02 February 2013

Called to a Union Most People only Realize in Heaven? Yes and No!

[[Dear Sister Laurel, In regard to your last blog post, I saw a video of a Nashville Dominican novice saying that, as a religious, she was called to a complete union with Christ that "most people only have in heaven." I'm not sure how that unpacks for her, but at best, I find it misleading. How does it comport with what you have been saying here?]]

Really great question and without clarifying some of what I have said already more carefully, this novice's comment might seem, at first glance at least, to agree with what I have written here recently. However, we are not in agreement; at least I don't think we are. As the CV whose emails I have shared some here wisely remarked, "An experience is not a vocation!" Conversely I think we have to say that a difference in vocation does not necessarily mean a difference in experience either. Let me say that if we are ALL called to union with God,  and every vocation is meant to witness to this eschatological destiny in some way, then this union CAN be experienced and I think we have to conclude that it is therefore MEANT to be experienced in every vocation in some substantive way. For ALL of us this union is experienced partially, fragmentarily, and with distortion here on this side of the eschatological divide**. But I honestly believe it is available to all of us nonetheless; if it is not, the universal call to holiness becomes absurd or relatively meaningless. At the same time, while experience and vocation are not identical, neither are they entirely separate from one another.

It is important that those called to Religious (or other forms of consecrated) life realize their actual experience of union in prayer may be no different from the Mother's in the line ahead of them at the grocery store --- or of the man bagging their groceries!! We simply cannot presume to know what kind of prayer lives or experiences of God these persons have, and we must not presume we are somehow "more advanced" or that we experience a kind of union they will never know this side of heaven. Further, to the extent these experiences of union DO differ, it may (as Rahner would agree) have more to do with our practice at the skills involved in cooperating with prayer (God's work within us) as well as with a kind of internal permission we are giving or withholding from ourselves than it does with the kind of prayer God gifts  (or desires to gift) us with!.

While it is true that God can gift any person with infused contemplation and break through the obstacles we present, that is a rare thing; more often what is true is that the obstacles we put up to various prayer experiences either by believing we are unworthy, by suggesting these belong "only to Religious", by believing prayer is only about saying prayers, by failing to commit to prayer as a regular, disciplined, and significant part of our lives, or by simply not even knowing or imagining such things as experiences of union with God are possible for us, --- all of these and more have a detrimental effect on our prayer's scope and depth. Given the commonness of these situations we can hardly conclude that anyone subject to such obstacles is not called by God to the same union with God here and now which a Religious man or woman is any more than we can say someone who is deprived of access to music lessons is not really called to know the ecstasy of music like someone with access is. It would be analogous to saying that because someone grows up with inadequate nutrition and health care, this translates into the conclusion that they are not called by God to know wellness and real vigor as is someone living a more privileged life here and now. Deprivation, for whatever reason or in whatever form it occurs, does not automatically translate into an objective lack of vocation.

If what this novice meant was that few people subjectively experience what she has experienced and will not do so until they exist in heaven, then her statement is a true one. If what she meant was that objectively God calls some few to experience union with him here and now (especially those who are called to be Religious), but not the majority of people, then I strongly disagree. Lives of prayer and service, lives of authentic love participate AND culminate in union with God. All the paths to this goal share intimately and integrally in the goal. One of the things we teach most poorly (if at all!) is prayer. One of the things we model least well is the universal call to prayer and holiness. Prayer is not merely for specialists, not for experts. Prayer is for human beings who realize they are called to union with God and that they are called to allow that to be as real as possible this side of heaven. On this Feast of the Presentation, a Feast which originally meant "encounter," that is surely something we should help every person in every vocational path to understand and embrace seriously.

Unfortunately, it is precisely in the area of prayer, precisely  in our approach to union with God, as well as in regard to the evangelical counsels that support prayer and to which all Christians are called that we have made things most elitist. The truth is that each of us are called on to serve our brothers and sisters as a paradigm or model of some dimension or expression of this union and of the place prayer serves in the life of the Church.  Married people witness to the incredible union of exclusive (but not exclusivistic) and fecund love in ways my own life can never do, for instance. Religious serve as paradigms of a more universally available love centered in and empowered by community and expressed in the relation between commitment, prayer, and service to the whole human family in ways a married couple may not be able to do. Hermits witness with their lives to the complete sufficiency of divine love alone, to the solitary nature of prayer, and to a quies or hesychasm the world cannot give; it is important to remember that solitude is a dialogical or communal reality however, and that this is a vocation of service lived for the salvation of others.

Priests witness especially profoundly to the Sacramental nature of our world, to the priority of the Word of God and the ministry of reconciliation the whole Christian People is entrusted with, as well as to the need for every Christian to serve their brothers and sisters in making all of these real in their own lives and in our Church and world. CV's living in the world witness to the reality of spousal union here and now and remind us each especially that heaven means the transfiguration of this world by the sovereign and spousal love of God. Those among the laity are called to witness to the profound presence of God in ordinary reality and model lives of faithfulness and prayer/union which transform their families, friendships, neighborhoods, businesses, etc. It is probably the most challenging and least commonly esteemed vocation I have mentioned thus far.

Meanwhile all of these vocations and others overlap and support one another in the gifts, graces, and challenges they bring to our church and world. None of them are exclusive to one vocation or another (with the exception of marriage and the sanctity of sexual love). At the heart of each is a call to union with God even when each serves as a paradigm of the different ways this can be reached and expressed for the good of others. I think we really have to embrace this notion of paradigmatic service wholeheartedly and reject the elitism which still so riddles some of our approaches to "states of perfection" and vocations to the consecrated state.

** eschatological divide, a phrase I like very much,  is a term I got from a friend and CV.