31 December 2013

God directs the Course

Dear Sister, would you agree with what this lay hermit says about eremitical life? [[. . .  Hermit life is more than what one can describe or formulate. God directs the course, not the hermit nor any other. Some may remain in the mode of judging and criticizing, or setting forth how a hermit is, ought, should be or not. Only God knows; only God does. . . . .]]

Of course. In general I find the first statement to be true of any vocation. What the Church and theologians or those living various vocations describe are the general rudiments of something that is authentic and that the Church recognizes as such because it is modeled by many in her own tradition --- not least, in regard to the eremitical vocation, by John the Baptist and Jesus. I think it is always implicit (if not stated explicitly at many points along the way) that there is always an inner depth and breadth in every vocation which, because it is of God, cannot be completely comprehended by finite man nor adequately described. When we are speaking of contemplative vocations and especially of an eremitical vocation where the heart of the call is the life of one person with God alone I think this is even truer. There is a core which can never be completely charted or described, even, perhaps especially, by the hermit herself.

However, this does not mean that the rudiments cannot be described, nor the authenticity of the vocation determined by those who are knowledgeable and discerning. Today the Church deals with a number of aspirants to canon 603 life. Very few reach the point of being accepted for profession; the reasons for this are, in the main, good ones having to do with lack of formation or other preparation (by far the biggest issue), inadequate motivation, selfishness and individualism, unhealthy withdrawal from others, or other signs that the person does not grow in human wholeness or authentic holiness in a life of eremitical solitude. In other words, the inner core of the life leads to overt and unmistakable signs that the vocation is authentic and without these signs one can only conclude there is no vocation. Most of the time the Church requires that one live as a lay hermit for some years so that she may determine whether the person is progressing in her life with God in solitude. She is watching for the signs of growth in authentic love and holiness and generally she is mindful of the time this takes to become evident or discernible. The Church is charged by God with the mission of overseeing this vocation and keeping her finger on its pulse of both lay and consecrated hermits. Both can instruct the Church in this even as they must allow themselves to be instructed by the Church.

If the final comments you have cited mean that the vocation is between the hermit and God alone and no one else can judge or better, discern, the authenticity of the vocation, or if it means that one can live any isolated way at all and call that eremitical solitude, then I would disagree. Within the Church no vocation is between the person and God alone --- though ultimately they are between God and the person, of course. Every life lived in the Church, however, affects the Body of Christ itself and witnesses to others regarding the Gospel of God in Christ. Every life lived within the Church is lived for others and is shaped by an awareness of others and their needs --- something which is critically true of the hermit. No authentic eremitical vocation can ever forget that it is lived in and from and for the community of faith. This is especially true of ecclesial vocations but not only of them.

Throughout the history of eremitical life hermits desiring to do justice to God's own will and working in this matter have established criteria for discerning authentic expressions of the vocation. When the Church changed her requirements (and her theology) regarding frequency of reception of the Sacraments hermits like Paul Giustiniani decided solitary hermits living apart from the Church and her Sacraments were no longer legitimate expressions of the life. (Giustiniani decided lauras were by far the best solution for those desiring to live as hermits. St Francis came up with a different solution.) They did this as a matter of discernment, not arbitrary rule-making. Individual hermits back as far as the Desert Fathers and Mothers have been granted or deprived of the habit on the basis of the ways they are discerned to live their lives. Canon 603 today allows for solitary hermits once again and demonstrates a remarkable balance between non-negotiable elements and individual freedom; meanwhile dioceses work to discern authentic vocations which distinguish eremitical solitude from the many forms of life in isolation or physical solitude so common today.

It has really always been necessary to do this; the alternative is to carelessly allow anything at all to be called eremitical and completely empty the term of meaning. That would actually be a betrayal of the gift the Holy Spirit is bestowing on the Church and world in this vocation. It would, in other words, be a way of refusing to let God "direct the course" as the writer you cited put the matter precisely because it had ceased to be discerning.

30 December 2013

God With Us: Everyday God

A few portraits of Emmanuel, the God revealed in the Christ Event. Music is by Bernadette Farrell. I am using this by returning to it at various points during the day or before bed as a period of prayer or preparation for other prayer and find it is very effective for this.

26 December 2013

Pope Francis' Christmas Message

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors (Luke 2:14)
Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the world, Happy Christmas!

I take up the song of the angels who appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem on the night when Jesus was born. It is a song which unites heaven and earth, giving praise and glory to heaven, and the promise of peace to earth and all its people.

I ask everyone to share in this song: it is a song for every man or woman who keeps watch through the night, who hopes for a better world, who cares for others while humbly seeking to do his or her duty.

Glory to God!

Above all else, this is what Christmas bids us to do: give glory to God, for he is good, he is fait hful, he is merciful. Today I voice my hope that everyone will come to know the true face of God, the Father who has given us Jesus. My hope is that everyone will feel God's closeness, live in his presence, love him and adore him.

May each of us give glory to God above all by our lives, by lives spent for love of him and of all our brothers and sisters.

Peace to mankind.

True peace is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely "fa├žade" which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment, starting from God's gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ.

Looking at the Child in the manger, our thoughts turn to those children who are the most vulnerable victims of wars, but we think too of the elderly, to battered women, to the sick. Wars shatter and hurt so many lives!

Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fueling hatred and vengeance. Let us continue to ask the Lo r d to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering, and to enable the parties in conflict to put an end to all violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid. We have seen how powerful prayer is! And I am happy today too, that the followers of different religious confessions are joining us in our prayer for peace in Syria. Let us never lose the courage of prayer! The courage to say: Lord, grant your peace to Syria and to the whole world.

Grant peace to the Central African Republic, often forgotten and overlooked. Yet you, Lord, forget no one! And you also want to bring peace to that land, torn apart by a spiral of violence and poverty, where so many people are homeless, lacking water, food and the bare necessities of life. Foster social harmony in South Sudan, where current tensions have already caused numerous victims and are threatening peaceful coexistence in that young state.

Prince of Peace, in every place turn hearts aside from violence and inspire t h em to lay down arms and undertake the path of dialogue. Look upon Nigeria, rent by constant attacks which do not spare the innocent and defenseless. Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Heal the wounds of the beloved country of Iraq, once more struck by frequent acts of violence.

Lord of life, protect all who are persecuted for your name. Grant hope and consolation to the displaced and refugees, especially in the Horn of Africa and in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Grant that migrants in search of a dignified life may find acceptance and assistance. May tragedies like those we have witnessed this year, with so many deaths at Lampedusa, never occur again!

Child of Bethlehem, touch the hearts of all those engaged in human trafficking, that they may realize the gravity of this crime against humanity. Look upon the many children who are kidnapped, wounded and killed in armed conflicts, and all those who are robbed of their childhood and forced to become soldiers.

Lord of heaven and earth, look upon our planet, frequently exploited by human greed and rapacity. Help and protect all the victims of natural disasters, especially the beloved people of the Philippines, gravely affected by the recent typhoon.

Dear brothers and sisters, today, in this world, in this humanity, is born the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Let us pause before the Child of Bethlehem. Let us allow our hearts to be touched, let us allow ourselves to be warmed by the tenderness of God; we need his caress. God is full of love: to him be praise and glory forever! God is peace: let us ask him to help us to be peacemakers each day, in our life, in our families, in our cities and nations, in the whole world. Let us allow ourselves to be moved by God's goodness.

