26 February 2013

All are Sons in Christ

[[Dear Sister, recently you said that the language of Sonship is not sexist. Sure sounds like it is to me! Do you also disagree with the use of inclusive language?]]

Hi there. I think you are referring to a post I put up around the first Sunday of Lent about each of us being Baptized into Jesus' Sonship. In that post I said that being called Sons (as it occurs in the Scriptures) was not sexist because, as Paul makes VERY clear, in Christ there is neither male nor female. As I thought about this usage, then, it occurred to me that far from being sexist it was anti-sexist and that it spoke powerfully in a counter cultural way -- certainly it did so in Jesus' day -- of a fundamental equality between men and women and what was achieved at baptism. I think this was underscored for me recently, though in terms much cruder than those of  Paul and Jesus, as I read a book about Virgins in the early Church (Church Fathers, Independent Virgins). There virgins given entirely to Christ were seen to have relinquished all of the "deficiencies" of women --- mainly having to do with sex. St Perpetua even had a dream on the eve of her trip to the arena in which she was clad as a gladiator and fought against other gladiators rather then against beasts.

In other words, virgins were seen as "men" in Christ and as a result served in many of the ways men did. As the book makes clear, citing Isidore of Seville [[. . .the word femina comes from the Greek derived from the force of fire because her concupiscence is very passionate: women are more libindinous than men.]] or, as Jerome warned, [[It is not the harlot, or the adulteress who is spoken of, but woman's love in general is accused of being ever insatiable; put it out, it bursts into flame; give it plenty, it is again in need; it enervates a man's mind, and engrosses all thought except for the passion which it feeds.]] Women were blamed simply for being women. While sexuality did not define manliness it did define womanliness. Further, men were considered spiritual whereas women were primarily carnal. The solution? A dedication to Christ in which women renounced those things that characterized them as women. As Jerome summarizes: [[. . .as long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from men as body is from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man.]] Moving back again from the backwards and insulting notions of feminine sexuality just noted, the bottom line especially in Pauline theology is that in Christ we are all Sons of God, and thus, heirs --- with all that means for ANY Son and heir. The Scriptures do not speak only to or about men; they speak a truth in which gender is transcended in baptism into Christ's death and resurrection.

Today, of course, we do try to do justice to this bottom-line-truth without buying into the crude anthropology of Jerome, Ambrose, Isidore, etc. Thus we speak of all of us being Sons and Daughters of God in Christ. We need inclusive language in part because today the Church has moved away from Paul's own theology of Gal 3:28 as well as from the insights of the early Church Fathers that, cruder elements aside, identity in Christ allowed one to transcend one's gender and serve in ways only men would have been allowed to at the time. Women have been alienated as a result of sexism and inclusive language assists in overcoming that alienation. Thus, I believe that inclusive language is necessary and helpful. However, I think that in the Biblical texts, the use of Sonship, and more, the title "Son" for ALL Christians can be a leveling language which itself says NO MORE divisions of role or office based on gender! Such usage underscores the equality of men and women in Christ in ways inclusive language actually cannot do nearly as effectively. We have treated it as a sexist expression and I believe that perhaps in this particular case we ought not do that. Instead we should allow (and in fact, call) the Church to seriously grapple with the fact that it strongly signals that in Christ we are ALL adopted Sons and heirs and that in Christ "there is neither male nor female". I wonder if inclusive language has not sometimes actually diffused this challenge and call at the same time it has carried it forward.

One thing is key: we must see Christ as the ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON and the rest of us participating in this Sonship in light only of Baptism. All Sonship (all life in Christ) then is derivative and linked to participation in Jesus' own relationship with God. When we look at a Baptized Christian we are to see a person with all the rights and obligations of Sonship in light of JESUS' identity. None of this is based on Gender. When looked at from this perspective, to call all baptized Christians "Son" is anti-sexist and serves to level arbitrary distinctions in service based on gender. Once I would have bristled at being called a "Son"; now, in light of the past few weeks, I can see myself standing strong in my own womanhood and holding a banner proclaiming exactly this identity in Christ to those who would trivialize and obscure the paradoxical and counter cultural truth Paul affirmed in Galatians. "In Christ I am a Son and heir!" Let us learn to honor that in every way.

24 February 2013

The Feast of the Transfiguration and the Story of the Invisible Gorilla (Reprised)

Although today's Gospel is Luke's version of the Transfiguration, I am reprising a post I put up in August looking at Matthew's version of the story. I am hoping to get a reflection finished using Luke's and focusing especially on prayer and Lent but, for now, this is what I have. I hope it is helpful. The painting, Transfiguration, is by Lewis Bowman.


Have you ever been walking along a well-known road and suddenly had a bed of flowers take on a vividness which takes your breath away? Similarly, have you ever been walking along or sitting quietly outside when a breeze rustles some leaves above your head and you were struck by an image of the Spirit moving through the world? How about suddenly being struck by the tremendous compassion of someone you know well, or seeing their smile in a new way and coming to see them in a whole new light  because of this? I have had all of these happen, and, in the face of God's constant presence, what is in some ways more striking is how infrequent such peak or revelatory moments are.

Scientists tell us we see only a fraction of what goes on all around us. It depends upon our expectations.  In an experiment with six volunteers divided into two teams in either white or black shirts, observers were asked to concentrate on the number of passes of a basketball that occurred as players wove in and out around one another. In the midst of this activity a woman in a gorilla suit strolls through, stands there for a moment, thumps her chest, and moves on. At the end of the experiment observers were asked two questions: 1) how many passes were there, and 2) did  you see the gorilla? Fewer than 50% saw the gorilla.  Expectations drive perception and can produce blindness. Even more shocking, these scientists tell us that even when we are confronted with the truth we are more likely to insist on our own "knowledge" and justify decisions we have made on the basis of blindness and ignorance. We routinely overestimate our own knowledge and fail to see how much we really do NOT know.

For the past two weeks we have been reading the central chapter of  Matthew's Gospel --- the chapter that stands right smack in the middle of his version of the Good News. It is Matt's collection of Jesus' parables --- the stories Jesus tells to help break us open and free us from the common expectations, perspectives, and wisdom we hang onto so securely so that we might commit to the Kingdom of God and the vision of reality it involves. Throughout this collection of parables Jesus takes the common, too-well-known, often underestimated and unappreciated bits of reality which are right at the heart of his hearers' lives. He uses them to reveal the extraordinary God who is also right there in front of his hearers. Stories of tiny seeds, apparently completely invisible once they have been tossed about by a prodigal sower, clay made into works of great artistry and function, weeds and wheat which reveal a discerning love and judgment which involves the careful and sensitive harvesting of the true and genuine --- all of these and more have given us the space and time to suspend our usual ways of seeing and empower us to adopt the new eyes and hearts of those who dwell within the Kingdom of God.

It was the recognition of the unique authority with which Jesus taught, the power of his parables in particular which shifted the focus from the stories to the storyteller in the Gospel passage we heard last Friday. Jesus' family and neighbors did not miss the unique nature of Jesus' parables; these parables differ in kind from anything in Jewish literature and had a singular power which went beyond the usual significant power of narrative. They saw this clearly. But they also refused to believe the God who revealed himself in the commonplace reality they saw right in front of them. Despite the authority they could not deny they chose to see only the one they expected to see; they decided they saw only  the son of Mary, the son of Joseph and "took offense at him." Their minds and hearts were closed to who Jesus really was and the God he revealed.  Similarly, Jesus' disciples too could not really accept an anointed one who would have to suffer and die. Peter especially refuses to accept this.

It is in the face of these situations that we hear today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain apart. He takes them away from the world they know (or believe they know) so well, away from peers, away from their ordinary perspective,  and he invites them to see who he really is. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus' is at prayer --- attending to the most fundamental relationship of his life --- when the Transfiguration occurs. Matthew does not structure his account in the same way. Instead he shows Jesus as the one whose life is a profound dialogue with God's law and prophets, who is in fact the culmination and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the culmination of the Divine-Human dialogue we call covenant. He is God-with-us in the unexpected and even unacceptable place. This is what the disciples see --- not so much a foretelling of Jesus' future glory as the reality which stands right in front of them ---to the extent they have the eyes to see with! The important change in this story is not in Jesus' objective appearance, but in the hearts and eyes of his disciples.

