30 November 2013

Eremitism: A Life of Constant Vigil (Reprised)

Perhaps it is the focus of Advent with its emphasis on preparation and waiting, but I came today to see my life specifically and eremitical life more generally as one of vigil --- and continuous vigil. Whether the time in cell is obviously fruitful or marked by darkness and seeming emptiness, whether one turns to prayer with joy and enthusiasm or with resistance and depression, one waits on the Lord. One spends one's time in vigil.

Now this is ironic in some ways because despite loving prayer at night the Office of Readings which is also called "Vigils" has never been my favorite hour and this last two years I have substituted another way of spending the time before dawn which has been very fruitful for me (and, I hope, that means fruitful in terms of what God wills!). The time from 4:00am to 8:00am has been one of vigil but it consists of quiet prayer, Lauds, and writing with some lectio. A Camaldolese nun mentioned her own monastery (and the one I am affiliated with as an Oblate) treating these same hours as a time of vigil and I very much liked the idea. I did not know that it would define both my day and my life, however.

There is something amazing about living in a way which is not "just" obedient (open and responsive) to the Lord, but which is actively awaiting him at every moment.(Yes, these are intimately related, but not always practiced that way.) The heart of Benedictine spirituality is the search for God. When candidates for Benedictine monastic life arrive at the monastery, the goal they are expected to affirm is the search for God. This is the defining characteristic of the authentic monastic life and a significant point of discerning a vocation. We can hear that phrase as emphasizing an active, even desperate attempt to find something that is missing from our lives, or we can hear it as a process of preparing ourselves to find the God who is immanent in our lives and world at every point. In the latter case our lives become a vigil to the extent they are transformed into something capable of perceiving and welcoming this immanent God.

Another central Benedictine value is hospitality, and there is no doubt it plays a very significant part in this perspective. While we ordinarily think of hospitality as offering a place for guests who come to the monastery or hermitage in search of something, we should extend the notion to God. All of our prayer is a way of offering hospitality to God; it is a way, that is, of giving him a personal place to stand in our lives and world. While God is omnipresent and the ground of the truly personal, he does NOT automatically have a personal place in our lives. Like someone whose name we do not know, he may impinge on our space, but until we call upon him by name and give him a place he cannot assume on his own, he will remain only impersonally there. And so, in prayer we call upon him by name ("Abba, Father"), we carve out space and time for him, we give him permission to enter our lives and hearts and to take up more and more extensive residence there. We offer him friendship, hospitality, and we structure our lives around his presence. We continually ready ourselves and look for him just as we look for a best friend we expect any time and thus our lives become a vigil.

For hermits, whose whole lives are given over to God in a focused and solitary way, vigil is simply another description of the environment, goal, and gift (charism) of eremitical life we refer to as "the silence of solitude." Those four hours before Mass or Communion in my daily horarium define the characteristic dynamic of the whole of my life --- at least when it is lived well! It is a vigil which requires the silence of solitude (i.e., external and internal silence and solitude), leads to the silence of solitude (i.e.,communion with God), and gifts the world with it and all it implies. During Advent especially I think the call to make something similar of our own lives is extended to every one of us in a special way.

Questions on Solitude: Both a Universal and a Rare Vocation?

[[Dear Sister, you write about eremitical solitude being a rare vocation. yet you also said that it is the most universal of vocations. So which is it? How is it that human beings can be such social animals and yet you can talk about solitude as a universal call. It sounds confused to me.]]

Three Main Forms of Solitude:

Thanks for your questions. The answer to your, "Which is it?" is not either/or but, as with so many things in Christianity, both/and. Part of what seems confusing is the use of the term solitude. It has a variety of meanings and these can especially differ if one is using it to speak of solitude in a world where the Christian God is real. Three main meanings in particular are important here. I therefore refer in a lot of posts here to physical solitude, existential solitude, and eremitical solitude. In the statement you are referring to I said that solitude itself was the most universal of vocations but it is the call to eremitical solitude which is very rare.

"Solitude" can first of all be used to speak of physical solitude, the state of being physically alone. I think this is often the meaning most folks attribute to the word. A hermit, who distances herself from so much sometimes called "the world" of people and events is certainly usually alone in this sense, but so are many others.

Secondly, "solitude" can be used to speak of the individual' s relationship to the world and its creator in the more existential sense; that is, it can point to the fact that we are each and all of us ultimately alone in this life and isolated from all others despite there being many people in our lives. Theologians speak of one aspect of solitude in this sense as the result of human sinfulness and therefore, as a result of estrangement or alienation from our deepest selves, from God, and so too from others. However, another, more positive side of it is our call to grow as individuals; especially in community we are not spared this call to individuation, this call to stand as integral and independent human beings. Still this existential solitude can be painful for it highlights both our most fundamental potential and deficiency.

Each of us knows this kind of solitude which is most intense when, for instance, we have acted wrongly, we are misunderstood, have been betrayed, feel alone or separate in a crowd, or simply have something too deep, or wonderful, or simply too difficult to share with anyone else; we know it especially when we consider death and the inevitability of dying alone. Even those we love profoundly and by whom we are are loved in the same way cannot entirely relieve us of either the challenge or the burden of this kind of solitude. In fact, the paradox of this kind of solitude --- whether as a call to individuation or as the burden of separateness --- is that it is often set in most vivid relief when we are with and are loved by others. In other words, this form of solitude is both most challenging and most painful because we are made for communion with others but are ultimately separated from them.

There is a third sense however which both includes these first two forms and mitigates the ultimacy of the second meaning. It is the notion of solitude which witnesses to the fact that we are not truly (or ultimately) alone because we are made for and in fact most essentially ARE a relationship with a God who is part of us and will never forget or abandon us. While one part of the paradox of eremitical life is that we are each ultimately alone with this God and called upon to live our lives in light of this foundational "transcendental" of our existence, the other is that this ultimate communion for which we are made is the reason for our community with others. Others, as well as our solitary prayer, mediate the love of God to us and in various ways introduce us to this ultimate form of communion.

