26 February 2011

A Little about "Friending", Friendships, and Eremitical Custody of the Cell


[[Sister Laurel, do you have friends? Did you have to leave friends in order to become a hermit? How do you maintain friendships and embrace stricter separation from the world? Is it difficult to maintain balance in this?]]

Really excellent questions, especially the timing of them. If you remember, Friday's readings included one from Sirach which gave lots of sage advice on friendship. I was reflecting on the day's readings the evening before and I realized that in many ways friendships work the same as stricter separation from the world. That is, they provide a privileged, even holy, space where we can 1) be ourselves without the distorting lenses and props of "the world," 2) see ourselves as we are, and even 3) come to meet God. So, on Friday I shared some of my reflections at a communion service. One thing I noted was that genuine friendship involves a mutual commitment to the truth and life of the other (and to oneself). I also spoke a little about the vast difference between Facebook's new verb, "friending" and the reality of genuinely befriending or being a friend. What Sirach said several thousand years ago is true today: "let your acquaintances be many, but one in a thousand your confidant." Tragically, it seems that a lot of people don't know the difference between acquaintances and friends while others trivialize one of the greatest treasures in life --- true friends --- in other ways.

But, your questions were about my own life and friendships, especially as these relate to stricter separation from the world. So, to answer those, yes, I have friends, some very good ones in fact, and a number of others as well. I have Sister friends, friends from orchestra and music more generally, friends from the parish and town, several quite good ones from online (yes we have met in person), and friends from school (elementary through graduate school).

I did not have to leave friends in order to become a hermit, but partly that was because chronic illness had already caused a significant rupture in my ability to maintain relationships as I would have liked --- at least, that is, in terms of making just hanging out or regular (and predictable) contact really possible. It is the case, however, that hermits cannot simply call friends whenever they want, or just drop things to go out, nor even allow friends to drop in at any time --- or even very frequently (eremitical hospitality is a very high value even so and is in tension here). Beyond this there will be parts of the hermitage which are essentially or functionally cloistered. Hence, even without the effects of chronic illness, there will be a rupture in relationships (or at least the way these are lived out and maintained)! This is something that aspirants for Canon 603 profession don't always realize, and as a result they spend time trying to build in (physical) solitude, (external) silence, and stricter separation from "worldly things" (whatever this means!) while maintaining life as it generally was prior to this. So, you are correct in inferring and implying in your questions that embracing eremitical life entails a real and substantial break with one's old life --- a break in which relationships will not remain unaffected. However, it is also true that friendships are important for human wholeness and I (and, I suspect, all hermits) try to keep in touch as is possible and healthy for their own eremitical lives. One technological advance that works well for me is the use of email; because of this friends can write when they want and allow me to get back to them when I can --- all without the ringing of phones, meshing of schedules, etc.

I suspect that a piece of your question about maintaining my balance is related to the idea that what is outside the hermitage is "the world" while that which is inside the hermitage is sacred. But this is emphatically not a healthy or effective way to approach the matter. It is not even accurate since the hermitage is very much a place where the hermit does battle with the world inside her own heart and mind. (This was a very large part of the what battling with demons was all about for the desert Fathers and Mothers.) Sometimes then, trips outside the hermitage are actually necessary because a part of my own heart (my personal center) is also "the world" and resistant to Christ. It is true that solitary prayer and lectio help a lot with the conversion of this dimension of my life, but so too do meetings and time with others. After all, it is possible to remain in the hermitage and, in the process, begin to lose sight of the concrete forms of growth one really needs to achieve. In fulltime solitude, one can mistakenly begin to justify a completely self-centered private project in superficial or inauthentic piety. Humility, for instance, can become a contrived and self-absorbed project. Achieving sainthood or citizenship in heaven and dismissing the world of space and time (rather than cooperating with God's work to make heaven (defined as life with and in God) interpenetrate this awesome creation), can become something similar.

On the other hand, a challenging (though loving) conversation with a friend, or an uncomfortable confrontation with another musician can point up one's self-absorption and pettiness in short order. The basic Christian requirement that we love another person concretely can unmask all pretensions to having grown significantly in the love of God or true holiness. Eremitical life has always been criticized for its lack of opportunities to love one's brothers and sisters in concrete ways. This is a criticism which MUST be taken seriously in one way and another. The bottom line for discernment is always what is the Spirit of wholeness and true charity summoning me to at this point? Mainly the answer will be, "to dwell in my cell where I learn "everything" I need to know," but some of the time the answer will be, "to spend time with my friends, peers, and acquaintances, so that I might learn to love all the better and share (the fruits of) this great journey with them in the way God wills."

Maintaining balance is not so hard once one realizes that one cannot simply continue as one once did. Penance (and the other essential elements of eremitical life) will likely mean giving up aspects of friendship one enjoyed (hanging around together, for instance, or being able to call someone most any time), and it will assuredly mean a commitment to custody of the cell as primary and foundational context of one's life. But once that is defined and maintained in a way which is integral and fundamentally life-giving, time and space for friendship can (and will actually need to) be worked out as well.

I hope this helps. As always, please get back to me with further questions or needs for clarification.

24 February 2011

Purpose of Stricter Separation From the World


[[Dear Sister, What is the purpose of "stricter separation from the world" in your life? You have mentioned it as an element of hermit life, but I really don't get it. The Sisters I know are deeply involved in this world and it seems to me it is what Christ was all about. Can you help me understand?]]

Great question! I have written a little about stricter separation from the world, especially what it does and doesn't mean, so I would invite you to check out labels leading to those articles for additional thoughts. But you are correct, I have not really written about the purpose of stricter separation, nor have I spoken explicitly about the validity of this approach in spirituality --- which does indeed seem rather different from Jesus' usual way of doing things. In fact, "stricter separation from the world" was not something I would have chosen myself without circumstances which led me to understand it differently than I did as a young Sister. As your own comment suggests, it hardly seems to comport with a Christian perspective which honors the incarnation and the sanctity of all creation in Christ. For me it always sounded selfish and lacking in charity --- not to mention in generosity!

It is important to remember that separation from the world means first of all separation from that which is resistant or uncongenial to Christ, and that it involves detachment from that which promises fulfillment, meaning, and hope apart from him and the God he mediates. This sense of the term "world" refers to anything which is untrue, distorted, resistant to life, to love, and to all the rest of the values which constitute life in God. But it is not God's good creation, therefore, from which we mainly separate ourselves. It is "the world" of falsehood, chaos, and meaninglessness, and this means that it is not something distinct existing merely outside of ourselves, but instead a reality which is intimately related to the darkness, woundedness, distortions, and sclerosis (hardness) of our own hearts.