24 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

My warmest greetings on what we Christians believe is a feast awaited and celebrated by the whole of creation. The Love that is the source of the cosmos comes to us today as One who will share completely in our condition that we too might fully share in Love's own life. We stand at the beginning of the life of Jesus who, through all of his choices for his Father --- and so, for us --- will become the exhaustive incarnation of the Word of God in human flesh. May this year bring us each closer to being the incarnation of the Word of God we are each called to be through our participation in this Christ Event. As Jesus was called to truly be the counterpart God sought for eons and eons, on this feast of his Nativity may we too renew our own commitments to be those who have a share Jesus' own vocation.

22 December 2013

Consecrated Virgins vs Religious: Which are Espoused to Christ?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, a CV has written that in [in contrast to] the Rite of Religious Profession, consecrated virgins have a spousal mission. She also writes, [[Con-trasted to the mission of the religious to live a religious life according to vowed evangelical counsels and separation from the world, the consecrated virgin's mission is to serve the Church primarily as Virgin, Bride, and Mother]] and then [[It should be noted that the Rite of Profession of Religious emphasizes the evangelical counsels and communal lifestyle and barely touches upon a Bridal or nuptial theme whereas the Rite of Consecration to a life of Virginity does not reference the evangelical counsels at all except virginity and the emphasis is entirely upon the themes of virginal espousals and motherhood.]] Does this support the idea that CV's under c 604 are Brides of Christ but Religious are not? Why would this CV make such an argument?]]

Well, I don't know the conclusions drawn from these comments by the person you are citing, but in and of themselves, these comments do not support that idea, no. Does this writer actually argue this explicitly? The conclusions they do support are part of the position I have put forth before, namely, Religious and CV's are similarly consecrated by God and espoused to Christ but they live this reality out differently in most cases due to differences in context, charism, mission, etc. Most fundamentally, one group lives it out as consecrated religious and the other as consecrated secular persons.  Beyond that, one group (ministerial religious) ordinarily lives it out implicitly while the other group (CV's living in the world) do so, and are meant to do so, explicitly. (Cloistered religious may do so more explicitly and some apostolic religious also legitimately feel called to do so.)

The profession  of evangelical counsels effectively separates persons from or significantly qualifies their relationship to the world in fundamental areas (i.e., those of economics, power, and relationships). These religious may or may not be called to witness primarily to espousal per se; instead they may be called to live out this espousal in ways which make something else more directly the gift they bring to the Church and world. For instance, the Sisters of Mercy are consecrated Religious, espoused to God, etc,  but the charism they specifically bring to Church and world is the gift of ministering Christ's mercy to the poor, marginalized and ignorant with a special vow for that. Espousal to God in Christ in an underlying and foundational reality which is usually left implicit in this as they act as spiritual mothers and sisters to the world of the marginalized and poor. In other words, for ministerial religious, their commitment to others often tends to move espousal per se to the background even as it moves the resulting gifts associated with spiritual motherhood and sisterhood to the fore. The gifts and graces of spiritual motherhood and sisterhood however, stem from their espousal/consecration which is itself a specification of their baptism.

CV's on the other hand are called upon to live out their espousal explicitly in a secular way and context. They are Brides of Christ but not Religious Sisters. They are consecrated women,  icons of the eschatological espousal every person is ultimately called to and they are called to live this out explicitly in the world and in the things of the world right here and right now. At the same time, while they are not vowed to religious poverty, or religious obedience, they, like every Christian, are called to embrace the values of the Gospel; these include the counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity according to one's state of life. The apparent absence of reference to the evangelical counsels in the Rite of Consecration however, is due to the absence of vows or life in community, and to the vocation's secularity, not to the absence of these values more generally.

Especially, neither does the difference in emphasis of the Rite of Profession of Religious from the Rite of Consecration under c 604 indicate one rite refers to espousal while the other does not. Nor does any difference refer to a different degree of espousal any more than this difference refers to a different degree of consecration. Again, one rite refers to the espousal of Religious who live out their consecration in terms of public vows and (diocesan hermits excepted) life in community, while the other refers to the espousal of virgins living exhaustively consecrated AND secular lives where their identity as Brides of Christ is explicit and the fundamental ecclesial gift they bring to the Church and world.

I think the passage you have cited says as much. What it does not (and cannot honestly) say is that the Bridal imagery or nuptial import is absent in the Rite of Profession/Consecration of Religious, nor that where it is present it is different in kind or degree from that of the Consecration of Virgins living in the world or vice versa. What differs is emphasis and context, charism and mission. Both Rites use Bridal language while the insigniae given in  Religious Profession and the Consecration of Virgins living in the world is the same as has always been the case in any consecration and/or profession. These are nuptial in nature: veils, rings, etc. (Cf, for instance the picture and prayer of the giving of my own ring where the Bishop said, according to the prescribed rite: [[ Sister, receive this ring for you are betrothed to the eternal King: Keep faith with your Bridegroom so that you may come to the wedding feast of Eternal joy.]] So again, in both cases -- Religious and CV's living in the world -- espousal is real and fundamental. Where these two groups differ is in the way they are called by the Church to live this out and symbolize it for others.

Attempts to Deny the Nuptial Reality of Religious Profession

Though what you have cited does not say so, there is indeed a movement afoot (possibly only composed of a minority of CV's) to say that CV's under c 604 have the right to be called Brides of Christ where Religious do not.  One CV actually (and erroneously) wrote that she has the right to ask a Sister calling herself a Bride of Christ to stop doing so! But the Church herself has traditionally understood her own identity as reflective of a spousal bond and vocation and has Traditionally recognized a special expression of that spousal bond and ecclesial identity in the vocations of Religious women and men.  There is absolutely no indication that by reprising the secular vocation of canon 604 the Church wishes to affirm that CV's are Brides of Christ while denying Religious are similarly espoused. The evidence is quite the contrary in fact.

Additionally, some CV's have actually asserted that if Religious Women and Men share in the charism of spousality it weakens or dilutes the charism of CV's! Of course since we (Christians) are ALL ultimately called to this espousal and since the Church herself is the Virgin Bride of Christ, it hardly makes sense to argue that a lack of exclusiveness "dilutes" the CV's charism. ALL vocations, and especially all ecclesial vocations share in and express this universal conjugal love between God and his own. Relative to other vocations Religious and CV's image this universal vocation in a more explicit way even if they differ from one another in degree of explicitness,  just as those called to marriage and the holiness and sacramentality of sexual love image different dimensions of this same universal call.

What remains true is that CV's consecrated under c 604 cannot change almost 2 millennium of Church tradition simply because they are themselves in search of a rationale for their vocations which fails to center on (or, in some instances, fails even to recognize) the foundational secularity qualifying the consecrated nature of the calling. Graces, mission, and even the charism (gift quality) of the vocation may differ from those of others also called to reflect the ecclesial vocation of spousal (all-encompassing and total or conjugal) love; what does not change is the underlying spousal call and bond. (This is equally true for religious who reject the nuptial imagery and trappings associated with their profession and consecration.) Though other things may be at play, the apparent need to argue a difference in the consecration and espousal of Religious in distinction from canon 604 CV's seems to me to stem first of all from an inability to accept the radical secularity of the vocation. Because they do not accept this, they must find something else which makes their vocation truly meaningful and distinct.

Additional Reasons for this Denial:

I think there are a couple of other related reasons as well. First, this minority of CV's seem to be impatient with the Church's (meaning here the whole People of God's) slowness in coming to understand and appreciate this "new" vocation. Admittedly, it is sometimes frustrating to give oneself to a little-understood or appreciated vocation! This leaves the increased hiddenness of the CV's vocation to rankle with some CV's. Instead of allowing time for the Church as a whole to establish and reflect on the unique gift quality of a consecrated vocation lived in the world and the things of the world (and therefore living without distinguishing garb, title, vows, or insigniae beyond the wedding ring each CV wears), there seems to be a need to establish themselves as special and "set apart" in a way which also actually betrays the fundamental secularity and the charism of the vocation. We ought not need to suggest we are special merely in referring to what distinguishes us from other vocations; sometimes we are special because we share a charism with others while our mission in extending or mediating this charism to others is quite different.

