27 November 2011

First Sunday of Advent, 2011

Well, it is the first Sunday of Advent and I am feeling a mixture of excitement, trepidation and all of the other things that tend to come along with beginnings. I have to say I love the sense of new opportunities, a chance to "begin" once again in one's relationship with God and to one's faith even if that beginning is "just" another turn in the spiral of deepening communion. Ordinarily each day gives me the sense of such a new beginning, a sense that there will be fresh experiences, insights, and surprises ahead, but it is wonderful to have beginnings and times of preparation built into the liturgical year.

Each day, each week, and each year we are able to remind ourselves that Jesus needs to be allowed to reveal himself to us on his own terms. He comes as a human being and reveals divinity (and what it means to be human!) exhaustively by entering every moment and mood of human existence. It is a literally incomprehensible mystery and so each day, week, and year the dynamic repeats --- "Let me show you again," Jesus says, "deeper this time, more fully; let me invite you into my story so that you truly make it your own. Listen!! Let's begin at the beginning so that you can bring yourself in new ways, fresh and surprising ways as I call to you in my nativity, my hidden life, my public ministry, my death, resurrection, and my ascension so that in your response you become part of MY story as well --- so that you love with me, minister with and even to me, pray and suffer with me as I do with you."

Any real achievement takes preparation and Advent is such a time for us. The opportunity to begin anew is a gift of God. We rarely get such a chance otherwise, for without the grace (mercy, forgiveness, healing, and offer of new life) of God we are condemned to move ahead dragging our failed broken lives along with us. We might try to repress or forget all of this "stuff" of our lives, but without Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that will be either illusion or delusion. Yet with Christ and in the rhythm of liturgical time we can truly begin again. As I wrote last year, in Christ the future (where God is our absolute future) draws us forward and into itself. Whether that means a totally new beginning or the freshness of new opportunities for deepening and radicalizing our faith and lives, Advent invites us to conversion and so too, to a new chapter in our relationship with God and our deepest, truest selves.

For me, the focus in all of this this year will include growing in my participation in Christ's own life and story in a much more conscious way. My spirituality has most always, I think, focused on allowing him to participate in my story, to be "God with (me)." But, I have become aware that I have not really been open to seeing the truth of things from the other perspective, and I really need to do that!! (Parts of what sometimes pass for "suffering with Jesus" spirituality are not healthy and so I have eschewed them; I am not speaking of those here.) But friendships are really reciprocal and while I have allowed Jesus to be friend to me, it has not always made sense to me to "befriend" Jesus and to really be an integral part of HIS personal story, though it is, in many ways, the essence of discipleship. There is lots for me to think about in all this, and also significant places in my own heart which are touched by this perspective differently than with my more usual point of view. Excitement and trepidation. Trepidation and excitement. To become (more consciously) part of Jesus' own story. What an awesome invitation!! I love new beginnings -- whichever form they take!

24 November 2011

Ad Multos: What are we affirming in the New Old Translation?

The theological problems with the new translation of the Roman Missal have already begun to surface and we have not even officially begun using it. One of these involves the Missal's affirmation that Christ was sent to and died for "many" as opposed to the term "all" we have been using for the last decades. One priest commented in an article on the changes that he would not pray heresy and would not use the formula referring to Christ's mission to save many as opposed to all. I sympathize with him; he is correct on the serious theological implications of this change in an English speaking world.

With regard to this change in wording I think we must be aware of the fact that in the original Semitic languages there was no discrete word for "all". Instead they referred to the many which constituted the whole, and the emphasis was thus on the multitudes this involved, not on a single whole composed of a possibly sparse number. (Readers of Scripture or any literature are familiar with the use of metonymy or synedochy (a special form of metonymy) --- where a part may stand for the whole. This is at least similar.) Greek (Koine), on the other hand DOES have a word for (the) all and a different one for (the) many; when the NT authors wrote or taught in Koine, the word used was literally (the) many, but again, given the context of the original writers, speakers and hearers, it meant the multitudes which compose the WHOLE of mankind which were affected by the life, death, and resurrection of this one man, Jesus. However, when the Scriptures were translated into Latin we moved definitively away from this entire context and the term ad multos came to mean the many as contrasted with the whole.

Today (and whenever the Semitic context is lost --- as, for instance, in our naive adoption of Latin or translations of merely formal equivalence!) we normally and unthinkingly use "many" in contrast to all. Thus, in the process, will have changed the sense of the original: namely, the whole composed of the many (or of multitudes and multitudes). Additionally, since Latin does not use separate definite articles, what could have been translated as "the many" --- which at least has a sound of synedochy and the ability to symbolize the whole --- is instead eventually translated into the English, "many," and the contrast with "all" is strengthened. Theologically, this indeed constitutes a heterodox notion of the scope of Jesus' mission and a serious misstatement of the Gospel his life embodies.

