31 December 2012

Happy New Year!!!

[[The Japanese have a centuries old ritual Waraiko they use to greet a new year and to celebrate birthdays. The ritual consists of giving three hearty belly laughs! The first robust laugh is of gratitude for the previous year just ended. The second hearty laugh is in gratitude for being given a new year of life to enjoy. The third is a really full-bodied belly laugh, since it is to blow the dust off your mind, heart, and soul? Dust? The dust of habit and routine that slowly accumulates like all dust, causing the soul to lose the luster of its youthful vitality.]] by Edward Hay, Chasing Joy

[[May the God who brings life out of death, meaning out of the senseless, healing out of brokenness, light out of darkness, hope out of despair, and belonging out of lostness, touch our lives this coming year in the ways we each need. May he love us into fullness of existence and transform us into authentic and truly passionate lovers in (and of) Christ. May he bless the time we each have (by) turning chronos to kairos and bringing everything to fullness and perfection in himself. 

May we be attentive to him in all the times and ways we need to be, allowing the ordinary moments of everyday life to be recognized for what they are in him ---opportunities for the triumph of grace in our world. And may God bless each of us who journey together and touch one another in such diverse ways, whether within our families, monasteries and congregations, parishes and dioceses, or via internet connections like blogs and message boards!]] Sister Laurel, January 1, 2010.

24 December 2012

Christmas 2012




An Advent wreathe is transformed into a symbol of the Light of Christ. All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide! May your own life be a source of Christ's own light in and for an often-darkened world.

Alleluia! Hodie Christus Natus Est!! (Reprised)



The scandal of the incarnation is one of the themes we neglect at Christmastime or, at best, allude to only indirectly. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We live through the struggles of our lives in light of the moments of hope and joy our faith provides and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the wonder and joy of the birth of our savior. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality nor with all the light and glitter and sound of our Christmas preparations and celebrations. For a brief time we allow the joy of the mystery of Christmas to predominate. We focus on the gift God has given, and the gift we ourselves are meant to become in light of this very special nativity.

Among other things we look closely in the week prior to Christmas at the series of "yesses" that were required for this birth to come to realization, the barreness that was brought to fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit. We add to this Zechariah's muteness which culminates in a word of prophecy and a canticle of praise, along (on Christmas day) with the book of Hebrews' summary of all the partial ways God has spoken himself to us; we then set all of these off against the Prologue to John's Gospel with its majestic affirmation of the Word made flesh and God revealed exhaustively to US. The humbleness of the birth is a piece of all this, of course, but the scandal, the offense of such humbleness in the creator God's revelation of self is something we neglect, not least because we see all this with eyes of faith --- eyes which suspend the disbelief of rationality temporarily so that we can see instead the beauty and wonder which are also there. The real challenge of course is to hold both truths, scandal and beauty, together in a sacramental paradox.

And so I have tried to do in this symbol of the season. This year my Christmas tree combines both the wonder and the scandal of the incarnation, the humbleness of Jesus' estate in human terms, and the beauty of a world transformed with the eyes of love. Through the coming week the readings are serious (Steven's martyrdom and the massacre of the holy innocents (so terribly difficult and poignant this year especially), a warning about choosing "the world," and so forth) for darkness is still very real and resents and seeks to threaten and color our joy. Yet, all this is contextualized within the Christmas proclamation that darkness has been unable to quench the divine light that has come into our world, and the inarticulate groaning which often marks this existence has been brought to a new and joy-filled articulateness in the incarnate Word. Everything, we believe, can become sacramental; everything a symbol of God's light and life amongst us; everything a song of joy and meaning! And so too with this fragile "Charlie Brown" tree.

All good wishes for a wonderful Christmastide for all who read here, and to all of your families. Today the heavens are not silent. Today they sing: Alleluia, Alleluia!! Hodie Christus Natus Est! Alleluia!

23 December 2012

Fourth Sunday of Advent: On Offering God Hospitality

Jump for Joy  by Eisbacher
Today's Gospel is the same as we read on Friday: Mary travels in haste to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and both women benefit from the meeting which culminates in John's leaping in his mother's womb and prophetic speech by both women. The first of these is Elizabeth's proclamation that Mary is the Mother of Elizabeth's Lord and the second is Mary's canticle, the Magnificat. Ordinarily homilists focus on Mary in this Gospel lection but I think the focus is at least as strongly on Elizabeth and also on the place the meeting of the two women has in allowing them both to negotiate the great mystery which has taken hold of their lives. Both are called on to offer God hospitality in unique ways, both are asked to participate in God's mysterious plan for his creation despite not wholly understanding this call and it is in their coming together that the trusting fiats they both made to this assumes a greater clarity for them both.

Luke's two volumes (Luke-Acts) are actually full of instances where people come together and in their meeting or conversation with one another come to a fuller awareness of what God is doing in their lives. We see this on the road to Emmaus where disciples talk about the Scriptures in an attempt to come to terms with Jesus' scandalous death on a cross and the end of all their hopes. They are joined by another person who questions them about their conversation and grief. When they pause for a meal they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread and their entire world is turned on its head. That which was senseless is on its way to making a profound sense which will ground the existence of the church. Peter is struggling with the issue of eating with the uncircumcised; he comes together with Cornelius, a Centurion with real faith in Christ. In this meeting Peter is confirmed in his sense that in light of Christ no foods are unclean and eating with Gentiles is Eucharistic. There are a number of other such meetings where partial perception and clarity are enhanced. Even the Council of Jerusalem is a more developed instance of the same phenomenon.

Elizabeth and Mary come together as women both touched in significant ways by the mystery of God. They have trusted God but are yet unclear regarding the greater mystery or how this experience fits into the larger story of Israel's redemption. They are both in need of one another and especially of the perception and wisdom the other can bring to the situation so that they can truly offer God and God's plan all the space and time these require. Hospitality, especially giving God hospitality, takes many forms, but one of the most important involves coming together to talk about how God is active in our lives in the hope of coming to a greater and more life giving perspective.

And yet, during this Christmas season, when we each generously gift others and offer hospitality in  many practiced and wonderful ways, how often do we truly speak of how God is working in our own lives? Even within our parishes our discussions with others rarely alludes to God in any direct way --- and yet, isn't God as active in our lives as he was in Mary's and Elizabeth's? Does he not bring us to new life in significant ways each and every day? We each offer God hospitality in a variety of ways: reading Scripture, personal prayer, participation at Mass, and serving others in need. But merely talking about God's activity in our own lives is something we are reticent about. Sometimes this has to do with a timidity about casting pearls before those who will trample them underfoot or dismiss them without understanding. Sometimes it has to do with our reticence to put the other person in an awkward position. Often the reasons are justified. But not always.

During the season celebrating God's great gift of self to us in Christ, when we hear occasional reminders to keep Christ in Christmas and seek to practice an openness and hospitality worthy of People of God, let's try to speak a little more openly of God's activity in our lives. This is the way we come to clarity and hope, the way the Church comes to be, the way prophetic speech and action like those of Elizabeth and Zechariah are birthed, the way canticles of joy like Mary's Magnificat come to be.

"Grieving Our Lost Children," In Memoriam for those killed at Newtown, CT

Last week I wrote there were no words for the horrific tragedy at Newtown, CT. Today I discovered a prayer from Walter Brueggemann, a noted Old Testament scholar, which was apparently written after the "last" school shooting our country experienced.

I wanted to share it here because there is a terrible poignancy this year to our celebration of Christmas. The prayer is taken from Prayers For a Privileged People, Walter Brueggemann, Abingdon Press.


Another brutality,
another school killing,
another grief beyond telling . . .
and loss . . .
           in Colorado,
           in Wisconsin,
           among the Amish
           in Virginia.
           Where next?

We are reduced to weeping silence,
     even as we breed a violent culture,
     even as we kill the sons and daughters of
                         our "enemies,"
     even as we fail to live and cherish and respect
          the forgotten of our common life.

There is no joy among us as we empty out schoolhouses;
there is no health among us as we move in fear and
         bottomless anxiety;
there is little hope among us as we fall helpless before
     the gunshot and the shriek and the blood and the panic;
we pray to you only because we we do not know what else to do.
     So we pray. move powerfully in our body politic,
          move us toward peaceableness
                         that does not want to hurt or to kill,
          move us toward justice
                         that the troubled and forgotten may know mercy,
          move us toward forgiveness that we
                         may escape the trap of revenge.

Empower us to turn our weapons to acts of mercy,
       to turn our missiles to gestures of friendship,
       to turn our bombs to policies of reconciliation;
and while we are turning,
       hear our sadness,
       our loss,
       our bitterness.

