31 May 2013

Feast of the Visitation

Jump for Joy  by Eisbacher

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

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

On Spiritual Friendship, both formal and informal:

I personally love Eisenbacher's picture above because it reminds me of one privileged expression of such spiritual friendship, namely that of spiritual direction. I can remember many meetings with my own director where there was immense surprise and joy at the sharing involved, but one time in particular stands out --- especially in light of today's Gospel. I had experienced a shift in my experience of celibacy. Where once it mainly spoke to me of dimensions of my life that would never be fulfilled (motherhood, marriage, etc), through a particular prayer experience it had come to be associated instead with espousal to Christ and my own sense of being completed and fulfilled as a woman. As I recall, when I met with my director to share about this experience, I spoke softly about it, carefully, a little bashfully --- especially at first; but I also gained strength and greater confidence in the sharing of it. (I was not uncertain as to the nature of what I had experienced, but sharing it allowed it to claim me more completely and let me claim a new sense of myself in light of it.) My director listened carefully, and only then noted that she had always prayed for such a grace for all her novices (she had been novice director for her congregation); she then excused herself and left briefly. When she returned she had a CD and CD player with her. Together we sat quietly, but joyfully and even a bit tearfully celebrating what God had done for us while we listened to John Michael Talbot's  Canticle of the Bride.

Elizabeth and Mary come together as women both touched in significant ways by the mystery of God. They have trusted God but are not yet completely clear regarding the greater mystery or how this experience fits into the larger story of Israel's redemption. They are both in need of one another and especially of the perception and wisdom the other can bring to the situation so that they can truly offer God and God's plan all the space and time these require. Hospitality, especially giving God hospitality, takes many forms, but one of the most important involves coming together to share how God is active in our lives in the hope of coming to a greater and more life giving perspective, faith, and commitment. It is in coming together in this way that we clarify, encourage, challenge and console one another. It is in coming together in this way that we become the prophetic presence in our world God calls us to be. Let us all be open to serving as friends to one another in this sense. It is an essential dimension of being Church and of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

To my pastor John,  to Bob, Bill, and all of the Oblates of St Francis De Sales as well as to all Visitation Sisters and Nuns, my very best wishes on this feastday! You are wonderful examples of such sacred friendship. I am grateful to know you.

28 May 2013

What does it Mean to Live in the Present Moment?

[[Dear Sister, could you please write about what it means to be attentive to or "live in" the present moment? I have heard about this a lot but it is hard for me to understand. For example I need to plan for the future; does that mean I am not attentive to the present moment? Some-times I love to think about my past and the ways God has blessed me. Does this mean that I am not focused on the present moment? How could this be true? I keep thinking there must be some trick to this [idea of dwelling in or being attentive to the present moment] because the moment I feel like I am focused on the present moment that moment is gone! It reminds me of those optical illusions: when you look straight at them they slip away or turn into something else.]]

The Eternal God and Absolute Futurity

I like your sense of humor in all of this and yes, I think you are right that there is a kind of "trick" to it. Your observation on optical illusions is also very apt I think. From a theological point of view we are drawn into the future by God; God IS (the) absolute future so when we speak of being attentive to the present moment  (i.e., to the constant inbreaking of futurity) we are really speaking about living in God and allowing ourselves to be gifted by him at each moment of our lives.  Here is where I think your comment on optical illusions is especially appropriate because if we try to focus on achieving this by our own efforts, or look at time "straight on" as though it was an object somehow under our control, or if we think of the present moment as something other than the constantly renewed inbreaking of futurity we will miss our goal of attentiveness to the present moment entirely. Again, our experience of future is our share in God's own life and that is where our focus must be, not on time as separate from that. Our openness to futurity (and thus to the present moment) is a conscious share in eternal life and occurs as God draws us into it and into Godself. We can only be open to it and receive it as gift. As with the optical illusions you referred to, in part that means relaxing some and simply letting things come to us as they will.

Not too long ago I wrote about our hunger or yearning for newness and I pointed out the difference between the Greek words for newness. You may remember I spoke of kainotes or kaine as a qualitative newness which is tied to God's eternity. It differs from neos which is simply a newness in time or mere novelty (e.g., yesterday I did not own this book or this new pair of shoes, today I do). I noted that God is always new in the sense of kainotes because he is eternal and that God is eternal because he is "Living" or eternally new and makes all things new as well. cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Always Beginners and/or Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: On Divine Paradox Theology's sense of God as absolute future is directly related to all of this and too to our experience of the gift of abundant or eschatological life.

This is one reason some theologians refer to God and the Kingdom of God as "The Eternal Now" (cf some of the sermons of Paul Tillich in a book of the same name). This is part of the reason I speak of heaven as a share in God's own life or sovereignty. Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: On the Feast of the Ascension Time (and the passage of time) is a dimension of our still-limited share in God's life, in the absolute future. It, especially as the inbreaking of futurity, must be continually renewed, continually received as gift until that day when God is all in all. Meanwhile our yearning for qualitative newness (kaine!) is also our yearning for the absolute future we identify as eternity; it is a yearning for the "day" (the eternal now) when our own share in the absolute future which is God's own life is fully realized.

Living in the present moment as Celebration!

All that said let me try to deal with your specific questions.  When you focus in a prayerful (i.e., an attentive and grateful) way on how God has blessed you in the past, you open yourself to God here and now and thus to future blessings and the blessings of futurity. Sometimes events of the past can constrain us and prevent openness to the future. For instance, this can happen when such events traumatize us or when we are unable to accomplish the healing of forgiveness. The past can also be merely constraining as when our relationship with it is one of mere sentimentality or when we enshrine it in forms of dead traditionalism and language. (This latter can be a serious instance of resistance to and even sin against the Holy Spirit!) But none of these are what you are describing here.

What you have described instead is a form of celebration and it seems to me that genuine celebration is always a way of living in the present moment which frees us from any enslaving constraints of the past and thus opens us to the future (or perhaps better said, marks us as open to the future, as truly drawn by and into the future). When we think of the Eucharist, for instance, it is significant that the very making present of the risen Christ in the consecration  is accompanied by Jesus' command that, "Whenever you do this remember me" (or, "do this in remembrance of me"). The rite of penance and the reading of our ancient Scriptural stories, for instance, also work in this way; they provide us a means of remembering which opens us to futurity and newness. Celebration is precisely that attitude and act of remembering which makes the past a present reality in a way which leaves us free and thus draws us into the future. This is very different from the ways the past may bind and enslave us and leave us unable to embrace the future.

You also speak of planning for the future and wonder if that means you are not being attentive to the present moment.  I think that so long as your planning does not mean being completely controlling of what will or can happen or does not refer to a lack of openness to the surprising ways life and meaning come to us you are okay. The paradox though (there is ALWAYS paradox!) is that if we do not do some planning for the future it cannot break in on us in the way it is meant to. Instead it will simply pass us by relatively untouched. We will be older, more bored by and perhaps more quietly despairing of the mere passage of time, but the future will not have broken in on us in the powerful way we know and mark with Pentecost for instance. (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Always Beginners) Remember that the inbreaking of futurity is not simply the arrival of empty time, but the arrival of a reality filled with meaning and hope that creates genuine future; it is the arrival of the presence of God to, for, and with us. Planning ordinarily indicates our own awareness of the limitations of time, an awareness of our own limitations in truly engaging with it, and our openness to the inbreaking of absolute future. Besides the relaxation spoken of above such openness requires work (cooperation) on our own part. It also requires structure or "routine".

This is one of the reasons hermits have Rules and horaria. Our days are structured in ways which allow opportunities for the inbreaking of God's powerful presence and for celebration of this presence. There is plenty of time and actual provision for prayer, personal work (journaling, the work connected with spiritual direction, etc), and recreation (not the same as mere entertainment!). Also built into the hermit's days are different kinds of prayer, different types and degrees of silence and solitude, and different kinds of penance (practices which generally are meant to help extend and support the celebration of the present moment we call  prayer; for some the very imposition of structure or routine is a piece of eremitical penance!).