Hermits especially, embrace a life of  physical solitude which sharpens our existential solitude so that we may live a contemplative life in the eremitical solitude of conscious communion with our God; the hermit knows this form of solitude as one which encompasses, but also transcends, and finally makes an ultimate sense of the first two senses of the term solitude. Because the hermit knows union with the God who grounds the existence of all creation, she also exists in communion with all those others in some incomplete or proleptic sense. When I have written about this before I have spoken of it as a solitude which redeems isolation and which provides hope to others that their own isolation can be transformed and transfigured, and so forth.

Communion is always implied by solitude and vice versa in human relatedness:

I would ask that you notice in each of these forms of solitude the reality of community exists at least implicitly --- even if it is present as an inescapable longing and potentialilty in loneliness. Similarly, in each experience of community that we know this side of death, there is also separateness we often call "solitude." Both poles are present in every experience of relatedness or unrelatedness we know. (Communion without solitude dissolves into a loss of identity; solitude without communion is isolation. Both are inhuman.) In physical solitude community exists as something from which we are separated for whatever reason. In existential solitude community is something we yearn for, something the memory or promise of which inspires and strengthens us in our aloneness, something to which we look forward to achieving or returning to, etc. The point is that in all human relatedness community exists even in its relative absence just as while in community we stand in a kind of solitude as individuals nonetheless.

Vocations accent either side of the paradox of human solitude/communion:

The Church has a number of vocations each of which highlights a side of our call to community (as you say, our social nature) and our solitary nature as well. Marriage and most forms of Religious life point primarily to the importance of community in coming to human wholeness. Each, however also witness to the fact that ultimately it is the human relationship with God which is of deepest significance. In marriage it is the case that each person is meant to bring the other to union with God; each person mediates the Love of God to the other in ways which allow them to come to human fullness and fruitfulness together. (This is why sexual intercourse is the ultimate symbol of marital love and is open to procreation.) In religious life community exists only to the extent that each Sister or Brother is faithful to prayer and all of the other things required by a solitary relationship with God. Moreover, community empowers faithfulness to this solitary relationship. The Church herself is this kind of reality of course. She is not simply a group of people brought together in some sort of club because of similar interests. She is Church only to the extent each of her members fulfills his or her own vocation to life with God just as she is Church only to the extent she empowers and inspires this. In each of these realities community and solitude exist but the accent in each is on community.

In vocations to eremitical solitude the focus is different. It is on the solitary side of the equation. Most human beings are called to achieve human individuation and wholeness in communion with God through community with others. While hermits have already achieved an essential individuation before becoming (or even seeking to become) hermits (they could not embrace such a vocation otherwise) their growth in human wholeness and holiness occurs in eremitical solitude --- a solitude lived in communion with God for the sake of others. Very few human beings are called to achieve human wholeness and holiness in this way. Even so, they remind all persons of 1) their existential solitude, 2) the foundational communion with God which grounds and completes all human existence, 3) the place of community in even the most solitary of lives, and 4) the possibility of the redemption and reconciliation by and to God of even the most marked isolation or estrangement. At bottom then, this will always be a rare vocation and certainly always much rarer than vocations to marriage and community life.

While this answer may be longer than you expected, it is still quite a simplified presentation of the nature of solitude and especially of eremitical solitude. I hope you find it helpful in answering your question.

29 November 2013

2015 Devoted to Consecrated Life

The news is Pope Francis has decided 2015 will be devoted to consecrated life. It will be interesting to see what comes of this, especially as we still have no word on the investigation of US apostolic congregations of  Women Religious nor any further action regarding the LCWR. I suspect (and I sincerely hope) that this year will allow us to see clearly the development of new forms of religious life which have come to be in the past 50 years, recognize the new forms of consecrated life which few are aware of (Consecrated virgins living in the world, diocesan hermits), and generally come to revalue the presence and work of religious men and women who tend among members of the church to be derided for their commitment to Christ because in embracing a call to ministry in the post Vatican II Church they climbed down from an ultimately demeaning pedestal they neither deserved nor wanted.

I am personally convinced that some of the sentimentality we see today about "Traditional" religious women stems from the fact that so long as we perceive these women as called to a higher vocation, a more life-enveloping spirituality than the average Christian, a more intimate relationship with God etc, we are freed from the demand to embrace these things ourselves. So long as the mystique of religious life is preserved the profound mystery into which we are each called is made corellatively less demanding or compelling. It is time to look consecrated life full in the face and honor it for what it is, not for sentimental incarnations some major aspects of which have been outgrown and even countered by the Church's own teaching. Further, the Church as a whole needs to "catch up" with the developments which have come in the past decades. It is not just the laity who often do not understand these, but the hierarchy as well. Consecrated life generally serves as an icon of life in Christ we are all called to in some way; I am very grateful Pope Francis has chosen to honor and celebrate it.

21 November 2013

Feed from Pope Francis' Visit to the Camaldolese Nuns in Rome: VESPERS

As noted earlier this week, today is the the Feast of the Presentation and "pro orantibus" (i.e., "for those who pray") day --- the occasion on which the Church especially recognizes and honors the vocations of contemplative religious. In light of that Pope Francis is visiting the Camaldolese nuns on the Aventine in Rome where they will sing Vespers and spend some time in silent prayer. Francis will also tour the monastery and the cell of Sister Nazarena (cf, Pope to visit Camaldolese Nuns).

The Camaldolese chant (the music is Camaldolese as is that of the psalms) sung at the beginning of Evening Prayer is well-known to all Camaldolese in the US (though we sing it in English); typically it is sung at the beginning of Sunday or Festal Vespers. We pray that our prayer may rise to God like incense. The cantor appropriately raises her arms to God in the Traditional symbol of prayer within the Church as she sings, "Like incense, let my prayer come before you O God, the lifting of my arms like an evening oblation."