We dare to pray our needfulness to you
      because you have been there on that
      gray Friday,
      and watched your own Son be murdered
                           for "reasons of state."

Good God, do Easter!
       Here among these families,
        here and in all our places of brutality.
Move our Easter grief now . . .
        without too much innocence ---
         to your Sunday joy.
We pray in the one crucified and risen
         who is our Lord and Savior

22 December 2012

Magnificat: On the Song Which IS the Hermit (Reprise)


Today's readings include the Gospel of Luke and Mary's Magnificat. Many of the characters in Luke's version of the Gospel story move from muteness, barrenness, fear, and confusion to prophetic speech and songs. In fact the move to canticles and prophetic speech is a sign of faith and the person's fulfillment in their vocations and humanity. Parrhesia or boldness of speech is the primary form of true discipleship, the result of the faith and hope which is the disciple's while the Christ is God's Word Incarnate. In light of all this, and also because of what I have written recently about the heart of the hermit, I wanted to reprise a post I put up here several years ago (2007) just a couple of months after my perpetual eremitical profession: Magnificat: On the Song which IS the Hermit. Of course, we are all called to share this vocation to incarnate the breath and word of God, but I think it especially describes the life and vocation of the hermit and particularly the paradoxical charism canon 603 refers to as the silence of solitude. I think this is the experience Mary knew and Luke captured so very well in today's Gospel.

                                            * * * * * *

Theologians often think of the human being as a "word event," that is, we are responses to the words and being of others, crafted and shaped by those words and persons and creating ourselves (or being created) in response to reality around us. We can wander lost through the world, unformed and unknown, we can even impinge on others' lives without the dynamic of dialogue, or address and response, but it is only in response to another person's address that we actually have a personal place to stand, or that we come to be the persons we CAN be. More fundamentally, theologians recognize that we are each the answer or response to a divine word of address and summons spoken in the very core of our being. We speak of this reality variously: "God calls us by name to be"; "we have a vocation or call to authentic humanity"; "the human heart is, by definition, a theological reality and the place where God is active and effectively present in the core of our being", etc.

Of course, the definitive image of authentic humanity is Christ, Divine Word-made-flesh. Theologians reflect that each of us are called to be "Word made flesh" --- though not as definitively as that incarnation accomplished in the Christ Event, still with coherence and cogency, articulateness, truth, and power. Throughout our lives the incarnational word we are is shaped and formed, redacted and composed, in response to the Name or summons God speaks in the core of our being, and which ALSO comes to us (or is sympathetically sounded in us) in a variety of forms and intensities from without in the Scriptures, Sacraments, other people, nature, etc. And of course, it is also distorted and falsified by our own sinfulness, and by our defensive responses to the sinfulness and influence of others in our lives. While we are called to be joyful and coherent embodiments of the Word of God incarnated in our world, we are as often cries of anguish, snarls of anger, sobs of pain, and the lies of insecurity and defensiveness which so lead to the falsification of our being.

Ordinarily, of course, the responsive composition we each are is a mixture of true and false, real and unreal, coherent and incoherent, articulate and inarticulate, anguished and joyful. Only in Christ are we rendered more and more the response we are MEANT to be. And yet, deep within us God speaks the Name we are to embody, the vocational summons we are to incarnate in all of its uniqueness AS our own lives in this world. It is an unceasing, unremitting hallowing right at the core of who we are, and when we are truly in touch with this and truly responsive we become the Word event which God wills us to be. If, as Fr Robert Hale, OSB Cam, once remarked, it is true that "God sustains us as a singer sustains a note," then we are each called to become a song, a particular fiat witnessing to the grace (that is, the powerful presence) of God in our lives. God is the breath which sustains us moment by moment, and we are the song which embodies this breath.

The hermit's existence is paradigmatic of this reality. She really is called to be the song at the heart of the church. Birthed in silence and solitude, shaped by obedience to the Word and breath of God, exercised in the singing of psalms daily --the regular chanting or recitation of the divine Office, the reading of scripture both aloud and in silence, held in the heart of God and steeped in the formative rests of contemplative prayer and shaped by the stories of all those persons she holds in her own heart, the hermit moves day by day towards becoming the articulate and coherent expression of God's creative providence we recognize as a magnificat.

Of course, gestation and birth are together demanding, painful, and messy businesses. So is the composition of a truly responsive life. Those cries of anguish, snarls of anger, defensive lies, and sobs of pain we ALSO ARE, don't simply "go away" of themselves without the hard work of recognition and repentance. Healing, sanctification, and verification (making whole and true) is God's work in us, but it requires and involves our active cooperation. It is this dynamic that makes of the eremitical silence, solitude, prayer, and penance a therapeutic crucible or editor's desk where we are --- sometimes ruthlessly --- revised, redacted, and recreated. Evenso, at bottom eremitical life (indeed ALL christian life!) is a joy-filled reality; we incarnate the merciful love of God which heals and sanctifies, enlivens and sustains. We become a coherent articulation or expression of the breath and word of God spoken both in the core of ourselves, and in so many ways in our church and world. We ARE the songs which God sings in the heart of his church, magnificats of God's love and mercy sounding in (and out of) the silence of solitude.

20 December 2012

Can one be Taught or Trained to be a Hermit?

[[ Dear Sister, I read your post on stopgap vocations and went to the website mentioned there. I was struck by a number of things on the latest blog entry but the following was especially so in light of your post. This group apparently seeks to find ways to allow individuals to become hermits if they have some interest in doing so and they have an eye towards setting up a novitiate eventually --- which I assume means creating a community. In the meantime they are trying several different paths to get their members formation and consecration as hermits though this is clearly not their first choice of vocation.

One of these apparently was to send one of their members who would eventually be the novice mistress to a consecrated hermit in order to learn how to hermit which she would then teach to the others. That never happened it seems. Another plan is to send the individuals to their diocesan chanceries to seek consecrated hermits who can help them become hermits and then seek consecration in their dioceses. I think you are correct that this is using canon canon 603 as a stopgap way to get people professed, but what also strikes me about it is how little understanding there is of how one actually becomes a hermit. Can one actually go to a diocesan hermit and be taught or trained to be a hermit?]]

Thanks for the question. There is both a simple answer and a not-so-simple answer to your question. The simple answer is no, to the extent we are dealing with a genuine vocation, one cannot simply be taught or trained to be a hermit. Hermits are FORMED and they are formed in solitude, silence, assiduous prayer and penance, and stricter separation from the things which are resistant to Christ. They are formed most specifically in an ongoing relationship with God which dominates and orders everything else in their lives so that their lives witness to the truth that God alone is enough. Further and more fundamentally, even before hermits are formed they are CALLED. Formation is always the way we shape, educate, and train someone who is called by God to live in this way. Unless one is called no amount of training or education will make one a hermit --- certainly not, that is, as the Church uses the term.

Remember that the call to eremitical solitude is a call both to human wholeness and holiness; only very few human beings are truly called to achieve this goal in solitude. "Interest" in pursuing an eremitical life as a way to get consecrated when a cenobitical project fell through is emphatically not the same thing as pursuing eremitical solitude because one feels profoundly called to the completion that is theirs in God and very far from responding to a call in which one will be made both whole and holy in solitude. One can certainly be taught to keep a horarium, to pray in the ways a hermit prays, and if one has the temperament one can learn to tolerate and even like silence and solitude, even long term silence and solitude; however, by themselves this does not make the person a hermit. It may only make them relatively pious and isolated; and it may still mean they are only about pursuing their own goals, not those God has for them or for those for whom they live. One key difference I think is the heart created by and for the silence of solitude. One called and formed as a hermit develops the heart of a hermit in and for the silence of solitude --- a heart with which, as one friend reminded me, we hear the anguished cry of the world, and a heart which makes us God's own prayer. For the hermit this heart thrives in and expresses the silence of solitude even when the hermit ministers or otherwise shares in community. That is truly a rare vocation.

The idea that someone could go to a diocesan hermit (or, even worse, correspond with them), get a few lessons on being a hermit, and then come back and train people in that is completely ludicrous to me. If that person were willing to BECOME a hermit (and if said diocesan hermit actually could allow -- or get permission to allow -- her the space and time for that), then we are looking at a commitment of years and even then, the "student" might well find she is not called to this, and certainly not to living it as a solitary hermit elsewhere for the whole of her life. Along with this, of course, there is the idea of placing a non-hermit who is not a religious, has never lived the vows, and has herself not been formed as a religious or educated in the theology or spirituality of eremitical or religious life in charge of forming others on the basis of a few "lessons" from a diocesan hermit. No hermit I know would even pretend to be able to do such a thing. It is not surprising this all never came to be, but it is also fortunate it did not.

