31 December 2014

Questions On "Craziness", Solitude, and the Possibility of Healing

[[Hi Sister, in a question you answered for Nun's Life Ministry you said that though healing could happen in solitude you thought it best that someone needing healing mainly have that taken care of before trying to live as a hermit. But you have also quoted Thomas Merton where he says that a person cannot be truly crazy in solitude since real craziness requires other people and solitude can bring one to drop pretensions. It sounds to me like these two positions are in conflict. Why should a person have their healing "well in hand" before trying to live as a hermit? Do you agree with Merton as much as you seemed to when you quoted him?]]

Thanks for the questions. You've been doing some back reading it looks like. So, let me explain what I said in the three part Q and A Sister Julie initiated. It is true that healing can certainly be accomplished in solitude. In fact, for the personal healing sometimes necessary, especially that associated with bereavement and grieving, solitude can be a powerful context and catalyst for healing. In The Values of Solitude, John Barbour notes that healing is one of five major reasons people seek solitude and, in some cases anyway,  may live in extended physical solitude. But what is also true about solitude, and especially about eremitical or more absolute solitude which is a silent solitude, is that it breaks down and does so before it builds up.

Ordinarily, with temporary or transitional periods of solitude this is relatively gentle and limited, not least because it is "controlled" by the prospect of leaving the silence of solitude. But with eremitical or more absolute and permanent forms of solitude the absence of this same prospect actually intensifies the effect of physical solitude. The consoling and edifying power of solitude and its related silence may not be experienced sufficiently to offset this or to establish the full dialectic of solitude. If one is psychologically fragile or actually ill the results can be destructive. Moreover, even if one is entirely healthy, if one does not have a mature and balanced spiritual life which is focused on and allows for the metanoia of the whole self, such solitude can open one to the more destructive portions of one's own psyche. Thus, I believe that a person needs to have their own healing well in hand before choosing to live as a hermit.

You see,  if one does not proceed in this way a couple of things can happen: First, because the "tearing down" that happens in eremitical solitude is more intense and extensive than in occasional solitude,  it may morph into psychological decompensation.  One simply may not have the psychological health to defend oneself sufficiently, much less live without defenses, in this new and relatively alien context. When this happens, because one is alone one may not really appreciate the degree of decompensation occurring. This is especially true when psychological symptoms are covered by naive readings of traditional eremitical stories and justified with simplistic notions of spirituality which are themselves unhealthy or unbalanced and destructive in isolation. Secondly, one may actually be tempted to turn in a naive way to traditional stories about early hermits and stereotypical notions of the eremitical life to justify and/or deny the decompensation.

Merton's Comments on "Real Craziness"

My sense is that Merton's references to "craziness" and "real craziness" is not so much to mental illness per se, but to the "craziness" associated with a culture which is individualistic, geared to competition, social climbing, consumerism, and the constant need to do rather than be --- among so many other "dysfunctions" of our society. These ensure the development of the false self, a concept we also largely owe to Merton, and that kind of spiritual schizophrenia is the epitome of "craziness" for a monastic.

The pressure for all of these comes from other people and our tendency to measure ourselves accordingly. In this context Merton's comments about craziness needing other people and how real craziness cannot be sustained in the face of the sanity of trees and mountains make perfect sense and I agree completely. If we interpret his meaning to refer to actual diagnosable mental illness as found in the DSM V then his comments make less perfect sense. For instance, in some forms of mental illness isolation (physical solitude) will exacerbate the illness whereas significant contact with others will mitigate it. Merton's comments would be mistaken in such cases. That said, I can't be sure what Merton's intention actually was; I don't know of another place he spoke in the same way and clarified his terminology.

29 December 2014

Breath of Heaven, Amy Grant

Christmas extends to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Like other pivotal seasons of our faith it gives us a chance to ponder, pray with, and digest the call to enter into the mystery it represents, not only in the lives of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, John and Jesus, et al, but in our own as well. The dimension of reality we know as Word or Spirit, that dimension of mystery which permeates, enlivens, and grounds all of reality is ever dynamic and seeks ways to become more articulate within creation. It seeks to "overshadow" each of us so that we may each truly become God's word made flesh, a new creation, the imago dei we are made to be.

There is an immensity in this call, an incommensurability when measured against our own weakness and personal poverty and we each meet it with a variety of emotions, concerns, and attitudes as we seek to bring our whole selves to it -- just as Mary (or so many of the other participants in the story of Christmas and Christianity) did. Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven" captures all of this so very well!!

27 December 2014

Lay Hermits, In What sense Public or Private Vocations?

[[Dear Sister, isn't it true that a lay vocation is a public vocation in the Church? If that is so then why wouldn't living as a lay hermit be a public vocation too? I am wondering how my lay state can be a public matter but my privately vowed eremitical life cannot. Thank you.]]

Good question. Remember that public in the sense I have used the term, and the sense the Church uses it with regard to vocations,  means the assumption of legal or canonical rights and obligations; these are extended to the person (and accepted by them) through the formal mediation of the Church. The lay state, which is the result of baptism, is indeed a public vocation and state of life with commensurate canonical rights and obligations --- just as is the case with any other state of life in the Church. However, if one wants to be a lay hermit and makes private vows as part of this personal commitment or dedication (one does not have to), this portion of one's life remains private rather than public in the canonical sense; that is, it does not add legal/canonical rights or obligations to those that come from Baptism alone.

In the consecrated state of life such rights and obligations are added to those assumed in Baptism. The same is true with the ordained state. Moreover, a priest making private vows of whatever sort remains in the ordained state and the vows are a private matter despite the public nature of the priest's vocation. Also, when vows are public others have the right (and possibly the obligation) to hold certain expectations of the person in this regard. This is not the case with private vows. Further, public vows of poverty, chastity or obedience as well as being publicly (canonically) bound to a Rule of Life mean that one cannot break these vows with impunity or live contrary to her approved Rule and say, "Oh, it's a private matter! People should mind their own business!" Neither can one do whatever one likes and call it eremitical solitude or healthy spirituality. One is accountable in specific and concrete ways for the public commitments one has made.

While some dimensions of these things will certainly be private in the sense that few will know of them, one's commitment as a whole is not; one has assumed an ecclesial vocation which one is commissioned to live in the name of the church and for that reason the People of God have their own right to be concerned that such commitments are lived faithfully. Serious breaches can have ecclesial consequences which can include dispensation of one's vows and loss of the rights and obligations which are part and parcel of the consecrated state of life. (Consecration per se cannot be undone but one does not remain in the consecrated state of life in such a case.) With private vows none of this is the case. They represent just what they say, namely, a private dedication of self which builds on and may be an important specification of the public vocation and (in your own case) lay state of life. They are an added dimension to one's state of life but they do not change this nor do they become a public matter (a matter of public rights and obligations) themselves. Thus, they can also be dispensed without significant formality nor does their dispensation change the person's state of life.

25 December 2014

Christmas Greetings From New Camaldoli Hermitage

Father Cyprian and Brother Cassian, OSB Cam sing a Christmas greeting to all friends of New Camaldoli Hermitage. Cyprian's message read, [[This is what we offer to our Incarnate Lord, Word-Made-Flesh; it is also what we offer as a gift to you, revered friends. We are always so aware of how much you support us and how much our life means to you. And you mean so much to us too.

We are all well, thanks be to God, as 2014 ends, and we pray the same for you. A thousand blessings on you and all you love, all your dear ones and everything you hold dear. A blessed Christmas and grace and peace on the new year.]] I wanted to pass this on.

