29 September 2012

Bishop Appointed Apostolic Administrator for the Diocese of Oakland

Archbishop Alexander Joseph Brunett, the retired Archbishop who served the Archdiocese of Seattle prior to Peter Sartain has been appointed to serve as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Oakland until a new Bishop is appointed. His appointment becomes active on the same day Bishop Cordileone becomes Archbishop of San Francisco.

Archbishop Brunett is [[a native of Detroit, Michigan, was ordained to the priesthood in 1958 in Rome. After a number of assignments in the Detroit area, Pope John Paul II appointed him as bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, in 1994. He was named archbishop of Seattle in 1997, and remained in that post until he retired in 2010, at the mandatory retirement age of 75.]]

In a brief visit on 21. September to the chancery of the Diocese of Oakland, Brunett commented to assembled staff: “Part of my job is to prepare (the diocese) for another bishop. I’m not here forever."

As has been noted in other media sources, [[though it was previously announced that Archbishop-designate Cordileone would remain apostolic administrator of the Oakland diocese even after his installation as archbishop of San Francisco, he explained in a memo to employees the appointment was made “in order to relieve me of the burden of the pastoral governance of two dioceses at the same time as I assume leadership in San Francisco.” He also expressed his gratitude to Archbishop Brunett for “the enthusiasm with which he accepted this appointment. He has a wealth of experience, and I am confident that this will benefit the diocese during this period of transition,” he added.]]

Some have noted that there is an average waiting period of from one to two years for the appointment of a new Bishop when one retires or is promoted or reassigned. That is a long time to be without a Bishop or competent and dedicated Apostolic Administrator. Bishop Brunett has a reputation for "stabilizing dioceses and being a good fundraiser," but I have not personally been able yet to learn much about his pastoral gifts or qualities as a shepherd. I am glad that Archbishop-designate Cordileone will not have to provide pastoral leadership for both Oakland and San Francisco --- a truly huge responsibility for any person I would think --- and I think that this assignment is unquestionably a wise choice for the Diocese of Oakland in that regard.

25 September 2012

Called to be the Mothers, Brothers and Sisters of Jesus

Today's gospel passage is, like so many of Jesus' statements about the Kingdom of God, a bit scandalous to us. We are offended by the way he treats his Mother and Brothers and his affirmation that, "Those who hear and do the Word of God are my Mothers and Brothers" might well cause us to say, "Hey, wait a minute! What about the Commandment that we honor our Father and Mother?" As always, this lection causes us to stop, rethink, and even question things we think we know very well; it calls us to make a choice for or against Jesus and the Kingdom he represents and proclaims.

Because of this we realize that much of what we know and live here and now is really a veiled symbol of the Kingdom of God, proleptic or anticipatory of it. Married love, sexual love, is a powerful symbol of the intimacy between God and his People as well as of the union of individuals and God experienced in contemplative prayer. The fruitfulness of sexual love which stems from the union of man and woman as they become one in body, mind, and spirit in Christ is clearly a symbol of the Church as well as the Kingdom. Consecrated celibates symbolize a different kind of love, more universal in its scope and reminding us that in the Kingdom people will be not be given in marriage. Through the service of Word and Sacrament, Priesthood reminds us that we are a single people who live from the Word of God and the Sacraments as we worship together in Christ.  Even family is a veiled symbol of the Kingdom of God. When family "works" as it is meant to there is nothing more inspiring or beautiful. When families are dysfunctional, when adults misuse one another, or children et al reject or disparage the demanding call of life together or refuse to carry the family's deepest memories, carry on its traditions, or hearken to the stories from which the family lives, it is hard to think of anything more painful or awful. They can serve as images of an anti-kingdom or world as well as the Kingdom of God.

Throughout his Gospel Luke reminds us of the partial or anticipatory nature of these things and turns our common values on their heads, especially in his references to children and families. On Sunday we heard the story of Apostles arguing over status --- who would stand highest, who would sit nearest Christ, who would be first in the Kingdom. Jesus responds by standing a small child in the center of the group and explaining that this (according to the values of the culture of Jesus' day) valueless non-person is precisely an image of the one who would be first in the Kingdom of God. It is also Luke who tells the story of a young Jesus in the Temple. When his parents come to find him he reminds them in a way which seems disrespectful and uncaring about their own anxiety: Didn't you know I am to be about my Father's business? And yet he goes with them. However, the Greek words Luke uses distinguishes between this and the obedience Jesus owes his Father. Jesus subjects himself to Mary and Joseph, but to God he is obedient.  While there is no disrespect for his blood family, that family is relativized in regard to his identity in and with God.  In yesterday's passage from Luke he reminds us what real obedience is when he admonishes us to "Take care how you hear" and then explains real obedience means hearkening, hearing and responding to the Word of God so that our small lights light the entire world.

And today he brings all of these pieces together in an extraordinary way. We are to be hearers of the Word, people for whom the Gospel is truly Good News, Sons and Daughters whom the psalms and canticles inspire, console, and for whom they are the way we pour out our hearts to God and with one another; we are to be the ones for whom Jesus' parables are the places we enter while we suspend the values and perspectives of the world and recommit to the values and perspectives of the Kingdom of God. We are to be the ones, that is, for whom Christ is truly Lord. And we are to be these hearers of the Word because just as doing so makes us literally not merely metaphorically the Body of Christ, so too doing so makes us equally literally Mothers, brothers, and sisters to Christ. As persons who grow in our faith we move through stages. We are called to serve, but beyond this Jesus says he does not call us servants but friends, and now, astonishingly, he says we are called to be his own family, closer than even blood can make us.

This is a scandalous truth and it should give us pause. But it should also prompt us to make a decision with regard to the Word of God. And, when we hold hands today around the Paschal Supper table as we pray the Lord's Prayer, the prayer of the baptized, we do so as family --- a Holy Family. We do not do so merely because we are into "touchy-feely" liturgy or because we belong to the "Church of Nice", but because as those who are called to truly hearken to God's Word we strive together to really be the family who are Jesus' own Mothers, Brothers, and Sisters, both here in our truly blessed parish, and in the world that needs us so badly. What an astounding, heart-stopping call and mission!!