Another thing that makes the answer more complicated is that of course it IS possible for candidates for profession and consecration under canon 603 to gain from education and training from already-perpetually-professed hermits. Perhaps more important though is long term formation in monastic or eremitical silence. A network I belong to (Network of Diocesan Hermits) is sometimes asked to assist such candidates by their dioceses. We mentor such candidates and try to help them with the more typical difficulties and obstacles to living the life. However, there are some pretty steep limits in this assistance. We do not do spiritual direction, nor do we pretend to have a formation program for hermits. We do not -- nor, despite our experience living the life or various expertises in spirituality, spiritual direction, and theology, do we --- generally feel ourselves capable of creating one.

Further, the person must be verified by their dioceses to be a good candidate for profession and consecration under canon 603. This means that they have already been screened to some extent, are not in the first blush of conversion, and show some promise of being a suitable candidate. (It does NOT necessarily mean the diocese is tending toward professing them at this point in time, nor that they ever will be professed.) They must be participating in regular spiritual direction and meeting regularly with diocesan personnel. (Both the candidate and the diocese needs to be invested in  the discernment and formation processes.) It remains very clear to the professed hermits that hermits are made in solitude, and more specifically, in the environment and for the purpose specified by canon 603. If one is not called to this vocation there is very little we can do to "make" them a hermit. Because of this it sometimes happens that the work tends to strip away the mask of eremitism which really hides the face of isolation and individualism or shows us a situation where canon 603 is being used as a stopgap approach to profession and consecration.

I also have read the blog article you refer to and am glad of the chance to answer your question. Thanks for posing it. The ignorance and misunderstanding regarding eremitical life evident there are not unusual and they come up here fairly often, but usually without the hubris involved in the project you referred to. Eremitical vocations tend to be strange to us and counterintuitive given the importance of society in creating whole human beings. They really must be treated reverently as a true mystery --- as any vocation must. To treat them as something which can be manufactured by those without real understanding (or by those with understanding) is something I feel VERY strongly about. So again, thanks for your question.

19 December 2012

The meaning of the term "Stopgap vocations"

As a result of a recent  and simplistic mischaracterization of my position on another blog (Cloister Outreach), I wanted to clarify what I mean when I object to using Canon 603 as a "stop-gap vocation" and why that is. Let me be clear that I do not object to hermits becoming cenobites at some point in their religious lives. If a hermit feels genuinely called to do that at some point after discerning and living an eremitical life in good faith for some time, then well and good. But that is not what the term stopgap vocation implies nor is it the situation I have been concerned with.

The term stopgap means just what it says, something is being used to stop (close) the gap which exists between an immediate situation and  the ordinary options which exist to address or resolve the situation. An emergency tracheotomy is a stopgap solution to a more lasting and ordinary solution to the problem of respiratory problems due to blockage of the airway, for instance. Taping two pieces of broken eyeglass frames together is a stopgap solution to the problem of broken spectacles until one can either get the frames repaired or buy new ones. Employing untrained and incompetent people to fill security posts at the airport in a time of increased fear and terrorist threat is a stopgap solution. In the area of vocations when someone seeks to live a cenobitical (that is, a communal) life and to be publicly professed and consecrated as a cenobitical religious but have a number of mishaps in making this happen, turning to canon 603 to get themselves publicly professed and consecrated is a stopgap solution to the problem --- especially if they are doing so with an eye towards becoming a community when that becomes feasible in financial and other ways down the line. It is also an abuse of canon 603 which is meant to govern, profess and consecrate those who have seriously discerned a LIFE vocation to solitary diocesan eremitical life. Beyond this it is dishonest and COULD actually be a fraudulent act depending on circumstances.

Another example (and one which is ordinarily much less sinister but still requires caution) would be someone who is forced to leave religious life because of health issues and who seeks to use canon 603 to continue in public vows and consecration without actually ALSO and SUBSEQUENTLY discerning a true vocation to eremitical solitude. (As I have said many times, eremitical solitude is more than simply living a pious life alone and the call to eremitical solitude must be discerned separately from a call to ordinary monastic solitude or from one's own coming to terms with such loss.)  Similar but once again more sinister examples involve those who have failed at community life but who still want to be "Sisters" or "wear a habit",  those who have failed at life (work, relationships, schooling, individuation in general) and who are looking for a socially acceptable and even estimable way to validate that, and so forth. For many, canon 603 seems to offer a solution to their quandary. Again, however, in each of these cases (except perhaps that of the person who has been forced to leave religious life by illness -- a situation which requires extra caution and discernment) Canon 603 is being misused and the entire idea of a LIFE vocation with solemn commitments and consecration is being betrayed.

If one attempts to use Canon 603, which is geared to SOLITARY eremitical vocations and their protection and governance, to get someone consecrated so that they can THEREAFTER form a community of hermits and skip all of the necessary canonical steps to approval as an institute of consecrated life, this is using Canon 603 as a stopgap solution to the problem. Not only is this a betrayal of the Canon itself, but it is a betrayal of the charism or gift quality the vocation to solitary eremitical life brings to the Church and World. (Please see other posts on the charism of the vocation, or on "the silence of solitude as charism" and "the redemption of isolation" for an understanding of what I mean here.)

At the beginning of the history of Canons 603 and 604 some provinces (the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, etc) refused to profess and/or consecrate anyone according to canons 603 and 604 (consecrated virgins living in the world). They rightly worried that these canons could be used as fallback options or that they really indicated a merely fallback "vocation" for those who failed at religious life and they did not want that. Abuses can and have occurred with c 603 and 604 but the value of these canons and the vocations they govern cannot simply be denied as a result. Even so I know of a couple of other dioceses who have joined LA in its boycott of such vocations precisely because of such abuses. Of course, authentic vocations are also a reality and the Church recognizes this. Unfortunately, the misuse of canon 603, for instance, by those seeking to use it as a stopgap means to consecration could continue to be the basis for greater and greater caution in this regard and even to a functional or virtual suppression of its use. It is really imperative pastorally as well as theologically and spiritually that we do not allow such abuses and misuses to occur.

In any case, I hope my usage is clear, and the nature of my concerns regarding the importance of this abuse are demonstrated in the above, however briefly that may be.

Writing a Rule of Life, Negotiating the Tensions between tradition and the contemporary situation

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, when you write about writing a Rule of Life you speak of needing to draw from or even "subsume" the Rule under a larger "vital" Rule like that of St Benedict. You explain that most of us are not spiritual geniuses capable of writing a Rule which challenges to sufficient growth. At the same time you are clear that the hermit must write her own Rule and that it must be more than a list of things to do and not do. You don't like the idea of a hermit simply copying a Rule nor do you think someone should write the hermit's Rule of Life for them.

What I am wondering is if there isn't a conflict between some of these things. For instance, if we are not spiritual geniuses and need to subsume any Rule we write under a larger living Rule, why not simply adopt that one? Or why not allow someone else to write the Rule for us? Wouldn't it be safer spiritually? There have been times when the Church demanded new communities adopt already-established Rules. Doesn't canon 603's norm that the hermit write her own Rule fly in the face of the wisdom behind that decision? ]] [redacted]

What really terrific questions! You have clearly read everything I have written on this (meager though it is!) and thought about it along with some pertinent Church history I never mentioned. In responding I suppose the first thing I would suggest is that conflict is not the right word, but yes, I agree completely that there is tension between what we read in other Rules, what we live and write ourselves, and also between that and the larger Rule under which we might choose to subsume the Rule we write. The process of becoming able to write and then writing a Rule is complex. The work MUST be our own in some really deep and essential way --- and that will include the deficiencies and weaknesses in our own spirituality and lives which must be grown beyond with the help of spiritual leaders who surpass our own wisdom in every way. It is only in dialogue with these others (and other Rules) that we can truly find our own voice and, more importantly, the will of God which shapes the way we will live our vocations.

As with any dialogue there is the danger we will lose (or simply give away) our own voice, distrust our own perceptions and wisdom or our own experiences and sensibilities. On the other hand, there is the danger that we will not really engage the "other" in this dialogue but merely carry on a self-centered monologue. But a true conversation and this specific dialogue is essential; it is the way tradition is honored and extended in new ways and into new situations. It is the way genuine charisms are discovered and incarnated and mission fruitfully embodied and fulfilled. Dialogue of this sort has always been important. When we look at the relationship of canon law and proper law in religious life, or the similar relationship between the Rule and the congregation's constitutions we are looking at a dialogue. At every point the need to negotiate the tensions between these, to honor tradition and the universally valid and the new historical situation which also mediates God's call and will is a central piece of living our vocations --- whether we are contemplatives, ministerial or apostolic religious, hermits, lay persons, or priests.