For most of us, such an event would freeze us in our tracks with awe. But not Peter! He outlines a project to reprise the Feast of Tabernacles right here and now. In this story Peter reminds me some of those folks (myself included!) who want so desperately to hang onto amazing prayer experiences --- but in doing so, fail to appreciate them fully or live from them! He is, in some ways, a kind of lovable but misguided buffoon ready to build booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus, consistent with his tradition while neglecting the newness and personal challenge of what has been revealed. In some way Matt does not spell out explicitly, Peter has still missed the point. That he has seen Jesus clearly is wonderful, of course; but it is not enough. And in the midst of Peter's well-meaning activism comes God's voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" In my reflection on this reading this last weekend, I heard something more: "Peter! Sit down! Shut up! You have finally seen him clearly. This is my beloved Son! Now Listen to him!!!"

The lesson could not be clearer, I think. In this day where the Church is conflicted and some authority seems incredible, we must take the time to see what is right in front of us. We must listen to the One who comes to us in the Scriptures and Sacraments, the One who speaks to us through Bishops and all believers. We must really be the People of God, the "hearers of the Word" who know how to listen and are obedient in the way God summons us to be. This is true whether we are God's lowliest hermit or one of the Vicars of Christ who govern our dioceses and college of Bishops. Genuine authority coupled with true obedience empowers new life, new vision, new perspectives and reverence for the ordinary reality God makes Sacramental. There is a humility involved in all of this. It is the humility of the truly wise, the truly knowing person. We must be able to recognize how very little we see, how unwilling we are to be converted to the perspective of the Kingdom, how easily we justify our blindness and deafness with our supposed knowledge, and how even our well-intentioned activism can prevent us from seeing and hearing the unexpected, sometimes scandalous God standing there right in the middle of our reality.

22 February 2013

Misunderstandings Revisited

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I wrote you the post about CV's as brides and religious as engaged and about your not esteeming the CV vocation and calling it secular because of that. I think you understood my questions. Could you please answer them for me? Is this direct enough? I don't understand what you mean by "passive aggressive nonsense." Thank you.]]

First, thanks for trying again. I appreciate the fact that you dropped the assumptions you were making about my motivations and attitudes. Thank you for that.

 According to the post I put up a couple of weeks ago, the questions I outlined were as follows: [[ 1) Are CV's Brides of Christ in a sense different from Religious women and should they be esteemed for that identity? (In your post I think this boils down to the elitist, "Shouldn't we esteem them because they have been chosen for such a special identity?") 2) Am I reacting negatively to CV's living in the world either because they are REALLY Brides and I am "only engaged" to Christ (assuming this is even the case), or because I don't care for the bridal or spousal imagery attached to both vocations? and, 3) have I actually somehow said that the vocation of the CV living in the world is not wonderful and worthy of recognition because I consider it a secular vocation?]] I also want to briefly add something about Religious tending the eschew the spousal imagery and identification because your post referred to that.

First, is there a difference between CV's as Brides of Christ and Religious as Brides of Christ? Are they Brides or espoused in a different sense from one another?  Is one a Bride and the other not? To begin with then, I think we have to understand that the spousal language and imagery in both the Rite of Consecration and the Rite of (Perpetual) Religious Profession is strong and rooted in Baptism. Both speak of Christ as the person's only Bridegroom and there is no sense given that one reference is metaphorical while the other is literal. Further, both rites include a prayer of consecration and the giving of a ring; there are other elements of the rite which have specifically nuptial significance as well. Thus, in the case of nuns ALSO being consecrated as virgins all of these specific elements are omitted from the Rite of Perpetual profession so that they are not duplicated. (cf. Rites, v. II, Chapter III, Consecration to a Life of Virginity, par 7.) This signals to me that the spousal nature of these elements is explicit and identical in both Rites. Were they different in significance duplication would not be a problem and the Church's caution about doing so would be unnecessary. (This is especially true were the spousal elements to indicate "engagement to Christ" in the (prior) Rite of Perpetual Religious Profession and actual marriage in the (subsequent) Rite of Consecration of Virginity, as one CV has mistakenly argued in her blog.)

From all of this two things seem clear to me then. First, the Church does not allow a duplication of consecrations (thus, there is ONLY one prayer of solemn blessing or consecration used, even when the two Rites are separated in time) which suggests they do not differ essentially. Neither, then, does she treat the Religious' profession of solemn vows as the equivalent of the prayer of consecration as though "Religious consecrate themselves" with the vow formula itself. She clearly expects the effective (mediatory) prayer of consecration to be included in some way which "completes" the dual movement we identify as dedication/consecration in the Rite of  Perpetual Profession itself --- whether with the additional use of the Rite of Consecration of Virgins or without it.  Thus, if the nun is not receiving the consecration of virgins, the prayer of solemn blessing or consecration (the meaning is the same for these terms) as well as the giving of the ring, and all of the nuptial language throughout the Rite, are definitely used during her liturgy of solemn/perpetual profession. Secondly then, it seems clear to me that the nuptial imagery and language are similarly significant and essential  in both Rites;  for that reason, while they are not to be duplicated, neither are they to be ultimately omitted; that is, they are only omitted temporarily in anticipation of their use in the additional Rite when it is used.

Because of this I would have to argue there is no essential  or fundamental difference in the senses in which Religious and CV's are espoused to Christ. Where there may be some qualitative differences however, are in the graces and charisms of the two vocations --- at least in the directness and explicitness of these. For instance, it is the call of CV's to live out the graces of spousal, maternal, and virginal love and to do so recognizably and explicitly. The CV is graced in ways which allow these forms of love to be specifically fruitful in her life and, I would think, explicit in her ministry; doing so is the distinct gift she brings the Church and world --- but not because she is wed to Christ and Religious are not. In living these forms of love out explicitly she serves not only as an icon of the Church (which is Bride of Christ) but of the generosity of Mary in regard to God and those he loves, as well as a witness to the Kingdom of God in which we each and all live in unbroken union with God so that no one will be given in marriage.

Religious are also called to live out spousal, maternal, and, if not also virginal, then celibate love. (In the early Church the term virginity did NOT refer only or even primarily to physical intactness. Instead it referred to a kind of wholeness and undividedness of person which allowed the virgin to dispose of herself according to her own free choice. Note well that we still call St Perpetua a virgin martyr despite her marriage and childbearing.) Throughout the history of religious life the vow one made was one of viginity and the spousal theme was "elaborately developed" (Schneiders, Selling All, 121). The recovery of the Rite of consecration of virgins living in the world does not change this part of the Church's Tradition nor does it deprive Religious Profession of this character. Rather, it extends it explicitly into the secular realm and underscores the value of physical virginity (as well as purity of heart) in a sex-saturated world. Today we find that despite this history most Religious today prefer the language of chasity or consecrated celibacy and tend to accent remaining "unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom" rather than "marriage to Christ"  in part because this accent expresses their availability and the charism of their vocation better than the term marriage.)

Even so, as Sister Sandra Schneiders writes: [[The life option expressed by profession is the commitment to love Jesus Christ totally, absolutely and forever, and to express and embody that love (which is the calling, of course, of all the baptized) in the complete and exclusive self-gift of consecrated celibacy (which is not the calling of all the baptized).]] and again, [[The commitment to religious life is a commitment to a person, Jesus Christ, in irrevocable love expressed in a particular form, namely, lifelong consecrated celibacy analogous to marriage, which is a commitment to the spouse in irrevocable love expressed in the particular form of lifelong and total monogamy. This commitment is a total self-gift that has an absolute priority in one's life and begins with no qualifications or loopholes or "ifs" and "only ifs". ]].

Thus, Religious too are graced in ways which make their relationship/union with Christ primary and model Mary's own obedience and fecundity. They too live lives which are icons of the Church's relationship with Christ the Bridegroom (the Rite of Religious Profession makes this clear). However, ordinarily they are commissioned to live these graces out differently and oftentimes less explicitly than CV's. (Obviously some Religious feel called to live these out in more explicit ways than others so this is not a distinction carved in stone. It is merely generally so.) Still,  the bottom line seems to me to be that CV's living in the world are called to live these graces out in a life of eschatological secularity while Religious are not. Again, I have to say both Religious and CV's are similarly espoused to the Christ as Bridegroom but the variety of graces, commissions, and charisms attached to this foundational identity differ.

