28 August 2013

Questions on Male version of Canon 604

[[Dear Sr. Laurel, I was wondering if you could answer a question for me. I know about Canon 604 and how certain women can be consecrated virgins, and this consecration can never be dispensed with. But can laymen be consecrated celibates? Is there such a thing? Or would they just make a private vow of chastity? E.g., I know someone who was promiscuous for a number of years, came back to the Church, and made a private vow of chastity. I don't know if he took it a step farther and went through any ceremony with a bishop or priest, but he is a layman and not married, and plans on remaining unmarried. He refers to himself as a "consecrated celibate."]]

The answer to your first question is no. At this point in time there is no vocation for individual lay men who would like to be initiated into the consecrated state in a way similar to consecrated virgins. Rome is said to be talking about reprising the vocation which existed in the early Church (men consecrated in this way were generally called Ascetics), but as far as I know, no steps have been taken to do this. (By the way, a similar vocation has been proposed for widows, and a few Bishops have "consecrated" Widows in this way, but as yet, the vocation has not been ratified by Rome and c 605 which refers to new forms of consecrated life and  demands Bishops' openness to these requires that this ratification occur before it can be considered a new form of consecrated life. Until it does, we do not have consecrated widows either.) Canon 603 governs eremitical life and it is possible for a single lay man to discern an eremitical vocation, but again, this would be vastly different from the vocation of canon 604 or that of ascetics in the early Church. It is emphatically not, as some have reportedly said, the male counterpart to c 604.

If a person decides to remain celibate they may make a private vow. In such a case, they are, for the length of time the vow is kept, dedicated celibates, but not consecrated ones. Despite the wide misuse of the terms consecration or consecrate today as actions referring to one's self-disposition, it remains the case that only God consecrates, only God makes holy or sets aside as holy, only God through the public mediation of the church initiates one into the consecrated state of life. Vatican II was very careful to refer to the human action in profession with terms like dedication, etc and reserved the term consecration for the divine action in such a commitment. Additionally, therefore, its usage is reserved for initiation into the consecrated state of life. To use it otherwise is confusing at best. You see, since initiation into the consecrated state implies public rights and obligations along with new legal relationships as well as necessary expectations on the part of the whole Church (this is one of the reasons this is considered a public commitment), it is unhelpful to use it to refer to someone who has not been formally and publicly called to or accepted those rights and obligations. (By the way, it can and has been argued that no consecration can be dispensed, but the public obligations, rights, and legal relationships attached to the vows and to the consecrated state of life can be dispensed.)

Finally, your friend might have had a priest or Bishop witness his private dedication (or even receive these vows AS PRIVATE), though this is not strictly necessary,  but there is no provision in canon law for the public reception of such a vow by an individual. For this reason, their presence would not change or have changed the entirely private and dedicatory nature of the vow itself. It remains a significant but still-private act of personal dedication.

I hope this is helpful.

Questions on Formation, Flexibility, and Providing Space for the Holy Spirit

[[ Sister Laurel,  I would like to become a diocesan hermit, but I can't go away to a monastery or anything like that. How would I get the formation you say I need? Also, do you know the newsletter, Raven's Bread? There are a lot of people on that and they live as hermits without formation. Some are married and claim their spouses understand their need for solitude. They just seem a lot more flexible than you do on some things.  . . I wonder if you allow enough room for the Holy Spirit to work however he will in a person's life. . .  I think I am already a hermit, but it sounds like you might not.]]

Formation is not an Added Burden but a Means to Freedom

Thanks for your comments and questions. One of the things I have tried to make clear in what I have written about formation is that it occurs in the silence of solitude under the hermit's own initiative and the grace of God. It is not a formal program put together or administered by a diocese, nor does it consist in formal stages like postulancy, novitiate, and so forth. It does, however, involve stages of growth, and these chart the  person's movement from lone person to hermit. If one is seeking to be professed under canon 603 and a diocese believes they might be suitable for this, a diocese will monitor a candidate's own formation, her own growth as a person and transformation into a hermit as part of a process of discernment; the diocese may thus decide that certain experiences are important for the hermit's own growth and the diocese's own discernment, but this is not the same as creating and administering a formation program.


The second thing I have tried to make clear is that ANY form of life involves formation; to the extent we want to do something well and authentically there must be training, education, perseverance in the disciplines these require, and so, conversion and growth in these. Eremitical life takes skill and discipline; the solitude it demands is dangerous to those not called to it and risky even for those who are --- especially in an urban setting which militates against it at every moment. As already noted, I really believe that only the truly naive could think otherwise. While people approaching dioceses are surprised to hear a diocese won't simply admit them to vows as a hermit without a period of discernment (personal formation in living the life is implied here), I wonder if these same folks would be very surprised were they to imagine knocking on a convent door only to be told this is not how it works;  they won't be professed there simply because they walk in off the street and request it! I doubt they would be surprised at such a conclusion. My insistence on the need for formation, as I have said before, is not meant to lay unnecessary burdens on the candidate, but instead to make sure they provide for ways to grow in the skills and discipline (which lead to the freedom) necessary to live 1) a paradigmatic life of assiduous prayer and penance 2) in the silence of solitude 3) on God's behalf and on behalf of all those precious to him.

You see, one problem I run into all the time is that few people today really know what it means to live the silence of solitude. This is much more than living silence and physical solitude though it depends on these. Even fewer know what it is to live a life of assiduous prayer and penance, or really, what it means to be a desert dweller. Beyond this, still fewer imagine doing these for God's sake or the sake of others. As I have said many times, there are many forms and degrees of solitude; very few are eremitical. Stereotypes aside, whether it is email from people who cannot turn off their TV sets or disconnect from their cell phones and iPods, those who prefer not to live alone (some actually cannot do this and this is often, though not always, a different matter), folks who believe the eremitical life means simply being a lone person and doing whatever it is they can or desire to do by facile appeals to the "call of the Holy Spirit," correspondents who are married but believe that God is calling them to be hermits and celibates nonetheless, or from those who believe ANY degree of solitude in their lives means they are hermits, I am afraid I hear a lot from people who are entirely naive of the demands of the canon or who are seeking more to justify an individualistic bent and lifestyle rather than from folks who are hermits or who may ever really discern an authentic call to this.

Why Spend Time in a Monastery?

With this in mind, let me explain how one of the elements I have suggested can be really helpful to diocesan hermits or candidates and why I encouraged it. I have suggested that candidates without the benefit of religious formation especially, but not only, would benefit from extended time in a monastery. I have done this because the silence and solitude in a monastery (especially smaller monasteries that accept retreatants) is of a different character than most people have ever experienced. It is lived with and for others and this is a significant quality which the hermit's own silence of solitude must also have. In a monastery it becomes very clear that the silence of solitude is there to allow God space and a continuing opportunity to reveal himself in each Sister's life and in the community as a whole. One guards both silence and solitude here so that others can seek God, find, and be found by him in the profoundly intimate ways he desires. One guards these then for God's self , for one's Sisters and also for the larger world --- some of whose inhabitants may come here hungering for a silence and solitude (or the silence of solitude) the world generally has lost entirely or cannot provide for.