Once CV's become more secure in articulating the charism and mission of their vocation as both conse-crated AND secular, I believe and hope the need to redefine the consecration and espousal of Religious will cease. The same is true when CV's living in the world become completely comfortable with the paradox I mention below, namely, that being set apart FOR and BY God in their case does not necessarily mean being set apart FROM others; it does not ordinarily involve distinguishing garb or insignia beyond their ring. For the CV living in the world, being set apart for God as a consecrated person in the church means secular lives, secular dress, etc. Certainly I have spoken with mature examples of this vocation for whom elitism is unacceptable even as they understand and live out both the uniqueness and the universality of their vocation; they give me hope in this matter. What is true, I think, is that only as CV's live out the paradox of their vocations wholeheartedly will the Church as a whole become more accepting of it.

Secondly, it seems to be the case that a number of CV's really desire to be Religious, but for some reason are unable or even unwilling to enter a congregation and move through all the steps and formation required. For that reason there seems to be a movement afoot to take a secular form of consecrated life and transform it instead into a quasi-religious form which simply lacks, "all the bells and whistles." In such cases, where the radical secularity of the vocation is actually denied, the common  and usually misguided question, "Why didn't you go the whole way and become a nun?" actually has some cogency. Related to this is the too-facile distinction of Religious life from secular life in a way which treats secular life as less than truly devout, and certainly as not fitting to one who is consecrated by God. As I have written here before, today the Church is moving to reappropriate a more adequate notion of secularity, an understanding which is to be carefully distinguished from secularism and where, whether consecrated, ordained, or lay, persons can embrace the fact that they are called to live out lives of radical discipleship to Jesus in the world and in the things of the world precisely in order to call others to the same discipleship. CV's will especially call others to recognize that they too share in some way in the vocation of spousal union with God in the midst of secularity.

This means that CV's living in the world have actually been given a significant place in this dimension of the Church's mission. Paradox is often hard for people to appreciate or embrace but here CV's are called to embrace and live the paradox of consecrated or eschatological secularity. The Church seeks to hold these two things together as a piece of its own sacramental character; she consecrates virgins TRULY living in the world so that they might be icons of the Christian paradox where the divine is exhaustively revealed in flesh, the sacred is revealed in the ordinary and all of existence is called to be a living symbol of the reality of God's love which is poured out in the creation of ordinary life.

Can Consecration Ever be Undone?

One piece of recent developments in reflecting on the meaning and significance of c 604 vocations, and a piece which must be relinquished, is the notion that the CV is made Bride of Christ in a way which changes her ontologically. In saying this I do not mean that consecration does not change the person at all --- especially in her capacity to receive the grace of God which is specifically pertinent to her unique vocation.  However, I do mean that the person is not made "Bride of Christ" as though there is some sort of special form of humanity, some unique genus known as "sponsa Christi" into which the CV has been transformed which is unlike what happens to religious during their own consecration.

At her consecration the CV is uniquely graced and made especially capable of receiving the graces associated with bridal, virginal, and maternal love proper to the Kingdom or Reign of God; at the same time she is made legally and morally responsible for receiving and living out these graces as best she can on behalf of others in accordance with Canon Law and the Rite of Consecration --- especially as a consecrated person and icon of the universal calling of the whole Church to be Bride of Christ.  As with Religious who are consecrated by God at perpetual or solemn profession (this does not happen with temporary profession), the consecration per se cannot be undone; even so, what can be relinquished or undone are the legal and moral rights and obligations which attend and mark the CV's entry into the consecrated state of life.

Religious are dispensed from their perpetual vows in order to achieve this relinquishment. When dispensed in this way they do not cease to be consecrated but they are no longer consecrated persons in the Church. Since CV's have no vows they cannot be dispensed from them, but it does happen that CV's leave the legal rights and obligations enjoined on them with consecration and thus too, leave a state of life with its commensurate obligations, responsibilities, and public privileges and expectations. Such a CV does not cease to be consecrated, but she does cease to be a consecrated person (i.e., one in a public state of  consecrated life) in the church. She ceases, in other words, to be an iconic figure in the way CV's living in the world are called to be.

Is Christ the Consecrated Virgin's "Husband"?

Another way of  buying into extravagant and elitist ontological claims is by embracing the notion that Christ becomes the CV's "husband." I admit that I have never been comfortable hearing some use this term and I have become more uncomfortable with it as it is linked with increasingly elitist notions of the CV's consecration. We must always remember the analogical nature of our language when we are speaking of God; when the eschatological reality of the metaphor "spouse" or "Bridegroom" is replaced by the this-worldly legal and social term "husband" we are no longer taking significant care with our language or our theology. Further, we are talking about a change in Christ's own identity which is also exclusionary and I emphatically don't think we can do that.

Those who are espoused, betrothed, or (perhaps less appropriate linguistically) "wedded" to Christ become unique sharers in and witnesses to the CHURCH'S identity as Bride of Christ. We never say Christ is the Church's husband; it is simply not appropriate nor theologically accurate. We refer to him as the Bridegroom because it preserves the dimension of a real marriage which is not yet consummated or marked by home-taking. We do the same with CV's; the Church does so in all traditional, official, or authoritative documents referring to this vocation that I have seen. (See for instance par 18 of Pius XII's "Sacra Virginitas" where Pius carefully and consistently maintains the distinction between Christ as spouse and others as "husbands" --- even going so far as to speak of virgins as espoused to Christ and thus free of husbands!) Neither then do we say the Church (nor individual Sisters, Brothers (!), Friars (!), or CV's) are Christ's wives. Such language strips away the eschatological and ecclesial nature of the identity the CV or any of these others have accepted and makes claims of a spousal bond apparently ridiculous. I believe this usage is theologically naive and harmful to the actual witness the CV is meant to give.

To summarize then, because the vocation is ecclesial and makes the CV an icon of the Church's own identity, as well as because it is a share in an eschatological reality and points to a union which occurs in eternity when neither man nor woman will be given in marriage, it cannot make of Christ a "husband" in a this-wordly sense. Again, in Xtn theology we tend to keep the Scriptural language of espousal (Bridegroom, spouse, Bride) and eschew more common language of wife and husband in speaking of this dimension of consecration precisely to maintain the eschatological nature of the union and identity.  (Again, refer to Pius XII's usage in Sacra Virginitas.) Taking care in this way might also prevent some of the extravagant and elitist claims we are seeing  and hearing from some CV's. After all, I have called this vocation one of eschatological secularity; just as CV's cannot deny or diminish the secularity of it and be true to it, neither can they legitimately deny nor diminish its eschatological nature without betraying the vocation.

Is the CV really a Bride of Christ then? Yes, absolutely, but in a way which is representative, iconic, proleptic, and prophetic, rather than exclusive or elitist. The CV is a Bride of Christ in a sense which says, "I am what you are also called to be eschatologically, and I am this here and now so that you might know you are also called to this!" She is not a Bride of Christ in a sense which says, "I am a Bride of Christ and you consecrated Religious are not!" nor, "I am a Bride of Christ now and will be so in eternity in a way you will never be!"  Instead, the CV consecrated under c 604 lives out the specifically ecclesial identity of  Bride to the eternal Bridegroom in a particularly vivid and coherent way; she does so precisely so others may also do so (and aspire to do so) in the differing ways God calls them to share in this foundational ecclesial identity. The call and mission of CV's consecrated under c 604 is a tremendously significant ecclesial witness which serves the whole Church in reminding us of something fundamental which has been lost sight of, namely, the universal call to spousal love, the call of every person and God's Church as a whole to a union with God through Christ that is best seen as "nuptial."

