19 August 2011

On Hermitages becoming 501(c)3 (non profits)

[[Hi Sister Laurel, may diocesan hermits/hermitages become non-profits (501(c)3's)? Have you done that? ]]

Good questions. Please know that my answers here are completely provisional and I have not spoken to either canon or civil lawyers in any detail regarding this option. Also, I will limit my answers to the practicality and legitimacy of using 501(c)3 standing, and not to questions of self-support, poverty, the place of benefactors, etc. Your own question does come up occasionally, however. In fact, I was speaking to another hermit several weeks ago about this matter because he was interested in doing so and wondered what I knew and thought about it.

First, I have not done this because while religion is certainly the essential reason for the existence of Stillsong, there is no way to affirm that any monies coming to the hermitage are not meant to benefit myself directly. 501(c)3 status is not to be used in such a way. [[A section 501(c)(3) organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, such as the creator or the creator's family, shareholders of the organization, other designated individuals, or persons controlled directly or indirectly by such private interests. No part of the net earnings of a section 501(c)(3) organization may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual. A private shareholder or individual is a person having a personal and private interest in the activities of the organization.]] Since I do 1) not have multiple dwellings (e.g., hermitages for others as well as self), 2) own my own land, 3) allow for retreats or have the expenses of providing for guests, etc, there is little about my own hermitage that is specifically for others or which requires a separate set of books and all that implies. Thus I think that everything here at Stillsong benefits me primarily and directly. While I sincerely hope it also benefits others, it usually does so indirectly, not in the way the non-profit law envisions or provides for, I think.

This said, yes, it is possible for Canon 603 hermits to attain non-profit status. The guidebook on eremitical life put out in the past by the Diocese of LaCrosse is clear on this, and the IRS certainly allows it of publicly professed hermits. However, I personally don't think that every diocesan hermit should pursue this, or could do so either effectively or fruitfully. It could be a good idea if one was part of a laura of hermits and generally depended on benefactors (and the laura itself) for one's support or, was a solitary hermit in a situation like that described above, but for the solitary hermit who is simply part of a parish, works within the hermitage to support herself, and lives in a single resident dwelling, apartment, condo, or something similar, 501(c)3 status makes little sense. The hermit I spoke with about this had communicated with a canonist about it and the canonist had raised the same point noted above. He couldn't support the effort because all monies coming to the hermit benefited the hermit directly.

I do think it is a good idea for a diocesan hermit who is considering applying for 501(c)3 status to speak with a civil attorney who can explain the possibilities and limitations. It is completely possible that I simply don't understand how such non-profit status can apply to my own life and ministry or assist these, for instance, and yet there may be valid ways that it does.

17 August 2011

Diocesan Hermits as Hothouse Blooms?

[[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have read where diocesan hermits are really a kind of betrayal of the eremitical ideal. You have answered questions on this yourself. One lay hermit writes, [[Hermit is a label, and [I] have realized people have very strong opinions and judgments of what is or is not a "hermit". Or a "Catholic hermit." Or a "canonically approved" or "diocesan hermit." Or a "lay hermit" or "privately consecrated hermit." Chucked them all. The formal garden variety of hermits, the canonical ones, are very much as grandifloras, tea, and other cultivated roses have become. Tended, noticed, prized, utilized, pruned, fertilized, identified, sprayed, winterized, mulched, composted, photographed, named, protected. The wild rose is out there, on its own, no temporal usefulness, loads of thorns, mostly undetected. Has to exist on the natural elements of God alone: air, rain, snow, sun, soil, darkness.]] I think she makes some good points. It looks to me like lay hermits are truer to the historical ideals of eremitical life. Since you are a diocesan hermit with some of those strong opinions referred to what do you think about the analogies used?]]]