Your second question is based on a misconception I already addressed both above and in the earlier post. It is NOT THE CASE that Religious are "engaged" while CV's are "really married." Certainly the Church has NEVER held this to be so. It may be based on a misunderstanding of the two stages of Jewish marriage in which betrothal means marriage already. (cf other posts on this.) Beyond this, my own relationship with Christ is subjectively nuptial, that is, I experience myself completed by Christ both as a person generally and as a woman more specifically in a relationship which has a singular (or, better, what seems to me to be an amazing or literally awesome) mutuality about it. This relationship is presupposed in all I am and do. So no, no sour grapes here.

However, what is also the case is that I do not feel any call to identify myself primarily or publicly as a "Bride of Christ". Instead, despite the fact that this status is both objectively and subjectively real for and precious to me, I feel a call to allow this to be foundational to my identity but to remain mainly implicit in my vocation.  What is explicit is my call to solitary eremitical life, the life of the vows, and my service to the Church and world through these. There is nothing I do or am that is not profoundly affected and qualified  by my nuptial relationship with Christ or the graces of spousal, maternal, and virginal love which stem from and accompany it (some, I think, more than others and at different times of course), but I do not feel called to identify these graces explicitly or publicly as the essence of my vocation nor are they the specific or explicit gift or charism I am called on to bring the Church and World.  For my own vocation they are ordinarily an entirely private intimacy I share with God alone. So, once again, no sour grapes here.

Regarding your third question, I have absolutely NOT suggested that the vocation of the CV living in the world is somehow unworthy by referring to its secularity.  As I have noted before, I sincerely believe that it is ONLY in accepting this vocation's secularity that it can be properly understood and esteemed by the entire People of God. Otherwise it can come across to people as half-baked ("why didn't you go 'all the way' and become a nun?") badly motivated, ("is this just for nun wannabe's who were unsuited to religious life or who simply were unable to embrace  a call to sexual intimacy and "real" marriage?") or anachronistic ("Why is reprising this vocation important for the contemporary Church? It seems irrelevant and a step backwards.").

I also sincerely believe that the vocation is esteemed by the Church (though it remains less than understood by the majority of Catholics whose only or at least primary experience of consecrated life is Religious life) and the only thing which could turn it into a second class vocation is the belated imposition of requirements which make the vocation quasi but not fully Religious and which therefore, minimizes, mitigates, or even wholly rejects its secularity. Doing this would ensure the vocation continues to be misunderstood as half-hearted or half-baked and invite seeing it as a stopgap or fallback vocation  just as some (e.g., the LA Province) were originally concerned would be the case.

P.S., there are several significant reasons Religious generally eschew the spousal imagery so long exclusively associated with their vocations. (Obviously for some this imagery is as central and explicit as it is for the CV living in the world.) All of these reasons are significant, but for the time being I want to leave this matter with the reason I mentioned above, namely, the sense that linguistically the phrase "unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom" better expresses their availability and call to a non-exclusive love for all of God's own than does the term "Bride of Christ." I am not arguing whether this is the case or not; I am merely stating a well-established general sense of the matter among contemporary women Religious.

21 February 2013

Feast of the Chair of Peter

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Chair of Peter and there have probably not been many occasions to reflect on the Primacy of Peter which are as significant as this one. Four elements in particular confirm this opinion for me.

First, there is Vatican II and its focus on collegiality which was meant to contextualize and correct any notion of primacy which might separate Peter from the College of Bishops or make the Bishops mere "branch managers" with the Pope as CEO.  During this 50th anniversary year of the Council, we must remember this.

Second, there is John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint --- an encyclical which put Christian Unity ahead of uniformity and called upon the Church to help him reform the papacy/curia and the way these routinely did business.

Third, just last week we were presented with the resignation of Benedict explicitly offered for the good of the Church. Through this act of humility he reminded us that the papacy is a demanding ministry requiring expertise, skill, and stamina, not the role of a monarchical figurehead, the focus for a personality cult, nor an honorary ecclesiastical post necessarily held for life. Benedict, like his predecessor in Ut Unum Sint, acted to signal that the papacy was not necessarily exercised in the same way in every age, and in fact called us to let go of the notion that "business as usual" is synonymous with living Tradition. 

Fourth, we as Church are called on to reflect on the primacy of Peter and the way Jesus called on it to be exercised in light of the coming conclave to elect a new Pope. He (and those who elect him) will, we pray, take the Gospel passage we are looking at tomorrow as well as the reading from 1 Peter with absolute seriousness. After all, we all have ideas of what we would like and, more, what we truly need a Pope to be. In tomorrow's readings we are given a brief summary of Jesus' and the early Church's ideas of what is necessary for fulfilling the Petrine ministry.

Three things are particularly striking for me: 1) the absolute primacy of Peter's faith in Jesus as Christ and Son of God. This faith, this ability to entrust all Peter is to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, and which itself is explicitly noted to be the result of God's grace, is the source of the authority Peter is invested with. If Peter is Vicar of Christ (as all Bishops are) it is first of all in light of the centrality of Jesus in his life and the degree to which he truly sees reality as Jesus Christ did/does. All of Peter's vision and courage come from this faith. It is the reality which will prevent Peter's primatial ministry from being distorted into an entirely worldly reality like the emperorship's of Caesar, et al. It is, in fact, the ONLY thing which makes such an incredible commission possible or reasonable in our world and the only thing which ensures the gates of the netherworld (including that realm's embodiment in human person, structures, and institutions) will not prevail against it.

Peter's faith fails only when he ceases to trust in the One who, by the power of God, he has come to know Jesus to be. It fails (and has failed in his successors in history) to the extent he allows fear and human weakness to make something else (e.g., the power of the Sanhedrin and the Roman Emperor, or the approval of James and his peers) his functional Lord. It succeeds or has the ascendancy whenever Peter allows Jesus to be God's anointed One and Son in Word and Deed and exercises the keys entrusted to him --- beginning with his own acceptance of the Risen Lord, his forgiveness of Peter's sinfulness and betrayal of Jesus, and continuing on with Paul's significant correction of his meal practice and instruction on freedom from the Law and the scandal of the Cross. As an integral part of this faith then, the NT demonstrates that Peter succeeds  in his pastorate only to the degree he allows his himself to be challenged by and to grow in his own obedience to others, including the "least of the apostles and untimely born" like Paul or the Churches whose lives of faith Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and others (including many women) witness to. Peter is called to faith in Jesus Christ and to the openness and responsiveness this faith makes possible. It should not be a surprise then, nor go unsaid that the next Pope needs to be a man of profound and personal faith in Christ with ALL that implies.

Thus, also striking is 2) the pastoral nature of Peter's commission. It is so important that the flock of God's Pilgrim People not be left without a visible, living, breathing shepherd who effectively symbolizes God's abiding presence with us. (We especially need to remember that in these days of dwindling priests and closing parishes; these (and any number of other significant crises) signal a tremendous failure in Peter's ministry as shepherd and calls for the Church to find fresh and effective ways to deal with the fact that so many in the People of God are going unfed and unled. We truly have to admit that wolves which were supposed to act as sheep dogs and shepherds have gotten to the flock, but also that many are starving or wandering bereft and alone for lack of creative and pastoral care that seeks them out and provides for their needs. When Jesus speaks of the true shepherd he does not speak of  the one proposing to get by with a "leaner meaner flock" but the one who, at the risk of much, creatively, flexibly, and faithfully searches out even the least and the lost and brings them home.)

Though it is foundational, faith is not enough. Peter had to learn to open his mind and heart to an ecclesia which was truly universal and quite diverse precisely for this reason. He had to come to an understanding of God's will which seemed to break all the rules of religion as he knew it; he came to know first hand a divine reign which turned the order of this world on its head, and which was both foolishness to the educated and a scandal to good religious folks of his day. He had to develop humility, docility, and the abilities to collaborate, empower, and confront at appropriate times and in varied situations. Peter failed when he caved into peer pressure (e.g., James and his group of Judaizers) or failed to see things in a new way in light of the Cross, his experience of the resurrected Christ, and his sincere hearkening to the needs of the People and the wisdom of theologians like Paul. As tomorrow's responsorial psalm implies, the Petrine Primacy is a great gift to the Church. However, it is a demanding ministry which must combine personal faith with the ability to PASTOR effectively, empathetically, and collegially if the Church is to continue living indefectibly in the truth and power of the Gospel.