I personally disagree with hermits who have no essential structure or shape to their days and say, for instance, that they depend entirely on responding to the Holy Spirit at each moment as the Spirit determines. I suspect they are fooling themselves --- at least a lot of the time; I am afraid that more often than not, time is merely sliding by in relative unfruitfulness and unresponsiveness. (Occasional desert days where we leave the usual schedule behind are important as PART of the overall structure of the life; so is sufficient time for true monastic leisure. By the way, I am also generally skeptical of the approach of spiritual direction clients, for instance, who make no room for formal prayer periods in their days and say, "Oh I pray all the time during the day and that's what works for me.") While we cannot force the Holy Spirit with the structure we build into our days, we can assist ourselves in achieving necessary attentiveness and focus in this way; we can create opportunities for the Spirit to touch, heal, convert, and thus draw us into the future. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those hermits whose horaria are so rigid and inflexible that the Spirit is given little space to work real newness or bring them beyond where they already are.

I haven't spoken about the more mundane elements involved in living in the present moment except by way of allusion (healing of memories, the place of spiritual direction and therapy, the role of journaling, the place of detachment which helps break the bonds of enmeshment, etc.); instead in this post I have mainly spoken of the theological underpinnings of the idea of living in the present moment and intended it as a beginning.  Because of this I think it is likely this response will raise more questions for you. If so, or if I need to clarify something, please get back to me. In the meantime, the following post may also be of some help: Notes From Stillsong: A Missed Opportunity, A Moment of Judgment

27 May 2013

Question on the Frequency of "snarky" emails I receive

[[Dear Sister Laurel, do you often get nasty or "snarky" emails ("snarky" is your word) from people? Can I ask what is the worst one you have ever received? Are these emails from people you know or are they even signed? I know these questions don't have anything to do with the usual topics of this blog but you have received a few comments I thought were pretty disrespectful so I wanted to ask about it. Do they upset you or your solitude?]]

Thanks for your questions. No, I really don't get many nasty or "snarky" emails from people. Ordinarily even those folks who disagree with me respect me and I think they know I respect them too. Thus their emails reflect that and my own responses do the same. Over the years there have been a handful or so of really rude comments but nothing recently. Usually they accompany material that would be good for me to write about so I do that. Sometimes I edit the comments so they are not so inflammatory, and sometimes I have left them as they were. Occasionally I get a comment that I don't know what to do with. The "worst" one was one of these. I still have it and a version of a response I created for this blog in draft form but never published. It (sans response) reads as follows:

[[Isn't your lifestyle rather like the bible's description of women unoccupied, gadding (sic!) about other people's business? Are you not a self seeking mind enriching glutton for self that is absorbed with as well [as] employed with the constant replenishment of your favorite thing ON EARTH ... YOU? Isn't that why you are . . . judgmental and FULL of LISTS of your so-called accomplishments? NONE of which will either GET YOU TO HEAVEN or PREVENT YOU BEING SENT TO THE END OF THE TABLE? Bragging. Degrees. Criticism of others... not CHRIST like at all. A woman without regard for headship---- uncovered TEACHING and self promoting. Pictures LINE EACH PAGE of YOURSELF. Of OTHERS WHO LIVE LIKE YOU because that further validates the most sacred thing to you - YOU. You are in the business of doing nothing.]] (Other than italics, nothing is revised in printing this post.)

In this post there are several important misunderstandings of the nature of eremitical solitude and life and I will probably write about those again at some point ---I think I have already done so indirectly and I have certainly spoken of stereotypes here. Additionally I have sometimes written about the challenges of writing or participating online or about my decision not to allow comments on this blog. In the first case we sometimes see anonymity bringing out the very worst in people; it is a tremendously disappointing phenomenon. In the second case emails such as this one reinforce my sense that allowing comments makes the boundaries between this hermitage blog and those outside it too porous. This comment is meant to disparage, to wound, to hurt, to insult; it is judgmental and generally rooted in ignorance. It was indeed anonymous (unsigned) and posted under a screename I did not know; I do find that most such comments are similarly unsigned. No real surprise there I am sure.

As for whether such comments upset me or disrupt my solitude, the answer is generally no, they don't. They do surprise and sometimes dismay --- not least because ordinarily they admit of no real response and tend to be made up of a tissue of fabrications and misunderstandings. I often wonder why someone would feel they actually knew me well enough to write such things --- or whether they would write such things to their own sister or mother for instance. But why should they upset me or disturb the silence of solitude in which I live?

Remember that the silence of solitude is a communal reality created by dialogue with and in God. It is the quies which results when one is at peace with God. It is the silence of solitude that comes from two hearts being joined in love for the sake of others. Such diatribes cannot upset or disturb this kind of peace. Well-founded criticism is a different matter --- not because it seriously disturbs peace in God, but because it must be seriously addressed and CAN be upsetting in the short term. Thus, well-founded criticism helps shatter any complacency that pretends at being true hesychia. I always listen to and consider criticism. But too often with these kinds of emails that is simply another matter. In the meantime such persons as the one authoring the above comment are added to my prayers. What more can I do?

25 May 2013

Michael C Barber Ordained and Installed as New Bishop of Oakland

 I have never been to the ordination of a Bishop before. Of course in the Diocese of Oakland we have never celebrated the ordination and installation of a Bishop in one fell swoop before so this was new for everyone. Despite the amazingly short time frame involved (three weeks from announcement of the appointment to ordination), the Diocese of Oakland's liturgy for the ordination and installation of Michael Barber, SJ, was well done and though the doors of the cathedral opened at 10:00am for seating, there was a substantial line of ticket holders by 9:15 am.

The readings were more than appropriate. The first lection was Jeremiah 1:4-9 where, despite claims of youth and lack of wisdom ("I do not know how to speak for I am but a youth") God affirms that he has known Jeremiah since the womb and chosen him to be consecrated since his birth. The Lord puts forth his hand, touches Jeremiah on the mouth and sends him forth, commissioned to speak the words the Lord himself has empowered. At the end of the liturgy, Bp Barber reminded the assembly that until three weeks ago he had never in his life dreamt of being Bishop of Oakland, but that he knew in his heart that God had called him to this vocation and that with the help of the Lord, Mother Mary, and the whole Church he would fulfill this call. He spoke with faith and with real passion; the assembly stood and applauded --- both a  sign that they heard the sincerity of his commitment and of their own commitment to assist this new Bishop in serving the Church of Oakland and the Universal Church.

The Gospel was the account of Jesus' rehabilitation of Peter (John 21:15-17). Peter asks Jesus three times if he loves him and after each response by Peter, Jesus answers by commissioning Peter to feed and tend God's sheep. It concludes with the saying that when one was young one could go where one wanted but that now someone would gird him and lead him where he would not want to go.

The homily was given by Abp Cordileone who began his reflections with recent comments by Francis, interspersed a comment that he suspected Jeremiah might have wanted to ask God if he was sure he had gotten the right Jeremiah; (Michael Barber is one of three Jesuits by that name so when word of the appointment came his response was, "Are you sure you have the right Michael Barber?"). But, humor aside, the seriousness of the occasion was well reflected with the readings. Cordileone reminded us in a paraphrase of a well-known quote that none are qualified to be called, but that God qualifies those God calls. Significantly, he reminded Bishop Barber that he stands under the Gospel --- something symbolized by the fact that during his ordination the book of Gospels is opened and literally laid over the kneeling newly ordained Bishop's head. Finally he asked Bishop Barber to be prepared to truly lay down his life for his community/diocese. (I am sorry not to be able to justice to this homily; parts of it were difficult for me to hear and others were very clear.)

During his remarks at the end of the liturgy Bp Barber spoke of the style of colla-boration he favored. Many in attendance would have noted the significance of the word "collaboration." Further, Bp Barber's references to Pope Francis and his own desire to be a true servant leader with a focus on the poor and marginalized both today and at other events are hopeful signs for the diocese. Also during his remarks thanks were offered for Abp Alexander Brunett who served the diocese as Apostolic Adminstrator and quickly won the hearts of the diocese's priests and people because he was perceived as a true shepherd and pastor. Bp Barber noted that when the history of the Bishops of the diocese is told  Abp Alexander will be known not merely as the Apostolic Administor but the Beloved Apostolic Administrator. Brunett received a standing ovation in thanks for his service to the diocese as did Bp Emeritus John Cummins who yet serves and remains beloved by the entire diocese. Both men serve as good models of episcopal leadership and Cummins will continue to live here in Oakland. It is hoped that some of the directions taken by Abp Alexander Brunett will be adopted by Bp Barber so that the impetus which Abp Brunett began in dealing with such matters as diocesan finances and clergy morale can continue.