Importance of Spiritual Direction for Hermits

[[Dear Sister Laurel, How important is it for a hermit to have a spiritual director? How do I find one? Can I work with one online? Also, will a diocese profess me without one? I am a hermit  by which I mean I live alone and avoid people, but I do not have a director; neither have I worked with one before. My parish priest hears my confessions but he says this is not the same as spiritual direction and has suggested that if I am serious about being a hermit that I get a spiritual director. He said to check out your blog and see what I thought. He also encourages me to get more involved in parish activities and relationships with people in the parish. Would a spiritual director help me decide about these kinds of things?]]

Stillsong Hermitage Oratory
Hi there,
      First, my thanks to your parish priest for recommending this blog to you. I think you will find a lot of material that will be helpful on your journey, whether or not you ever live as a lay or consecrated hermit --- or even if you continue simply to live alone. Check out the labels in the upper right hand column and you should find stuff of interest. If not, do as you have already done and email me with your questions.

For the Hermit Spiritual Direction is Indispensible

      Second though, your questions. A good spiritual director is critical even indispensable to a hermit. No diocese will profess you without one, and more than that, no diocese is apt to treat your petition to be recognized as a hermit and admitted to canonical profession seriously without a history of spiritual direction and a recommendation from your director --- and rightly so. When living in eremitical solitude, especially as a solitary hermit, there are so many ways things can go awry that a good director really is necessary. After all, the human heart is an ambiguous, complex reality. By definition it is the place where God bears witness to himself, but it is also a wilderness where one battles with demons --- the demons of anger, jealousy, fear, bitterness, resentment, boredom or acedia, etc, etc that can truly defile. A director can be immensely helpful in all of this, and in assisting us to grow into persons of authentic and profound love and sanctity. Similarly one needs to negotiate the shifts that come with prayer, and  discern the significant decisions which need to be made regarding what one is called to in this area or that. For instance, you speak of avoiding people and living alone; a good director can help you determine the authentically eremitical motives for these things and tease apart the more unworthy reasons we may live alone or avoid people. She can assist you in discovering the difference between eremitical solitude and simply living alone as well; together over time you can discern what it is God is truly calling you to whether than means how you personally will live eremitical life authentically or something else entirely.

Finding a Director

      Regarding finding a director and working with one online, let's start with finding one. My suggestion is to speak to people in your parish and diocese who are already working with a spiritual director and ask them about who that is. Most Sisters have directors, many priests do as well while many Sisters as well as some priests do direction. (It is not the same as hearing confession as your pastor clearly understands.) Retreat Houses in your area will know of some directors and may even have one or two on the premises. Your chancery office may have a list of directors in the diocese --- though I have found these are not always kept up to date. Another source of listings in your area is Spiritual Directors International. Not every director belongs (usually because of the annual fee) but you will get a good listing of folks who fit the bill in your area so it can be a jumping off point. Finally, if you have any seminaries or theological schools in your area most programs in pastoral theology or ministry require students to have a director so you can always check with  them and see if they have a list of prospects. You will especially want a director who is knowledgeable about contemplative prayer and life (they do not need to be contemplatives but they need to be contemplative prayers), and knowledgeable about the difference between eremitical solitude and simply living alone. Some background in psychology is helpful as well. If you are considering becoming a diocesan hermit they should also have some background in formation and what it means to live the vows. What is most important is that they be persons of prayer in spiritual direction themselves; access to a supervisor is also very helpful.

On Working with Someone by Phone or Skype

Sisters of Bethlehem
        I do not recommend working with a director online or by email and to be very honest, unless the director is very well-known and regarded by competent directors, I would personally distrust them if they accepted clients online except in the most carefully judged exceptions. I will say that this is especially true if the person they are working with is a "hermit" or desires to be a hermit. Spiritual Direction is a particularly intimate and intense relationship which requires face to face meetings whenever that is possible. While this is a help to the director it is far more important to the directee who really does deserve the best such a relationship can be.

While I have some clients I work with by phone or skype when people live a distance from me, I also tend to require regular face to face meetings whenever they can be arranged. That means traveling here for these clients, but I have found it is an important and even necessary arrangement. Occasionally I will accept a client for phone or skype-only meetings, but that person will have a history of  receiving spiritual direction somewhere in their ongoing formation and be clearly able to benefit from the relationship even without face to face meetings. Sometimes I have clients that move out of the area; usually it seems a good idea to continue working together and we do that via skype or phone; it tends to work better than with someone I don't know except through skype, for instance, because we already know each other well. In working with persons who desire to be hermits it is, I would argue, even more important for face to face meetings, as well as meetings in the hermit's own hermitage from time to time. Directing a hermit candidate is a bit trickier in some ways until the relationship is well-established so I especially recommend these folks find a director in their own region or area and take the necessary time to build the relationship.

The Need for Friendship and Parish Involvement

        It is interesting that your priest suggests you get more involved in the parish and in relationships there. Since he has read my blog it sounds like he might regard the eremitical vocation and reject some of the common stereotypes hermits fall prey to. If this is so it means his suggestions could be very well taken. In contrast to some stereotypes solitary hermits need friendships and solid relationships with their own parishes and members thereof. This does not mean they can be with their friends as often as they would like or invite them over to the hermitage more than occasionally (though hospitality remains a desert value which must be honored), but it does mean that eremitical life is a healthy, loving, full life in God and for that reason being an integral part of the parish, even if one is rarely present beyond Mass, is important for the hermit and for the parish. In other words,  misanthropes and curmudgeons need not apply!! I would suggest you speak with your pastor about why it is he has made his suggestion. If he has a real appreciation of the vocation and concerns about your own tendency to "avoid people" as you put the matter, I think you should listen to him. I know that for me personally, the description re "avoiding people" is a red flag. It is about the negative or peripheral rather than the positive or central dimensions of the life. But I don't know you at all and this is a blog, so at this point your comment is merely a red flag, nothing more than that.

        Working with a spiritual director would indeed help you to discern what is going on in your own life and heart and also how it is God is calling you to serve him and those he loves and considers precious. It may be that you are called to eremitical life and to all that involves (including relationships, parish life, and a solitude which is rich with the Word and life of God. It may simply be that solitude for you is a transitional phase of your life; if so working with a director will help you move through this phase creatively and in a way which witnesses to the grace of God. By all means, take your pastor's advice and talk to him frankly about his own perceptions. You need not agree completely but they will factor into your own discernment and your work with your director.

