25 April 2012

The Conversion of Paul: Model for us All

Friday's reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us of the conversion of Paul. There is no doubt this is one of the most important events in the history of the Church and certainly one of the most dramatic. Luke tells us of this event three times in this single work so it is hard to overestimate its importance. A couple of things in particular strike me about this reading this time around.

The first, and the one I will focus on in this blog post, is how radical the changes needed to be in Paul's life to really do justice to his experience of the risen Christ whom he had been persecuting, but also how conservative in the very best sense that experience also was. Tom Wright describes this dual dynamic or dialectic when he says, [[ But this seeing . . .confirmed everything Saul had been taught; it overturned everything he had been taught. The law and the prophets had come true; the law and the prophets had been torn to pieces and put back together in a totally new way. It was a new world; it was the old world made explicit. . . .it showed him that the God he had been right to serve, right to study, right to seek in prayer, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had done what he always said he would, but done it in a shocking, scandalous, horrifying way. The God who had promised to come and rescue his people had done so in person. In the person of Jesus.]]

So often I am emailed by people who would like to be hermits or who, similarly, would like to put up a sign calling their home "____ hermitage" so people "realize this is not a normal home any more," but who have not made the necessary transition to an essentially eremitical life. As I have noted before, they may or may not live alone, but they add in a little prayer, a bit of silence, a little lectio, and then continue living essentially the same lives they have always lived --- just tweaked a bit. After a day's work outside the hermitage they refer to their time at home alone in the evenings as "their eremitical time" and wonder why I or others -- including their chancery personnel -- reject the idea that they are yet really hermits.

Many people live the same kind of "Christian" lives. Their spirituality is compartmentalized and in the main their lives are untouched by the reality of the risen Christ. They pray and worship on Sundays, they say grace before meals, and perhaps before bed or on arising, but on the whole, their lives are mainly unchanged and perhaps untouched by the completely world shaking reality of the risen Christ. Sometimes we have the sense that elements of the institutional church suffer in somewhat the same way. Parts of their lives, parts of their interpretation of the Tradition they rightly hold precious have not been touched by an experience of the risen Christ and the result is an unfortunate compartmentalization in their approach to reality and a narrowness of vision with all that entails. But given the example we have from St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, this will not do --- not for anyone claiming the name "Christian".

Following his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul took the next few years, withdrew to a desert region, and began completely reframing the tradition he deeply loved in light of his experience of the risen Christ. He completed this reframing as he engaged each of the churches he founded or preached to in their own unique pastoral circumstances and with regard to their own unique problems. In other words, an experience of world-shattering revelation through prayer, reflection, and genuinely pastoral presence and ministry became an experience of radical conversion. It was, in some ways what happens when a vat of dough is affected by yeast. No part of the dough is or can be left untouched. Similarly it is rather like what happens when one puts a picture together from all the puzzle pieces one has at hand --- but finds some have been left out. Each time a new piece is discovered and added the picture must be reformed and the place of each and all the pieces must be adjusted and reconsidered. (This is especially true with puzzles whose pieces are all the same shape and can be combined in a myriad of ways --- each of these creating a different picture as a whole.)

In such a process none of the older pieces are rendered obsolete or superfluous, but neither can they be seen any longer in their old light or from an older perspective. When one meets the risen Christ, all of the old pieces of the Tradition must be regarded from this new perspective and for Paul that required a rethinking of issues like Law, the nature of resurrection specifically and salvation more generally, the relation of Israel and the Church, Creation and Covenant and what God is attempting to effect by these, the nature of election and who God has called to this and why, the relationship of evil and grace and how ministry is truly effected --- whether by separation and ritual purity or immersion and a holiness which is contagious, the nature of the Messiah, and so forth. In other words, the old doctrinal statements and understandings are not simply swept aside as unimportant, but neither are they left unaffected nor can they be treated adequately apart from the charismatic experience of the risen Christ. Neither are the changes called for merely cosmetic then; they are radical --- reaching right to the roots. We are not merely to be thrown from whatever hobby-horse we have been riding for so long --- no matter how worthwhile. Instead there must also be a soul-deep healing or reconciliation, a bone-deep re-envisioning of all the old certainties after an experience of dazzling illumination or revelation. We, our faith, and lives which reflect and incarnate that faith must be wholly remade from the roots. Nothing else will do.

In the CDF's latest intervention with the LCWR one of the things we are seeing, I believe, is a reenactment or reprise of the clash we saw between the Pharisees and the Apostles, as well as between Paul and the nascent church of Christ. What I sincerely hope we will also see is the kind of integration Paul undertook in his own life --- the integration of this new and definitive picture piece which Paul recognized as the face of Christ with the less definitive (though critical) Tradition he loved passionately, ardently lived for, studied assiduously, and acted with integrity to hand on and protect. The majority of ministerial women religious, I sincerely believe, are in touch with the profoundly charismatic, prophetic, and even apocalyptic element represented by an experience of the risen Christ and are sincerely trying to hold that together with the Tradition the institutional or hierarchical church has handed on/entrusted to them. Some, relatively few, have failed in that or given up on the struggle to maintain this tension, but most have not and will not do so. Like Paul, they have spent years of their lives reappropriating the Tradition from the perspective of the Gospel of Jesus and their life-changing and incontrovertible experience of the risen Christ. Meanwhile, the CDF and college of Bishops are coming at the struggle from the other direction. While working hard to hand on the Tradition as they received it, they also seem to expect the Tradition to remain untouched and essentially unchanged by an encounter with the risen Christ. But ultimately this cannot be either any more than dough can be unaffected by yeast or a picture can accommodate a new and defining piece without everything being adjusted and seen in a new light.