Of course we absolutely must not pray or proclaim heresy. Jesus did not die for many AS CONTRASTED WITH ALL. He died for the multitudes (the many) which in fact both represent and constitute the whole throughout all time. This is one of those (in this case, wholly impossible and tragic) "catechetical moments" the hierarchical church is using to sell the new translation. It is impossible because 1) we will not be able to improve on using "all" to convey the theological truth of the matter while 2) people will automatically (and mistakenly) assume they know what "many" means. Pastors, catechists, others absolutely must know and communicate the fact that Jesus died for THE many (not many) and more, that "the many" refers to an ALL which is composed of MULTITUDES!

20 November 2011

Consecrated Virginity, Response to Sponsa Christi's Author

I had heard from several people that Jenna Cooper of the Sponsa Christi blog has responded to the series of posts I put up on Consecrated Virgins and what I have called a vocation to consecrated or sacred secularity back in September-October. Since then I have had time to read Ms Cooper's post on the matter a couple of times now and I appreciate the time she took to put it together --- especially given the fact that she is newly studying Canon Law in a language she has never studied until now. Unfortunately, I also found the response disappointing in several ways, and a bit frustrating as well. I am going to limit this response to those main points.

It was a bit frustrating because Ms Cooper never actually quoted me directly. She depended instead on characterizations of what I said and why, and she got some central things wrong; she also treated theological, canonical, and historical conclusions as "presuppositions" and "assumptions". However, because she didn't quote me directly, responding to these mischaracterizations with any specificity is frustratingly difficult. I understand that the blogosphere is not necessarily the realm of scholarly discussion, but I don't think one has to be a scholar to respect an interlocutor enough to actually quote what one contends or disagrees with. One vague but significant assertion Ms Cooper made was especially troubling in preventing any specific response.

She wrote: [[I don’t think it would be possible for me to respond to every point Sr. Laurel makes in her series on consecrated virgins, especially since it seems that we may disagree on some very fundamental philosophical and ecclesiological premises (such as the inter-relationship between a person’s identity and his or her concrete actions and choices, the nature of the Church as an institution, the role of the hierarchy in relationship to the Church’s charismatic dimension, and the objective theological superiority of consecrated life.]] I could respond that I am personally surprised to hear Ms Cooper believes there is an acceptable disjunction between one's identity and one's concrete actions and choices --- especially for those with ecclesial vocations (though I would be even more surprised to hear someone suggest I believe this!!), or that she doesn't believe the hierarchy has a significant role in relation to the church's "Charismatic dimension," or even that she doesn't accept the institutional as well as the charismatic nature of the People of God, for instance, but I suspect this is not what she was trying to say. So, specific citations are important, both for understanding, accuracy, and out of simple courtesy and respect.

In any case, Ms Cooper's response was also disappointing in some significant ways as well; these include:

1) a failure to cite relevant legitimate and authoritative texts as fully as needed, especially where they disagree with her own position. Similarly Ms Cooper dismisses expert commentary out of hand as non-authoritative --- apparently because they are not de fide teaching. (There are a number of degrees of authoritativeness which must be recognized in ecclesial documents --- sometimes co-existing within the same document. We need to be clear what level of authoritativeness we are demanding.) Further she asserts that [[no one can read the authoritative documents on this vocation and come away with a sense that it is a secular one]] --- despite a plethora of evidence that members of the USCCB hold a contrary position, theologians and canonists write about it and come to different conclusions, or that the USACV generally seems to hold this view. The problem is familiar: Ms Cooper reiterates her opinions but does not support them with specific citations, expert commentary, common Episcopal or Papal opinions and praxis, etc. A mere handful of examples of the numerous passages Ms Cooper neglects or dismisses include:

a) a passage from the homily of the Rite of Consecration of Virgins Living in the World which reads: [[Never forget that you are given over entirely to the service of the Church and of all your brothers and sisters. You are apostles in the Church and in the world, in the things of the Spirit and in the things of the world.]] (Ms Cooper cites the first part of this statement, but fails to cite or address the emboldened portion.) Now it should be noted that even if the phrase "living in the world" merely means "not in a monastery" in the very restricted sense Ms Cooper asserts (an assertion I and others disagree with), even that is, if it merely locates the virgin superficially as outside a monastery and simply proclaims she is not a nun, the highlighted phrase from the homily in the rite clearly refers to being not only a sacred person, but a secular one as well. With the phrase "the things of the world" it points to all the areas a person living in the world works out her salvation (family, business, politics, economics, etc) and indicates a complete giving over both to the things of the spirit and to the things of the world. It is a significantly qualified secularity, of course, but secularity nonetheless.