Though I have focused on the nuptial character of this vocation, I should also say that this call is also profoundly significant in extending and clarifying the Church's new and evolving stances on secularity and mission! This too is part of its charism and a witness and challenge the world needs profoundly. This vocation reflects a form of "set apartness" which itself is only truly expressed when it is lived exhaustively within the culture; it is the "set apartness" proper to the Incarnation of the Word of God and to a Church whose very nature (like that of the God she worships and mediates) is missionary. The CV living in the world ministers and missions, not merely by going out to segments of the world preaching, teaching, healing, and so forth, but by manifesting the Kingdom of God here and now IN secularity --- albeit a wholly transformed secularity, an eschatological secularity proper to the "time" when God will be all in all.

Please also see: On Consecrated Virginity: the Nature of This Espousal

18 December 2013

Made in the Image of God

A number of weeks ago in the book of Wisdom the author affirmed that we are made in the image of God and that we are, in fact, imperishable. Above all the writer wished us to be consoled and encouraged by these truths and our hope "be full of immortality".  He contrasted the shortness of our lives of suffering, the limitations in our seeing and understanding, the narrowness, that is, of our finite perspective with that of our Creator and Sustainer.  For the author of Wisdom, the symbols "imago dei" and "imperishabilty" are the symbols of our hope, but they function in this way precisely because they point less to us than they do to the unceasing faithfulness and love of God. My sense is that in the history of theology we have not always allowed them to do this as clearly or powerfully as we might. Two ways of looking at these things contrast in significant ways; thus, as we prepare for Christmas and the nativity of the One who will fully reveal what it means to be human as well as what Divinity truly is it is Jesus who shows us the nature of "imago dei" and real "imperishability". Because Jesus' revelation of both humanity and divinity accent relationality when we contrast a relational sense of both "imago dei" and the nature of our soul's imperishability  with an older and more substantialistic notion of these, we will find the former more compelling.

The Substantialistic Approach:

The first is a "substantialistic" way which tends to focus on human beings alone, gifted by God, yes, but still on the human being alone.  This way tends to be rather static and it looks at realities like imago dei or imperishability --- linked to an immortal soul --- as possessions we have --- fixed endowments or characteristics which exist in us. The most common of these have traditionally been identified as rationality, free will or volitionality, a moral sense, and a spiritual dimension or "component" (immortal soul, etc). As significant as these dimensions of the human being are this approach also has draw backs.

Sometimes they are seen as ends rather than means. They are spoken of to underscore our uniqueness and dignity but without a correlative sense of mission. They can be used to compartmentalize us and the idea of imago so that imago is linked to various dimensions within us but not to our humanity per se. Speaking of imago in this sense can tempt us to see ourselves as superior to the rest of creation and lead to a theology of isolated or estranged dominion over creation rather than of stewardship in collaboration. It can even lead to a theology where those who are more intelligent, more logical,  (or whatever the characteristic chosen) are seen as superior to those who are less intelligent, and so forth.

Another drawback is that this approach can make God seem to be the sum of certain human characteristics writ large. If we are rational, then God is supremely so; if we are a being, then God becomes a supreme being, and so forth. While it is true that God is rational, moral, etc in some sense, it is also the case that God is wholly other than these characteristics as embodied in human beings. God is their source and ground but he is not them merely writ LARGE. God is Being itself, rationality itself, meaning and beauty themselves; he is the ground and source of all of these but he is not A BEING, not even a supreme being. We cannot forget this. And finally, this approach to imago dei treats or tends to treat these elements or dimensions as possessions rather than as graces. Especially this approach tends to leave us speaking of imago dei as an entitlement and source of other entitlements rather than a vocation and mission to be lived for the benefit of creation.

With regard to immortality this same substantialistic approach treats our own imperishability similarly. We think of ourselves as HAVING an immortal soul --- a possession which, to some extent seems to us to be independent of God's continuing act of being God, God's continuing sustaining action. We think of our bodies as ceasing but our souls as continuing because they themselves are immortal. In the past this distortion of Scriptural theology has lead us to a dualism which demeans and discounts the human body or rejects the nature of human beings as embodied spirit; it also led to an at least implicit questioning of  the nature of and need for resurrection. (If our souls, which are the (supposedly) "really essential part of us", are immortal, then why do we need resurrection? If resurrection is merely a reuniting of body and soul, then how is it also an even in which death and sin are destroyed?). In turn this led to a whole host of difficulties including taking seriously life on earth, speaking rightly about the symbols heaven and hell, accommodating a Church and Gospel which are engaged in social justice, the problem of moving folks away from individualistic notions of spirituality focused on "getting (their souls) to heaven, " etc.

The Relational Approach:

But there is a second way of approaching both the symbol imago dei, and the reality of human imperishability or immortality. It is a relational way of seeing the human being as such, and therefore too, these two central dimensions of human dignity. It says clearly that we are made in the image of God only to the degree we are in relationship with God and it notes that our imperishability comes to us moment by moment and is entirely dependent on God's unceasing faithfulness and love for us.

Jesus is the clearest model of what it means to be imago dei.  He demonstrates to us that imaging God is precisely what human beings are called to do. Throughout his life we are told that Jesus grew in grace and stature --- meaning that  through the grace (very presence) of God he grew more and more into a human being who exhaustively revealed God to and within the world. Throughout his life Jesus becomes more and more transparent to the One he calls Abba. (For Jesus and for each of us this is what it means to be human and to glorify God.) Throughout the Gospels we see him choose to let go of those things which are an assertion of self or otherwise are obstacles to revealing (in all three senses!) God clearly. Think especially here of his relinquishing of family (both primary and secondary) and claiming as his true Mothers and Brothers and Sisters those "nobodies" and "outcasts" who see God in him. Think of his time in the desert when he lets go of ambition, personal power, and  the limited security that comes from these to rely wholly on God; think of his continued clashes with Judaism or the surrounding honor/shame culture when he embraces the insecurity of one who trusts whole-heartedly and ultimately in God. And of course, consider his final trial, passion, and death when he becomes the epitome of human failure and shamefulness, and instead is and remains entirely helpless and exhaustively open to God being the sole source of life and meaning.

Throughout his life Jesus grows more and more into God's own counterpart. He reveals in his own humanity both what it means to be human and who God is. Where God seeks to love, Jesus allows it and lives from it so that we all might do  the same. Where God desires to enter exhaustively into every moment and mood of our world, including sin and godless death, where he seeks to turn a human face to us Jesus is open and responsive to this desire. Where of course Jesus shows us a capacity human beings as human have to reveal God he more clearly demonstrates to us that imago dei is a calling we are entrusted with and a mission we have been created to carry out in relationship with God. In Jesus' life it is the combination of human openness to God and God's love for his creation which together constitute the great grace we call the image of God. (Paul's version of this is summarized in 2 Cor 12:9 when he reprises God's self revelation, "My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.") What Jesus models for is is the truth that imago dei is the call entrusted to human beings to be wholly transparent to God in all the ways God desires.

Immortality is also Relational

Just as imago dei is a relational term referring to the reality that comes to be when we are open and responsive to the love of God, so too is immortality a relational term. We are imperishable only because and insofar as God loves us.  Though he was speaking of something else at the time, Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam once said: "God sustains us like a singer sustains a note." I have come to understand this as an image of the nature of the human person and the human soul's immortality.  What is so striking for me in this statement is the way both human and divine are inextricably wed as well as how dynamic an image it is. There is no way our being becomes a static possession --- and neither is there any way we can understand humanity apart from relatedness to God. Similarly, our spirits or souls possess immortality because they are of God --- not in a kind of indirect or derivative way and especially not of themselves, but because they are his continuing, unfailing activity within us.

