, in one's own life specifically. Since this work is essentially redemptive and a source of hope to many, it is no small matter! And if this is true, then admitting one's identity in the Church is a piece of humbly accepting oneself and glorifying God. It need have nothing whatsoever to do with a desire for personal renown, so one ought to be wary of judging motives on the basis of external conditions alone.

For instance, I have a blog and this last year did a podcast. Did (or do) I do those for personal renown, or because these serve the Church and this vocation by helping people become aware of it and transcend some of the stereotypes which still attach to it? The external reality (the blog, the podcast) is the same, but the motives cannot be seen merely by looking to the external reality. The same is true of habit, title, and post-nomial initials. Did I adopt and do I use these because of ego and a desire for renown, or is there a more legitimate reason? As the blogger you quote also says, "The habit (externals) does not make the person." True enough but this truth cuts two ways: it may refer to the arrogant or hypocritical religious (or hermit) in a habit, of course, but it may also refer to the person who is smug and condescending in his "hiddenness" or exterior obscurity while judging the other on appearances. The simple fact is that most likely there are elements of both stellar motives and less stellar ones present in any person's divided, ambivalent heart. Once again, last Sunday's parable of the weeds and wheat is appropriate here, I think. When dealing with the motives of another, we must allow these to stand and grow alongside one another for fear of uprooting (or in this case, mis-judging) what is of God. We should trust the person to deal with her own ambivalence or ambiguity over time. Judgment is rightly and ultimately left to "God and his angels."

Regarding hermits and renown more generally though, it should be recalled that they have, at times, been drawn kicking and screaming (or the inner equivalent of that) --- but obedient nonetheless --- into the ecclesiastical and even political limelight, sometimes becoming Cardinals and even Popes in the process. One hardly considers they agreed to this as part of a hunger or drive for renown (much less a regression to a more primitive stage of moral decision-making defined in terms of self-interest and benefit). My mind goes back to Peter Damian (Camaldolese) who was one such hermit-Cardinal and Doctor of the Church. He was a reformer and prodigious writer, battling against simony and other problems through open letters and pamphlets. Was he accepting of the title Cardinal (etc.) because he was hungry for renown? Did he get involved in questions of reform and renewal out of mere self-interest? A prudent or judicious person would hardly suggest this without real evidence!

16 July 2011

More Questions on Loneliness

[[Sister Laurel, I read what you wrote about loneliness recently. Thank you. Can you explain what you mean by malignant loneliness and why you describe it that way?...]]

I really appreciate the questions that come my way because of this blog. As you say, recently someone asked about loneliness and what I do if and when I feel lonely. I wrote that I sometimes feel lonely when I have something in particular to share (something I have read, heard, which came up in prayer, etc). I have not stopped thinking about loneliness and the distinctions I drew. This weekend I have been reading Jaycee Dugard's, memoirs of her time in captivity after her abduction. For these reasons and others your questions are very timely. While Ms Dugard's story is difficult in many ways, it is also amazing, particularly for those who are interested in isolation or physical solitude, the redemption of isolation --- especially as a process of healing and maturation --- or for the incredible capacity of the human being to be sustained by love and the hope of love --- even love which is distant or barely remembered.

One of the things Ms Dugard describes so well though is what I would call malignant loneliness. She describes this as a dominant feeling throughout her story, and at one point she says the following. [[Lonely, that's how I feel. Lonely and incomplete.]] It seems to me that Jaycee puts her finger on the reason hermits do not generally feel a kind of malignant loneliness, a complicated loneliness which includes a desperate need to fill the hole, a kind of solitariness which can be anxious, depressed, indiscriminately searching, open even to illegitimate affirmation and validation, and subject to all the kinds of distraction and anesthesia our culture offers, etc. Hermits do not always feel God's presence, nor do they need to. They may certainly feel a longing for God which is profound, but even so, they do feel an essential completion by God's love and this really foundational love results in a sense of essential wholeness which prevents loneliness from becoming a malignant reality.

When I used the term malignant loneliness the first time a while back (two or so years ago for A Nun's Life and some questions Sister Julie asked me), I wasn't completely clear why I chose that term either so your question is excellent. In thinking about all this recently, it became freshly clear to me that some forms of loneliness stem from deficiencies which touch every aspect of our lives. They have tendrils which leave nothing unaffected, and their roots are so deep that nothing seems to be able to touch them and ease the situation. In using the term malignant I think I had in mind something like a cancer which metastasizes aggressively or has sticky tendrils like a glioma and leaves nothing untouched. Jaycee Dugard lived and wrote about the same kind of thing in her book, The Lost Life.