Canon 603 requires the hermit write her own Rule because it requires the hermit be an active participant in the dialogue between contemporary eremitism and the long history of Christian (and other) eremitical life. As I have said before, no one can do this for her; it is part of being a diocesan hermit publicly professed under Canon 603. In a very real way, it is a key element in claiming this unique vocation for oneself and for the contemporary Church.

My limited sense of the reasons for the Church's practice of requiring the adoption of already-existing Rules by new congre-gations or commun-ities is that this was intended to limit the spread of heretical practices and beliefs within religious congregations.  There is some wisdom in this, especially when the proper law of the congregations can allow for necessary flexibility and adaptations in praxis and mission. What this means is that the dialogue mentioned above was and often still is carried out in this particular way in religious congregations. But, when it is authentic, eremitical life has always been more individual without being individualistic. In some ways each hermit, especially when they are solitary hermits as opposed to those belonging to a congregation of semi-eremites, is analogous to the founder of a congregation, the one in whom the tension between traditional and contemporary is specifically negotiated. The Rule they write and live by is not meant for a community but for an individual and a great deal of what characterizes cenobitical Rules and the spirituality of their founders simply will not apply to them in any meaningful way.

Thus, Canon 603 calls for each hermit to take on this task of  1) negotiating the tensions mentioned above and 2) writing a viable Rule themselves which is the expression of their ongoing commitment to this task. Living such a life may not be free of risk, but it is certainly the task every solitary hermit must embrace or cease to be solitary hermits. Similarly then, the Rule  the hermit writes is not free of risk either; one may lose one's voice entirely or fall into mere idiosyncrasy and individualism. When this happens the Rule one writes will either not be adequate to live eremitical life or to lives one's OWN eremitical life, but despite these risks, writing a Rule is the natural expression and codification of the dialogue the hermit is negotiating. Of course, there are a number of things which can help minimize the risk involved including subsuming this personal Rule under an established Rule, submitting to the supervision and input of Bishops, canonists, other hermits, and delegates, and reading widely in the history of eremitical life, but at the same time care must always be taken that these steps do not short-circuit or betray the dialogue the hermit is called to negotiate and embody in her daily response to her call. After all, in a very general sense this is part of the gift she brings to Church and World and a piece of the challenge with which she confronts every Christian seeking to live the Gospel in contemporary life.

16 December 2012

In Memoriam: Newtown Children and Faculty

 Of course there are no words. We stand in silent solidarity with those who have been struck by this unspeakable tragedy. In our own prayer we entrust all of these lives to our great and merciful God who comes and entrusts himself to us as a helpless child. We pray that that same God --- who knows very well what it is to have a Son senselessly murdered at the hands of the angry and fearful --- will touch, heal, and, where needed, change the hearts of those involved in and touched by such atrocities.

15 December 2012

Cloister Outreach - Caveat Emptor, Once again

Dear Sister Laurel,
I wanted to thank you for your posts regarding Cloister Outreach (CO) on the Phatmass Phorum recently. I don't know if you are aware of it but CO put up an explanation of the situation you described in 2010  after contacting the Diocese of Charlotte to check on the claims made by the "foundress" of CO. It tells a very different story than the one you posted and claims you violated the privacy of the hermit-canonist you contacted in an attempt to undermine the Cloisterite Hermits' Foundation. The explanation reads:

[[Gemma, Cloister Outreach coordinator, had been handling the "legal" part of the Cloisterite Hermits, to include interactions with the canonist. Because of this, we thought that the local ordinary was aware of the project. However, due to Gemma's autism, and the complexities involved with the language of canonical legalities, she (Gemma) did not understand a particular phrase used as meaning that the canonist had separated herself from the project. This was entirely Gemma's fault--not due to stupidity, but due to autistic deficit.

As a result, the Cloisterite Hermits had persevered in the development of their charism (entirely legal under canon law), thinking the canonist had still been retained. Critics went so far as to contact the canonist and posting her information online--thus violating her privacy which we had fought to maintain, as per her request--in an attempt to undermine the Cloisterite Hermits' foundation. Due to the information that we were working with at the time, we were under the impression that the Cloisterite Hermits were a work-in-progress known to the diocese. Now that we know the actual situation, the websites will be amended to reflect such.]]
Is there anything in your March 2010 story that needs to be amended in light of this?

Thanks for the question. The issue of Cloisters Outreach continues to crop up from time to time and I get questions about the projects occasionally --- usually because they mention using canon 603 or "becoming diocesan hermits", and similar things. I have tended not to respond despite accusations of defamation, libel, malicious intent, etc though these are either incoherent or groundless. I think two things need to be clarified in light of these public comments. First, in the conversation an associate had with the canonist (Sister Sheila Richards, ESA) Sister made it clear that her own conversations with Gemma (not the person's real name) involved Gemma's own vocation, not projects of CO, and further, that as soon as those few conversations threatened to go further afield, Sister Sheila broke off communication. It also should be noted that at the very first stages of such a project it is premature to be having complex legal conversations. No one yet knows what, if anything, will come of the person's idea. This means that there were no conversations regarding legal complexities using a language of canonical legalities and especially no single phrase meaning the Sister had "separated herself from the project." She, as she herself made clear, had never been involved in the project in the first place.

Second, the claims being made all over the internet did not say simply that the Cloisterite Hermits were a project KNOWN to the Diocese of Charlotte though that too was certainly wondered about. The claims stated that CO had the SUPPORT of the Bishop,  diocesan supervision, and that Cloisters Outreach, especially the eremitical expression, was being guided by Sister Sheila "every step of the way." As you may recall,when questions were asked, folks were urged by Gemma herself to contact the diocese directly with their questions. We simply did that. Twice --- in case an error had been made the first time.

Thirdly, Sister Sheila is both a canonist and a diocesan hermit who works for the Diocese of Charlotte. In each of these roles she is a public person with commensurate rights, obligations, and responsibilities. Given some of the stuff coming out of CO with regard to eremitical life, formation, spirituality, use of canon 603, etc, questions were being raised about her competence and prudence. Now, it is true CO never mentioned her name but one really has to ask 1) how many diocesan hermits are there in the US? (Fewer than 60 or so) 2) How many are canonists? (we are in very low single digit numbers now), and 3) how many of those work for the Diocese of Charlotte? (The answer is just one and her name is listed on the Diocesan Website as both canonist and hermit.) ANYONE could have identified Sister with about 20 seconds worth of googling on the basis of the information provided by Gemma's own posts so that hardly argues CO was bound to maintain her privacy or that I (et al) was the one who violated that bond! Even so, we spoke with Sister Sheila directly, and, given the questions raised about her role in CO and her competence and prudence, as well as for the issue of transparency (which has been singularly lacking with regard to Cloisters Outreach) thought it was important to name the persons with whom we had spoken.

Fourthly, were we trying to undermine the eremitical project connected with CO? Not really, but the answer also depends on the nature of the project. What we were really trying to do was be sure that people asked sufficient questions and got straightforward answers, if not from Gemma, then from the Diocese she had implicated in her projects. These needed to be answers that comported with the answers given to us by the Diocese of Charlotte. Beyond this CO's spirituality and theology needs to be assured as well as their formation programs, etc. These are important elements which must be vetted (and led) by competent people. Finally, there are options or (in the latter case) a specific avenue for individuals to become either lay or consecrated hermits in today's Church; there is no need for the kinds of things CO offers in this regard and in some ways association with Cloisters Outreach could actually prove a hindrance to those discerning a call to canon 603 profession/consecration. So, to the extent CO's eremitical expression seems built on sand rather than rock, it is true that I was not adverse to pouring a little water on the sand and letting nature take her course. After all, to the degree the foundation was sound, then nothing would have been harmed at all and they might even have been helped by the confirmation. So no, there was no attempt to undermine the foundation. There was, however, a definite effort to establish the truth and demand that CO stand on that truth and no where else.