Introducing "Coffee With Sister Vassa": Christmas Programs

 A few months ago a friend introduced me to the ROCOR* ryassophore** nun, Sister Vassa Larin and her weekly "coffee break"! The program (Coffee with Sister Vassa) has been a delight --- not only because of Sister's education (She has a PhD in Orthodox Theology -- specialties in historical and/or liturgical theology -- and is a Professor of Liturgical Studies at the Catholic Faculty of the University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria) but because Sister Vassa's sense of humor is wonderful --- and more than a tad understated. (Personally I suspect the ROCOR has a bit of a tiger by the tail with Sister Vassa; her more academic comments on Tradition and the way contemporary perspectives and needs (history) and revealed content (mystery) are interrelated and stand in tension with one another might tend to shake some up!)

But back to the real topic, her "Coffee With Sister Vassa" programs.  Each 10 minute program provides a wealth of information (all bite-sized and accessible to everyone) and finishes with a significant piece of spiritual wisdom.This tends to be sandwiched between stories about her "crew" which skate seamlessly between fact and fantasy recounted with Sister's trademark straight-faced expression; thus Sister Vassa invites us into a new world, a world where we suspend disbelief and simply delight in a bit of profoundly serious stuff seasoned with a pinch of the ridiculous. If you have very little time and can't watch "Coffee With Sister Vassa" look for her briefer "Coffee Break" programs. I hope you will check out more of Sister Vassa's videos on You Tube and become one of the "special group" of regular listeners Sister Vassa calls "Zillions". (For a brief introduction to Sister Vassa's sense of humor, etc, please check out the following video on St Basil the Great.)

* ROCOR stands for Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia
** Ryassophore stands for "robe-bearer" and is the stage of monastic life following novitiate. As I understand it, a ryassophore nun has not yet made vows as would have already been done in the Roman Catholic Church where temporary vows follow novitiate and initiate into the juniorate,  but is tonsured and obligated to the same values nonetheless. She is a not a novice monastic. The next stage is stavrophore or "cross-bearer" and follows after some years as a ryassophore.

24 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

It is hard sometimes to remember that the power of God's love is constantly present, constantly seeking a way to break through and overshadow us and the whole of creation. We can look at ourselves and our world and forget that it is meant to be a Sacrament which is transparent to the Ground of love, meaning, and being we know as God. Tonight we celebrate the birth of a child in whom this Sacramental Mission will be exhaustively accomplished as God comes to us in smallness and ordinariness. The truly wise of the world will bow down before him who is the answer to all they truly seek. Throughout the centuries Hymns will be sung to celebrate this One and his transparency to God. The following is one of those.

All good wishes to those who read this blog. As a gesture of my very best here is a video of one of my favorite Advent-Christmas hymns done by Chanticleer. I hope it gives you joy and invites you to say yes to the God of Grace and Beauty how ever s/he enters your life this day.

Christmas Greetings from the Dominican Sisters in Iraq

The following message is from the Prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Catherine of Sienna and on their behalf. I ask that you remember them this Christmas.

 [[“And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2: 7)

Mary and Joseph are still on their way…in an exhausting and toilsome journey…and Mary is pregnant. When they arrive in Bethlehem, Jesus is born as a stranger in his homeland. He has no place, and no one to rejoice his birth.

On their footsteps, we have set out to start a painful, hard, and bitter journey when we were forced to leave our towns.  We walked, and still walk, worried, tired, and confused. We were displaced and overnight most of us found ourselves homeless, scattered, and unwelcomed.  We were like waves of people filling the streets, humiliated and oppressed; crying for what we have left behind: our beautiful houses, our money, our belongings and most of all our dignity, and our pride.

Jesus is born in an empty gloomy crib…in foreignness. Heaven is praising: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.” (Luke 2: 14)

Where and how are we going to be born in this tough crisis in which we live? 

JESUS IS BORN –this is the Good News! Jesus is born in our life, and set His tent among the tents of displaced people. He is among us, one of us.

We fear not, He is our saviour! We join the Angels and sing with them: Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth… a saviour is born to us. He is the Christ, our LORD. Alleluia. 

Sr Maria Hanna OP
Prioress of Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena -Iraq

22nd of December 2014

22 December 2014

May a Diocese take a "More Private Path" to Consecrating Hermits?

Dear Sister O'Neal, I am confused by something I read online about hermits and private consecrations. You have given the impression that if a Bishop receives a person's vows as a hermit, he will do so under canon 603. You have also said that c 603 is a universal law which replaces any specific diocesan statutes on eremitical life locally. Is it possible for a diocese to decide not to go along with canon 603 but to use private vows instead? What I read is this: [[ I also respect the reasons and desires for those who God wills to have very private consecrations, even if their Bishops have received their vows privately or held by designes [sic, designees] in the Diocese. God and each hermit, and each hermit's Bishop and spiritual guides, ascertain the chosen path, through God's will. . . . My Diocese takes more the private route, and this is not that they do not go along with Church law which provides for a public profession. Their view of hermit life is that of the more private path. I am in this Diocese, and I have no need to move to find one that is otherwise; both forms are valid and credible.]]

There are some inaccuracies and possibly even attempts at misdirection in what you have cited so let me try to clarify the basic choices in front of a diocese and candidates for eremitical life. First, there are four options for such a person: 1) publicly professed and consecrated (canonical) eremitical life in community (semi-eremitism), 2) publicly professed and consecrated (canonical) solitary eremitical life under canon 603, 3) privately dedicated eremitical life whether in a non-canonical community or as a solitary lay hermit, and 4) solitary lay hermit without private vows or dedication.These four options include two public eremitical vocations (one solitary and one communal) and two private eremitical vocations (one with private vows and one without). A diocese per se ONLY deals with public or canonical professions and consecrations. Private acts of dedication do NOT involve the diocese per se.

Given this basic outline, I understand the confusion you experienced. You see, what you quote makes it sound like the Church consecrates hermits and does so either publicly or privately. It seems to be saying there are two routes to consecrated eremitical life in the Church and that dioceses may choose one or the other. But this is simply not the case. If one is consecrated as a hermit (that is, initiated into the consecrated state as a hermit with an ecclesial vocation) it will ALWAYS occur at a public (that is, a canonical) rite of perpetual profession and consecration. If there is no public rite, and the vows are a private act of devotion and dedication, then one does not become a consecrated person in the church nor a religious or religious hermit. One (presumably) remains called by God to live their eremitical life as a lay person witnessing to the richness of lay life (which also specifically and assuredly resonates with the spirit of the desert elders of the 4-6th centuries) in the Church.

A lot of the confusion in the above quoted passage is rooted in the use and misuse of the term "private". While the common meaning has to do with lack of notoriety, when we are speaking of vows as private we mean vows which do not imply the extension of legal (canonical)  rights and obligations to the candidate beyond those of baptism. These would be private vows and a private act of the individual. The Church as such neither approves nor disapproves such actions per se. When we are speaking of a public profession we are referring to vows via which the Church extends additional legal rights and obligations to the candidate which are assumed by her in her profession.  Private vows do NOT involve the extension or assumption of legal rights. Public vows do. There can be lots of notoriety or none at all. This does not change the nature of the profession. Perhaps the following will make some of this clearer. Let's say, for instance, that a diocese wants to profess and consecrate someone in a country where this ecclesial action  could get that person killed or otherwise make them a target for persecution; in such a case, the rite of profession might be held privately (that is, quietly and without notoriety) but it remains a PUBLIC (canonical) RITE of profession and consecration. 

In other words. to speak of public vows is to mean the persons professed become "public persons" in the Church and representatives of the consecrated (and religious) state even if this is lived out in hiddenness. (Hermits do so with the eremitical life.) With private vows or the dedication of self (popularly referred to as consecrating oneself) no new state of life is assumed nor are the correlative legal rights and obligations which are part and parcel of a new state. The reference to "those whom God wishes to have very private consecrations"  confuses public in the sense of notoriety (or that which is contrary to hiddenness) and public in the canonical sense of "assuming public rights and obligations".