At the same time, there is not simply deficiency but potentiality involved in all this. We feel the lack of something because we are made for it and/or have experienced it in the past. We feel its lack because we are indeed incomplete without it. Jaycee Dugard's tremendous loneliness was/is not only a result of the loss of certain people in her life, but comes from the loss of all kinds of relationships which would allow her to create a real future and share her life. {Prescinding for the moment from the extended abuse, torture, and dehumanization she experienced) her own loneliness and personal incompleteness is not merely the result of being snatched from those that really love her, but resulted from being taken from a context in which her life made sense and could be freely given to others. She was not allowed to be known by her own name, was never called by that name, and she was not even allowed to let her daughters know she was their mother!! (Again, and despite my caution regarding calling many things that are something else, "loneliness", I think it is important to realize that loneliness can name a kind of frustration or yearning that results from the inability or lack of opportunity to share ourselves and contribute as profoundly as we are called to do in and to the lives of others.) This may be part of a truly malignant loneliness (as it was in Ms Dugard's life) or it may be part of a simple loneliness at being unable to share something meaningful with a friend (as it can be with a hermit who chooses physical solitude).

I hope this helps answer your questions.

11 July 2011

Solemnity of St Benedict: "Unlearning Possession"

Benedict's Rule was a humane development of Rules already in existence. In it he truly sought to put down "nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." Today's section of chapter 33 of the Rule of St Benedict focuses on private possessions. The monk depends entirely on what the Abbot/Abbess allows (another section of the daily reading from the Rule makes it clear that the Abbot/Abbess is to make sure their subjects have what they need!) Everything in the monastery is held in common, as was the case in the early Church described in Acts. Today, in a world where consumerism means borrowing from the future of those who follow us, and robbing the very life of the planet, this lesson is one from which we can all benefit. Benedictine Oblate, Rachel M Srubas reflects on the necessary attitude we all need to cultivate, living as we do in the household of God:


Neither deprivation nor excess,
poverty nor privilege,
in your household.
Even the sheets on "my" bed,
the water flowing from the shower head,
belong to us all and to none of us
but you, who entrust everything to our use.

When I was a toddler,
I seized on the covetous power
of "mine."
But faithfulness requires the slow
unlearning of possession:
to do more than say to a neighbor,
"what's mine is yours."
Remind me what's "mine"
is on loan from you,
and teach me to practice sacred economics:
meeting needs, breaking even, making do.

From, Oblation, Meditations of St Benedict's Rule

My prayers for and very best wishes to my Sisters and Brothers in the Benedictine family on this Solemnity of St Benedict! Special greetings to the Camaldolese Sisters at Transfiguration Monastery, the monks at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, and New Camaldoli in Big Sur, the Trappistine Sisters at Redwoods Monastery in Whitethorn, CA, and all those at Bishop's Ranch (Healdsburg, CA) participating in the Benedictine Experience Retreat.

And finally, congratu-lations and deepest thanks to Sister Donald Corcoran, OSB Cam, prioress of Transfig-uration Monastery on this, the 50th anniversary of her monastic vows. The gift of self and revelation of God's own goodness represented by such a commitment is a blessing worthy of profound thanksgiving.

(Sister Laurel, Er Dio, and Sister Donald, OSB Cam, at Benedictine Experience Retreat, 2009)

Also, a friend sent me a couple of pictures of Sister Donald, et al, from the Benedictine Experience Retreat on the Feast of St Benedict (Bishop's Ranch, Summer 2011). Thanks Dorothy!

(Sister Donald Corcoran and Father Robert Hale, OSB Cam at celebration of Sister Donald's 50 year Jubilee with champagne (wine?) and strawberry shortcake.

Sister Donald sprinkling assembly outside chapel

10 July 2011

"One True Word" by James Carroll

While cleaning out some old books I came across one with a poem-prayer I first came to love many years ago now; it was, I think, when I was in initial formation in the Franciscans. It was a timely discovery given today's Gospel re seed and soils and speaks to so many of the concerns I have written about here and elsewhere: the nature of persons as language events and also called to be the Word made Flesh in some sense, the New Testament idea of parrhesia or bold speech which is authentically human and inspired and empowered by God, the overwhelming saturation of our world with meaningless speech which dehumanizes us and trivializes reality; (here I think especially of the posts I recently wrote about the distinction between "friending" and befriending, as well as the fact that cell phones have become extensions of many persons' bodies and a symbol of the trivial language-events we can allow our own lives to become). There is nothing essentially new in any of this however, as James Carroll makes clear. The poem is from his book, Tender of Wishes, The Prayers of a Young Priest.