The above feed includes a period of silent adoration following Vespers accompanied by Benediction. I invite you to take the time to truly enter into the silence (the organ music will signal the end of this period so you will hear when it is time to bring this part of your prayer to an end); allow yourself to be accompanied into that silence by the prayers of contemplatives everywhere. This is, after all, the essence of our lives and the gift we bring to the Church and world.

18 November 2013

New Pastor Proves his Congregation: A Contemporary Parable

This is one of those stories we all need to hear from time to time. It has the power to shine a light into our own hearts and communities and call us to something more. Among other things it asks us what, after all, is the difference in being a Church of disciples and an elite club which meets on Sundays? The story was published in TruthSeekerDaily.com. (Please see note at bottom of story.)

[[Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him.

He asked people for change to buy food – no one in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him. As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such.

When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. “We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.” The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with all eyes on him. He walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment then he recited,

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’‘The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame. He then said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?” He then dismissed service until next week. Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ should be more than just talk. It ought to be a lifestyle that others around you can love about you and share in.

N.B: Someone sent me an email today (11/19) suggesting the story was a hoax and it well may be. (The picture is certainly not of anyone named Jeremiah Steepek; that has been established.) I continue however to think it is believable and significant  in the ways parables are always believable and significant  -- even if Pastor Steepek and this specific congregation are fictional. Especially I think this is a good example of an "enacted parable" which can help us hear and challenge us directly to decide for or against dimensions of the Gospel reading we will be proclaiming on Friday. All too often our congregations mistake respectability for the holiness we are truly being called to. All too often our churches are merely outposts of our culture and its values instead of radically countercultural instances of the Kingdom of God.  It would, I think, be a shame to dismiss this story simply because it is a contemporary parable and not literally true.

17 November 2013

Being Grasped by Beauty, a Critical Means to Faith

In today’s world there are several kinds of hermits. Most live in wilderness areas of great beauty --- deserts, mountains, redwood forests, and so forth. They choose these areas because they are isolated from people, relatively silent except for natural sounds, and of course, beautiful and awe-inspiring. Then there are hermits like myself. We are called urban hermits not only because of where we live but because we are concerned with witnessing to the redemption of what Thomas Merton once called the “unnatural solitudes" of cities. Even so, as persons of faith, and therefore of prayer, we are necessarily concerned with the ways beauty works in every person’s spiritual life.

You see, the truth is that Hermits living in natural wildernesses tell us something profound about ourselves, and about natural beauty and its relation to faith. It is a piece of what the author of the book of Wisdom is concerned with today (Friday, 15 November), namely, that before faith is our own act of knowing, or trusting, or professing our belief --- and certainly before it is an act of ministering to others, it is about being grasped or taken hold of by something larger than we are. Paul Tillich, a 20C. theologian called faith the state of being grasped by an ultimate (as opposed to a less than ultimate) concern --- where God is identified with such ultimacy and concern is a form of existential seriousness related to the promise and demand of that reality which has taken hold of us. Similarly Saint Paul tells us that in faith and prayer it is not so much that we know God but rather that we are known or comprehended by God.

We have all had this experience ourselves. Though it occurs for many most fully and explicitly in quiet prayer or in hearing a bit of Scripture that truly speaks to us, most often it occurs whenever we encounter beauty. It might be the beauty of nature or of a great symphony or other piece of music. It can be a great work of art or a piece of pottery or sculpture. It might be a work of literature which captures our imagination and inspires us to greater humanity --- but when it happens there is just no doubt that it comes from beyond us and is larger than the single instance of beauty we have just encountered. Something transcendent has taken hold of us. We even say about a piece of art, or whatever the source of beauty is: “It really grabbed me!” When this happens we will also find that it may have shaken or troubled us, surprised or shocked us, delighted or otherwise consoled us --- but always that it has inspired and inevitably enlarged us.

We need these experiences of beauty because they prepare us for true faith in the God Jesus reveals fully to us. Though these experiences, these mediators of beauty are not transparent to God in the way Jesus is, they prepare us to be known by God, to be grasped and loved by him -- even as they signal how immense he is and what a dignity we ourselves share. In other words they open us to a Divinity we cannot control and certainly cannot comprehend. Such experiences ask and assist us to be open at all times to the ultimate beauty and source of all lesser beauties which we call God. We need these experiences because they prepare us for true faith in the God Jesus reveals fully to us. Though these experiences, these mediators of beauty, are not transparent to God in the way Jesus is, they prepare us to be known by God, to be grasped and loved by him -- even as they signal how immense he is and what a profound dignity we ourselves share. In other words they open us to a Divinity we cannot control and certainly cannot comprehend. Such experiences ask and assist us to be open at all times to Ultimate Beauty --- the source and ground of all lesser experiences of beauty which we call God.

The author of Wisdom also asks that we do this. Implicitly he knows that faith is about being grasped whether by depth, or meaning, or beauty. And like St Paul and Tillich he knows that this experience raises questions of life and death, meaning and meaninglessness which invite us to live life seriously. He also has a warning: don’t mistake the beautiful tree or the lightening, or the fire for gods. We call that religious mistake pantheism. God transcends these things because he is their source and ground. Today the author of Wisdom’s warning would more likely take a different form for us: don’t mistake beauty, especially that of nature, for “all there is”. This mistake (the religion --- for it IS a belief system --- known today as “the new” atheism!) also diminishes nature and its wonder precisely in denying its source and ground. The form of atheism today known as “naturalism” or “scientific naturalism” is actually a refusal to allow the transcendent beauty of nature to take hold of us with the power to awe, shake, and transform which is so truly characteristic of it. This form of  less-than-truly-scientific endeavor generally seeks only to grasp, and comprehend, while in its arrogance it refuses to be taken hold of by something infinitely larger than it is.