Thus a person who claims their diocese wants to use a more private route than canonical (public) profession in an attempt to suggest they choose their consecrated hermits to be more hidden has either got something wrong somewhere or is trying to obscure the difference between lay and consecrated vocations. A diocese wishing to have only lay hermits (that is, no consecrated solitary or diocesan hermits)  may well decide it is unwise to profess anyone at all under canon 603 but this means they simply allow individuals to pursue eremitical life privately and as lay persons. No diocesan approval or permission is implied in such a case. The lay hermit is doing privately what she has every right to do as a Catholic lay person. Similarly, the use of the term "private consecrations" is also mistaken. The proper term is "dedications". If a diocese decides there will be no public professions and consecrations under canon 603, then private dedications which the person makes herself are the only option. These are not consecrations in the sense that public rites of consecration are because with a private dedication one does not enter another stable state of life; again such acts of dedication are an entirely private matter which do not involve the Church in the public mediation of the call; neither do these result in the individual's profession, consecration by God, or any associated assumption of legal rights and obligations --- which are always publicly mediated by the Church.

To summarize: While some dioceses may refuse to use c 603 yet, NO dioceses as such takes "the more private path" because there is no "more private path" for a diocese as such TO take. Either a diocese will profess persons they discern are called to this canonically (publicly) or they will not do so at all. Those who are not admitted to public (canonical) profession may make private vows and live eremitical life privately. Private vows are always the act of an individual acting independently of the diocese per se. It is an important dedication of self but it is one in which the person is not initiated into the consecrated state nor does one's Bishop (or one's spiritual director) choose this for the person or give one permission for this.

19 December 2014

Diocesan Hermits and Episcopal Visitations

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I know you were not subject to the Apostolic Visitation of US Women Religious because you are a contemplative and because you are a hermit but I was wondering, are you subject to visitations? The report on the visitation said this is a normal instrument of governance and major superiors are required to regularly visit those under their jurisdiction. Does this also apply to you?]]

What an interesting couple of questions! I suppose that yes, I am as subject to the requirement as any religious. For instance, c 397.1 says, [[Can. 397 §1. Persons, Catholic institutions, and sacred things and places, which are located within the area of the diocese, are subject to ordinary episcopal visitation.]] Since the Bishop is my legitimate superior there is no doubt he could arrange such a regular visitation any time he desired. Ordinarily in my experience, the Bishop, as a matter of practicality, does not do this with diocesan hermits. (We live alone, so it is not like visiting a house of religious or a parish or something whose members one would never see otherwise. Instead what happens is that about once a year I make an appointment to meet with the Bishop at the chancery and we talk about how I am living my life in various areas; if there are matters of concern --- not usually a problem --- those are communicated to me and possibly to my delegate. She and I, to whatever degree that is appropriate or helpful, will then deal with things and communicate the details to the Bishop.)

Remember, as I have noted before I also have a delegate who serves as a "quasi-superior"on my behalf and on behalf of the Bishop and Diocese. We meet regularly (more frequently than I could meet with the Bishop) and ordinarily she comes here to the hermitage. In this way she keeps her finger on the pulse of my life and helps me to be sure I am living it well. Even so,  I have never been "visited" by the Bishop nor do I tend to consider my delegate's meetings with me here "visitations." Those are, to my mind, an altogether more formal matter --- though while formal, ordinary visitations are also usually truly like the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. The point is that while the Bishop could decide on a formal visitation, in the case of a diocesan hermit there are other more practical ways to achieve the same results and deal with the same concerns. In far flung dioceses it is pastorally and administratively important that a Bishop gets to all the religious houses, parishes, etc, so he really knows his own diocese and those who make it up. The regular episcopal visitation is a significant part of the way this is achieved. Because a diocesan hermit's legitimate superior IS the Bishop he will already tend to know her and see her regularly making a visitation less necessary.

18 December 2014

A few Thoughts on the "Final Report"

So, the Final Report on the Visitation of Apostolic Religious Women in the US has been published, a press conference held, the positive parts of things emphasized --- especially what women religious made of the really awful fact of the Visitation and the terrible assault on their fidelity and lives of generous service it represented. I could not have been more impressed with Mother Clare Millea and the job the visitators did under her direction despite the roots of and stated reason for the Visitation --- at least from the stories I have heard. Neither could I have been more impressed with her presentation yesterday (not least for the solidarity evidenced) nor that of Sister Sharon Holland either. Both were trying their best to focus on the positive, to build bridges, to foster reconciliation. They were, to put it frankly, doing what women religious have been doing or trying to allow God to do in the face of this CICLSAL "action" right along: namely, allow God to bring good from evil, life from death. and meaning from senselessness so that everyone can move forward with their real mission and lives. Moreover, they were doing it together. But despite the concerted and determined effort to put this behind the Church and get on with the business of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed, I wonder if I am the only one who felt dismayed by the disingenuousness of parts of this report?

One example. The body of the report begins: "Visitations are a normal instrument of governance in religious life. Major superiors are required to regularly visit those religious under their jurisdiction as an essential part of their loving service of their brothers and sisters. In addition, the Apostolic See regularly authorizes Apostolic Visitations, which involve the sending of a Visitor or Visitors to evaluate an ecclesiastical entity in order to assist the group in question to improve the way in which it carries out its mission in the life of the Church." Well, yes. This is true as far as it goes. Even so, is anyone under the impression that this visitation was a normal instrument of governance, an act of loving service carried out in a regular (and therefore mutual and anticipated) manner? Of course it was not; it was not "this kind" of visitation! So why begin in this way unless one desires to obscure the facts and, perhaps, justify otherwise unwarranted actions? This visitation was an Apostolic Visitation, one supposedly regularly authorized by the Apostolic See to "evaluate and assist in the improvement of mission". But that was hardly the reason this Visitation was undertaken nor does it do justice to the nature of such visitations in the history of the Church; these are ORDINARILY occasioned by serious problems in and even malfeasance or infidelity within the organization visited.

Similarly, the report speaks of the visitation as a caring, respectful process of support undertaken like the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, a sister-to-sister dialogue. But in the Scriptures both Mary and Elizabeth are uncertain of what is happening, what the "big (Divine) picture" really is. Of course they know that God has intervened in their lives, the Spirit has overshadowed both of them in different ways and the result is new and prophetic life, but what is occurring is also a new thing and the plan of God is still hidden from them. They come together as peers celebrating a mysterious fruitfulness which awes and overjoys them both; they meet as women who TOGETHER will discern and more completely commit to what God is up to in and through them and through the new life each one carries.

While there were moments in which Visitators did indeed learn from the institutes they visited, and while bridges were built between the Sisters whose lives were being examined and those doing the examining as well as between the Sisters themselves, the process was hardly analogous to one between two women (or peers) both of whom were collaboratively seeking the plan of God in everything. Moreover, no one aware of the way in which the Visitation came about can honestly speak of its initiation as motivated by respect or "caring support". Sisters and their missions (along with their commitment to Vatican II and all the difficult and demanding reform undertaken in its name) were questioned, maligned, and condemned.

If the Visitation was truly transformed into more and other than this it was through the fact that 1) the Sisters/Congregations visited refused to allow themselves to be victimized and spoke transparently from and for their own profound faithfulness and integrity while 2) Visitators sought to make of the process (or allowed it to become) something other than the initiators originally envisioned. A third factor is, of course changes in CICLSAL and the Vatican itself which fostered a less authoritarian approach to the matter. So, to some extent the final report is a sign of where we are today; it indicates there might be a commitment to truly DIALOGUE with Sisters BEFORE taking unilateral action to search for evidence to support an already decided verdict of infidelity and betrayal. It surely indicates a kind of peace (or truce) between the Vatican and contemporary women Religious along with a desire to proceed differently from this point on. For this we should be profoundly grateful and celebrate.