21 September 2012

Blessed Louis Brisson: Beatification 22. Sept. 2012

Rev. Louis Brisson

Tomorrow the Oblates of St Francis de Sales as well as the Oblate Sisters of St Francis de Sales and the Visitation Sisters celebrate the beatification of Father Louis Brisson, the co-founder of the first two groups and chaplain to the third. (Lest we forget how influential women religious have been in such situations we should note that it was through the influence of the Mother Superior at the Visitation monastery that Father Brisson eventually began both the Oblates and Oblate Sisters. Mother Mary de Sales Chappui prevailed on Fr Brisson to undertake the projects but it took decades of discussions and three miraculous interventions before he established the community of priests which St Francis de Sales had intended to found centuries before.)

The St Francis de Sales' Cross
Father Louis was an amazingly faithful, creative, and inventive man. For him faith and science were two sides of the same coin. A priest, educator, and scientist, he created an astronomical clock which is still working today; it is considered to be so accurate that NASA scientists have studied it. Those describing the ticking of the clock describe it as a great heartbeat which reflects the heartbeat of God within his creation. Thus, the St Francis de Sales' cross is a cross with clock gears inside it. St Francis de Sales wrote a meditation on the dynamic between the temporal and the eternal and found in the temporal continuing evidence of God's creative handiwork.

St Francis de Sales statue

The beatification ceremony will be in Troyes, France where the Oblate Sisters have a house and where Fr Brisson's remains are located; my pastor along with a group of Oblates from the US are attending.

Today's readings remind us that it takes the development of real character to be called a Christian. We are fortunate to have men like Louis Brisson to remind us what this means.

12 September 2012

Always Beginners

[[Dear Sister Laurel, you wrote that hermits feel like novices even after living the life for decades. Why is that? I think Saint Teresa of Avila said like she always felt like a beginner in prayer. Are you speaking of the same experience?]]

Re your first query, what a terrific question --- and a difficult one too! I have never really thought about why one always feels like a beginner at living as a hermit even when one has lived this way for years (which, as I think about it, is definitely not the same as being a novice or neophyte),  but I would say that a large part of it has to do with the reason we are always beginners in prayer, yes. In other words, your question is a profoundly theological one and the answer itself has to do with the nature of God and the nature of prayer.

It is important to remember that prayer is more the action of God than that of human beings. Even when we define it as raising our minds and hearts to God we are speaking of something both initiated and empowered by God. Prayer is God at work in us, and when we speak of prayer periods or engaging in prayer we are speaking of those privileged or dedicated times we allow God to work more freely in us than we may at other times. Therefore, it is not, by definition, something we can become practiced at even though the smallest part of it involves our own actions and dispositions. While we can learn to relax physically, become comfortable in silence, deal with thoughts and distractions, open ourselves more or less to God's presence, a large part of prayer (including our desire to pray) is what God does within us --- and there is always a newness and a kind of incommensurability about this --- even when God's movement within us is subtle at best.

I think the second reason is related. When God is active within us, and especially when we open ourselves to that activity, we change. Our hearts become deeper and more expansive in their capacity to love, our eyes and ears are opened to the really real (Ephphatha!), our minds are also converted, and everything looks and feels differently because we ourselves are different. Thus, through the power of God we are attuned more and more to the eternal which interpenetrates our world and this means that things are never old, never static, and perhaps no longer really completely familiar. I think that ordinarily a piece of judging whether we are a beginner or not is gained by comparing how familiar doing something is. When these things are familiar there is an ease about them, and we are able to gauge the expected results without much conscious attention to things. With prayer, however, we are constantly being brought into a "far country" and in contact with a dynamic, living God we cannot imagine much less set forth expectations about. There is a sense of adventure here, even when it is very very muted; I am not sure that adventure in these terms is ever something we are "old hands" at.

At the same time there is also monotony and sometimes a tedium about eremitical life; like everyone we may crave short term novelty and distraction, but be uncomfortable with the patience and persistence required for genuine newness. Our world often mistakes novelty for authentic newness and we are profoundly accustomed to and conditioned by this. Yet, the yearning for real newness is a part of our very being. (In the NT there are two different words for new which accent this distinction. The first is
kainos or kainotes which indicates a newness of character which is superior and respects the old; the second is neos which means new in time but can also mean a denigration of the traditional or the old.) The situation of monotony and tedium is exacerbated because prayer can seem like nothing at all happens despite our trust (knowledge) that God is present within us working, touching, loving, recreating, and healing.

In the short term especially we may not be able to see or sense the changes that are occurring within us and since the hermitage itself changes very little, in worldly terms we think we are not progressing. This too can make us feel like beginners because we don't feel "we are getting anywhere". It might seem that this conflicts with what I said above about the adventure of prayer, but it is more the case that both things are occurring at the same time and we see one or the other according to our perspective. I think though, that this set of reasons (focusing on our own progress in worldly terms) is far less significant or influential for contemplatives --- and that is especially true if we are speaking of St Teresa of Avila or someone similar.

In light of what I said about the distinction between novelty and authentic newness above, it occurs to me that some folks imagine heaven (the realm where God is truly Lord) as really tedious or boring (thus they fill it or at least imagine it filled with activities!); but the simple fact is that the God who is eternal and living is, for these very reasons, always new. Our own yearning for newness is a yearning for God and life with God, not a desire for novelty or distraction. (One of the reasons Christians embrace some form of poverty, by the way, is precisely to be sure their lives are attuned to the new (kainos) rather than to the novel (neos). For those truly attuned to the new there is therefore less need to become shopaholics, less need for every new gadget or electronic gizmo. But the novel is seductive and religious poverty as value or vow helps limit the degree to which it seduces us!!) It seems to me that to the degree we are truly attuned to God's presence and live in grateful communion with him, to the extent we really are a new creation, all is new to us as well. We experience all of this with gratitude and the sense that we are always beginners.

I will definitely think about this more --- especially the link between gratitude and always being beginners just opened in the last sentences. The entire reality is fascinating, both as a topic and especially as an experience to which persons of prayer witness; so again, many thanks for the questions. I am sorry I don't have a better answer, but for the time being I hope this is helpful.