Keeping this in mind, there are several reasons then for embracing stricter separation from the world. The first is that such separation distances us from the constant reinforcement of values, behaviors, expectations, and so forth which bombard us otherwise. Consider all the things we each see every day that tell us who we are and must be --- despite the fact that none of them are consistent with the values of the Kingdom of God! The second reason, however, has to do with allowing ourselves the space and time --- and the silence and solitude --- to meet ourselves without all the supports, props, and distractions of "the world." It is hard to see ourselves for who we really are otherwise. Once the props are down or removed we come to experience our own poverty. When we are not measuring (and in fact CANNOT measure) success, integrity, fruitfulness, etc according to the terms of "the world" we come face to face with what we are really all about. So the first part of stricter separation is all about reality checks. Conversion, after all, requires confrontation with truth.

The third and most fundamental reason for stricter separation from the world is to allow a meeting with God. If our hearts (and so, our very selves) are, in part, darkened, distorted, sclerosed and untrue, they are also the place where God bears witness to himself and the truth of who we are. All the elements of the eremitical life, including stricter separation, are geared towards the meeting (and eventually, union) with God which verifies (makes true), heals, and brings to fullness of life. It is in this meeting that we learn how precious we are despite our very real human poverty, here that we learn how constant and secure God's love, here that we begin to have a sense of what we are really capable of and meant for. It is in this meeting with God that we come to know genuine freedom, come to experience an imperishable hope, and are commissioned to go out to others to summon them to something similar.

There is a fourth reason for stricter separation from the world then. We must step away from the distorted perspectives and values which constitute "the world" in order to affirm the deeper truth and beauty of the world around us. We come to know everything in God and that leads us to see with God's eyes. Hermits assume a marginal place so that they may also serve a prophetic function by speaking the truth into a situation in a way which affirms its deepest and truest reality. It will also summon to conversion. Stricter separation from "the world" allows us to love God's world into wholeness. It is a servant of true engagement and commitment. Stricter separation from "the world" is a tool for loving the whole of God's creation; it is neither escapist nor selfish and cannot be allowed to devolve into these.

Now, I suspect that your only objection to any of this would be, "But why a LIFE of stricter separation from the world?" Hermits witness to this basic dynamic and the need for the freedom that results from being the person God makes us to be. The hermit reminds us again and again then of the foundational relationship that grounds our being, and of the task of individuation it summons us to achieve. We are made for life with God. Separation from the world contributes to this in the life of every person at the same time it rejects enmeshment, and hermits say this particularly clearly with their lives.

I hope this helps. It doesn't answer every aspect but it is a beginning. Thanks again for a really great and challenging question. I enjoyed working on it!

21 February 2011

Feast of St Peter Damian


Today is the feast of the Camaldolese Saint, Cardinal, and Doctor of the Church, St Peter Damian. Peter Damian is generally best known for his role in the Gregorian Reform. He fought Simony and worked tirelessly for the welfare of the church as a whole. Hermits know him best for a few of his letters, but especially #28, "Dominus Vobiscum". Written to Leo of Sitria, letter #28 explores the relation of the hermit to the whole church and speaks of a solitary as an ecclesiola, or little church. Damian had been asked if it was proper to recite lines like "The Lord Be With you" when the hermit was the only one present at liturgy. The result was this letter which explains how the church is wholly present in all of her members, both together and individually. He writes:

[[The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love, so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church. . . .From all the aforementioned it is clear that, because the whole Church can be found in one individual person and the Church itself is called a virgin, Holy Church is both one in all its members and complete in each of them. It is truly simple among many through the unity of faith and multiple in each individual through the bond of love and various charismatic gifts, because all are from one and all are one.]]

Because of this unity Damian notes that he sees no harm in a hermit alone in cell saying things which are said by the gathered Church. In this reflection Damian establishes the communal nature of the solitary vocation and forever condemns the notion that hermits are isolated persons. In the latter part of the letter Damian praises the eremitical life and writes an extended encomium on the nature of the cell. The images he uses are numerous and diverse; they clearly reflect extended time spent in solitude and his own awareness of all the ways the hermitage or cell have functioned in his own life and those of other hermits. Furnace, kiln, battlefield, storehouse, workshop, arena of spiritual combat, fort and defensive edifice, [place assisting the] death of vices and kindling of virtues, Jacob's ladder, golden road, etc --- all are touched on here.

17 February 2011

Technology and the Eremitical Life: the Positive Side of Things


Well, I listened to some of the podcast I did a couple of weeks ago. (Fortunately a friend listened, said it was great and gave me a bit of courage to go ahead myself!) One of the questions Sisters Julie and Maxine posed was whether and how technology changed eremitical life. It was not a question I had thought much about, and not one I answered very well, but it is an important question and I want to give it another shot! Some readers of this blog have posed related questions, sometimes in positive terms, and more often in cynical ways because they doubt that technology can add much at all to a genuine eremitical vocation. After all, how can one observe stricter separation from the world and yet have and use a computer with internet access --- much less have a blog? Doesn't technology detract from authentic eremitical life? How could it not?

Fortunately, the answer I gave did mention the need for discipline in the use of technology and it also spoke of accessibility. These are crucial, of course, and I should have mentioned them, no doubt, but as I thought about what I was struggling towards in my answer (because it was a pretty incoherent and definitely a matter of muddling towards something!) I realized that one of the biggest, and certainly most positive differences for hermits is the way technology stresses and allows a sense of the hermit's place in the Church and world --- not just for the hermit herself, but for the Church and world as well. The presence of a computer, for instance, serves to symbolize the interconnectedness and legitimate interdependence of hermit/hermitage and church and world.

We often hear about hermits and contemplatives more generally "living at the heart of the church." One has a sense of this because to the degree one is in union with God one feels united to all that is precious to him as well. One learns in prayer that one really is part of a mystical body and related to all others within that body --- and outside it as well. This is the central truth of one's solitude --- that one is related to God and to all of God's creation in a way one might not be aware of otherwise. One is related in and through God, and related through time and space thusly. It is this experience of relatedness which which is primary for the hermit. Other experiences of relatedness remain important nonetheless.

And here is one place technology has really affected eremitical life. The hermit must find ways to relate to the Church and World while maintaining her solitude intact. Technology allows this. More, it becomes a symbol of the fact that the hermit does indeed live at the heart of the Church and serves both the Church and the world by maintaining the integrity of her eremitical life --- a solitary life with two poles or dimensions, the first that of separation and the second that of community. Like a cyberskete or virtual laura of diocesan hermits where hermits from around the world are linked to one another by electronic pathways, so too does the computer link the hermit with the world around her. Because the linkage is immediate, the sense of connection adds to the primary sense of relatedness in God. Additionally, for me anyway, there is an increased and more concrete sense that my life serves as a kind of leaven (good I hope!) in all of this.

Of course being connected in this way shapes my prayer and my heart in general. It is pretty much impossible to be accessible to and interact with others, answer questions, accept prayer requests, post reflections which are meant to be nourishing or helpful to others without finding that one grows in compassion at the same time. And one returns to the solitude of the cell affected by who one has met, and who one was for those people. The eremitical life is, as I said, a life lived alone with God for others. It is possible to lose sight of this "for others" dimension of things (we see this with self-identified hermits (or mystics) from time to time where being a hermit (or mystic) becomes a label for nothing more than glorified navel-gazing or a kind of pseudo spiritual-masturbation). But this is a danger for all hermits and the primary sense of being related to others in God must be tested and concretized in limited contact with actual people and real lives. Otherwise the observation that we are a contemplative presence at the heart of the Church, true though it is generally, can serve specifically as nothing more than a pious platitude which excuses selfishness and even some degree of misanthropy.