Still, as an ending or "resolution" it is inadequate at best. What are we to think of the claims by the instigators and their supporters that Women Religious had essentially gone off the ecclesial rails, that they were more committed to radical feminism than to Christ, that through their rampant secularism they are responsible for the awful decline in vocations and diminishment of many institutes, and so forth? I suppose these matters will be covered in the private letters going to congregations which raised concerns! (The report did devote one or two sentences to this ominous fact.) It was refreshing, of course, to hear this Vatican dicastery plainly admit the huge number of vocations in the 50's and 60's was anomalous or to hear a moderated reference to (the new) cosmology instead of a fearful and theologically unnuanced rant, but what of the accusations made against most congregations of Women Religious as a whole? The supposed "finality" of this report begs the question. Were the accusations (along with all the time, expense, trauma and heartache this "unprecedented" Visitation involved) justified or are abject apologies warranted?

Perhaps today's report and press conference is a beginning point, a place to start. The invitation to do so is present in every paragraph of the report and in the comments of those representing CICLSAL and the leadership organizations of Ministerial Women Religious. Pictures of Pope Francis and Sisters Sharon Holland, Clare Millea, and M Agnes Donovan marking this day image a new tone and direction. Meanwhile, the manifest desire to move forward on behalf of the whole Church is undoubted on all sides. The Gospel imperative to do so is equally clear and compelling. However, if there is ever truly to be dialogue between Women Religious and Vatican dicasteries like that between Elizabeth and Mary, if the Church is truly to move forward from this point, the fact that the report obscures the Visitation's own origins, motivations, implicit and explicit accusations, highhandedness, and the fundamental disrespect which occasioned it is not something we can wisely, prudently, nor in genuine humility or charity, forget or ignore.

15 December 2014

Report on Congregations of US Women Religious

The Vatican's report on US apostolic congregations of women religious was presented from Rome today. The press conference began at 11:30 am on the 16th Roman time. That was 2:30 am here at Stillsong and 5:30 am EST. The actual report can be found at: Final Report on the Visitation to Apostolic US Women Religious. While generally very positive one commentor said there were barbed criticisms therein.

In the press conference itself Mother Mary Clare Millea stressed several times that every religious institute will find things they can improve on and  eschewed any tendency to divide congregations along leadership conference lines. She was visibly moved by the pain the visitation had caused so many Sisters and overall gave a sense of solidarity --- one Sister among other Sisters. Sister Sharon Holland also spoke of the positive experience the visitation became as the visitators approached congregations with an open, sensitive, and listening tone. All were, Holland said, able to regard one another as Sisters (or fellow religious). Sister M Agnes' presentation struck a somewhat different and, I think, lamentable tone as she focused on the "essential elements of religious life" and spoke of the hope for the future of religious life CMSWR congregations represent. While it was understandable and appropriate she would speak of the CMSWR experience of the Visitation, the remainder of her comments and their entire thrust struck me as unnecessarily competitive, self-serving, and divisive.

14 December 2014

The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me Because the Lord has Anointed Me

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

Gaudete Sunday is always a wonderful experience at my parish. Not only had 'our' always wonderful and entirely irrepressible  Father Bill Auth, osfs, returned to us briefly after months of his Mayan mission in Mexico, but after the homily we celebrated the Sacrament of Anointing of the sick with the entire community --- just as we do each year at this time. Almost 60 persons came forward at the 9:30 Mass alone! It was significant then that the first reading began with the above passage from Isaiah and the reminder that as Christians we are anointed so that we might bring the Good News to the poor, heal the broken hearted and empower freedom for/in those in bondage or some form of imprisonment. It all reminded me that in my own life I have associated the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick with vocational anointing since reading Prophetic Anointing by Jake (James) Emperor back in the early 1980's. From that book I began to imagine that perhaps chronic illness was a vocation to be sick (and essentially well!) within the Church.

I never believed that God willed chronic illness, of course, but I did believe that those who are chronically ill within the Church can proclaim the Gospel with their lives, and can do so with a special vividness and poignancy. We who have been anointed by God (both in Baptism, Confirmation, and in the Sacrament of the Sick) and made essentially well by God in spite of the chronic illness we live with daily proclaim the freedom and joy of such a life to others who are similarly afflicted. Today during this season of new beginnings, on the day especially celebrating the new beginnings which I personally link to chronic illness and the healing grace of God symbolized in and mediated by anointing, I wanted to repost the article that signaled the beginning of my thoughts in this. They were the beginning of my serious internalization of the eremitical vocation and the beginning of the profound happiness and wholeness (as well as the yearning for greater wholeness) I celebrated today, 28 years later, with the Sacrament of Anointing.

(First published in Review For Religious @ 1986. Reprints available in Best of the Review #8, Dwelling in the House of the Lord, Catholic Laity and Spiritual Tradition, or through Ravensbread, Newsletter for hermits) Update, Copies may be obtained from RFR archives.

While applauding the end of a long period of narcissistic privatism in the church, Thomas Merton in his posthumously published, Contemplation in a World of Action makes an important case for the eremitism (that is, the lifestyle of anchorites and hermits) as a significant monastic lifestyle. Almost twelve years later in the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law, the Church makes room explicitly for the inclusion of "nonmonastic" (that is, not associated with monasteries per se) forms of eremitism through canon 603, which outlines a life "in which Christian faithful withdraw further from the world and devote their lives to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through assiduous prayer and penance." Despite this attention, this little-known and mostly ill-regarded vocation has been ignored for far too long, and it is time to ask what vision Thomas Merton, perhaps the best-known of contemporary hermits, had of the eremitical life, and what vision others have of the nature and significance of this vocation in a contemporary church. In particular, with regard to this latter vision, I would like to explore the idea that the chronically ill and disabled may represent a specific instance of the eremitic life today.

At a time when religious and consecrated persons are described within their communities and the church as Poets, Prophets, and Pragmatists, the solitary vocation has achieved new vigor and significance. In some senses the eremitic vocation has always served to challenge society and the institutional church. Always hermits find themselves on the margin of society. Always they live at extremities which, whether gently or harshly, confront and challenge others in the mainstream of things. Unfortunately, the extreme marginal position has not always been one of marked sanity. Often hermits have justifiably earned and borne the label of lunatic, eccentric, rebel, heretic, or fanatic. But truly, whether the individual hermit functions as a prophet or as poet, the vocation is an eminently pragmatic one marked by sanity and profound sense, and is often possessed of a deep and significant conservatism. In fact, the vocation of the hermit today is seen by some as preeminently a vocation of healing, wholeness, and essential well-being in a society characterized by the sickness and disorder of alienation and disaffection.

Both theoretically and practically Merton has prepared the way for this understanding, while others, mostly in the Anglican confession, have confirmed it in their own living. Contemporary hermits live on the margins of society, but they neither remain on nor belong to its periphery. Instead, through simple and uncomplicated lives of prayer and penance, lives essentially free from the "myths and fixations" (Merton) imposed by and inordinately artificial society, they occupy a central role in calling a fragmented and alienated world back to truly human values and life. Above all, it is eremitism's characteristic and conservative witness to wholeness and spiritual sanity (sanctity) which is so very vital to a contemporary church and society.

Solitude is, after all, the most universal of vocations, and a specifically eremitic vocation to solitude serves to remind us of its basic importance in the life of every person, not only as existential predicament, but, as Christian value, challenge, and call. All of us struggle to maintain an appropriate tension between independence and committedness to others which is characteristic of truly human solitude. At the same time, all of us are, in some way, part of the societal problem of alienation, whether we are members of the affluent who contribute materially to the alienation of the poor even while struggling perhaps to do otherwise, or whether we are members of the impoverished who are consigned to what Merton refers to as "the tragically unnatural solitudes" of city slums and ghettos. It is to the church in and of this society that the hermit speaks as prophetic witness. In fact, it is as prophetic witness that the contemporary hermit is part of the answer to society's problems, and it is to that answer that we now turn.