The Story of Jonah

Every once in a while someone sends me something truly wonderful. I think this video is one of those. In case you haven't heard the story of Jonah recently and would like to hear a wonderful dramatic "interpretation" from someone who has clearly thought long and hard about it from what seems a very Ignatian perspective, give it a listen!!

The story of Jonah from Corinth Baptist Church on Vimeo.

This second video includes Mary Margaret singing Holy, Holy, Holy and then telling the story of David and Goliath. I recommend both, but the first four minutes where she sings are amazing!

Mary from Corinth Baptist Church on Vimeo.

11 September 2012

Followup Questions on Writing a Rule of Life: Should Bishops Write the Hermit's Rule?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for what you have written about writing a Rule of Life. I have been able to find a little bit of information online about this, but your own blog has the most information so far. I am not a hermit but I like the idea of living according to a Rule of Life and your posts have been really helpful. I do have a question. You have written about the benefits of writing one's own Rule and doing so on the basis of one's lived experience. You have also said that people should not write a Rule without having lived the life for some time. But what about someone writing a Rule FOR a hermit? Recently I read about a new diocesan hermit whose Bishop wrote her Rule. I guess you wouldn't agree with that practice. Am I right? Can you see this working in individual cases? Should it become a regular (no pun intended) practice for Bishops?]]

Objections to Bishops writing a Diocesan Hermit's Rule: How the Rule Functions

Well, you are correct that I don't think the practice of having a Bishop write one's own Rule is a good way to go or a good precedent to set. There are several reasons for this. First, the Rule is usually used by dioceses not only to assess the way a person lives solitary eremitical life, but it is an excellent piece of discerning the quality and type of vocation before one. Not least, it is a fairly good way of assessing the candidate's strengths, deficiencies, and relative readiness for profession to a vocation which is strongly dependent upon the hermit's own ability to act independently and maturely in her obedience to God's will in her life. After all, she cannot grow in this vocation otherwise, especially since her contact with superiors is relatively infrequent. Besides, Bishops change and will differ in the degrees of involvement they can have in any hermit's life; there must be a strong pattern of inner-directedness and appropriate autonomy in a diocesan hermit's life before she can be admitted to vows of any sort. The capacity to write a Rule for oneself reflects one's own degree of formation, one's conscious awareness of her own spiritual needs and disciplines, the way she specifically embodies the central values or elements of canon 603 and the eremitical tradition more generally, as well as the way she sees her own life affecting the life of her parish and diocese and vice versa.

Secondly, the Rule is not simply a list of do's and don't's; it is not merely or even primarily legislative. It is meant to be a document which reflects one's own inspired vision of the life, why it is significant in the 21st century, how the various pieces of living it fit one's own story and are shaped by that, and how generally God has been present to one along with how one best responds to Him in a call to the silence of solitude. The negotiation of the tension between eremitical traditions and the needs of the contemporary world and church are the hermit's to achieve. She will do so in dialogue with others --- including her Bishop and delegate, of course --- and especially she will do so in a prayerful, discerning way, but this negotiation IS her vocation and a large part of the charism (gift) she brings to the church and world. No one can do it for her.

Thirdly, as I have said before, while both of the following are essential, a Rule is intended first of all, to inspire one to live their vocation and only secondarily to legislate how one lives it. It is meant to provide a personal way to assume one's own place in the eremitical tradition and that means that only a hermit who has lived the life and is sensitive to its values, charisms, rhythms, freedom, constraints, and history is apt to be able to write an adequate Rule for herself. Associated with this is the fact that a hermit comes to conscious awareness of and terms with much of the tradition, her own life, and the shape of God's call to her in the actual writing of a Rule. The process of doing so (living and growing in the life, consciously reflecting on this, and then articulating in writing what makes that possible or what it obliges one to) is an intensely formative process and it is one I would hate anyone, but especially a diocesan hermit, to miss. Since some of these hermits have not been formed in religious life it becomes even more critical they not miss this intensely formative process and experience.

Problems with the Practice of Bishops Writing a Diocesan Hermit's Rule

Now, what about a Bishop writing the Rule for a solitary hermit? There are several problems I can see with this. First, most Bishops have neither the expertise nor the understanding of the eremitical life to do this. Not only are they apt to write the same Rule for one hermit as they write for another (simple lack of time and knowledge of the individuals will lead to this), but they are apt to write a list of do's and don't's --- a primarily legislative document rather than a document which is geared to 1) inspire, challenge to greater and greater understanding of the eremitical tradition and one's place in it in the 21st century, or 2) one which will serve as a guardrail allowing one to journey freely, creatively, and relatively safely through the wildernesses of that journey.

Secondly, if a Bishop is the one writing the Rule, that seems to suggest the candidate does not have the necessary experience to do so herself. After all, hermits have been required to do this themselves since 1983 and the promulgation of the revised Code of Canon Law, and in the main they have been doing so effectively. One of the most significant things we see in listening to the way Rules are shaped is how truly individual they are even while they represent the eremitical tradition and canon 603. This individuality within tradition is an actual piece of the charism (gift quality) of solitary eremitical life to the church and to the world and we ought not short-circuit the work of the Spirit nor take this piece away. Thirdly, if the Rule does not really fit the candidate particularly well in certain areas but is required for the person to be admitted to profession, it then raises questions for me as to how free the hermit candidate is to say no to what does not work for them and to write in that which does. Down the line, such hermits are apt to find themselves living a Rule which does not actually suit their own individual pattern for growth in Christ and they actually may not be able to fulfill the Rule they are vowed to fulfill.

Possible Alternatives to Bishops Writing Rules for Hermits

Having said this I think a Bishop could well write a set of guidelines for ALL hermit candidates in his diocese --- just as he (or someone he delegates) might do for a laura when several diocesan hermits come together to live in solitude. But, when established for solitary hermits, these would not be a Rule, only general requirements on what should be included, reflected on, and fleshed out in light of one's own lived experience. In the situation you mentioned (that is, if the one I am aware of is the same one), as I understand it, the Bishop wrote a draft of a Rule and the hermit was able to modify and edit it as she needed to. So long as the Bishop was not, for instance, demanding certain prayer forms (chaplets, the entire Divine Office), a certain frequency of attendance at Mass beyond some realistic standard which honors the needs and obligations of solitude, a fully specified horarium, etc, and so long as these guidelines do not curtail the important discernment the hermit herself is required to do as something inherent to the vocation itself, this could work. Also, as long as the Bishop makes it entirely clear that the hermit should edit and shape this draft in light of her own experience and in light of her own needs it could be acceptable --- though, I continue to think, less adequate than a hermit writing her own Rule.