Agreements and Disagreements

First, I genuinely agree with aspects of this quotation. For instance, I agree that in some ways it is much harder to live as a lay hermit without official standing (besides one's baptism) in the Church than it is to live as a diocesan hermit. It is true that the heart of any eremitical vocation is the fact that we must live with, from, and for God alone, and it is easier to do that when one has a sense that doing so is something recognized as infinitely valuable and when others have validated this vocation. This is true regarding the eremitical vocation generally and with regard to the individual's own call specifically. It is especially true in a world which does not understand or value solitude, or the essentially spiritual nature or divine grounding of human beings and in a Church which, despite a long history of official esteem for this, seems not to really value contemplative life --- much less solitary contemplative life. Hermits, as I have written many times, are always on the margins of society; when one lives in this way with official standing it creates a kind of freedom to explore this counter-cultural space without concern for the world's response to this. There is no doubt that in some ways it is much easier to live in this way when there is some sort of concrete approval for at least the vocation itself.

I would disagree that the eremitical vocation is "temporally useless" and I think qualifying "useless" in terms of temporality is confusing since every hermit lives in space and time. Another phrase (e.g., "in worldly terms") might be better. It is true that hermits are not producers, do not generally involve themselves in consumerism (thus contributing very little to the GNP, or economy generally). They are not mainly involved in ministries we can point to as valuable or fruitful. I would even argue that hermits are not some sort of "powerhouse of prayer" who --- as I read recently --- bring grace to those who do not pray as much. This image really bothers me on several levels and seems to buy into the very culture of "productiveness-as-a measure-of-value" that hermits reject. And yet, I completely agree that my presence and prayer within a community and parish serves as a kind of leaven here --- just as I believe that everyone who loves well and lives a generous, prayerful life does the same.

In many ways then, the eremitical life is one of worldly uselessness and perhaps this is what the author you cite is getting at. But at the same time, hermits are called to be prophetic presences within space and time. They witness to the fundamental relationship which constitutes each of us, and the dialogical character of authentic humanity rooted in that relationship. They witness to the fact that isolation can be redeemed here and now so that heaven can interpenetrate and communion become the defining reality for every person, no matter their "worldly" circumstances. This is a form of immense "temporal usefulness" because it serves God and God's kingdom as it is meant to be realized here and now. No one living at the heart of reality (as hermits do) and witnessing to the reality of redemption that occurs when human poverty and divine grace meet can be said to be "temporally useless."

I would strenuously disagree with the appropriateness of many of the applications of the "grandifloras" analogy to diocesan hermits: [[Tended, noticed, prized, utilized, pruned, fertilized, identified, sprayed, winterized, mulched, composted, photographed, named, protected.]] It is true that diocesan hermits are publicly professed and are often recognizable within their parishes (etc) because of garb, title, and the like. They are also, to the rather cautious degree the Church esteems and uses Canon 603, publicly valued. At the time of their profession they may indeed be photographed and written up in the diocesan paper because this is a significant event in the life of that church, but beyond that they ordinarily return to the obscurity of the hermitage. For this reason I honestly can't see the appropriateness or accuracy of the rest of the description --- especially when played off against the "wild rose" picture of lay hermits.

For instance, remember first of all that diocesan hermits are self-supporting. The Church does not provide anything towards their living expenses, domicile, retreat, education, formation, spiritual direction, medical (generally) or other insurance, etc. These are commitments consecrated solitary hermits are expected by the Church to take care of. So really, how are these diocesan hermits tended, pruned, fertilized, sprayed, winterized, mulched, composted, or protected in ways which differ from their lay brothers and sisters? Remember too, that generally their daily lives are hidden and not involved in active ministry. They may attend daily Mass a couple of times during the week (more if it is possible and does not detract from their solitude and less if it does), and other parishioners may assist them in the ways any needy person in the parish may get assistance (e.g., help with transportation, shopping, doctor's visits and the like), but how does this differ from what is available to lay hermits in the same parish setting? Yes, their gifts and education will be used by the parish in ways everyone discerning the matter finds appropriate, but again, how does this differ from the lay hermit in the same situation?

Public versus Private Vocations

Again, it is true that members of a diocesan hermit's parish (and diocese, etc) have the right to certain expectations of one who is publicly called from their midst and professed, consecrated, and officially commissioned to serve. This is not true in the same way for the lay hermit. While both are valued and expected to live their vocations with integrity, the private nature of the lay hermit's life means that more aspects of their life are indeed private and not susceptible to specific expectations. Even so, I don't think this means the diocesan hermit is being treated as a kind of hothouse plant. She must live poverty, celibate love, and obedience to God in recognizable ways. Her life must be a life of prayer steeped in the Word of God and this should be clear. She must live stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude in ways which allow others to perceive the redemption possible and real in these. She may legitimately be expected to evidence the fact that love is the motivating force behind her vocation, and that she is growing in this --- even though this does not involve her in active ministry to a large degree. People have a right to necessarily expect these things of her. People have a right to understand her vocation and the concrete ways she lives this out in their midst. Of course this does not cancel out the normal privacy which obtains in any relationship with others, but it does point out the difference between public and private vocations.