Two dominant scriptural themes are absolutely central to the eremitic vocation. The first is that of wilderness, and the second, and related motif, is that of pilgrimage or sojourn. Together these make up the desert spirituality that is characteristic of eremitism, and constitute the major elements of the powerful criticism of the world of which it is a part. Additionally, in a world which is truly more characteristically "rite of passage" than anything else, these two themes and the life of religious poverty and consecrated celibacy which they attend provide a deeply apologetic spirituality which is an effective answer to lives marked and marred by the affectation, artificiality, estrangement, futility, and emptiness of our contemporary consumerist society. Perceptively, the church today recognizes that she is made up of a "pilgrim people." Hermits are quite simply individuals who choose to stand on the edge of society as persons with no fixed place and witness to this identity with absolutely no resources but those they find within themselves and those they receive through the grace of God. Further, they attest to the fact that these elements alone are indeed sufficient for a genuinely rich and meaningful life. Above all, in a world whose central value seems to be acquisitiveness, whether of goods, status, or of persons, the hermit lives and affirms the intrinsic wholeness and humanity of a life that says, "God is enough."

Even the hermitage itself testifies to the eminent sanity of the hermit’s vocation. As Merton observed, the first function of the contemporary hermitage is “to relax and heal and to smooth out one’s distortions and inhumanities.” This is so, he contends, because the mission of the solitary in the world is, “first the full recovery of man’s natural and human measure.” He continues, “Not that the solitary merely recalls the rest of men to some impossible Eden. [Rather] he reminds them of what is theirs to use if they can manage to extricate themselves from the web of myths and fixations which a highly artificial society has imposed on them.” Above all, as Merton concludes, “the Christian solitary today should bear witness to the fact that certain basic claims about solitude and peace are in fact true, [for] in doing this, [they] will restore people’s confidence first in their own humanity and beyond that in God’s grace.” The hermitage represents for the individual and society that place where the hermit “can create a new pattern which will fulfill (her) special needs for growth. . .and confront the triple specters of ”boredom, futility, and unfulfillment, which so terrify the modern American.”

One group of people are prepared better than most to assume this prophetic role in our world,and I think may represent a long-disregarded instance of the eremitic call to solitude. These persons are members of the chronically ill and disabled, and in fact the prophetic witness they are prepared to give is far more radical than that already suggested. The idea of a vocation to illness is a relatively new one, stemming as it does from renewed reflection on the meaning of illness and the place of the sacrament of anointing in the life of the church. But in fact the idea that the ill might be called to solitude rather than the cenobium dates back at least to the Council of Vannes (463) in a phrase reading "propter infirmitatis necessitatem." If no more than a suggestion, there is at least a similarity between this older notion and the one I am presenting here. The difference, however, stems from the fact that, far from suggesting a somehow inferior cenobitic religious life which must be accommodated by extraordinary provisions for solitude, I believe the call to chronic illness is itself, at least for some, an eremitic vocation to "being sick within the church" as a solitary whose witness value is potentially more profound because such a person is generally more severely tyrannized by our capitalistic and materialistic world.

In the first place, the chronically ill, whose physical solitude is not so much clearly chosen as it is accepted, testify to the poverty of images of human wellness and wealth that are based upon the productivity of the individual in society. They are able to clearly challenge such images and testify further to the dual truth of the human being's poverty and genuine human possibilities. Humanity possesses not only great richness, but an innate poverty as well, which is both ineluctable and inescapable --- a poverty in the face of which one must either find that God is enough or despair. It is a poverty that cannot be changed by a life of busy productivity or by any infusion of accomplishment, and it is a poverty that points to the essentially paradoxical "unworthwhileness" and simultaneous infinite value of the human life. The chronically ill and disabled live this "poverty of worthwhileness" and yet witness to the fact that their lives are of immeasurable value not because of "who" they are (Status) or what they do, but because God himself regards them as precious.

In the second place, the chronically ill person who accepts his or her illness as a vocation to solitude is capable of proclaiming to the world that human sinfulness (existential brokenness and alienation) can and will be overcome by the powerful and loving grace of God. Once again this is a radical witness to the simple fact of divine sufficiency, and it is a witness that is sharpened by the reintegration achieved in the recontextualization of one's illness.

In this recontextualization, illness assumes its rightful position as rite of passage, which, although difficult, need be neither devastating nor meaningless, and it appears clearly as a liminal (or boundary) experience which testifies to transcendence. In accepting this as a call to solitude, the chronically ill person is freed from the false sense of self provided by society, and, in the wilderness of the hermitage, assumes the identity which God himself individually bestows. And finally, the chronically ill solitary says clearly that every person, at whatever stage in his or her own life, can do the same thing --- a task and challenge which eventually eludes none of us.

Today the church has moved to appropriate more completely a lifestyle that has been part of her life since the 3rd century, and one which is rooted in her Old Testament ancestry. It is my hope that those doing spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy, and so forth, will familiarize themselves further with the spirituality which undergirds this significant way of life, and, whether dealing with the chronically ill or not, maintain an attitude of openness and even of encouragement to their clients' exploration of eremitism as a possible vocation. This is particularly true with regard to those whose vocation "to be sick within the church" may represent a vocation to eremitical solitude. As Merton concludes, in a society fraught with dishonesty and exploitation of human integrity, the Christian solitary stands on the margin and, [[in his prayer and silence, explores the existential depths and possibilities of his own life by entering the mystery of Christ's prayer and temptation in the desert, Christ's nights alone on the mountain, Christ's agony in the garden, Christ's Transfiguration and Ascension. This is a dramatic way of saying that the Christian solitary is left alone with God to fight out the question of who he really is, to get rid of the impersonation, if any, that has followed him to the woods.]]

Breaking away from the exorbitant claims and empty promises of contemporary society is crucial for each of us. The solitary, and especially the chronically ill solitary, fulfills this challenge with special vividness.

13 December 2014

Eremitical Life as a Life of Vigil (Reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

12 December 2014

Our Lady of Guadalupe: God is the One who Lifts up the Lowly

Fifty years ago at Vatican II the messiest, most passionate, and often "dirtiest" fighting to occur during the council took place during discussions of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Out of nearly 2400 bishops the fight was divided almost exactly evenly between two factions, those nicknamed the maximalists and those nicknamed the minimalists. Both factions were concerned with honoring the greatness of Mary in our faith but their strategies in this were very different from one another. The maximalists wanted the council to declare Mary Mediatrix of all Graces and to proclaim this as a new dogma in the Church --- never mind that the thrust of the Council was not toward the definition of new dogmas. They wanted the council to write a separate document on Mary, one which effectively made her superior to the Church.

The minimalists also wanted to honor Mary, but they wanted to do so by speaking of her within the document on the Church. They desired a more Scriptural approach to the person and place of Mary which honored the dogmatic truth that Christ is the One unique Mediator between God and mankind. The Church would be spoken of as Mother and Virgin, for instance, and Mary would be seen as a type of the Church.

The minimalist position won the day (had only 20 Bishops voted differently it would have been another matter) and so, in Lumen Gentium after the Church Fathers wrote about the Mystery of the Church, Church as People of God, the hierarchical nature of the Church, the Laity, the universal call to holiness, Religious, and the Church as a Pilgrim people, they wrote eloquently about Our Lady in chapter VIII. Mary is highly honored in this Constitution --- as it says in today's responsorial psalm, she is, after all, "the highest honor of our race", but for this very reason the Church Fathers spoke of her clearly as  within the Church, within the Communion of Saints, within the Pilgrim People of God, not as a rival to Christ or part of the Godhead, but as one who serves God in Christ as a model of faithfulness.