The idea that I can spend hours a day in complete solitude and then step into the next room where pressing a single key connects me to the world around me in a concrete and immediate way is still astounding. The notion that I am accessible to others in ways which are fruitful for them and for me (as well as for the eremitical vocation more generally) is equally astounding. But anchorites have always had windows open to both the altar and to the public space outside their anchorhold. In the 21st century technology (especially the computer and internet), like the windows of the anchorite's anchorhold does symbolize the truth of a life lived in the heart of the Church and linked to the whole world by God first of all, and then in other ways, including electronically.

It is certainly possible to speak favorably of technology -- as I have done here --- but there are significant caveats as well and I will need to say more about these. For instance, media changes us, whether we are careful with it or not; it changes our nervous systems, the way we process information, the degree to which we can truly listen or accept (or resist) silence and solitude. This was Marshall McLuhan's message and it is echoed, sharpened, and expanded on by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Sherry Turkle's work is also appropriate here with important books like The Second Self and Alone Together, Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from One Another.  Moreover, though I have spoken about the positive side of technology for the hermit, I am including a video of a talk on Thomas Merton's views of technology and their destructive effects on culture and humanity in case it is of some interest to you. It is done by Father Ezekiel Lotz.



P.S., one friend reminded me I did not mention the way technology allows the hermit to work from their hermitage in this post. She is correct, and it is a good point. I admit my mind here was on the answer I was searching for during the podcast when I hared off on the idea of accessibility, so perhaps I can say more about the more functional ways technology has affected the eremitical life in another post.

A Little Bit of Lectio: Who Do You Say that I am?


There is something startling about the second question in today's Gospel. Jesus is presented with all kinds of ideas about who people says he is, but he wants the disciples to state clearly who THEY say he is. Most people have several different answers to Jesus' first question, "Who do people say that I am?" The answers include Elijah, John the Baptist, and some of the prophets. But Jesus sharpens the question and moves from this more superficial way of knowing to the disciples own experiential or heart knowledge. He asks, "And you, who do YOU say that I am?"

I am reminded of the kinds of knowing found in last week's stories from Genesis with Adam and Eve in the Garden. As I told the third graders who attended a prayer service with us, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is not simply about knowing in our minds what is bad vs what is good. Instead the passage refers to a deeper, more intimate way of knowing good and evil, namely, deep within our selves. To "eat of this tree" is quite literally to take good and evil and the act of judging within ourselves. The way I illustrated this for 3rd graders was to ask how many of them knew what it felt like to stand on one foot for fifteen minutes. Several hands came part way up and then dropped down again. The kids knew they could imagine what it would be like, but they also saw clearly that only in doing it would they REALLY know in their muscles, memory, emotions, etc. (After the liturgy one of the adults present told me one little girl tried the whole time to stand on one foot!!)

I am also reminded of the conversation from last week between Eve and the serpent as the two of them theologize ABOUT God rather than speaking TO or WITH him. Two forms or levels of knowing, the first which is interesting and maybe even important for Eve, but which involves only a part of her being until she commits to the definition she has come to --- a definition which is not the same as God's self-revelation --- and establishes herself as estranged from God.

And finally I am reminded of my perpetual eremitical profession several years ago when I responded to the Bishop's question about what I desired in a statement which publicly claimed Jesus Christ as "Lord and Spouse" I had never used the term "Spouse" before, and never publicly! The question in Mark's Gospel, "Who do YOU say that I am?" was on my mind and heart. And at this moment, there was no call for my education in theology, no need for theologizing. Instead, I was being asked to bring my whole self before God and the assembly and ask the Church to accept this self gift in the name of Christ. Theologizing was over. Speculation had no place in this exchange. Wishfulness and indecisiveness was definitely out of line here. Instead it was time to claim that identity publicly which had been given privately many years earlier. This was my moment to answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" from the knowledge I carried in my heart; I was actually surprised, and perhaps a little scared by my response.

There are all kinds of ways to avoid a genuine response to Jesus' question. Rote answers carved from creeds and catechesis are the most common. Playing it safe and refusing to answer for fear of what others will think is another common one. I answered on that day of vows, ". . . Jesus who is my Lord and Spouse" but in another situation I might as easily have responded, "You are the one who called me "little one" and who tried to coax me to drink a glass of milk in the hospital all those years ago when I was so very frightened"; and I might have continued, "you have been my elder Brother present at every bedside ever since, revealing the steadfast compassionate love of God to me." There are many other ways to answer Jesus' question in my own life. I call him Christ, and Lord, and Brother, but the content of those terms, consistent as they are with Tradition, is always partly my very own. So should all such answers to Jesus' question be, I think.

Peter apparently answers the question Jesus asks, and does so in the terms of personal experience and trust required: "You are the Christ", but when Jesus begins to redefine what being God's anointed one means in terms of suffering and death, Peter rebukes him and belies the authenticity of his own confession. Once again Divine reality conflicts with human theologizing --- and once again theologizing is estranged from the human heart and the trusting knowledge of faith. Peter even takes Jesus aside to instruct him in the truth of what the term Christ REALLY means (certainly not suffering and ignominious death!)! And Jesus' criticism is devastating: "Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do!" He might well have said, Get behind me pseudo-theologian! You are thinking like human beings do, but I need you to know me, and claim that knowledge in a different and more exhaustive way!

The challenge of this Gospel is the same as the challenge to Adam and Eve in the garden, viz, allow God to reveal himself on his own terms. Trust in that revelation. Live from it and for it. Spend some time answering Jesus' question for yourself. He knows who the Church says he is, and what textbooks in dogmatic theology claim and expound on, but who do YOU say that he is?

16 February 2011

Followup Questions on Rule and Horarium

[[Dear Sister Laurel, is there a difference between a horarium and a plan of life? what is the relationship...? which came first... an horarium that grew into a Rule of Life or?]]

The basic answer is that a horarium is a daily schedule. A Rule of Life includes the horarium but also a lot more than that because it is the document which governs the way a hermit lives her life. That means that it includes things like a brief history and theology of the eremitical life, the vows and how they are understood and lived out in concrete ways, a reflection on the central elements of Canon 603 and how these are lived out, how the hermit maintains herself financially, a section on Sacraments and access to these, provisions for ongoing formation, retreat, spiritual direction, a brief theology of prayer and reference to the forms of prayer undertaken and when, the charism (gift quality) of eremitical life -- especially of the diocesan hermit, relation to the parish, diocese, Diocesan Bishop and delegate, and so forth.