There is no way to replace this experience I don't think. In Stillsong I live it in a similar but not identical way because I am alone with God for others, but not together with others. (The Camaldolese describe the experience I am speaking of as living alone together.) In the monastery what I experience is a shared reality and because it is shared and nurtured together (anyone eating  in silence or praying silently for an hour with a dozen others will know this), it can be an intensely educative, re-vitalizing, and affirming experience for the hermit --- and I think especially for the urban hermit or the hermit who, for instance, must live with a caregiver and needs to know what is really possible to expect when people live together. So I encourage this as part of the hermit's own formation and discernment because she must be able to live something very similar in her own hermitage. She can't do this if she doesn't even know it exists or if she thinks the silence of solitude merely means the absence of external noise and closing the door on others. Additionally of course, it is really helpful to know others who are living as one does and who embrace the same values, schedule (generally speaking), praxis, etc. When one believes one is doing something strange or singular it becomes very much harder; when one knows others who are faithful to the daily discipline and praxis one is also committed to it is empowering and sustaining.

Allowing Room for the Holy Spirit:

While I am not referring to you here, your comments remind me of those I have received from others. I am surprised when I hear from folks evincing interest in profession under c 603 or in living as a hermit yet who resist making concrete commitments to regular prayer, penance, silence, solitude, or a schedule which calls for disciplined living because they "need to let the Holy Spirit guide them as to what to do". I wonder if we are speaking about the same Holy Spirit. You see, I have found that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in both the successes and failures we have in living our commitments, and less so in the absence of these and similar commitments. In other words, in my experience the Holy Spirit reminds me of how my commitments serve my vocation or not, how they allow me to grow or not, how they empower me to function or not. It is not the case that the Holy Spirit speaks out of a vacuum or like a bolt from the blue --- at least not in my general experience..

I think that suggesting commitments and structure will get in the Holy Spirit's way (which, right or wrong, is what I do hear you saying) is analogous to someone saying, "Oh I don't need to practice the violin to play it, I'll just let the Holy Spirit teach me where my fingers should go (or any of the billion other things involved in playing this instrument)." "Maybe I'll play scales if the HS calls me to; maybe I'll tune the violin if the HS calls me to. You mean I can't do vibrato without practicing it slowly? Well, maybe I will just conclude it doesn't need to be part of MY playing and the HS is not calling me to it." What I am trying to say is that if someone wants to play the violin they must commit to certain fundamental praxis and the development of foundational skills; only in so far as they are accomplished at the instrument technically will they come to know how integral this discipline and these skills are to making music freely and passionately as the Holy Spirit impels. Otherwise the music will not soar. In fact there may be no music at all --- just a few notes strung together to the best of one's ability; the capacity for making music will be crippled by the lack of skill and technique. In other words, the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with and through  the discipline I am speaking of, not apart from it.

More, my own experience is that one learns that appropriate flexibility is rooted in a disciplined life. Without the foundation I am speaking of we are not talking about flexibility but instead disorder and relative laxness and fruitlessness. Regularity does not mean rigidity, but in my own experience, one has to commit to prayer, lectio, an essential silence and solitude, regular rest, rising, recreation, meals, etc if the Holy Spirit is going to have a chance of being heard. If your criticism has to do with the fact that I am clear that married people cannot be hermits (by definition they are not solitaries), or that canon 603 grew out of Bishops' experiences with experienced monastics with significant formation who grew into an eremitical vocation and that its structure and requirements implicitly include significant formation, I plead guilty! We can all use words in any way we like, but too often doing so carelessly or without real knowledge simply empties them of meaning; in the case of the term "eremite" (or hermit), using this for any lone person (or anyone who spends any time at all in physical solitude) ensures not only that the word will be emptied of meaning but that the truly isolated and alienated have no one to look to as a sign that such isolation can really be redeemed and transformed into the silence of solitude.

If Time in a Monastery is Not Possible:


While the experience I am thinking of is not easily replaceable, one can break aspects of it down into significant elements and try to build one's life around those. What I would suggest you consider doing is to read about life in a monastery, and especially that you take note of the elements which monks and nuns speak about that are elemental to their lives. In order to build a life around these you will need to change the way you relate to others and the world around you in some fundamental ways. You see, I am not speaking about building IN a little silence or a little solitude or a bit of prayer or penance here or there. I am not suggesting that doing lectio once or twice a week is identical to building one's life around this, for instance. The first thing a stay in a monastery occasions in our lives is a break with our ordinary environment. To some significant extent you will need to achieve that on your own and construct a life around the elements which are central for a monastic or a hermit.

There are certain central pieces of such a life in which you may need actual instruction. Office or Liturgy of the Hours is ordinarily one of these --- especially if you choose to sing it. Just finding your way through the book can be daunting without help. (At the same time, once you get it down fundamentally you may experiment with it in many many ways and pray it in ways which are truly the fruit of the Holy Spirit.) Lectio is another and your spiritual director may be able to help you with this. Still, actual instruction in Scripture is also crucial. Quiet prayer may be something you are already skilled at, but if that is not the case, you might find a group near you that prays silently together. Doing this as a group is amazingly nurturing and supportive. Even if you cannot spend an extended period of time in a monastery, you might well manage three or four full days at a time after you get to know the community and they agree to assist you. (If you are serious about becoming a diocesan hermit your diocesan Vicar for Religious or Delegate for Consecrated Life might be able to aid you in making the connection needed and also recommend you be allowed to participate more or less fully in their daily lives for limited periods of time every few months or so --- if initial experiments in this go well.)

26 August 2013

Difficulties With Silence

[[Dear Sister, I try and try to keep silent, but I just can't seem to do it! I talk and sing, I call my friends, I turn on the TV or play a CD. When I do manage to stay silent or keep from talking I am a mess inside and even my insides feel like they want to yell out! Even when I pray all I want to do is talk to God. I want to tell God how much I love him. That's okay, isn't it? At the same time though how do I learn to keep silent?]]

What I am going to talk about briefly here is both external silence and the more difficult inner silence. Both may be a source of difficulty for you. Ideally this is something you would work on with your spiritual director so if you have not got one it is something I would suggest. In the meantime let me talk a little about what is difficult for me with regard to silence.

Have you ever had a good friend who simply gave you space to be yourself? This is someone you can be silent with, sit in the quiet of the sun's warmth and simply feel gratitude with and for.  Perhaps it is someone you have taken a long drive with or sat silently in a hospital waiting room with and only spoken to occasionally throughout --- because you don't need to do any more than this. Perhaps the two of you prayed silently while waiting and simply reassured one another of your love through your presence. My experience of God is like this most times. He knows me so well (certainly better than I know myself!) there is rarely anything to tell him --- and my words always fall short anyway! Similarly, God rarely uses words to speak to me. He is present in silence; his silence is communicative. It is loving and spacious and forgiving, and it allows me to find and see myself clearly there.

But sometimes I don't want to be found like this. Sometimes I want things on my own terms; I am not comfortable always with a God whose very self is an abyss of living silence or who makes room within himself for the WHOLE of myself. While words may serve as a prelude to entering this space, too often I use words at these times to distance myself, to "reveal" small parts of myself and to withhold others, to affirm my love for God at the same time I am afraid of giving myself over to him completely. Most often I do it without even realizing I am doing so. It is simply hard to believe God loves me as exhaustively as he does or to allow God to reveal himself on his own terms as the loving God he is . This is one reason silence can be difficult for me.