One Sister with a background in leadership and formation I spoke with about this (and after I made the above comments in the original draft of this post) pointed out that a Bishop might well provide a Rule to a candidate at the beginning of a period of discernment and then, after a period of five years  or so, expect the hermit-candidate to write her own Rule prior to accepting her for admission to profession.  I think it is a VERY good idea. I would add that another revision might well be made before perpetual profession as needed (I believe it often will be). Moreover, I would suggest another Rule be written at the two or three year point rather than the five year point as one approached the possibility of temporary profession. This would allow the diocese a much better sense of the way the vocation is developing, the maturity with which the hermit is making the tradition her own, the degree to which she is living it out in dialogue with parish, universal church, and the contemporary world, the way in which she negotiates both the essential or non-negotiable elements of the life and the need for flexibility, the degree to which this is truly the vocation Canon 603 governs, and the world needs, etc. Not only would such a solution serve the diocese's own discernment in the matter, it would allow the candidate or hermit to educate the diocese (and chancery!!) about what a contemporary eremitical vocation is all about. Finally, it would give the hermit or candidate the needed opportunity to enjoy the formative and (for those truly called to the vocation) the confirming experience writing such a Rule usually is.

Summary of Objections

However, otherwise, no, I absolutely do not think Bishops writing hermits' Rules should become a regular practice (pun definitely intended!!). I dislike it as a precedent at all. Canon 603 is sufficient and hermits have done well by tailoring their own Rules to their lives and stories. This is especially true when Bishops are admitting sufficiently experienced and mature candidates to profession. Again, they have to be aware that not everyone who lives alone is called to eremitical life, and that freedom is one of the hallmarks of mature spirituality and especially mature eremitical spirituality. If someone has not got the experience to fulfill the requirement of c 603 regarding the writing of a Rule (I am emphatically not referring here to the hermit you mentioned by the way), then they are probably not ready for profession either. Further, Bishops, I think, have to be humble enough to admit that they do not really ordinarily understand the vocation sufficiently nor have the expertise to write an eremitical Rule. This would be especially true for Bishops who are not from a religious congregation. Most are canonists and as I have said before, knowing what is allowed (or not prohibited ) canonically is not the same thing as knowing what is vocationally prudent or appropriate, especially for a given individual.

10 September 2012

Contemplative Prayer, a Waste of Time?

Occasionally folks write things meant to provoke reactions rather than solicit actual responses. This is especially true with this blog and with religious listserves. I sometimes think folks do this to deal with their own demons with regard to religion, but sometimes the antagonism is simply too much and those demons are not exorcised. Recently someone wrote the following and in it refers to Thomas Merton's contemplative practice as an inefficient way of merely "clearing one's mind" and a waste of time: [[ Thomas Merton, like other monks, was known to sit perfectly still for over an hour just trying to contemplate or meditate on God. If you try sitting still and not even moving your neck for an hour, you will see it is very hard. Now that I look back on those moments of contemplation, it seems like a waste of his time. Maybe he felt it helped clear his mind, but surely he could have cleared his mind without adopting such a rigid pose. At the bottom line, do we think any person can get closer to God and understand God better from spending hours each week in complete silence waiting to hear something from God?]]

I actually think that the questions implied here are good ones and perhaps I err often here by assuming people know more about contemplative prayer than they do. I know that eremitical life is not understood by most folks but I forget that for many in our world time spent in prayer, especially contemplative prayer, can truly seem like a terrible waste of time. I have several friends who call themselves atheists --- though they differ on the definition of that and (during one conversation we had together) were quite surprised to hear that consistent atheism actually denies the reality of meaning, or that there are some definitions of God they reject which mainline first-rate theologians would also reject as caricatures. What these folks (and the person who wrote about contemplation as he did above) all seem to have in common is a naivete about really basic things --- in this case the purpose and nature of contemplative prayer. My response to these comments would be:

Sitting in silence for an hour is not hard or a waste of time --- no more than sitting silently with a friend for an hour is difficult or a waste of time, that is. The accent is not on not moving, however; it really is not too difficult to sit in a completely relaxed but alert way for an hour. In Christian contemplation small movements occur but the general posture does not change much. Unlike in some forms of Zen sitting, a Christian moves (and is completely free to move) various muscles or muscle groups in order to relieve remaining stress, ease occasional pain, etc. The purpose of sitting in contemplative prayer is not to learn to ignore one's body or experiences of discomfort or pain, but to enable one to listen to what is happening within oneself where God is ALWAYS speaking.

Thus, this kind of sitting is not inflexible or rigid, nor does it foster an insensibility to what one experiences but instead is relaxed and natural, thus fostering attention to one's inner life. It is this relaxed and natural way of sitting that makes it easy to maintain. In my own life and in monasteries where I go on retreat it is natural to sit for an hour in the mornings. At the monastery it is also not uncommon to do a period of "walking meditation" after 40 minutes or so of sitting, and then to resettle in one's original sitting position. This is helpful for guests and also for older Sisters who might need to move a bit. Again, the accent is not on immobility but on presence and prayer.

Neither does one contemplate by spending "hours waiting to hear something from God" --- as though one is expecting a kind of spiritual telegram or as though God is not always speaking, always calling, always acting to reveal himself if only we would learn to listen. Instead one sits in silence and opens one's heart to the reality of God's presence and voice. Whether one hears anything telegram-like, has any striking insights or not, the purpose is to give oneself wholly to God, to allow him the space, time, and freedom to love one and reveal himself in any way whatsoever. One learns to "hear" God in the silence of one's heart --- the place where, by definition, God "bears witness to himself". Such periods, far from being a waste of time, are deeply humanizing. That is certainly what Merton found them to be and what all the monastics and contemplatives I know regularly find.