It is always difficult, I think, to believe and honor the Christmas truth we are preparing during Advent to celebrate, namely, that our God is most fully revealed to us in the ordinary things of life. We are a Sacramental faith rooted in the God who, for instance, comes to us himself in bread and wine, cleanses and recreates us entirely with water,  and strengthens and heals us with oil. Especially at this time of the liturgical year we are challenged to remember and celebrate the God who turns a human face to us, who comes to us in weakness, lowliness and even a kind of dependence on the "yes" we are invited to say, the One who is made most fully real and exhaustively known in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves to see the very face of God in the poor, the broken, the helpless, and those without status of any kind. After all, that is what the Christmas Feast of the Nativity is all about.

I think this is one of the lessons today's Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe teaches most vividly. We all know the more superficial story. Briefly, in 1531 Juan Diego, an Indian Christian encountered a beautiful Lady on the hill of Tepeyac; she told him to ask the Bishop to build a church there. The Bishop refused and required a sign of the authenticity of Juan Diego's vision. Diego returned home to find his uncle dying. He set out again to fetch a doctor and avoided the hill where he had first met the woman and went around it instead --- he did not want to be distracted from his mission! But the Lady came down to him, heard his story about his uncle, reassured him his uncle would be well, and told him then to go to the top of the hill and pick the flowers he found there. Diego did so, gathered them in his tilma or mantle, and went again to the Bishop. Juan poured out his story to him and he also poured the flowers out onto the floor. Only then did he and the Bishop see a miraculous image of the Lady of Tepeyac hill there on the tilma itself.

But there was a deeper story. Remember that Juan Diego's people were an essen-tially subjugated people. The faith they were forced to adopt by missionaries was geared toward the salvation of souls but not to what we would recognize as the redemption of persons or the conversion and transformation of oppressive structures and institutions. It was more a faith enforced by fear than love, one whose whose central figure was a man crucified because an infinitely offended God purportedly willed it in payment for our sins. Meanwhile the symbols of that faith, its central figures, leaders and saints, were visibly European; they spoke and were worshipped in European languages, were dressed in European clothes, were portrayed with European features, etc. At best it was hard to relate to; it's loving God was apparently contradictory and remote. At worst it was incomprehensible and dehumanizing. Moreover, with the "evangelizers" who had forcibly deprived the Indians of their own gods and religion came diseases the Indians had never experienced. They were dying of plagues formerly unknown to them, working as slaves for the institutional and patriarchal  Church, and had been deprived of the human dignity they had formerly known.

It was into this situation that Mary directly entered when she appeared on Tepeyak hill, the center of the indigenous peoples' worship of the goddess Tonantzin, the "goddess of sustenance". The image of the Lady was remarkable in so many ways. The fact of it, of course, was a marvel (as were the healing of Diego's uncle, the December roses Diego picked and poured out onto the Bishop's floor or the creation and persistence of her image on Diego's tilma), but even more so was the fact that she had the face of a mixed race (Indian or Mestiza) woman, spoke in Diego's own language, was pregnant, and was dressed in native dress. And here was the greatest miracle associated with OL of Guadalupe: in every way through this appearance the grace of God gave dignity to the Indian people. They were no longer third or fourth class people but persons who could truly believe they genuinely imaged the Christian God. The appearance was the beginning of a new Church in the Americas, no longer a merely European Church, but one where Mary's Magnificat was re-enacted so that ALL were called to truly image God and proclaim the Gospel. One commentator wrote that, [[Juan Diego and millions after him are transformed from crushed, self-defacing and silenced persons into confident, self-assured and joyful messengers and artisans of God's plan for America.]] (Virgilio Elizondo, Guadalupe and the New Evangelization)

Here too then, in the truly unexpected and even unacceptable place, our God turns a human face to those seeking him. He comes to us in weakness and lowliness as one of the truly marginalized. In the process we see clearly once again the God of Jesus Christ who scatters the proud in their conceit, unseats the mighty from their positions of power, and lifts up the lowly. During this season of Advent Our Lady of Guadalupe calls us especially to be watchful. God is working to do this new and powerful thing among us --- just as he did in the 1st Century, just as he did in the 16th, just as he always does when we give him our own fiat.

09 December 2014

Eremitical Life as Prophetic: Risking being Fools for Christ

[[Hi Sister, in your post on the hermit life as prophetic you said that the picture of the Carthusian hermit would be absurd if either God did not exist or if God were not a "constitutive part" of our very being but I wasn't sure I got what you were saying. Could you explain some more? Also I wondered if part of being prophetic is being "countercultural"? Does it mean risking being thought of as "absurd" or a "fool for Christ"? Are people we think of as fools for Christ prophetic?]]

When I made that parenthetical comment in Hermit Life as Prophetic, what I was thinking was this was a terrific picture symbolizing the heart of the hermit life. The hermit is praying at a naked prayer desk. He is not reading, studying, relaxing (all ways of justifying solitude), ministering to the poor, preaching, teaching, nursing, nor is he otherwise engaged in active ministry. His life is given over not to the cultivation of self, nor to some vague notion of peace and quiet, nor to a recognizable commitment to individualism. He has come away, embraced eremitical anachoresis (withdrawal) in order to seek God and to come to fullness of life --- a fullness we call holiness. He has relinquished an ordinary life of ordinary commitment (or refusal thereof), turned from family and friends in a significant though not absolute way, set aside any number of personal gifts and talents to embrace the extraordinary commitment of the solitary life of prayer and penance in a Charterhouse structured according to medieval values and customs. Moreover, he has done this first and foremost for God's own sake.

Even for those who believe in God such a choice can seem absurd or a relative waste. (This might be especially true for those who are committed to apostolic life and active ministry.) For those who believe there is no such reality as God (for atheism is indeed a religious belief similar to theism) such a life would be completely absurd, empty of meaning, and, perhaps then, ludicrous. Similarly, for those who believe God is merely remote, external to ourselves, or something other than the very ground and source of being and meaning within and underlying the whole of creation (including our own hearts where we bear witness to that reality), a picture symbolizing not only praying regularly but committing to a life of becoming God's own prayer might be seen as futile, a waste, and absurd. In today's society we might tolerantly allow for this in the name of individual liberty, "So long as s/he doesn't hurt anyone, s/he can do whatever she pleases," but at the root of such an attitude is a view of humanity that suggests that a life, however lived, is of no ultimate worth; anything the person does is acceptable for precisely this reason. A hermit's life in such a case is no more absurd or futile than anyone else's, it is simply more evidently so.

So, the hermit serves in a prophetic way to affirm the foundational relationship between the human person and God. She does so vividly and lives with an incredible clarity the risk Paul spoke of when he said, "If Jesus has not been raised from the dead" --- if, that is, our God does not exist and is not the ground and source of being and meaning who, in the Christ Event, ultimately triumphs over death and senselessness --- "then we are the greatest fools of all." Yes, this is a counter cultural stance. We place our trust in the God who shows us who God is and who we are in the events of the cross. We risk wasting our lives in a fruitless fantasy existence rooted in a non-existent or remote and ultimately powerless or unloving God in the name of the Gospel of the God of Jesus Christ. We embrace the scandal and foolishness of the cross as our greatest hope and norm while we reject so much of what goes on in the name of "success" or "significance" or "wisdom" today. For us, as for Paul, the Cross is the foolishness of God which is wiser than human wisdom. In this sense hermits are very much "fools for Christ."

