26 September 2013

Vatican II is irreversible!!! GET ON WITH IT!!

If I had to say what it was about Francis' interview in Thinking Faith (or America) that was so stunning to me, what made it so completely overwhelming, I would point to all the individual points he made which reflected the clear and unambiguous influence of Vatican II. When I look back over my own reading of those 12,000 words I see someone stumbling upon piece after piece of the Pope's comments as though she had discovered a treasure only to find that there was another treasure further on, and yet again after that. It took me two days to read the entire interview and when I finished it I was both energized and exhausted with joy and gratitude and hope.

But eventually I would need to point to one piece of the interview which was stupefying to me (it transcends and unites all the other stunning moments!), namely, what Pope Francis said clearly and unambiguously about Vatican II and the whole "hermeneutics of rupture (or discontinuity) vs continuity" business. In one single sentence Francis told the entire Church that, the hermeneutics of rupture and continuity aside, (especially to the degree they are played off against one another and become dominant and divisive), Vatican II and its way of approaching reality in light of the Gospel (and vice versa) is irreversible so (he strongly implied) GET ON WITH IT!

Here is the passage with the critical sentence emphasized. [[Vatican II was a rereading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture, " says the pope. "Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation. Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear, the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today --- which was typical of Vatican II --- is absolutely irreversible.]]

To a certain extent casting the story of the inter-pretation of Vatican II into that of continuity vs discon-tinuity or rupture has been a red herring since no competent theologian ever interpreted Vatican II as a rupture with the Church's Tradition. Instead they recognized that it involved reNEWing of the Church in terms of a deeper continuity --- that of the Gospel from which the Church's life stems and by which it is nourished and ordered.

Renewing the Church in terms of the Gospel did indeed make all things new, but at the same time there was a profound continuity preserved and fostered. No progressive theologian spoke of Vatican II as ONLY a rupture with Tradition, but they certainly looked carefully at that which was truly new, as well as sometimes contrary to accretions to and distortions of Tradition. Over time those alarmed with the momentum Vatican II had in parishes, dioceses, and lives everywhere stressed the continuity of Vatican II with the Tradition --- and over stressed it so that again and again what we heard was "nothing new" happened at Vatican II, or, "one cannot speak of a Spirit of Vatican II; one can only read the documents of Vatican II literally in a way which precludes any discontinuity with the Church's Tradition." Anything new was seen as a betrayal of the Tradition while Tradition came to be identified with the merely old. Newness was identified with simple novelty (neos, new in time) and Tradition with that which was incapable of genuine newness (kainotes, qualitatively new). Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: New because EternalNotes From Stillsong: Always Beginners.

The  deepest problem here was that when Tradition was looked at in this way proclamation of the Gospel and the implementation of Vatican II was crippled and the Gospel's  power to address and continually remake reality in a way consonant with the ever-new and eternal life of God was blocked.  However, this approach also produced unnecessary division. Catholics who desired to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, were always really relatively few in  number, but were insultingly portrayed as though they reflected the unCatholic and destructive agenda of progressive theologians; this in turn made it difficult for these professionals to speak of the work of the Holy Spirit in our world (much less in the Council) if that required or led to anything new at all.  Meanwhile, those who reacted to this cartoon version of things and who embraced the idea of continuity without ANY discontinuity were hardened in their embrace of the past (not of Tradition itself which is a living reality) as norm of all truth. Both positions are heretical; both caricature Vatican II and what was achieved (and attempted) there. Both prevent God from drawing us into the absolute future of his life where all is truly new.

It is this entire situation that Francis has addressed with his statement quoted above. Here Francis affirms the existence of the hermeneutic of continuity and discontinuity (extremists do exist on either side of the interpretative divide and too, substantive conversations over difficult points of interpretation must continue to take place) but he says very clearly that the basic reform nature of the Council was rooted in the Gospel and he clearly affirmed we need to continue to hear the Gospel in terms of the contemporary situation. This essential focus and momentum of the Council is irreversible. It is the teaching of the Church, indeed the highest teaching of the Church binding Popes and People, and we must act in light of it.

At any number of points in this interview Francis helps the Church to move beyond division, pettiness, and ideology so that the Gospel of God's mercy can be proclaimed. More, again and again he turns to the Gospel to overcome (and to demand we ourselves overcome) the division, pettiness, and ideological impulses that taint our faith and lead us to neglect the real struggles of our time. But it seems to me that it is here in his comments on Vatican II that these marching orders are most far-reaching and  are most profoundly articulated. Many people have been waiting "for the other shoe to drop" and for Francis to show us who he REALLY is --- thinking that would be a doctrinal hardliner who belonged in the CDF rather than the seat of chief shepherd. Well, in this interview I think the other shoe HAS dropped and what we have been shown is a man who is the one we have seen right along since his election as Bishop of Rome.

Already we are hearing traditionalists denying anything new is coming out of Rome these days. "What NEW tone?" says one online commentator. "A new tone? REALLY?" says another. (The more honest tradionalists are decrying Francis as a liberal traitor. Some are asking (seriously) if the Pope is Catholic or if the Church will be standing at the end of his papacy.)  On the other side of the extremist spectrum we have folks suggesting anything goes, Church dogma and sexual morality will fundamentally change or be jettisoned. In truth what Francis has done is more radical than either of these extremes for it transcends and corrects them in light of the Gospel of God in Christ. He speaks continually of the Good news of God's love and justice-making mercy, which, as I said in Religious are Prophets, MAKES ALL THINGS NEW.

But for theologians long-hampered by some of the hierarchy's resistance to the idea of anything new being introduced by Vatican II, by the effective invalidation of the term "the Spirit of Vatican II", and disheartened by apparent sustained attempts to roll VII back to Trent by folks within the highest levels of the Church, Francis' affirmation is a staggeringly clear and unambiguous commission to renew their work with the vigor of their theological youth and the shrewdness and wisdom of their current experience and age. For the rest of the Church it signals a call to revisit and reclaim the hope, enthusiasm, and promise occasioned by the Council 50 years ago while we all work towards the day VII is fully received by the Church. Vatican II and its way of approaching reality in light of the Gospel and all that demands is irreversible. We must GET ON WITH IT!

25 September 2013

Agafia: Hermit in the Taifa (Siberia)

Occasionally one will find (or be sent) videos of hermits who have lived in very much more difficult situations than us urban hermits --- like this one. Personally, I love the way Agafia Lykov's day begins with prayer and is punctuated with song (prayer) throughout. She is a few year older than I am but I recognize the rhythm of her life in the Taifa even in my own more comfortable one. Her feet are roughly shod and then wrapped in cloth; her hands are dirty and scared from work and struggle and her face is wrinkled from weather and time, but I especially love her eyes and smile which are both full of mirth and joy. One poignant piece of her story was the way in which part of her family died within weeks of each other. Geologists came to visit at one point and three of the children came down with an infection and died. Her mother's story is even more moving (you can watch the video for that)!