While it is true that one follows a horarium (or various horaria) for some time before one writes (or is ready to write) a Rule, strictly speaking, the horarium does not grow out of the Rule nor the Rule out of the horarium. Instead, both grow out of the hermit's lived experience of and reflection on the life itself. When, after some experimentation, one finds a schedule that works for one, then that will go into the Rule one eventually writes. Exigencies of life can cause some changes to the daily schedule so this element of one's Rule tends to change more often than other elements of the Rule. I have found that most experienced hermits build in some room for flexibility and don't feel constrained to strictly follow a minute by minute schedule, but it does happen that beginners often construct a schedule that is more focused on filling up time and on treating the Gospel counsel to "pray always" as "always saying prayers" than as providing a basic structure by which they may live their lives with integrity and BE God's own prayer. (The alternate common beginner's stumbling block is to follow no horarium at all and to simply allow what happens during the day to dictate one's schedule.) Together these are sort of the Scylla and Charybdis one has to avoid in fixing one's horarium which charts a kind of daily course between these two.

Thanks for the questions! I hope this helps.

15 February 2011

Life in Sonata Form, On Hermits, Horaria, and the Freedom of Limits

During the podcast I did for A Nun's Life recently, Sister Maxine noted that the way my day was divided, especially knowing I was a violinist, sounded a bit like movements in music. I agreed it did seem a bit like a sonata form, and I have had some time to think about this aspect of my horarium. Probably some of the impulse to do that was provided by a question Sister Julie asked about the structure of my day, my schedule or horarium, and what it provided besides the discipline per se. As I recall (for I have not yet had the courage to listen to the podcast!) my answer had something to do with not functioning well without the structure. But, of course, this is only a piece of the answer --- the tiny (and negative) tip of the real and far more positive truth. It was Sister Maxine's comment about movements that has helped me come to a bit greater clarity more generally on what my horarium as horarium provides --- and what such limits more generally really make possible.

Sonata Form and Creative Freedom

Generally (and very simplistically) sonata form is a classical form of music in three movements. The first movement (exposition) is dedicated to the basic themes of the rest of the piece. There is variation, exposition in various related keys, etc, but this is the movement where the basic musical thematic and harmonic material is presented. The second movement is also known as the development. Here the composer develops or explores the music laid out in the exposition. The material remains tied to the exposition but the exploration can be far ranging both thematically and harmonically and one may not be able to easily hear the relation of this material to that of the exposition. Sometimes it is a rhythmic motif that carries through in a recognizable way (think of the first four notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony. The "dot dot dot dash" rhythm is one basis of the development.) The third movement is one of recapitulation and it is here that the thematic and harmonic explorations, the tensions and conflicts which developed during the development movement, etc, are resolved.

There are all kind of limits and requirements intrinsic to the form but what remains true is that this form allows for tremendous freedom in exploring the thematic and harmonic possibilities of what may, by themselves, be very simple themes or motifs. At the same time it is not a question of "anything goes". There is coherence and consistency, not only because of the external structure per se, but because this structure allows for the space and time in which the original themes may be explored and developed musically while constraining the composer to do so in a way which maintains thematic and harmonic integrity as well as in a way which allows listeners to hear and appreciate that this is precisely what she is doing. We do not all have the skills, imagination, or vocation to compose and explore thematic material (music) in this way, but we can share in the experience because of the way a composer exercises these things. The constraints of sonata-allegro form, for instance, serve the freedom of the musician. They define limits in ways which challenge the imagination, require substantial musical knowledge and skill, and generally guide the composer to explore the limits of her own capabilities.

Horarium and Human Freedom

So too does the horarium of the hermit allow the hermit to explore the limits of her own capabilities. And this is the key to understanding the positive and more substantial truth of the reason I need a horarium. It is entirely true that I don't function well, and that my life goes off the rails pretty quickly without one. But what is also the case is that without the space and time its constraints provide, I fail to live my life. While I may do many things during the hours of days I am not following a horarium, I may well not actually be living the life I am called and covenanted to live. Doing things (even pious things!) and filling space with these is not necessarily the same as living one's life.

As I have noted before, a schedule is one piece of the constraints which create the "laboratory" -- or perhaps, better, the studio -- in which my life is composed, and especially, where God is given the space and time to work with and within me in special ways with my conscious cooperation. As we all know, it is possible to fill our lives with all kinds of activities. Much of the time they may well be significant activities which serve others, but even then, they may not be part of the life we are called or covenanted to live.

In a related way, then, the schedule reminds me of and calls me back to the priorities which mark my life. In a negative sense it reminds me, for instance, that I am not an apostolic religious, but also that I am not free to do whatever I want whenever I want. More positively it reminds me that if my life is to be the magnificat God wills it to be, the essential themes, rhythms, and harmonies that are fundamental to it must form a regular part of things. More specifically, my "sonata-form schedule" works because it allows a dedicated period from 4:00am to 12:00 noon or 1:00 pm for the very basic elements of a prayerful life. This is the foundational part of everything else that happens during a day. In the afternoons I "develop," or perhaps better, allow God to develop these fundamental elements during the activities of everyday life, work with clients, errands, study, occasional time with friends, etc, and in the evenings, there is a conscious return to the fundamental themes again with journaling, quiet prayer, a brief lectio, and Compline.

When "life" intervenes: a parishioner who needs to talk, illness, a doctor's appointment, an errand which requires depending on another for transportation when it is convenient for them, and so forth, the horarium allows me to interrupt or postpone the present "movement" and do what is genuinely needed. However, it also allows me to step back into the day at another point and move forward from there. More, it reminds me I must do this if I am not to altogether lose myself and the composition God seeks me to become. The horarium anchors all I do; it embodies values and activities which are the source of life for me, and continually summons me back to myself and to these sources. At the same time it allows flexibility precisely because it serves authenticity, charity, and those other values which are part of life in fullness. Once again, the horarium serves and promotes authentic freedom --- and that is all about helping empower me to be the person I am called to be.

11 February 2011

A Little Bit of Lectio


I was reflecting about today's first reading. It is the part of the Genesis account where Eve is seduced to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, where (perhaps at her urging and perhaps not) Adam does the same thing, and where "their eyes are opened" as a result. Of course this opening of their eyes is a form of self-consciousness which is rooted in only a partial truth about themselves, namely, that they are naked before God and each other. But it is a self-consciousness which blinds them to the greater truth of who they are with and through God, namely, persons of infinite worth with the very breath of God sustaining them at every instant --- even in their sinfulness.

From here my reflections moved in the direction of humility. I came to think that what passes too often for genuine humility is precisely the partial truth occasioned by alienation from God and the resulting self-consciousness that blinds us to the whole truth. What passes for humility is often nothing more than a self-centered view of our "nakedness" but without the broader perspective granted us by our relationship to and with God and the incredible worth that affirms. Without this other piece of the picture, we know only our own unworthiness, our own poverty and incapacity --- and we will rightly come to despise ourselves. Of course Adam and Eve fail at humility in other ways. They grasp at a knowledge they are not made for, they fail to trust a God who has given them no reason to fail in this, and they hide from him taking refuge in shrubbery and stuck-on fig leaves! But most fundamentally in all of this, I think, they only look at (or accept) part of the truth of who they are in relation to God and, for that very reason, fail in humility.