Another main and correlative reason silence is difficult is because I am not comfortable with myself or with something that is going on within myself. It may be the result of work I am doing in direction, or something that came up in dreams or in prayer. It may be the result of something someone said to or about me, or which triggered memories I have either forgotten or avoided. It may be my own sinfulness. It may be that God is calling me to something that frightens me or challenges me in ways I want to resist (the day's Scriptures are excellent for this!). But whatever the reason, at these times it is easier to turn on a movie or a CD, or to grab a book (especially fiction!) than it is to remain silently with myself and simply rest in God. Let me be clear though, it is not always wrong to avoid silence for these reasons so long as we are aware of them and take the time and use the tools we have to work through them. At these times we can use words to signal our own reluctance and resistance and to find ways to approach entering the silence we most need. They can be a kind of temporizing, but they will also lead to insight. Besides prayer, journaling and spiritual direction are the best ways for me to do this. If you have not adopted the practice of journaling or, again, if you are not yet working with a spiritual director, I would recommend both.

When you describe your insides wanting to yell out, these two reasons are the ones I most associate with that. Sometimes I also feel tremendously excited and want to shout something from the rooftops. It needs to be shared and shouts out for that. I felt that way after retreat this last week. It took me three days to actually quiet down sufficiently to attend properly to what I was feeling and yet, when I journal about things or email someone about some aspect of my time in Santa Barbara, the same excitement is stirred up again. One thing that may differ from what you describe is that I know silence is the only way to hold everything I am excited about; it is the only way to really honor it, to share it with the God who is its source and to thank him for it. Thus, at the same time I want to shout from the mountain tops I want to sink into a deeper silence which can do justice to everything --- and that desire grows progressively more intense or pervasive as I practice it.

You also describe talking and singing, etc. I wonder if this means you are not allowing sufficient time and place for both of these. For instance, I sing several times a day and what I sing has different moods. It depends upon the hour and the tenor of the prayer. If you have a real need to sing, then I would suggest you find legitimate ways to meet that need. The same is true with talking to others. Build some time in for that and then, the rest of the time silence might be easier for you. Silence is a living reality and it takes time to establish a relationship with it. It also takes time to break habits which simply don't honor silence --- for instance, turning on the TV or CD player automatically when one walks in the door or gets up or something similar.

Most folks aren't silent during meals, for instance, and wouldn't know what to do if they couldn't watch TV, talk to someone, etc. We really do need to learn to be silent and to simply be present. The only way to do that is to practice external silence and work on those things which cause us to be internally noisy or which prevent us from loving or accepting ourselves. You can do that during walks, by setting aside time for working on hobbies silently, spending time in other silent pursuits (and refusing to be disturbed during these), turning off media of all kinds during certain hours, and journaling (as well as praying) about the things that present obstacles to silence. The bottom line is we need to work on both pieces of silence if we are to come to rest in and really hear what it communicates.

I am hoping that some of this is helpful to you. It is very general, but then I don't really know you or why silence is difficult for you. If it raises more questions for you or is confusing, please do get back to me.

25 August 2013

Returning from Retreat

Walkway beneath my room
Well. last week at this time I was on retreat at Old Mission Santa Barbara. It was a sort of amazing time --- unlike any retreat I have ever made before --- and full of coincidences, unexpected synchronicities, and the like.

I ran into a Sister I had known from graduate school in the 1970's but had not seen since; she now lives and works where I grew up --- a place very few people I know are familiar with. I was able to catch up with a Sister friend who worked with me as Vicar for Religious (Vocations Director?) when I first was becoming a diocesan hermit, and in a number of ways found threads and notes from my entire life coming together in new ways. She was celebrating the 46th anniversary of her first profession the day we got together; I was celebrating the 46th anniversary of my baptism that same day. There were innumerable other coincidences. Most were not significant by themselves but together they were something else! One prayer period, because of the little coincidences and "returns" of pieces of my life, all I could do was laugh and say to God, "I don't know what you are doing, but I know it is something big and I am definitely along for the ride!"

Window of my room is second from right
One of the things it was nice to do was to spend time in a Franciscan house once again. I learned that Sisters from the congre-gation I joined in the late 60's were actually buried at the Mission and was able to visit that private burial space as well as that of the Friars. There are highs and lows in this living Franciscan tradition and there were highs and lows associated with the Old Mission --- just as there are highs and lows in my own history.

In this retreat I was reintroduced to all of these --- from the residuals of the problem of sexual abuse at an associated seminary (there is a memorial to victims on the property now), to the treatment of the Chumash Indians "in the name of proclaiming the Gospel" and the story of the lone woman of San Nicolas Island (who was brought to the Mission and died within two months after surviving 18 years on her own --- she had been abandoned there when all the Chumash were relocated), to praying at the crypt of an old friend, to re-meeting an aging theology Professor of mine at St Mary's, Moraga (he's still writing books and has one coming out in December), to spending time with a Sister who strikes me as Franciscan to her bones and exudes both the joy, the honesty (transparency), and the pervasive and profound prayerfulness I associate naturally with Franciscanism.  I also met several Friars I had not met before, a couple of whom were simply delightful and most all of whom were tremendously welcoming. (If you ever get a chance to meet Fr Joachim, give him a hug for me.)

The Eucharistic liturgy at the Mission was wonderful. Sunday was especially beautiful and the small choir added two significant hymns to the hymns the entire assembly sang. It was very well done, and the cantor (part of the choir) was really stunning. Fr Larry gave a homily partly in the form of a poem he wrote; he also expanded on it in his comments. We had a chance to talk afterwards (lunch) about the way writing a poem demands and assists one to get right to the heart of the reading. I was surprised to hear he had come to writing poetry just a few years ago, because he is certainly accomplished. Daily Mass was held in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and, since I was up at 4:00am anyway, I was also able to go over to the Poor Clare monastery a block or so from the Mission for a slightly earlier Mass if I desired. (Another coincidence --- because they keep coming even now that I am home --- a hermit I know, herself a former Poor Clare, made her retreat prior to perpetual vows as a diocesan hermit at this same house!)

One drawback I found was having tourists on the grounds at the same time retreatants are there. It can be noisier than some might like. At the same time it is a living Mission after all, and that is something that I found very cool even so. Private areas have gates and ropes to mark them off, but  to move from my room to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (where I most liked to pray), for instance, meant moving through some public areas/walkways. Unfortunately, folks thought I would know where various statues and other things were located. Wrong! It took me a full day to find out where the front of the Mission was --- I discovered I had been within ten feet of it several times (once I was within 3 ft of it) and had not even known that! By the third day I was a little less clueless --- and then there was a power outage which meant needing to find a new route to my room. (I used the wrong staircase to get downstairs and though I set off no alarms, I did have to get someone help me lock that stairway door again!) But next time I go to Old Mission Santa Barbara, I will be an old hand and know the whole layout and schedule --- and a lot of the people as well!

I have been reading Ilia Delio's The Humility of God  as a piece of this time and am a bit surprised by how profoundly Franciscan my own theology is --- ordinarily I think of it as Pauline or Markan, and of course it is definitely that. In any case, the darker moments of Franciscan history aside, it is wonderful to find lived examples of the paradox of Franciscan (or Christian) joy at the heart of a faith rooted in the crucified One. I am resolved to do more reading in specifically Franciscan authors! Delio's work is something I have read while working through theologians on the relationship of faith and religion, but I have not really read her specifically Franciscan stuff. Time to rectify that!