The capacity to listen and respond is fundamental to human being. The capacity to listen to one's own heart as the fount from which life is continually bubbling up and one's own call or invitation to be is issued moment by moment, is something we all need to develop. As I wrote earlier, the capacity to listen and respond (hearken) in this way is thought to be the most basic dynamic of human life and it is from this capacity that our own capacity to hearken to others comes. To cut oneself off from such hearkening is a symptom of relative inhumanity. As we learn to listen, however, we draw closer to ourselves --- our truest, most original selves --- and to the God who grounds our being (for these two exist as a communion). As we do this, we become more capable of giving ourselves to others, to living from this deep and more original self, and to calling others to do the same.

Our world does not actually foster this kind of deep, humanizing listening. Instead it is all about constant noise, continuous stimuli, repeated escape from introspection, silence, solitude, or the threat of boredom. Our resulting relationships reflect this and the incapacity it fosters. Consider the friends who stand near one another and text each other rather than actually speaking and listening profoundly to one another, or the couples that go out for coffee and then spend time texting other friends who are not there. Consider the homes in which the TV, computer, iPod, stereo, etc are constant accompaniments --- even to family meals or conversations. These are the tip of a very large and destructive iceberg, I think. Contemplatives practice sitting in silence because we are all called more fundamentally to a different and far more profound listening, dialogue, and communion than we are used to considering, much less pursuing.

It is not that contemplatives expect to learn something new about God, or that we expect to hear him speak to us in some divine equivalent of a voice mail or text message --- though occasionally something like that might actually happen; it is that we wish to allow God to take hold of us completely, that we recognize our silence gives him space to create, heal, and recreate us as persons capable of real listening --- and from there, gives him some of the space needed to heal and recreate the entire world. I would say this is hardly a waste of time.

"Ephphatha!": Obedience as the Dynamic of Authentic Humanity (Reprise)

Yesterday's Gospel brought us face to face with who we are called to be, and with the results of the idolatry that occurs whenever we refuse that vocation. Both issues, vocation and true worship are rooted in the Scriptural notion of obedience, that is in the obligation which is our very nature, to hearken --- to listen and respond to God appropriately with our whole selves. When we are empowered to and respond with such obedience our very lives proclaim the Kingdom of God, not as some distant reality we are still merely waiting for, but as something at work in us here and now. In fact, when our lives are marked by this profound dynamic of obedience, today's readings remind us the reign of God cannot be hidden from others --- though its presence will be seen only with the eyes of faith.

In the Gospel, (Mark 7:31-37) A man who is deaf and also has a resultant speech impediment is brought by friends to Jesus; Jesus is begged to heal him. In what is an unusual process for Mark in its crude physicality (or for any of the Gospel writers), Jesus puts his fingers in the man's ears, and then, spitting on his fingers, touches the man's tongue. He looks up to heaven, groans, and says in Aramaic, "ephphatha!" (that is, "Be opened!"). Immediately the man is healed and "speaks plainly." Those who brought him to Jesus are astonished, joyful, and could not contain their need to proclaim Jesus and what he had done: "He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

I am convinced that the deaf and "mute" man (for he is not really mute, but impeded from clear speech by his inability to hear) is a type of each of us, a symbol for the persons we are and for the vocation we are each called to. Theologians speak of human beings as "language events." We are called to be by God, conceived from and an expression of the love of two people for one another, named so that we have the capacity for personal presence in the world and may be personally addressed by others, and we are shaped for good or ill, for wholeness or woundedness, by every word which is addressed to us. Language is the means and symbol of our capacity for relationship and transcendence.

Consider how it is that vocabulary of all sorts opens various worlds to us and makes the whole of the cosmos our own to understand, wonder at, and render more or less articulate; consider how a lack of vocabulary whether affective, theological, scientific, mathematical, psychological, etc, can cripple us and distance us from effectively relating to various dimensions of human life including our own heart. Note, for instance that physicians have found that in any form of mental illness there is a corresponding dimension of difficulty with or dysfunction of language. Consider the very young child's wonderful (and often really annoying!) incessant questioning. There, with every single question and answer, language mediates transcendence (a veritable explosion of transcendence in fact!) and initiates the child further and further into the world of human community, knowledge, understanding, reflection, celebration, and commitment. Language marks us as essentially communal, fundamentally dependent upon others to call us beyond ourselves, essentially temporal AND transcendent, and, by virtue of our being imago dei, responsive and responsible (obedient) at the core of our existence.

One theologian (Gerhard Ebeling), in fact, notes that the most truly human thing about us is our addressiblity and our ability to address others. Addressibility includes and empowers responsiveness; that is, it has both receptive and expressive dimensions. It is the characteristically human form of language which creates community. It marks us as those whose coming to be is dependent upon the dynamic of obedience --- but also on the generosity of those who would address us and give us a place to stand as persons we cannot assume on our own. We spend our lives responsively -- coming (and often struggling) to attend to and embody or express more fully the deepest potentials within us in myriad ways and means.

But a lot can hinder this most foundational vocational accomplishment. Sometimes our own woundedness prevents the achievement of this goal to greater degrees. Sometimes we are not given the tools or education we need to develop this capacity. Sometimes, we are badly or ineffectually loved and rendered relatively deaf and "mute" in the process. Oftentimes we muddle the clarity of that expression through cowardice, ignorance, or even willful disregard. Our hearts, as I have noted here before, are dialogical realities. That is, they are the place where God bears witness to himself, the event marked in a defining way by God's continuing and creative address and our own embodied response. In every way our lives are either an expression of the Word or logos of God which glorifies (him), or they are, to whatever extent, a dishonoring lie and an evasion.

And so, faced with a man who is crippled in so many fundamental ways --- one, that is, for whom the world of community, knowledge, and celebration is largely closed by disability, Jesus prays to God, touches, and addresses the man directly, "Ephphatha!" ---Be thou opened!" It is the essence of what Christians refer to as salvation, the event in which a word of command and power heals the brokennesses which cripple and isolate, and which, by empowering obedience reconciles the man to himself, his God, his people and world. As a result of Jesus' Word, and in response, the man speaks plainly --- for the first time (potentially) transparent to himself and to those who know him; he is more truly a revelatory or language event, authentically human and capable through the grace of God of bringing others to the same humanity through direct response and address.