The ordination of course was rich in symbolism: the laying on of hands (all Bishops present participated in this), anointing with oil, giving of the ring --- a symbol of fidelity to the Church as Bride of Christ (Bp Michael choose to use one of his late Father's rings for this), giving of the mitre and crozier, and then, the accompanying of Bp Michael to the cathedra or chair.  At this point there was a fraternal kiss offered by all the Bishops present. Once the altar was readied for the Eucharist Bp Michael Barber assumed his place as principal celebrant. (I should note that he speaks well, and he can really sing --- always a considerable plus!!) During the Eucharistic prayer Bp Michael prayed that the gifts given to him in his commission/consecration might be well-used by God through the power of the Spirit. (Forgive the  inadequate paraphrase.) He seemed visibly moved at this point as the  words of the prayer triggered a fresh awareness and reaffirmation of how God was both gifting and challenging him. Communion was followed by the Te Deum as Bishop Barber moved throughout the cathedral exuberantly offering God's blessing to all in attendance. (I thought of his gestures as a wonderfully joyful reverence that fairly shouted resurrection and Pentecost! He looked ecstatic as he moved throughout the cathedral (and outside it to the overflow crowds) and related well to the assembly, making eye contact as much as possible and shaking hands with those he knew. Clearly the assembly was as enthusiastic for both Bp Barber and for the diocese of Oakland; their welcome was a prayer for both.)

Abp Allen Vigneron
Abp John Quinn at Stanford Symposium
Also in atten-dance and parti-cipa-ting as concelebrants were Archbishop Allen Vigneron and Archbishop Emeritus John Quinn.  Abp Vigneron succeeded Bishop John Cummins upon his retirement and was himself succeeded by Abp Salvatore Cordileone when he was made Archbishop of Detroit. Personally I was glad to see him back in Oakland and very glad to be able to greet him briefly after the Mass since, as the one who perpetually professed me under canon 603, and someone I have had the pleasure of meeting with one on one, he holds a special place in my own heart. As a bit of a tangent let me just note that Archbishop Quinn has just published Ever Ancient, Ever New, a wonderfully readable reflection on the structures of the Church which can truly foster communion and which honor both the unity and diversity of the Church. He points to the use of synods, including deliberative synods (allowed for by Vatican II but never implemented), a wider use of patriarchates, and a functional distinguishing of the Pope's patriarchal and administrative powers. It was also good to be able to greet him briefly since I had spoken to him last a couple of months ago at a Symposium on Vatican II at Stanford University where he discussed the content of this new book in conjunction with his older work, The Reform of the Papacy --- a reflection on  John Paul II's Ut Unum Sint and response to the Pope's specific request for input on how to reform the papacy/curia. I recommend both books, especially given some of Francis' first steps as Bishop of Rome.

Meanwhile, back at the ordination, in Bp Barber's concluding remarks he of course thanked those participating in the day --- particularly the Papal nuncio, Bp Carlo Vigano, and through him, Pope Francis for his own warm and inspiring letter on the occasion of his ordination. Besides those already mentioned he specifically, and with profound emotion, thanked Archbishop Quinn who ordained him priest in 1985, Bp Cummins who baptized him (also with real enthusiasm and a bit of humor), and Sister Mary Jude, OP who was his 8th grade teacher. In trying to summarize what kind of Bishop he desired to be, Bp Michael noted that he wanted to do for the Diocese of Oakland what Francis was doing for the Universal Church. THAT comment was very well received. He honestly noted he did not know what he would do about the diocesan debt *** but he was very clear that if we are faithful to Christ and love one another, we can be very sure Christ will take care of us. That statement is not one of naive optimism I don't think. It commits us to use all the gifts and expertise at the diocese's disposal and to do so in collaboration with one another. Especially though, Bp Barber noted our call to take care of the poor, the sick, the suffering and marginalized; further he declared with real emotion that it was his intention that Christ would truly be the Bishop of Oakland. Again, it is Bp Michael's vocation and "with the help of God, the prayers of the people of Oakland, and the love of Mother Mary, (he) WILL fulfill it." The Diocese of Oakland certainly joins him in this prayer and hope!

*** At this point Bp Michael joked about taxing Amazon, but noted the Governor (who was actually seated in the front pew) had already done that; he followed this with a quip that this was probably the one diocese in the state and indeed, the country with a Jesuit Pope, a Jesuit Bishop, and a Jesuit governor. (See the video below for all of Bp Barber's remarks.)

21 May 2013

"It is all of a piece --- ecstasy and epilepsy"

Yesterday's reading from Mark is always challenging for me. It is the story of the Father with the epileptic Son. Because of my own seizure disorder I have struggled my entire adult life with the situation described and the questions raised in Mark 9:14-29. I have struggled with injuries and memories of injuries or the sense of ever-present danger and threat Mark describes so well. For many years every day and even every hour was marked by terror because of this and I yearned to be able to embody Jesus' admonition to, "Be not afraid." I have reflected long and hard on the accusation of the age's faithlessness. Especially though I have struggled personally with the last exchange between the disciples and Jesus: [["Why could we not drive the spirit out?" He said to them, "This kind can only come out through prayer."]]

My own struggle to understand and accept my chronic illness and the things it has made both impossible and --- more importantly! --- possible in my life eventually found its summary and resolution in the words of Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9) It underscored the importance of paradox in Christian life and especially the relationship of human poverty to Divine grace. So central was all of this to me that, as I have already noted here at other points, I used Paul's summary of the heart of an incarnational faith lived in and with Christ as the motto engraved on my perpetual (eremitical) profession ring.  I used the similar affirmation we find in the Gospel of John where Jesus responds to news of Lazareth's illness as a key text inspiring my life and therefore as a piece of the Scriptural underpinnings of my Rule, [[When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.]] But every once in a while someone captures this same dynamic and affirmation in words I have not heard before. Sometimes they do it in a way which speaks directly and powerfully to me and my own experience.

Yesterday at the end of Mass, my pastor read a brief passage from the book Unexpected News, Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes by Robert McAfee Brown. The passage was titled (not by Brown; it was part of a small anthology of reflections), "Down from the Mountaintop": [[ As soon as the 'religious experience' of the  transfiguration was over, Jesus goes down from the mountain to respond to human need, the healing of an epileptic boy. When the boy's distraught Father asks for help, Jesus does not respond, "Look, I 've just had a marvelous experience and I don't want to lose the glow." No, things are immediately earthy, human, even ugly --- for a person in an epileptic seizure is not a pretty sight. It is all of a piece --- ecstasy and epilepsy. This is what messiahship is all about: being in the midst of the poor, the sick, the helpless, those with frothing mouths. Messiahship --- just like Christian living --- is not just "mountaintop experiences" or "acts of concern for human welfare":  it is a necessary combination of the two.]]

 I am grateful to have been present for the reading of this brief reflection yesterday. It was a very powerful moment for me: affirming, shaking, a little tearful, challenging,  and consoling all at once.  Pentecost continues bestowing its unsettling and sustaining gifts of wind and fire. In the power of the Spirit and from the perspective of the Kingdom --- it is all of a piece:  Mountaintop experiences and years in the desert; a power made perfect in weakness; a  bit of human brokenness and poverty made a gift to others by the whole-making grace of God; mute isolation  transfigured into the rich communion and communicative silence of solitude; a life redeemed and enriched by love. It is all of a piece ---  epilepsy and ecstasy. I am grateful to have learned that. In fact, I am grateful to have needed and been called to learn that!