Working out the dynamics of this clash will be terribly demanding on all involved, but it models for the whole church a dynamic which must be part of our own lives, no matter which side of the clash we initially find ourselves on. Paul is the Apostle we must look to here, the one with the courage to change everything without losing anything, the one whose experience of the scandalously crucified and risen Christ shaped entirely the way he would honor and represent the Tradition handed onto him, the one who refused to compartmentalize his faith and experience but instead allowed everything to become a new creation in Christ. The simple fact is that should our church fail in this it will cease to truly be the Church Christ called into being. Like Paul's own conversion, the RADICAL integration of our EXPERIENCE of the risen Christ at this point in time with the Tradition and with the concrete needs and yearnings of our time --- or our failure to do so --- will be one of the most significant events in the history of the church. We will either return to largely being the religion/institution of the Pharisees or become the gospel reality,, the Kingdom Jesus meant us and our world to be. Every group must play a part; none is unimportant or can be allowed to remain voiceless (much less be silenced!!) or the Gospel of Jesus Christ will fail to be proclaimed and the coming of the Kingdom which is the thoroughgoing interpenetration of heaven and earth will be hampered yet again.

19 April 2012

CDF, LCWR, and the Gamaliel Principle

Sometimes Scripture texts seem so straightforward we don't give them a lot of thought. The insight they convey seems routine, hardly worth making a big deal over. "If it is of God, it will persist; if it is of human origin it will not," is one of these. Abstract, apparently not very compelling, hardly demanding in what it asks of us, or providing much hope really. Just, it seems, a theological conclusion we can agree with (or not) and move on from.

Unless of course you find yourself threatened with death by the traditional religious leadership while you proclaim what you understand to be the good news of God's ultimate act of vindication, justice, and mercy as the Apostles in Friday's first lection. Unless you find yourself being asked to back off, to have a little humility, and let God be the judge as the Pharisees have been asked by Gamaliel. Unless, of course, you are freshly faced with a risen Christ who suffered and died a godless death at the hands of the established religious and civil powers so that nothing whatsoever would stand in the way of the love of God. Unless, for instance, you are confronted with a portrait of tens of 1000's of lives of patient discernment, faithful sacrifice, and persistent trust in God which extends over decades and decades and which demonstrates that when something is of God it will indeed not only persist but produce immeasurable fruit as grain pressed down, shaken together and running over.

This week the incredible demands and promises of this "Gamaliel principle" were brought home to me in ways I could not have imagined a week and a half ago. Two events in particular did this. First, there was the exhibit sponsored by the LCWR, Women and Spirit, which gives a good sense of the place of women religious in the history of the United States. Here before Catholicism was established, here before there was even statehood, Sisters came to minister. Sailing in twos and threes and fours, habited and landing in swampy, humid, mosquito-ridden land, they came. Prepared originally to teach, they nursed instead; prepared to nurse they set up orphanages; always they adapted and responded to the Spirit. Seeking simply to serve they taught, nursed, invented, built, advocated for the poorest and neediest, comforted, explored, researched, etc etc. They did not fit in neat boxes --- not in terms of the country they came to, nor (though always faithful to their vows) in terms of the ways Bishops and the institutional church expected them to live their lives. ALWAYS they shattered boundaries and constraints with their service to the Gospel.

Did you Know???

Did you know, for instance that it was a nun who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous and was the first ever to admit alcoholics to hospital or treat the problem as a disease? Were you aware that a nun invented a low cost incubator which was effective for premature neonates and was affordable to every doctor, clinic, or hospital? Did you know that the Mayo clinic owes its existence to the foresight and advocacy of a nun? She enlisted the Mayo brothers and promised to build a needed hospital if they would serve as doctors. They promised and she carried through as well. Were you aware that it was Sisters from a variety of congregations or communities that served as Civil War nurses without regard for the side the wounded were on? Did you know that Sisters have been a central presence in every epidemic the US has had, nursing, doctoring, etc, without regard for the danger to their lives? Were you aware that it was Catholic Sisters that provided the first insurance coverage for loggers or who opened the still-extant NY Foundling Asylum with $5 and an empty building?