For instance, Religious men and women --- even apostolic or ministerial religious are never commissioned to be apostles "in the things of the world," and of course hermits are called to stricter separation from the world so are even less called to any form of secularity. These persons' vows significantly qualify their relationship with the main dimensions of the world, power (obedience), economics, etc. (poverty), and relationships (celibacy) and thus reflect a canonical and real separation from the world; however they are certainly not necessarily living a more consecrated life than CVs living in the world. Such consecrated virgins, on the other hand, are not canonically called to a life which is "separated from the world." They are absolutely set apart by and FOR God, but this is not identical to being called to separation from the world; rather, for those called to be CVs living in the world, it is a call to a complete involvement with and in it --- though clearly and unambiguously from the perspective of a consecrated person who shares in a special way in the the spousal, virginal, and maternal love characteristic of the Kingdom of God. I don't know if Ms Cooper ever deals with this particular phrase of the homily ("in the things of the world") at other places in her blog, but I know she does not do so in her response to my posts, and that is certainly disappointing.

b) admonitions of John Paul II which include, [[On this meaningful occasion, I am happy to stress some fundamental directives that can guide your special vocation in the Church and in the World.]] or [[According to the Apostle, the virgin “gives her mind to the Lord’s affairs and to being holy in body and spirit” (I Cor 7:34). She seeks “the things that are above, which Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” (Col 3:1). And yet this does not estrange [her] from the great values of creation and from the longings of humanity, nor from the suffering of the earthly city, from its conflicts and from the sorrows caused by war, famine, disease, and the wide-spread “culture of death.” Have a merciful heart and share in the sufferings of the brethren. Commit yourselves to the defense of life, the promotion of women and respect for their liberty and dignity.]] There is a clear sense here of being about the things of God right in the midst of the earthly city (Saint Augustine's term and a synonym for the world). It is, as I have already written, a paradoxical presence where one is present within this world, not estranged from it precisely because one is concerned with the things of God and more, because one lives the fundamental charism of virginal, spousal, and maternal love precisely in a context which needs this unique gift of the Holy Spirit.

c) an example of a certificate of consecration which reads: [[Virginem vitam saecularem agentem (i.e., a virgin living in the world). . .]] Note that the qualifying vitam saecularem is not really necessary if there is no significant distinction between the life of the cloistered nun who is consecrated as a virgin and that of the consecrated virgin living in the world. If this distinction is merely a matter of identifying superficial locations, the qualifying phrase would be omitted in a certificate of consecration since the vocations would be identical for the cloistered nun or the virgin living in the world and need not be specified. This suggests to me that the Church sees "vitam saecularem" as a significant qualification (or expression) of the foundational vocation to consecrated virginity.

d) However, much more compelling I think, is the article by Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, "Consecrated Virgins for Today's Church." This document was written by a (now) former "capo d'ufficio" or section chief with the congregation for religious (CICLSAL) --- meaning Sister was the third highest member of this curial department only behind the Cardinal and any Bishop with decision-making power (this authority is tied to ordination so being a Religious woman and the next one in line is no small matter); it should be clear that this article can hardly be dismissed out of hand. Even if one disagrees with Sister Holland's positions, one needs to contend with her article on its own terms (historical, liturgical, theological, etc) rather than simply dismissing it as unworthy of serious or considered attention.

Touching on just a very few points of this article, it affirms variously, [[Over the centuries, the use of the rite of consecration was quite completely reversed becoming common in monasteries of nuns with solemn vows and gradually disappearing from use among women remaining in their secular condition. By the time of the Lateran Council II (1139). . . the practice of consecrating women living in the world had ended]] Note well that this historical fact destroys Ms Cooper's argument that CV's living in the world were proto-nuns. In fact, other sources besides Sister Holland's are clear that there were 2 distinct rites of consecration in existence until this time, one for women living in the world, and one for nuns. In other words CVs from the first 3 centuries didn't simply develop into the cloistered vocation. This was one charismatic expression that developed, but the secular charismatic expression continued alongside it for another 8 centuries. Thus, the Code of Canon law 1983, and the revised Rite of 1970 (which specifically dropped vesture with a habit) are ways of recovering the distinctly secular (and consecrated) vocation of virgins living in the world which was wholly lost around the 12th century. Nothing less, nothing other.

Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, also reminds us: [[The Canon speaks of service to the Church "in harmony with their proper state." As has been seen, their state is of publicly consecrated persons in the Church and as persons who have received that consecration as individuals, remaining in their secular condition.]] In concluding her article, Sister notes, [[In 1996, the consecrated virgins also found their place in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata (N.B., this is, of course, an undeniably authoritative document) . . .[where the Holy Father adds], "Consecrated by the diocesan bishop, these women acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve while remaining in the world." (VC 7)]] Sister Holland explains something of the meaning of this sentence in the following, [[. . .Consecrated virgins may be working as university professors, parish secretaries, nurses or pastoral ministers; they may be working purely secular jobs during the day and volunteering their services in a variety of charitable works on behalf of the sick, elderly, handicapped, or homeless in their time off. Wherever they are, they will be present as one consecrated, bearing witness to the love of God for all, made visible and mirrored in Christ's love for the Church.]]

Another disappointing area of Ms Cooper's response is 2) a complete failure to deal with the heart of the theological argument which grounds my opinion in the paradoxical and, through consecration, the highly qualified secularity of the consecrated virgin. (In regard to this last point, Ms Cooper sees consecrated life as mutually exclusive with secular life (except perhaps in the case of secular institutes, though she is unclear on this) rather than as a call to a redeemed and even a perfected form of secularity which reflects the Sacramentality and transcendent origin and goal of the created order, and which, for that very reason, has much to offer the world pastorally and prophetically. She writes, [[If consecrated virginity is indeed a vocation which calls one to be more “consecrated” than “secular,” no amount of pastoral need is going to change this fact.]] or again, [[ Therefore, every area of consecrated virgins’ lives should revolve unambiguously around the direct service of the Church and intimacy with God in prayer. Given this, consecrated virgins would therefore NOT ordinarily be called to be Christian witnesses in politics, purely civil affairs, the secular professional world, or the business or financial community.]] One has to ask what, for the Christian, is ever a purely civil affair given our belief that the Kingdom of God is a present reality realized within and through the things of the world. One also needs to ask if Ms Cooper's hypothetical here, "If they are called to be more "consecrated" than "secular", can be legitimately assumed (much less demonstrated!) to be true. Again there are other conclusions possible and I would argue they are theologically more cogent and compelling.

Further, while I have already cited Sister Sharon Holland's article on the diversity of ways consecrated virgins are at work in the world, I think one has to emphasize that no where in the Rite of Consecration does the Church specify that direct service to the Church (meaning working full-time in a parochial position of some sort) is the unambiguous focal point of one's life. God is this focal point, and clearly the Church is important in this as is service to the Church, but Ms Cooper's assertion conflicts with the Church's own position on this matter which she affirms by consecrating women living in the world in the fullest sense of that term.
(If the Church did not mean these women to live a form of sacred secularity it would be necessary to require they adopt a different way of living BEFORE consecrating them. Discernment of the vocation, at the very least, would require this. Integrity of witness and life would require it. Thus, in consecrating women living in the world with all that entails as a consistent and normative pattern of praxis, the Church officially says this is a secular vocation at the same time it is a consecrated one.)

With regard to this second area of disappointment then, Ms Cooper does not address arguments rooted in Christology (for instance, the notion that Christ was paradigmatically secular in the life he lived even as he incarnated God exhaustively and thus witnessed to transcendence at every moment and mood of his life), sacramentality (most especially the sense that the world is meant function as a Sacrament of God's presence, just as Jesus' life and death did), eschatology (especially as it relates to our hope for a new heaven and earth, or to God's reconciling work in becoming all in all), missiology (especially the way a mission to the world and in the things of the world qualifies a charism), nor the difference between a more Greek way of thinking (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) and Christian paradoxical perspectives (cf my post on the paradox of sacred secularity). Neither does she deal adequately with the implications of the Church's liturgy and consistent praxis. I have already written about these things so I will not reprise them here.

Finally, I found it disappointing that 3) Ms Cooper's notion of charism was static and dismissive of the changing historical or pastoral situations or dimensions. Related to this I admit to being completely dumbfounded that Ms Cooper denied there was any pastoral need for the secular witness of Consecrated virgins. As she wrote: [[Whether or not there actually is such a pastoral need in the Church today (and I personally would tend to think that there is not), this kind of premise is actually kind of irrelevant to the question of whether or not consecrated virgins should live strongly secular lifestyles.]] Charisms are gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church and World precisely because there is a need for these gifts. Charisms thus actually cease to be or are renewed in light of pastoral requirements. (For instance (to use really vivid examples), communities whose charism involved ransoming captives of pirates, or those who were involved primarily with the conversion of Jews, might well find these dimensions of their charisms void or theologically illegitimate today and would need to look more closely at who they are today in light of the grace of God. cf Schneiders, Finding the Treasure on charism.) More specifically, consecrated virgins live a life of wholeness and generosity marked by spousal and maternal love precisely in their consecrated virginity. How is it possible to suggest the world at large which is loveless and sex-saturated in ways which trivialize this gift of God and whose capacity for personal commitment is diminished at every turn does not need this precise witness?