At the same time, it can happen that lay hermits who really accept their integral place in the parish and diocesan communities are closer to the rest of the laity in some ways than are diocesan hermits. I have said before that lay hermits could well witness to the redemption of so much of the isolation and alienation in our society in ways which speak more effectively to those who will never seek canonical standing or public vows. Imagine what could happen in a parish if two or three authentic lay hermits along with their diocesan hermit sister or brother gave a workshop or talk geared to the isolated elderly and chronically ill in the parish! Imagine if they did this every six months and were otherwise occasionally available to talk with their fellow parishioners about the transformation of isolation into genuine solitude or the place of the solitary in the heart of the Church. Imagine what could happen if they confronted the questions associated with those unable to do active ministry and affirmed the importance of lay contemplative vocations in the heart of local parshes, churches, etc. The two vocations together have greater similarities than differences but they also complement each other in demonstrating or witnessing to the place of the hermit in the Church. But what I have asked you to imagine cannot really happen if a huge dichotomy between lay and diocesan hermits is drawn and exaggerated as in the images used by the hermit you have cited.

Summary, Betrayal of Desert Ideal

So, while I think the hermit you cited made a really good point about the difficulty of living as a lay hermit without official standing (as a hermit) in the Church, this should be balanced with an appreciation of the importance and possibilities of the lay eremitical vocation in today's church. I clearly think it is a mistake to speak of diocesan hermits as though they are hothouse plants which are constantly and especially tended, nurtured, nourished, etc. This is simply not accurate. Again, I also take issue with the assertion that eremitical life is "temporally useless," though I certainly believe it is true that it is mainly useless in "worldly" terms. As for betrayals of the ideal, eremitical life has always allowed for great flexibility and individual expression. There are certain essential elements which should define any life which is called eremitical (cf c 603), but otherwise legitimate differences are allowed in living out this life without considering these ways a betrayal of the ideal. In any case, betrayals may occur with either lay or diocesan hermits. What has always been true is that hermits have traditionally tried to find ways to live the Gospel while relating prophetically to the institutional church. The prophetic stance of the lay hermit may approximate that of the desert Fathers and Mothers more visibly than the stance of the diocesan hermit does, but so long as the diocesan hermit is true to and can articulate the nature of her own prophetic stance she too represents the desert ideal with fidelity.

16 August 2011

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (reprise)

Tomorrow's Gospel is one of my all-time favorite parables, that of the laborers in the vineyard. The story is simple --- deceptively so in fact: workers come to work in the vineyard at various parts of the day all having contracted with the master of the vineyard to work for a day's wages. Some therefore work the whole day, some are brought in to work only half a day, and some are hired only when the master comes for them at the end of the day. When time comes to pay everyone what they are owed those who came in to work last are paid first and receive a full day's wages. Those who came in to work first expect to be paid more than these and are disappointed and begin complaining when they are given the same wage as those paid first. The response of the master reminds them that he has paid them what they contracted for, nothing less, and then asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own money. A saying is added: [in the Kingdom of God] the first shall be last and the last first.