And of course, it was religious Sisters who built the Catholic school system -- initially in response to anti-Catholicism, or who personally corresponded with Jefferson to ensure religious freedom when it was hardly accepted and seriously threatened. (Jefferson responded with a promise to do all in his power to ensure such freedom.) Sisters routinely circuit rode, acted as architects, carpenters, and construction workers. (One Sister regularly treated those needing medical care in the Territory of New Mexico and was known for the quality of the care she gave. Despite never having been to medical school she was granted a medical license!) Sisters adapted their garb, and their schedules as necessary to pursue their various missions --- and remained vowed women of prayer at the same time. Later, Sisters became attorneys, surgeons, social workers, policy makers, scientists (did you know a seminal figure in the history of the understanding of DNA was a nun?), etc. These are some of the things I remember off the top of my head. At every point in US history Sisters were present adapting from medieval patterns of enclosed life and the narrower expectations of the hierarchy in order to respond to the Holy Spirit and the needs of people --- to serve an agenda of LIFE in its broadest sense as Christians have always been called to serve.

I was aware of some of these things, but not all, and the simple fact is that at every turn I was surprised by something more Sisters had done with few resources except their faith, courage, and a sense that they were called to serve in the power of the Holy Spirit. They begged, borrowed, and above all went where there was need. They grew the Church and brought her precisely where Jesus said she was to be --- to the least of the least, the sick, those without hope, those requiring comfort and hungry for justice. The exhibit was astounding and tremendously inspiring. I was both completely blown away by it and grateful to God for these women, for the legacy they have created and continue to create, and terribly humbled by my own very small place in this history. This Friday's reading from Acts could not have been more compelling in light of the huge task and danger facing the apostles entrusted with their new message of Jesus' resurrection: if it is of God it will persist and be fruitful beyond all imagining. But of course, living in this way takes imagination, creativity, courage, persistence, intelligence, and faith. It takes a willingness to discern God's will and follow it wherever it summons us. It takes a willingness to risk everything for a conclusion or harvest one might never see. And that was what I saw celebrated in this exhibit. Women and Spirit --- an ultimately indomitable combination.

The CDF "doctrinal assessment of the LCWR"

And then on Wednesday, the CDF published its "Doctrinal Assessment" of the LCWR. If the Women and Spirit exhibit spoke of the reality of Easter and focused my mind and heart on the truth of the first part of Gamaliel's Principle, this focused me on the danger the first Apostles found themselves in. Acting in good conscience, acting to proclaim the gospel but prohibited from doing so, prohibited from acting "in the name of Jesus, " and threatened with execution. It also, of course, brought out clearly Gamaliel's intervention:"Leave these men alone! . . .if what they are doing is of man, then it will not last. You may even find that you are fighting against God!"

Gamaliel was not counselling to passivity and abdication of the Pharisees' appropriate place in overseeing the law and life of Israel, but rather to discernment and humility. Neither was he giving the Apostles a free pass to do or teach anything they wanted, but an opportunity to demonstrate whether what they were doing and teaching was of God or not. With regard to both groups Gamaliel saw clearly I think, that God is always larger than we conceive, and routinely acts in surprising and countercultural ways. He interpreted the law according to the principle, "If it is not prohibited, then it is permitted." where a large number of the pharisees he was engaging approached life from the interpretive principle, "If it is not mentioned in the law, then it is prohibited." His approach was prudent and charitable and trusted both God and human freedom, whereas the Shammaite pharisee's approach was narrow, fearful, and controlling --- leaving little scope for the Holy Spirit or the imagination or creativity required by the Apostles of the Risen Christ.

This is only the third week of the Easter season, and we are trying to get our heads and hearts freshly around the truth Gamaliel reminds us of: God indeed will ultimately win out --- but he also must be given room to work freely. Meanwhile as Jesus himself taught his disciples, it may also be the case that the "Evil One" has sown some weeds in with the wheat, but even if this is the case we cannot precipitously tear at the weeds because we will uproot the wheat as well. It takes humility to recognize that only God can adequately judge and resolve such complex situations, and wisdom to accede to Gamaliel's demands. My prayer is that the CDF and those representing them in this entire affair recognize the wisdom and profoundly Christian nature of the Gamaliel principle (it is a theological and pastoral imperative, nothing less), while the LCWR courageously and faithfully participate in what, despite current evidence to the contrary, has been publicly purported by the CDF to represent a "collaborative process." In some ways there could not be more at stake for the Church as a whole.

18 April 2012

On Calling oneself and striving to be "Nothing"


[[Sister Laurel, I have been reading a hermit who calls and refers to him/herself as "nothing" and who strives more and more to be nothing. This makes the writing sort of hard to read and confusing because sometimes she/he is speaking of him/herself and sometimes referring to the lack of something, but I wondered about how valid such an approach to spirituality is. Should I be striving to be nothing, to lose myself completely if I want to be a hermit? If this is essential I am not sure how to even begin. Can you help me?]]


First, I would recommend you speak to your spiritual director about all of this and get his or her perspective on it. However, I can offer you my own view of such an approach. It is, in my estimation not the most effective approach to spiritual growth and can be seriously counterproductive. It seems to me that it is far better to work to become God's own in everything we do and are rather than to become "nothing." It is a fact that apart from God we are nothing at all anyway. And yet with God and in light of God's adoptive love, we take on very significant and precious identities which should not be minimized even as they challenge us to more. The task set before us by God is, with God's grace, to become fully human in covenant with Him, and therefore fully God's own; I think that keeping this uppermost in mind and in our hearts is far and away a better approach.