I think the category "fool for Christ" or "holy foolishness" (what Catherine De Hueck made well known in her book of the same name as "Urodivoi") absolutely refers to a prophetic stance. Such persons not only serve as gadflies to poke fun at our this-worldly pretensions and obsessions as well as taking the wrath and ridicule of this world onto themselves to unmask it, but when truly authentic (and not just run of the mill fools or masochistic nutcases), they proclaim the Word of God and/or Gospel of God in Christ into the present situation with a peculiarly arresting and troubling power. Quintessentially they are truth tellers. That is what prophets always are and do. In the OT it is the very definition of the word. Prophets speak the Word of God into the present situation and do so in a way where the wisdom and power (the Divine foolishness and weakness) of that Word can both 'judge' and transform reality by making it more true and whole.

08 December 2014

Seeking in Solitude: New Monograph on Eremitical Life

There is a new book out focusing on selected forms of Roman Catholic eremitical life which are contributing to the development of eremitical life today. Among these Bernadette McNary-Zak treats Camaldolese, American Carthusian, Cistercian, and Diocesan or canon 603 eremitical life.

While Seeking in Solitude is essentially concerned with documenting important dimensions of the resurgence of the phenomenon of eremitical life since Vatican II and the Revised Code of Canon Law, it does an especially fine job of dealing with the ecclesial dynamic of the eremitical vocation generally and distinguishing eremitical solitude from mere isolation, as well as treating the triple good or triple advantage of the Camaldolese charism. From my own perspective the single significant limitation of the book is the choice of the Hermits of Bethlehem (Paterson) as a typical expression of c 603 life. At the very least it seems to me that McNary-Zak should have noted that this is actually an exceptional case; while lauras which do not rise to the level of religious communities are possible and are assuredly one way of protecting both solitude and communion, canon 603 is meant to protect, nurture, and govern solitary eremitical life; thus it is unfortunate that solitary diocesan hermits were not also treated in a way which balanced the picture given.

One of the later topics covered in the book which may be new to some is that of eremitical space and the conscious structuring of that sacred space which is so central to contemplative life. In this I think McNary-Zak's otherwise intriguing analysis could have benefited from references to urban hermits (whose creative contributions in this regard she, unfortunately, largely passes over in silence); even so this is an important discussion with far reaching implications for contemporary culture and spirituality for which readers will be grateful. Readers of this blog will also find much that is familiar in the book, especially with regard to the way in which the dialectic of freedom and ecclesial responsibility/expectations as well as the synthesis of the ancient and the contemporary are negotiated and faithfully embodied in the life of the Roman Catholic hermit today. I definitely recommend it.

Hermit Life as Prophetic

[[Hi Sister O'Neal, given that Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter does not even mention canonical hermits and exhorts religious to think of the distinctive characteristic of religious life as prophecy, how does this fit in with your own vocation? I admit I have a very hard time thinking of hermit life as prophetic! It seems selfish and very old-fashioned to me. Prophets always seemed more exciting and into a freshness and newness that challenged those they came to. But hermits sit in their cells and pray. How can that be considered prophetic?]]

This is truly a great set of questions! I am not sure I can do them justice, in fact, but I also look forward to trying. First, though Francis did not mention diocesan hermits explicitly, they are included in the category of consecrated persons to whom the letter is mainly directed. Also, Francis did speak specifically to contemplatives and made suggestions to them regarding ways they could be a prophetic presence in our world. Even so, I believe that my own vocation is profoundly prophetic and I have felt this way for at least the past 25 years or so, and most especially over the past 10 years or so. The key for me is that this vocation is a way of proclaiming the truth, challenge, and promise of the Gospel in and for a world which, at every point, stands for something else entirely.

For instance, my vocation says that we are never truly alone and that God is a constitutive part of our very being. (Consider what a complete absurdity the above picture symbolizing the life of the hermit would represent if neither part of this assertion were true!) We are dialogical events at our very heart and this means that our basic gift and task is our humanity. No matter what else goes on in our lives, no matter what other successes and failures touch or characterize us, this basic charism and challenge is still ours and always something we can, with the grace of God, fulfill. Isn't that the real success of Jesus on the Cross? Namely, that in the midst of abject failure and absolute degradation Jesus remained true to the dialogical reality he was, continued to depend totally on God to make his life (and his failure) meaningful, and remained wholly open to the power of Love-in-Act to transform the world --- even (or especially) the godless realms of sin and death which so condition it at every point. This is indeed a prophetic word our world needs to hear and it is one, I think, hermits can proclaim with their lives precisely because in most every way our world measures success, personal significance, or meaningfulness, the hermit fails to measure up.

Similarly then, the eremitical vocation therefore says that solitude is not the same as isolation. In a world characterized by isolation and, to a tremendous degree, the fear that life is essentially meaningless, especially when we find ourselves alone (Merton used to speak about the terror of boredom and futility), my vocation speaks directly to that and says, "Not so!" In a world where folks seem to feel like exiles and be in search of relationships which allow them to be loved and to feel as though they belong, the hermit reminds us that ultimately speaking, that is beyond any limit or conditioning element, God loves us, holds us to be infinitely precious, and transforms us into persons who CAN love others as well as ourselves. We say with our lives of eremitical solitude that belonging begins with this fundamental relationship and from there extends to family, Church, world at large, and even cosmos. Because we are at home with God and with ourselves, we know that we can be at and make our home anywhere; we can recognize and empathize with others who may feel or be alienated and call them brother or sister precisely because we are in communion with God. One of the reasons I stress the ecclesial nature of the consecrated eremitical vocation in the church is precisely because this stands in such stark and prophetic contrast to more worldly versions of eremitical life which are essentially individualistic and estranged.

Exile is a central category for understanding the eremitical life. In fact, hermits voluntarily embrace exile, a life of distinct alienness and marginality precisely so they can witness to the more profound belonging that characterizes every life in union with God. This dynamic of exile and more profound belonging seems to me to be quintessentially typical of the prophetic life. And of course this is important because life as we know it is a pilgrimage in which we are each exiles to greater and lesser degrees. Whether it is through experiences of acute or chronic illness, betrayal or bereavement, failures in work or studies, loss of friendships or any of the 1000's of things which set us apart from others every day of our lives including, sometimes, our prayer and yearning for God, we know deep down that we are not truly at home and that we are made for something else, something more, something which completes us and gives us (and the rest of creation) rest. Through her voluntary exile and all that characterizes it the hermit witnesses to this something more and to the completion and rest that is ours in God alone. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a prophetic word the world needs to hear.

At the foundation of all of this is the hermit's prayer and penance which she undertakes for God's own sake. God wills to be the answer to the question we are, the completion of a love which seeks fulfillment in another, the rest which comes of truly being heard --- and therefore, truly being precious to and part of God's very life. God seeks through us to transform and bring to completion the creation we are and in which we now live. He seeks to make of it a new creation where heaven and earth entirely interpenetrate one another; He seeks, in other words, to be all in all. If we are aware of the pain, isolation, desperate search for meaning, and struggle of those around us, we must also be aware that our God has revealed himself to us as Emmanuel, God-with-us, but is prevented from realizing this goal at every turn. While Christ was God's unique counterpart, God also seeks in each of us a counterpart to receive and return his love so that he might be Emmanuel more extensively. A hermit gives her life so that she might truly be there for God in at least this small way. She does so so in union with Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit so that one day, there will be a new heaven and new earth whose heart is life in communion-with-God. It seems to me this is and has always been the very essence of the prophet's work and commission.

By the way, your comments on prophets and the freshness, newness, and excitement of the prophet's life deserve some comment too but, unfortunately, I have to stop here. For now let me say that so long as God --- who is always new (God could not be eternal otherwise) --- is at the center of our lives, the freshness, newness and excitement you mentioned will be there too. While we might not commonly associate these words with contemplative lives of prayer and penance, this is the reason such persons are so essentially happy and sort of "unstoppable" if you know what I mean. Contemplative life and (I am bound to say) eremitical life in particular is an adventure --- no doubt about it! I suspect that people are in search of just such an adventure and, as I have already written in Always Beginners, the reason we almost compulsively seek the newest gadget, car, computer, smart phone, or become shopaholics and the like is because most often we have substituted the quest for the novel (Gk. nova, new in time) for that which is always qualitatively new in our lives (Gk. kainotes, kainos), namely a relationship with the creator God in whom all newness is rooted, a communion with that Love-in-Act who makes all things new. In this too hermits (and anyone who makes a vow or embraces the value of evangelical poverty) serve as a prophetic presence and speak a prophetic word to our world.