One final comment. While I am sorry for anyone with a condition which makes his or her ability to participate in discussions of the complex canonical issues involved in founding a religious congregation difficult or impossible, it seems imprudent then that they would be the ones in charge of such a task. At the very least such a person should have had someone who was not similarly impaired along with them for such discussions (and, presuming any really took place, certainly after the first one!). It seems to me that such a person should also let the canonist know that they are handicapped in this specific way and, as far as possible, require things to be stated in ordinary language. My own experience with canonists, limited though it is, (1 Bishop, 2 Vicars for Religious, 1 friend) is that they are VERY good in explaining canonical matters in straightforward language; I even have the sense that they enjoy doing so (after all, they enjoy canon law and this, as it is in theology or any other field, is a sign of their true expertise). I don't personally believe any heavily technical/canonical discussions took place, but even if they did does failing to take prudent steps to be sure these discussions were fully understood argue for such a person's competence to lead such a project?

Nothing, as far as I am aware, in the original article needs to be changed. It was a simple statement of fact. I said at the time that I would be more than happy to publish more if those facts changed, but no one notified me of changes (they did make charges of defamation, libel, and claimed serious misunderstandings had taken place, and so forth, so I know they saw the post). However, the comments in the post you sent do require some response. I hope this has helped.

14 December 2012

Sisters of the Holy Family Honored by FBI



As one with a special place in my heart for the Sisters of the Holy Family I wanted to share this video. I have mentioned before that they are involved in battling the problem of human trafficking as one of the newer expressions of their mission and charism. They are rightly honored for their efforts in this.

10 December 2012

The LandFILL Harmonic

Landfill Harmonic film teaser from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.


This is another of those truly inspiring stories friends send my way. This one came from a violist in the orchestra I play in. Some may question the existence of God, but the creative drive towards transcendence and life comes out in us in innumerable ways. Music and the need to make music is one of those. I was most struck by the comment that a violin in these places is worth more than a house. Of course, houses are very poor affairs in these parts, but the comment still challenges us to attend to how we determine and honor the genuine riches in our lives.

04 December 2012

First Week of Advent: In What Story Will We Stand?

A Poignant Conversation

Last week I spoke to a friend I haven't seen in a number of years. She has Alzheimer's and now lives in a different state. We have known each other since the early 80's  when we were both working with the same spiritual director and sometimes stayed at the Center for dinner or made retreat together. Today Denise remembers that time clearly as a watershed period of her life and it is a complete joy for her to talk about it. Doing so is part of what allows her to remain a hopeful and faithful person. It is a major part of her ability to remain herself. But her capacity for story has been crippled and to some extent reduced by her illness.

We are Made for Story

For me this conversation helped underscore a deep truth of our existence. Human beings are made for story. Story is an inescapable part of being truly human and we are diminished without it. It is not only a profound need within us but a drive which affects everything we are and do. Nothing happens without story. Nothing significant that happens in our life is unmediated by story.  When scientists reflect on and research this truth, they conclude we are hardwired for story. Neuroscientists have even located a portion of the brain which is dedicated to spinning stories. This portion of our brain sometimes functions to "console" and compensate one for the loss of story in brain disorders (amnesia, for instance) and I sometimes hear it at work in my friend Denise as she fills in the holes in her own memory for herself; but it is implicated in our quest for connection, context, and meaning in all its forms.

Thus scientists explain that story is actually the way we think, the way we relate to and process reality, the way we make sense of things and get our own hearts and minds around them. Whenever we run into something we don't understand or cannot control --- something we need to hold together in a meaningful way we invariably weave a story around it. Children do it with their dolls and crayons; Abused children do it and often have to be helped in later life to let go of these so they may embrace their place in a better, truer story. Physicians do it when they determine diagnoses and prognoses. Historians do it in explaining the significance of events. Scientists spin stories to explain the nature of reality. The complex stories they author are called theories. Like the myths of religious traditions, these narratives often possess a profound explanatory power and truth. They work to allow the development of technology, medicine, and the whole of the sciences, but they are stories nonetheless. And of course, gossips, know-it-alls and scam artists of all sorts routinely spin stories to draw us in and exploit our capacity and hunger for story.

We all know that stories are essential to our humanity.  At their best they help create a context, a sacred space and healing dynamic where we can be ourselves and stand authentically with others: Thus, when someone we love dies it is natural (human!) and even essential that we gather together to tell stories which help reknit the broken threads of our story into something new and hopeful, something which carries us into a future with promise. In a way which is similarly healing and lifegiving we offer strangers places in our own stories and make neighbors of them. We do the same with friends. Ideally, there is no greater gift we can give another than a place in our own stories, no greater compassion than our empathy for and appreciation of another's entire story. For good and ill our humanity is integrally linked to the fact that we are made for story. We reside and find rest within stories; they connect us to others. They are vehicles of transcendence which make sense of the past and draw us into the future. They link us to our culture, our families, our communities, our faith, and our church; without them we are left bereft of identity or place and our lives are empty and meaningless. 

We have only to look at the place story holds in our life in the Church to appreciate this. The creed we profess is not a series of disparate beliefs or dogmas but a coherent story we embrace more fully every time we repeat it and affirm "I believe" this. Our liturgy of the Word is centered on stories of all sorts --- challenging, inspiring, consoling us as only stories can do. Even the act of consecration is accomplished by telling a story we recount and embrace in our "Amen" of faith: "On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it saying. . . then he took the cup, blessed it saying. . .]] Stories like these, we know, provide the context and overarching narrative in which all things ultimately hold together and are meaningful.They make whole and holy. For this reason we yearn for them and honor them as sacred.

Our Capacity for Story is Both Blessing and Curse 

Augustine summarized all of this when he said, "O God, we are made for thee, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." He might well have said."O God your story is our own and our hearts are restless until they finally reside securely in that story". Just like physicists who are searching for that one theory of everything, we are each made for and in search of the story which makes complete and ultimate sense of our lives, the story which allows us to develop our own personal stories fully, the narrative framework which lets us be completely and exhaustively human. Christians recognize this blessed story as the Kingdom of God, God's own story.The challenge for each of us, I think, is to make this story our own. The problem? We already reside rather securely in other stories, other controlling narratives and myths. Because of our capacity and even our hunger for story our lives are full of scripts and tapes which conflict with the story we are offered in Christ. Some seem lifegiving but many do not serve us very well at all.

 For instance, when young persons opt to join a gang, they are choosing a particular story of status, community, belonging, power as opposed to powerlessness, and a place in a world which seems larger and more adult than the one they occupy already. Unless these things are distorted into badges of courage and achievement the narrative omits prison, death, the sundering of family relationships, loss of education, future, and so forth. Another example: when adults choose to have affairs they are buying into a story they tell themselves (and our culture colludes with this at every point) about freedom and love, youth, immediate gratification, sexuality and attractiveness. The part of the narrative they leave out or downplay is the part of the story we are each called to tell with our lives about personal integrity, commitment,  faithfulness, patience, and all the other things that constitute real love and humanity. 

What we are seeing here is the very essence of sin. It is no coincidence that the Genesis account of humanity's fall from "grace" (which is really a place in God's own life or "story") centers around the fact that at evil's urging Adam and Eve swap the story God tells them about themselves, their world, and their place in it for another one they prefer to believe. In THIS story eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil will not bring death; in THIS story God is a liar; in this story humanity grasps at godhead and lives forever anyway. So many of the scripts and tapes we have adopted are as distorted and destructive and they touch every part of our lives. Two of the most recent I heard are, "The poor are takers" and "Selfishness is a moral imperative and the key to the common good." But there are many others! Scripts about what real men and women do or don't do --- both in society and in our church --- about what freedom is, divine justice, what is required to gain God's love (despite the fact God gives it freely to anyone who will simply accept it), etc. As sinful human beings we are an ambiguous mixture of stories which make us true and those which stunt or distort us. Our capacity for story is both blessing and curse.

Story is also the way Home

If our capacity for story is both blessing and curse then it is also the way home. In particular the stories Jesus tells us are a primary way home. Jesus' parables are, in fact, one of the ways he works miracles. (If anyone --- even Webster's Dictionary --- ever tells you these parables are "simple religious stories with a moral" don't believe them! They are far more dynamic and dangerous than that!) Like every story, Jesus' parables draw us in completely, allow us to suspend disbelief, check our overly critical voices at the door, and listen with our hearts as well as our intellects. They create a sacred space in which we are alone with God and can meet ourselves and God face to face. No one can enter this space with us even if there are hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder listening to the same story. But Jesus' stories do more. As I have written here before: [[ When Jesus told parables, for instance, he did so for two related reasons: first, to identify and subvert some of the less than authentic controlling myths people had adopted as their own, and second to offer the opportunity to make a choice for an alternative story by which one could live an authentically human and holy life.