20 May 2013

On Pentecost, Prayer Experiences, and Vatican II

I have written in the past about a significant prayer experience I had where I felt I had God's entire attention, where God was absolutely delighted that I was "finally" there, and where I was completely assured that the rest of God's creation, paradoxically, enjoyed his entire attention as well. I have also written that from time to time I return to this prayer experience to tap into it again, to drink from its living waters, and to breathe in the strength of its Spirit. I do this because it still lives inside me; it is part of my living, daily memory and has not yet and (I strongly suspect) will never be exhausted of its riches. It serves still as a gateway to a "place" where God is waiting with much to show me. More, it serves as a gateway to that "place" where God is allowed to be completely attentive to me, the place created when he loves me as he wills to do and I am truly myself.For all of our clamoring and self-centeredness, our love of being at the center of attention and acclaim, it is hard to be the center of God's attention. It is hard, in other words, to be wholly and exhaustively loved by God. It calls for our whole selves to be illuminated by that attention and healed by that love.  And yet, this is one piece of today's Feast. Today God showers us with gifts and they are the gifts of God's very self. God gives us his full attention and showers us with all the riches that attention implies so that we ourselves might likewise give God and his Reign in our midst our full attention.  Today God equips us with the gifts which make us truly human and commissions us individually and communally to be his People in a world which hungers for this desperately.

Sunday morning at our parish Eucharist I had the sense that just as I sometimes touch back into that prayer experience which was so essentially "pentecostal" for me, our community also touched into an experience of the Spirit which has been muffled in the Church  for the past 30 or more years (and even in our own parish to some extent --- though not because of our pastor or staff!). We have all felt the renewed excitement and hope that has come with the election of Francis as Bishop of Rome (the title he himself consistently prefers). We have felt a sense that the reception of Vatican II that seemed to have been stopped and even reversed with the "Reform of the Reform" has begun again and we have watched as Francis makes choices about the way he will embody his Office and exercise the authority of the Church which inspire and give hope that the Spirit is truly alive and well in our Church. And today we celebrated that hope, that presence, --- the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit --- and the compelling commission that flows from it.

There was a renewed excitement and enthusiasm at the Mass. Our presider was Bishop emeritus Sylvester Ryan from Monterey, a lovely, down-to-earth and wholly pastoral man whose gentle voice also resonated with the power of a Spirit-empowered faith. (There was a kind of cognitive dissonance as this white-haired elderly priest proclaimed the joy and challenge of  Pentecost in a voice which echoed with strength and passion! It was a lovely picture of the reality of this event all by itself.)  He reminded us that at Christmas and Easter we celebrate something that HAS happened, but today on Pentecost we celebrate something that IS happening. He reminded us that Pope Francis had told folks in the Diocese of Rome that one should be able to see from the look on faces leaving Mass that they had really heard the Good News proclaimed. I think that there was no doubt that today that happened at St P's. We had fewer people present in the assembly than usual and yet the alleluia even before the Gospel and the great Amen both raised the roof.  People are open to the gift of the Spirit. They are hungry for it and excited by it.

It is important for me to tap into that prayer experience again from time to time. In doing so I am not merely indulging a past memory of something that took place 30 (or so!) years ago; instead it involves opening myself to a continuing reality which enlivens, nourishes, inspires, challenges, and commissions right here and now. Similarly I think the entire People of God needs to allow itself to tap back into the experience of wonder, excitement, hope, purpose, (and more than mere purpose ---mission!) occasioned by Vatican II in those early days. This is especially true if the memory has faded or we have become jaded with disappointment and enervated with fatigue because of the last 30-plus years or so. For each of us, doing so can open a window to the Holy Spirit which allows the Feast of Pentecost to be as amazing for us as it was for the early Church. God wishes to shower us with his attention and all the gifts his love brings. He asks us to truly allow this. Let Pentecost happen in the Church. Let Vatican II truly be fully received!!

17 May 2013

Followup on Legitimate Developments of the Vocation to Consecrated Virginity

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, thank you for answering my last question. You have written that one indication the vocation to consecrated virginity lived in the world is secular is that the Church does not make candidates for the consecration to live anything other than secular lives as they discern or prepare for consecration. Some are arguing that the vocation is growing into a kind of maturity and that by requiring changes in this they are just arguing for a more radical form of the life --- something that should have been required all along. I think someone asked you if some CV's wanted to live a more radical form of the life then why shouldn't they be able to? Could you comment on these two things together?]]

Thanks for your questions. The post you are referring to where someone asked me about developments of the life is either  Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Radical Secularity?, or Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Minimized Secularity, A Legitimate Development? In those I think I answer the question about legitimate developments and non-legitimate developments as well as what constitutes radicality in ANY vocation. What is critical to remember is first, that there have, in the main, been two forms of the vocation, one religious and one secular. The secular form (which was the initial form of the vocation) died out in the 12th Century and was wholly supplanted by the religious (cloistered monastic) form of the life. What canon 604 does is recover a valuable and consecrated secular vocation that had been entirely lost nine centuries ago. Secondly, we must remember that all vocations call one to follow Christ with one's whole self or wholeheartedly. Religious poverty is not necessarily more radical than the poverty embraced by a parent who sacrifices to give her child a college education or the advantages which lead to that, for instance.  These are different kinds of poverty, different expressions of it, but one is not necessarily more radical than the other. Other posts that speak to the radical nature of this secular vocation are, Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Followup to "Radical Secularity?", and Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Eschatological Secularity and CV's living in the World.

Given these and other posts I think we have to say that Canon 604 calls for a radical secularity lived in whole-hearted discipleship to Christ. As I noted in earlier posts, a vocation does not become more radical by changing its very nature. Thus, a more radical vocation to eschatological secularity does not become more radical by diminishing the element of secularity. Only by making it a more whole-hearted response to the One who issues the call does it become more radical. Both elements, the eschatological and the secular must be deepened and made whole-hearted in this response. Thus, one's life of prayer needs to grow and mature so that God is more and more sovereign in one's life, but so also does one's life of service to others --- something which is extended at least in part by one's life amongst and work with them. Also, in regard to c 604 we have to be very cautious in suggesting that some CV's,  by the very fact that they lived secular vocations, have not been living radically enough, especially if that suggestion is linked to notions that "younger CV's" are recovering the radical nature of the vocation while "older vocations" failed to live it. (I mention this because I have heard this argument made by some CV's and it sounds like it may be implicit in your question. My apologies if it is not.) This is simply not true and the Church's own documents and liturgy stresses the profoundly secular (but not secularist) nature of the vocation.

It is, of course, perfectly understandable then that CV's will try to live more and more radical lives of prayer and service in response to God and the needs of God's people. Faith leads to faith; deep calls to deep. Conversion is part of every vocation.  They might well choose to pray the LOH (more hours than the recommended Morning and Evening Prayer --- Night Prayer is a logical addition) especially since this is not the prayer only of Religious, but instead is the official prayer of the entire Church; they should already be building in time for contemplative or quiet prayer (what person of prayer does not?). But beyond this it seems to me the Church has been wise in not specifying other requirements, especially those which could be mistaken for the commitments of Religious which separate from the world or mitigate the secularity of the vocation. Any other tailoring of an individual CV's life of prayer (or service) should probably be left up to the virgin and her spiritual director; the Church has largely done this just as she has consecrated women living secular lives rather than Religious ones.

I hope this is helpful. If the links don't provide what you are looking for, please get back to me and try putting your question another way.