Today Agafia is sure that if she went to live in the nearest city (days away and really only accessible by canoe except in Winter and by helicopter when the weather is good), she would die. Her story reminds me of the one I heard while on retreat last month, the story on which the book,  Island of the Blue Dolphin is based. After 18 years stranded and abandoned on an island off the coast of Santa Barbara an Indian woman was brought to the Old Mission. She died within two months of causes similar to those that took Agafia's siblings.

Some contemporary hermits (meaning here more than diocesan hermits) strike me as eccentric or even a little crazy. Agafia does not. She has been sheltered and her and her life is very demanding, but she is joyful, brave, generous, and above all faithful to God. At one point, laughing a little at herself and also perhaps a little pleased, she shows off and pins on a medal which she explains was given to her for kindness and faith. For me she epitomizes the kind of personal transparency solitude produces and treats as a goal. She lives the silence of solitude and will probably die one day doing so.

This is part 1 of 4. The other parts should come up as you finish each one but if not check out You Tube for Surviving in the Siberian Wildreness for 70 years.

20 September 2013

Francis: "Religious Men and Women are Prophets . . .Prophecy may imply making waves"

There is a new interview with Pope Francis and MUCH of it is incredibly important, inspiring and needing discussion. (Actually as a whole it is incredibly significant but it is also composed of many important subpoints.) One small passage has to do with religious life explicitly and I want it post it here because it so completely comports with what the Sisters of the LCWR have been saying right along. It seems undoubted that Francis and the LCWR are on the same page here.

[[“Religious men and women are prophets,” says the pope. “They are those who have chosen a following of Jesus that imitates his life in obedience to the Father, poverty, community life and chastity. In this sense, the vows cannot end up being caricatures; otherwise, for example, community life becomes hell, and chastity becomes a way of life for unfruitful bachelors. The vow of chastity must be a vow of fruitfulness. In the church, the religious are called to be prophets in particular by demonstrating how Jesus lived on this earth, and to proclaim how the kingdom of God will be in its perfection. A religious must never give up prophecy. This does not mean opposing the hierarchical part of the church, although the prophetic function and the hierarchical structure do not coincide. I am talking about a proposal that is always positive, but it should not cause timidity. Let us think about what so many great saints, monks and religious men and women have done, from St. Anthony the Abbot onward. Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves. I do not know how to put it.... Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’ But in reality, the charism of religious people is like yeast: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.”]]

I encourage all readers to check out the interview. It can be found at: http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130919_1.pdf . It is also available on Amazon for Kindle under the title A Big Heart Open to God (it may also be available in a hard copy; I am not sure of that). The cost of the Kindle version is about $3.00.

I am hoping to write about other parts of it as soon as I have had time to digest them. Let me just say that I am more excited now than I was in the first days of Francis' papacy and more sure than ever that Vatican II and the Holy Spirit are alive and well in our Church; because of this I am also more confident that the Council will be fully received in time. There is so much in what Francis has had to say here that is surprisingly wonderful and an answer to prayers which leaves me feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.

Francis' tone is honest, humble, transparent, and also very frank. It is not merely the way he says things, but the substance of what he believes about the universal call to holiness, about the holiness of ordinary life, the need for homilies in touch with the faith and hungers of the people, a synodal structure in church governance, the need for increased subsidiarity and his criticism of a process that has Rome as the center of  fielding denunciations for heterodoxy (which should be handled on the local level), a clarity on the role of the curia, and above all, that everything the church says or does should first of all proclaim the good news of a Merciful God in Christ --- all of this is straight out of Vatican II; it therefore is in continuity with and represents the best of the entire Catholic Tradition. All of this, in other words, reflects the heart and mind of a Jesuit who shepherds (and desires to Shepherd) a post VII Church which lives from and in light of the Gospel which makes ALL THINGS NEW (including the Church's own Tradition!).

18 September 2013

Hermitages Again: Thomas Merton's Hermitage

Recently (02. Sept.2013) I was asked about hermitages, what features a hermitage should include, what one should think about in setting one up, and so forth. I answered the first of these questions mainly on the basis of my own experience. I thought it might be interesting to show a video of Thomas Merton's hermitage. One Buddhist hermit whose blog I read occasionally also showed this and commented that he was surprised to find the hermitage is comprised of four rooms with a dozen pans for cooking, etc.

As a postscript, I should note that much of the music accompanying this video is done by Dom Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam, the new Prior of the Camaldolese.

17 September 2013

Why isn't your Vocation Selfishness Personified?

[[Dear Sr Laurel, I have long thought the hermit vocation is a selfish one. I have read blogs by so-called hermits and they seem to be completely self-centered --- I am not speaking of yours here, but if you google "hermit blogs" or "Catholic hermit" blogs you will find blogs by "hermits" whose entire focus is on how much they suffer and their own growth in holiness. It's all "me, me, me." You claim that the vocation is essentially one of love, but how do hermits really love others if they are living in solitude? You also claim that your vocation is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but isn't this just a way of excusing selfishness? Anyone can say they are doing something because of "love" but the proof of that is in the pudding, as the saying goes. How does the church figure out whether someone is saying they are called to this as a way of loving others instead of just being selfish? It seems like a really easy lie to tell yourself and your diocese.]] (Redacted to shorten email)

You know, these are terrific questions. They are really excellent because they go to the heart of the matter of discerning, choosing, and living this life well; they also reprise a position that even a few great Church Fathers have held. Sometimes it is monastics more generally that are accused of selfishness. It is all that "fuga mundi" (flee the world) stuff (which is entirely valid and laudable when understood properly) coupled with a theology of consecrated life that strongly disparaged lay and secular vocations. We, as the People of God, are still outgrowing a lot of that but have begun making serious inroads thanks to Vatican II's emphasis on the universal call to holiness. Progress here is also due to the fact that we are becoming more sensitized to the place of active ministry in our world as well as to the importance of secularity and mission. Even so, we also are coming to a greater awareness that being has priority over doing, that mission depends upon the impulse and assistance of the missionary God empowering us, and that loving others is not possible unless we have been loved ourselves. This means there will always be a place for contemplative and even eremitical vocations which witness to this foundational relationship and need.

I have seen at least some of the blogs you seem to be speaking of and there is no doubt that if one is looking for self-centeredness one can find it by googling the terms you have cited. I have written about such supposedly "eremitical" lives in the past along with posts on hermit stereotypes and misunderstandings, inadequate reasons for seeking to live an eremitical life, the counter cultural nature of the vocation --- especially in a world which is strongly individualistic and even narcissistic, as well as on the charism of the vocation which presents genuine solitude as a form of communion which represents the redemption of individualism, isolation, and alienation. Recently I read an article called " The Urban Hermit Abnormal Personality" which takes some of what you have noted and a lot of what I have written against and identified it with the "urban hermit personality" in today's society. (To be honest, it is not clear the author is actually referring to urban diocesan hermits at all in this piece. While he might well think of these as selfishness personified AND institutionalized, he may merely have been giving a colorful name to misanthropes, and walking wounded who choose to live as isolated loners.)