But my reflections also went in another direction (though I am pretty sure they link up at some point; it is just that my lectio has not gotten me to that point yet!). I was thinking about something Walter Brueggemann said about the hugely "over-interpreted" serpent in this narrative, namely, that he was not a symbol of Satan or evil, but a neutral character used to move the story along. This led me to think of the serpent as an externalization of what Eve comes to think in her heart --- a debate she has with herself, really: that God has somehow not told them the truth, that she knows what God is really like, that she knows what is best for her own life and is capable of determining what is good and what is not without reference to God!

Part of this sense that the serpent is the externalization of Eve's own thought processes were occasioned by something else Brueggemann said, viz, that the speech made by the serpent, indeed the whole conversation, is a matter of "theologizing" and that the serpent is the first "working theologian"!!! (I admit, I found this point really funny --- but because it was strikingly "right." It reminded me of the fear I felt regarding presuming to speak about God with any authority early in my years of studying theology. Somehow, doing "theology" seemed to be oxymoronic to me. Arrogant perhaps, probably presumptuous, and at least awfully risky. It is a fear which has never completely left me, and I mainly know it now as a kind of awe that I am (or might be!) a theologian.) Perhaps I need to recover some of that original "fear"! (Ah, can you sense these directions in my lectio beginning to link up?) At the same time then, it recalled the stress in Eastern Christianity on theology as an act of prayer, or at the very least, something which is never to be divorced from prayer.

But in today's reading, that is exactly what happens. As Brueggemann notes, no one is speaking to or with God in this section. They are speaking about him, and in doing so they even distort (or lie to themselves about) what they were told WHILE they were speaking with him and he them. How often this happens in our own lives! Whether we are professional or academic theologians or the armchair variety, how very often we speak about a God we really don't know or allow to know us all that well! How often our speech about God, our theologizing, has nothing whatsoever to do with prayer! It neither stems from prayer, adverts to prayer in gratitude or supplication, nor moves us to return to prayer! And how often it distorts, subtly or otherwise, the truth about God which he himself has revealed to us. Much of our religion is built upon such distortions!!

It occurred to me that if we were speaking without reticence about science, or economics, or child-rearing, or any number of other things without first hand knowledge OF the thing being talked about, people would laugh us out of the room. And rightly so! Consider how truly stupid we would be and seem if we spoke about a person as though we knew them first hand and were instead required to confess to listeners that we had never actually met this person face to face! And yet, how often we characterize people, speak of their motives, etc without ever having met them! Why is it that with theology we don't get uneasy in attempting to speak about God and the other ultimately important dimensions of life which are tied to faith in him apart from a first-hand knowledge of God??? (Here I am thinking of suffering, death, illness, evil, and more --- and about all the really silly and even offensive things people say about them and about God when they wax on about such things.) Of course, it is true that the truly first rate theologians never lose perspective like this (or not for long!!) and that their theology is a function of their prayer lives. But for most of us, we rarely talk to or with God before we presume to talk about him, and as a result our theologizing is as blind, self-centered, and distorted as in today's first reading.

Clearly my own lectio with this text is not finished --- and may not be for some time. It is a perfect text for extended lectio. It is a rich vein of gold and I need to spend more time mining it. More, it is a deep and extensive word addressed to me and I need to spend more time listening and responding to it in prayer. The freedom to go where the text and the Holy Spirit leads is a part of lectio we should not be afraid of --- even if that involves ways of seeing characters, etc that are not quite the way we have been catechized!!

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Note: I am thinking about making "A Little Bit of Lectio" a regular part of this blog. Ordinarily reflections I put up have a more "finished" character, but it seems to me this approach might be more helpful to some --- and of course, may be helpful to me as well! If you have an opinion, please email me.

On Widowhood and Silence



[[Sr. Laurel - I was unable to be there for the whole of the interview you did with Sisters Julie and Maxine recently, but I have now obtained the recording from iTunes. I have a question which I would have liked to have asked at the time. Before you took your vows with your Bishop, was there a period of formation for you? Was it formal or informal? Was there anything that paralleled the temporary vows that other religious take during their first years in a religious order?

I am a widow and I'm too old for a formal religious vocation (I'm 73), but I have been looking for whatever my life should be for the time I have left. I was so impressed with all you said and with your blog which I've read rather extensively since the interview. I know I am not a hermit, but I am trying to learn to live creatively and with integrity in the unfamiliar quiet of my new single life. I would like to think that someday I could really live in solitude with God without trying to escape the silence. Anyhow, thanks so much for sharing with us of the Nuns Life community! It was a blessing to listen!]]


Hi there,
Many thanks for your comments! I am glad you were able to join us, and also grateful for your questions.

While Canon 603 does not specify either formation or temporary vows, it is usual to require both because both are ordinarily necessary. (In particular exceptional cases, especially where someone has been vowed and also lived as a hermit for some time, a diocese may decide it is prudent to forego temporary profession, but this is rare, and also generally risky for all involved.) When dioceses require temporary vows of someone (the normal pattern), they usually do so for a period of from three to five years. Some use a period of two years, but none less than this as far as I know. Dioceses could and do also extend the period of temporary vows, of course, because this period is still one of discernment for all involved.

Formation is a tricky question. As I have written here before, no diocese "forms" their hermits. They expect them to find ways to get this formation on their own. Often they expect the person to have this formation before they contact the chancery with their petition to become a diocesan hermit. They may suggest resources to a candidate if they have and know of them, but usually that is all. Generally diocesan personnel have neither the time nor the expertise to undertake the formation of a hermit --- nor is it really their "job"! Also, sometimes there is the basic wisdom of the desert at play in their thinking: "remain in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." Dioceses expect hermits to "learn" their "hermiting" and be formed by living in solitude and coming to know the silence of solitude. However, at the same time, they require a diocesan hermit to have some theology, knowledge of the vocation and its history, to understand and be prepared for making and living the vows, etc. So, I would have to say formation is generally informal but also an imperative which is both demanding and mainly rooted in dependence on the initiative of the one called to solitude.

There are some attempts to help with this. Network of Diocesan Hermits, for instance, though fledgling still, provides some mentoring for verified candidates for diocesan hermit profession. This can help fill the formation gap though especially here the initiative and impetus falls on the candidate's shoulders. Online courses are available on monastic life, history, and theology for very little money. More important is probably the work one does with a Spiritual Director, and I would encourage you to find someone for ongoing SD who can assist you in making the transition you described, and just generally developing your spiritual life (something we all need to do) within the new context of widowhood.