In other words, the essential vocation (Consecrated virginity lived in the world and committed to both the things of the spirit and the things of the world) was renewed by the Church, not simply because the vocation had been allowed to be eclipsed by its use by cloistered nuns and because a few hundred contemporary women thought perhaps they might personally be called this way by God, but because this essential gift is needed in a world of increased narcissism, sexual trivialization, and profane secularity. Charisms ALWAYS share these two poles, the eternal or transcendent and the historically particular dimension. Otherwise charisms would exist like rocks thrown into a pond --- an objective reality with no real relationship to the world which God loves and seeks to redeem, and therefore, with no power to transfigure that same world. They would be irrelevant at best, wholly anachronistic, and even destructive at worst. One certainly wonders why God would call virgins to receive consecration according to a solemn rite, compare these women with Mary, identify them as icons of the Church as Bride of Christ, and ask them to serve their brothers and sisters in a multitude of ways (but especially women, for instance) in the things of the spirit and the things of the world if their virginal, spousal and maternal love was not specifically needed by both Church and world (or if such need was considered irrelevant to the vocation itself). In any case, Frederick Buechner once defined vocation as that place where our own deep gladness meets the world's deep need. The same could be said of genuine Charisms, which are dynamic, not static realities and as such are always discerned in relation to the historical context or situation.

Much more could and needs be said in response to Ms Cooper's own response (and many more passages from various Bishops could be cited -- some very compelling), but, again, I will need to do that in other posts --- if, in fact, it seems prudent or desirable to continue the conversation.

A Note: for those wishing to respond to this post in some fashion, please read the posts on consecrated virginity which precede it (September-October 2011; see the list of labels on the right). Especially important is the post on the paradox of Secular or consecrated secularity, but other posts provide basic definitions which are necessary for those proposing to respond. This post is merely the latest in a series and assumes one is somewhat familiar with the posts that preceded it.

09 November 2011

Questions on "Inner Work", and the "Theology of the Cross"

[[Peace Be with You, Sister.

I am glad for my sake you . . .answered the question at the heart of your latest post. Sometimes a point can hit the mark when it is iterated for the nth time to someone; I read all your posts and this post seemed to come a little more clear to me. . . . You spoke of "prayer and inner work." In your profile you mentioned the "theology of the cross". I do not want to become burdensome or intrusive, so if I do, please tell me. What is "inner work"? Are there particular practices you do in your daily eremetical life ? Are there such practices you can recommend? I have not been a novice in a novitiate. Is there a book, especially one available online that I could download, that outlines the theology of the cross? I have not studied theology at all either in an in depth way. . . .?]]

Many thanks for your questions and also for your comment on my last post. Sometimes it feels like I have said all I can say, and have done so innumerable times so I wonder if doing so again is anything more than just boring and tedious to everyone. For me it mainly points up how little I actually understand things sometimes!!

Anyway, regarding your questions, "inner work" is work that eventuates from spiritual direction, meditation and prayer, life with others, difficult situations, or just reflective living. It usually leads to greater growth as a human being and in one's relationships with God and others. It is any focused and conscious approach to maturing in virtues, healing from woundedness, becoming a more transparent and true human being. Apart from prayer which is the ground of this work, the primary tool for inner work is often journaling and there are various approaches to growth work which utilize journaling and provide specific ways of doing this. There are a number of formal approaches with workshops and lots of writing with specific questions for reflection, etc. Even if one does not do something systematic and formal with workshops, etc, regular and sustained growth in the spiritual life tends to require ongoing spiritual direction. Most directors I know stress journaling as a tool and will assist a directee in finding their way here.

There are also approaches to spirituality which involve lots of inner work (after all, all authentic spirituality is about transformation). The exercises of St Ignatius is one of these. Currently I am working VERY SLOWLY through a book based on the spiritual exercises called, The Gift of Spiritual Intimacy by Monty Williams, sj. The reflection questions which accompany every step of this book are terrific and plentiful; they are challenging, progressive (they build on and contribute to one another --- though they can be used in any order as well), and can be used as part of a group, on one's own --- though working with a director would be even better --- and so forth! (By the way, if one wants to use the book in a systematic way and actually do the exercises by using it, I definitely recommend working with a director. There are enough questions at every step to allow one to return to them anew again and again (year after year) in order to work with those which really speak to one at this point in one's life. Without a director the book can be a bit overwhelming in its richness and possibilities.)