Our own coming to wholeness, to a full and clear articulation of our truest selves is a communal achievement. Even (or even especially) in the lives of hermits this has always been true insofar as solitude is NOT isolation, but is instead a form of communion marked by profound dependence on the Word of God and lived specifically for the salvation of others. In today's gospel friends bring the man to Jesus, Jesus prays to God before acting to heal him. The presence of friends is another sign not only of the man's nature as made-for-communion and the fact that none of us come to language (or, that is, to the essentially human capacity for responsiveness or obedience) alone, but similarly, of the deaf man's total inability to approach Jesus on his own. At the same time, Jesus takes the man aside and what happens to him in this encounter is thus signalled to be profoundly personal, intimate, and beyond the merely evident. Friends are necessary, but at bottom, the ultimate healing and humanizing encounter can only happen between the deaf man and Christ.

In each of our lives there is deafness and "muteness" or inarticulateness. So many things are unheard by us, fail to touch or resonate in our hearts. So many things call forth embittered and cynical reactions which wound and isolate when what is needed is a response of genuine compassion and welcoming. Similarly, so many things render us speechless: bereavement, illness, ignorance, personal woundedness, etc. As a result we live our commitments half-heartedly, our loves guardedly, our joys tentatively, our pains self-consciously and noisily --- but helplessly and without meaning in ways which do not edify --- and in all these ways therefore, we are less human, less articulate, less the obedient or responsive language event we are called to be.  To each of us, then, and in whatever way or degree we need, Jesus says, "EPHPHATHA!" "Be thou opened!" He sighs in compassion and desire, unites himself with his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, and touches us with his own hands and spittle.

May we each allow ourselves to be brought to Jesus for healing. May we be broken open and rendered responsive and transparent by his powerful Word of command and authority. Especially, may we each become the clear gospel-founded words of joy and hope in a world marked extensively and profoundly by deafness and the helplessness and despair of noisy inarticulateness.

05 September 2012

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS: Democratic National Convention

The responses to Sister Simone's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte have been generally quite favorable. (Actually, the words I have heard are "Terrific", "Magnificent", and "Rocked the convention"! Among Sisters the opinion was, "She did us proud!") I would agree with those assessments. Sister Simone speaks her position clearly, with a passion and compassion that are palpable; she prudently limited her speech to
the Ryan budget and the effect it will have on the poorest of our nation, especially without appropriate implementation of the Health Care bill. Clearly she sees this budget making of the US a country which betrays its own nature and charter rather than a country where we are truly "our sisters' and our brothers' keepers".

Very striking and effective were the people she brought into the convention simply by telling their stories. She did not exploit them. She gave them a voice and a place to stand on the podium. Who, when time comes to vote, could easily ignore the story of Matt and Mark, the 10 year old sole caregivers of a mom with MS and diabetes? Or that of Margaret who died of cancer because her lack of health care insurance didn't allow for proper or timely diagnosis? Nor did Sister Simone allow herself to simply be used by the Democratic party for its political ends. Some, for instance, have condemned Sister Simone's comments because she does not speak out against abortion and they criticize her as being fully aligned with all parts of the Democratic platform. But this is simply mistaken. When the Democratic "handlers" edited her speech and she felt the result was "too political", Sister Simone calmly noted that if these revisions were required they were free to find someone to fill her speaking slot. The Democratic handlers quickly agreed to "revise the revisions."

While Sister Simone did not mention abortion specifically in this speech, she did say that the Nuns on the Bus tour dealt with "a piece of my pro-life stance," thus implying a more extensive stance which she has addressed explicitly at other times. She also recalled the Nuns on the Bus motto: "Faith, Family, Fairness" and spoke often of "our shared faith" as well as referring to the Sisters' agreement with the Bishops on the immorality of the Ryan Budget.

Given the constraints of her situation I am even more impressed than I was earlier by Simone's capacity to hold a genuinely Catholic position, to speak for policy which supports Gospel values, and to eschew simplistically or blindly supporting a particular candidate or party platform. (She is very good at getting people to embrace her position instead!!) This is especially true in the face of movements to excise God and faith from the discussion. Way to go, Sister Simone!

04 September 2012

Followup: Cloistered Nuns Becoming Diocesan Hermits?

Hi Sister Laurel, you answered a question a month or so ago about diocesan hermits becoming cloistered nuns. I wondered a couple of things because of that.

First, can a cloistered nun become a diocesan hermit and what is the process for this? (I am thinking about someone who must leave for health reasons.) Second, why would a hermit who was happy with her vocation and sure of it think about becoming a cloistered nun? Or do you think she would need to be unhappy in it and unsure of it? How common is it for diocesan hermits to find they are not really called to what you have referred to as "solitary eremitical life"?

Can a Cloistered Nun become a Diocesan Hermit?

Thanks for several really great questions. The details of the answer I gave back in July are essentially the same for someone going the opposite direction (i.e., from cloister to canon 603). Yes, it is possible for a cloistered nun to become a diocesan hermit, but it is still a different vocation and must be discerned on its own. One cannot simply "transfer" one's vows (there is no where to transfer them to for one thing) and shift from cloistered nun to diocesan hermit. Instead, one needs to obtain an indult of exclaustration for the purposes of discerning the eremitical vocation and then begin living as a solitary hermit. Beyond this, one will also need eventually to leave one's congregation (via an indult of departure, for instance) and begin taking on the obligations of all lay or diocesan hermits: self-support, solitary life apart from a monastery or monastery property, relationships with local parish, the diocesan Bishop, etc. I think you can see this would all take several years (In the situation you are describing I am envisioning not less than five years before admission to perpetual profession as a diocesan hermit --- if indeed this even occurs).

Even after one has taken all these steps one (or one's diocese) may find they are not called to be a diocesan hermit. As I noted earlier, despite the silence and solitude and other similarities between these two vocations, they remain different vocations and because one is not called to one does not automatically mean one is called to the other. For instance, let's say, as you envision, someone has to leave the monastery for reasons of health. The resistance to leaving and the desire to continue living their vows, etc will be very strong and understandable. However, this does not mean the person is necessarily called to profession and consecration under c 603. There needs to be a significant period of discernment here simply because one needs to come to terms with what has happened to one in terms of one's health, loss of vocational path, loss of community, etc.(Something similar happens to the bereaved who need time to come to terms with who they are apart from their marriage, etc. Discernment of vocation does not happen in the throes of such significant changes. Time and healing are required.)