For the New Testament writers, and especially for Paul, death is a power which needs to be brought under complete subjection. Our hope is in the resurrection because it proves for us God's power over death in his commitment to us --- sinners whom he loves with an everlasting love. Any victory that death wins in this life is temporary --- for God will neither forget us nor cease from breathing us forth. We have immortality because God is immortal and because our own existence is wholly dependent on God. We are immortal to the extent we are in relationship with God --- and fortunately for us, God is at work in Christ reconciling us to himself so that that relationship will never cease.

Being What we Are Called to Be, the Counterparts of God

Christmas is about what happens when people accept God's invitation to be his coun-terparts in significant ways and especially it is about the birth of the One who would be God's counterpart in an exhaustive and definitive way. Joseph, Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, Anna, Elizabeth --- all of these persons allow God to speak through them in significant ways; they allow the breath of God to take form and expression in their very lives. They become these expressions, these words or language events. As a result we have births summoned out of barrenness, fullness of life called to be from virginity, muteness and paralyzing fear transformed into canticles of joy and hope, and human beings who become more and more transparent mediators of the very Spirit of God as they hearken to God's will to love them into wholeness and to bring the whole of creation to fulfillment through them.

The climax is the Word made fully incarnate in the man, Jesus who is God's counterpart in a way which is paradigmatic for the rest of us. In other words with Christmas we celebrate the stories of a God who seeks to find in his creation a counterpart, one who would be responsive to and share his love in every moment and mood of his existence. We also therefore, celebrate the stories of a chorus of people who themselves prepare for this event by allowing God to sustain and shape them as a singer sustains and shapes a note. The paean of praise that results, both individually and collectively,  is also the revelation of what it means to be imago dei and truly imperishable. In short, it reveals the vocation of every human being to be a Word event continually enlivened and empowered by the eternal breath of God.

16 December 2013

Followup Questions: Too Sinful for Christmas?

[[Dear Sister, I know in your last post you don't say that mortal sin does not exist, but it sounds like you come dangerously close to doing so. If you are not merely being sneaky or dishonest in this, aren't you sugarcoating things for the person you answered? Do you believe in a sin which can be serious enough to deprive us of the friendship of God or not? ]]

Thanks for your questions. In my last post I was very careful to address misperceptions the term "mortal" could lead to and not to deny the reality of "mortal sin" itself. It is true I prefer the term grave sin to mortal sin, but that is not necessarily the same as denying the reality of it is it?  So to answer your question I must first point out not only what the Church generally teaches about the nature and effects of mortal sin, but also speak a little of the nature of friendship with God --- which is, of course, a relationship involving ourselves and God.

It is significant that in the CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) the entire section on sin begins with a discussion of the mercy of God. The mercy of God revealed (made known and made real among us in the Christ Event) clearly has priority in the discussion and the Church has actually chosen to cite St Paul at this point, "Where sin abounded (or increased) grace abounded all the more." (Rom 5:20) At this point the Church makes clear our own responsibility to cooperate with or receive grace, both to uncover sin and to move beyond it. She quotes John Paul II's comment on conversion and notes a double gift of grace: 1) to illumine our sinfulness and empower us to make a good conscience judgment in its regard, and 2) "the [objective] certainty of redemption."

I note all this because in the post which raised your questions the person I was addressing had clearly received grace in the first sense: that is, he knew his sin and the seriousness of it; he had repented and repented again and again. What he seemed to me to NOT be aware of was the second element JPII mentioned, the second element in Paul's statement in Romans, namely, the certainty of redemption --- the surety that wherever sin abounds, in Christ grace abounds all the more. This is something which detracted from allowing his acts of repentance being all they might have been and all they might have become or matured into. It is not sugarcoating the matter to emphasize there is another and even more critical element in the equation of divine-human friendship, or in the situation of human sin than the sin itself. The grace of God empowers awareness of sin; it allows us to stand outside sin to some extent in recognizing and claiming it. However it ALSO assures us that the power of God's love has conquered sin. Both dimensions must be present for us if we are to repent and move into the future created by that Love.

In other words, until the person I wrote to or any of us realize that our sense of sin and our remorse for that is also the fruit of God's grace and that God absolutely desires and does not cease trying to bring us even further than this we will be stuck in the rut of trying to change our own hearts, trying to pull ourselves out of the muck we have often fallen into --- all by our own power. We will confess and confess but never move beyond that sin. [I should say here that what may need serious healing is not guilt per se but the shame which can attach and likely has done in cases where we cannot accept forgiveness or "forgive ourselves''.] We must ALSO believe that God's love is freely given and that it and it alone is capable of bringing us further. When we believe in this unconditional gratuitous love we will begin to give that love room to operate and the more we give it room to operate the more we will come to believe in it and live in light of it. The focus of our lives has to change, however. We cannot be wholly mesmerized by our sinfulness; we must instead become entranced by the love of God and who we are in light of that. When that happens we will not only recognize and confess our sin, we will begin to experience more fully Christ's victory over sin gained by the mercy of God.

Let me also note that what we are told is that mortal sin deprives us of friendship with God. (Please note the CCC does NOT explain things in these terms.**) However, there are two ways of hearing that phrase, "deprives us of friendship with God." It can mean that we cease to be active partners in the friendship. It can also mean that God does, that he is so offended that he turns away from us until we grovel to him in abject misery. Finally it can refer to a mutual rejection of friendship. What my post to persons concerned with mortal sin said is that deprivation of friendship with God NEVER means that God rejects us; it never means that he withholds his love from us or that he ever ceases to think of us or call us to truly be his friends. God does not WAIT for us to find our way back. We cannot do that after all. He seeks us out in our sinfulness.

If it is anything Christmas proclaims it is this. That is one reason Luke's parable of the prodigal son is also the parable of the prodigal (extravagantly loving) Father --- the one who runs out against all custom and propriety to meet his younger son and welcome him home; the one who redefines repentance in terms of allowing oneself to be made Son/Daughter and feasted because of God's over-joyousness at our return. On the other hand, to no longer be in a state of grace means to no longer be one who lives from that grace. It means instead that we have taken something else to be the focus and foundation of our lives. We have journeyed to a far place alone and left the Father grieving, waiting, and watching the horizon for the slightest glimpse or hint of our return. It means that through our own actions we may well have lost or critically injured our own friendship WITH God but we have not lost the friendship OF God. This is the truth I believe in and I believe it completely.

** The CCC in par 1855 notes in explaining the gravity of mortal sin: [[Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.]] N.B., It does not say that God turns away from us, for instance, nor that he ceases to love us or offer us grace (his very life). In fact, in 1861 it notes that "although we can judge that an act is itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God." It is good to remember this in our own cases of grave  (or any) sin as well --- and likewise entrust ourselves to what the CCC refers to as the [objective] certainty of redemption. 

15 December 2013

Am I too sinful for Christmas?

During seasons like Advent we prepare ourselves for the coming of God anew. We celebrate that he has come into our sinful world and will come again and again into sinful lives to renew our hearts, to open pathways within them that have become narrowed or distorted and which therefore prevent God from flooding our lives with his love. During this time those who find themselves beset by serious sin may make the fundamental mistake of believing that God will not be present to them until they repent, that he will not draw close until they can purify themselves. And this is especially true if the person's sin has been grave or "mortal". In Christ we find ourselves the subjects of an incredible paradox --- that we are both graced and sinful at the same time; we are held in existence by God while still separated from him; we have a continually God-breathed soul, and a heart in which God resides even while we reject God and refuse to reside in him.