The problem is that some "hermits" provide grist for this author's mill and, because they are truly seeking to validate as well as excuse their own self-centeredness, they do the vocation no favors when they write about being or becoming a hermit. (N.B., validation goes beyond excusing self-centeredness and is therefore more problematical.) So how is my vocation (both my own vocation and the vocation more generally) one which is founded on love then? How can a vocation which is more about being than doing really be loving in the way we usually associate with the lives of Religious? These are the ways I would restate your question, "How do hermits really love others?" and the approaches I would like to use to begin to respond to it.

Rooted in a Necessary Selfishness:

First of all, my vocation is grounded in the love of God. God has called me to it, that call has been validated and in fact mediated to me by the Church and I trust it. This means that I trust it is not merely selfishness masquerading as something worthy, much less something Divine or sacred. For me this is a piece of things I had not really appreciated sufficiently until after perpetual eremitical profession when several concerns and sources of anxiety dropped away. It is part of the freedom I experienced and have spoken about when I described not having to worry any longer about whether I was really called to something else, or whether I should be conforming my life to the expectations and norms of the world around me --- including the world of apostolic or ministerial Religious and the church more generally. Further, God continues to call me in this way on a daily basis and my own engagement with God in prayer and everyday living attests to growth in this love.

It is this growth which points to a necessary and entirely graced "selfishness" in answering any call. I have responded to God and done so out of love for God and his People but there is no doubt that I have also found this the means to personal healing and growth in human wholeness and holiness. I continue responding to God day by day. You see, my own life was once dominated by chronic illness. I have done a lot in spite of it (education, work, ministry) but even so most of the time achievements were hard-won things and often the illness itself "won out." As a result I was once simply unable to serve in the way I felt called to serve, whether that was directly because of the illness or because of the human brokenness, limitations, and incapacity which accompanied it. More fundamentally, my illness prevented me from being the human being I felt called to be, from relating to others or loving in the ways I thought (knew) I should love; it was a dominating, sometimes all-consuming reality and it crippled me on every level. Not least it prevented me from truly loving myself, and therefore, from effectively loving anyone else in the radical way Christ calls us each to do. It is at this point that eremitical life enters the picture and becomes important.

The first time I read canon 603 I realized that if this really pointed to a vital form of Christian life it could well provide the context for a life in which illness was deprived of its power to disrupt, dominate, and even define me. In other words it could provide a context in which every aspect of my life could make sense and thus become fruitful in some yet-to-be-defined sense. There is a selfishness involved here, a fundamental concern with the sense of one's own life, yes; it is a necessary form of selfishness which requires we love ourselves (and I mean truly love ourselves!!) in order that we may love our neighbors AS ourselves. In other words, I had to find a way to live a responsive and covenantal life with God in which God's grace could actually triumph over powers of darkness and death as they manifested themselves in my own life and heart. I had to find a way to deprive illness of its power to dominate and define, its ability to foster self-hatred in me. Solitary eremitical life provides the God-given context and means for that for me. In answering any divine call this particular form of "selfishness" will be present, and I would argue it must if we are to love others as we are truly called to do. This "truly loving oneself" is the necessary and graced form of selfishness on which the Great Commandment is based.

The Primacy of Being over Doing:

I think this points to a certain primacy of being over doing. We really must be persons who love ourselves in the power of God's love if we are to love others as God calls us to do. Of course we cannot omit the whole "going out and doing" dimension, but what I have found is that if  we touch others FROM a place of essential solitude (which means from a place of  personal communion with God) our very lives will be ministerial --- whether or not we are otherwise engaged in apostolic or ministerial activity. In other words what we do must and can only truly be a reflection of who we are; activity must and can only flow from contemplation; being must have priority so that it may define and guide whatever it is we do. More, it must be our primary ministry. This may sound counter cultural or contrary to the emphasis of so much  which is prevalent in our church and world today --- and it is! But it is also valid and an important lesson or witness our world and our Church needs.

Both our Church and our world often seem to preference doing over being, so much so that folks are out doing (teaching, ministering, etc) in all kinds of ways long before they have achieved the degree of human wholeness and wisdom necessary for that. (The stereotype of the psychologically wounded or crippled psychiatrist is a good symbol of this. So, unfortunately, is the image of the predatory priest turned loose to minister again because of a dearth of priests. So, for instance, is the glut of self-help books on the market offering instant wisdom and expertise for the price of a paperback, the "advanced degrees" which can be purchased for a couple of hundred dollars, or the prevalence of cheating and plagiarism in today's world!) While to some extent we all learn by doing, and while we all need to be interns and novices at various stages in our lives, my point is we tend to preference doing over being in ways which can be destructive.

But if the priority of being over doing is a profound truth which is in danger of being lost sight of today it is the very thing hermits and other contemplatives remind our church and world of --- and doing so is a profound act of love which, potentially at least, may leave no one untouched. For solitary hermits in particular, I think we witness to the profound sense life makes in communion with God, even when that life cannot issue in active ministry to others. For this reason I have written a lot in this blog about the witness we give to the chronically ill, the isolated elderly, the bereaved, and even to prisoners. I have spoken of it as the unique charism or gift quality of the hermit's life. As I have also noted here, all of these persons are marginalized, not least by the fact that they cannot measure the value and fruitfulness of their lives in the terms so prevalent today. They cannot compete in terms of productivity or various kinds of achievement (academic, political, etc). They cannot be terrific consumers or measure their lives in economic terms; often they require the assistance of others and government subsidies and aid even to live. But the hermit, and indeed all contemplatives say that such lives are infinitely valuable nonetheless.

And yet it is the Gospel message that we are justified (made right and truly human as part of a covenant relationship with God) through the gratuitous grace of God, not through any works of our own. By extension that message is also the message that our lives are of infinite worth simply because we are who we are, not because of what we do. Hermits proclaim that message with their lives in a unity of being and doing. I don't mean to suggest that others do not  act out of such a unity; I know they do. However, for hermits, our only role in the church is to be ourselves in God alone --- no one else. (It is this reason failing as a hermit is so easy, and trying to live as one is so risky. It is this reason mediocrity is so easy. Hermits do not tend to have active ministries they can use to distract from who they are first of all. They cannot use the roles they fill to soften the fact that they are not really WHO God has called them to be.) Who they ARE in God IS their ministry, and the fact that this happens by the grace of God in the silence of solitude IS their message. They can fall back on nothing else. (This too is one reason hermits are not called to active ministry and must be careful in even the limited amount in which they might engage. Their vocation really is to BE themselves in God alone. Their primary (or only) ministry really is in being and in calling folks to the primacy of being, not in doing.)

How does the Church Discern authentic vocations?

There is one main way the Church discerns the difference between inauthentic and authentic vocations. She demands that authentic vocations are vocations of love which contribute to the salvation of the world and praise and glorify God (make God manifest). One way of doing this is to look at the place of God in the hermit's life and discourse. While some self-proclaimed hermits do write about "Me, me, me" so that even their writing about spirituality becomes only secondarily about God, the genuine article makes it clear that they are who they are and do what they do only because of God.