Further, these are not the only reasons for a required period of discernment so the entire thing can take some time! After all, canon 603 describes a unique and significant vocation; it is, as I have said many times here, NOT a stopgap for those who cannot be professed any other way, nor an automatic option for those who must leave their monasteries or religious life for some reason. In fact, while it might seem that a nun leaving her monastery for health reasons should naturally consider c 603, my own thought (rooted in my own experience) is that such a situation requires greater care and caution, and in fact means a more complicated and lengthy discernment process than, for instance, the situation where a nun requests exclaustration because she more naturally feels the need for greater solitude.

For a nun leaving her monastery, apart from exclaustration and dispensation of vows, the process regarding canon 603 itself is essentially the same as for anyone else requesting admission to profession under canon 603: 1) a period of living as a lay hermit (or as a religious hermit on leave from her congregation until she receives an indult of departure) to establish herself outside the monastery and discern the general nature of her call as well as more specific considerations (should she live eremitical life as lay vs consecrated, laura-based or solitary eremitical life, should she be considering and investigating instead possible re-entry into or transfer to another monastery or community? --- some will accept certain health problems where others might not, for instance), etc; 2) a period of mutual discernment with the diocese during which time she will probably write a Rule of Life based on her own lived experience of the life; 3) a period of temporary profession as a solitary hermit, and if all goes well, 4) perpetual profession.

While some think the process of learning to live the vows will be considerably shortened or unnecessary for such a person, even the ways the vows themselves are lived is different for a solitary hermit than for a cenobitical monastic, so the person will have to learn to understand, interpret, and live these despite already having a background in the vows. Again, as you can see, this process is not a quick or automatic one. By the way, the process of discernment and preparation for eremitical vows may be shorter for someone who has learned in the monastery that they require greater solitude and who has specifically requested exclaustration for this reason, but again, the discernment of an eremitical vocation under canon 603 will require some time and all of the considerations involved above.

Hermits becoming Cloistered Nuns:

Why would a hermit choose to become a cloistered nun? I think there are several reasons, all having to do with community and protection of solitude --- especially, in some instances, as one grows older. As I have said many times, hermits are not anti-social, nor are they misanthropes or individualists. Communion is at the heart of the vocation, primarily with God, but also with the Church and whomever God cherishes. Sometimes the need for community simply becomes more explicit or concrete. This could be because the hermit requires more liturgical prayer in common, communal celebration of the Divine Office, greater access to the celebration of the Eucharist. It could be because in order to grow more fully she finds she needs to be able to share regularly about solitude and life with God with others pursuing the goal and living the same adventure --- though in a different context. It could be because one sees that old-age can make the difficulties of supporting oneself while living a solitary life of prayer and penance VERY acute and chooses a mitigated solitude to protect the integrity of a solitary vocation to prayer as best one can --- perhaps in a semi-eremitical context. Illness could well be a similar factor a diocesan hermit would need to accommodate in later years. These are some of the reasons I can think of.

Added to these are the considerations and serious discernment that must take place when a significant change of circumstances occurs. A well person may become chronically ill, but also, a chronically ill person may be healed and determine she is called on to share her life in and with the church in new ways. Let me underscore that the discernment required in such cases is significant and serious. So, actually, I don't think that uncertainty about or unhappiness with one's eremitical vocation are the only reasons to consider something like moving to a monastery. For some, such a move would be a real sacrifice. But we all have various gifts (and deficiencies) which require different soils in which one may grow or heal fully. We are not obliged to develop all of these in the same way or to the same degree, but we are called to discern on an ongoing basis how best to do what seems God's will.

How Common is it to find one is NOT called to solitary eremitical life?

I can't say with any specificity (I have no numbers) but I can say confidently that it is far more common for people to find they are not called to it than to find they are. Again, it is critically important that those who imagine or aspire to solitary eremitical life understand this is not simply about living a relatively pious life alone. It is not a way of generally justifying situations or conditions which cause one to be alone. It is instead a desert vocation with all that entails (cf posts on desert dwellers). And yet, few people understand the distinction --- including some Bishops! By far, the vast majority of people who are not admitted to formal discernment, to temporary profession, or do not persevere to perpetual profession, are those who have not understood this basic distinction nor made the essential transition from living alone, to living alone with God for others! Similarly, it is one thing to live alone with God and another thing entirely to say with one's life that God alone is enough. This after all, is the statement a hermit is called to make with her life.

With regard to those who have been perpetually professed and lived as canon 603 hermits for some time, I think it is rather rare for them to discover they are not called to this. I have heard of a couple of people who left their dioceses and hermitages and moved into community with others (or who moved back and forth), but these folks also wanted from the beginning to establish a laura or community of hermits. (By the way, this is another reason Bishops and candidates need to be very clear the person is not requesting or accepting profession under canon 603 as a way to a different vocation or as a consolation prize for something else they cannot have. Such vocations are not edifying and they create precedents which mislead others and are otherwise confusing or sometimes even scandalous.) Some few, however, do move to monastery grounds as long-term rent-paying guests and, as diocesan hermits, manage to contribute significantly to the life of the community while garnering some elements required for the stable living of solitude which were not present for them when they were living in a local parish. Still, in all of these cases, the numbers, even relatively, are quite small and the reasons for doing so must be significant.

02 September 2012

Fifth Anniversary of Perpetual Eremitical Consecration

Today is the fifth anniversary of my perpetual eremitical profession/consecration (though I have lived religious life for 37+ years.) Five years ago I belonged to my parish, of course, and people knew me and celebrated with me. Today, however, they are my family --- part of the very fabric of my life --- and this weekend many of us celebrated not only my birthday (yesterday) but the past five years and the journey we have made together (Friday and today). I feel so greatly blessed it is almost overwhelming --- an embarrassment of riches --- as I told Marietta today.

Thus, five years ago at the reception following my consecration my pastor quoted e e cummings:

I thank you God for most this amazing
day, for the leaping greenly spirit of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any --- lifted from the no
of all nothing --- human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

It was hard to believe the joy of that day might be eclipsed by greater joy or the life it marked could grow even broader and deeper (though I hoped!!). But that is the truth of things. I thank God for most this amazing day and for all those who today are such an integral part of its deepest meaning. Some of this is echoed in the slide show from five years ago. The eyes of my eyes continue to open, the ears of my ears continue to be awakened. That is the promise of the Kingdom!