Now, it is important to remember what the word parable means in appreciating what Jesus is actually doing with this story and seeing how it challenges us today. The word parable, as I have written before, comes from two Greek words, para meaning alongside of and balein, meaning to throw down. What Jesus does is to throw down first one set of values, one well-understood or common perspective, and allow people to get comfortable with that. (It is one they understand best so often Jesus merely needs to suggest it while his hearers fill in the rest. For instance he mentions a sower, or a vineyard and people fill in the details. Today he might well speak of a a CEO in an office, or a mother on a run to pick up kids from a swim meet or soccer practice.) Then, he throws down a second set of values or a second way of seeing reality which disorients and gets his hearers off-balance. This second set of values or new perspective is that of the Kingdom of God. Those who listen have to make a decision. (The purpose of the parable is not only to present the choice, but to engage the reader/hearer and shake them up or disorient them a bit so that a choice for something new can (and hopefully will) be made.) Either Jesus' hearers will reaffirm the common values or perspective or they will choose the values and perspective of the Kingdom of God. The second perspective, that of the Kingdom is often counterintuitive, ostensibly foolish or offensive, and never a matter of "common sense". To choose it --- and therefore to choose Jesus and the God he reveals --- ordinarily puts one in a place which is countercultural and often apparently ridiculous.

So what happens in today's Gospel? Again, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and a master hiring workers. His readers know this world well and despite Jesus stating specifically that each man hired contracts for the same wage, common sense says that is unfair and the master MUST pay the later workers less than he pays those who came early to the fields and worked through the heat of the noonday sun. And of course, this is precisely what the early workers complain about to the master. It is precisely what most of US would complain about in our own workplaces if someone hired after us got more money, for instance, or if someone with a high school diploma got the same pay and benefit package as someone with a doctorate --- never mind that we agreed to this package! The same is true in terms of religion: "I spent my WHOLE life serving the Lord. I was baptized as an infant and went to Catholic schools from grade school through college and this upstart convert who has never done anything at all at the parish gets the Pastoral Associate job? No Way!! No FAIR!!" From our everyday perspective this would be a cogent objection and Jesus' insistence that all receive the same wage, not to mention that he seems to rub it in by calling the last hired to be paid first (i.e., the normal order of the Kingdom), is simply shocking.

And yet the master brings up two points which turn everything around: 1) he has paid everyone exactly what they contracted for --- a point which stops the complaints for the time being, and 2) he asks if they are envious that he is generous with his own gifts or money. He then reminds his hearers that the first shall be last, and the last first in the Kingdom of God. If someone was making these remarks to us in response to cries of "unfair" it would bring us up short, wouldn't it? If we were already a bit disoriented by a pay master who changed the rules of commonsense disbursal this would no doubt underscore the situation. It might also cause us to take a long look at ourselves and the values by which we live our lives. We might ask ourselves if the values and standards of the Kingdom are really SO different than those we operate by everyday of our lives, not to mention, do we really want to "buy into" this Kingdom if the rewards are really parcelled out in this way, even for people less "gifted" and less "committed" than we consider ourselves! Of course, we might not phrase things so bluntly. If we are honest, we will begin to see more than our own brilliance, giftedness, or commitedness; we might begin to see these along with a deep neediness, a persistent and genuine fear at the cost involved in accepting this "Kingdom" instead of the world we know and have accommodated ourselves to so well.

We might consider too, and carefully, that the Kingdom is not an otherwordly heaven, but that it is the realm of God's sovereignty which, especially in Christ, interpenetrates this world, and is actually the goal and perfection of this world; when we do, the dilemma before us gets even sharper. There is no real room for opting for this world's values now in the hope that those "other Kingdomly values" only kick in after death! All that render to Caesar stuff is actually a bit of a joke if we think we can divvy things up neatly and comfortably (I am sure Jesus was asking for the gift of one's whole self and nothing less when he made this statement!), because after all, what REALLY belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? No, no compromises are really allowed with today's parable, no easy blending of the vast discrepancy between the realm of God's sovereignty and the world which is ordered to greed, competition, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, nor therefore, to the choice Jesus puts before us.

So, what side will we come down on after all this disorientation and shaking up? I know that every time I hear this parable it touches a place in me (yet another one!!) that resents the values and standards of the Kingdom and that desires I measure things VERY differently indeed. It may be a part of me that resists the idea that everything I have and am is God's gift, even if I worked hard in cooperating with that (my very capacity and willingness to cooperate are ALSO gifts of God!). It may be a part of me that looks down my nose at this person or that and considers myself better in some way (smarter, more gifted, a harder worker, stronger, more faithful, born to a better class of parents, etc, etc). It may be part of me that resents another's wage or benefits despite the fact that I am not really in need of more myself. It may even be a part of me that resents my own weakness and inabilities, my own illness and incapacities which lead me to despise the preciousness and value of my life and his own way of valuing it which is God's gift to me and to the world. I am socialized in this first-world-culture and there is no doubt that it resides deeply and pervasively within me contending always for the Kingdom of God's sovereignty in my heart and living. I suspect this is true for most of us, and that today's Gospel challenges us to make a renewed choice for the Kingdom in yet another way or to another more profound or extensive degree.