For instance, the section I was spending some time on this afternoon is on the Beatitudes, and specifically the first one, "Blessed are the poor in spirit. . ." The questions accompanying the reflection for this Beatitude include: [[1) What are your gifts? How do you use them? How are you trapped by them? 2) What are your poverties? How do you hide from them? What happens to you when you enter into those areas? 3) What are the areas in which you do not believe in yourself? What are the areas in which you do not believe in others or in God? 4) Where do you feel threatened? Where does your body tell you that you are threatened? 5) How are you threatened by God? by your family and friends? by yourself? by your prayer?. . .6) What are the areas of vulnerability in your life? . . .9) poverty takes only what is needed from this world, nothing more. Can you distinguish between what you want and what you need? 10) What aspects of you own poverty of spirit do you feel called to spend some more time with?How will you do that? Can you sit in the presence of God and allow God to encounter your own poverty of spirit? What happens when you do that?]] etc.

I try to do this kind of work regularly in the hermitage --- daily when that is possible --- and I meet with my director regularly about the work I am doing as well. Writing about such questions and the reflection it demands is helpful, but sharing these with someone who can help take one further is also very helpful. For instance, it is one thing to answer questions on the nature of one's personal poverties or the ways one hides from these, and another thing entirely to work in a way which heals and allows one to live these things exhaustively with the grace of God. Conversion and growth in Christ's own life is a never ending task and challenge for the Christian. Monks and nuns, as you know, actually are vowed to this, "Conversatio morum". "Inner work" is really any kind of personal growth work that assists in this, that helps one to grow in generosity and compassion, that stretches, heals, and enlarges one's heart so that God might dwell there as fully as possible.

As for the theology of the Cross, I'm sorry, but I don't know of any single source for this, especially online. Theologically there are various approaches to the cross and the way it works. When we use the term "Theology of the Cross" however, we tend to be referring to Paul's own theology of the way Jesus' death and resurrection work to reconcile all of creation to God (God is NOT reconciled!). The basic idea is that God asserts his rights over a sinful world by loving and having mercy on it. In Christ, and through Christ's obedience to him (his openness and responsiveness to God) God enters into every moment and mood of sinful existence including godless or godforsaken death (symbolized by death by crucifixion), and transforms these with his presence so that nothing at all can separate us (or the rest of creation) from the love of God. For Christians God is the one who is present in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place, the one who died for us "while we were yet sinners". There are innumerable books on Paul's theology -- often lengthy and dense. Pope Benedict has some marvelous reflections on the Cross in his small book, Behold the Pierced One. Despite the fact that this is not exactly a systematic theological presentation, you might consider starting with that one.

I hope these answers are helpful. If they are unclear or raise other questions please do get back to me. Thanks again for your email.

05 November 2011

Follow-up on Part-time Eremitical Life (Yet Again!)

[[Sister, I am a lay person and live in solitude two days a week; I consider myself a hermit. I read where you would not. I also see where you have argued against extending the term "hermit" to part-time hermits. Is your own solitude really so different than mine? Is it really so much better? Like an earlier reader, I am offended you would be stuck in outdated definitions and not be open to people opening up this category of life to people like me. I am also in disagreement that a vocation to solitude would take as much time to discern as you seem to believe it does. . . . Get over yourself!]]

Thanks for your questions and objections. To be frank, I don't think I can set forth any more clearly why I believe what I believe than I have already done --- and done in posts which it seems you have read yourself. My own solitude is "better" mainly in the sense that it may speak more clearly to those who have no choice regarding their circumstances, that is, those who find themselves isolated and alienated because of life circumstances they cannot change. I think that this is the only way I might use the term "better" in comparing the solitude I am vowed to live with your own. Otherwise, yes, it is different, and I think it is different in significant (very meaningful) ways.