The pres-
ence of beauty in our lives, our regular seeking it out and celebrating it and the One who is its source and ground, is imperative for our spirituality. Hermits know that unless one does this regularly in some significant way our capacity for faith can be stunted. Today’s reading for us is therefore a challenge to make sure we submit ourselves to the power of beauty --- that we allow ourselves to be grasped and illumined by it in whatever ways we choose --- music, literature, the arts, nature, etc. Our ability to be taken hold of and awed by beauty is, before anything else, a critical way to and preparation for genuine faith.

16 November 2013

Pope Francis to Visit Camaldolese Nuns in Rome

Recently I wrote about the importance of contemplation, both in itself and as the foundation for any genuine ministry or apostolate. I have also written several times here about the Camaldolese "triplex bonum" or "threefold good" in which solitude, community, and evangelization or mission are combined in unique ways. You can read about that in articles here labelled "Camaldolese charism" and you will find a brief article about the nuns at St Anthony's under "Camaldolese nuns."

I mention all this because I just heard that Pope Francis will be visiting the Camaldolese Sisters at St Anthony the Abbot this coming week (November 21st) because of the unique way in which they (and all Camaldolese really) relate the contemplative life to active ministry. (The day is known as "pro Orantibus" and honors those who give their lives to prayer, especially then, contemplatives. For the feed of the visit, cf .Feed of Pope's Visit to Camaldolese Nuns.) The Camaldolese nuns on the Aventine are "rigorously contemplative" as one monk described them, and yet they are involved in feeding the poor in a kind of soup kitchen. It may also be that Francis has marked the 1000 year anniversary of the founding of the Camaldolese last year and too, that he knows that the Camaldolese generally have a high regard for interreligious dialogue --- especially among contemplatives of all religious traditions. (Despite undoubted Christocentric faith lives, Camaldolese routinely participate in dialogues with contemplatives from Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, etc. One volume celebrating such a formal dialogue is Purity of Heart, A Monastic Dialogue Between Christian and Asian Traditions. The papers in this collection come from a week long symposium at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California in 2000; participants included monastics from Benedictinism, Camaldolese Benedictinism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism along with specialists in Confucianism like Sister Donald Corcoran, OSB Cam.)

While Francis will stop there to pray I am sure he will also tour the monastery and see the soup kitchen linked to it. Perhaps he will also be able to visit the former cell of Nazarena, the Camaldolese recluse and anchoress whose story is truly fascinating. An incredibly gifted American woman, Julia Crotti, tried religious life in the Carmelites but truly felt called to even greater silence and solitude. I can't recall the exact details right now but I believe she left the Carmelites just before making solemn vows. Eventually she was allowed to live a completely reclusive and anchoretic life at St Anthony's. (The two things differ because an anchoress lives a very strict form of physical stability; she never leaves her cell; a recluse, on the other hand, might roam the countryside and still be a recluse.) Nazarena was not even allowed to speak to the Sisters there and originally was not Camaldolese nor allowed to become Camaldolese. Only over a period of 45 years did this change.

Unfortunately, but also understandably, the Church neither esteemed nor much trusted vocations to absolute reclusion; it was not easy, even within Camadolese "culture" (which does indeed allow for reclusion), to be allowed this grace. (With regard to Nazarena, Fr Thomas Matus tells the story of the time when one New Camaldolese Prior --- mistakenly --- assumed that Sister Nazarena would naturally become prioress and novice mistress for a new foundation in Korea. Sister Nazarena found herself caught between the demands of obedience to external authority and those of her own inner voice regarding her vocation.) Sister Nazarena died in 1990 with the Camaldolese nuns present during the last hours. (If you haven't read her story, I highly recommend it. cf. Nazarena, an American Anchoress by Thomas Matus, OSB Cam.) Again, it is these three elements, community, solitude, and evangelization or mission which constitute the dynamic known as the Camaldolese charism. The nuns' monastery in Rome witnesses to this in a uniquely vivid way.

So, we of the Camaldolese family are proud to be recognized for the unique charism with which we have been entrusted by God and the Church and pleased to offer Camaldolese Benedictine hospitality to Francis --- whose namesake, St Francis, is also said to have actually spent some time in a Camaldolese house in his day. All of us hold both Francis, the Sisters at Sant' Antonio's and those they minister to in our prayer.  (Again, for the feed of the visit, cf .Feed of Pope's Visit to Camaldolese Nuns.)

13 November 2013

On the Value of Contemplation

[[Dear Sr. Laurel, I have a question that has been nagging at me for some time.  . . . There is one funda-mental slant/ viewpoint/ position/ conception which may well underlie much of what you say, but nowhere have I yet found it expressed explicitly, and it is this:  what is the value of contemplative prayer?  Why should a life of contemplation, which is open to the hale and hearty as well as the feeble, aged, sick, sinful, fearful, disabled, and everybody else, be worth just as much as, say, the builder of homeless shelters, the missionary, the priest?

An image which speaks to me was called "God's Transmitters" by Hannah Hurnard, an eccentric but apparently sincere and certainly devoted lover of God.  As I understood her simile, the contemplative just stands there like an electrical transmitting tower, taking in and sending out signals.  One of the transmitters' most important functions is NOT to move around and try to accomplish anything.  Just being there, by remaining faithful to its "vocation" as a transmitter, can it do what it was made to do. . . . What do you believe about the per se value of prayer, with no "works" to accompany it?  No publicity, no recognition?  The Jewish belief that there are a certain number of people who hold up the universe just by existing?  Moses "standing in the breach?" This may not make any sense!  I'm sorry to bother you, but this is a fundamental question to me:  what is the absolute value of prayer FOR THE WORLD?]

Thanks for your comments and questions. I think I have answered this question in part, mainly by talking about why this vocation is not selfish or by referring to the gift quality genuine solitude is in a world fraught with isolation and alienation or by writing about the vividness with which the chronically ill are called to proclaim the Gospel. All of these are attempts at answering your questions though from differing perspectives or vantage points. The basic answer or the common thread in each of these is that human beings are truly human only insofar as they are in relationship with God, and only insofar as they in their weakness and dependence allow God to be the ultimate source of validation and meaning in their lives. Contemplative prayer is simply the purest expression of this dynamic, I think. I guess, as you say, I have just never said that explicitly.