One of the problems I have with referring to oneself as "nothing" then,
especially if one is a Christian, is that it is simply not true. We are adopted daughters and sons of God, heirs to God's kingdom and those who are charged with allowing it to come definitively. We are a new creation, made new in Christ and so, partial answers (or, perhaps better put, privileged witnesses to God's answer) to the world's domination by sin and death and to that same world's greatest hungers and yearnings. We are light and hope to that world and a sign of its greatest potential. So, while apart from God we are and can do nothing, as baptized heirs of God we are far from that. Humility, remember, is a form of loving truthfulness, not a form of denigration or self-loathing based on a partial and distorting datum --- no matter how subtle those are.

A second problem I have with referring to oneself as "nothing" then has to do with the fact that doing so cripples us and focuses our attentions and energies on deficiency rather than on potential and giftedness. Our world is not served in this way, nor, I think, does it help us to marshal the energy and talents necessary to serve the world by focusing on our complete inadequacy or deficiency. This is especially true in a world where people suffer either from a lack of self-esteem on one end of the spectrum or narcissism on the other. Reflecting the identity which is wholly a gift of God and the deepest truth of who we are empowers us to avoid either of these extremes and will assist us to empower others to do the same. I personally find nothing inspiring in a way of identifying oneself which views oneself in such negative terms and calls others to adopt the same mindset. There is nothing which says "Good news" to me in this.

A third problem then is that because such an approach focuses us away from who and what we are in light of God, it also turns our focus away from God's own grace and "valuation" of us, and therefore away from an attitude of gratitude which is the very heart of Christian existence and prayer. If the summit of Catholic Sacramental life is the Eucharist (thanksgiving), then the summit of spiritual life is a correlative gratitude for God, his creation, and all he has done for and with us. Naming and referring to ourselves publicly as "nothing" is certainly not this. I would argue that neither is it truly humble; it misses the fact that true humility is a form of loving honesty about who we are in God. True humility recognizes both our poverty and our giftedness but it is grounded (humus) in the grace and love of God.

You asked if you should be seeking to lose yourself completely. The answer is no. While this MAY be good Buddhism (and I am not even sure this is the case), etc, it is not good Christianity. Christian monastic life recognizes the ambiguity of human life this side of death and thus speaks of a true and a false self. We are indeed called upon to find ways to enhance the true self through the grace of God, and to allow the false self to be stripped away or, where possible, to be made true by God's love, but this is not the same as losing oneself completely. Instead it is what the scriptures refer to as finding oneself and coming to abundant life in Christ. Again, my own approach to living an eremitical life involves living so that I am wholly God's own, not so that I am nothing at all. It is a challenging task which definitely involves the stripping away of distortions, falseness, darkness, sin and death, but all of this is the means to an end --- that is, to a selfhood which witnesses to God's great goodness and is of almost infinite worth to God and to the world he seeks to bring to fullness. In worldly terms I am not much, but in terms of God's own call I am much much more than "nothing." So are we all called to be.

I hope this is helpful, but again, speak to your own director to help augment this perspective with references to saints who have adopted the language of "nothingness" and the historical circumstances and approaches to spirituality which promoted such. I think you will find they never thought of themselves as merely "nothing" and did not allow such language to wholly overshadow their sense of self, especially in terms of their giftedness in God and value to him.

15 April 2012

Divine Mercy, Must it be balanced with Divine Justice?


[[Dear Sister, doesn't God's mercy have to be balanced by his justice? I hear you speaking of mercy as justice and that seems to me to be incomplete and kind of irresponsible. Can God just forgive us all we have ever done without serious consequences? Are you saying there is no hell? That no one ever commits a mortal sin?]]


Thank you for the questions. They are good and I am sure a number of people reading recent posts here are asking similar ones. To be clearer (I hope) --- HUMAN mercy and justice require the balance provided one by the other. On the other hand DIVINE mercy DOES justice. DIVINE justice IS mercy. Where God loves, mercy and justice are both done simultaneously because God is one. Human beings are broken, divided, ambiguous, or sinful. The result for us is a mercy that is not as effective as God's, a justice which is not as loving or creative, and a love which is also not as powerful or reality-changing as God's own love is. Our own human justice tends towards distributive or retributive justice, meaning we give everyone what we judge they deserve according to law, but not sufficiently towards setting reality to rights in terms of the Gospel which transcends and is the goal and end (telos) of law. God's justice is what happens when love (God's own self) triumphs and brings everything to perfection or fullness of being. Our own justice falls far short of that and so it must be balanced with mercy, love, equity, and other things which themselves must be completed or balanced with other elements because in human terms these are all much more partial and less effective than God's justice.

Consider that God is love-in-act and love-in-act is creative. When God loves, God does justice. He sets things right --- he recreates them as he wills them to be. When God does justice he sets people free, he makes freedom real. When God makes us free or creates human freedom, God is forgiving and merciful, freeing us from the bondage of sin and death and reconciling us to ourselves, others and to himself. This involves a yes to us and a no to the powers of sin and death --- as well as to our complicity with these. Love-in-act (God) does all of these things at once. They are really a single thing in God though we, in part due to our own brokenness and limitations may use different words to refer to these depending upon how we experience them. Thus God does not have to balance mercy with justice, nor vice versa. His love, which we can never deserve, is merciful, it does justice and thus changes the whole of reality in the process.