3) Finally, I am struck by the incredibly far-reaching nature of this commission and mandate Jesus gives Peter and I have to ask myself how it came to be narrowed down or limited to the interpretation/translation, "whose sins you forgive will be forgiven and who sins you retain will be retained?" Of course sins are included here, but the text reads "what ever" you retain or loose. It does NOT say, " whatever you bind or loose with the exception of x or y".  In short, while it is not a mandate for recklessness or "whatever goes", it outlines an authority limited by the reality and Gospel of Jesus Christ themselves. While Peter's life and ministry is constrained at every turn by true faith in Jesus Christ, they are also freed by the Gospel for a love that does justice in both new as well as traditional ways despite the immense shifts in perspective and even  reform of ecclesial structures this might entail in each and every period of history. This commission seems to me to be the basis of an historically sensitive papacy capable of responding in fresh ways to the signs and needs of the times precisely because of its rootedness in the Risen Christ.

When Christ promises Peter that this is Christ's own Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it we come back to that foundational, ecclesial AND personal faith which must underscore the also-necessary courage, skill, and prudence required of a true pastor. It is a risky thing to truly respond to the needs of the times while honoring a living Tradition. Mistakes will be made --- though the really catastrophic errors will come (as in the Middle Ages) because of a papacy/curia which feared and missed the opportunity for real reform or who fails to be truly collaborative. The Church requires a Pope with profound faith, pastoral knowledge, skills, and a shepherd's heart, along with a sense both of the wide-reaching scope of his mandate and the REAL limitations which constrain it. In the days and weeks to come that is the kind of Pope I will be praying for.

19 February 2013

The Lord's Prayer: Concerning ourselves With God's Life and Plans (Reprised)

Today's Gospel includes Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. As we continue to focus on the basic themes of Lent it is only appropriate that the Church looks at what prayer is and reminds us of Jesus' own instruction in it --- what was primary and what followed naturally. In Lent one of the things we attempt to do is die to self in ways which make us more open to God's presence, God's Word, God's own hallowing of his name within us and in our world. We fast in ways which help us set aside our more superficial needs; we open ourselves to the love of God which we allow ourselves to savor so that we might be profoundly nourished and God's own will be done, God's own life be fulfilled in and with us. Our Lenten journey reminds us that genuine spirituality is forgetful of self, that it "gets out of the way" and lays aside self-consciousness. In today's gospel, Jesus (via Matt) provides a model of prayer which assists in this. It is a model of prayer in which we concern ourselves first and last with God's own needs, and with being there FOR HIM! We know it as the Lord's Prayer

In the first three petitions (and the invocation too, though that is a topic for another time!) we concern ourselves with God's very self (holiness and name refer to God's own self, not to mere characteristics or tags); we ask that he might be powerfully present in our world (because both name and the hallowing he is refer to a powerful presence which creates and recreates whatever it is allowed to touch and make holy). With the second petition especially, we open ourselves to his sovereignty, that is, to his very selfhood and life as it is shared with his creation. God assumes a position of sovereignty over that creation when his life is truly shared and that creation achieves genuine freedom in the process, but the reign or kingdom of God refers to God's own life once again --- this time as a covenantal or mutual reality. And, with the third petition in particular, we open ourselves to the will of God --- to the future and shape of a reality which is ordered by his sovereignty and fulfilled by his presence.

Now, it is true that God possesses what is called aseity. That is, he is completely self-sufficient and in need of nothing and no one. But that is only one part of the paradox that stands at the heart of our faith. The other side of the paradox is that our God is One who has determined to need us; from the beginning, indeed, from all eternity, God has chosen not to remain alone. He creates all that is outside himself and he summons it (continuing the process of creation) to greater and greater levels of complexity until from within this creation comes One who will be his true counterpart and partner in creation. At bottom this is a call to share in God's very life. In fact, it is the ground of an existence which can only be fulfilled when it shares in the Divine life and God himself becomes all in all!

All of Scripture attests to this basic dynamic, whether cast in terms of creation or covenant. All of Scripture is about God's determination to share his very life with us, and his creation's capacity in the Spirit to issue forth in, or become his own unique counterpart in the fulfillment of this plan. When God's plan is fulfilled, when his very life is shared to the extent he wills, everything he creates reaches fulfillment as well, but it is the human vocation in particular to allow this to become real in space and time. And afterall, isn't this what prayer is truly all about: allowing God's plans to be realized in his creation; cooperating with his Spirit in ways which let his own life be made PERSONALLY real here and now so that EVERYTHING acquires fullness or completion (perfection) of life in God?

Unfortunately, one of the most pernicious problems I run into, whether in myself or in my work as a spiritual director is the occasional inability to "get out of the way" of the Spirit or to "forget self" in prayer. Prayer seems always to be about us, our problems, our sinfulness, our needs and concerns in ways which sometimes contribute to our own self-centeredness. While I am NOT suggesting we neglect this side of things in our prayer, I am suggesting that there are ways to pray these concerns which are NOT self-centered. (Note, the key here is in praying these concerns rather than merely praying about these concerns. Sometimes we have to silence conversation about concerns and simply live them in our prayer as we give our whole selves to God for his own sake.) I think this is part of what Jesus is getting at in today's gospel when he reminds us that God knows what we need before we ask him! It is certainly mirrored in the form of the Lord's prayer and the priority of the invocation and petitions. If we open ourselves humbly to God in prayer, the sinfulness, needs, concerns, etc will be part of that but the focus will not be on these.

Because of this, one of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves in checking in on our prayer occasionally is, "what kind of experience was this for God?" Ordinarily this puts a full stop to the sometimes problematical self-centered focus and chatter about ME in prayer which can occur, and puts the focus back where Jesus clearly lived it himself --- on God and the way in which God wills to be present to and for us. What today's Gospel gives us in this model of prayer is a sense that contrary to much popular thought and practice otherwise, prayer is really the way we give or set aside our lives for another, namely, for God and his own Selfhood and destiny. And while it is absolutely true that in the process of giving ourselves over to God's own purposes our own hearts will rightly be opened up, poured out, and our own needs met (as Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, God's Word will not return to him void!), prayer is first of all something we are empowered to do for God's own sake!

The Essence of Prayer : Living in the Name of the One we call Abba (Reprise of an Advent Post)

With Lent's focus on Prayer, today's Gospel asks us to look again at the model or paradigm of all Christian prayer, the Lord's Prayer. After all, it summarizes what Jesus' vocation was all about, how he prayed, how he lived, what had priority for him, and what, by extension, constitutes Christian existence. Learning to pray this prayer is not a one-time task, and recitation of it is not without risks and challenges. Instead, we are invited to learn to pray as Jesus did, to pour ourselves into its petitions, day by day and "layer" of self by layer of self. It calls us, and provides a concrete way, to allow our hearts and lives to be shaped as Jesus' was --- first by the Kingdom or sovereignty of God, and then (and only then) by our own. Yes, it teaches us to pray rightly, but more, it initiates us into a life of prayer; more correctly said perhaps, it molds and shapes us into the very prayers we are called to BE. (I am convinced that the admonition to "pray always" is a statement of the purpose of human life, and that prayer is not only an activity we are to undertake, but something we are to become. When we call Jesus "the Word made Flesh," we really are calling him an incarnate prayer, a Word event whose whole being glorifies (reveals and allows God to be) God in space and time.)

One of the things that comes up again and again is just how deceptively familiar the prayer is for us. We recite it daily, sometimes several times a day; and yet, almost every petition holds surprises for us. We simply don't know what the words mean or what they summon us to. The invocation is a particularly striking example. Luke's version of the prayer has simply, "Pater" (or "Abba"), while Matthew's has the more litugically suited and formed, "Our Father, who Art in Heaven!" Some people in parishes have problems calling God "Father," because they treat the word as a metaphor, and as an instance of human patriarchy or paternalism writ-very-large. Others love that God is called "abba, pater" because it apotheosizes or raises to divine level their own patriarchal pretensions. And yet, both groups have gotten something very basic wrong, namely, the invocation to the Lord's Prayer is not merely a metaphor describing divinity's "paternalness" --- one characteristic among others including maternalness. It is instead a NAME, and as a name it is symbol, not merely metaphor, and it FUNCTIONS as a name does. It symbolizes the whole reality of the person, not just those characteristics we know, but the profound mystery the person is. The Lord's Prayer begins with the revelation of and permission to invoke God BY NAME even if Matt's elaborate formulation obscures this for English readers. In Christ we are allowed, and in fact, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to call upon God as Abba, where Abba is a personal word of address which does far less to describe God than it does to give him a personal place to stand in our world and in our hearts.