The language of mortal sin reveals the urgency and gravity of the situation of sin but it can, unfortunately, also contribute to the problem mentioned above. It may lead some to think of themselves as too sinful for Christmas. But Christ is born in a space for animals and laid in a feeding trough. God comes to be with us IN our sin even as he frees us FROM our sin; such humility is his very nature and we must take that side of the equation seriously as well.

The following is typical of questions I have received over a number of years, but which come up more frequently during holiday times and seasons like Advent and Lent : [[Dear Sister, I am dealing with a recurring mortal sin. I have tried to develop a prayer life but then I go back to this sin and it prevents me from succeeding in that. I have had many people pray for me and have even had an exorcism prayed over me; I have fasted, used a discipline [a small scourge], but still I return to this sin. I am writing to ask if you will pray for me? Thank you.]]

I will certainly pray for you, but I need to suggest to you that you may be allowing the term "mortal sin" to prevent you from praying and developing a prayer life --- or from believing that you can do so. While it is good to have people pray "over you" or for you the simple fact is that the only real cure for our own sin is developing a relationship with God (and probably with others) despite our sin. At some point you need to  be able to stand before God and trust God working in you and loving you in spite of your sin. In other words, continue to pray no matter what. God has not left you even if you turn from his life. He is always there knocking, waiting, offering his love (his very Self in act), and holding you in existence. Serious sin is certainly a significant concern but the term "mortal" can be misleading and cause us to believe God is not present to or within us, or that he ceases to love us while we are in such a state. Neither of these things is true --- not even in the state of "mortal sin." (Were they true, then repentance would be something we would have to come to on our own power.)

In Jesus' day certain illnesses were considered the result of demonic possession. When the disciples could not heal one of these, could not "cast out" the spirits involved, they asked Jesus why not. He answered that this kind of thing could only be done by prayer. The prayer was his own, but it was ALSO the prayer of the person who had turned to him (since turning to Jesus IS one dimension of prayer). Paul wrote that Jesus died for us (that is, God showed the absolute depths of his love in reaching down to us) "while we were yet sinners." Paul also was very clear about the conflict he found inside himself when he wrote, "The things I would not do I do and the things I would do I do not do." He then cried out in great anguish, "Who will save me from this body of death?" He uttered this as a man of sin AND prayer and his answer was a cry of gratitude to Christ and the God who worked to love him into wholeness in spite of (or even in light of) the great division in Paul's very self.

 By the way, since you mention taking the discipline I want to say that personally I find that a typically masculine and frankly wrongheaded way to deal with some sins, but especially with sexual sins. (I do not know what your sin is, so forgive my assumptions here.) I once answered questions online with a number of other Catholic leaders. I found the priests there often counselled an approach resembling "going mano a mano with the sin" or "beating the sin (or our bodies) into submission." My own approach is very different. You see, unfortunately, with things like taking the discipline what is far more likely to happen is pain and pleasure become more and more closely associated in the person's mind (one's thoughts, images, fantasies) and brain (one's neurochemistry, neural pathways, etc) and one will begin to include or build sadistic or masochistic elements into one's compulsion. (I use this term because your own situation sounds like it has a strong aspect of compulsion.) This only complicates matters and makes things harder to deal with. It is far more helpful to be sure one's own life is full, balanced,  marked by love (both given and received), and that it is  "penitential" in more everyday ways which temper our appetites more generally while fulfilling true needs. (For instance, eating healthily, getting enough and regular sleep, taking time for exercise and other forms of recreation -- including reading, conversations with others, hobbies, etc --- can be considered penitential practices and have benefits which are wide-ranging.)

 Finally, I would ask you to examine the orientation and thrust of your entire life. You may sin mortally (that is, gravely, or seriously), but it sounds like more fundamentally you are ALSO making decisions for God, that you yearn for God, etc. If that is the case then realize what is more fundamental in your life than even this compulsion and build on that. More, allow God to build on that with you. You cannot be making choices for life, for love, for the prayer of others, nor struggling against sin if God is not also alive within you and if you are not graced in an evident and real way --- and I suggest that it is evidently the case for you.

While this does not mean serious or grave sin is okay of course, nor that we can blow it off as nothing of real consequence, it does argue that you are a good deal more than this one sin and that you do NOT need to allow it to dominate your life. Of course, other things must do so instead ---- especially a life of prayer. Though I can make some suggestions here, in the main I would encourage you to find a good spiritual director who can help you in this; after all a prayer life is much more than a life of saying prayers. Not least, a good director can assist you in healing from the woundedness (including a woundedness sometimes of will) which may lead to behavior which is unworthy of being chosen. I would also suggest that you allow the focus in your own attention to move away from this sin (which is really a way of being focused on yourself) and onto the love and graciousness of God. Pay some attention to the ways in which you have to be thankful, the ways love is real in your life. Act out of that sense; celebrate the sacrament of penance out of that awareness rather than simply out of guilt and shame. In other words try to develop an attitude of gratitude and hope  rather than one of shame, guilt, and even subtle despair. In my own experience real remorse with a true purpose of amendment stems from a sense of gratitude and the responsiveness it empowers more readily than it does from guilt or sorrow alone.

Thanks for your patience with this long reply. If it raises questions for you, or if you would like to write again in the future, please feel free to do so. I would ask that if you write again you actually name the sin you are speaking of. As you can imagine, it makes some difference in tailoring comments, for instance, if a person is dealing with the compulsion to masturbate as opposed to the compulsion to be a serial killer. (By the way, the element of compulsion itself is something which can mitigate the seriousness of the sin, but I have chosen not to discuss that here. That is so not only because I assume you have accurately described the gravity of your actions but because the resolution of the situation still requires attending to God's action in our lives and the development of an attitude of gratitude, etc.)

11 December 2013

Dolphin Turns to Divers for Assistance

Human beings are called to be stewards of the earth. We are meant to use our intelligence to allow the entire cosmic drama to come to articulateness. The more we understand and participate in the world in this way, the more creation achieves fullness. We have evolved to understand that there is dialogue even between vastly different species and we also know that this dialogue may itself contribute to continued evolution. During a season when we prepare for the Word assuming flesh it is good to remind ourselves that the Logos of God is the basis of ALL creation and all creation is groaning for the fulfillment coming to us in Christ.

Christmas is a cosmic feast, an event affecting the whole of creation; it is an event which is not only focused on the salvation of human beings and deliverance from their sin, but instead on creation coming to a fullness which allows God to find a true counterpart. I found this video to be a remarkable snapshot of a theology which is more prevalent today (though present in Paul's theology or that of Origin, Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure) than it has been in the past. How many such overtures to genuine stewardship and compassionate dialogue do we miss or dismiss in our own lives?

07 December 2013

What Hermits do to "Relax"

Of course I don't know what hermits in general do to relax but here is one of the things I do for recreation. On November 24th the Oakland Civic Orchestra opened this season with a program including the following along with the Tchaikovsky waltz from Eugene Onegin and Brahm's 4th Symphony. As I have noted before, we rehearse one evening a week and are an all amateur orchestra with folks from all walks of life. This concert was especially challenging, not only for Brahm's 4th, but because we were accompanying such a fine young musician in a movement from the Dvorak cello concerto in B minor. Accompanying well requires a very different skill set in some ways than does playing a piece written primarily for orchestra. We all continue to learn --- and especially we learn to listen so that together we might make music. In its own way it is a very Benedictine practice.

Tchaikovsky's Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. Conducted by Jason Oestenstad (associate conductor)

Dvorak's Concerto for Cello in B minor, Movement #1. As noted, we are playing with an amazing soloist --- high school senior Jasper Hussong. Conducted by Marty Stoddard (Artistic Director and Conductor) Jasper is in the midst of applying to colleges and sending in audition tapes. Someone will be lucky to get him!