One vocation that is not canonical (yet), but has been mentioned by Pope John Paul II and others is that of consecrated widow. I would suggest you look into this for yourself as well (because you may decide you are not a lay hermit or called to be such). If, after considering this and learning what you can about it, you decide this might be a way to go, you can get an appointment with someone in vocations at your chancery, or (perhaps) with your Bishop to discuss options. It may be that he would be open to exploring this vocation with you. (Because of Canon 605 Bishops are obliged to be open to new forms of consecrated life; this could be one of those.) What you are dealing with is what widows all over the world deal with and finding a way to explore the meaning of your life as widow would be very helpful to many. There is a blog that has stuff about this vocation --- I think by a Cistercian nun, but I may be wrong about that. I will send you the link if I can locate the blog and you can contact the author. Anyway, definitely do some research online about it and see if it captures your imagination!

The problem of learning to live with and within silence is difficult for many people --- maybe even most. One thing you might consider doing is journaling when things get tough and the urge strikes to turn on the TV, run out shopping, call someone on the phone --- all to merely fill or distract from the silence. Another thing you might try is to make a cup of tea or coffee, and simply sit in the silence being attentive to what is actually going on all around AND WITHIN you. Let yourself smell the drink, feel the warmth, taste it, etc and while doing this call upon God to be with you and let the silence work on you in a different way. It will happen because you are choosing to allow it instead of fighting it. You might set up a table somewhere where you can work on a jigsaw puzzle (or a regular space for some other hobby you enjoy and can turn to) when things get difficult or cabin fever hits, but where you can attend to the silence in a new way as well.

At this point in your life it may well be that silence is a symbol only of physical solitude, and so too, of absence and emptiness, but in time, and with practice, it can become one of presence and fullness. If you choose any of these (or other) tactics they need to be part of a strategy as well as a time where and when you also consciously turn to God --- not to change things in some abrupt way, but simply because he is there and wants to share what is happening with you. Allow him this space and time and do it while you are especially attentive to the pain, loss, and other sensations you are experiencing. Lengthen these periods as you are able. None of this is easy, but over time such praxis will change the character of the silence you know now and help you to live with and within it. You may well even come to live from it as you discover what Canon 603 calls "the silence of solitude" and Eastern Christianity refers to as hesychasm!

09 February 2011

On Writing a Rule of Life: Protecting the Eremitical Vocation Itself

[[Dear Sister, You wrote that a Rule of life protects and nurtures the eremitical vocation itself and not only the individual hermit's vocation. It seems hard enough to write one's own Rule of life, much less a Rule that does this as well. Doesn't this make the project of writing a Rule less personal and less possible? I thought the hermit life was one of freedom. Why is all this necessary? It sounds like more of the "increased institutionalization" one person complained about!]]

Well, I see it as a necessary approach because it is all a piece of the diocesan hermit's vocation being a public and ecclesial vocation lived specifically FOR others. The idea here is that Canon 603 vocations represent eremitical life which is consciously lived in the heart (and name) of the Church and especially, in a way which reflects the Church's own eremitical tradition, life and needs, as well as those of the world in general. In other words, diocesan eremitism is a gift to the Church and the world which perpetuates in its own way the eremitical tradition and the hermit is responsible for appreciating that in a way which lets her live it out with integrity.

I don't know that doing this makes a Rule or Plan of Life harder to write. In some ways I think it makes doing so easier, but of course it is also more demanding than simply writing up a version of how one lives one's life, and how one proposes to continue doing so. It is easier, however, because it gives one a perspective from which to view one's own life, evaluate it, grow in it, make informed choices as to changes one needs (or changes one must not make!), etc. When one considers that one's Rule is an instance of a much greater reality than one's own individual way of living and writes it to reflect this, the Rule serves one better as well. One can sense this when one constructs such a Rule and for that reason the writing of it is both more challenging and also more exciting. It is a way of accepting that one's life is of greater moment than one might have guessed otherwise, and so, writing a Rule from this perspective assists one in reflecting on and spelling out what is essential and letting go of that which is not. Instead, then, of writing a Rule which is a morass of minutiae, one sketches in broader strokes. Yes, one includes necessary detail, but because one really has the big picture, one need not agonize over relative trivialities in writing the Rule.

What I am trying to say is that if one truly knows something of the nature and history of eremitical life, appreciates it as a living tradition, and realizes that one's own life and Rule represent a small but real piece of that tradition's present and future, one will likely also be less inclined to be overly concerned with writing a Rule which mimics a more superficial notion of what a hermit SHOULD do and be in every detail, or which cannot distinguish the essential from the merely culturally conditioned and inessential. Of course one will write a Rule which reflects the essentials of such a life and is in continuity with the tradition, but one will also adapt these essentials to the needs and possibilities of the modern Church and world.

This, I think, allows the Rule to be quite personal without being idiosyncratic. It is another aspect of balancing the essential elements of eremitical life with one's own individual way of living these out. It is an approach which allows for a perspective which is broader, and thus more helpful to others and to oneself, than a narrow navel-gazing approach. With regard to oneself, this kind of Rule will be more inspiring and foster consciousness of the significance of the vocation. It will be a livable Rule which one grows with. It is true that what I have called necessary will not allow one to write a Rule without living the life for some time while reflecting on it and the gift it is to church and world, but if one has done that then I have personally found that this approach makes writing the Rule more possible not less.

Regarding the freedom of a hermit, as I have written before, I think it is important that we define freedom in the Christian sense, namely, as the power to become and be the persons we are called to be. It is the power to love --- wholly, authentically, and selflessly --- to love God, others, and oneself with one's whole being. This kind of freedom is not idiosyncratic and not individualistic even while it allows for individual expression and response to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

07 February 2011

Why Do We Need Contemplative Convents if we are all called to be contemplatives. . .?


[[Dear Sister Laurel, I often wonder why we need Contemplative convents when God is supposed to want each and every soul to be a contemplative and wants them all for Himself. On the other hand, if being a contemplative and giving God your all, just as He wishes, how can you be like this plus be married and committed to someone
at the same time...! I can't get my head round the Secular Carmelite thing. To me, if one experiences the Presence of God...how can they turn round and commit themselves to another!? Many thanks,]]

My basic answer is that while all may be called to some expression of an essentially contemplative life (a position which can easily be misunderstood, by the way) --- even in their great activity, most are not called to a life dedicated to contemplation and all that requires. Some are exemplars of a dedicated contemplative life, while others exemplify contemplative prayer and contemplative (attentive, mindful) living in the midst of the world. It is similar to the idea that every person is ultimately solitary and called to some degree of authentic solitude, but not every person is called to be a hermit.

Likewise, every person is meant to nurture and foster family and the future of the species, but not every person is called to be a mother or a father in the ordinary sense, for instance. Mothers and Fathers inspire all of us to be nurturing and open to bringing forth new life, despite the sacrifices involved. and they do so with a special vividness and, better perhaps, concreteness. Hermits inspire us to give solitude the place it requires so that human poverty can be transfigured by divine grace in the same way. They each remind us of one dimension or aspect of a fully human life. We could multiply images: Contemplatives remind us that we are meant for union with God and called to become prayer ourselves. Consecrated celibates remind us we are ALL made for an eschatological love which transcends all historically conditioned forms of love. Married people remind us of the holiness of sexual love and the important fact that we all bring one another to God and to completion in him -- though marriage is a privileged way of achieving that. Each focuses our attention on an aspect of truly human life, the nature of human love, etc. Each provides a different lens through which we can see aspects of a mystery far too large to get our minds around otherwise. We need these individual and dedicated examples and exemplars, not least, because we do dwell in space and time, and do not see clearly without them. More, we are not inspired without them.