Meanwhile, back at the hermitage; it has taken me time to catch up with my life here again, or at least to begin to catch up! The first day back I simply slept a lot. Friday I did a service at the parish, gave a reflection on the Gospel from the day before (All (made up of the many) are called, few allow themselves to be chosen!), and had clients in the afternoon. I am almost up to speed again but there is still SO much to process!! As I wrote to my delegate Thursday, the bottom line in all this is that nothing is ever really lost; God simply does not allow that, Jesus testifies to it, and the Gospels remind us, [[Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. . ]]. Finally, thanks to those who emailed me about the blog or with questions regarding discernment and formation of diocesan hermits. If I haven't already answered you, I will be doing so soon.

20 August 2013

Bernard of Clairvaux (Reprised)

Often I get emails from folks which never show up on this blog. Sometimes they have personal questions about prayer, mysticism, contemplation, etc. Recently I received a series of emails which involved questions regarding experiences of God in contemplative prayer. While the person did not desire these experiences for their own sake, she did wonder if perhaps their absence indicated something was missing from her contemplative praxis. About a week or so after answering her questions in terms of listening for God's voice in a different way, I came across the following quotation from Bernard of Clairvaux. I share it not only because it speaks to this person's questions, but because it is appropriate on this, St Bernard's Feast Day:

[[I want to tell you how God's Word [Jesus] has come to me, and come often. As often as he would enter into me, I didn't perceive the different times when he came. Now and then I would be able to get a premonition of his coming, but never perceive it, nor sense when he left. When the Word entered into me from time to time, his coming was never made known by any signs --- by word, or appearance, or footstep. I was never made aware by any action on his part, nor by any kinds of motions sent down to my inmost parts. As I have said, it was only from the motion of my heart that I understood he was present.]] Sermon on the Song of Songs.

Sister Anne Marie signs her solemn vows
In the Gospel for today a young man is asked to go beyond externals, beyond law, beyond all the things he "owns" and/or clings to, and to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. He is asked, in other words, to make discipleship a matter of attending to the motion of his own heart --- a matter of being moved by Jesus' life and living similarly, of being motivated by Jesus' prayer and praying similarly with a kenotic faithfulness even when God seems absent, of loving as Jesus loves and emptying himself of anything but love of God and compassion for the other. Contemplatives live from the motion of their hearts. They are folks who have learned to attend to these because the human heart, by definition, is the place where God bears witness to himself in all of life's ordinariness. Jesus revealed it in the 1st century; Bernard affirmed it in the 11-12th centuries. It is as true today.

My very best wishes to all Cistercians, Trappists and Trappistines today, especially to the Sisters at Redwood Monastery (Abbey) in Northen California on this feast of one of their Order's founders.

15 August 2013

Memorial, Maximillian Kolbe, Martyr (Reprised)

Sorry, I meant to post this yesterday. The readings are different than yesterday's but I hope it is still of value!

Today is the feast day of Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright.

The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Aushwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modelled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ. Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.

I think it is easy to forget this fundamental vocation, or at least to underestimate its value and challenge. We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people! (And this is as true for hermits and recluses as it is true for anyone else.) Likewise, we may think of vocation as a call to religious life, priesthood, marriage, singleness, eremitism, etc, but always, these are "merely" the paths towards achieving our foundational vocation to authentic humanity. Of course, it is not that we do not need excellent priests, religious, husbands and wives, parents, and so forth, but what is more true is that we need excellent human beings --- people who take the call and challenge to be genuinely human with absolute seriousness and faithfulness.

Today's gospel confronts us with a person who failed at that vocation. Extended mercy and the complete forgiveness of an unpayable debt, this servant went out into his world and failed to extend even a fraction of the same mercy to one of his fellows. He was selfish, ungrateful, and unmindful of who he was in terms of his Master or the generosity which had been shown him. He failed to remain in touch with that mercy and likewise he refused to extend it to others as called upon to do. He failed in his essential humanity and in the process he degraded and punished a fellow servant as inferior to himself when he should have done the opposite. Contrasted with this, and forming the liturgical and theological context for hearing this reading today, is the life of Maximillian Kolbe. Loved with an everlasting love, touched by God's infinite mercy and grace, Father Maximillian knew and affirmed who he truly was. More, in a situation of abject poverty and ultimate weakness, he remained in contact with the Source of his own humanity as the infinite well from which he would draw strength, dignity, courage, forgiveness, and compassion when confronted with a reality wholly dedicated to shattering, degrading, and destroying the humanity of those who became its victims. In every way he was the embodiment of St Paul's citation, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness!"

In Auschwitz it is true that some spoke of Kolbe as a saint, and many knew he was a priest, but in this world where all were stripped of names and social standing of any kind, what stood out to everyone was Maximillian Kolbe's love for God and his fellow man; what stood out was his humanityHoliness for the Christian is defined in these terms. Authentic humanity and holiness are synonyms in Christianity, and both are marked by the capacity to love and be loved, first (by) God and then (by) all those he has dignified as his image and holds as precious. In a world too-often marked by mediocrity and even outright inhumanity, a world too frequently dominated by those structures, institutions, and dynamics which seem bigger than we are and incapable of being resisted or changed, we need to remember Maximillian Kolbe's example. Oftentimes we focus on serving others, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and the like, and these things are important. But in Kolbe's world when very little of this kind of service was possible (though Kolbe did what was possible and prudent here) what stood out was not only the crust of bread pressed into a younger priest's hands, the cup of soup given gladly to another, but the very great and deep dignity and impress of his humanity. And of course it stood out because beyond and beneath the need for food and shelter, what everyone was in terrible danger of losing was a sense of --- and capacity to act in terms of -- their own great dignity and humanity.

Marked above all as one loved by God, Father Maximillian lived out of that love and mercy. He extended it again and again to everyone he met, and in the end, he made the final sacrifice: he gave his own life so that another might live. An extraordinary vocation marked by extraordinary holiness? Yes. But also our OWN vocation, a vocation to "ordinary" and true holiness, genuine humanity. As I said above, "In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell." In many ways this is precisely the gift we are called upon in Christ to be for our own times. May Saint Kolbe's example inspire us to fulfill our vocations in exemplary ways.

13 August 2013

Formation as a Means to Freedom

[[Dear Sister Laurel, another poster mentioned that maybe Jesus is calling hermit without formation. Isn't it kind of outrageous to demand a significant degree of formation for the freest [most free] vocation known? Aren't you asking for more than Jesus asks?]]

In a word, no; I don't think so. We are each called to discipleship, to sell what we "have" (or what "has us"!), to prioritize every relationship and to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. This is true whether we are called to be hermits, cenobites, priests, married, single, or whatever. We are called to live from and for the Gospel, to inculcate the values of the Kingdom, to embrace the radically counter cultural and reject individualism, commercialism, and every other false "god" or ideology our society (and our hearts) have created. We are each called to become men and women of prayer, penance, compassion, and service to others. We are called to become profoundly human; that is, we are called to become persons who are wholly transparent to the glory (revelation) of God --- persons who allow God to love us exhaustively and express our gratitude and joy for this as fully as possible in our love for others. None of this is a matter simply of catechesis or book learning.

For the disciples this becoming occurred in encounters with and in the company of Jesus --- as it must do for us as well. The Christ we meet, however, comes to us in all the ways he has come to hermits throughout the centuries: in the sacraments, in lectio, in contemplative and liturgical prayer, in solitary intellectual and manual work, in solitary leisure and in the personal work these and spiritual direction occasion. Our estrangement from God, self, and others means that none of this is "natural" for us;  none of this is achieved without formation.