    A contemplative is authentically human. She also mediates God's presence in the act of being human because this (mediating God's presence) is what it means to be human. It is the very nature and vocation of our humanity. We do this in the very act of BEING human. We speak, for instance, of human beings as imago dei and in doing so we point to the call and mission with which human beings are entrusted and which defines humanity itself. The contemplative lives out this vocation in a way which is clear and vivid. While I have heard the Jewish saying about pillars, I don't know if this is what they are referring to;  I personally dislike the additional  transmitter image immensely. It seems to me to need to make prayers into "do-ers" more than "Be-ers" simply sustained by the love of God. Still, if it is an attempt to speak of mediation, I can appreciate it.

Also, in my eremitical world the redemption of isolation and the reconciliation of estrangement is a ministry --- a share in the ministry Christ gave us all to hand on. We do that first of all by being reconciled and witnessing to its possibility at a more foundational level than that of "works" or social justice and pastoral ministries, etc. In a sense then, contemplatives witness to the truth others are trying to proclaim and accomplish in all the standard pastoral ways but they do so at a different  or more fundamental level. (I suspect too this is why Religious congregations generally and the Dominicans more explicitly, for instance, describe their ministries or apostolates as rooted in contemplation.) Contemplatives also serve to check on or "criticize" these  and any ministries; they encourage or even demand that they really flow from a deeper reality.

Prayer is a work, but primarily it is always and everywhere the work of God. Most fundamentally it is not a human work at all. For that reason it reminds us that none of our own works --- no matter how sincere or well-meant --- are the most essential and absolutely they are never the primary thing. Apostolic or ministerial folks remind us that faith always issues in works of love and compassion. Contemplatives remind us that faith, which is the state of being grasped by God's wonder, beauty, truth, love, etc, must ground all ministry. Hermits go a step further and remind us additionally that our most foundational community is with God and, paradoxically, that isolation is inhuman and individualism is destructive of humanity. Additionally of course, contemplatives witness to a number of other values, not least persistence, faithfulness, simplicity, etc. Each of these reflect a continuing, ever-renewed commitment to allow oneself to be loved and to love in response in season and out. It seems to me that a life lived in this way is an immense gift to the world, not least because it witnesses to the great dignity and challenge of the communion we identify as human life.

11 November 2013

The Olivet Eagles: Real Winners!

I certainly don't need to say much about this. The journalist commenting on the situation has it exactly right while the honesty of the wide receiver and the tears running down his cheeks say it all. Enjoy!

The Parable of the Unjust Steward

Last Friday's Gospel lection (Friday 08.November) is difficult for preachers who struggle to make sense of it; I am convinced that despite Luke's parable of the unjust steward being considered "the most difficult parable" in the corpus by many commentators, it makes tremendous sense --- especially when read side by side chapter 5 of Paul's letter to the Romans. You see, I believe that Paul and Luke are trying to describe the same situation. Paul does it by focusing on Law; Luke does it by focusing on wealth (though the place of Law is implicit throughout the story)! Further, Luke is not trying to tell us a story with a comfortable moral or easy resolution. He is telling us a parable which is meant to bring us to a point of discomfort which leads to a radical decision for (or against) the Kingdom. Complaints that we don't know what Luke is trying to say here are, at bottom, attempts to escape the very dynamics typical of the Jesuan parable Luke wants us to be caught up in. In being caught up in this dynamic lies the eventual way of escape from our bondage to sin; that way lies redemption if we choose to allow that.

Introduction, a Return to Paul:

As noted in an earlier post, throughout the past month we have been listening to Paul's letter to Romans. In particular we have heard him stress the seriousness of the "enslavement", alienation from God, self, and others, and the terrible ambiguity of our lives which he calls sin. As persons who are not in complete union with God but who are made for it, we long for this union. We are also insecure because it is the only thing in the world which can absolutely secure us, and yet, our estrangement from God leaves us threatened with death and meaninglessness. We try to heal our yearning in all kinds of ways and only serve to make the situation of sin worse. While we may distract from or attempt to assuage the situation of radical insecurity and division it continues to exist and even be exacerbated by our own attempts to secure ourselves.

When Paul describes this state as one of bondage and our need for rescue from it and all the ways it is made worse in our lives, he focuses on Law. He does this because as a good Pharisee he knows Law is a gift from God; however, he also knows  that it was according to the Law that Christ was crucified and further, it was according to the Law that Paul himself had persecuted the Church. Similarly, he knows that Law functions to tempt us, not only because it causes us to depend upon our own power and merits to try and establish or secure our relationship with God, but also because Law actually awakens sin in us. As also noted in an earlier post, Paul says, [["But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead" (Romans 7:8)]]

Paul's Startling Conclusion about Law:

His startling conclusion about this entire dynamic is that God gave us the Law to show us how desperate our situation is. It is given by God not only to convict us of sin but to actually provoke an intensification of our sin so that we might finally come to admit how weak and completely, incapable of justifying ourselves we are. In describing his own desperate situation of enslavement to the powers of sin and death Paul eventually cries out: WHO WILL RESCUE ME FROM THIS BODY OF DEATH? His conclusion is that  it is the purpose of Law to lead us precisely to this cry for mercy from God! The Law is a gift from God then, not because it shows us the right things to do or the things we absolutely must avoid (though it also does this), but because it convicts us of abject weakness and opens us to turning wholeheartedly to God --- the only one who can heal the division within ourselves and establish us in right relationship with himself.  These two aspects of true conversion which law is meant to provoke in us, admission of abject weakness (inability to secure or free ourselves) and complete dependence upon God run right through Paul's theology. They are summarized in his second letter to the Church in Corinth when he affirms the good news of Christ in the statement that "[God's] grace is sufficient for us; [his] power is perfected in weakness."