Another reason, of course, is that as human beings living within the limits of space and time (history), we each must take a specific path to wholeness at a given moment. We simply cannot take all paths. For instance, there is no way I can be both hermit and apostolic religious at the same time, no way I can be consecrated celibate and participate in married or sexual love simultaneously, etc. My own call to wholeness and holiness involves a life given to God in a specific way because historical existence requires it. It is not better than other ways, but it is better for me; other paths, though they could well serve my own growth in authentic humanity, would not serve it as well. For me, for instance, diocesan eremitical life is the context which allows the WHOLE of my historical existence with all its limitations and gifts to make sense and serve others. Life in a Cistercian (or Camaldolese!) monastery, for instance, might function similarly for me, but I don't believe it would do so as well. Apostolic Religious life certainly does not do so despite the fact that it inspires me to be true to the "for (and with) others" nature of the Christian vocation.

Your second question is excellent. The answer is a paradox isn't it? The simple truth is we truly give our lives fully to God ONLY to the extent we also give it to those he loves. As noted above, one expression of part of this truth is marriage. Here two people give themselves to one another body and soul precisely so they may come to God together. In their love for each other they discover the reality of divine life/love. This is the most common or usual way persons come to know God's exhaustive love and to commit themselves to it. But your question comes at things from another direction, namely from a more apparently unmediated experience of this love which then leads to life commitment to another. I think your question is really how can one not make this love of God exclusive, true? But it is completely understandable that one's relationship with God spills over into relationships with others, that this love inspires and empowers us to love others and lead them to share in it.

This is true in lives of every contemplative and even every true hermit I know. It is true in the case of Consecrated Virgins whose relationship with Christ is explicitly spousal. It is true of those Apostolic Religious I know whose relationships with God-in-Christ are described as nuptial or spousal (though also in those whose relationships are not of, course). In fact, it is as prayer lives deepen and relationships with God mature that one is called to share with others. Of course, this does not mean these persons give themselves in marriage to another, but, together with our understanding of the Sacrament of marriage, it suggests that for many people, such a dedicated sharing of lives makes tremendous, even ultimate sense. That may not be true of your vocation or my own, but it is true for these people and witnesses to the mysterious nature of Divine Love and the way we share in it. Because God is the ground of all existence, and because we come to know and love others truly only as we come to know them in and of this ground (that is, in and of God), this leads to the paradox I mentioned earlier: we give our lives to God ONLY to the extent we also give it to those he loves.

Let me add one thing which may further illustrate this paradox. It is based on a prayer experience I once had. In that experience I had the sense that I had God's entire and exclusive attention and love. At the same time, however, I had the sense of assurance that he was caring for everyone else in the very same way, that ALL was well, nothing and no one was being neglected or loved less than I. How is this possible? It is divine love after all, and therefore a very great mystery. What I am suggesting is that we are called to love in the same way. We are invited to give ourselves completely to God, to love him exclusively AND we are called to love others exhaustively as well. This is the paradox and challenge of contemplative life.

For some, this love will involve marriage precisely because these persons experience the presence of God in this way, not in spite of their experience of his presence. For some it will mean apostolic religious life, for some others contemplative religious life, and for others of us, it will even mean eremitical or solitary life, for instance, but the sense that these lives are about loving God AND others exhaustively at the same time does not change --- only the way this is expressed. I suspect that once God is ALL in ALL and we are part of that new heaven and new earth Paul talks about, we will understand more clearly how it is that union with God means a total gift of self to others as well. For now all I can affirm is that God's "wanting us all for himself" is a different kind of exclusiveness than we are used to in merely human terms. As I understand it, he has us all to himself WHEN we also love others --- even when that love is expressed in eremitical life or in solitary contemplative prayer and time alone with God. In other words, it is not exclusive in a competitive way, but insofar as it includes others.

I hope this helps some. If I have been unclear or raised new questions, please get back to me!

Karl Rahner and Everyday Mysticism


[[Sister Laurel, your last post is reminiscent of the mysticism of Karl Rahner, true?]]

Yes, it is indeed. I am probably at least partly indebted to Rahner (and to Jesuits more generally) for my understanding of the world and spirituality --- and strongly so to Paul Tillich as well. Rahner is famous for having made the comment that unless all Christians became mystics, there would be no Christianity. However, Rahner made those comments within the context of what has been called an "everyday mysticism" --- a mysticism which recognized the mystery of God at the heart of everyday reality. What he wanted, and what he saw as imperative, was a mysticism in which Christians discovered the hidden presence of God, the deep and holy ground and depth in and of all created existence.  (Of course I must note that finding the presence of God in ordinary life is also a profoundly Benedictine trait and I am clearly Camaldolese Benedictine in this way as well.)

This form of mysticism issues in a "sober" spirituality "found in courageous perseverance in silent faith, trust, love, and unselfish service, despite life's seeming emptiness." (Egan, Karl Rahner) It also issues in experiences of joy at the presence of God in the most mundane circumstances of life as well as in the more extraordinary or "learned" mysticism of the saint. All of these are specifications of the orientation to God (the ground of being and mystery) which is partly constitutive of every human being. With and in Jesus Christ, we come to celebrate life and its inherent goodness and sanctity. More, we understand creation as sacramental and recognize the myriad ways it reveals and mediates God's presence and Word to us every day. This essential tearing or sundering of the barrier (veil) between the sacred and profane, the mystical and the temporal, this recognition and fostering of the sacramental character of all creation, even the most apparently mundane, is part of the vocation of every Christian and the core of any authentic mysticism. We come to share in this vocation by accepting our place in Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension --- that is, by participating in the Christ Event in which the barrier was sundered and reconciliation achieved between God and his creation. Appreciation of all of this was the reason Rahner spoke somewhat hyperbolically of the imperative that every Christian become a mystic lest there be no Christianity.

Though Rahner affirms these as well, his theology does not completely trust versions of mysticism which stress extraordinary phenomenon, ecstasies, and the like. He does not like the idea of infused contemplation which seems interventionist and possibly elitist. Instead he prefers the idea that some persons, when the experiences are not merely auto-suggestive or psychologically aberrant, learn to allow the Holy Spirit's communications with greater intensity and ease than others do; hence the phrase above, "learned" mysticism or contemplation. But this mysticism is not different in kind from the everyday mysticism he espouses. It is merely different in intensity and clarity and remains rooted in the same ground of mystery which is at the core of all mysticism. (I should note that to the extent these are genuine, they will foster the same reverence and love for others and all of God's creation any experience of or inspiration by God empowers.)