Can God just forgive us without serious consequences? Maybe a better way to ask this is can we simply sin without serious consequences? The answer is no. The choices we make have very serious consequences both personally and for our larger society and world. It would be hard to point to one segment of human life where the consequences of human sin are not prevalent. At the same time they have very serious consequences for God and are costly in the extreme. This is the message of the cross --- the story of what is demanded for God to deal effectively with sin and death, to bring them "under his feet" --- so that God might one day be All in all and bring everything to the perfection he wills. We most often see Jesus' Passion as a merciful act, but we must also be very clear that this is God doing justice, God setting things to rights, God paying the ultimate price of an eternal and inexhaustible love for his creation, God accomplishing his will and reconciling all things to himself, God emptying himself of divine prerogatives precisely so sin and death may not have the last word.

Am I saying there is no hell? No, I am not saying that, but I am saying that hell is transformed with God's presence. It is no longer godforsaken space, though it is that space or dimension of reality where God, despite his immediate presence is ultimately forsaken by human beings. I admit that I cannot personally imagine a person facing Love-itself at the moment of death and rejecting it definitively, that is, for all eternity, but it certainly seems the possibility must exist for human beings to also be able to choose Love freely. And what about mortal sin? I do not personally accept that any single choice I make during this life, no matter how serious, can cut me off from God's love in an ultimate way. So long as we are this side of death, God can bring us to repentance and works to do so. I do believe that during our lives we make patterns of choices to accept or reject the love of God and thus either create the persons we are called to be or reject and betray this basic vocational task .

These choices are serious and can enlarge us as persons or whittle us down and hollow us out leaving us less and less capable of love, compassion, truth-telling and being, and all things truly human. They are death-dealing or life-giving depending upon whether they are rejections of, responsive to, or close or open us to divine grace. Such choices thus prepare us for the final and definitive choice we are faced with in death. At the same time I thus believe that at the moment of death we each meet God face to face and are called to make a final or definitive choice for or against God which ratifies for all eternity the choices we have made throughout our lives and the persons we have become in one way or the other. It is this last choice, part of the very event of death, which could be a truly mortal, unforgivable, and eternal sin --- a decision for hell.

I do, therefore, believe that everyone commits serious sin and that some make such sin more or less a way of life. I also have noted that such sin is death-dealing, and in this sense it is "mortal" but this is different than suggesting such sins actually and individually cut us off completely from the life of God. After all, God is the ground and source of our very being; he is partly constitutive of us even while he transcends us and is distinct from us. Thus I prefer to speak of grave or serious and less grave or serious sins rather than mortal and venial sins. But I would speak of the final or definitive choices we make to reject God as "mortal" because even in hell we continue to exist though in some less-than-human, less-than-truly-alive sense.

I hope this is helpful.

09 April 2012

Followup to Jesus' Descent into Hell: How Love does Justice


[[Dear Sister,
how does your essay on the descent into hell take seriously the reality of sin and death? There are so many notions of Jesus' death which seem to say that what human beings do are of little consequence and which forget that the Gospels speak of God's wrath as much as they speak of God's love. Doesn't your version of things fall into this camp of contemporary theology that fails to do justice to God's justice?]]

Thanks very much for the questions. Remember that the essay I posted (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Jesus' Descent into Hell) was an attempt to state the heart of the matter in a single page. For that reason some aspects of it had to be cut out. (Indeed, had I been writing an article of a dozen pages much would have been inadequately covered or never mentioned!) For instance, in the first paragraph I had to edit out a reference to the fact that while God says an emphatic NO to sin, death, and all that are obstacles to his love, he always says a resounding YES to the sinners themselves. Similarly I had to cut out any explanations of God's wrath as a function of his love, not as something in opposition to or in competition with it. I believe your questions are answered by recalling what it means for God to say NO to sin and death, to all that is ungodly and that allies with death and godlessness. In reflecting on that NO we come face to face with the wrath of God. At the same time it is a no, it is a wrath which is dependent on as well as an expression of the very love I wrote about in the essay already posted on the descent into hell.

God's NO is a costly one, but in the main, it is costly for God. It demands a self-emptying which takes him into the depths of inhumanity and death, into the very abyss of godlessness created by human choices to live and therefore to die without Love itself. It demands a subjection to the very powers of sin and death precisely so that they might be given exhaustive play in this event and, in the process, be encompassed and transformed by Love itself. It is no small thing for God to say a final NO to sin and death. It costs Jesus the quite literal suffering of the damned, not to mention the torture of the very worst that human beings could do to him to strip him of his humanity and reduce him to nothingness. We have difficulty with this in part because the costliness is assumed by God. Our own notions of justice would like it to be costly in an ultimate way to us instead. But in this version of the atonement, the entire cost of doing justice (having mercy!) is borne by God himself. The consequences of our own sinfulness are both real, serious, and painful --- but the largest share in the consequences of our sin is taken on by God.