Luke's Mirroring of Paul with Wealth and Law:

Luke is concerned with the same elements we find in Paul, namely a terrible state estrangement from God which leads to radical insecurity and the desperate need to secure ourselves in some way. However, when Luke describes this state of enslavement he does not usually focus directly on Law as Paul consistently does. Instead he focuses on the place of wealth in our lives as the best illustration of our predicament.  For Luke it is wealth which shows us how truly sunk in sin we are. It is wealth which tends to separate us further from our deepest selves, from others, and from God. Wealth leads us to (further) covetousness, greed, dishonesty, ingratitude, insensitivity to the plight of others, self-centeredness, and so forth. It functions to exacerbate idolatry by allowing us to entrust ourselves to mammon as is really only appropriate to God. (The Aramaic word mammon which is usually translated as some form of material wealth or money has the same root as faith, namely "trust"; we can ultimately entrust ourselves to God or to something other than God, but not to both.)

Material goods are gifts of God yet, just like law, they can also make everything worse --- even while their failure to secure us ultimately can also lead us to the same confession of weakness and pleading for mercy that Law does. Unfortunately, Luke implies that it is even harder to come to such a confession via wealth than through Law. (Together they can produce a staggering personal tragedy and state of unfreedom!) I suggest that that is one reason he tells the story of the unjust steward. It is stories like this that lead Luke to assert explicitly just a couple of chapters later, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom of heaven."

A Brief Look at the Parable:

The story is fairly simple. A steward is turned into his Master for failing to make enough money for him (as in the parable of the prodigal son, he is guilty of squandering his Master's substance). He knows he is going to lose his job because of this, feels trapped and does not know what he can do because he is "too weak to dig , and too ashamed to beg." So, he goes to some of the brokers holding promissory notes with his Master and slashes the interest they owe on their loans so that they will be obligated to him and he will be able to count on their hospitality rather than becoming homeless or without resources should he be fired. The Master hears what he has done and praises him for his prudence. (He could hardly do otherwise since the steward has acted in his benefit with regard to the Jewish Law on usury which they have been getting around and has also gained him a long term advantage with only short-term loss.)

Beneath the bare facts there is more going on of course. First, we should understand that everyone in the story is well-to-do.  No one here is poor, no one is a tenant farmer just getting by. (The poor are present only by virtue of their significant omission from the lives of the parable's characters.) Secondly we should be clear that everyone is working to make the most money or secure the best position for themselves they can. Backstabbing and dishonesty are the order of the day. The Master is engaging in usury despite the Jewish Law's prohibition of charging interest on loans and using commodities like oil and wheat to get around the Law's strictures. The steward is cheating his Master in some unspecified way. Someone from the brokers who owe the Master has reported the steward in order to get him in trouble. The steward slashes huge amounts of goods from that owed his Master and the brokers enthusiastically go along with this particular bit of cheating despite having reported the steward for something similar just the day (or week or month) before.

Besides the implicit place of the Jewish Law in the story, and despite the constant current of backstabbing which is prevalent here, the cultural honor/shame ethic is also at work binding folks in various ways. This is the ethic that is essentially a quid pro quo way of dealing with people; if a person does you a good turn you owe him something commensurate and are dishonored and socially marginalized if you do not respond in kind. The steward uses it to obligate the brokers to provide for him if he is fired. He uses it against his Master to obligate him to overlook his prior transgressions when the steward assures the good will of the brokers, etc. The picture Luke paints is of people who are in bondage to Law in many of the ways Paul speaks of, but who are also completely ensnared in the problem of wealth and the self-seeking, insensitive dynamic it sets up. It is the quintessential picture of human unfreedom and alienation.

The Call to conversion in both Paul and Luke:

Despite the verses appended to the parable in Luke, commentators generally consider it to end at verse 8a. My sense is that the heart of it and the place it most seriously challenges us -- especially if we are at all wealthy -- is the steward's confession. What he says again is, "I am too weak to dig (that is, I am incapable of working honestly, especially in a demeaning job, to secure myself ), and too ashamed to beg (that is, too proud too throw myself on the mercy of others)." Instead  of adopting the very attitudes which could paradoxically save him, the steward shrewdly finds a way to let the Law work for him; at the same time he thus elects to remain firmly ensnared in the situation of sin in which he finds himself. His Master praises him for his prudence, and we ourselves are both troubled by the praise even as we tend to agree with it. In any case, the situation continues essentially unchanged.

Contrast the attitude and "solution" of the steward with that of Paul outlined in the letter to the Romans we have been reading for the last month. Paul identifies himself as an Apostle, a slave in fact, of Jesus Christ. He says he has been set apart for the Good news of God's power to save us in Christ and by this he means that he has been set apart from the Law (both Jewish and the law of sin) in order to live the freedom of a Son of God. He clearly acknowledges his own inability to act rightly apart from Christ, and under the Law, ("The willing is near at hand but the doing good is not. For the good I would do I do not, and the evil which I would not do I do!") and he cries out for and acknowledges the rescue that comes only in Christ, "Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Further, in Christ he rejects the pervasive cultural honor/shame ethic that is so powerfully active in the deliberations and machinations of the unjust steward. Paul gives up his status as a Pharisee to proclaim the tremendous scandal and foolishness of the crucified Christ and to work as a tent maker. He entrusts himself to the mercy of those he once persecuted; nor does he exploit them because he is now an Apostle. In every way Paul is the just steward who confesses his weakness; he is "is not ashamed" to be a beggar of God's mercy for, as he tells us in the opening passage of Romans, "it is the power of of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes."