For Christians every day is gift and we are given precisely what we need to live fully and with real integrity if only we will choose to accept it. We are precious to God, and this is often hard to really accept, but neither more nor less precious than the person standing in the grocery store line ahead of us or folded dirty and dishelveled behind a begging sign on the street corner near our bank or outside our favorite coffee shop. The wage we have agreed to (or been offered) is the gift of God's very self along with his judgment that we are indeed precious, and so, the free and abundant but cruciform life of a shared history and destiny with that same God whose characteristic way of being is kenotic. He pours himself out with equal abandon for each of us whether we have served him our whole lives or only just met him this afternoon. He does so whether we are well and whole, or broken and feeble. And he asks us to do the same, to pour ourselves out similarly both for his own sake and for the sake of his creation-made-to-be God's Kingdom.

To do so means to decide for his reign now and tomorrow and the day after that; it means to accept his gift of Self as fully as he wills to give it, and it therefore means to listen to him and his Word so that we MAY be able to decide and order our lives appropriately in his gratuitous love and mercy. The parable in today's Gospel is a gift which makes this possible --- if only we would allow it to work as Jesus empowers and wills it!

09 August 2011

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, OCD (Reprise)

Today marks the day on which Sister Teresa Benedicta, OCD, was martyred in 1942.

"We bow down before the testimony of the life and death of Edith Stein, an outstanding daughter of Israel and at the same time a daughter of the Carmelite Order, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a personality who united within her rich life a dramatic synthesis of our century. It was the synthesis of a history full of deep wounds that are still hurting ... and also the synthesis of the full truth about man. All this came together in a single heart that remained restless and unfulfilled until it finally found rest in God." These were the words of Pope John Paul II when he beatified Edith Stein in Cologne on 1 May 1987.

Sister Teresa Bendicta was, by all accounts, a brilliant philosopher. Of Jewish parentage, she was academically gifted throughout her life. She studied under Edmund Husserl the celebrated phenomenologist at a time when women were rare in this field, and in fact worked as his assistant. She received her PhD, Summa Cum Laude (with highest honor). Subsequently she established herself as philosopher, translator, and writer, and then, after turning to Christianity, sought the greater solitude of the Carmelite Order. When WW II broke out she transferred from a Carmel in Cologne to another house (Echt) in neutral Holland so that her Sisters might be protected from Nazi persecution due to her presence.

When the Bishops in the Netherlands protested the removal of Jewish children from Catholic schools, and the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps, the Nazis retaliated and arrested all Catholic Jews in Holland. Sister Benedicta, who could have escaped this fate, went with them as a sign of personal solidarity with her people and a witness to Christian love and solidarity as well. The Carmelite was taken to Auschwitz where she died on 09.Aug.1942 in the gas chambers there. As noted, she was beatified on 01.May.1987, canonized on 11.Oct.1998, and remains a witness to the triumph of the cross of Christ, in her thought, writing, piety, and above all, in her living and dying in the hope of Christ.

For a good biography of Sr Teresa Benedicta, try Edith Stein, The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite, by Teresa Renata Posselt, OCD, ICS Publications. Posselt was the Novice Mistress and then the Mother Prioress when Edith Stein lived at the Cologne Carmel. The text has been reprinted and enlarged with scholarly perspectives published in separate "gleanings" sections, so they are available, but do not intrude on Posselt's text.

Another excellent biography you might check out is, Edith Stein, A Biography by Waltraud Herbstrith, OCD, Harper and Row. Sister Herbstrith knew Edith Stein well and has apparently spent a large part of her life making sure the story of Sister Benedicta's life and martyrdom was completely told.