We will miss this though, if we do not move beyond the prayer's familiarity and merely treat the invocation as a description of or metaphor for God. Remember, for instance, that the word "Abba" is in the vocative case, the case used for direct address. Remember that Jesus used the term "Abba" with a unique intimacy and familiarity, not as a description of God, but as direct address and name. Remember that his usage was unprecedented in Palestinian Judaism (Judiasm of the diaspora was somewhat different), not only because Jews tended to avoid referring to God as Abba (pagans did that all the time!), or because using Abba as a name and speaking it directly was too presumptuous (Divine names were not spoken or even written out), but also because the times they did refer to God as Father, it was in a collective sense and more metaphor or descriptor than name. Remember too that in Matt's day people LONGED to know both the REAL Name of God, and that their prayer was truly effective. So desperate were they for access to the real God that they stood on street corners reading from magic papyri which listed every known name of God. When Matthew warns us about using empty words in our prayers this is the practice he is referring to, a practice driven by the need to know and invoke God by name --- a need to pray with genuine authority and power, a need to allow and experience God's personal presence in all its ineffableness.

But, along comes Jesus with his unique relationship with this One he calls by name as Abba, thus addressing God with an unheard of familiarity and intimacy. He speaks, lives, and teaches with a new kind of authority. To put it plainly, Jesus is on a first name basis with God; he speaks in the NAME of God. Their relationship is unique and the exchanges between them equally so. When we attend to his prayer, we see that Jesus calls upon God BY NAME as "Abba, Father." He gives this One a personal place to stand in the world in the way only invocation can do, invocation in both narrower and broader senses: that is, addressing or calling upon another by name and living one's life in the name of that other implicating them in all one is and does. Jesus reveals (makes real in space and time) a new Name for God. God is no longer known simply the One who will be who he will be [ehyeh asher ehyeh, YHWH]; he is Abba, and the One whom he will be is revealed definitively in Christ in terms of unfathomable love and mercy. By extension, Christians are those marked by this name, who, through the adoption of baptism live within its power and presence, who "call upon" or invoke God in this way. It is the symbol or name marking our vocation in this world, just as it marked that of Jesus.

As I have written here before, the life of Christian prayer is a life of invocation. The task before us and which we reflect on anew each Lent is to learn and embrace what it means to live as those who call upon and live life in the Name of another --- and not just any other, but the One Jesus revealed as "Abba, Father." The Lord's Prayer initiates us into this life, and the first line, the only non-petition in the entire prayer, embodies or symbolizes the whole of this vocation. It is both invitation and challenge: not only to take this Name upon our lips, but to glorify the name of God with our lives, to become those who truly are adopted daughters and sons of the One we call Abba, Father.

18 February 2013

Misunderstandings re Distinctions Between Religious Profession and Consecration of Virginity

[[Sister O'Neal, I have read most of what you have written about CV's and it really seems to me that you don't believe they are Brides of Christ or should be esteemed for that identity. I know this may be because you are a religious who doesn't esteem the idea of a spousal relationship with Christ and don't like being called a Bride of Christ yourself. It seems to me most religious today do not accept that designation. But just because you don't accept it why knock it down as something secular rather than something religious which makes it truly wonderful and worthy of recognition? One CV points out in her blog that Religious profession only makes one engaged to Christ, not an actual Bride like consecration makes CV's. She says that the meaning [of the terms betrothed and/or espoused] in the Rite of consecration is different than that in the Rite of Religious [Profession]. Why not give up the sour grapes attitude for not being called to actual marriage?]]

Thank you for writing. As I read what you have written, gratuitous assumptions, conclusions, and tone aside for the moment, it seems to boil down to several questions, including: 1) Are CV's Brides of Christ in a sense different from Religious women and should they be esteemed for that identity? (In your post I think this boils down to the elitist, "Shouldn't we esteem them because they have been chosen for such a special identity?") 2) Am I reacting negatively to CV's living in the world either because they are REALLY Brides and I am "only engaged" to Christ (assuming this is even the case), or because I don't care for the bridal or spousal imagery attached to both vocations? and, 3) have I actually somehow said that the vocation of the CV living in the world is not wonderful and worthy of recognition because I consider it a secular vocation? If I am correct in my reading of your questions and you would like me to answer these,  please get back to me and ask them again in a direct and civil way. In the meantime the following seems important to me as the basis for further conversation and you need to consider it.

The Language of Marriage in the Scriptures:  Espousal and Betrothal

First, a bit about language. In the Scriptures (and Jewish tradition) Jewish marriages take place or are "completed" in two steps, 1) espousal (or betrothal --- the terms are essentially synonymous) which is NOT the same as the contemporary notion of engagement and 2) home-taking and consummation. Despite these two steps, the espousal/betrothal is much more than an engagement and is formally ended by divorce. (The equivalent of shunning also happens but incurs serious censure and fines.) In espousal/betrothal an actual exchange of marital consent occurs and the two persons are thereafter called husband and wife. If one person transgresses the covenant agreement by becoming intimate with another, it is considered adultery and the penalty is stoning. It is thus possible to speak of a non-consummated marriage as an espousal or an espousal as an unconsummated marriage--- but one is speaking of a marriage nonetheless.

In light of this language and because both the Rite of Religious Profession and the Rite of Consecration of Virgins refer to both espousal and betrothal with regard to the persons making their commitments, it is not accurate to say that Religious women are "engaged" (or "only engaged") whereas Consecrated Virgins are actually married to Christ. The use of "engagement" in this analysis is wholly anachronistic and untrue, especially when used to contrast with another's life commitment which is supposedly a true marriage. One example of a CV speaking this way (perhaps this is the blog you saw) reads: [[Another Latin term in the code is mystice desponsantur which has been translated as mystical betrothal / espousal in various English versions. However the term desponsantur is best translated as espousal meaning that it speaks of a Marriage and not an Engagement like it is in the Rite of Profession of Religious women.]] (emphasis added.)

I have both heard and read CV's making this specious as well as liturgically and theologically meaningless distinction; I admit it underscores my impression that the only way these persons conceive of doing justice to their own vocation is by attempting to demean or diminish the vocation of another. That is especially true when coupled with a resistance to the vocation's eschatological secularity. In particular it sounds like these CV's are trying to convince themselves (rightly of course) that the vocation to consecrated virginity is not of secondary value to Religious vocations and so (wrongly), denigrate the Religious vocation in the process. It is a variation on the, "I am a Bride of Christ and you are not" assertion I have spoken of before, but in this case it is made explicit and buttressed with naive linguistic and historical arguments rooted in bad scholarship. One should not need to misrepresent another vocation in order to demonstrate esteem for one's own.

Other Misunderstandings: Religious Consecrate Themselves

A similar misunderstanding which gives a similar impression regarding some CV's need to denigrate Religious life in order to esteem their own vocations is the notion that Religious use vows to consecrate themselves during the Rite of  (Perpetual) Profession while CV's are consecrated by God. In fact, while ordinarily Religious USE vows as essential to structuring and framing their consecrated lives, and while it is the form of dedication used in the Rite of  perpetual Profession they too are consecrated by God. The general or basic structure of the two Rites is the same: 1) call, homily and examination, 2) Litany of Saints (prostration) and profession of perpetual/solemn vows (Religious) or propositum (CV's living in the world reaffirm their resolution to remain virgins at this point), 3) solemn prayer of consecration, 4) granting of insigniae.  As I have said many times here, despite commonly misused language only God consecrates; that is, only God who is holy and the source of holiness makes holy or sets a person apart as a "sacred person" --- though this certainly occurs through the mediation of the Church. Human beings DEDICATE themselves to God, whether this occurs through vows, other sacred bonds (allowed by c 603), propositum or (solemn) act of resolution (as in the case of CV's living in the world), etc. In any case, if CV's are consecrated by God through a prayer of solemn consecration and not through their propositum, then so are Religious consecrated by God through the prayer of solemn consecration and not through their perpetual vows. Of course BOTH vows (or other sacred bonds, or propositum) and prayer of consecration are required for entrance into the consecrated state. They are integral parts of a single call/response event mediated by the Church.