Parables, Jesus' parables that is, typically throw down two sets of values; two perspectives [or stories] are cast down beside one another (para = alongside, and balein = to throw down). One set represents the Kingdom of God; one the kingdom where God is not sovereign --- the realm the Church has sometimes called "the world". Because our feet are firmly planted in the first set of values, [the first set of stories or scripts], the resulting clash disorients us and throws us off balance; it is unexpected and while first freeing us to some extent from our embeddedness (or enmeshment) in other narratives, it creates a moment of "KRISIS" or decision and summons us to choose where we will finally put our feet down again, which reality we will stand firmly in and inhabit, which story will define us, which sovereign will author and rule us. ]]

Will we affirm the status quo, the normal cultural, societal, personal, or even some of the inadequate religious narratives we cling to, or will we instead allow our minds and hearts to be remade and adopt God's own story as our own? Who will author us? Will it be the dominant culture, or the God who relativizes and redeems it? Where indeed will we put our feet down? In which story will we choose to walk and with whom? These are clearly the questions that face us during this season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and a God who tells us his story in a most unexpected way.The fresh cycle of readings are an invitation to approach God's story with fresh ears and a willingness to have our lives reshaped accordingly. It is the story we are made and hunger for, the story in which we are made true and whole, the story in which nothing authentic of our lives is ever lost or forgotten. What greater gift can we imagine or be given?

19 November 2012

Hermits24, A Misrepresentation??

A couple of weeks ago another diocesan hermit and I discovered a website which we both have concerns about and which I personally want to gently caution readers about. It is called "Hermits24" and is linked to the Google search term "Catholic Hermits online" along with some sort of "Foundation of Bishop Hugh" (the title is in Polish as is their Facebook page and all the information about the "Foundation." The reference to Bishop Hugh is apparently a reference to Hugh who was linked to the Carthusians, so this may also be linked to a generally lay group of Hermits of St Bruno.

At the top of the page are tabs which link to various continents, regions, or countries. When you click on the tabs you are taken to a list of several hermits (at least some of which are diocesan and perpetually professed). Each name is linked to  text which is taken from that hermit's website or blog. It SEEMS to be a list of Catholic Hermits who have online presences. It is from these hermits that the site seems to have garnered its name. So, what is the problem? What are our concerns?

First, each of the pages, including the pages with text from each hermit's website, have a paypal button at the bottom and each one asks for contributions to "us." My own name and a link to this blog are included but no one got my permission for this, for instance, despite the fact that it looks as though I am a party to this appeal for money/financial support. Secondly, no where on the website do we learn who "us" is. It APPEARS to be the diocesan (and lay) hermits who are listed here as part of the "Foundation" in whose name the site is established or part of "Hermits24", but this is simply not true. No diocesan hermit I know on this list is receiving anything financial from this foundation or even knew about its existence. Third, the "Foundation" does indeed note a bank account,  but does not indicate whether this is a legitimate foundation with ecclesiastical and civil credentials (it should have both to be a true charity for hermits).  Though it is supposed to exist in Warsaw no diocese is noted, no way of contacting anyone for clarification is given (there is an email address in other Google search findings),. Fourthly, the site asks for one to join and login, but the login leads nowhere and it appears that the only button that actually works besides the one leading to the registration form is the paypal button.

The website has been up less than six months, so perhaps it is unfinished. (Addendum: NB, I visited today, 20 Nov. and temporary text was there when it had not been before so this seems very likely.) However, the Paypal account and linkage is certainly finished and the impression that contributions assist those of us listed there is certainly very real. It is very hard to shake off the impression that this is a site which takes advantage of real diocesan hermits' standing and ostensible poverty and need. Because of this I am asking folks who might consider contributing to this site to refrain from doing so at least for the time being. Whomever benefits from this, it is not the hermits listed. If you wish to contribute to diocesan hermits go to the various hermits' websites and contact them to see if they are open to such contributions. (Some of us will be; some of us will not.) If folks who read this blog are connected to this website in some official way and believe you have been misrepresented here, please contact me and clarify things. I would be MORE than happy to speak with you about it and correct anything here which is in error.

18 November 2012

Sister Simone Campbell Meets with President Obama

STATEMENT BY NETWORK EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL ON MEETING BETWEEN PRESIDENT OBAMA & CIVIC & FAITH LEADERS CONCERNING FISCAL DEBATE
Sister Simone Campbell released the following statement today regarding President Obama’s Friday meeting with civic and faith leaders about ongoing fiscal negotiations:
“I was honored to meet with President Obama yesterday and discuss the need for reasonable revenue for responsible programs that protect American families. I talked to the president about the many effective programs I encountered during the “Nuns on the Bus” tours, and we supported his effort to immediately end the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent and prevent a massive tax hike for the working poor and the middle class."
“I spoke strongly about how effective and accountable social service programs are, and told him that all departments of the government -- including the Pentagon – must be held to high standards. In tough economic times we need to make sure everyone contributes their fair share. That includes powerful special interests and the wealthiest among us.”
“While President Obama’s rhetoric centers on the middle class, he understands cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the safety net endanger seniors, children and working poor families. He knows that the faith community is committed to ensuring that the plight of the working poor stays at the heart of these negotiations. Congress needs to work in good faith with the President to find a responsible way forward that honors the values of the American people.”

15 November 2012

On the Appropriateness of the term Formation

[[Dear Sister, when you write about formation or ongoing formation very little of it involves formal instruction etc. Instead you begin with "custody of the cell" and most of your ongoing formation seems to be by yourself. Is the term formation appropriate since no one is forming you? Does formation for the hermit differ from that of other monastics? Is one more manipulative than the other?]]

I suppose the term formation does give the impression of formal classes and a kind of coercive shaping by others into a monk or nun or hermit. But formation really means being socialized in a way which, over time, forms us into persons of prayer, silence, solitude, community, and so forth. It is the case that when one enters a given congregation certain values will predominate so that one is socialized with the charism of a Franciscan or Dominican or Carthusian, etc. Still, today this process of being formed is not manipulative, nor is it coercive. It is instead a process of gradually shaping  or conforming one's heart, mind, habits, sensibilities, and so forth to a model one sees all around oneself. While one measures one's behavior, activities, and attitudes according to a Rule and horarium, even more important is the presence of community members who embody the Rule in a pervasive way. Some persons reject the term "formation" --- usually on the inadequate basis of older programs in religious life which have generally been replaced today --- but it seems to me that it is an appropriate term just as it is appropriate for the pitcher into which the potter is shaping or forming the clay or perhaps for the sculpture which Michelangelo perceived he actually freed from the stone in which it was imprisoned without form or identity.

Formation for hermits has always been something achieved with the help of an elder or mentor. Sometimes this has been through modeling and sometimes it has been more demanding and directly instructive or even punitive. For those who suggest this process was never coercive, etc, I would remind them of the story of Romuald who went to learn his hermiting from an elder. They would sit together and Romuald would read or recite. When he made a mistake the elder hermit would whack him on the ear with a rod. Eventually Romuald made a mistake and, before his master could strike him yet again on that ear, Romuald asked him to use the other ear as, he reported, he was almost deaf in the first ear. While the desert Fathers and Mothers seem to have been less heavy handed in their direction, I suspect there is no reason to think that this kind of practice was not fairly common and acceptable, not only around 1000 AD, but earlier on in the history of monastic life.

But even with this bit of history, eremitical formation certainly differs in some ways from highly structured cenobitic models. One is called to the silence of solitude and it takes silence and solitude, prayer and penance to contribute to it as the essential environment of the hermitage and further to reach it as a goal. When I spoke of custody of the cell I meant keeping the rhythm and customs which allow the hermitage to be a place where one can be "socialized" in this particular way of prayer, peace, and holiness. Rather than learning to live in community or being formed in the specific values which mark a religious belonging to a particular Order or religious family the solitary hermit learns the community of solitude and is formed in the compassion which attends knowing the truth of oneself more and more profoundly.  Meanwhile, one grows in the graced capacity for a gentle and loving self-discipline and self-direction and one certainly develops the capacities for solitary study, lectio, contemplative prayer, writing or other expressions, and so forth. The important thing to remember is that in any hermitage, God is the primary "formator" while others merely assist in the process. This really tends to be true in monasteries as well.

In the silent solitude of the hermitage two truths predominate: the fragility and weakness of the hermit and the unconditional love of God which marks the hermit as precious and gifted beyond reckoning. Together these two result in a growing humility, a more and more authentic and honest identity rooted in  the God of truth, which allows the hermit to love not only God and herself, but others as well. This will also entail letting go of much that was contrary to such an identity and healing past woundednesses. Again, I think it is appropriate to call all of this specific socialization "formation" though it is not in the least manipulative.  Of course, I would argue that contemporary monastic formation in general is not manipulative or coercive either.