Freedom and License are antithetical realities:

Freedom is not the same thing as license. One of the most serious errors I hear people making today is equating these two things when they are really opposites in most ways. While it is true that eremitical freedom is one of the most remarked on qualities of the life, this has always meant the freedom to respond to God as God wills. It has never referred to the notion of doing whatever one likes whenever one likes to do it. I have written here a number of times that authentic freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. That is, freedom is a capacity to hear and respond fully and appropriately to the will and voice of God in our lives. But developing this capacity obviously takes formation. It requires self-discipline, clarity about who we are and who God is (especially on the basis of the Jesus' revelation of him and the Gospel),  and it requires real time and leisure for listening to God's Word as well as the capacity to commit to this in all the ways it is mediated to us in the eremitical life. Again this all requires and presupposes formation.

You see, most people who write me about eremitical life are clear that they would like to listen to God's voice more wholeheartedly but only in terms of the life they are already living --- they are open to "tweaking" it a little here or there. Only one or two have been clear that eremitical life really requires changing one's life in all the truly radical ways necessary so that God's Word or Voice is mediated to them constantly, especially in and for the silence of solitude. (Remember that the silence of solitude is not only the environment in which this is achieved, but the means and goal of the hermit's life as well.) The symbol of this is the giving over of one's own home to eremitical life (not to eremitical life-lite much less to some form of pious individualism). This idea of giving our very residences over to God in this way so that everything we do or have becomes a piece of the life of the silence of solitude, so that everything is drawn into God's mediatory activity and is capable of revealing God to us, so that everything becomes Eucharistic requires periods of transition. More, it requires that one comes over time to understand the choice that involved when one proposed to become a hermit; additionally it requires the time and training necessary to be made ready to make such a choice, and then, of course, the ability to really do so.

St Peter Damian and the Hermit as Ecclesiola:

I have written here before about the linkage between Peter Damian's notion of the hermit as an "ecclesiola" --- a litte church --- and the homily my Bishop (Archbishop Vigneron) gave at my perpetual profession. It was there that I first heard the  reference to giving over one's entire house. Partly because it had been some time since I could simply "take the train home from work" and leave all that "behind me" and partly because I no longer thought of my own place as an "apartment", it took some time for me to fully appreciate the depth of Bp Vigneron's insight here. What I mean is I could not hear at that moment how striking and radical this image for the commitment I was making actually was. I have also written about the change that must come about for a beginner in this life --- namely, that they must transition from being a lone person to being a hermit in some essential way. In such a context, the idea of giving over one's entire home  assumes a very striking and challenging import.

You may have seen comments, for instance, by a person who was trying to "balance hermit things with worldly things" I noted several years ago. I have heard this difficulty more than once and dealt with it myself. It indicates to me that the person had not yet made the transition from being a lone person living in an apartment (for instance), to being a hermit who lives in a hermitage in some truly essential sense. Signs that one has made such a transition include: 1) a radical break with one's former life (if one does some of the same things one now does them from a radically different perspective and in a different way), 2) a movement from living in solitude because it is required by circumstances to living in solitude because it is truly one's own way to wholeness and holiness (the circumstances may not change but they are now a subtext rather than the defining reality of one's life), 3) a transition from concern with whether or not this latter element (chronic illness, for instance) has merely forced one into solitariness and is an inadequate reason for embracing eremitical life, to living it because it is also, and more importantly, a gift to others which glorifies (reveals) God most fully through one's own life. The hermit may certainly be concerned with her own wholeness and holiness (discernment of a vocation presupposes this vocation leads to these for the individual!), but at some point she must become more focused on the charism which this life is to the Church and World. This transition and the other elements as well all represent a transition from selfishness or a more individualistic focus to a truly ecclesial life. Similarly, they all require formation.

Freedom and Selflessness are Inseparable:


Finally, there is no true freedom unless there is also true selflessness. Freedom and generosity go hand in hand. A life lived for others is a truly free life. A life lived from and for the Love of God is one of authentic freedom. A life of mere license and self-indulgence (including self-indulgence that takes apparently pious forms, as for instance did the person's who spoke of using canon 603 as a means of reserving the Eucharist in her own place and found consecration pointless otherwise).  Jesus always demands a great deal from his disciples. Yes, he is clear that his yoke is easy and his burden light --- and indeed they are --- but at the same time, making the transition from hanger-on to true disciple requires formation. It requires a radical break with one's former life. In a world where silence is rarely heard and solitude has been exchanged for some kind of mere isolation and/or individualism,  Jesus' call to those who would be hermits, and certainly a call to be diocesan hermits who represent the vocation publicly or "in the name of the church", cannot be answered without formation.

12 August 2013

What if a Diocese is Unwilling to "Help With Formation"?

[[Sister Laurel, I think your idea about formation as a process worked out with one's diocese sounds good. It gives me a way to think about structuring my own approach to personal formation, but I really don't think my own diocese would do this. I have heard stories that people who would like to become c 603 hermits can't even get appointments to talk about the matter with the Bishop. One person said they were told to just go off and live in solitude, it was all he needed. How would a candidate, assuming one can even become one, say to diocesan personnel, "I would like formation as a hermit?"]]

Thanks for your questions. I have heard similar stories and talked about the "just go and live in solitude. . ." comment before. (Given the frequency it is referred to, it seems to actually be becoming something of an urban legend today which people use to suggest dioceses are unwilling to profess anyone under canon 603 more than something actually occurring in many different dioceses.) Even so, which ever the case, depending on the candidate and the motivation of the person making the comment, it can be either disingenuous and evasive or the wisest most prudent piece of advice one can hear.  For most inquirers who may have lived alone, but never lived any time in real solitude, this is precisely what they need to be told. It is the contemporary version of the desert Fathers': " remain in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." Thus, one needs more information before one can conclude, for example, that a diocese is simply unwilling to deal with possible vocations to canon 603 life.

Regarding getting an appointment with the Bishop, what is generally true, at least in larger dioceses, is that an inquirer regarding canon 603 is not apt to speak to the Bishop until the Vicar for Religious or Consecrated Life actually reaches a place where they will recommend the person for profession. This usually takes several years at least and a Rule which passes canonical and spiritual muster. Then things move to the Bishop and he will meet with the candidate, get to know her, read what she has written, and consider whether, at this point in time, this is a good thing for the diocese. I think that too often inquirers reading "under the supervision of the diocesan Bishop" expect, unrealistically, that he will be intimately involved with them right from the beginning. As in many things with regard to this canon, this is not at all likely.

Another unreasonable expectation is that a diocese will "form one" as a hermit. Because that expectation is repeated all the time, and because I have been asked about it myself a number of times, let me make one point really clear: the formation I have spoken of here is primarily up to the hermit's initiative and occurs mainly in the silence of solitude. I have not talked about a formation "program" a diocese administers because I don't think it is feasible with this vocation. It is also usually not possible for diocesan personnel even when they have expertise in formation to religious life. Presuming the person may even have had no formation in religious life (the majority of folks approaching dioceses today fall into this category), what I have tried to outline is an approach to a process of necessary growth and maturation in the eremitical life which builds on the actual canonical requirement that a hermit writes a Rule prior to profession, and (implicitly) that this is necessarily a livable Rule based on eremitical experience and growth. At every point the responsibility for growth (continued formation) is the hermit candidate's. She will work out what is needed with the help of her director and with occasional assessments by diocesan personnel. What she will not do, especially if she understands the vocation, is approach a diocese telling them she would like "formation as a hermit."