The Basis for Esteem of Various Vocations:

There is one thing you have gotten exactly right and which I can respond to right now. I do not believe CV's (or hermits, cenobites, priests or married persons, etc) should be esteemed simply because they are called to live out their vocations to authentic humanity in one path rather than another. As I think I was very clear about in my post about Matthew 22:14-17, "chosenness" is more about response than it is some higher call, etc. Every vocation has an immeasurable dignity because every vocation is the gift of the infinite God who esteems each of us infinitely. If you are suggesting that we should esteem persons for responding wholeheartedly to the vocation they are gifted with, then I agree --- whatever the vocation. If you are suggesting that one should be esteemed or regarded for the degree of generosity they demonstrate in living out a vocation or the degree of responsibility they assume in Baptism, profession, ordination, marriage or consecration, then I agree. If, however, you are saying that someone should be esteemed simply because they are called to be a "Bride of Christ" (or priest, etc) and have gone through the Rite of consecration (etc.) without reference to the lives they live, then I emphatically disagree.

I esteem a person not only because they have accepted the gift of a vocation initially but because they have responded in a way which allows that vocation to make them truly loving, truly human, truly of Christ. I rejoice WITH them that they have been called in a way which enriches them and the faith community of the Church, but my regard is a function of  someone's continued responsiveness to their vocation. It is dependent on their integrity and growth in generosity, faithfulness, and love. Because vocations are not given once, responded to initially, and then treated as though one has accomplished all one needs. I am one of those who, when confronted by the statement, "I am a Bride of Christ!" sometimes thinks, "So what?" or "What exactly does that mean and for whom?" It is not that I do not esteem the vocation; actually I think I have shown here in the past year and more that I esteem it quite highly. Instead it is the case that I recognize a label, title, or statement of status is NOT identical with one's vocation and certainly not necessarily with one which is well-lived. I need to hear what the actual call is, what value it is pastorally, who will benefit from the conferral of this designation or title, and so forth.

In the past decades we have all seen more than our share of betrayed vocations and the parable of the vacant house in Luke should come to mind here.  Baptism, profession, consecration, ordination. matrimony, etc all effect a change in the persons involved, much as cleansing a house of demons effects a change and makes the house capable of something much much more than it was heretofore. Still, unless one subsequently continues to respond to that call and continues to give one's heart more and more completely to Christ and those he loves, one betrays one's vocation and gives one heart to other things (for instance, to status) or persons. I esteem well-lived vocations and I regard those who work assiduously to do so. Unfortunately, the title "Bride of Christ" is easily misunderstood, and more easily distorted into merely a matter of a privileged identity rather than the CV's actual call, charism, and mission. Your own question to me seemed that it did that very thing by demanding I regard CV's because they have a specific identity, rather than because of the lives they live in the power of God's love.

I hope this has been helpful. Again, if you have questions you would like me to respond to, please feel free to email again but directly and without the passive aggression.

17 February 2013

Driven into the Desert in the Spirit of Sonship (Reprised with tweaks)

I really love today's Gospel, especially at the beginning of Lent. The thing that strikes me most about it is that Jesus' 40 days in the desert are days spent coming to terms with and consolidating the identity which has just been announced and brought to be in him. (When God speaks, the things he says become events, things that really happen in space and time, and so too with the announcement that Jesus is his beloved Son in whom he is well-pleased.) Subsequently, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit of love, the Spirit of Sonship, to explore that identity, to allow it to define him in space and time more and more exhaustively, to allow it to become the whole of who he is. One of the purposes of
Lent is to allow us to do the same.

A sister friend I go to coffee with on Sundays remarked on the way from Mass that she had had a conversation with her spiritual director this last week where he noted that perhaps Jesus' post-baptismal time in the desert was a time for him to savor the experience he had had at his baptism. It was a wonderful comment that took my own sense of this passage in a new and deeper direction. Because of the struggle involved in the passage I had never thought to use the word savor in the same context, but as my friend rightly pointed out, the two often go together in our spiritual lives. They certainly do so in hermitages! My own director had asked me to do something similar when we met this last week by suggesting I consider going back to all those pivotal moments of my life which have brought me to the silence of solitude as the vocation and gift of my life. Essentially she was asking me not only to consider these intellectually (though she was doing that too) but to savor them anew and in this savoring to come to an even greater consolidation of my identity in God and as diocesan hermit.

Hermitages are places which reprise the same experience of consolidation and integration of our identity in God. They are deserts in which we come not only to learn who we are in terms of God alone, but to allow that to define our entire existence really and concretely -- in what we value, how we behave, in the choices we make, and those with whom we identify, etc. In the "In Good Faith" podcast for A Nun's Life I did a couple of years ago now, I noted that for me the choice which is fundamental to all of Lent and all of the spiritual life, "Choose Life, not death" is the choice between accepting and living my life according to the way God defines me or according to the way the "world" defines me. It means that no matter how gifted in worldly terms, how privileged or competent, or, for that matter, how poor, inadequate, ill, and so forth I also am, I choose to make God's announcement that I am his beloved daughter in whom he is well-pleased the central truth of my life. I am called to make the fact that I am simply one in whom God truly delights -- no matter the gifts or deficiencies I also possess -- the single defining reality which shapes, colors, and grounds everything else. Learning to live from that definition (and so, from the one who announces it) is the task of the hermit; the hermitage is the place to which the Spirit of love and Sonship drive us so that we can savor the truth of this incomprehensible mystery even as we struggle to allow it to become the whole of who we are.

But hermitages are, of course, not the only places which reprise these dynamics. Each of us has been baptized, and in each of our baptisms what was announced to us was the fact that we were now God's adopted beloved Sons (in Christ this is not sexist but all-inclusive for in him we are neither male nor females, etc). Lent gives us the space and time where we can focus on the truth of this, claim that truth more whole-heartedly, and, as Thomas Merton once said, "get rid of any impersonation that has followed us" to the [desert]. We need to take time to identify and struggle with the falsenesses within us, but also to accept and appreciate the more profound truth of who we are and who we are called to become in savoring our experiences of God's love. As we fast in various ways, we must be sure to also taste and smell as completely as we can the nourishing Word of God's love for us. After all, the act of savoring is the truest counterpart of fasting for the Christian. The word we are called to savor is the word which defines us as valued and valuable in ways the world cannot imagine and nourishes us where the things of the world cannot. It is this Word we are called both to struggle with and to savor during these 40 days, just as Jesus himself did.

Thus, as I fast this Lent (in whatever ways that means), I am going to remember to allow myself not only to get in touch with my own deepest hungers and the hungers I share with all others (another very good reason to fast), but also to get in touch anew with the ways I have been fed and nourished throughout my life --- the experiences I need to savor as well. Perhaps then when Lent comes to an end I will be better able to claim and celebrate the one I am in God. My prayer is that each of us is able to do something similar with our own time in the desert.

Merton quotation taken from Contemplation in a World of Action, "Christian Solitude," p244.

"Choose Life, only that and always. . ." (Reprise)

When I was a very young sister, I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then:

Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister H Kelly)

The readings from the Thursday after Ash Wednesday both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accomodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."

The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]

I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are CALLED to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.

God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.

The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us PARE DOWN all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.

It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose DEATH instead.

Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!

12 February 2013

Tying up Loose Ends and Approaching Lent

The directions are appropriate!
Late last week in response to a question I posted on the meaning of Matthew 22:14: "All (composed of multitudes or the many) are called but few are chosen" within the context of the parable this saying concludes. In that post I also just added the translation Richard Rohr supplies in the book I began today: [[I am calling all of you, but so few allow yourselves to be chosen.]] The book is entitled, Immortal Diamond, The Search for our True Self, and I would recommend it for Lenten reading.

But as I read on from this first quotation, Rohr made an interesting assertion and observation which ties into the comments I made about chosenness and the call to see that everyone is chosen, everyone is special, everyone is called to a spousal relationship with God in Christ. Rohr is also very clear that elitism is contrary to true spirituality and the Christian Gospel. We are called on to believe a paradox; indeed we are ourselves a paradox, both completely unique and wholly the same as everyone else in terms of destiny and call. (Variations on this include the notions 1) that only some are called to exhaustive intimacy with God, and 2) that for this reason one can become truly holy only in a convent or monastery, but not in the secular world.) He writes: "Outer spiritual believing tends to say 'only here' or 'only there', while authentic inner knowing tends to say, 'Always and everywhere.' . . . Outer authority told us we were indeed special (that's the only way to get started), but maturing inner authority allows us to see everyone is special and unique, although it usually takes the maturity of the second half of life to see this. Young zealots still think it's all about them."