There are several books available for those wanting to understand Rahner's everyday mysticism better. These include, Everyday Faith (Rahner), Karl Rahner, Mystic of Everyday Life by Egan, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life (Rahner). More technical articles are available in Sacramentum Mundi and Theological Investigations. A World of Grace by O'Donovan is also helpful. I suspect you have read several of these already but others may find them of assistance. I would recommend Egan's book though as a place to begin and supplement that with The Mystical Way in Everyday Life because the latter supplies prayers, etc which will illustrate what Egan writes about at greater length.

Additionally, people may be interested in Jesuit spirituality more generally, for everyday mysticism is a pillar of this spirituality and Rahner was a key proponent. James Martin's recent book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, would be a great place to start!

05 February 2011

Podcasts, Dialogue, Affirmation of the Mystery at the Heart of the World and Contemplative Life


[[Dear Sister, thank you for doing the podcast on A Nun's Life. It was really interesting and surprising in some ways. I had not realized that hermit life was "communal" at its very heart, and the whole idea of chronic illness as vocation was new to me. I also had not realized that hermits could do podcasts!!! I guess I did have the idea that hermits still live in the [modern] equivalent of caves. I wonder if you aren't concerned that people will think doing the podcast conflicts with the eremitical vocation or that you are giving scandal? Also, do other hermits agree with your description of the life as fundamentally communal or "dialogical"?]] (Redacted)

Good questions, and thanks very much for your comments. The experience of doing the podcast was an excellent one for me personally: exhilarating, challenging, a bit taxing physically and mentally, encouraging and inspiring (especially given the responses on chronic illness as vocation!), and just generally good fun! One thing I was especially grateful I was not aware of until afterward, however, was the number of people who tuned in to listen or participated from the chat room. There were almost 450 people participating in one way and another during the hour and I was terrified enough as we began the program!! I came away with tremendous respect for what Sisters Julie and Maxine are doing and how hard they work at it, as well as greater appreciation for their congregation's support for this ministry. As far as I can see, A Nun's Life is of tremendous benefit to the Church and to vocations of all sorts, so the chance to participate in it in some way was very cool --- and a real honor.

I think if I were doing podcasts every week (or every month, for instance) people would have a reason to complain or question. But this was an unusual event and, I sincerely hope, useful in serving the eremitical vocation and also those with chronic illness (or who are otherwise marginalized) who might never consider that their own illness (etc) can be the medium through which the Gospel can be proclaimed to the world with a clarity and concreteness few can match. However, I am not concerned so much with what others think so long as they are clear that this is one of those forms of ministry which result from the silence of solitude and lead back to it as well. It is exceptional but consistent with both the Canon that governs my life, the Rule I live by, as well as the Camaldolese Benedictine charism. It is also consistent with expressions of the eremitical and anchoritic life as found and embodied throughout history. Hermits and anchorites have always been sought out for the wisdom their very marginality witnesses to and helps foster.

Of course, as a hermit, it is important that my own life be defined not primarily by these exceptional instances, but by the essential elements stated in Canon 603: the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world (that which is resistant to Christ and includes the world which lives in one's own heart--- those various soils which stifle or resulting flora which choke the Word of God within and without us!). Even so another essential element of consecrated eremitical life (and any eremitical life, I think!) is that it is lived for the salvation of the world. One embraces this responsibility in a number of ways --- not least in living stricter separation, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance in the heart of the church so that one's life serves as a kind of leaven and witness to a dimension of mystery at the heart of everything --- but also, in opening up the fruit of these elements to others.

You may have read blog posts that argue a kind of mutually exclusive dichotomy between the temporal Catholic World and the Mystical Catholic World. These posts have argued that a hermit must choose either the temporal OR the mystical Catholic Worlds. I have argued that this stance is theological and spiritual nonsense. The reason I have objected is because Christ, undoubtedly a mystic whose entire life was motivated by the reality of his union with God, was also deeply committed to the temporal world. In fact he could not be a mystic without such a commitment --- and vice versa as well! Heaven (life wholly in union with God) and earth are not supposed to be antithetical realities. Christ came to reconcile them and to implicate heaven within the earthly so that it completely interpenetrates the world of space and time. As I have written before, the result will be what Paul refers to as "A new heaven and earth" where "God is all in all". What mystics affirm is the dimension of mystery which grounds and is meant to permeate all of the temporal world. The affirmation is made for the sake of God's own life and the world of space and time --- God's good creation --- not in rejection of either of these.

Something similar is true of the hermit life, but with an accent on solitude and the dynamic of human poverty and divine grace which defines it. We are not to despise or reject the temporal world in the name of some separate and antithetical mystical world. Instead we commit ourselves to the redemption of all of that reality in God from the perspective of our solitude. Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam, writes: " The hermit does not meet eternity in the way gnostics are tempted to meet it. He does not reject what is temporal. He has his share of eternity by raising all earthly things up to their ultimate fullness by virtue of Christ's redemptive love."

In a section entitled, "Living in Dialogue" Wencel also notes, "The seclusion and solitude that constitute the eremitic life do not aim at negating the fundamental dynamism of human existence, with its entering into dialogue and relationships. On the contrary, eremitic isolation and solitude form the basis of that dynamism. . . . As mentioned before, the hermit's solitude can never be a sign of withdrawal and isolation from the world [used in a different sense than the term "world" in Canon 603] and its affairs. The hermit, since he wants to serve other people, must arrive at a profound understanding of his own nature and his relation to God. That is why his solitude is not at all a barrier, but it is rather an element that encourages openness towards others. . . .His solitude is not therefore a lifeless emptiness . . . it is related to those spheres of human personality that can exist only if they are open to meet God and the world in love." (The Eremitic Life, Encountering God in Silence and Solitude, Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam)

All of this is an expansion of, or variation on, one of the first things I mentioned on the podcast, namely we are each grounded in God and as we grow in union with God, so too do we grow in communion with all else that is grounded in him, all that he holds as precious. Hermits and other contemplatives (and certainly all genuine mystics) know this truth intimately.

02 February 2011

A Nun's Life Podcast

Readers may be interested in a podcast I am doing tomorrow with Sisters Julie and Maxine, IHM of A Nun's Life Ministry. We are going to talk about the life of the diocesan hermit and explore some of the ways this life is reflects everyday faith and Christian living, impacts upon, or speaks to these.

The information on the podcast is as follows: On Air: February 3, 2011, from 7 to 8 p.m. Central Time.

Where: www.aNunsLife.org/LIVE (The podcast is under the heading, "In Good Faith")

Details: The broadcast is free and open to the public. You can tune in from any place you have internet access. We also have a chat room for you to use during the broadcast in order to connect with one another and with us.

If new to A Nun’s Life webcasts, a webcast is like tuning into a radio program, but instead of broadcasting it on the airwaves, we broadcast it on our website. All you have to do is visit our website and make sure the volume on your computer is up. The format of this webcast is similar to a webinar where you can ask questions and interact with us and with our guest by using the chat room.