One True Word

"They were filled and began to speak in other tongues" (Acts 2:5)

We lean, tentative, anxious, together.
We summon courage and small trust,
and with dried voices dare to speak,
to unpierce ourselves, unhide the secret
with carefully chosen and just possible words.
We whisper together, we utter,
but the words are easier than we are
and they run loud and meaningless,
wind through dry grass, shambles of hope,
shod-iron feet through splintered glass.
Words even great and pregnant ones,
have grown up or shrunk or frozen
into yet another obstacle to union of sorts.
Words are yet another sentence, condemnation,
telling us dry and again how alone we are.
It is nearly time for silence always.
We are cheap words longing to be still.
We are, alternately, silence dreaming
of being spoken word however trite.
What we need, in a word, is a word
that goes both ways and can bear much use.


God, there is, we believe, one word
which never was trite or cheapened,
which survives the eternal attempt
to lock it into our predictable vocabulary.
That word is your Son, we believe,
spoken by You from all ever until now,
near us in the flesh of Jesus Christ.
Forgive us our making a lie of Him
on our bloody, blaspheming lips.
Speak him again and with both edges
cutting quick through our thick
and cloudy and wordy confusion.
Open our ears to hear him again,
the one pure sound, the one true word,
the one utterance in whom we, men, meet.
Quicken our tongues to speak him yet,
our one hope here for saying something
true and wise, with love and some sense.

A Question on Catechism Paragraphs 920 and 921

Sister Laurel, what you write about the following texts is different from what this other hermit writes about it. Could you explain why that is?

[[What constitutes a consecrated Catholic hermit? The Church is specific in sheer simplicity: "920 Without always professing the three evangelical counsels publicly, hermits 'devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance.' "921 They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One." . . .So it is, too, with the reality of what is a consecrated hermit. It is written out in the Church's Catechism, in two clear-cut, line-item paragraphs. The [specific person] is advised to not debate, question, or reinterpret. Best to succinctly and simply: read; ponder, accept. And live it. ]]

Sure, though I have written about this before so please check out related posts in the labels' list on the right. The two paragraphs taken from the Catechism come from a section called "The Consecrated Life." They  are very brief statements about essentials and therefore presume all the other things the Church teaches about consecrated life to contextualize and understand them properly. Part of that is that initiation into the consecrated state of life is achieved via a public commitment received in the name of the Church. It requires admittance into a stable state of life. State of life here refers to something like lay, consecrated, or ordained states. It does not refer to eremitical life itself.

So, for instance, the glossary at the back of the Catechism reads in part, "Consecrated Life: A permanent state of life recognized by the church, entered freely in response to the call of Christ to perfection and characterized by the profession of the evangelical counsels. . ." Note that private vows do not lead to a permanent state of life. Consecration is defined in the same glossary as, "The dedication of a thing or person to divine service by a prayer or blessing. . ." Thus, the prayer of consecration in Mass in which bread and wine are transformed and set aside as holy, or the prayer of consecration in rites of profession which complements the dedication of the vows. (In the instance of hermits, this prayer is prayed by the Bishop with hands outstretched over the hermit at the rite of perpetual profession.)

Thus, and contrary to what I have written before about these paragraphs including a reference to lay hermits, they do not refer to private vows or private commitments despite the phrase, "without always professing the evangelical counsels publicly." Here, the accent is not on publicly (vs privately), but instead on the possibility of using "other sacred bonds" than the three vows. Diocesan hermits (consecrated solitary hermits) may use a form of commitment other than vows, and are the only form of consecrated life who may do so. This somewhat confusing and clumsy sentence (at least in English!) is a reference to this fact because the definition of Consecrated life refers specifically to the profession of evangelical counsels with vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The exception in the case of diocesan hermits needed to be explicitly mentioned, so the sentence needs to be understood as saying something like, "Diocesan hermits always make a public commitment, but they do not always use vows to do that".

The mistake made by the person you quoted is the mistake of failing to contextualize what s/he read, and treating these paragraphs as though they can be read apart from the established ecclesial definitions of consecrated life, consecration, and the Church's own theology of these things. They cannot, and to do so is to engage in not a simple but a simplistic reading. My own failure in reading these paragraphs was similar: I was confused by the reference to "publicly" and thinking it was used to contrast with "privately." While I was aware Canon 603 says, "or other sacred bonds" (besides vows) I had never heard of a case and thought vows were, at least customarily the way every diocesan hermit went. It took a conversation with a canonist friend to sort that out. In any case, for these reasons I thought these paragraphs also referred to lay hermits (in a somewhat confused way given the heading of the section, The Consecrated Life). I no longer think so, although I think these paragraphs should be edifying to lay hermits.