 Both Paul and Luke describe a situation of bondage as one from which we cannot extricate ourselves.  The ONLY way out of the situation, the only way to an authentically God-centered human life which is generous and compassionate toward others is to confess our weakness and depend upon God's mercy to lift us out of the situation of alienation in which we find ourselves by actually changing our hardened hearts and darkened minds. The parable of the unjust steward shows us someone without either the courage or the humility to confess the radical dysfunction of his situation or his own radical weakness and need for rescue. He remains mired in Law and wealth in both of which he continues to trust. He refuses to entrust himself to the mercy of God.

We ourselves hear the parable and are usually deeply distressed by it in every way: the dishonesty troubles us, the cheating and exploitation at every level are repugnant but also familiar, the manipulation of the prescriptions of the law to get around usury are offensive -- despite the fact we act or are at least tempted to act similarly in our own lives whenever we are confronted with law, the praise for a clever "solution" leaves us indignant, and so on. In other words, the parable functions just as it is meant to do. It unmasks the ambiguity of our own situations and attitudes in the process of being heard. It shows us our own divided hearts and minds even as it, like all of Jesus' parables, serves to disorient, trouble, and throw us off balance --- even that is, as it prepares us to make the choice Paul made for the mercy and Reign of God but which the unjust steward could not.

The meaning of the parable is not in question. It is not a story with a moral, but a language event which makes something happen for those who allow themselves to hear and be drawn into it. The only question here is where will we ourselves put our own feet down when we  regain our balance from the dis-ease and uncertainty it occasions in us. Will we open ourselves  exhaustively to God's mercy and stand fully with Paul as a citizen of the Kingdom of God? Will we decide to trust wholeheartedly in any kind of worldly wealth (mammon) other than God's mercy as a citizen of the realm of sin --- something we also do when we refuse to be drawn into the story and be troubled by it? Or will we perhaps do as the steward does and use our ambiguous relationship to the Law (both the law of Judaism and of culture) to simply continue keeping one foot in each of these kingdoms without ever making a real choice for God?

09 November 2013

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

[[Dear Sister, what does it mean to "eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?" I would think it would be good for us to know good from bad and right from wrong; I would think it would make us better human beings.]]

This past month we have been reading through Paul's letter to the Romans. Of utmost concern to Paul are 1) the situation of sin in which we find ourselves ensnared and 2) dealing with the power of sin and death which actually resides within us (which is what God does in Christ).  I want to turn to what Paul has been saying to us to answer this question. Paul clearly knew the nature of sin;  his treatment of the place of law in exacerbating the state of bondage to sin in which we find ourselves so that we might eventually become open to God saving us gives us a key to understanding what the author in Genesis meant by this original myth of the garden, and especially what it means to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Two weeks ago we read the passage from Chapter five in which Paul describes the terrible quandary in which he finds himself with regard to sin: "The good I would do I do not do; that which I would not do I do!" Here Paul confesses his tremendous weakness with regard to the Law and also to holiness more generally. He knows, for instance that if someone says, "Thou shalt not covet or lie" one almost automatically begins to consider the attraction of others' goods or gifts or, for example, one begins to consider lying and how one might do that even if one has never done so before.  Similarly, if the Law says, "Thou shalt love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and mind, etc" the Law pushes us to try and do something on our own we can ONLY do with the grace of God. Paul summarizes the situation in the seventh chapter of Romans, [["But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead" (Romans 7:8)]] We know the situation with children (or ourselves) when the demand that we not get into the cookie jar (or think about food, etc) immediately makes us desire or think about what is prohibited. In other words, besides making us aware of our sinfulness and weakness, which the law certainly does, it also provokes to temptation and sin by putting the thing it prohibits (etc.) into our minds.

The author of the powerfully insightful myth of the garden in Genesis tells us that our original parents knew only God (and one another, etc) apart from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In terms of the narrative, there was no good or bad prior to imbibing; there was only the intimacy and wholeness that stems from complete trust in and communion with God, his creation, and one another. We refer to their original state as one of innocence. Somehow Adam and Eve were tempted to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that point a divided reality becomes something we consider and choose in one way and another. Evil (or other and lesser goods than life with God himself) become things we weigh. They have been made part of our thoughts and yearnings; we are no longer merely innocent or simply know God and that which is of God. We have taken these realities inside ourselves in some way and Law in particular can provoke these to speak or call to us when they might otherwise be quiet within us.

This is a partial explanation of the meaning of  eating of "the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil". Because we are not in either the state of innocence or the state of purity or singleness of heart we will one day know in Christ, we know good and evil intimately. While you are correct that we must constantly discern the values and disvalues present in any situation and that this can be a good thing which, in Christ, make us more human, within the larger perspective  it is not what we are ultimately meant for. We are meant for a situation of complete union with God where he, and reality in him, are all we really know. When Paul refers to a time" when God will be all in all this is part of what he is referring to.

02 November 2013

Camaldolese Monastic Profession, Simple Vows of Brother Ignatius Tully

Today the Camaldolese Benedictine Congregation celebrated as Brother Ignatius Tully, formerly a novice at New Camaldoli made his simple profession of vows there today on this Feast of All Saints. I celebrate this commitment with the monks at New Camaldoli and assure Brother Ignatius of my prayers.

Dom Cyprian shared Ignatius' account of his choice of names:  "When I was a teenager I came across the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch and I was bowled over. They were the most incredible things I had ever read.  Through the years, I read them time and time again so it was a fairly easy choice, actually. I went through the motions of kidding people about other names but his was always the one that I was going to choose. St. Ignatius was a formidable saint and I don't think I am anywhere near to having his incredible burning love of God, but it is my aim that by the time I die, I'll  at least have a fraction of that."

Brother's vows are made for a period of three years. At the end of that time he could be admitted to solemn profession. After making and signing his vows he was clothed in the (modified) cowl and presented with the Rule and Constitutions of the Congregations. He was then welcomed by each member of the congregations with a kiss of peace. (At the end of the video there is a wonderfully blurred, funny, and touching picture as Dom Cyprian comes over to hug everyone watching the video for the kiss of peace!)