One Experience, Two Truths

In the prayer experience I described partially a couple of posts ago  (cf. Notes from Stillsong Hermitage: Once Again: On Infused Contemplation, Union With God, and Elitism) two impressions were especially unforgettable and seem to me today to be the bedrock of objective truth in my own life, and I suspect, the objective truth of the life of every human being.  In Rohr's work on the True Self, both of these elements figure largely in his analysis. The first truth turns on my sense that God was entirely delighted that I was "finally" there and that he had waited for SUCH a long time for this. Note well that I had not done anything much different than I always did in prayer;  there were no elaborate preparations and I certainly had not had to travel somewhere or do or learn something special to "get to" this place --- helpful as those things sometimes are. All of this happened as I sat quietly with my director, my hands resting in her own open hands, but in my own living room.

Similarly, I needed no post-grad courses in theology or special workshops in spirituality to teach me techniques to locate or travel to this place. The meeting with God was a matter of allowing myself to let go of fear and to move into my own heart; it was a matter of experiencing what was and is the essence of my True Self, namely, the profound communion with God I am most really and which I am called to let define everything I am and do. This communion occurring deep in my own heart helps make sense for me of an enigmatic story from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. You probably have heard it yourself. When one of the desert Fathers is asked what a disciple who is faithful to prayer and penance and the desert horarium needs still to do, he holds up his fingers, waves them back and forth, and says, "You can become all flame." We are not called merely to say prayers or to pray but to become prayer, to become all flame, to discover and become the communion with God we truly are.

Thus, I should also note that in this prayer experience I came home to myself, and I discovered that that was something I carried within myself all the time. This realization is part of the essence of Christian peace or Jewish shalom. It is what Jesus knew so well and what allowed him to live the poverty and marginality he did, to have no place to call his own, no place to lay his head and yet, be rich, centered, and completely at home wherever he went as well as compassionate and loving with whomever he dealt. Each of us is asked to recognize that "home" (what Rohr calls the true self) is a celebratory event within us where God and our selves cannot be teased apart; thus heaven exists proleptically within us in this way. Just as God is a trinitarian communion, so are we at our core a communion with God. This communion IS our true self and it is the essence of the human heart. If we are not feeling at home, if we are anxious and insecure, I think we must recognize that this ALWAYS happens to the extent we are separated from this core communion and live instead from our false selves. Quite often that means looking, often frantically and desperately for home apart from that core communion which constitutes us. The focus of Lent is on dealing with the separation from this communion that exists in our lives, but more about that later.

The second truth associated with the prayer experience I described, and part of the bedrock of personal truth I hold onto and try to live out more and more fully turns on my impression that while I had the WHOLE of God's attention, concern, love, etc, and while he was completely delighted in this communion we shared, every other person was loved as exhaustively, held God's attention in the same way, delighted God as completely and, in the core of their being WERE the very same all-consuming communion with God that I am in my deepest core. In my own life, especially in my youth, it was very easy to see myself as different from most others and, in fact, I was encouraged in that whether it was because of intelligence, academic achievement, an interest in classical music (not too common in my neck of the woods in kids my age!), musical talent, etc. Later other things supported and encouraged this way of seeing reality too: religious vocation and separation from that, chronic illness (and a unique or at least very rare form of that as well!),  an eremitical vocation, etc, etc. Our culture supports and nurtures this often merely-worldly way of seeing reality, this way of measuring and categorizing it which ignores the other side of the paradox. And in some ways, both legitimately and illegitimately, so do dimensions of our Church.

But prayer does not. God does not. A sound theology of the self does not. An inspired theology of vocation does not support or nurture this way of seeing reality or living our lives. Instead they call us to recognize our specialness while we recognize the same (and sameness!) in everyone else. More, they call us to recognize that God's love for us is what constitutes us as both special and the same as others. After all, God, as my prayer experience taught me, is great enough to hold these two parts of a profound paradox together without conflict. If that is so, then so must I and so must the Church, both as People of God, and the institution we identify with hierarchy --- or we cease to be true to ourselves and live from the false self rather than the true. Spirituality is about living and learning to live this foundational paradox.

The focus of Lent

The focus of Lent is therefore a perfect opportunity to take hold of this paradox. Penance, Prayer and almsgiving are all meant to allow us to embrace the deepest truth of ourselves and of others more fully. Penance demands we identify the areas of our lives which support the life of the false self. In terms of this post it is any discipline which helps us attend to what causes us to seek home (rest, peace, shalom, quies) apart from communion with God right where we are.  It is any discipline, or practice which helps strip away whatever prevents us from becoming all flame (true self, communion with God). It is any discipline or practice which assists us in overcoming the separation which exists between us and others because we cannot and will not see others as essentially the same as ourselves. It is any practice which helps us to pray our lives and become the living prayer God made us to be.

Prayer will both remind us of our separation from our true selves (the communion which exists at the heart of our being) and allow God to draw us more fully into that reality. It is the most fundamental way we become one with ourselves, with God, and with others. If it becomes a way of setting ourselves apart or distinguishing ourselves, then we have perverted it and should talk to someone who can assist us in this. Ideally, almsgiving is the opportunity to share our own specialness and gifts in a way which convinces others of their own specialness and gifts. We give not only because others have needs, but because we are convinced those others are every bit as special in this world, and certainly in God's Kingdom, as we are. It reminds us of our relation to others, and of the delight God experiences in loving them. If our almsgiving separates us from others, if it reinforces senses of our own superiority and  essential difference from others, then what was a near-occasion of grace has become instead at least a near-occasion of sin. (If we take on almsgiving to assert our difference and supposed superiority, it has crossed over into actual sin.)

The Call and Permission of Desert Spirituality

Like Jesus who was drawn into the desert by the Holy Spirit so that he could commune with God and consolidate his truest, deepest identity, Lent is given to us so we can, for just the space of 40 days, cut ourselves loose from the ways the world demands we see, establish, and identify ourselves and entertain a different truth, a more eternal identity, a more authentic self. The Church calls us to this, but more, her call gives us a freeing permission to do this while the world is clamoring that we embrace something else entirely. Lent is a chance for us to move from simply being called, remarkable as that is, to letting ourselves be God's chosen ones. It is an opportunity to make the paradox, "I am infinitely special and called to eternal communion with God; everyone is infinitely special and called to the same exhaustive and eternal communion with God" the bedrock upon which we live our lives. It is an opportunity to discover our truest at-homeness exists deep within us and is something we can live out even as we are profoundly marginalized in terms of the world. My prayer is we each find significant ways to let this Lenten opportunity grasp and transform us.

11 February 2013

LCWR Responds to news of Benedict's Impending Resignation

[[The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) thanks Pope Benedict XVI for his many years of tireless service to the Catholic Church and for the contributions he has made as a theologian, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as pope. We respect his integrity in making what must have been a difficult decision to resign and promise him our prayer as he prepares to leave the papacy. May he be richly blessed for his profound dedication to the service of the Gospel.]]

Pope Resigns Effective Feb 28th

Benedict leaves consistory after announcement
Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will resign on February 28th, only the fifth man to do so, the first for reasons of health, and the third for the welfare of the Church. I think this is a decision to be greatly respected; it is especially informed by the lingering and powerless end of John Paul II's pontificate when the Pope was truly unable to exercise his Office with vigor (and perhaps independence) of any sort. Benedict XVI is setting a precedent of conscience in the modern Church which, one hopes, future Popes (and their Curia!) will also honor in their own lives. Just as he did in explaining the place of conscience in elections, Benedict has shown that primacy of conscience, and the formation of an ability to discern and preference competing values and then to act on one's conscience judgment is demanded at every point in one's life as a Catholic --- no matter how significant one's role nor how ever unpopular or unusual this judgment may be. God's authentic Tradition is a living and vibrant one and this certainly includes the Petrine ministry.

Not all may see it this way of course, JP II's former personal secretary, Stanislaw Dzwisz, noted: [[“Pope John Paul II decided to stay on the papal throne until the end of his life because he felt that it is not right to come down from the cross." This may or may not have been a veiled criticism of Benedict, however (some commentators suggested it was); Dziwisz may have been defending the prudence and justice of JP II's decision in light of numerous comments of admiration and respect for Benedict's integrity and concern for the welfare of the Church in this matter. Whatever the truth of the matter in this regard, I think we have to understand that the papacy is a ministry in the Church and that, like all ministries, it requires those who can fulfill its requirements with their whole selves. The charism of infallibility alone does not assure that a Pope is adequate to fulfill this ministry well, especially in the face of age-related frailty and illness. Neither is this automatically a person's cross unto death or resignation would not even be a possibility, much less provided for canonically. Neither of these trumps what Benedict's decision says about the place of  primacy of conscience and prudential judgment in determining what one is called to do in order to act responsibly in this ministerial role.