P.S, the Catechism definition of consecrated life is generally correct (if truncated and minimally helpful to actual hermits) but Canons 603 and 604 both represent exceptions. Canon 603 (diocesan hermits) represents an exception because they may use "other sacred bonds" besides vows. Canon 604 (consecrated virgins) represents an exception because there are no vows at all. Still, they both represent public commitments with initiation into the consecrated state.

08 July 2011

More On Spiritualizing "Stricter Separation from the World"

In an earlier post (June 25,2011), I explained that I had not intended to spiritualize the essential element in Canon 603 known as "stricter separation from the world." In the first place I was trying to counter a rather common misconception in eremitical life, and especially the eremitical life of beginners, namely, that "the world" can be hypostatized or treated as a wholly separate reality external to the hermitage. When this occurs one hears hermits (or monastics more generally) speaking as though the hermitage or monastery is not an instance of the world, while condemning everything outside the cell, hermitage, or monastery as "worldly". We have all heard monastics say, "When I left the world" --- speaking about entering the monastery --- or, "Brother so and so has returned to the world" --- speaking about leaving monastic life, etc. Only when very carefully explained can these statements cease to mislead us into thinking of "out there" -- the everyday world -- as "the world."

But, in Scripture and in theological reflection on everyday spatio-temporal reality, "the world" is a polyvalent or tensive symbol --- a symbol which has several meanings which create tension between them --- which includes God's good creation as well as that which resists Christ. It also refers to the sinful human heart which is equally ambiguous. Because of this, the notion that one can simply close the monastery or hermitage door on "the world" is false, a distortion of reality, and in affirming this fundamental untruth one actually makes of the hermitage an outpost of that which is resistant to Christ. Because of this, I stressed that the term "Stricter separation from the world," as Canon 603 uses the term, was primarily about the state of the individual heart and its conversion, and only secondarily (though necessarily!) about physical separation from significant aspects of reality.

Abdicating our Responsibility to Discern the Incarnate God's Presence in Everyday Life

There were two other reasons I stressed the spiritual dimension of this term as well. Both are related to hypostatizing "the world" and treating it as "that which is outside the hermitage or monastery." In the first one, what we find is that when one forgets about the ambiguity of reality and embraces such an unnuanced perspective, one abdicates one's responsibility to discern what is of God and what is not. One rejects everything as "the world" in the pejorative sense of the term, (i.e., that which is resistant to Christ) when in fact much of what one is thus rejecting is good, beautiful, true, and more than capable of mediating God's presence and summoning to holiness. This affects the soundness of one's spirituality on every level. It fosters dangerous judgments about what is possible outside the monastery (for instance that holiness is not possible out in the everyday world, that lay life is an inferior form of vocation, that the ordinary affairs of people are necessarily distractions from genuinely spiritual life and divide the human heart, etc, etc).

It can lead to notions of contemplative life which are insensitive to and unappreciative of God's presence in significant ways; it can lead to notions of spirituality rooted in an anti-pleasure principle and overly dependent on pain and other forms of unpleasantness (if food is unpalatable eat it, if pleasant avoid it; if something is beautiful eschew it, if it is gratifying to the other senses, reject it, etc, etc). This all seems to me to be counter to the truth of the Incarnation: namely, that God comes to us in everyday reality and asks us to recognize and affirm him there rather than being scandalized by his presence in life's ordinariness.

The Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat Applied to this Situation

It also seems to me that Jesus' parable of the weeds and the wheat speaks to this situation very pointedly. We must not precipitously and simply attempt to pull up the weeds as though they are clearly evident and wholly separate from the wheat. In fact, this is simply not so, and we cannot see clearly enough to do this. Discernment and patience are necessary. We must live with ambiguity because otherwise we will certainly throw out some plants that actually witness to and mediate the presence of God to nourish us. More, we must allow God to clarify our own vision and hearts through all of this. Stricter physical separation from much of the ambiguity is necessary, but the hermit must always remember that "the world" Canon 603 inveighs against is a function first of all of the human heart, and it is this which is the source of our world's ambiguity.

Let me give one example of the way Jesus' parable might work with regard to conversation with others, for instance. I have spoken with a person who wishes to be a hermit who refuses to speak of anything but "spiritual matters" with those she meets. What qualifies as spiritual is God, Christ, the Saints, spiritual books (19th C or earlier --- nothing contemporary!), monastic values, etc. All other topics have been torn out at the roots, so to speak. The result, of course, is not only a loss of friends, but the very matter in and through which God reveals himself. Everything is abstracted from the concrete, and thus, rendered empty. For instance, while one can speak of love, hope, holiness, etc, one cannot speak of the nitty gritty situations, relationships, and daily struggles which give rise to these as concerns, questions, problems, etc.