05 August 2011

On Books and Hermits Writing in (or out of) their Hiddenness

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I guess it is kind of funny to be asking about books by hermits since they are supposed to be hermits separated from the world, but I am interested in reading about hermits' lives and things by hermits. Do you have any suggestions for good books? ]]

Hi. This is a great question and it is the first time anyone has ever asked it, so thanks a lot! There is a lot of good writing about the hermit life available (well, lots more than there was just a few years ago anyway!). Let me start with the newest stuff out there --- or at least fairly new stuff. Regarding books by hermits, I think the best book available on the nature of eremitical life is The Eremitic Life by Cornelius Wencel. Fr Wencel is a Camaldolese, but from a different congregation than I am associated with. He is a Monte Corona Camaldolese whose "founder" (besides Romuald) is Paul Giustiniani, a Camaldolese reformer; also unlike the OSB Cam, this congregation (Er Cam) has hermits only --- there is no cenobitical expression. This is not a "how to" book, nor a description of day to day living, but an extended reflection on the heart of the life and vocation.

Another book I would highly recommend and which written by a hermit in Wales is, A Simplified Life by Sister Verena Schiller. Sister writes beautifully, and gently introduces the reader to the daily life of a hermit by her own reflections on the landscape and history of her place. As she explores the place, she comes to live the eremitical life more and more deeply. It is a remarkable illustration of solitary stability as growth in depth (and deep truth). Sister Schiller is a member of the Episcopal (Anglican) Sisters of the Holy Name. Her work is studded with poetry and is laced with really good scriptural theology. For instance, she quotes Mary Lou Kowanacki, OSB (who is quoting Ryokan) on one essential and tension-filled dynamic of the eremitic life from Between Two Souls:

Some would say it is running away, others a running towards
This is the Way he travelled to flee the world;
This is the Way he travelled to return to the world.
I, too, come and go along this Sacred Path
That bridges life and death
And traverses illusion. (p.146)

Two other good books on the solitary life are, The Power of Solitude by Annemarie Kidder. Kidder deals with all the basic questions raised by solitude in a world dominated by "noise and numbers." (This includes friendship and mystical experiences and many other realities of a life focused "on God Alone".) It is a book I would recommend to hermits or to any serious Christian --- actually anyone trying to build in and negotiate the tensions involved in embracing solitude. The second book is Silent Dwellers, Embracing the Solitary Life, by Barbara Errako Taylor. While I disagreed with some aspects of this book (especially Erakko's understanding of the reason for and dynamic behind celibacy --- consecrated or otherwise) --- I thought she did a terrific job with things like the quest for simplicity, for instance.

Lastly for now, and certainly not least, I would recommend Sister Jeremy Hall's, Silence, Solitude, Simplicity, A Hermit's Love Affair With a Noisy, Crowded, and Complicated World. One of the most significant parts of this book is Sister Jeremy's description of the desert in desert spirituality as "A Place of Meeting." Another is her identification of Silence as "A reverence for speech". As with all authentic hermits, Sister Jeremy is deeply attuned to the reality of paradox and often pairs such things as "simplicity and inner riches", "silence and the word", "solitude and community", etc because these point to the various dynamics and tensions a hermit has to negotiate and embody in her life. One thing that comes through clearly in Sister Jeremy's work is the paradoxical fruitfulness of desert existence.

By the way, ordinarily I would suggest several books by Thomas Merton regarding eremitical life, but I think those could wait until later. For now let me note merely the essay "Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude" in Disputed Questions. It is the heart of Merton's theology of eremitical life. Beyond this Merton often speaks directly to the first sentence of your own question --- the idea that it is strange to look to hermits to write about the essentially hidden life of a hermit. This raises the question of the interesting paradox that Merton lived and dealt with daily, that I myself deal with somewhat similarly because of this blog, for instance, and which Sister Verena also refers to in her book (A Simplified Life): [[ The very term hermit or solitary implies a reclusiveness, a living apart, a certain hiddenness, a life not to be exposed to the public gaze or written about. Yet it is through the writings of hermits and the faithful records of those who have visited them, dating back as far as the fourth and fifth centuries when the first Christan hermits began their lives in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts, that we owe much of their lives and spiritual insights.]] In its own way Cornelius Wencel's book deals with this same tension and dynamic, as does Sister Kowanacki in the passage cited above, etc.

I hope this helps as a start