12 November 2012

On Battling Demons, St Anthony's Temptation, and the Importance of Myths

[[Dear Sister Laurel, you have written about demons in the past. Do you really believe in demons? How about powers at work from outside us? When I read the desert Fathers a lot of what they say is incredible to me because there is so much reference to demons. The story of Anthony and all the hideous noise that occurred as he battled demons while people passing by heard the fighting is part of that. I just can't buy it. Is there a way to understand this that is not so primitive or mythological?]]

St Anthony'sTemptation by Bosch

Thanks for the questions. The desert is known in two integrally related ways. It is first the place where we are closest to God and may know and be known by him most intimately, and secondly it is the place where people meet demons face to face and battle with them in order to come to terms with their own humanity and claim it more fully. A desert vocation, that is the vocation of the hermit, is especially therefore, a vocation where one does battle with demons and comes to terms with and claims her humanity more fully through the grace of God. But we need to know what the desert Fathers and Mothers were talking about when they spoke of demons and the place of the desert in all of this. Whenever I have written about this I have spoken mainly of doing battle with the demons inside my own heart --- because for me that is the primary struggle that goes on in my life. While there may have been more of a tendency to personify these demons at the time of the desert Fathers and Mothers, I think this is mainly what they were speaking of and secondly of the powers and principalities in our world which are also at work within and upon us.

Consider what the desert (or any wilderness) is like. You are there, God is there, and often, with the exception of wild animals, that is pretty much all there is. At every moment you are thrown back upon yourself and God (though you may not realize God's presence at this point and may not have yet begun to seek him). To survive with the (perhaps unknown) grace of God you must find the resources within yourself to hunt, find water, create shelter, protect yourself from predators, stave off weather, hunger, boredom, hopelessness, and tedium; you must manage bodily needs, take care of injuries and illness, etc etc. This will mean dealing to some extent with your own insecurities, your own fears, prejudices, ignorance, and allergy to failure on a daily, even hourly basis. You will not survive otherwise. Further, you must deal with the loneliness, the isolation, the loss of all those things (role, position, money, relationships) that made your life valuable in worldly terms. There are no books, no electric lights, no TV's, no computers or internet, no musical instruments or iPods, nothing to distract you from yourself and the God who summons you to your truest self. Even while one is working quietly, one's mind is churning and one's heart is often in turmoil.

And perhaps you will begin to seek out God. If so, the heart that is in turmoil is the place you will enter now in a more concerted way. If you thought the region outside you was wild and threatening, wait until you enter your own heart. It is, after all, at times like these we begin to meet the darker or "shadow" parts of our selves as well as the giftedness and virtuous dimensions. In trying to feed and shelter ourselves we dealt to some extent with fears, insecurities, prejudices, ignorance, etc but now we face them full on --- now when there is nothing to distract us from looking into our own hearts. And besides these demons are so many more! Greed, arrogance, envy, pride, rampant ambition, perfectionism, laziness or a failure of will, a selfishness that rules out compassion, resentment, a tendency to manipulate others or the world around us in order to be loved or appreciated, evasiveness or outright dishonesty. The list goes on and on. If one has not been loved as one ought to have been there may be hatred and a really fearful rage and despair as well. And then there are the roots of these things --- for they do not come from no where! Thus, there are the "demons" which occupy our memories as well! They too must be exorcised in their own way.

One thing must be emphasized, however, especially given the focus of this question and answer. Our looking at the darknesses of our own hearts in such a situation is dependent upon the light and love of God (as well as upon our memory of all those who have loved us throughout our lives). It is the one who is loved and knows herself to be loved as only God loves who can look at her own sins against love and the darknesses of her own personality fully and honestly. But the process of coming to know God's love AND coming to see and deal with one's darker aspects is often a long and messy process. The desert Fathers and Mothers rightly described it in terms of a struggle which was fraught with temptation and which could even be described in the terms Anthony's battle was described. Like Jacob wrestling with an angel and coming away limping,  or Anthony coming out torn and haggard, we do not come away unmarked from our own battles with our demons --- even when God is fully victorious. This is true even when we are ministered to by angels and eventually come to (or usually dwell in!) a place of peace and light.

So, yes, there are certainly ways to make sense of the stories of Anthony's struggle or those of the other desert Fathers and Mothers which are less "primitive or mythological". Today we use Jungian psychology among other things to speak about the shadow side of ourselves, etc. But let's also be clear just how powerful those myths are. They tell us a story whose profound truth we can each recognize on some level, whether we are hermits or not. Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to have someone threaten to make a secret part of your life known to others at a business meeting. If you can feel this, even a little, then you know the truth of the fact that the revelation of the demons which inhabit our lives can be a terrifying proposition. Imagine instead unpacking a container full of secrets and private darknesses in front of someone who doesn't much like you or these things about you (the way some of us feel about ourselves, for instance, especially if we have not really known God's love).

Imagine doing this with someone who loves you profoundly. Still probably not very easy to undertake. But also imagine that these things you are trying to unpack LIKE the darkness, hate the light and that as you reach for each one it fights your efforts to reveal it and set it aside. Imagine it battles you and the God you seek as a betrayer of critical secrets and a threat to its very life. Or, imagine that once you have looked at the demon, even obliquely, you simply cannot get it out of your sight or mind.  If you are dealing with impatience (or an inability to resist being critical, or some form of inordinate desire etc.), impatience (etc) then becomes a howling animal struggling to insinuate and assert itself in every situation. Now imagine these things reside in your very heart and you are entering there instead to try to confront and deal with them. One's heart, precisely because it is by definition the place where God witnesses to Godself, is not always going to be the most placid of places; when we are battling its demons this is even truer. Images like these help us to see at least part of what we are all really up against in growing in intimacy with God. Stories like that of Anthony help us see what eremitical life (or life stripped of distractions and luxuries, what we call desert living) can involve. I would argue these stories are really quite sophisticated conveyors of profound truth, especially when seen as dramatizations of our inner lives, or externalizations of the hidden dynamics and struggles hermits and others live in order to come to healing and holiness.

It is easy to think that we do not carry within us some really dark and awful depths with the power to distort, disrupt, and destroy, or that these only come from outside us; this is especially so when they seem to take control of our lives and literally dehumanize us. I am not denying that forces outside us exist and influence our world (e.g, what Paul called powers and principalities), but on the whole I think this is a fuller picture of the reality of spiritual struggle and growth both now and in the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers.

I hope this is helpful.

04 November 2012

Question on Diocese Shopping

[[Dear Sister Laurel, How do I find a diocese professing lay Catholics under canon 603?]]

Generally, I do not recommend diocese-shopping for such purposes. I don't know any dioceses which would not be pretty cautious, suspicious, and even outright rejecting of someone engaging in such diocese-shopping. Similarly, since the eremitical vocation has a strong component of stability, shopping around for a diocese that will profess you might well cause doubt about any possible vocation. There are few situations which would make such a solution necessary

I have written a more detailed response to a similar question. Please see the label "Diocese-shopping" for that post. That main response is dated 26. March.2011; another post speaks a bit about such diocese-shopping as I recall. It is dated 4.December.2011. Please be aware that in order to be taken seriously by such a diocese you will need to have lived as a hermit for some time under competent spiritual direction and be able to demonstrate a good track record of stability in your parish or diocesan commitments. By this I am referring to the monastic value of stability which (risking serious over-simplification) is mainly a commitment to grow wherever you find yourself. If a diocese you move to is to take you seriously as a potential candidate for admission to profession you will likely need to have either tried to have entered a discernment process with your diocese and have been treated in bad faith, or perhaps have belonged to a diocese/province which has refused across the board to profess or consecrate anyone under canon 603. The only other situation I can think of off hand which might allow a second diocese to seriously consider you for c 603 profession would be if years ago you tried to be accepted and were deemed unready but now, despite your own growth in the vocation, the diocese will not reevaluate the matter.

Regarding your question more specifically, as far as I know, there is no list of dioceses with diocesan hermits although I understand that last year the Vatican started keeping statistics on us for the first time. Fewer (perhaps far fewer) than 1/4th of dioceses in the US have diocesan hermits, however. The only way to find out if a diocese MIGHT be open in time to professing you if you were to move there would be to call the chancery and speak to the Vicar for Religious or Consecrated life. Again though, no one is likely to be more than seriously reserved in responding to such a query because allowing you to move to a diocese cannot be done with even a suggestion that you might one day be professed as a diocesan hermit. The most they could and would probably tell you is whether they have diocesan hermits presently and are/or are open to professing suitable candidates.