Karl Barth once referred to religious discourse of this sort, especially in terms of preaching the Gospel without either listening or responding to the every day lives and questions of those to whom the preacher is speaking. It is akin to throwing a rock into a lake. It profoundly disturbs the surface of the pool and immediately sinks to the bottom; it makes ripples, the ripples spread, die away quickly, and everything is left as before --- except that now religion seems to be extraneous and even irrelevant to every day life while the Gospel is seen as incapable of speaking in an effective way to people who use non-religious language. But of course, this is what the incarnation never allows us to do. In Christ our God uses a new and scandalous form of discourse; he comes to us PERSONALLY in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. He comes to understand our situation intimately from the inside out and he redeems us in the same way. He loves, not abstractly, but concretely. The Word he speaks to us is his own self, but it addresses our deepest needs and desires, in whatever way and language we use to pose them. If we forget this, we may well forget ourselves to listen to the person's own spiritual language, classify it as "the world," and tear up the wheat along with the weeds, long before it is able to produce fruit. This is a serious problem with those who tend to hypostatize the term "the world" as this person does.

Abdicating our Responsibility to Speak Prophetically to our World by Hypostatizing "the World"

The second problem I wanted to deal with is intimately related to this. It had to do with the responsibility of the hermit to speak prophetically to the world outside the hermitage. While the prophet certainly summons to repentance, more fundamentally that repentance is a way of affirming the deeper truth and potential of reality. It is meant to recall the world which has moved from God, and therefore to fragmentation, incompleteness, and bondage,  and draw it into true freedom in God. The hermit separates herself from the world to some extent so that she may see it clearly, and address it honestly from a perspective of relative spiritual freedom from entanglements and enmeshment in that which is resistant to Christ or contrary to true dependence upon God. The desert is not so much a destination as it is a context which allows the hermit to achieve freedom and then to summon the rest of reality to the same freedom. Hermits journey for many years in the desert, but the purpose is not only the purification of the hermit's own heart, but a return in some appropriate way to that which was left behind so that it can be loved to wholeness and reminded of its truest destiny.

When the hermit hypostatizes the world so that everything outside the hermitage is treated as though it is sinful, false, distorted, and estranged from God without also being ambiguous and so, true, beautiful, valuable, and capable of mediating God's very self to us, there ceases to be any reason to return to that world with the message of the Kingdom. We are unable to return to the world with the Gospel message and a purified heart which allows us to call the world to fulfillment not only because we treated "the world" as that which was outside us, but because we refused to see its potentialities --- the fact that it is ALSO God's good creation meant to be reconciled and brought to fulfillment as the new heaven and earth spoken of in Scripture.

The hermit does not turn her back on "the world." She attends to "the world" with and in the love of God, first as she discovers that love in the conflicted and fragmented space of her own heart, her own personal center, and then, by finding ways to address "the world" as it exists outside of herself with the hope she comes to know and embody in the silence of solitude. She learns to see what is real, what is true, what is beautiful, what is holy in everyday reality. She learns to see not only the distortion and untruth but also the potential hidden in that reality just as she learned to discern and accept the distortions and potential in her own heart. In so doing, God is allowed to bring reality to perfection and fullness.

So, again, I had no intention of spiritualizing c 603's requirement of stricter separation from the world. Physical separation is essential, but again it is meant to serve what is primary: the personal healing and sanctification of the hermit's own self, a freeing from enmeshment in "the world" precisely so she may serve reality in sympathetic detachment and prophetic presence. Once again, many thanks to the diocesan hermit/friend who raised the question!

04 July 2011

Fourth of July (Reprise)

Only one thought occurs to me on this day, and that is that Christians have much to tell America about the nature of true freedom, even while they are grateful for a country which allows them the liberty to practice their faith pretty much as they wish and need. Too often today Freedom is thought of as the ability to do anything we want. It is the quintessential value of the narcissist. And yet, within Christian thought and praxis freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. It is the direct counterpart of Divine sovereignty and is other-centered. I believe our founding fathers had a keen sense of this, but today, it is a sense Americans often lack. Those of us who celebrate the freedom of Christians can help recover a sense of this necessary value by embracing it more authentically ourselves.

Meanwhile, All good wishes for the birthday of our Nation! Celebrate well in genuine Freedom!!