Please note that I have written about all of these things in the past so I am aware that much of this post is repetitive; I have simply not tended to link them to the word prophetic so, thank you (along with Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter) for providing the opportunity to do that.

04 December 2014

Second Week of "The Sisterhood"

Well, I must say, The Sisterhood continues to surprise in a favorable way. The Sisters themselves continue to be the real deal and the young women who have come for this "come and see" visit (an entirely informal step in a discernment process) are emerging as more than cookie cutter or stereotypical characters --- though in the main they are (unfortunately) very much products of the culture. It is this basic dynamic which seems to me to continue to drive the entire show: women religious live a mature and counter cultural life, one which is essentially generous and other-focused (first on Christ and then all those precious to Christ) and have taken in young women who are self-centered, immature, individualistic (as is our culture), and yet, who seem to desire to give themselves to Christ. The drama involved stems from the clash of these two worlds, and from the Sisters' ministry to those often-wounded women who have come to them purportedly "discerning" religious life.

Tuesday night's program was surprising because most of the women showed some unexpected depth. Both Stacey and Francesca struggled emotionally with the demands of the Sisters' apostolate though Stacey's struggle could be more easily transformed into the quieter and deep empathy and compassion required for pastoral ministry. Francesca has some personal healing to do first. Sister Peter ministered to her and it was refreshing to see her ask for and receive space from the camera persons so she could  deal privately with Francesca's needs. The glimpse into what Sisters do everyday in ministry and the way they live their lives is gratifying; much of what is shown of these things is done merely by implication but evenso I think folks are getting a good sense of what the day in and day out lives of religious are about, even with the great diversity that exists from institute to institute. One of the important lessons in all of this had to do with instruction on "employments" or chores (what many Sisters call "charges"). While Christie is bemoaning the fact that she "showed up and Jesus didn't" (more about that in a moment) the lesson being taught in doing daily tasks is "we expect Sisters to bring Jesus with them into their work!"

Sister Cyril Methodius, O Carm.
Christie's, perhaps sincere, but overly-romanticized and eroticized version of Jesus as flirting Bridegroom or spouse is not serving her well in a situation where one is expected to come to know and live Christ's love in more ordinary ways. It was a bit surprising to hear her suggest that Christ was not present or could not be found here in this convent. Even those Sisters who very specifically resonate with the spousal mysticism of Christ know full well that the everyday experience of Christ's presence and love is more mundane, reveals itself (for instance) in the Words of Scripture or the face of our neighbor rather than in erotically charged experiences like those Christie describes. We know on a profound level rooted in trust that he is present with us right here and right now. One cannot survive on an emotional bond alone nor is a specifically Charismatic prayer life enough to sustain us day in and day out. Neither is it always possible to find a time and place for solitary prayer (keenly aware of the irony now, I say this as one who got in trouble most often in initial formation for "being alone too much"), but when thirty-eight religious women drive a distance to share a last bit of community fun in honor of one's soon-to-occur departure, even a hermit like myself knows it is time to set solitary prayer or journaling aside. Here was one more place Sister Cyril's frustrated, "Get a grip! It's not all about you!" was also appropriate. So was St Teresa's classic observation that God is found amongst the pots and pans, or St Benedict's stress on seeking God in the ordinary.

Claire was definitely the character that got on my last nerve this week. Last week she was commenting on peoples' prayer lives and so forth and I noted that that made me wince, but this week she became more explicitly judgmental and open about what she thought to be her own "superiority" and "greater maturity". When Claire went to Sister Cyril to snitch on others while purportedly not knowing how to "think about" what offended her and couching stuff in the language of concern for these others, I found myself reminded of someone who had been in my own class in initial formation. Passive aggression doesn't work well in religious life and snitching under the pretense of caring is definitely not accepted. In any case Sister Cyril saw clearly what Claire was doing and not only allowed her to go through the process of explaining a highly sexually provocative dance move ("twerking" --- a new word for Cyril and for myself) without rescuing her from the task, but commented that as we grow in holiness we have to be very careful of judgmentalism. Her related comment that we must not allow a matter of conscience to become bias was excellent but I would argue a bit with Cyril on this one and say that when there is true growth in holiness judgmentalism, pretense, and a sense of superiority all go by the wayside; for sure though that doesn't happen right away. In any case, she handled the situation magnificently and folded several important lessons into a series of simple observations that began essentially, "What I think is not important; it is what you think that is important," and again, "Well, what I try to do is. . ."

One of the scenes which was most troubling was watching the girls deal with their tension from the day's exposure to the Sisters' apostolate among the elderly and dying by drinking and acting out. Let me be clear, these girls are not religious or anywhere near being religious. Further, religious do have drinks before dinner or wine with dinner, especially on special occasions, but we do not generally use drinking as an occasion of acting out nor of numbing emotions. This was one of the points made by implication in the program. At the end of the girls' stay at the Carmelite Motherhouse they were surprised by the entire community of Sisters joining them for ice cream at "Holy Cow Ice Cream" and were reminded that Sisters work hard, pray hard, but they also play hard. It is an intense life, but it is also balanced and healthy with prayer at the center of everything; numbing oneself to its challenges or acting out in the ways the girls felt were entirely normal are not a part of it.

Next episode the girls move to another convent with a different congregation of Sisters. I am personally pleased to have gotten a glimpse of these Carmelites and especially pleased at the intelligence and wisdom they showed. Sister Peter was terrific in working with Francesca and explaining about what memory is accessible when serious impairment is present as well. I am also grateful the entire community was protected from disruption during most of their everyday life. No novices or professed Sisters who were not directly engaged with the girls were used in the programming or filmed in their usual activities with the exception of the chapel scenes at the beginning and the end of the girls' stay. (In this regard I must say I felt more than a bit sorry for the novice who was paired in the pew with Christie and might have been distracted by the charismatic praying in tongues (?) and other gestures which Christie insisted on using during adoration.)

Sister Maria Therese, O Carm.
I continue to wonder how typical of young women entering religious life these days these girls are. I know that most would not pass the usual screening procedures and would at least be asked to wait. One cloistered nun said, however, that this is pretty typical of the kinds of girls who show up to the parlor for their initial contact with the community. What comes across very clearly is that the actual formation of a young (or older) woman into a religious or monastic is an intense and lengthy process. There are no short cuts. Here I recall again Sister Maria Therese's comment that she has been a Carmelite for thirty-four years and is "still trying". Transformation into a Religious who truly embodies a particular charism (like that of Teresa of Avila and the Carmelites, Francis and the Franciscans, or Romuald and the Camaldolese) is something that takes real time, commitment, and perseverance --- all of which are countercultural values in a world where relationships are self-serving and do not last, credentials can be bought, and life achievements must occur quickly and easily --- (cf Heald college's typical approach to education here: "Get in, get out, get ahead!").

My general impression at the end of two weeks? Well done Sisters! You are doing us all proud! I wonder if several of you shouldn't be getting a religious  equivalent of purple hearts or medals of valor!? Maybe all contemporary formation personnel should! It is demanding, intense, critically responsible work and this series has given a glimpse of what that means. Interestingly, I think that comes through even as questions remain for me regarding how real these "discerners" truly are; especially I wonder still how strictly cast they are each for a specific "character" approaching religious life and how cooperative each girl is in fostering this vs how truly herself she is being.