The Gifts We Bring

At a time when we consider receiving and giving gifts, especially the gift God gives and the gift we make of ourselves in return, this is a pretty fantastic video. Enjoy.

06 December 2013

On Canon 603 Hermits and Some Supposed Drawbacks of Canonical Standing

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I saw two videos on You Tube from someone called "J__H__" (name omitted by Sr L.). She writes against canonical status for hermits and says it is not necessary even though it may have been thought to be necessary by some well-intentioned Bishops. She also complains that there are all kinds of rules and laws coming to be about hermit life which in her opinion seem to trespass against the individuality of the hermit. I felt she believed that canonical hermits were at the mercy of their Bishops too. She gave the example of a young woman living a reclusive life according to the will of her Bishop and said that if another Bishop came in the young woman might find him changing her life from reclusive to something else. Is this true? I am sending you the links for the videos I watched. There are a number of others too.]]

Thanks for your questions. I am personally sorry to hear these videos are still available. (Yes, I was already aware of them.) I have received questions about them in the past -- though I knew of them anyway -- but nothing recently. I found that the videos I saw, which included the ones you linked me to, were full of misconceptions about canon 603 life, the history of canon 603, the reasons for the existence of the canon, etc. The questions you are asking touch on some of these issues.

The remarkable Balance of Canon 603:

To be honest I think canon 603 does an amazing job of protecting the individuality of  hermits professed under it. While it is true that there are non-negotiable elements which are part of the canon, namely a publicly vowed** and consecrated life of stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, all carried out under a Rule the hermit writes for herself and lives under the supervision of her Bishop --- it is also the case that the Rule the hermit writes ensures that the non-negotiable elements as well as anything else which the hermit considers critical for her life are combined in a wholly individual constellation. These are then lived out under the supervision of the Bishop and (ordinarily) with the assistance of a delegate (a quasi superior) either the Bishop or the hermit chooses for this service role.

This combination of non-negotiable elements, individual experience and needs, along with supervision which is geared entirely towards assisting the hermit in these things, is an aspect of true brilliance in the composition of canon 603. It manages to allow for serious and mature individuality while protecting the very nature of eremitical life itself and the charisma it is for the contemporary Church and world. In other words, it protects the authentic freedom of the Holy Spirit and the Tradition that Spirit is inspiring now as a gift to the life of the Church --- just as the Spirit also originally was 1700 years ago and has done throughout the centuries.

When New Bishops Come into Office:

Regarding your question about new Bishops, I have received similar questions in the past so you might want to look those up as well. The basic answer is that a new Bishop will not unilaterally make serious changes in the hermit's life or Rule because that Rule has been approved canonically by another Bishop. (On the day of profession the hermit's Rule is given a Bishop's Declaration of Approval because it becomes legally binding on the hermit.) If, for example, after meeting with the hermit, a new Bishop believes she needs to be seeing more or less of  her family, or needs to be either more or less reclusive generally, or any number of other things,  these beliefs would have to be based on serious concerns about the hermit's well-being and that of the vocation itself for him to demand changes. In such a case, especially if the hermit disputes these opinions, there will be continuing conversations with the hermit, as well as a conversation with her delegate; others might also be involved: Vicars for Religious who might know and have worked with the hermit, the hermit's pastor and, conceivably, the Bishop in whose hands she was originally or perpetually professed and under whose supervision she had been living for some time.What does not (and I would think, cannot) happen is that a Bishop who believes that all hermits should (or should not) be recluses (or whatever) can change the character of a hermit's Rule and life by mere fiat.

Your question had another problem (or constellation of problems) embedded in it. It seemed to indicate that the hermit is living a certain way because her Bishop demanded she do so in the first place --- possibly in order to be professed at all. In the video you referred me to JH did indeed seem to indicate that a young woman embraced this form of eremitical life because her Bishop mistakenly believed it was the only way to live an eremitical life. Assuming JH has her facts right, then a new Bishop, especially if he was more knowledgeable about the diversity and continuity of eremitical life, could indeed open up new possibilities for this hermit. Were he to sense that the young woman (assuming she truly made her vows freely) was living a Rule, elements of which she felt forced to embrace despite her own experience and discernment, the new Bishop would need to assist her to find a better expression of it. The same conversations mentioned above would need to take place and the diocese (perhaps through the assistance of the delegate) would need to work with the hermit to be sure she rewrote her Rule in a way which best suited her own unique call even as it protected the essential nature of the vocation and the non-negotiable elements of canon 603.

But let me be clear about two things: first, unless the hermit herself decided she was no longer called to live as a hermit and requested dispensation from her vows, the resolution of the situation comes from the hermit's own revision of her Rule so that it better reflects what is healthy for her AND for her vocation. Second, if the original Bishop was merely demanding the essential living out of the non-negotiable elements of the canon in ways which are typical of diocesan hermits everywhere with reasonable accommodations for home visits, contact with friends, horarium, prayer styles and patterns, etc, then the question would become one of whether or not the person was really called to this vocation. Here we have another reason dioceses should be sure candidates for profession have sufficient experience before writing a Rule which will bind them in law as well as a reason which argues against a Bishop being the one to author the Rule himself. It also argues for temporary professions as a matter of course *** and different Rules at each stage of the individual's growth in becoming a diocesan hermit.

Resolving Problems related to a Hermit Who is not living her Rule or the Elements of the Canon:

Let's also look at a similar question which might indeed come up when a new Bishop comes on the scene. If, after 2-3 meetings with the hermit, at least one of which has to do with the contents and living out of her Rule, and perhaps a subsequent clarifying conversation with the hermit's delegate, such a Bishop decides a hermit is not living her Rule with sufficient seriousness or integrity, then he has every right to explain the matter to her and demand that she make appropriate changes. If she is truly being lax then she will need to take necessary steps to resolve this; if changes in her physical health or other changes in her spirituality or her more general situation have led to parts of her Rule no longer working for her, then  she must write appropriate alternatives into the Rule and have these approved by the Bishop. The delegate may again have a significant role in assisting both the Bishop and the Hermit in such a situation. She may have a sense of resources the hermit needs to live her Rule with fidelity or be aware of concerns the Bishop is not; she can also assist the hermit to articulate the ways in which she will revise her Rule if that is part of the solution.

The point, however, is that in this situation as with the others mentioned, canonical standing sets up a series of relationships meant to allow the individual hermit to truly respond to her vocation as is best for her and as God truly wills. Canonical standing ("status") does not mean a position of privilege or superficial "approval". Instead it means that the persons involved have been granted legal rights and accepted legal obligations as well. This is not about legalism. The prudent use of law is simply the way genuine freedom is exercised and protected in both Church and society. Canonical standing protects the Church from the eccentricities and destruction of narcissism or excessive individualism of loners seeking to call themselves "Catholic hermits" while it protects diocesan hermits from the whims of those who neither understand nor approve of the vocation. Contrary to the points made in the videos you referenced, it is precisely the individual nature of eremitical life that calls for Canon 603. In this way the Church makes sure traditional eremitical life itself (and not some form of self-indulgent isolation or misanthropy) is being lived while making sure that the individual hermit has the support and genuine freedom required to do so.

** Some canon 603 hermits use sacred bonds other than vows just as Canon 603 allows for.
*** Individual cases may allow for perpetual profession without temporary vows preceding this commitment, but this will be a rare situation and one that is usually inadvisable.