14 May 2013

The Eschatological Nature of the CV's Betrothal

[[Dear Sister, are you saying that consecrated virgins are not married to Christ? Also you claim to have a spousal relationship with Christ. Can you truly say your first experience of being with Christ once you were espoused to Him was not a unique experience for you? How can you say this was not dependent on your own virginity? My impression is that women DO image the relationship of bride better than men. I think the Church teaches this, doesn't she? Women are receptive and a CV images the receptivity required by the Church as a whole. Plus we DO refer to the Church as "she" don't we?]] (Questions culled from longer email)

Mary Magdalene
Thanks for your questions. First, in Notes From Stillsong: On Consecrated Virginity and the Nature of this Espousal I am not saying CV's are not espoused to Christ. Instead I am saying it is the risen and ascended Christ to whom they are espoused, not to the historical Jesus. For this reason I am also saying that we cannot speak of an "experience" which is directly analogous to the consummation of a human, historical marriage. The Christ to whom Religious men and women as well as CV's are espoused is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father and whose bodiliness is qualitatively distinct from anything we have known or can describe. We do not experience it in the same way as did the disciples who were privileged to experience the risen but unascended Christ, much less the historical Jesus. One clue to this is found in the Gospels themselves when Jesus warns Mary Magdalene not to cling to (or touch) him for he is not yet ascended to his Father. I believe this is applicable to each of us in our faith journey and reminds us that the Lord we put first in our lives is completely consistent with the Jewish Jesus of history, but that he is also very different than that; it therefore occurs to me that it just might have a particular application to CV's today who speak as the CV in the passage the questioner last quoted and I responded to. In other words, we who are espoused to Christ as Religious or CV's must not cling to the unascended Jesus and our espousals must not reflect such a temptation.

What I have therefore argued is that the CV's espousal is eschatological. It is real, of course, but it must not be narrowed or trivialized by romantic or sentimental notions of what such an espousal will be like in an overly-simplistic similarity to the historical marriage of man and woman. Remember that the CV is supposed to serve as an icon of the Church as Bride of Christ. The CV lives this out in space and time, but this does not lessen the transcendent nature of the ascended (and cosmic) Christ or the espousal itself. Every person is meant to assume a place in the very life of God. Every person is meant ultimately to live a spousal union with God. The Church as (literal!!) Body of Christ reminds us of this destiny, where her true life is in God and God is in her. Consecrated Virgins are a special gift to the Church because they remind us all of this eschatological destiny and call. They are paradigms of it and reflect the graces which are especially characteristic of such a Church, namely, that it is maternal, virginal, and spousal. that its Lord is Jesus Christ and that it lives these realities out proleptically here in space and time. For a single vocation to be an icon of such a calling I think is pretty awesome.

Because the Church is not really female, because throughout her history male as well as female religious have also  been espoused to Christ, because God is the source and model of both Fatherhood and Motherhood (God's Fatherhood is maternal as well as paternal), and because this espousal is eschatalogical and reminds us of a "time" beyond time when men and women will not be given in marriage nor be embodied as they are historically, I can't agree that women image this identity as "Bride of Christ" better than men. It is not that CV's represent human marriage pushed to the nth degree; rather it is that human marriage is a more or less limited reflection of the Divine espousal and fecundity in God which all are called to. We risk getting this all backwards if we start speaking of women as imaging the Bridal identity of the Church better than men do.  There have certainly been statements about the special fitness of women to image this Bridal identity better than men but my own sense is this does not rise to the level of Church teaching.  Again, the Church is not female, nor is the Kingdom of God, while Brides of Christ (or those espoused to Christ) are both male AND female.

Finally then, as far as my own experience of espousal goes, I honestly don't know how to speak of my "first being with Christ" after consecration (espousal) being any more unique than any other experience of Christ. This is partly because there is always newness about this relationship; it always brings me in contact with the eternal and ever-new (kainotes) God. Similarly, I gave my entire self to God in Christ and continue to grow in that giving. There was certainly a moment of definitive profession and consecration. Still, in this perpetual profession and consecration I gave myself to Christ as I had done in preparing for this moment and he gave himself to me in the same way he had always done so that together we might be a continuing gift to the Church and world. In fact I have to say that it is Christ's self gift to me that enabled my own profession; that self-gift did not only come after definitive commitment. None of this, I don't think, would have been different if I had once been married or once lived in a public state of unchastity. What differed significantly was the public nature of the mutual gift, the assumption of new rights and obligations, the establishment of other life and legal relationships which would guide and govern my vocation. In other words, I had been given and accepted a new ecclesial identity which colored the way I related to everyone and everything. Though part of that "everything" is the Body of Christ (the Church), of course, my own  personal experience of Christ was the more familiar still point in all of this.

I sincerely hope this is helpful.

10 May 2013

Feast of the Ascension: The Scandal of the Incarnation of God Continues in the Ecclesia as the Body of Christ (Reprise)

A couple of years ago I wrote about a passage taken from one of the Offices (Vigils) on the Feast of the Ascension. In that passage we hear the remarkable statement that, [[It is he who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers in roles of service for the faithful to build up the body of Christ, till we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God's Son, AND FORM THE PERFECT MAN WHO IS CHRIST COME TO FULL STATURE.]] It is an image that has intrigued me since, and of course, one that I hear and reflect on again each Ascension Day. Imagine that it is we-as-church who quite literally make up the body of Christ and who one day will be taken up into the very life of God just as Christ was --- and that in this way, Christ will have "come to full stature." He will live in us and we in him, and all of us in God as God too becomes all in all. (Sounds very Johannine doesn't it?)

When I was an undergraduate in Theology (and through a lot of my graduate work as well), the Ascension never made much sense to me. It was often mainly treated as a Lukan construction which added little to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and if my professors and those they had us reading felt this way, I didn't press the issue --- nor, at least as an undergraduate, did I have the wherewithal TO press the issue theologically. It didn't help any that the notion of Jesus' bodily ascension into "heaven" was more incomprehensible (and unbelieveable) than resurrection, or that I understood it as a kind of dissolving away of Jesus bodiliness rather than a confirmation of it and continuation of the Incarnation. (The notion that a docetist Jesus had just been "slumming" for thirty-three years, as one writer objects to putting the matter, and that Ascension was the act by which he shook the dust of humanity from his sandals when his work was done, was probably not far from my mind here.)

Finally therefore, it was really difficult to deal with the notion that Christ, who had been so close to us as to appear in his glorified body with which he walked through walls, ate fish, allowed his marks as the crucified one to be examined, etc, was now going to some remote place far distant from us and would be replaced by some intangible and abstract spiritual reality. Of course, I had it all wrong. Completely. Totally. Absolutely wrong in almost every particular. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that most Christians have it wrong in all the same ways. And yet, it is the passage from Ephesians which is one key to getting it all right, and to rejoicing in the promise and challenge that Jesus' Ascension represents for us.

What actually happens in the Ascension? What about reality changes? What does it mean to say that Christ ascends to the right hand of God or "opens the gates of heaven"? The notion that Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension changes reality is novel for many people. They may think of redemption as a matter of changing God's mind about us, for instance, appeasing divine wrath, but not really changing objective reality. Yet, on the cross and through his descent into the very depths of Godlessness (sin and godless or sinful death), as I have written before, Jesus, through his own obedience (openness, and responsiveness) opens this realm to God; he implicates God into this realm in definitive ways. God's presence in all of our world's moments and moods is, in light of the Christ Event, personal and intimate, not impersonal and remote. And with God implicated in the very reality from which he has, by definition, been excluded, that reality is transformed. It is no longer literally godless, but instead becomes a kind of sacrament of his presence, the place where we may see him face to face in fact --- and the place where being now triumphs over non-being, life triumphs over death, love triumphs over all that opposes it, and meaning overcomes absurdity. This is one part or side of Jesus' mediatory function: the making God real and present in ways and where before he was not. It is the climax of God's own self-emptying, his own "descent" which began with creation and continues with redemption and new creation; it is the climax of God first creating that which is other so that he might share himself, and then entering into every moment and mood of creation.

But there is another aspect or side to Christ's mediatory activity, and this is made most clear in the Ascension. The language used is not descent, but ascent, not journeying to a far place, but returning home and preparing a place for those who will follow. (Yes, we SHOULD hear echoes of the parable of the prodigal Son/ merciful Father here with Christ as the prodigal Son journeying to a far place.) If in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, the world is opened to God, in Jesus' ascension, God's own life is opened definitively to the world. In Jesus' ascension, the new creation, of which Jesus is the first born and head, is taken up BODILY into God, dwells within him in communion with him. In Jesus we meet our future in the promise that this will happen to us and all of creation in him.

When Paul speaks of God becoming all in all he is looking at the culmination of this double process of mediation: first, God entering the world more profoundly, extensively and, above all, personally in Christ, and second, the world being taken up into God's own life. When he speaks of Christ coming to full stature, he is speaking of the same process, the same culmination. When theologians speak of the interpenetration of heaven and earth, or the creation of a new heaven and a new earth they are speaking again of this process with an eye towards its culmination at the end of time. The Ascension marks the beginning of this "End Time."