Perhaps we would also be more comfortable if God were simply to destroy sin and death by fiat, but in bringing even the realms or dimensions of godlessness and anti-life into subjection to Godself hasn't God done something even more wondrous? Our own notions of God destroying by fiat almost always involve God simply obliterating whatever is tainted by sin or death (and this includes human freedom if not human life itself). But here, in the events of Jesus' passion (which includes his descent into hell), we have a very unique act of harvesting, an ultimate teasing apart of the wheat from the chaff --- something we are told only God can do without destroying the wheat. Here God says a powerful, effective, and transforming NO to anything which opposes him in order to say a transfiguring YES to those in bondage to these powers --- those persons whom he loves with an everlasting love. Here, he does it from WITHIN the very realities of sin and godless death in a way which effectively destroys them while rescuing those subject to them. (This is the process echoed in icons such as the "harrowing of hell" or in the scant Scriptural texts which refer to Jesus proclaiming the gospel to the dead in sheol or hades.) We are speaking not so much of rescue from a physical place with such language (though I believe there are meaningful ways of this being so) as the teasing apart and harvesting of the living and true from the powers of sin and death. As a result, those who are baptized into Christ's death become a "new creation" --- literally a creation for whom death is abolished and has no real power any longer.

God's love without his wrath is meaningless or empty in the face of the realities of sin and death. Real love must take these with absolute seriousness --- and it must overcome them. On the other hand, God's wrath as a competitor to his love is a destructive and blasphemous reality because it makes of God an image of an alienated, broken, and divided humanity rather than its creator who summons it to and effects a unity and communion which transcends such estrangement. The only solution, or perhaps better said, the divine solution is the paradoxical one where wrath is exercised in a way which allows love to have the final word --- where, that is, wrath and love are expressed in a single act which says NO to sin while saying YES to the sinner, and where God's mercy for the sinner effects a cosmic justice which sets all things right. We might think of this as a single merciful command, LET THERE BE LIFE which is at once a NO to sin and death and a YES to those who require redemption from these.


In the essay I posted on Jesus' descent into hell (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Jesus' Descent into Hell) I said that "God asserts his sovereignty (i.e., God's Lordship) precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world." In other words, our God does divine justice (sets all things to right) precisely in having mercy on us; this is because genuine mercy will always mean the effective condemnation of anything which separates us from the Life and Love we are made for and which is God's own will.

I hope this, brief though it also is, is of some assistance to you.

08 April 2012

The Death of Death: Jesus' triumph over Godless death (Reprise)

What is it we celebrate today in proclaiming CHRIST IS RISEN, INDEED HE IS RISEN!!? In particular, what does it mean to say that Jesus has conquered death? Isn't death still with us? What has changed? A couple of people have written about the article I posted last week and asked for some clarifications. Since the explanatory notes that accompanied the original article in Review For Religious did not translate into the blog entry it is more than likely the article left readers in general with questions and the need for clariifcations. I will try to answer or address them here as they are raised in email.

As I noted in that earlier post (A Theology of the Cross), in the Scriptures death has two meanings. There is the normal kind of perishing, the kind of perishing our pets do, the kind of perishing which is completely natural and untainted by sin. Presumably it is the kind of dying which is, for us, a natural transition to eternal life, the kind of death Mary suffered prior to her assumption, and the kind of death we might have known had sin never been introduced into our world. But there is also a second kind of death, the kind which we humans beings know and fear because it is unnatural, sinful, and therefore, by definition, Godless. It is a more characteristically PERSONAL reality created by human sin. It is also a power at work in the world, but twisted, distorted and made malignant through sin. For this reason it is variously described as sinful death, godless death, or the second death; it is symbolized by death on the cross, and what makes it horrific for us is the absence of God. It is completely antithetical to what we are made for or called to. When Paul writes that the sting of death is sin, this is what he is referring to --- death which is rendered Godless --- for we are rightly terrified of this death, and yet, every time we choose to live without God, we choose Godless death as well, for to choose life without God, is necessarily to choose death without him.

This second (kind of) death is the death which Jesus died for us, the death which he experienced in all of its depth and horror. It is marked, as his cry of abandonment tells us, by his loss of all contact with his Father. Jesus enters the realm of Godlessness, not simply that of death but of SINFUL death, the uniquely personal realm and power created by human sinfulness, and he does so OBEDIENTLY, that is, remaining open and responsive to his Father and the Holy Spirit, not turned in on himself or rejecting the dependence of faith by attempting to save himself or despairing of God. When Paul says Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, this is what Paul is talking about. Crucifixion symbolized godlessness, and being completely cut off from both human and divine communion. To die such a death while remaining obedient to God is to open this ultimate sinful and personal reality to God. It is, in fact, to implicate God into this reality thus transforming it forever.