So, for instance, if chronic illness is a piece of the hermit's life it is no longer the dominant or overarching theme; instead, what God has done (or does day by day!) in their lives both in spite of and with the illness will be the dominant theme. As a person matures even the illness may be seen as a genuine grace --- not articulated in some pious pretense of medieval mystical misery, but in the sense that this has brought the person to God and allowed God both a unique entry into her life and the achievement of a unique voice which will be mediated to others through both strength and weakness. That life then becomes "a silent preaching of the Lord" --- just as the CCC refers to in par 921. In other words, what God's grace makes possible in terms of human wholeness and holiness is their main focus and the key in which all else is set. The person becomes something very much greater and more articulate than a cry of anguish; she becomes instead an expression of the Gospel and an embodied reflection of God's own Logos. None of this means that the person cannot occasionally talk about themselves or their illness, sinfulness, brokennesses, etc, but it does mean that doing so occurs mainly in order to illustrate the grace of God's love and in contrast to the wholeness that grace has achieved in the person's life.

Thus, I would suggest that it is really not all that easy to lie about this matter. It is true that one can cover misery and brokenness with all kinds of pious platitudes, but the real person always shines through. More, the real God shines through in a compelling way when the hermit is authentic. The blogs you refer to affirm this in a kind of via negativa. Even for hermits in the early stages of grappling with this vocation and their own growth in it what comes through is their hope, their hunger to respond generously and wholeheartedly, their desire to give God free reign to work in their lives as God will. There will be some sense that this is primarily and sincerely done for God and those precious to God. Dioceses that take time to really listen to the candidate and get to know them will see clearly who has priority in their lives, even when the healing is partial or the grip of illness is still quite strong. On the other hand, I would agree with you that it is much easier to lie to oneself and I would note that this is one (but only one) of the reasons dioceses turn away FAR more applicants than they accept or eventually admit to temporary much less perpetual profession.

In my own experience dioceses usually look carefully at who the person is in light of their life of the silence of solitude. If they see increased growth in human maturity, wholeness, and holiness, if they see a greater capacity to love themselves and others, then they have reason to believe that the person is truly called by God to this. If they do not see this, or if the person seems to become more miserable or eccentric while living in this way, more isolated and alienated, or if they become more and more strident and bitter about not being admitted to vows, more critical of the vocation itself, etc, then the diocese is probably justified in their decision not to profess or even to admit them to serious discernment --- at least for the time being.

The Bottom Line in Discerning Eremitical Vocations:

At bottom there will always be questions of love: Is the person motivated by love? Does she love God and seek to respond wholeheartedly to God's love? Does she show signs of truly loving herself because of what she has experienced of God's love (especially) in solitude? Does she understand that simply living her life alone with God with the graced (in-Spired) integrity she is called to is an act of profound love the world desperately needs? And, finally, does she undertake (or desire to undertake) and embrace the WHOLE of this life, its discipline, monotony or tedium, sacrifices and rewards, occasional desolations and enormous consolations,  because she recognizes the gift (charism) it is not only to herself, but to the church, and to the world? Does she do so, in other words, on their behalf as well as on her own, and maybe better said, does she do so for them because that truly fulfills her as well? Again then, contrary to your own opinion I would argue that it is pretty difficult to fake convincing answers to these questions, especially as a vocation matures. A diocese whose vocational personnel are careful and discerning will recognize a life in which God (love-in-act) is glorified (made manifest), just as they will recognize its opposite.

By the way, this is a piece of why such vocations must be mutually discerned and why the Church reserves the term Catholic hermit for someone living the life in her name.  Hermits and other contemplatives tend to speak of themselves as living at the heart of the Church. This saying has a number of levels or dimensions but above all it means that the hermit represents a vocation to love which both precedes and grounds all apostolic activity. The journeying in the wilderness and the battling with demons a hermit does is mainly the sojourn she undertakes deep into her own heart and the heart of God so that love may truly predominate in all things. When I speak of taking on the rights and obligations of the eremitical life as a diocesan hermit I am speaking in large part of assuming the burdens and joy of these "bottom line" questions and this pilgrim role in a conscious and public way in the name of the Church and her Gospel.

15 September 2013

It is only with the Heart that One sees Rightly

In one of the best selling books of all time, The Little Prince, there is a dialogue between a fox and the Little Prince. It occurs over a period of time. The Fox begins by explaining about what it means to be "tamed,"  and he notes that it involves forming ties with others. He begs the Prince to "tame him" and over time (the prince agrees to "waste time" in this way!) the Little Prince does so while the Fox allows himself to be tamed; in other words the Prince works to become the Fox's friend and the Fox becomes his. As a result the most mundane parts of reality are also transformed. Golden fields of wheat which hold no interest for the Fox ordinarily (he eats only chickens!) now remind the Fox of his friend's golden hair and occasion joy. When the time comes for the Little Prince to leave the Fox is sad, and then he gives the Little Prince his most precious secret, a secret he says most men have forgotten: [[It is only with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.]]

In last Friday's Gospel story Jesus knows that there is more than one way of "seeing" and he equates one of these with a destructive blindness which will lead everyone into the pit together. He warns that an untrained person is apt to harm someone and needs to get proper training before trying to act as a teacher. And he reminds us via this story that we ourselves are often afflicted with a beam in our own eye but that we are equally often one who blindly criticizes and offers to extract a splinter from another's eye. We hear one of Jesus' most damning judgments as he says: "You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from in your brother's eye!"

Jesus clearly understands several things; he knows what the fox reminds us most "men have forgotten": First, that seeing rightly (compassion) is something we do with our hearts and this requires a kind of training. It is the kind of training one does when, over time, one helps (trains) a child to grow in a certain way. It takes years to "train" a child's ability to stand upright, to help them become persons who love themselves and others, who are capable of giving themselves to the world in a way which makes it better, richer, more holy. It takes years to help a child become responsible for their own hearts as we ourselves are called to be responsible for our own hearts Our hearts are, as I have said here a number of times, the places where we meet and respond to God, but they are also those places within us where obstacles to this meeting reside; for this reason they need to be "trained" (formed, healed, nurtured, strengthened, aided) to see rightly. The responsibility for forming our hearts, for taming them (what Christians call growing in holiness), is a lifelong process of being made capable of compassionate seeing.

Secondly then, he knew that the way our attention is avidly drawn to the splinter in another's eye SHOULD lead us to suspect the beam in our own; that is, we should suspect the real obstacles to accurate vision, to compassion, exist in our own hearts. They represent ways of seeing we have made our own whether they have come from our culture, from peer pressure, from our own needs, successes or failures, from the hurts of childhood, or wherever. Because of this I think Jesus understood very well that we ordinarily operate from habitual ways of seeing and behaving which are less than Christian; we operate from characteristic attitudes of the false self that serve as lenses which distort our own vision and prevent us from seeing rightly or compassionately with the heart. In terms of the Gospel, and the story of the Little Prince, they are the lenses which prevent us from making neighbors of those we meet or know, the lenses which prevent us from loving others, from letting others "tame us," and therefore from becoming friends.