Bear in mind that there are a number of reasons dioceses don't have c 603 hermits. These include unsuitable inquirers, unfamiliarity with the vocation (on the part of both diocesan personnel and inquirers) or a similar failure to esteem it (for instance, some dioceses consider it refers to something other than a true vocation, while some do not esteem even contemplative life adequately), as well as uncertainty as to how to effectively implement the canon --- including uncertainty as to how one can work with a person over an extended period of time to assist her growth and to discern the possibility of an eremitical vocation without  on the one hand promising or implying that the person will be professed and on the other hand without simply "stringing her along" fruitlessly.

One of the primary legitimate reasons dioceses tell inquirers to just go off and live in solitude is precisely because folks interested in canon 603 may be interested in becoming a "religious" but are seeking to use canon 603 as a stopgap to that when other avenues are not open to them or when they are merely using canon 603 to escape the demands of life in community. These folks tend not to have EVER lived in genuine solitude and believe that simply being alone in a dwelling is eremitical solitude. It is not. Another reason some inquirers hear this is because diocesan staff know that solitude (which implies life with God alone) is the primary formator in the hermit's life. A third reason is because they feel wholly unable to deal with this canon or to recognize a good candidate for solitary eremitical life. (One may be a good candidate for religious life, but not for eremitical life; similarly, simply because one cannot join a community does NOT mean they are called to eremitical life.)

What I am getting to in this abbreviated listing is that the kind of process I have outlined in the past several posts can help a diocese learn about the eremitical vocation firsthand and provides for an intelligent and truly mutual discernment process. At the same time it can assist an individual negotiate all the tensions, growth, and transitions necessary if they are EVER to be someone who lives in, out of, and toward the silence of solitude --- and then, if this is where discernment leads, if she is to be professed for life as a diocesan hermit. It provides structure geared towards to hermit's growth which will not be onerous to the diocese, and it provides a means to protect and nurture the responsible, attentive, freedom and discipline eremitical life demands.

Finally, the "process" I have outlined is specifically keyed to the requirements and presuppositions implied by the origins of canon 603; it allows one to become a person whose life is truly defined by the terms of that canon. Whether one proceeds to public profession under canon 603.2 or remains a lay hermit living the essential elements of 603.1 this process should be helpful with both discernment and formation. Because canon 603 cannot be implemented the way formation in religious life is usually implemented (one cannot simply become a postulant, a novice, and in a year or two, become temporary professed), and because dioceses do not always have a "process" or "protocol" to follow in dealing with inquirers seeking to DISCERN a vocation to canon 603 life with the diocese itself, were you to outline and suggest such a process to them, you might in fact, find they are receptive.

10 August 2013

Francis Makes Virtual Visit Home



Good evening.

Every year, after having travelled the length of the queue, I speak with you. This time, however, I have travelled the length of the queue in my heart. I am a little too far away to be able to share this beautiful moment with you. Right now, you are on pilgrimage towards the image of St Cajetan. Why? To meet with him, to meet with Jesus. But today, the theme of this pilgrimage - a theme chosen for you, selected from among many possibilities - today the theme is about another meeting, and says: "With Jesus and St Cajetan, let us reach out to those most in need."

This speaks of the people most in need, of those who need us to give them a hand, who need us to look them with love, to share their pain or their anxieties, their problems. What's important is that we don't just look at them from afar or help from afar. No, no! We must reach out to them. This is being Christian! This is what Jesus taught us: to reach out to the needy. Like Jesus who always reached out to the people. He went to meet them. Reaching out to those most in need.

Sometimes, I ask people, "Do you give alms." They say, "Yes, father." "And when you give alms, do you look into the eyes of people you are giving alms to?" "Ah, I do not know, I don't really think about it". "Then you have not reached out to those people. You just tossed them some charity and went away. When you give alms, do you touch their hands or just toss them the coins?". "No, I toss them the coins". "Then you have not touched them. And if you have not touched them, you have not reached out to them." What Jesus teaches us, first of all, is to reach out to each other, and in reaching out, helping one another.

We must be able to reach out to each other. We must build, create, construct a culture of encounter. How many differences, family troubles, always! Trouble in the neighborhood, trouble at work, trouble everywhere. And these differences do not help. The culture of encounter. Reaching out to encounter eachother. And the theme says, "Reaching out to those most in need", in short, with those who need me. With those who are going through a bad time, far worse than what I'm going through.

There is always someone who is having [it] worse, eh? Always! There is always someone. So, I think, "I'm going through a bad time, I line up to encounter San Cayetano and with Jesus and then go out to encounter others, because there is always someone who is having it worse than me." To these people, it is to these people that we have to reach out.

Thank you for listening, thank you for coming here today, thank you for everything you carry in your hearts. Jesus loves you very much! San Cayetano loves you very much! We ask only one thing: that you reach out! And that you go and seek out and encounter the most needy! But not alone, no. With Jesus and San Cayetano! Does this mean going to convince someone to become became Catholic? No, no, no! You are just reaching out to meet him, he is your brother! That is enough. You reach out to help them, the rest is done by Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. Remember well: with San Cayetano, we need we encounter the neediest. With Jesus, we who are in need, we reach out to those who are even more in need. And maybe Jesus will show us the path to meet with those who need it most.

When you meet those most in need, your heart will begin to grow bigger, bigger and bigger! Because reaching out multiplies our capacity to love. An encounter with others makes our heart bigger. Take courage! "I don't know what to do on my own". No, no, no! With Jesus and San Cayetano! May God bless you and may this feast day of St Cajetan end well. And please, do not forget to pray for me. Thank you.

08 August 2013

Follow-up Questions on Formation of Hermits

[[I was wondering, if Jesus is calling persons to either be lay hermits or diocesan hermits without the significant formation you describe, what happens to Canon 603 or the hermit life? This is a significant question because I think many people are thinking that the Church should relax many requirements for instance to shorten the training period for the priesthood, or for people called to religious life because the state of the Church is in somewhat of an emergency situation? There are so many ways people today are trying to answer the call to live some sort of religious life, and they are not being formed in any way. Are they receiving enough if they even receive the Catechetical teaching of the Church? Some do not receive even that. It could lead to a lot of disillusioned and embittered people which would not help the Church. I hope you understand what I'm driving at. I do not want to cause people to enter into errors, but I think many well intended people are "setting up their pulpit" to answer the call of Jesus to draw all men to Himself through their efforts.]]

All hermits require formation:

Thanks for your questions. Whether we are talking about lay or diocesan hermits my answer to being called without this formation has to be no, the vocation per se requires the significant (meaningful and substantive) formation I have referred to --- how ever one gets or achieves that! My point has been that the canon (which describes ALL eremitical life, not just consecrated eremitical life) came out of an experience of significant formation, it requires significant formation if its non-negotiable elements are to be understood and respected, and it requires significant formation if it is to be the gift to the church and world it is meant to be. (It's gift quality or charism also has to be understood and respected if this is to be so.) We are not speaking of a vocation where we are trying to encourage great numbers of people to pursue it, nor are we speaking of a vocation which can mean any form of aloneness at all and still be eremitical life, much less (for diocesan hermits) eremitical life lived in the name of the church. We are not speaking of a vocation which is meant to solve the emergency you speak of and I wonder if a relaxation of standards for formation, education, and training --- so long as one recognizes genuine formation can be gotten more than one way --- is ever a real solution to what you describe. (More about this below.)