And here is the key to understanding Jesus' triumph over death, sinful, godless death. God cannot force his way into a strictly personal reality. He must be ALLOWED in. That is true in our own hearts, and it is true of this uniquely personal reality as well. In our own lives, we are called to obedience, which means we are called to remain open to and dependent upon God and the life and meaning he gives. We are called to do that in all of life's moments and moods so that God is implicated in them --- our contribution to God's becoming "All in All"! And yet, in our own lives, when faced with threatening situations, we typically do NOT remain obedient to God. Instead we do what the crowd challenged Jesus to do: we attempt to save ourselves. This may mean doing all we can to extricate ourselves altogether from the situation APART FROM THE GRACE OF GOD, but it may also mean shutting down emotionally, doing all we can to prevent ourselves from really feeling what is happening to us or being vulnerable to all it implies. Unfortunately, we also cease to be vulnerable to or dependent on the grace of God at such times

Jesus, however, does not shut down emotionally; he does nothing to ease his own vulnerability, and he certainly does not act to extricate himself from the situation. Even his request that this cup might pass from him is a way of remaining open to the will and grace of his Father and dependent upon that; it is an expression of vulnerability. His is truly an obedient death, and he remains open and responsive to God right to the depths of all this sinful, godless death implies. And it is here the miracle occurs. Because of this openness, this complete or exhaustive dependence and self-emptying, God is able to enter the situation just as exhaustively and transform the reality of godless death with his presence. Where once sinful death would have had the final word, it no longer does. Instead God will bring life and meaning out of even this reality. When Paul speaks of the death of death this is what he is speaking of: the triumph of self-emptying (kenotic) Love over sinful death. When he asks, "death where is your sting?" he is pointing to this transformation.

In light of this, for those baptized into Christ's death and faithful to that baptism, death is what it can be for us: more truly a matter of natural perishing, a kind of transition to eternal life. It is no longer something we must fear in the way we once did for it lacks the sting it once had. It is instead, in light of Christ's death, the place or event in which we may meet God face to face. God forgives our sins, but he acts to reconcile us to himself, and part of that reconciliation is to defeat those realities which remain as obstacles between us and himself. Both death and godless death are among those. The post-resurrection world is not the same as the one that existed before Jesus was raised, for life has broken into some of the darkest most inaccessible places in light of Jesus' OBEDIENT death and resurrection. More precisely, heaven has broken in upon us and we are asked to be ITS citizens (that is, Daughters and Sons of God) right here and right now as a result of our baptisms into Jesus' death.

06 April 2012

Jesus' Descent into Hell

The following piece was written for my parish bulletin for Palm Sunday. It is, therefore, necessarily brief but I hope it captures the heart of the credal article re Jesus' descent into Hell.


During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing – the gospel proclaims -- will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us!

It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.

To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and potentially responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!

The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love and bring us to abundant Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.

05 April 2012

The Silence of Jesus vs Eremitical "silence of solitude"


Throughout this last week of Lent and into the Triduum we will be confronted increasingly by Jesus' silence, indeed his muteness in the face of the world of powers and principalities arrayed against him. Increasingly the Word of God incarnate is rendered mute. In Mark's passion narrative this awful silence is rent only by Jesus' cry of abandonment --- that moment when Jesus' passion becomes even deeper than it had been and he suffers the loss of that relationship which is most foundational and intimate to him plunging him into an absolute hopelessness and helplessness. It is at this point, I think, that John's Jesus cries out, "I thirst!" And his thirst goes unslaked.

Because I have been writing and thinking about "the silence of solitude" in the past several months the contrast with Jesus' increasing muteness during his passion and what canon 603 refers to as "the silence of solitude" is more striking to me than it has ever been before. The hermit's silence is not one of powerlessness --- though indeed, in terms of the world's categories, a hermit is marginalized and relatively powerless --- nor is it one of absolute aloneness or abandonment. Instead it is the silence of covenant and friendship, of rest and essential peace in Christ. It is, as I have written many times now, a silence which sings of abundant life, a dialogical reality where God's love is the counterpart of human poverty and muteness, and the result is a sacramental silence which speaks powerfully and prophetically of fullness and completion.

But in the next three days especially we meet a vastly different kind of silence. It is the horrifying silence we all deeply fear, the silence we feel compelled with desperation to fill with even empty sound and trivial speech so terrified are we of being alone in the sense that Jesus was left alone; it is the silence which alternates with the music of love and affirmation and which presses us to seek companionship and reassurances we can never provide for ourselves alone. In the next three days Jesus, the Word incarnate, becomes increasingly subject to this silence. He enters increasingly into a loneliness which excludes all communication, all meaning, and all capacity for transcendence. His silence is the silence of one who has absolutely no one who can elicit or empower speech, no one who can summon him beyond himself --- one who is without anyone who can elicit or empower love, and is without the relatedness which is the ground and source of all meaning. It is the abyss of isolation which renders all speech -- including the speech or language event one is and is called to be -- absurd and impossible.