 Two pieces of monastic truth:

Monastic life encapsulated Jesus' teaching in a number of ways, but there are two pieces which are especially important here. The first is the monastic teaching on what are called "the passions."  The passions are obstacles to humility, that is, they are barriers to recognizing and celebrating the truth about who we are in regard to God and others. Thus they are also obstacles to compassion, to seeing others with the same kind of loving truthfulness. They are most often the beams in our own eyes and hearts which cause us to overreact to the splinters in our brother's or sister's eyes. They are the symptoms of woundedness and disease in our own hearts which cause us to project onto others and fail to love them as we ought and as they deserve. As Roberta Bondi reminds us, "a passion has as its chief characteristics perversion of vision and the destruction of love." (To Love as God Loves)

Common passions we are all too familiar with include perfectionism, a kind of habitual irritation with someone or some situation, anger, envy, depression, apathy or sloth, gluttony (which often has more to do, Bondi points out, with requiring novelty than it does with eating), irritable or anxious restlessness, impatience, selfishness, etc. In each, if we consider their effects, we will notice these habitual ways of relating to ourselves and our world cause us to see reality in a distorted way (this is one of the reasons we think of seeing reality through the green haze of envy, or the red film of anger, or the black wall of depression, and so forth). Further, they get in the way of being open to or nurturing the truth of others --- that is, they are obstacles to love.

Similarly they are destructive of sight and love because they cause us to project onto others our own flawed expectations, values, failings and woundedness.  We know this by its psychological term: Projection. It is a serious disease Jesus apparently understood well, a result of our own brokenness and sinfulness, and it assures not only that the person being projected onto CANNOT be heard or seen for who they are, but also that the one doing the projecting becomes more and more locked into their own blindness and inability to love the other as neighbor. The wisdom of Jesus' admonition, "Remove the beam from your own eye before you attempt to remove the splinter from your brother's" as well as the appropriateness of his anger in calling others on their hypocrisy is profound.

The second piece of monastic wisdom here we should remember, and one which is closely related to the importance of dealing with our passions has to do with the nature of really seeing another truly. In our own time we are very used to acting as though we only know someone really well when we see their flaws. We approach people and things "critically," searching out their failings and weaknesses and when we have discovered them, we believe we have discovered their deepest truth. How often have we heard someone say something like: "I thought I knew him, but the other day, he acted to betray me. Now I really know who he is!"

But monastic wisdom is just the opposite of this notion of knowing. It is strikingly countercultural and counterintuitive. In monastic life we only really know someone when we see them as God sees them: precious, sacred, whole, and beautiful. We only see them rightly when we look past the flaws to the deep or true person at the core. We only see them truly when we see them with the eyes and humility of love. As we were reminded by Saint-Exupery and as tomorrow's Gospel implies strongly, "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly," --- and only once we have removed those distorting lenses monks call passions, that is, only once we have removed the beams from our own eyes will we be able to do this!

Introduction to New Camaldoli Hermitage

The video here is an introduction to New Camaldoli Hermitage, the main house in the United States of the congregation with which I am affiliated as an oblate. While I am associated with a different house, I am, of course welcome at all Camaldolese Houses ands especially at New Camaldoli. In this video you will hear references to the "threefold good" or the "triplex bonum" just as you will hear Dom Cyprian Consiglio (prior) refer to the unique blend of solitude and community which is characteristic of the Camaldolese charism. Of course readers of this blog will recognize the former term from posts I have put up here, not least: Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Camaldolese Triplex Bonum. Enjoy this brief portrait of New Camaldoli.

Parable of the Merciful Father (Reprised)

Commentators tend to name today's Gospel parable after the Merciful Father, because he is central to all the scenes (even when the younger Son is in a far off place, the Father waits silently, implicitly, in the wings). We should notice it is his foolish generosity that predominates, so in this sense, he too is prodigal. Perhaps then we should call this the parable of the Prodigal Father. The younger son squanders his inheritance, but the Father is also (in common terms and in terms of Jewish Law) foolish in giving him the inheritance, the "substance" (literally, the ousias) of his own life and that of Israel. His younger Son treats him as dead (a sin against the Commandment to honor Father and Mother) and still this Father looks for every chance to receive him back.

When the younger son comes to his senses, rehearses his terms for coming home ("I will confess and be received back not as a Son, but as a servant,"), his Father, watching for his return, eagerly runs to meet him in spite of the offense represented in such an act, forestalls his confession, brings his Son into the center of the village thus rendering everything unclean according to the law, clothes him in the garb of Sonship and authority, kills the fatted calf and throws a welcome home party --- all heedless of the requirements of the law, matters of ritual impurity or repentance, etc. Meanwhile, the dutiful older son keeps the letter of the law of sonship but transgresses its essence and also treats his Father with dishonor. He is grudging, resentful, angry, blind, and petty in failing to recognize what is right before him all the time. He too is prodigal, allowing his authentic Sonship to die day by day as he assumes a more superficial role instead. And yet, the Father reassures him that what is the Father's is the Son's and what is the Son's is the Father's (which makes the Father literally an "ignorant man" in terms of the Law, an "am-haretz"). Contrary to the wisdom of the law, he continues to invite him into the celebration, a celebration of new life and meaning. He continues to treat him as a Son.

The theme of Law versus Gospel comes up strongly in this and other readings this week, though at first we may fail to recognize this. Paul recognizes the Law is a gift of God but without the power to move us to act as Sons and Daughters of God in the way Gospel does. When coupled with human sinfulness it can --- whether blatantly or insidiously --- be terribly destructive. How often as Christians do we act in ways which are allowed (or apparently commanded) by law but which are not really appropriate to Daughters and Sons of an infinitely merciful Father who is always waiting for our return, always looking for us to make the slightest responsive gesture in recognition of his presence, to "come to our senses", so that he can run to us and enfold us in the sumptuous garb of Daughterhood or Sonship? How often is our daily practice of our faith dutiful, and grudging but little more? How often do we act competitively or in resentment over others whose vocation is different than our own, whose place in the church (or the world of business, commerce, and society, for that matter) seems to witness to greater love from God? How often do we quietly despair over the seeming lack of worth of our lives in comparison to that of others? Whether we recognize it or not these attitudes are those of people motivated by law, not gospel. They are the attitudes of measurement and judgment, not of incommensurate love and generosity.

At the begining of Lent we heard the fundamental choice of and in all choices put before us, "Choose life not death." Today that choice is sharpened and the subtle forms of death we often choose are set in relief: will we be Daughters and Sons of an infinitely and foolishly Merciful Father --- those who truly see and accept a love that is beyond our wildest imaginings and love others similarly, or, will we be prodigals in the pejorative sense, servants of duty, those who only accept the limited love we believe we have coming to us and who approach others competitively, suspiciously and without generosity? Will we be those whose notions of justice constrain God and our ability to choose the life he sets before us, or will we be those who are forgiven to the awesome degree and extent God is willing and capable of forgiving? Will we allow ourselves to be welcomed into a new life --- a life of celebration and joy, but also a life of greater generosity, responsibility, and God-given identity, or will we simply make do with the original prodigality of either the life of the younger or elder son? After all, both live dissipated lives in this parable: one flagrantly so, and one in quiet resentment, slavish dutifulness, and unfulfillment.