02 December 2013

A Little Child Shall Lead Them (Reprise)

This morning (1st Sunday of Advent) I served as an EEM for one of the Masses. It is something I usually only do to fill in when someone else can't come for one reason and another, but I love doing it because of the unique dynamics of sharing and worship involved. Today a Father and Daughter appproached me, and the child was too young for Communion so she expected a word and gesture of "blessing". As I smiled at her and reached down to do that she slipped a small folded square of paper into my hand. Surprised and touched I looked at it very briefly, thanked her, wished her a wonderful season, and put the paper in the pocket of my habit beneath my cowl. I gave her Father, who smiled as he watched all this, Communion, and finished with the rest of this service.

Before I went back to my place though, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little square of paper. For the first time I saw that it had "Jesus" printed on the front. This little girl clearly knew who THIS was supposed to go to and I guess she figured I could deliver it! When I opened it I saw that the she had drawn a picture of herself smiling with arms outstretched. In approaching God's altar she had brought herself as a gift. It was the most incredible little "love note" I have ever seen, and it is precisely what Advent (or Christian life more generally) is all about.

When I got home I looked ahead to Tuesday's readings [we have the same readings this Tuesday, 2013] because we will have a Communion service that morning due to our Pastor's need to celebrate a funeral Mass elsewhere and the illness of our other resident priest. Imagine how I felt when I saw that Tuesday's Gospel was from Luke (Lk 10:22) and is the continuation of the passage where Jesus criticizes trusting the intelligence and sophistication of the world and tells his disciples they should become as little children! "The things of God are hidden from the wise and learned and revealed to the childlike."

Well, the miracle I had just experienced is what he is speaking of: namely, coming to Jesus without self consciousness, aware that anything is possible (including a hermit delivering a child's love note to Jesus!), and ready to give oneself and one's gifts, no matter how humble or silly in worldly terms, to become Christ for others, part of the Cosmic Christ no matter our apparent insignificance: it is to these that God's power will really be revealed. It is these IN WHOM God's power will be revealed to us! Afterall, we are the ones who celebrate that God himself could and did reveal himself exhaustively to us in human flesh. We are the foolish ones who believe that evident in the infant Jesus is the awesome power of a love which dwarfs and overcomes all other powers in our world and will indeed heal and perfect the whole of creation! We are the ones who believe that our's is indeed a God whose power (i.e., his sovereign, merciful, and infinitely creative love) is perfected, not mitigated, in weakness.

Now, before I received this precious love note we had just listened to a homily on being open to God acting in awesome and surprising ways and at unexpected times. The presider and homilist encouraged us to set aside our agendas and, as the Scriptures asked, to be aware and watchful: expect the unexpected, be open to the sovereign Creator God who comes in surprising ways and meets us in the unexpected place. Well, I had expected to meet God there in the Eucharist, but I had not expected to receive a small and wonderful miracle like this: a living homily, an enacted parable, which itself was far more powerful than the priest or any theologian, with all their theological learning and sophistication could have given. As Jesus implicitly asks of us on Tuesday, setting the tone and agenda for Advent, "become as little children" for, as Isaiah tells us in the first lection, "a little child shall lead (us)". I encourage you to let the image of THIS little one in Christ -- lead you. It is certainly what I am going to do. After all, she writes love letters to Jesus and approaches God's altar to faithfully entrust  herself through them to hermit nuns for delivery when she is not yet even allowed to receive Communion! She understands Christmas and the reason for Advent completely. She embodied it perfectly at that moment. Standing before the altar of God she WAS the gift she was made to be; is there any doubt that God was absolutely delighted as he contemplated this pure instance of his Kingdom fulfilled right here and now?

P.S. the note resides in the Tabernacle here at Stillsong for the time being. My littlest homilist and living parable wanted it delivered, and, in more ways than this of course, delivered it has been!

01 December 2013

Advent Reading

 I wanted to recommend a book for Advent this year, especially since we are using Matthew's Gospel. It is Pagola's The Way Opened Up by Jesus, a Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

While the book does function as a commentary it is also very fine for lectio and could be used profitably during this season by anyone desiring to learn to know Jesus a little better while preparing to hear the daily Gospel passages proclaimed at Mass. Pagola writes in a way which opens our hearts to the truth of God revealed in the Son.

For each of us Christmas is a time when we commonly decry the fact that Jesus and the Way he proclaimed and made possible is not at the center of our holidays; instead we get crass commercialism, greed, selfishness, the exacerbation of social isolation and family difficulties, etc, etc. The problem  of course is that what Christmas does do is lay bare the fact that too few of us truly allow Jesus Christ and his "Way" to occupy the center of our own hearts. Pagola's book can help in this. (Get it soon, there are few copies left on Amazon!)

For those who would like to focus instead on the Sunday readings Pagola also has three slender volumes for each of years A, B, and C. Each is entitled Following in the Footsteps of Jesus with the appropriate year completing the title. Each is a selection of meditations on the Sunday Gospels. I would also recommend Pagola's Jesus, a Historical Approximation, but I think it is even harder to find than his commentary on Matthew. (Amazon was selling a used copy for more than $4,000! I have never seen anything like it, especially since it was originally published in only 2007! If you can find a library copy though, please do give this a read.)

Next, I recommend Pope Francis's Open Mind, Faithful Heart.  Another collection of meditations on Scripture Francis invites us to do lectio with him and to enter into significant prayer and discipleship more generally. Each meditation is profoundly Scriptural and shows both an extensive and intensive familiarity with these. Prayers accompany the meditations, some of which are really beautifully written and all of which invite us to personally claim as our own the way of Jesus Christ. I have found it a book one best works through slowly and reflectively.

And finally, for both Advent and Christmas reading I suggest two books. The first is Illia Delio's Humilty of God.  Sister Delio is a Franciscan Sister, well-known for her work on the way the new cosmology challenges and informs contemporary spirituality. Building on the work of Bonaventure and Francis, Sister Illia gives us an amazingly contemporary understanding of the humility of God which illuminates the mystery of the Trinity, the sacramentality of our world and selves, and of course, the essence of what we prepare to celebrate during Advent and Christmas, namely a God whose ineffable greatness is exhaustively embodied and revealed (that is, glorified) in the life of a human being. Sister Delio is completely comfortable with the paradoxes at the heart of our faith and is able to illuminate them so they are seen clearly and have a chance of taking hold of us.

While the writing is accessible and often beautiful, one line in the first chapter struck me especially when I first read it: [[If we could only see that God is there in the cracks of our splintered human lives we would already be healed. The humility of God means acceptance --- God accepts ordinary, fragile human flesh to reveal his glory so that we in turn may accept others as the revelation of God. Christ discloses the beauty of the world as the radiance of God. . . . The humility of God is not an abstract concept. It is how God expresses himself in concrete reality.]] This is a very rewarding book both theologically and spiritually.

The second book is Ruth Burrows', To Believe in Jesus. There are many fine book on Jesus out there and I could easily list half a dozen I have found excellent over the years, but this slender but rich volume is packed with material one can consider, pray over, grapple with and generally be delighted and nourished by. Sister Rachel puts knowing Jesus Christ (or, rather, being known by him) at the center of her spirituality, her theology of prayer, her notions of holiness, and so forth. This book is a profound meditation on many passages of Scripture (though they are usually left implicit). Her first chapter begins compellingly: [[ Do you believe in the Son of Man? To this question addressed by Jesus to the man he had cured of blindness, I am sure each of us would reply with a hearty 'yes'. We would be sincere, but we would not be speaking the truth.]]

During Advent it seems to me that one of the questions we must surely ask ourselves is this one --- and one of the answers we must also hear is Sister Rachel's. I have written before that each of us are always beginners in the arena of prayer, not least because God is eternal and therefore ever-new even while he continues to remake us into something new as well. The Humility of God spoken of by Sister Illia Delio is best matched by our own humility; Sister Rachel's book can help us with that! I highly recommend it!!