As I wrote in the piece on Jesus' descent into hell, hell is an abyss of ultimate isolation, loneliness, emptiness, lovelessness, and inhumanity. It is precisely that impenetrable "place" or "space" within and outside us where speech, language, or communion becomes impossible and where, as Benedict XVI writes, no word of another can reach and no love can advance. It is this hell, this spiritual or personal black hole, into which Jesus is increasingly drawn in these last days of Lent, and during the Triduum especially. Despite superficial similarities, the silence, or better, the muteness associated with this state is precisely antithetical to the "silence of solitude" of the hermit; it is the silence against which one can see most clearly how rich and full the silence of eremitical or solitary life truly is. The hell of muteness crushes; the silence of solitude empowers song. These two different realities are what makes it especially important to discern the difference between those whose silence is that of isolation and those who are truly called to the silence of solitude as hermits. The first witnesses to hell and the sovereignty of death which blots out Life and Speech, the second is the background of heaven and the sovereignty of God who is Life, Love, and creative Word.

04 April 2012

On Spiritual Direction and Individual Responsibility


[[Dear Sister Laurel,

Peace Be with You. You stated that a director does not make the decision about whether a person has a vocation or not, he or she simply helps the person discerning to make a decision. That is an incredibly important distinction. It is easy to get the impression that a director is making a decision and you have no choice. I appreciate that you brought that out. Even in a religious order, that decision must be the decision of the person discerning, is that correct? Of course, a person is free to simply flip a coin or peremptorily decide by ignoring all advice.]]

Yes, it is an important distinction. The role of the spiritual director is not that of a superior or quasi-superior (c 603's "delegate") whom one owes obedience in the usual sense of that term. A director accompanies one in their own spiritual journey and helps one hear and clarify how God is speaking and working in her life. The hearing and clarifying must ultimately come from the one being directed --- and so do whatever decisions stem from these. In my own work, I will help a directee work through the things that may prevent them from hearing clearly as best as we are capable --- usually this means working through various forms of woundedness, bias, etc --- but the decisions are their own and will be made no matter the degree of ability to hear or not hear clearly that still exists at the time the decision must be made.

In regard to religious communities remember that a person will work with a spiritual director (usually someone outside the congregation), but they also work in a different way with formation people who do have some say regarding whether the person has a vocation to this particular congregation. A person who goes through initial formation (candidacy or postulancy, novitiate, juniorate) will, at each stage, petition the congregation to admit them to the next stage of discernment and formation based on their own discernment that they are called to follow Christ in this way. Finally they will petition to be admitted to perpetual or solemn vows. At each stage the community and/or congregation has a say in the matter, just as occurs with any ecclesial vocation. Spiritual directors may be asked for a recommendation, but in my own experience this does not (and cannot) rise to the level of saying the person has a vocation or not. Instead the director will speak of the person's growth, faithfulness to prayer and other spiritual practices, etc. These are ordinarily demonstrable aspects of the person's life. The point, however, is that the person petitioning
must have come to the conclusion that God is calling her in this way and must therefore be open to hearing from her congregation, diocese, etc, that they concur in this discernment or not.

In spiritual direction it is not unusual to find persons who believe (or deeply desire that) their director will be the one making the decisions. Some speak as though they owe their directors obedience beyond a mutual obligation to listen attentively and respond appropriately. Some directees actually cannot seem to make a decision without seeing what their director recommends. (This problem becomes worse if encouraged by the director.) In one case dealing with the question of vocation I have heard a person speaking of seeing what her director desires her to do with regard to public vows and then acting on that. She spoke this way although affirming a number of times over the period of three years or so that she did not personally feel called to this vocation but would do what her director willed in this matter. The problems that stem from such an approach are serious and complex --- as is always the case when a person renounces personal responsibility.

At least as problematical is the director who takes on some sort of commitment to obedience with regard to a lay person who is not publicly vowed to obedience. (For that matter it is a problem when a director does this with a religious who IS vowed to obedience to LEGITIMATE superiors. A director is NOT a legitimate superior.) When a director acts in this way they ordinarily are acting unprofessionally --- at least according to contemporary models of professional conduct and ethics in spiritual direction. Since lay persons are not bound by vow, do not have the canonical and other legal protections which obtain in such cases, and in fact do not know what religious obedience does and does not mean, it does a serious disservice to them.

The relationship often infantilizes the directee in such cases and more often than not, the directee abdicates (and believes she is meant to abdicate) her responsibility to discern the will of God herself by accepting that somehow this director "speaks the will of God" directly. I personally know and have worked with very gifted directors; none of them presume to speak in such a way to clients (or for God!) --- nor even to know, except in a general way, what the will of God is in a client's life. (By this I mean they know clearly that God wills the abundant life, personal wholeness, and holiness of their client, and they will have a sense of what this might entail in given circumstances, but usually cannot speak more directly to the idea of vocation, etc.)

Vocations are personal matters and a person cannot live a vocation if they cannot even hear the call. The reason is simple. Living a vocation is a matter of responding to the continuing call of God on an ongoing day-by-day basis. One cannot respond to what one does not hear. In the case of ecclesial vocations which are mutually discerned and mediated by the church (via legitimate superiors, etc) as well as via the person's own heart and mind, there is still always a very strong emphasis on personal discernment, freedom, and responsibility. This is true whether one lives as a hermit or in community. In either case we are dealing with individuals who must be able to hear, take joy in, and respond as generously as possible to a call which is their very own and sounds in the very core of their being. The vocation will shape them, of course, but they will also shape the vocation (and the congregation or monastery) by the quality of their response.