Let us pray for Benedict XVI, in gratitude for his courage, theological and personal integrity, and his prudence in this matter; let us also pray for his continuing good health. His statement summarizing his decision follows:

"Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

 For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer."

08 February 2013

Posts on Vocations: Political Correctness or the Way of the Kingdom of God?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what you write about [vocational] equality and so forth sounds very pleasing and politically correct, but it conflicts with what the Scriptures say. Matthew 22:14 says that many are called, but few are chosen. Many are called to lay life, but few are chosen to  be Brides of Christ.  Every Christian is called to Baptism but very few are chosen for religious life or the priesthood. I'm sorry but what you write says to me that maybe you don't even appreciate enough the gift of your own call to religious life. Plus you are a hermit! How rare is that??? God has chosen you to be his Bride. You are like the beloved disciple!! How often do you thank God for such a special vocation?]]

First, thanks for your comments. I suspect a number of people who read my recent posts may have felt the same way about them. We are truly "wedded" to the notion that God calls people and then, out of that number, chooses a few to be his elect --- as though the meanings of being called or elected means for God or for Christians (or for Matthew in the passage you cited) what it means in the world at large --- namely, that if I am chosen, then someone else must be left "unchosen", if I am special, then someone else must be ordinary, etc. Add to this the notion that too often the Church's theology has not done justice to ALL vocations while stressing the specialness of a few and it is no wonder we tend to be unable to see the specialness of one vocation without denigrating others. In other words we tend to see with the eyes, heart, and mind of the world rather than those of the Kingdom. In my recent posts I have tried to present a different way of seeing, a paradoxical, Kingdom way of seeing that does justice to the specialness of every vocation and affirms their common source, meaning, and goal.

One source of real difficulty is using sayings like the one you cited from Matthew out of their historical and cultural context as a bit of "bumper sticker theology" and thus accepting our ordinary world of competition, elitism, individualism, etc as the normal context driving our interpretation. When we do this we read this line as though it says God calls everyone to ordinary life and then somehow, he sorts folks out and, based on some obscure calculus (better scores on some secret Sanctity Aptitude Test) and the notion that God loves them better because of this, decides that some are called to something "more", some to greater intimacy, some to more radical discipleship, etc. while the rest are simply consigned to second class vocations (and thus, one can only presume, the "cheap seats" in heaven)! But Matthew's use of being called and being among the chosen (the elect) in the parable of the wedding guest does NOT support such a view.

Remember the way the parable goes (Matthew 22:1-14): a king invites people to his Son's wedding banquet and all of those who are invited first have more important things to do. They decline the invitation and some of them actually seize and kill the slaves bearing the invitations. (In other words they are called but will not be among the elect or chosen because they refuse to be.) The King punishes the guilty and then sends his servants out to invite everyone they find to the wedding banquet. The wedding hall is thus filled with guests. In the third act of the parable though the King notices that a guest is present without a proper wedding robe and confronts him. The man is speechless (always a sign of disobedience, lack of faith, and ingratitude in the NT) and the King is upset.  He has the man thrown out into the "outer darkness" and concludes the story with the statement, "For many [meaning the all composed of multitudes] are called, but few are chosen."

For the purposes of this post we especially need to see clearly that the distinction between called and chosen is one of response. ALL are called, not all respond as is appropriate. Some put the wedding banquet lower on their list of priorities than it deserves. Some respond with violence and kill the messengers. Some receive the invitations, prepare themselves appropriately to honor and thank the King and his Son, and enter the banquet properly attired. And one guest receives the invitation but does not honor the occasion, the King, or his Son properly; he simply comes improperly attired, and ultimately he is thrown out into the outer darkness.

To be chosen in this parable is not about God calling some to a more radical discipleship than others; it is not about being called to a more intimate relationship with God; it is about accepting the invitation God has extended and thus living in a consistent, thoroughgoing way a life which IS an appropriate (i.e., a grateful) response to such a wonderful invitation. It is about living in a way which does not shame the King or his Son but instead delights them and becomes a source of real joy for them and inspiration for others. (Recall that Matthew was dealing with a community in which Christians had fallen away from their faith in the face of persecution, and yet had returned to the community and were very much like the guest without the proper attire. Their behavior was inappropriate and ungrateful; it dishonored the King and his Son, and the Church struggled with what to do with these Christians whose lives had been so disedifying.)  [Addendum  2/11/2013 :  Please note, I just read today that Richard Rohr in Immortal Diamond, The Search for our True Self offers the following translation of Matt 22:14, "I am calling all of you,  but very few of you allow yourselves to be chosen"!  I could not agree more with the sense it conveys so well!]

As I have said here many times, Vatican II asserted clearly that ALL are called to an exhaustive holiness, and all-consuming union with God. The chosen, the elect, are those who accept this call and live their entire lives as a wholehearted response to it. What is meant to be radical here (meaning at the root where radix equals root) is one's following of Christ WITHIN this specific vocation. With regard to the recent discussion on consecrated virginity of women living in the world this means not only living out one's consecration, but doing so in a secular life which wholly honors the Incarnation and the Sacramental character of all of creation. Turning a secular life into a Religious or quasi religious one could actually be ungrateful --- a way of refusing to live their discipleship radically or coming to the banquet clothed as truly honors the King and his Son.

Similarly, for a person called to marriage, embracing celibacy is not a more radical form of discipleship, but a less radical form. Instead they are called to live out the gift, challenge, and sacredness of sexual or married love in a way which images Christ's exhaustive love for each and all of us. For parents Religious poverty would not be a more radical form of discipleship, but a less radical one. Instead they are called to live the evangelical counsel of poverty in ways which allow them to raise children (a constantly sacrificial way of living), do business justly in the secular world (also sacrificial),  and contribute in a multitude of ways to a world where everyone has what they need and the Kingdom of God is made real. In these ways and others married persons live a radical discipleship.

When I consider the sacrifices married couples and parents make on a daily basis I am personally struck by just how radical a call to follow Christ this is. The degree of sacrifice seems to me to be much greater than anything Christ asks for from me. Each vocation has tremendous sacrifices and rewards of course; in each one to the degree we accept the invitation of intimacy with Christ we experience being truly chosen. Still, I honestly cannot say that the vows I have made call for a greater sacrifice, much less greater holiness than two people giving their lives for their families, children, and God. In fact, in many ways I think that God has asked me for far less --- though this too is a worldly way of thinking and I try to resist it. The truth is God asks for everything from us in WHATEVER vocation he calls us to. If what one lives is a less-than-radical discipleship it is because they refuse to live as God's chosen ones in whatever state of life they are called to.

Does this mean I don't esteem the vocation God has called me to? Just the opposite I think. I do not honor or delight God when I treat other vocations as less radical, less significant, a less exhaustive call to holiness or intimacy with God. How does it honor God to make him into a completely worldly character who parcels out his love, indeed, his very self, a little to this person, more to another, a lot to a third, etc? I don't believe it does. I believe it substitutes worldly values for those of God's Kingdom. The hierarchy in the Church is a hierarchy of service, not of value or the specialness of vocation. Beyond this, it is NOT the way the Kingdom will be structured; the Kingdom is anti-hierarchical and wholly egalitarian.

Yes, indeed I am "the" beloved disciple --- no less and no more than the person in the Gospel of John. At least I am called to live out and to live out of this truth; thus, if there is a difference between us it is in our responses to God's invitation. Notice in the Scriptures that this beloved disciple is never named; s/he is marked out by his/her faithfulness to Christ. This allows and even summons us to imagine ourselves in this position. Likewise we are called to see that this is equally true of the person sitting behind the "I need food" sign on the sidewalk outside the local grocery store or stumbling drunk in the alley behind it. After all this is God's truth!! The Scriptures invite us to this; to become the elect of God we "simply" have to accept the truth of it and live in light of that truth. I thank God almost every day for this special vocation, but I also thank God almost every day for the specialness of every other vocation --- just as I pray that we can each realize how truly special the call we have been given. (With regard to this last prayer I also pray that the Church will do a better job of portraying the amazing paradox involved: each vocation is unique and very special and each vocation in God's eyes is of the same value as every other.) I am convinced that what I have been writing here about vocations is not a matter of political correctness. No, quite the contrary; it is instead the way of the Kingdom of God and, for that reason, radically countercultural and prophetic.