It is important to remember a couple of things in trying to understand this view of ascension. First, God is not A BEING, not even the biggest and best, holiest, most powerful, etc. God is being itself, the ground of being and meaning out of which everything that has being and meaning stands (ex-istere, i.e., "out of - to stand"). Secondly, therefore, heaven is not merely some place where God resides along with lots of other beings (including, one day, ourselves) --- even if he is the center of attention and adoration. Heaven is God's own being, the very life of God himself shared with others. (Remember that often the term heaven was used by Jews to avoid using God's name, thus, the Kingdom or Reign of Heaven is the Sovereignty of God) Finally, as wonderful as this creation we are part of is, it is meant for more. It is meant to exist in and of God in a final and definitive way. Some form of panentheism is the goal of reality, both human and divine. Jesus' ascension is the first instance of created existence being taken up into God's own life (heaven). It is the culmination of one part of the Christ event (mediation seen mainly in terms of descent and creation/redemption), and the beginning of another (mediation seen in terms of recreation/glorification and ascent).

When the process is completed and God is all in all, so too can we say that the God-Man Christ will have "come to full stature," or, as another translation of today's lection from Ephesians reads: [[. . .in accord with the exercise of his great might: which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.]]

For those who have difficulty in accepting God's assumption of human flesh and revelation of himself exhaustively in a human life -- most especially in the weakness and fragility of such a life, Jesus' ascension offers no relaxing of the tension or scandal of the incarnation. Instead it heightens it. With Jesus' ascension the Godhead NOW has taken created reality and bodily existence within itself as a very part of God's own life even while He transfigures it. This is what we are meant for, the reason we were created. It is what God willed "from the beginning". If, in the Christ Event human life is defined as a covenantal reality, that is, if our lives are dialogical realities with God as an integral and constitutive part, so too does the Christ Event define God similarly, not simply as Trinitarian and in some sort of conversation with us, but as One who actively makes room within himself for us and all he cherishes --- and who, in this sense and because he wills it, is incomplete without us.

Human being --- created, redeemed, recreated, and glorified --- assumes its rightful and full stature in Christ. In the acts of creation, redemption, and glorification, Divinity empties itself of certain prerogatives in Christ as well, but at the same time Divinity assumes its full stature in Christ, a stature we could never have imagined because it includes us in itself in an integral or fundamental way. Whether this is expressed in the language and reality of descent, kenosis (self-emptying), and asthenia (weakness), or of ascent, pleroma (fullness), and power, Christianity affirms the scandal of the incarnation as revelatory of God's very nature. We should stand open-mouthed and astounded in awe at the dignity accorded us and the future with which we are, and all of creation is "endowed" on the "day" of Christ's Ascension.

09 May 2013

Hermits, Blogs, Publicity, and the Dynamic of the Camaldolese "Triplex Bonum"

[[Dear Sister, it still seems to me to be a conflict for a hermit to have a blog. I appreciate that you have reconciled this in your own mind and I understand your diocese is comfortable with it, but isn't this 21st C development out of sync with the history of eremitical life in the Church? Now you are featured in an article in the Saturday Evening Post and it is clear from that article that others have the same questions I do. Not all of them are asking these because they are victims of [believing] stereotypes, are they?]]

Many thanks for these questions. They are significant and point directly at the tension or dynamic that is at the heart of my own life, the life of Camaldolese monks, nuns, and oblates, and I suspect, the life of any truly healthy hermit with a strong sense of the Gospel and their own place in the heart of the Church. I am going to answer all of your questions by referring to the Camaldolese charism and also to the history of Camaldolese life in the Church with special reference to both SS Romuald and Peter Damian. My own sense, and something I have written here and spoken about before on A Nun's Life (In Good Faith podcast), is that this specific charism is profoundly ancient and equally contemporary. It reprises the dynamic which is present for anyone exploring the nature of  --- much less justifying --- a life of "the silence of solitude," and which I personally find especially appropriate and empowering for the life of the diocesan hermit.

First, is this dynamic of an eremitical solitude which also reaches out to others to proclaim the Gospel of God in Christ and the redemptive nature of solitude (because that is what I am concerned with in this blog) out of sync with the history of eremitical life? My answer is no. I can point to three significant historical instances or paradigms of eremitical life here to justify that response: 1) the desert Fathers and Mothers, 2) the anchorites and especially the "urbani" of the medieval period, and 3) the Camaldolese (in particular the Benedictine Camaldolese) and their founders, especially SS Romuald, Peter Damian, and Paul Giustiniani (a Saint at least to the "Order"!). Each of these had a significant degree of interaction with the world around them and for each of them the notion of witness (sometimes called evangelization or martyrdom) was central.

Sister Donald Corcoran, OSB and Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam
The desert Fathers and Mothers left a too-worldly expression of Church to live Gospel lives in nearby deserts. They were committed to a form of witness now called "white martyrdom" to replace the red martyrdom associated with the persecutions of early Christians. They lived lives of solitude rooted in Gospel values but did so on the margins of society. They modeled agrarian practices for their neighbors, bought and sold (mainly sold!) goods in local markets and are famous for the hospitality they embraced as a central value.  Anyone showing up on their doorstep was welcomed as Christ. They were fed, questions were answered, what we would today call spiritual direction was given, so that in example, word, and deed the Gospel was thus proclaimed and Church was lived out. Did they also live a significant solitude? Of course, but at the heart of their lives was their own negotiation of the very dynamic or tension my own life, for instance, attempts to negotiate and embody.

The medieval anchorites, also called "urbani" because they lived eremitical lives in the midst of towns, villages, and cities, mirror the same dynamic in a different way. Anchorites practice a stricter physical stability because they remained in a single small dwelling and were sometimes even walled into or locked within an anchorhold. However, such anchorholds which were adjacent to a church generally had a window opening onto the altar, another opening onto the main square of the village or city, and a third entrance or window through which food and other necessities could be passed back and forth by those who served the anchorite. Townspeople often stopped to talk with the anchorite; it was the medieval equivalent of a counselling or spiritual direction center. There was danger of abuse and distortion of the life in this, of course, and some Camaldolese writers and others wrote scathing pieces on those who abused the practice of converse with others. Still, the dynamic and the tension were present as an integral part of the life.

Finally there is the Benedictine Camaldolese model of eremitical life and the example of its founders. The Camaldolese live the charism referred to as "triplex bonum" or "the triple good", namely, solitude, communion, and evangelization or martyrdom (witness!). Thus, their lives include each of these in a dynamic tension and they have both monasteries and hermitages as a result. Further, there is a strong component of hospitality involved here while monks will travel and sometimes live apart from the monastery/hermitage in order to accomplish a particular ministry. It is not only that some monks live in monasteries and some live in hermitages. Rather what is true in the Camaldolese life is that, again, each monk or nun lives the dynamic of a solitude rooted in community and issuing in ministry or witness in various ways. (The Monte Corona Camaldolese differ in that they only have hermitages, but I would suggest the same dynamic is present.)

Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam, assuming role as Prior
Saint Romuald is known for his extensive travels in order to reform monasticism, extend the Rule of Benedict to free-lance hermits, and proclaim the Gospel. His own eremitical identity is sometimes questioned as a result, but the Church does NOT question it, nor do the centuries of monks, nuns, and hermits who followed him as Camaldolese. It is significant that the single piece of writing we have from him is his "Brief Rule" which is probably the most paradigmatic Rule ever written for the eremitical life. In it two elements are especially prevalent: 1) the need to sit silently and patiently in one's cell waiting only on the Lord, and 2) the place of Scripture, especially as source of and impetus for the assiduous prayer of the solitary life. Again, the combination is a form of witness to the Gospel because the life (and ANY Christian life) demands it.