The History and very Structure of Canon 603 Requires Formation:

Again, we are speaking of a vocation (not a career and not an avocation) which is both rare and profoundly counter cultural and always has been; it requires formation to actually be equipped to respond to such a call with integrity. It ALWAYS has, whether we are referring to the desert Fathers and Mothers (lay hermits), medieval anchorites, to hermits in monastic communities or, today, diocesan hermits. After all, it is hardly effective to actually cave into a culture while trying to embrace a countercultural vocation. My point most recently, however, has been that canon 603 grew out of a situation where individuals had significant formation and the canon reflected those lives with its combination of structure, non-negotiable elements, and eremitical flexibility. Therefore, understanding its terms and structure and then living these presupposes real formation as well.

Let me give you an couple of examples of what I mean here. One can read in the canon the term "assiduous prayer and penance"  and interpret it simply as contrasting to the usual prayer lives of nominal Christians --- in which case we might merely be speaking about praying regularly before meals, praying before bed, and abstinence on Fridays --- or we can read it the way a HERMIT reads it. We can read "the silence of solitude" as "turning the TV off while one listens to one's iPOD" or "spending Saturdays alone without talking to anyone" OR we can read this phrase as Carthusian hermits do (for it is originally a Carthusian term). One can read the reference to "one's own Rule or Plan of Life" as a description of something one slaps or cobbles together on the basis of what others have written and perhaps hopes one day to live OR we can read this requirement as demanding something which is rooted in one's own lived experience and, through concrete sacrifice and commitment, charts a way to continued growth in Christ and the solitary life. It requires formation to do the latter in each of these cases. When I say that the structure of the canon requires formation of candidates this is what I mean. This life of non-negotiable elements, the authentic eremitical freedom these elements are associated with all of which are reflected and codified in the writing of one's own Rule, cannot be lived without formation.

What Happens without Formation?

You ask what happens to canon 603 or to eremitical life without the formation (both initial and ongoing) I have spoken of. My answer has to be that in that case and while some VERY few exceptional individuals will probably persevere and respond to the Holy Spirit in ways which allows eremitical life to continue (or at least to not die out completely), in the main, eremitical life will dissolve in eccentricity, individualism, selfishness or outright narcissism, infidelity, etc, and be swallowed up by the culture. Moreover, as a result of this loss people living isolated lives will lose a source of hope that mere isolation can be transformed and redeemed. Over the past six years on this blog I have written time and again about the dangers to eremitical life posed by slapping the label "hermit" on any form of aloneness or part-time physical solitude at all. I have written about stereotypes of hermits which endanger understanding of the real article, and of movements in our own societies which militate against understanding or embracing this vocation and each time I have done so because I believe that genuine eremitical life is a gift of the Spirit which provides genuine hope to people in our day. However, I also believe that without significant (meaningful) formation the vocation will simply become completely dissipated into just another form of individualism and isolation within a culture already well marked by alienation and marred by self-centeredness.

Formation is a Gift to the hermit and to those to whom she Witnesses:

You see, as I understand it, formation itself is a gift not only to the hermit but to those her life witnesses to. But let me be clear. When I speak of the formation of hermits I am not speaking of an extra burden laid on top of folks who would be hermits just as well without this. I am referring to a period and/or dimension of dedicated and disciplined education, training and shaping or molding of mind and heart where one really acquires (or sharpens and renews) the tools needed to become the person who CAN live an eremitical life rather than a merely individualistic or lone one. The absence of such formation merely ensures the culture will win out and that God's still, small voice will be heard and responded to erratically, perhaps as one desires rather than as God desires and as one is called to do.

One of the reasons I have written about an inquirer or hermit candidate writing several Rules over a period of from 6-10 years is precisely so these persons and their dioceses can find a way to achieve an initial formation in the silence of solitude which is individually tailored but at the same time is sufficient for allowing the person to truly become and make a life commitment as a hermit. If it is adequate as initial formation it will also help empower the person to negotiate the demands of ongoing formation as well. Certain elements will be generally helpful, even necessary, and I have mentioned those. In the main these have been mentioned because they help a person really experience and understand the silence of solitude and develop the disciplined independence necessary to live this charism as a hermit. For the exceptions who cannot take advantage of these specific usual elements, other things will take their place. The details are individual but what is absolutely necessary is formation which makes one capable not of living a bit of silence and a bit of solitude, but instead, the silence OF solitude as a life commitment --- again, how ever one achieves that.

For instance, chronic illness will itself often occasion some of the kinds of changes time apart in a monastery will occasion. (Among other things it will set apart, change the way one relates to time and friends, force a degree of leisure greater than one might have embraced before, demand that one truly experience and confront one's own personal poverty and, as a result, call for a definitive and contemplative turn to the grace of God.) Even so, one still needs to have various elements of the monastic/eremitical and instruction in these explicitly added which in time will help transform illness into a subtext rather than remaining the defining reality. The addition of and faithfulness to these elements within the context created by unavoidable and chronic illness is formative and this can all become the significant formation of a hermit which I have been referring to. Still, it takes discipline and the assistance of knowledgeable people as well. Without real assistance in this, solitude, as I have noted, can be damaging to a person so I am concerned that people understand the difference between the isolation and alienation occasioned by chronic illness and eremitical solitude. Especially I want them to understand the place of formation here. What is true in this case and what is always true is that formation is the means with which the combination of grace and disciplined response can transform everyday circumstances. NONE of us gets by without it if we live a fruitful life. That is true of parents, children, students, and professionals of every sort. Maturity in life requires formation and this is especially true if that life is to be a gift to others.

Aspirations to Live a Religious Life

I want to be sure we are speaking of the same thing when referring to "religious life". If by this you mean lay Catholics desiring to live out their discipleship to Christ more faithfully and convincingly then I prefer and will use either the term "Christian life" that of  "discipleship" to refer to this. For me, and for the Church, religious life refers to the publicly vowed life whether in community or (now) as a diocesan hermit. Assuming then that you mean a lay life of  authentic discipleship and not vowed religious life, then I do believe parishes should be doing more to offer opportunities for growth and formation. However, at the same time, Lay Catholics who are called to an exhaustive holiness and discipleship just as vowed Religious and priests are called to, need to take some responsibility for demanding and acquiring or achieving what they need.


Vatican II changed forever the way lay Catholics were to see themselves. But the respon-sibility for making this change also falls to the laity themselves. Pastors and their staff, can only do so much without the laity taking real responsibility in this. I have seen myself the programs offered by parishes in an attempt to provide faith formation but without response by parishioners. Eventually the number of programs offered also diminishes. It is a catch 22 situation. Still, I wonder if you or others from your parish (as a group, for instance) have ever gone to your pastor or to your Bishop and said specifically, "We have the following resources in our parish but we need more opportunities for faith formation! Help us get (and help us create!) those"?? Additionally, it doesn't help at all to have lay people pretending to vocations of religious life because they really have not received the theology and spirituality of Vatican II as exhaustively as they are called to.