01 November 2013

How Does Jesus' Suffering Save Us?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, how does Jesus' suffering save us or the world? I mean how does it work?I just can't understand this. Does God need this for some reason?]]

Thanks for your question.  I want to deal only with the question of Jesus' suffering in this post. For more about how the cross works please check out other articles on the theology of the cross.

First, Jesus' sufering per se is NOT salvific; it does not "save". Neither of itself does it reveal God to us nor make God exhaustively present in our world. (Jesus' suffering does reveal something of what it means to be truly human and it also points to the self-emptying compassion of God, but by itself it does not make the Triune God present in power.) However, this is absolutely not to say his suffering is unimportant or dispensable. It is not. What is true and what I will focus on here is that suffering calls for something in Jesus and allows for that which IS salvific. Jesus' suffering is a critical part of the incarnational weakness in which God's power will be made perfect and exhaustively revealed. To understand this it helps to think about how suffering works usually and what it calls for from us; then we can look at how it actually functions in Jesus' life but especially at his passion and death.

All of us know suffering, some very great suffering, and we know as well therefore that it pulls us in two directions. The first is fairly instinctive. We try to defend against the pain. We attempt to make ourselves less vulnerable in whatever ways we can. For physical pain we may use analgesics --- and, I would add, this is ordinarily entirely legitimate, especially in cases of severe chronic pain or when we need relief to function in important ways the pain would prevent. At the same time we may short circuit the growth in courage, endurance and openness suffering calls for. Finding a balance here is not always easy. Still, the point is the same, suffering per se is an evil in our world which can threaten our well-being, and, when severe, our very humanity (severe pain dehumanizes or at least has the potential to do so). Our first response is to try to ease it or end it in order to protect ourselves and the life we know and value. Prayer here (meaning our own pleas to God), especially in the beginning, may actually be an expression of this tendency to self-protection and resistance to being truly vulnerable. This entire response (or reaction) can itself, though in a different way, be dehumanizing,

The second response is NOT instinctive. It is an expression of something transcendent in us; it recognizes that to some extent suffering can be a source of growth and maturity, especially of our larger or true self. Significantly, suffering can help open us to our own weakness, helplessness, and poverty. Further it can open us to allowing ourselves to be more profoundly known by others, by ourselves, and ultimately by God. It calls for courage, endurance, a wider perspective than we usually entertain, and an openness to a meaning which is greater than we can even imagine. This response to suffering, this opening of ourselves to realities which lie beyond us and sustain and empower us beyond our own very real limitations allows the redemption of suffering and sometimes the healing of its causes. Prayer here may begin as a praying OUT OF our suffering, but when it reaches maturity and even fulfillment it becomes a praying OF our suffering --- that is a living out our suffering with and in the power and presence of God.

Jesus' Passion and Death:

Here we begin to understand why Jesus' suffering could be both essential and salvific. It is not, as you say, because God needs our suffering  --- for instance, in reparation for sin and offenses against his honor. It is not that there is some sort of cosmic quota of pain required, nor that some abstract notion of distributive or retributive justice requires it. Jesus is called to be the Incarnation of the Word of God in all of human life's moments and moods. He is called and commissioned to embody that Word exhaustively. He is called to be obedient, that is to hearken and respond to that Word so completely that call and response cannot be teased apart in him. He is called therefore to be prayer and to implicate God fully in a world dominated by the powers of sin and death. Part of coming to this perfect incarnation is suffering and doing so in ways that allow God into that "space" of  ultimate weakness, emptiness, and helplessness so that he may transform it (and us) with his presence. In a sense, especially to the degree we allow it, suffering hollows us out and intensifies our openness to the reality which can redeem it and everything else.

But what happens if Jesus' cry of aban-donment and his own admission that it is finished are the last words of the event we call "the cross"? What happens if godlessness and the powers of godlessness are the real victors? What happens if Jesus's descent into hell in abject openness and vulnerability to the emptiness, meaninglessness, and inhumanity of his suffering are the last word, the thing allowed by God to stand? What happens if the universally dehumanizing effects of Jesus' suffering were the final word? (After all,  he was dehumanized and those that tortured him were also dehumanized by their actions; the same is true of those who called for such shameful torture, betrayed Jesus' friendship or as Religious leaders administering the "Law of God" were otherwise complicit in this)?

It should be clear that without the resurrection there is nothing redemptive or salvific in Jesus' suffering. It is necessary, essential in fact as a condition of possibility, but it must be done in obedience (meaning without closing oneself to it in any way nor attempting to save oneself even while one remains open) to the One who CAN save and redeem this suffering. Further, God must respond to this obedience, enter into the abyss created by sin, death, and by Jesus' personal vulnerability and continuing openness. God must,  as a result, bring life out of death, meaning out of absurdity, ordered, fruitful reality out of chaos and nothingness, and communion (reconciliation) out of ultimate isolation and alienation or Jesus' suffering witnesses not to victory over these things but instead to foolishness, failure, arrogance and man's inhumanity to his fellows.

We can speak of God "needing" this suffering because he needs to be able to enter the most godless depths of human life and death but we cannot speak of God needing this suffering to satisfy some sort of offense done against him. The godless depths I have referred to are depths and dimensions within us and our world created by our own choices to exclude God. God cannot simply enter into these spaces by fiat because they are personal spaces which God will not violate lest he violate us at the same time. God, who respects our choices, must be invited or allowed in here. However,  in speaking of Jesus' taking on our sin we say that Jesus died for ALL. His obedient suffering makes it possible for God to enter into the realm of sin and death (realms of godlessness) created by human acts of rejection without violating the freedom of human beings who (universally) choose these. That is, Jesus' passion and resurrection is God's answer to ALL human sin.  More and more you and I need to allow God into our own sinful lives, but the powers of sin and godless or eternal death themselves have been defeated through the cross of an obedient Jesus. It was suffering that assisted in the deepening of Jesus' obedience, but it was his obedience in conjunction with the will of God that actually brought redemption.

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...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)