St Peter Damian's life was also not stereotypically or even typically eremitical. He was engaged throughout his life with the reform of the Church and religious life. He was a Cardinal, papal legate, theologian, spiritual director, hermit, writer, etc. He carried on an extensive correspondence with many people to address the needs of his day and there is hardly a pressing topic he did not address with astuteness and flexibility. (His view of the laity, by the way, is also startlingly contemporary for he believed profoundly in the spiritual equality of all, eschewed notions of a spiritual elite, and would have rejoiced at Vatican II's proclamation of "the universal call to holiness" or the council's affirmation of the laity's right and even obligation to criticize the hierarchy [cf Letter 10 to Emperor Henry III].) He struggled with the question of vocation: "Should I be a hermit or a preacher?" His "starting point" regarding either vocation was the Scriptural imperative of extending Christ's salvation to others. Damian was particularly critical of a solitude focused only on saving oneself.

This led directly to the dynamic tension every Christian and certainly every Camaldolese and every diocesan hermit knows well: how do I honor my call to solitude and also carry out my Baptismal commission to proclaim the Gospel of Christ? As a symptom of this tension and much as Thomas Merton anguished nine centuries later, Peter Damian struggled with his vocation as a writer which, because it was so profoundly engaged with the Church and  World on so many issues and levels seemed to threaten his life as hermit-monk; he once said (in a letter to the current Pope), "I would rather weep than write," and he was well aware that his own hermit and monastic life was not the norm. Even so, in the end we regard Peter Damian profoundly and sincerely as a hermit-monk for whom all else was an extension of that call.

So, to return more directly to your own questions, no I do not believe it is a conflict for me to also have a blog. I believe it reflects a well-established dynamic and imperative in the history of eremitical life, namely the dynamic of solitude-community-witness, and the imperative that one proclaims the Gospel so that others might be saved by God in Christ. I do try to make sure that I maintain what is called "custody of the cell" (where cell is both my hermitage, a life of essential solitude, and my own hermit heart). There would be no witness, indeed, no capacity for witness without this; further, it itself IS a witness to the Gospel!! But to be very honest, like Peter Damian, I believe that if eremitical life is not generally constituted or profoundly informed by this dynamic in some substantial way (and this is true even for the complete recluse!), it ceases to be Christian. Remember that before I  had read much about eremitical life, much less before I ever considered becoming a hermit, I thought that at best it was a selfish and wasteful way of life. I certainly could not regard it as truly Christian. It took some reading by hermits (not least, Thomas Merton) and of work on Camaldolese life to convince me otherwise. My reading (and living!!) has continued and I am more convinced than ever that authentic eremitical life involves the dynamic/tension mentioned above and embodied by the Camadolese as the charism or gift-quality defining their lives.

05 May 2013

Essential Hiddenness and the Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness (Reprise)

Image from Saturday Evening Post article
In the current (May/June 2013) issue of The Saturday Evening Post there is an article on "The New Urban Hermits" for which Jack El-Hai interviewed Karen Fredette (former hermit and, with her husband Paul, editor of Raven's Bread), Roger Cunningham (former Buddhist hermit), and myself. There are a couple of factual inaccuracies which make me sound like a vowed Camaldolese rather than a vowed diocesan hermit and Camaldolese Oblate but generally I think the article is really well done and that Jack El-Hai got his head and heart around something few people really understand. He deserves real credit for that.

One of the fine points Karen Fredette  makes is that hermits are about doing ordinary things with an extraordinary motivation.  I made a similar point used later in the article which, when taken with Karen's comment, suggests hermits experience this as the sustaining "glue" and heart of a vocation to contemplative life including eremitical solitude. It is certainly fundamental to Benedictinism and Camaldolese Benedictinism. I can't post the article here (I don't have a copy to do that with anyway) but I can reprise a post I put up here five years ago on living "an extraordinary ordinariness." Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Essential Hiddenness and the Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness (05. June.2008) Too often people think of hermits or their essential hiddenness as abnormal. This blog post spoke to these things; for those who are coming to this blog because of the SEP article, Welcome! I think you will find this post is a good introduction to the heart of eremitical faitfulness.

On Essential Hiddenness and the Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness

[[Thank you for answering my questions about the hiddenness of the hermit life. What you write about its "essential hiddenness" sounds like the same "hiddenness" which is true of the lives of many people living in the world. You and other hermits seem to make a virtue of this, but isn't it pretty ordinary?]]

Yes, it is very ordinary, and in fact, that is precisely its virtue. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the hermit is meant to witness to those whose lives are ordinary in ways which may cause them to question the meaning and value or significance of  those lives. I have written about those in unusual circumstances (chronic illness, disability, etc) who are called upon to witness to the Gospel in vivid and poignant ways, but I have not really said much about those who work day in and day out at menial jobs and who see their lives as essentially meaningless or unimportant. I think the hermit can remind us each that every life, no matter how apparently unproductive or ordinary, is really (or is certainly meant to be!) part of a profound dynamic where the Kingdom of God comes to be realized more and more fully in our world. That happens, for the most part and for most persons, in the perseverance and day by day faithfulnesses exercised in ordinary life.

There is nothing spectacular or even very remarkable about the hermit's life in the ordinary sense of those words. It is very much a life of day to day faithfulness to the call of God and that call summons the hermit to prayer, work, study, and (sometimes) even some degree of outreach or evangelization every day in a way which repeats again and again. No one much recognizes what happens here in the hermitage as special, and from one perspective, there is nothing special about it. It is completely ordinary whether one is writing an article, doing the laundry or cleaning the bathroom, praying Office, doing personal work, studying, or meeting with occasional direction clients. Even contemplative or quiet prayer is pretty ordinary stuff from one perspective. From another perspective, of course, it is all very special, because it is all done in and with God, and in order to foster the coming of his Kingdom. When the ordinary is undertaken with and in the grace or presence of God it always becomes extraordinary, and yet, no one is likely to see that really. When I wrote in my earlier response that even my telling you what I do during the day would leave the essential mystery of the life intact, that is what I meant.

The challenge to each of us is to undertake the ordinary in a way which is attentive and sensitive to the presence of God. It is the challenge to undertake these things with a care and even love which, through the grace of God, transforms them into something extraordinary. This is basic spirituality and it is this which the hermit's day to day life accepts and affirms as infinitely valuable. I can say without question that although I do not know how it happens, I know without a doubt that my life in this hermitage, my daily perseverance in cell, my faithfulness to prayer, work, study, and the ordinariness of life, allows for God's Kingdom to be more fully realized right here and right now. I know without question that Stillsong Hermitage is a small bit of leaven in the loaf that is my community and the world, and that it contributes to the transformation of that whole even though I may never really understand that or see it realized in my lifetime.

Personally, I believe that every person is challenged to embrace his or her life in this way, especially in its ordinariness. God transforms everything he is allowed to touch with his hallowing love, and our job is to let that happen in all the ways day to day living puts before us. If we can do that, and to the extent we do it, again, the ordinary will be transformed into something extraordinary because each task and moment becomes the occasion where God's grace is allowed to enter in and to triumph. That is the very essence of affirming the goodness and sacramental nature of all reality. So, in each and everything we undertake, we strive to be attentive, aware, care-full, loving, and (describing all of these together) truly present. Nothing in this life is really ordinary unless we allow it to remain that by foreclosing it to our own conscious presence and the effect of God's grace. On the other hand, the really extraordinary in our daily lives is likely to remain hidden from most people for the whole of our lives.

I am thinking of the husband or wife who cares for his or her sick spouse day in and day out for weeks, months, or years, for instance. The most mundane act is transformed when carried out with loving awareness, attentiveness, and openness to God's grace, and yet no one sees this or thinks much to remark on it. It is unspectacular in many ways, but clearly extraordinary at the same time. And yet it is essentially hidden from the eyes of the world. So much of our lives really is hidden in this way.

It takes the eyes of faith to see as the hermit  or other contemplative sees! I think the hermit witnesses not only to this essential hiddenness, but to the humility and faithfulness that is so necessary in a world where everyone seems to need to make a name for him or herself --- even if the only name they can claim is that of victim --- a thriving category of dubious "achievement" in the contemporary world! At the same time though, she witnesses to how truly extraordinary is the life of "ordinary" faithfulness, "ordinary" perseverance, ordinary "heroism," and "ordinary" love undertaken in God. She witnesses to how infinitely meaningful is the life our contemporary world dismisses as trivial and insignificant, if it is lived in and through the grace of God.