In any case, what I don't buy at all is the notion that we should decrease the requirements for religious life or priesthood simply because there is (or seems to be, in the case of religious life) a crisis in numbers. One response to the problem of the diminishing number of priests has been the permanent diaconate --- with VERY uneven results. Some dioceses minimize the education and experience truly necessary to minister effectively and the result is predictable: Gifted individuals aside, it has often led to deacons whose theology is wholly inadequate, whose preaching is weak or actually destructive, and whose pastoral experience is similarly deficient. My own sense is that the lowering of standards creates more problems than it solves. After all, we would hardly argue for decreasing requirements if there was a shortage of physicians or police, etc. ("Oh, just give her a set of scalpels, a Grey's Anatomy, and a Merke Manual, or a gun and night stick (this might be essentially the same difference without real formation); I am sure she will do the best she can!")

Formation, training the Mind, Heart, and Body (beginning a response):

That last bit of irony on my part does point to the nature of formation. Here we are speaking not only about educating the mind, but training the person in various ways so that they are a hermit (or a physician or a police officer, etc) with their whole being, body, soul, mind, and heart. It does no good to have a technically well-trained physician with the heart and mind (and thus, the ethos) of a sadist or an individualist or narcissist. Medical education does not merely create technically sophisticated persons; it creates persons who have been formed in the ethos of medicine. Formation as a police officer is meant to do the same with its candidates so that the control they are trained to exercise or even the violence they are trained to do (for instance) can always be at the service of the people for whom they work. In other words, it forms these persons in a "protect and serve ethos" which requires various levels of response, often reflexively, up to and including lethal violence. Without formation, without the inculcation of this ethos in one's whole self, these folks may become ticking time bombs, but at some point they become people who will do great damage and leave chaos in their wake. With hermits, the deficiencies in formation which affect others (or the hermit herself) don't show up as dramatically but they exist nonetheless.

I will leave this here for now. Be sure and get back to me with objections or more questions. Thanks again, for your questions.

07 August 2013

Canon 603's History presupposes Significant Formation

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, in a recent post you spoke of "the bottom line" and you pointed out that canon 603 presupposed a fairly extensive background in monastic formation and life. I have read your discussion of the history of canon 603 before but this is the first time I have understood why this history makes such a difference to the way the canon is implemented.  When people complain that you are "institutionalizing" the vocation or write that canon 603 came to be because of abuses are they trying to avoid the demanding nature of the canon? Do dioceses understand the correlation between the history of the canon and the requirements for reading it rightly or implementing it appropriately?]]

First of all, of course, I don't know why people write what they write nor do I know what dioceses in general understand. I admit to being astounded by certain attempts to nullify or at least minimize the spiritual maturity presupposed by canon 603 and necessary simply to read it accurately. There are more than enough stories of eremitical professions which do not measure up to the background presupposed in the composition and immediate history of the canon. Some of these seem premature at best, some seem ill-conceived and an abuse of the canon at worst. Some have caused provinces to refuse to profess anyone according to canon 603. On the rest the jury is simply still out though many (of us) seem (and certainly strive) to be appropriate and edifying examples of the vocation. We are finding our way here, dioceses, hermits, all of us together.

I recall one account of the history of canon 603 which, as you say, asserted it came about because of abuses of the canons in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.  (I have referred to it here at least two or three times.) Supposedly this account of things came from a canonist who should surely have known better. (This canon is entirely new, not the redaction or refinement of an existing canon.) One version of this reads: [[As a means of solidifying the norms for consecrated Catholic hermits and desiring to eliminate abuses, in 1917 (or was it 1918?) some further delineations were made by the Church. And in 1983 these were refined further for those whose superiors desire them, or the hermit desires or is led by God, to a public profession. That formalizes the profession through Canon Law 603.]] Another version from the same blogger is found along with a detailed history of the actual origin of the canon in my post: On Visibility and Betrayal of the c 603 Vocation.

Whatever the reason people write what they do, what remains true is that the history of the canon gives everyone a significant key to understanding the formation which the canon presupposes and requires. What is indisputable is that this formation is substantial and will not be attained by the majority of candidates and by a very much smaller number of inquirers. What is also true is that whenever this history is forgotten or neglected, the vocation protected and governed by canon 603 is in danger of being trivialized and the canon misused. When this happens it also ceases to be the gift God has given to the Church and world and may not only be rendered pastorally insignificant but incredible and a scandal.

But in some instances Bishops have really appreciated the vocation canon 603 defines and especially they have tried to respect and make normative the kind of monastic formation which is necessary no matter where one lives as a hermit. For instance, the French Bishops published a list of "statutes" for all canon 603 hermits (I am told the better translation of the original French is "considerations") which included requirements of 1) regular periods in a monastic community and 2) assigning a hermit to a monastery where they could get the formation and mentoring so vital to living this vocation well. My own suggestion that candidates and temporary professed spend  a month each year or so in monastic community was made independently of these "statutes" but came from my own experience of living the life. Still, I think we are on the same page in this regard despite coming at it from different perspectives.

While I believe this experience (or something similar which occasions a substantial break with one's old ways of living and represents a disciplined turn to assiduous prayer and solitude) is essential for most, I also recognize that a diocese has to deal with each candidate on a case by case basis. No matter how a person comes by it (for, relatively rare though they are, some exemplary eremitical vocations will never have set foot in a monastery), what cannot be forgotten is the degree of experience in solitude, personal formation, and discernment needed before one is admitted even to serious discernment with the diocese and certainly prior to temporary vows.

Unfortunately it sometimes looks as though dioceses do not understand the necessary correlation between the canon's history and the spirituality and degree of formation it still presupposes and requires. It is almost certain that persons without any background in religious life and no significant experience of solitude (including that physical solitude occasioned by chronic illness, etc which can sometimes lead to genuine eremitical solitude) mainly do not. (At other times, however, a diocese's understanding of this, coupled with the fact that dioceses do NOT form hermits, has made it necessary to rule out professing ANYONE according to canon 603.) Today's world fosters isolation and individualism --- both of which call for the redemption represented by genuine eremitical solitude. It does not naturally foster vocations to this kind of solitude nor does it make reading canon 603 intelligently (with the mind and heart of a monastic) particularly easy to do.

I am sorry I have not been clear enough in the past regarding why the canon's immediate history is so vital to the way it is imple-mented. Knowing this history is critical to reading the canon accurately. It prevents substituting anything at all for the non-negotiable elements of the canon and calling them "eremitical". It demands that the person admitted to discernment have transitioned to being a hermit in an essential sense; it requires that they have an experiential knowledge of what the canon refers to as "the silence of solitude" and that they are capable of writing a Rule which negotiates the tensions between the eremitical tradition and the contemporary situation BEFORE admission to profession. It suggests that they will have at least a rudimentary sense of how and for whom besides the hermit herself this vocation is a sacred gift!

Similarly the history of this canon supports the expectation that anyone admitted to profession will live the life with integrity and with an independence rooted in one's sense of being entrusted with this unique charism or gift of the Holy Spirit. Paradoxically this kind of independence depends upon formation and deep understanding and appreciation; these go hand in hand. I have written explicitly of the critical importance of understanding the vocation's charism in preventing diocesan misuses and infidelities by the hermit herself; it is also necessary to empower the kind of integrity and independence just referred to --- something far more positive and significant than merely avoiding infidelities. Understanding the vocation's immediate history is an equally critical piece of this.

06 August 2013

Feast of the Transfiguration, The Invisible Gorilla (Reprised)

Although today's Gospel is Luke's version of the Transfiguration, I am reprising a post I put up . . . looking at Matthew's version of the story. I hope it is helpful. The painting, Transfiguration, is by Lewis Bowman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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