Prayer for the Election

We pray for our nation this week,
That we move beyond our fears and concerns
To discern what will serve the common good
for all members of our society.
We pray that we may respond to the call of solidarity
Rather than the call of separate interests.
May we be more concerned with successful community
Than with individual success.
We pray that we consider ways
Through difficult economic problems
That are compassionate and just
For all who struggle for their daily bread.
We pray that we dwell deeply on the call
To serve those in poverty
And recognize that all humans
Have the right to life with dignity
And with the basic services to promote human flourishing.
We pray that we take seriously
The call to be peacemakers,
Despite the complexities
In our local, national, and global conflicts.
We pray that we honor
Our responsibilities as citizens
Without resorting to the polarization
That limits our listening.
Guide us in the coming weeks in our process of discernment So we serve you Through our choices and
Our concern for the common good.

by Jane Deren educationforjustice.org

This prayer was taken from my parish bulletin. I am proud to share it here. It does not transgress the USCCB guidelines of Faithful Citizenship, nor does it increase the polarization in our church and world. It is a model of what Catholic engagement in the political process should look like and the principles it should be guided by.

On Disappointment with Bishops, Hypocrisy regarding Religious Liberty, and the Theology of Conscience in Voting

I heard today about at least one parish in a diocese in North Carolina which is putting out bumperstickers which say "I am Catholic and I vote". Well and good; we all should vote our consciences. The problem? On a table next to these are Romney bumper stickers. Does anyone REALLY need to be told that this is a violation of the USCCB Guidelines and document on faithful citizenship? (It would not have mattered if they had been Obama bumper stickers; the violation is the same and serious.) Do they really need to be told that it is a violation of the statutes which govern a Church's tax exempt status? Do they really want to claim the government is subtly violating the right to religious freedom while at the same time such parishes/dioceses are flagrantly violating the laws of the land regarding separation of Church and State which this Country uses to PRESERVE religious liberty? Is this really the tit for tat matter it seems? Is it a case where some are saying "If the government can violate our rights, then to heck with the laws of the land?" Does the word hypocrisy have any real meaning for these folks?  How about arrogance or short-sightedness then?

I find myself terribly disappointed with the Bishops who have become spokespersons for the Republican party in this election. (I would say the same for those speaking for Democratic candidates or a party platform, but I have not seen this myself.) They have quite literally sold their Offices and jeopardized the very thing they claim the government is transgressing --- the freedom of religion with its corresponding freedom and primacy of conscience. Had the USCCB as a whole restated the Catholic teaching on conscience and especially on primacy of conscience, and done so accurately while also saying, "Go with the help of the Holy Spirit and vote your consciences" the entire election process would have been so much more edifying. We would, as a Church, be FAR better off.  Instead we have a Church divided on the basis of false teaching on conscience, the specifics of the Health Care bill and complicity in objective evil, lies about what Nuns on the Bus members actually believe and proclaim, Bishops actually allowing or even encouraging their flocks to electioneer on Church property, and Episcopal scare tactics regarding endangering one's soul, going to hell, etc, because one votes one's conscience. All of this reminds me that the literal meaning of diabolic is that which throws apart, from dia (apart) and balein (to throw). It is a tremendously sad situation, I think.

The Cave of the Heart
So, since a couple of people have asked me about voting (they actually asked about how I am voting but I am not going there) let me restate 1) the pertinent part of the Church's teaching on the nature and primacy of conscience, and 2) Benedict XVI's analysis of elections which involve, for instance, the issues of abortion and contraception when neither candidate or party platform is really completely acceptable to Catholics.

First, we are to inform and form our consciences to the best of our ability. This means we are not only to learn as much as we can about  the issue at hand including church teaching, medical and scientific information, sociological data, theological data, and so forth (this is part of the way to an informed conscience), but we are to do all we can to be sure we have the capacity to make a conscience judgment and act on it. This means we must develop the capacity to discern all the values and disvalues present in a given situation, preference them appropriately, and then determine or make a conscience judgment regarding how we must act. Finally we must act on the conscience or prudential judgment that we have come to. (This latter capacity which reasons morally about all the information is what is called a well-formed conscience. A badly formed conscience is one which is incapable of reasoning morally, discerning the values and disvalues present, preferencing these, and making a judgment on how one must act in such a situation. Note well, that those who merely "do as authority tells them" may not have a well-formed conscience informed though they may be regarding what the Church teaches in a general way!)

There are No Shortcuts, No Ways to Free ourselves from the Complexity or the Risk of this Process and Responsibility:

There is no short cut to this process of informing and forming our consciences. No one can discern or decide for us, not even Bishops and Popes. They can provide information, but we must look at ALL the values and disvalues in the SPECIFIC situation and come to a conscientious judgment ourselves. The human conscience is inviolable, the inner sanctum where God speaks to each of us alone. It ALWAYS has primacy. Of course we may err in our conscience judgment, but if we 1) fail to act to adequately inform and form our consciences, or 2) act in a way which is contrary to our own conscience judgment we are more likely guilty of sin (this is  actually certain in the latter case). If we act in good faith, we are NEVER guilty of sin --- though we may act wrongly and have to bear the consequences of that action. If we err, the matter is neutral at worst and could even still involve great virtue. If we act in bad faith, we ALWAYS sin, and often quite seriously, for to act against a conscience judgment is to act against the very voice of God as heard in our heart of hearts.

And what about conscience judgments which are not in accord with Church teaching (or in this case, with what some Bishops are saying)? I have written about this before but it bears repeating. Remember that at Vatican II the minority group approached the theological commission with a proposal to edit a text on conscience. The text spoke about the nature of a well-formed conscience. The redaction the minority proposed was that the text should read, "A well-formed conscience is one formed in accord (or to accord) with Church teaching." The theological commission rejected this redaction as too rigid and reminded the Fathers that they had already clearly taught what the church had always held on conscience. And yet today we hear all the time from various places, including some Bishops, that if one's conscience judgment is not in accord with Church teaching the conscience is necessarily not well-formed. But this is not Church teaching --- not the teaching articulated by Thomas Aquinas or Innocent III, for instance, who counseled people that they MUST follow their consciences even if that meant bearing with excommunication.

Benedict XVI's Analysis:

Now then, what about Benedict XVI's analysis of voting in situations of ambiguity where, for instance, one party supports abortion but is deemed more consistently pro-life otherwise? What happens when this situation is sharpened by an opposing party who claims to be anti-abortion but has done nothing concrete to stop it? MUST a Catholic vote for the anti-abortion party or be guilty of endangering their immortal souls? Will they necessarily become complicit in intrinsic evil if they vote for the candidate or party which supports abortion? The answer is no. Here is what Benedict XVI said: If a person is trying to decide for or against a particular candidate and determines that one candidate's party is more consistently pro-life than the other party, even though that first party supports abortion or contraception, the voter may vote in good conscience for that first candidate and party SO LONG AS they do not do so BECAUSE of the candidate's position on abortion or contraception.

In other words, in such a situation abortion is not the single overarching issue which ALWAYS decides the case. One CAN act in good faith and vote for a candidate or party which seems to support life as a seamless garment better than another party, even if that candidate or party does not oppose abortion. One cannot vote FOR intrinsic evil, of course, but one can vote for all sorts of goods which are clearly Gospel imperatives and still not be considered complicit in intrinsic evil. By the way, this is NOT the same thing as doing evil in order that good may result!! Benedict XVI's analysis is less simplistic than some characterizations I have heard recently; theologically it seems to me to be far more cogent and nuanced than these, and it is one Bishops who are supposed to be in union with him when they teach as the ordinary Magisterium should certainly strongly reconsider and learn from.

In Thanksgiving for my own Parish:

Meanwhile, I want to take this opportunity to say how very grateful I am for my parish. We stand together around one Table; we share one Word; we drink from one Cup. We are very different from one another politically, theologically, economically, and so forth --- and we are all aware of it. Yet we trust one another to vote their consciences and pray that the will of God will be done. We do NOT allow differences in politics to divide us in a literally diabolical way. We may not agree on a specific issue or candidate, but we recognize the Church's theology of conscience allows that and respect one another in our disagreements. Thus, we continue to worship together and grow together in Christ. As the USCCB's  1999 document, "Faithful Citizenship" reminds us, "Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Democrat or Republican. Sometimes it seems few candidates and no party fully reflect our values. We must challenge all parties and every candidate to defend human life and dignity, to pursue greater justice and peace, to uphold family life, and to advance the common good." I find that in my parish at least, we are generally Christians first and trust one another to be that to the best of their ability. In this time especially, that is a very great gift and precisely what the Universal Church should be as a sign to the world!