The Place of Eremitical Solitude in Confronting oneself and in Self-Emptying

Besides being able to speak more effectively to those whose physical solitude is not chosen or needs redemption another piece of this difference is the fact that eremitical solitude is one which ensures that one discovers and confronts one's own essential poverty when left to oneself. Over time in silence and solitude one faces oneself in a multitude of inescapable ways; with prayer and inner work (which mediate the grace of God), one comes to exist more truthfully and transparently. God is central to this whole process because it is in extended silence and solitude that one comes to know God's love. It is this love which allows one to participate in the kenosis or self-emptying accomplished in the desert as well as in the process of perceiving and embracing the authentic covenantal identity God calls one to. In the desert, solitude is not a distraction from one's usual environment. Neither does it allow for much distraction, for distraction in the desert can be deadly. I believe eremitical solitude is the solitude of the desert where I believe yours is not. (Please see the articles on the difference between an experience of the desert and a desert experience.) Further, because the heart of eremitical solitude is union with God, the silence of solitude reflects both the environment and goal of the hermit's life where yours, it seems to me, represents either a respite from these or something which MAY contribute to them some but without being them.

The Total Demand of Eremitical Solitude

In reflecting on this notion of "part-time hermits" or of folks' inability to see the difference between a life of solitude and occasional periods of physical solitude I am reminded of a couple of passages from a Carthusian monk's notes for a conference given to new postulants and novices. Dom Joseph wrote: Many "try" solitude and come away in raptures. But they have never really experienced its total demand on human nature; whilst they were in cell, they knew that at the weekend they would be back home at the sea-side. But solitude is far from romantic.

After thinking of the applicants who had left, often during their first night in cell, Dom Joseph continued: Before entering, the postulant dreamed of closing his door upon himself and calling to Jesus the Beloved, but he did not dream that it would be a desperate cry for help. That is, the only prayer he now knows. It is just, "Jesus mercy, Jesus help" all day long. All his pretensions, all his confidence in self, all his assurance that he was strong enough for solitude, have gone long ago. MacGuire, Nancy, An Infinity of Little Hours (p 74)

It is the notion of total demand on one's human nature and the way one is cast upon God in complete dependence which defines the seriousness of a life commitment to "the silence of solitude." It also explains in part the reason that discernment can only occur over time frames which are ordinarily longer than those required by other vocations to consecrated life. When a hermit is canonically professed, for instance, the Bishop asks a series of questions regarding her readiness to make the necessary commitments in preparation for accepting the hermit's vows. He asks publicly if she is resolved to "give (her)self to God alone, in solitude and silence, in persevering prayer and willing penance, in humble labor and holiness of life". To be honest, I don't see how a person can answer such questions in an informed or affirmative way without an existential background in their meaning. This raises several points pertinent to your comments: 1) the Church understands the eremitical vocation as a serious and full-time proposition, 2) one must know that eremitical solitude is a LIFE call, not a transitional or therapeutic period leading to something else --- significant as these may be, and 3) the ability to say yes to such questions, to make a life commitment to them and to God in this way, requires one experience them over a significant period of time prior to such a commitment.

In other words, one needs to know the experience that Dom Joseph describes in his conference notes first hand, and I honestly don't think that spending two days a week in solitude allows for this. There is simply something different in an experience of solitude where one's time there is not going to end in a day or two, a month or two (or even in a year or two!), where the wrestling one does with one's own incapacity is not something one has the resources to end or resolve of oneself, where distractions are, in the main, something one is obligated by choice and by vow to avoid while one faces full on the things which cause us all to turn to distractions in the first place. There is a vast difference between solitude as respite and solitude as a committed way of intense encounter and life. We all know how different a difficult experience is when one can see a light at the end of the tunnel from an experience where there is no light, no real end in sight.

Tedium, Boredom, and Doing Battle with Personal Demons

Now, obviously I don't experience solitude as generally miserable or as bleak as all that (at least I hope it is obvious from this blog!), but rather as amazingly compelling and humanizing in its communion. It is ordinarily a source of joy in God. However, neither do I want to sugar coat the nature or difficulties of eremitical solitude. Even when one is sure that solitude herself has opened the door to the hermit and that the silence of solitude represents a life vocation, this does not mean that one's experience in cell is unending bliss. Prayer may be a joy, but it is also demanding, intense, and challenging in ways love and any genuine commitment to another is always challenging.

Beyond this, the tedium of one's day to day schedule (horarium) in cell means that boredom can be a real problem as can fidelity be in such instances. Stability and one's commitment to it demands that one live through the difficulties, not avoid them with this distraction or that, this shift in place, activity, focus, or that. Despite common misunderstandings of solitary life in a hermitage, it is not an extended vacation, nor a time to simply kick back and do what one likes. It is often less about peace and quiet than it is about doing battle with personal demons. One experiences peace and is able to rest in Christ, but entrusting oneself to Him is also demanding and something which one must grow in one's ability to do. Eremitical solitude, as I have said several times now, is a vocation and a way of life which, when lived well, is a gift to Church and World. Lived badly it is more apt to be an instance of our culture's (or sin's) exaggerated selfishness and individualism.