The choice before those living the latter kind of Christian life is no less significant, no less one of conversion than the choice set before the younger son. His return may be more dramatic, but that of the elder son demands as great a conversion. He must move from a quiet exile where he bitterly identifies himself as a slave rather than a free man or (even less) a Son. His own vision of his life and worth, his true identity, are little different than those of the younger son who returns home rehearsing terms of servility rather than sonship. The parable of the merciful Father puts before us two visions of life, and two main versions of prodigality; it thus captures the two basic meanings of prodigal: wasteful and lavish. There is the prodigality of the sons who allow the substance of their lives and identities to either be cast carelessly or slip silently away, the prodigality of those who lose their truest selves even as they grasp at wealth, adventure, duty, role, or other forms of security and "fulfillment". And there is the prodigality of the Father who loves and spends himself generously without limit or condition. In other words, there is death and there is life, law and gospel. Both stand before us ready to be embraced. Which form of prodigality will we choose? For indeed, the banquet hall is ready for us and the Father stands waiting at this very moment, ring, robe, and sandals in hand.

09 September 2013

Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Syria

My pastor gave a terrific homily on Sunday based on an event that occurs when Paul is in prison; he sends Onesimus back to his Master --- but sends him not as a slave but as a brother Christian. Summarizing this very briefly (and inadequately) , Father John spoke of the dominant narrative of the time, and the fact that Paul's action was a way of overturning that dominant narrative by challenging Onesimus' master to receive him as a brother in Christ. The question is how will Onesimus' master actually respond to the invitation and new Christian truth. He very effectively tied this into the situation in Syria at a number of points -- not least by noting we Christians are called to subvert the master narrative of violence calling for violence in our world. Will we have the courage to change the way we do business or not?

Francis, Bishop of Rome, used the story of Abel and Cain in his own comments: [[“And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). The biblical account of the beginning of the history of the world and of humanity speaks to us of a God who looks at creation, in a sense contemplating it, and declares: “It is good”. This, dear brothers and sisters, allows us to enter into God’s heart and, precisely from within him, to receive his message. We can ask ourselves: what does this message mean? What does it say to me, to you, to all of us?

Francis at Prayer during Vigil
1. It says to us simply that this, our world, in the heart and mind of God, is the “house of harmony and peace”, and that it is the space in which everyone is able to find their proper place and feel “at home”, because it is “good”. All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole of creation. God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other. This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire? Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts? Is the world that we want really a world of harmony and peace, in ourselves, in our relations with others, in families, in cities, in and between nations? And does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?

2. But then we wonder: Is this the world in which we are living? Creation retains its beauty which fills us with awe and it remains a good work. But there is also “violence, division, disagreement, war”. This occurs when man, the summit of creation, stops contemplating beauty and goodness, and withdraws into his own selfishness.

When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the centre, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conflict. This is precisely what the passage in the Book of Genesis seeks to teach us in the story of the Fall: man enters into conflict with himself, he realizes that he is naked and he hides himself because he is afraid (cf. Gen 3: 10), he is afraid of God’s glance; he accuses the woman, she who is flesh of his flesh (cf. v. 12); he breaks harmony with creation, he begins to raise his hand against his brother to kill him. Can we say that from harmony he passes to “disharmony”? No, there is no such thing as “disharmony”; there is either harmony or we fall into chaos, where there is violence, argument, conflict, fear ....

Bishops come together to pray during Vigil for peace
It is exactly in this chaos that God asks man’s conscience: “Where is Abel your brother?” and Cain responds: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). We too are asked this question, it would be good for us to ask ourselves as well: Am I really my brother’s keeper? Yes, you are your brother’s keeper! To be human means to care for one another! But when harmony is broken, a metamorphosis occurs: the brother who is to be cared for and loved becomes an adversary to fight, to kill. What violence occurs at that moment, how many conflicts, how many wars have marked our history! We need only look at the suffering of so many brothers and sisters. This is not a question of coincidence, but the truth: we bring about the rebirth of Cain in every act of violence and in every war. All of us! And even today we continue this history of conflict between brothers, even today we raise our hands against our brother. Even today, we let ourselves be guided by idols, by selfishness, by our own interests, and this attitude persists. We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!

After the chaos of the flood, when it stopped raining, a rainbow appeared and the dove returned with an olive branch. Today, I think also of that olive tree which representatives of various religions planted in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in 2000, asking that there be no more chaos, asking that there be no more war, asking for peace.3. And at this point I ask myself: Is it possible to walk the path of peace? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace? Invoking the help of God, under the maternal gaze of the Salus Populi Romani, Queen of Peace, I say: Yes, it is possible for everyone! From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone! Or even better, I would like for each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it! My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment!

Faithful in St Peter's Square during Vigil
There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken. This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace! Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow – I think of the children: look upon these… look at the sorrow of your brother, stay your hand and do not add to it, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter! May the noise of weapons cease! War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity.

Let the words of Pope Paul VI resound again: “No more one against the other, no more, never! ... war never again, never again war!” (Address to the United Nations, 1965). “Peace expresses itself only in peace, a peace which is not separate from the demands of justice but which is fostered by personal sacrifice, clemency, mercy and love” (World Day of Peace Message, 1975). Brothers and Sisters, forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation – these are the words of peace, in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world! Let us pray this evening for reconciliation and peace, let us work for reconciliation and peace, and let us all become, in every place, men and women of reconciliation and peace! So may it be.]]

A Place in the Choir

As a piece of my recent marathon birthday celebrations (they went on for more than a week! --- an embarrassment of riches), my director brought this video to our appointment-and-dinner time together last Thursday. We watched it together a couple of times, laughed a lot, and just generally found it delightful. I hope you enjoy it. (Just "clap your hands, or paws, or anything you've got now. . .")

07 September 2013

LCWR Statement on US Action in Syria

[Silver Spring, MD]  We, the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are compelled to work toward a world where reverence for all living beings finds expression in an approach to life free from violence. We stand in solidarity with the victims of violence everywhere, with a majority of the American people, and with the leaders of our Catholic Church as we heed the Gospel call to peace, reconciliation, and universal love.

Like so many, we are horrified at the violence we witness in our world and appalled by the continued carnage in Syria. We wholeheartedly condemn the use of chemical weapons along with the indiscriminate killing of civilians, and other violations of international humanitarian law.  In the face of so much pain and suffering; confronted by so much evil and immorality; we know that we must act.

However, we reject the false choice currently being offered by our political leaders in Washington, DC.  We need not choose between military action and doing nothing.  Like Pope Francis we know that, “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.” Only aggressive diplomacy and deliberate dialogue can end the violence and bring about peace in Syria.