Addendum, July 2013: The article is now available on the Saturday Evening Post website:  May/June 2013 | The Saturday Evening Post

04 May 2013

On Consecrated Virginity and the Nature of this Espousal

[[ Dear Sister, in writing about the vocation to consecrated virginity one CV argued the following in order to establish the importance of physical virginity. [[Only a virgin can treasure her first experience with her spouse. A non-virgin or a reformed sinner who has regained spiritual virginity – although never second-class in God’s eyes , will never be able to receive that same gift . This could be the reason why Physical virginity is essential for the vocation of Consecrated virgins.]] You wrote that in the early church consecrated virginity was not only associated with physical intactness. Does [the above] argument make sense in light of that? ]]

Well, I do have problems with the quote you provided but it does not have to do with the felt need for physical virginity being required to become a CV per se --- at least not primarily. It has to do with the assertion that only a virgin can "treasure" her first experience with her spouse." In fact this is untrue when we are speaking of Christ as spouse. What is true is that a virgin who is physically virgin can only give herself to another human being (and receive their mutual gift of self) in this particular way (sexually) "for the first time" once. But in this case we are speaking of the risen Christ; a person gives him or herself entirely to Christ, body and soul, heart, mind and spirit, as part of any consecration by God. 

More, one wonders what can be meant by suggesting only a (physical) virgin can treasure her first experience with her spouse when that spouse is the Risen and ascended Christ? What "experience" is being referred to here? Is it the fresh wave of gratitude one feels for being called to serve in this way? After all there is NO competition for one's heart involved, no diminution in giving of self even if the person was married before. (Or are we truly supposed to think that Christ gives himself more fully or more intimately to a woman who is physically virgin than to one who has been married, for instance?) Neither is there a similar physical (or sexual) experience in such giving of self or receiving the Risen/Ascended Christ as spouse "for the first time" despite the erotic imagery some mystical experiences utilize. Despite the common language of betrothal or espousal there are serious qualitative differences between the gift of virginity (or the "experience" of Christ as spouse) in this situation and what occurs in a literal and temporal human marriage. But THIS espousal is an eschatological one; it occurs on a different level than human marriages. We must keep that qualitative distinction very much in mind or theologically we will be spouting romantic or sentimental nonsense which, beautiful as it initially sounds, can only serve to distort and disedify.

Consecration Always Involves the WHOLE Self:

Your related point therefore is a good and important one. The early Church did NOT always require physical intactness in those she considered consecrated virgins (or "virgin martyrs") and she never spoke of these persons as though their experience of Christ was different or somehow less significant or less total than those whose virginity was also physical. I do personally believe that requiring physical virginity today is an important part of the counter-cultural witness of this vocation, especially in a society like our own which often seems sex-saturated and capable only of trivializing sexual love.

Still, this qualitative difference (eschatological betrothal v temporal marriage) is being obscured at points in what you have quoted. For instance, as you noted at another point in your email, the person you cited also wrote: [[The virgin’s body is constituted as sacred /set apart exclusively for Jesus Christ in His divinity and humanity as affirmed by the Fathers of the Church. It is a marriage covenant between Christ and the virgin and is essentially indissoluble and ordered to the spiritual growth of the Church in Christ’s salvific paschal mystery.]] To my mind this reference to the body being constituted as sacred and "set apart entirely for Jesus. . in his humanity," is really problematical not least because again, in any consecration (including the consecration of religious men, women and hermits) it is the WHOLE person who is set aside by God as sacred; there is no dividing body from soul. One could never say, for instance, that a CV's body is sacred while that of a religious (or anyone else for that matter) is not sacred or is less so. Further, one must never engage in the kind of dualism implied here by suggesting something other than the whole person is consecrated in ANY ecclesial profession and/or consecration. A related second problem then, namely, the narrowing of the transcendent and eschatological witness and meaning of espousal which occurs in such dualism, will be discussed below. First, however, we need to make a necessary detour to prepare the way.

Excursus: The Meaning of Being a "Sacred Person"

When we speak of a person becoming a sacred person we are speaking of their lives being made uniquely symbolic or sacramental of the grace (the sacred presence and power) of God. We are also speaking of their obligation to be such a sacramental sign or symbol in an exhaustive way. We are speaking of them being given to the purposes and Gospel of God in a similar way and serving as a paradigm of some dimension of the church and her relation to Christ for others and for the vocation to holiness to which all are called. In other words we are speaking of persons who have been commissioned to SERVE others in unique and visible ways. We are NOT speaking about someone being automatically made subjectively more holy than the next person or who should be treated as though their bodies are objectively more holy than the next person's. While growth in personal holiness (one certainly hopes) should and probably will come in time, and while the reception of God's consecration (God's setting apart in this way) always graces the recipient, being made objectively more holy than the next person is not what consecration or becoming a "sacred person" actually means.

Your question about the comments on the literal bodily/sexual virginity making sense in light of the early Church's varied use of the term "virginity" --- sometimes for a person who has given themselves entirely to Christ even if they have been married and borne children is also a very good one. The early practice of the Church was not univocal and it can help us to avoid the kinds of dualism found in the quotes included here, especially that between body and spirit or soul. It certainly precludes an understanding of a consecrated virgin's experience of Christ's self gift (or his acceptance of her own self gift) as differing qualitatively from another woman's if the CV, unlike this other woman, has never been married or is merely physically intact. Likewise the usage demands we be cautious about certain kinds of literalism  What I mean here is that this practice  of considering women like St Perpetua a "virgin martyr" and image of the consecrated virgin because she gave her entire self to Christ in martyrdom makes it clear that we are dealing with espousal on a whole different level than that of literal human marriage. Our language of espousal is being stretched here to speak to a transcendent and eschatological reality just as is the case in calling the Church the "bride of Christ."

Import of the Narrowing of the Original Meaning of Consecrated Virginity:

Today the Church requires the physical virginity of women being admitted to the consecration of virgins  (except in cases of rape) and this makes sense, especially, as I already noted, in our sex-soaked-and-trivialized culture. The ability to make a life commitment, to love another exhaustively in God, along with the corresponding capacity to wait until one is ready to do this, is critically important to our world. So is responding to the call to give the whole of oneself (not just one's soul or one's body), to stand symbolically or sacramentally for a transcendent and eschatological reality which demands the whole of oneself while also promising complete fulfillment. The associated capacity and commission to remind all persons of their own vocations to a similar and exhaustive holiness is itself hugely important. But this contemporary requirement also represents a narrowing of the early Church's own usage and it has drawbacks and dangers for this reason.

For instance, it currently limits the consecration to women despite the fact that men were similarly consecrated in the early church (they were far fewer and were sometimes called ascetics but they existed nonetheless); it tends therefore to reinforce certain relationships in the church as feminine and certain roles as masculine despite Paul's theology in Galatians 3:26 and the praxis of the early church where both males and females were espoused to Christ and symbolize the whole church as bride. (The idea that a woman images the Church as Bride better than a man does is a serious theological misstep; when carried to its logical conclusion it unravels Paul's theological insight as well an ecclesiology which recognizes and celebrates the fact that the capacity of human beings to be Church is based on our baptism, not on gender.) In the present context it especially draws or tempts some to have their attention drawn away from the transcendent and eschatological nature of the espousal.

When this happens a body/soul dualism, an accent on physicality and gender, along with simplistic or this-worldly notions of marriage (for instance, speaking in ways which focus on a wedding to a temporally delimited Jesus as opposed to an eschatological espousal to a risen AND ascended  or "cosmic" Christ) can supplant the notion of CV as paradigm of the universal call of the whole Church and a Kingdom in which no one will be given or taken in marriage. This, again, is a serious theological misstep and is the second problem I have with the focus of the comments you quoted on "marriage to Jesus in his humanity" and the virgin's "body being made sacred." Meanwhile, the Church has spoken seriously of reprising the vocation for men in some way and this could go a long way in undoing any untoward narrowing or attenuation of the eschatological nature of the vocation.