The Bottom line Questions

My bottom line questions to you (or to myself, for that matter) are, "Is there a way you can say definitely and concretely that your own solitude is a gift to Church and world? Is it consistent with the tradition of eremitical solitude in either Western or Eastern Churches before and even while it varies in some way? Does it speak in some prophetic way to any particular segment of the population?" And finally, "is it something worthy of giving your very life for --- not just abstractly, but in terms of every minute, and hour, and day, and month, and year for the rest of your life?" My own answer to these questions is yes --- even when I live that answer badly at this point or that. It is this affirmative answer and all it implies that allows me not simply to succeed in living this solitude, but to renew my efforts when I have failed to live it well. I suspect this too is a very big difference between the solitude you describe and the solitude I call eremitical.

02 November 2011

Immaculee Ilibagiza, Author of Left to Tell at Saint Mary's College, Moraga CA

This evening I was able to attend a talk by Immaculee Ilibagiza, the author of Left to Tell, Led By Faith, et al, and the survivor of the Rwandan genocide who is most associated with her three month vigil of terror and prayer in a neighbor's 3' by 4' bathroom. (The neighbor was a Christian pastor and friend of the family and belonged to the Hutu tribe which was murdering Tutsis like Immaculee; there were seven other women including a seven year old child in that bathroom!!) More, she is known for her forgiveness of those who murdered nearly her entire family and most of her neighbors, her best friend, etc. Her story reminds me very much of the story of Eva Moses Kor (cf links for most popular posts in the right hand column) and her own forgiveness of Dr Mengele who committed atrocities involving Eva, her Sister, and other twins, as well as other Nazis involved in the holocaust during WWII. Both of these women discovered a tremendous freedom in their graced ability to forgive and both discovered a commission by God to make this call real for the world.

In fact, one of the stories Immaculee told this evening in explaining why she was going places to talk about her story was about having met a holocaust survivor at one of her own talks. The aged holocaust survivor thanked Immaculee and expressed a kind of relief and peace that now she could die in peace because someone else had taken on the same message from a similar experience of torture, terror, grace, transformation and forgiveness. I wondered at the time if it might not have been Eva Moses Kor whom Immaculee had met that night. I would have given a great deal to have witnessed such a meeting first hand. There is something so inspiring in the forgiveness these women have "achieved"; not only have they forgiven the killers who took their families and changed their lives forever, but both have met with those persons among us who insist the genocides they survived and witness to never occurred at all!

I have read Left to Tell and it was riveting and terrifying. It was also inspiring and personally challenging. I am reading Led by Faith right now, and one of the things I have been most taken by are the descriptions of Immaculee's prayer. They are compelling and I had the sense in reading them that Immaculee is a true mystic. Labels aside, Led by Faith deepens the portrait of this young woman's faith and prayer in significant ways which make it completely credible and compelling. Tonight, one of the most powerful parts of Ms Ilibagiza's presentation were the moments when, in the midst of reflecting on a truly horrifying and horrific story, she spoke of the way her own prayer had developed and did so with an amazing transparency and humor. These moments were like sparks of fire in the darkness. It was a truly humble presentation of her struggle to come to faith, and to move from faith to faith in relation to and relationship with an inescapable God she discovered dwelling in her own heart!

If you have not read either of these books I recommend them both. Start with Left to Tell and move from there to Led by Faith. The subtitle of tonight's presentation was, "Surviving the Rwandan Genocide." The picture one gets from these two books is first the story of the narrower meaning of this subtitle --- surviving the immediate bloodbath --- and secondly, the broader and perhaps more difficult bit of "survival" which is necessary, namely, becoming whole human beings capable of loving, forgiving and otherwise moving out through our own pain, woundedness, and loss to bring hope to a world that needs it badly. Many of us are survivors of various traumas and tragedies as both Immaculee and Eva Kor were, that is, survivors in the narrower sense of the term --- even if those traumas do not seem as extreme to us. The challenge both Immaculee and Eva (and of course, Jesus!) present us with is that of moving with the grace of God beyond survival in an immediate sense to survival in the broader sense of a grateful, forgiving life in abundance and true freedom. In the process of coming to forgiveness, one ceases in fact to be a victim and becomes a victor while assuming the mantle of prophet and healer in a somewhat lost and undoubtedly broken world. It seems to me that on a solemnity like All Saints (today's Feast) it is important to hear stories of living saints who inspire us to embrace such a calling and commission. Both Immaculee Ilibagiza and Eva Moses Kor are such persons, but for Christians today, Immaculee speaks with a special poignancy and urgent contemporaneity.