We urge the US Congress and the President, working with the international community at the United Nations to provide the leadership necessary to:
  • De-escalate the violence by stopping the flow of arms to all sides and seeking a ceasefire.
  • Provide humanitarian assistance to the millions of Syrians forced to flee their homes by the continuing violence.
  • Pursue a just political settlement with all of the stakeholders including members of civil society.
  • Bring to justice those responsible for these egregious violations of international law and crimes against humanity.
We will act to stop the killing and end the violence. We join with Pope Francis in appealing for an end to violence everywhere and calling on all people of good will to observe a day of prayer and fasting for peace on September 7. Let us pray for the grace to respond to violence, conflict, and war, with the power of dialogue, reconciliation, and love.

05 September 2013

Parable of the Ten Virgins: Paradigm of Prayer

Last Friday's Gospel was the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the Bridegroom. Five are wise and five are foolish. While all of them fall asleep at some point after the bridegroom is delayed, half of them are still ready to greet him when he comes and also to serve him as they are meant to. Their lamps are full. The other half have not prepared so their lamps are either out or running out of oil. They ask the "wise" virgins to share oil with them, but are told  that if they were to do that they too might run out. The "foolish virgins" are sent out to buy some oil (it is after midnight, remember). In the meantime, the Bridegroom comes, the doors are locked, the party begins, and the foolish virgins are left out in the cold with the Bridegroom declaring, "I never knew you!"

Parables have a unique capacity to take us where we are and lead us to Christ. It doesn't matter that we are all in different places. We enter the story and thus enter a sacred space where we can meet God in Christ ourselves. For this reason, although I have written about this parable before, it had a freshness for me on Friday. Themes may remain similar (waiting, covenant, consummation of a wedding, faithfulness, preparation, celebration, future fulfillment, etc) but what the parable calls for today differs from what it personally entailed for the hearer yesterday. What I was hearing Friday was a description of the nature of a life of prayer, a life given over to another so that his own purposes may be fulfilled through our relationship. It is the story of a life given over to waiting; it is a waiting of disciplined preparation and attention, but it is also, for that very reason, waiting which is joyful and full of promise and hope. It is the kind of waiting which signals a life where, in terms of today's story, one especially prepares oneself to be surprised by the Bridegroom's promised and inevitable coming and by all he has done to prepare for us as his bride.

The Nature of Jewish Marriages in Jesus' Day

Jewish weddings took place in two stages. First came the betrothal in which the two were joined in a covenant of marriage. This was more than an engagement and if it was to be sundered it could only occur through processes called "divorce". After the betrothal the bridegroom went to his family home and began to prepare for his bride. He ordinarily began building an addition to the family home. It was understood that he would provide better accommodations than his bride had had until this point. (We should all be thinking of this situation when we hear Jesus say, "I go to my Father's house to prepare a place for you.) Meanwhile the bride also begins a period of preparation. There is sewing to do and lessons in being a wife. There is preparation for the day her bridegroom will come again to take her to his home where the two shall become one (in ritual marriage) and where the marriage will be consummated.

At the end of about a year (the groom's  Father makes sure his Son does not do a haphazard job on the new addition just so he can get to his bride sooner!), on a day and at an hour the bride does not know, the groom comes with his friends. They bear torches, blow the shofar, and announce, "The Bridegroom comes" --- just as we hear in Friday's Gospel. The bride's attendants come forth with their own lamps and, with the entire town, accompany her to her new home. The marriage of this bride and groom symbolizes (in the strongest sense of that term) the marriage of God to his people achieved on Sinai. Thus, the service the bridesmaids and groomsmen do for these friends is also a service they do for Israel and a witness to God's ineffable mercy and covenant faithfulness.

On Waiting and preparing to be Surprised: The Life of Prayer

We are each called to be spouses of Christ. Christ has gone to his Father's house to prepare a place for us and we are called to spend the time between our betrothal and the consummation of this marriage in joyful preparation and waiting for that day. In other words, everything we do and are is to be geared to that day. One response to this reality is to develop a prayer life and commit to a life of prayer. (I would argue we are all called to this but that a solid prayer life and even a life of prayer looks different depending on the context and our state of life. For instance, a life of prayer in a family looks differently than a life of prayer in a hermitage.) This parable describes very well for me the dynamics of a life of prayer. Simultaneously it describes the nature of genuine waiting because prayer implies both waiting for and waiting on.

We all know both kinds of waiting. Neither is always easy for us. We wait for our moment before the cashier in grocery stores lines and are unhappy we have to be there. We look at magazines in the nearby racks, shift restlessly from foot to foot,  fall prey to impulse buys of small items located in front of us for precisely this reason, and get more irritable by the moment. We tell ourselves we have better things to do, that our time is important -- often more important, we judge, than that of the person standing in front of (or behind!) us. We fill our time, our minds and our hearts with all kinds of things to distract us from waiting; at the same time we thus prevent ourselves from being open to the new and unexpected.

Similarly waiting on others is not always easy. Wait staff in restaurants sometimes resent the very guests they are meant to serve; work keeps them from their "real  lives". And some of these wait staff take it out on those they are meant to serve. Whether this means allowing some to go unserved while waiters talk on cell phones, arguing with and blaming customers, or actually doctoring the dishes served at the table, putting nasty comments on the bill, etc.waiting on others can be challenging and demanding; our own inability to wait on God is an important reason we fail to pray as we are called to.

Again, in prayer we both wait for and wait on God. We wait for God and allow him the space to love and touch us as he will. We wait in the sense of the bride, knowing both that she is betrothed and thus wed to her groom while recognizing and honoring as well that the consummation of this relationship (and the proleptic experiences we occasionally have while waiting) come to us inevitably but at moments when we do not expect them. The temptation of course is to do as we do in the Safeway checkout line: fill our time with unworthy activities, seek distractions which relieve the tension of waiting, allow impulsivity to replace patience and perseverance. But when we do not succumb to temptation, in prayer we wait for God. We wait in the sense of those preparing for something greater which we cannot even imagine. In other words, we wait as persons of hope whose ultimate union with our beloved is already begun and remains promised and anticipated in everything we say and do. We wait to be surprised by the one we know will come.

At the same time we wait for God in Christ, we wait on God. Our prayer is not merely a matter of seeking God, much less of asking God for favors --- though it will assuredly and rightly include pouring out our hearts to him. Still, we are called to leave behind the prayer that is self-centered and adopt that which is centered instead on God's own life and will. Mature prayer is first of all a matter of making ourselves available to serve God so that his own love may be fulfilled, his own plans realized, the absolute future he summons all of creation to may culminate in him and the Reign of sovereignty he wills to share with us is perfected. Again, in prayer we prepare to be surprised by that which we already know most truly and desire most profoundly.

In the life of prayer and discipleship both waiting for and waiting on God take commitment, diligence, and attentiveness. Both require patience and persistence.  It is to this we are each and every one called. No one can do this for us. The fuel and flame of our hearts and prayer lives is something only we can tend, only we can steward in patient and joyful preparation for our Bridegroom's coming. It is in this that the foolish virgins failed and the wise virgins succeeded. The question Jesus' parable poses to us is which will we ourselves be?

02 September 2013

What Features are Essential in a Hermitage?

Example of Small home from Tumbleweed Homes
[[Dear Sister, [I am sending you links to a site that sells small houses that I couldn't help thinking would be perfect for hermits.] What advice would you give in setting up a hermitage? What features are essential? What advice would you give to someone in selecting a place to live as a hermit? What should be in a hermitage? Do you think urban hermit life has different considerations than suburban or country living? Your insight would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.]]

Thanks for the link and for the questions. It is good to hear from you again. In the rest of this post I am going to focus on the "What should be in a hermitage" question and leave aside the questions about setting up a hermitage, etc. That one and the other questions open up a lot of significant facets which can be explored in future posts.

Cottage from Tumbleweed
I have seen this site before and have had others suggest the houses would be perfect for hermits as well. While these homes might well work for some hermits what is true is the cottage type would be better for solitary hermits while the very small ones like that shown above are better for hermits who live in a laura with others and have other buildings as part of an eremitical campus as well (e.g., space for a library, chapel, chapter and/or dining room, space for meeting with clients or guests, storage for pantry and other necessities, and a laundry with space for sorting, sewing/tailoring, and ironing, etc.). Some monasteries have such set ups with individual dwellings (or paired dwellings) for the nuns which are somewhat similar to the one pictured. There is a single room with additional bathroom and a loft area above the bathroom some use for sleeping. Still, much of the rest of the Sister's living is done in other monastery buildings. The "cell" is a kind of private space for sleeping, bathing, some private prayer and personal work, etc. Hermits living on retreat house property are in a similar situation.

Because solitary hermits do not have a monastery (etc) to draw on and also must support themselves, I generally think that they tend to need two or three rooms besides a kitchen/dining area. They must be able to accommodate a small library (this will differ in size depending on the reasons for the library), a chapel or oratory with tabernacle (if permission for this is granted), a space for meeting with clients or working (writing as well as other kinds of work) -- which can combine with the library, and an area for dining either alone or with at least one other person (the occasional guest, diocesan delegate, spiritual director, etc). (Of course this latter area can be used as a work or writing table at other times, and, depending on its location, can also serve for Mass if one's pastor (et al) comes occasionally to perform that service for the hermit.) If possible, the oratory, especially if Eucharist is reserved there, should be separate from the area in which one meets with others. It should  also be separate from work, and eating areas as far as possible. (This is especially true if one uses a computer and the internet for research, connecting with others, etc. Computer and meeting space needs to be separate from the prayer space and place of reservation.)

One thing I suspect most folks don't consider is that a hermit must also be able to do some physical exercise in her hermitage. How ever one accommodates this need, one may need space for a piece of gym equipment or some other kind of aid in this as well. (If one is not an urban hermit, one may meet one's need for physical exercise by walking, chopping wood, gardening and physical upkeep of the hermitage.) Urban hermits walk, of course, but there is no doubt that living in an urban or suburban setting militates towards staying in more than is true for hermits living in rural and isolated hermitages. Further, the poverty embraced by diocesan hermits also means that a majority of them will not have homes where they can set up workshops, vegetable gardens, etc. They will probably not be signing up for gym memberships for instance so, while a hermit will be creative here, this is assuredly a need which must be addressed in some sense.

In terms of general physical necessities, it seems to me that a hermit's dwelling needs to be sufficiently comfortable to live a contem-plative life and work in relative comfort. What I mean is it should provide sufficient protection from the cold and heat that one can pray and work without the weather being an unnecessary distraction. Personally I think there should be a sense of spaciousness and light. Partly this will be achieved by the simplicity of the furnishings and lack of clutter, but in part it really does mean that one's physical environment is not cramped. Cabin fever and the noonday devil (acedia) are real temptations in eremitical life and one does not want to exacerbate the situation with a place which is dark and unnecessarily crowded. A Beauty expressed in simplicity and order is therefore also important in my opinion (I don't always entirely succeed at this myself!); it contributes to one's inner life, but also reflects that as well. Finally, anything necessary for ordinary daily hygiene is not a luxury but a necessity. We are, after all, speaking of practicing, praying, loving hermits who are instances of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a contemporary world, not primitive or self-hating stereotypes.

Another company (sorry, I forget their name) makes units which can be linked to one another with small pre-fabbed connectors and I think in some ways these would work as well as or better for solitary hermits than the Tumbleweed houses and cottages. Shaped like half a dodecahedron or something similar they are also similar in their small footprints and eco-sensitivity, and because they are modular, they can accommodate several different spaces for work, prayer, meetings or hospitality, etc. I also really like Edward Blazona's modular approach to this topic because he does a lot with spaciousness, light, and clean lines, and because the combinations possible are seemingly infinite. Anyway, this should serve as a beginning of a conversation. If it raises questions, please send them on!

01 September 2013

Francis asks for Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Syria

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Sunday condemned the use of chemical weapons, but he called for a negotiated settlement of the civil war in Syria, and announced he would lead a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace there on Sept. 7. Francis abandoned the traditional religious theme of the weekly papal appearance to crowds in St. Peter's Square and instead spoke entirely, and with anguish, about Syria.

"My heart is deeply wounded by what is happening in Syria and anguished by the dramatic developments" on the horizon, Francis said, in an apparent reference to the U.S. and France considering a military strike to punish the Syrian regime for a chemical weapons attack. Francis reiterated previous appeals for all sides in the civil war to put down their arms and "listen to the voice of their conscience and with courage take up the way of negotiations."

With tens of thousands of people in the square applauding his words, Francis delivered his strongest remarks yet to express his horror at the use of chemical weapons. "With utmost firmness, I condemn the use of chemical weapons. I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart," the pope said, in an apparent reference to photos and TV images of victims of chemical weapons in Syria.

"There is the judgment of God, and also the judgment of history, upon our actions," he said, "from which there is no escaping." Usually soft-spoken, Francis raised his voice as he declared, "War brings on war! Violence brings on violence."

His admonishment against resorting to arms as a solution recalled the repeated emotional implorations a decade ago by the late Pope John Paul II in a vain attempt to persuade the U.S. administration then led by President George W. Bush not to invade Iraq. The deteriorating drama of Syria inspired Francis to set aside Sept. 7 as a day of fasting and prayer for Syria. Francis invited Catholics, other Christians, those of other faiths and non-believers who are "men of good will" to join him that evening in St. Peter's Square to invoke the "gift" of peace for Syria, the rest of the Middle East and worldwide where there is conflict. "The world needs to see gestures of peace and hear words of hope and of peace," Francis said.

He said the prayer vigil in the square will last from 7 p.m. until midnight. (A note for those in SF Bay Area, Rome is  9 hours ahead of us, so if we want to fast and pray in solidarity with those in Rome, we would be looking at 10:00am-3:00pm on Saturday. Others can adjust their own calendars accordingly.)