27 January 2014

God as Master Storyteller: Picking up the Narrative Threads of an Unfinished and Broken World. . .

Reading through the book of 1 Samuel has left me feeling a bit like Alice falling through the rabbit hole. I mean really! There are stories of lies and deception, murderous intent, jealousy, ambiguous motives, secret anointings, etc., and so long as these help David achieve Kingship they are identified as the will of God! David, as much as we might like to idealize him as a beautiful young shepherd, gifted musician, healer, and noble King, and as often as the Scriptures tell us he has a "good heart," also has some pretty dark aspects to him and sometimes I find him profoundly unlikeable! But somehow all of this, including the machinations, deceptions, lying, etc, "is the will of God." How can this be??? Do the ends justify the means? Do we simply accuse Israel of a primitive and simplistic faith? Do we want to be accused of being naive and credulous ourselves?

Add to all this a really marvelous homily my pastor gave on Sunday in which the affirmation, "Everything happens for a reason" was a central point and refrain and you have something of a snapshot of what I have been meditating on and grappling with this last week.

I believe two things profoundly: 1) not everything that happens is the will of God, and 2) everything happens for a reason. I know these statements seem contradictory but they are actually coherent. How can that be? They come together in a third statement --- the statement Dietrich Bonhoeffer made to complete the first affirmation, namely, "but inevitably, nothing that does happen happens outside the will of God." It is this truth, that nothing happens outside the will of God that allows me to understand and accept the second affirmation, "Everything happens for a reason". However, for me this is not an affirmation that rules out senselessness, absurdity, evil and the powers of sin and death that are NOT of God. Instead it is a statement of faith in God's ultimate capacity as creator and redeemer. It is an affirmation of my belief in God's identity as a Master storyteller and that the unfinished cosmos (including every detail of our own relatively little but infinitely precious lives) are part of  his story and are encompassed by his providence.

I have long believed in the wisdom of Bonhoeffer's position but it was difficult to make clear what it actually meant; certainly it was not identical to the affirmation "everything happens for a reason" --- until last week.

Theologians speak of God telling the story of creation where his "telling" is a creative act of course. Usually we think of God standing "behind the story" and it spreading out before him, but because we are dealing with an evolutionary and "unfinished universe" tending toward the day when God will be all in all, a number of theologians today speak instead of God standing "in front of the story" drawing the story towards its future and completion in him. In other words God creates first of all by summoning something out of nothing and then he summons reality to greater and greater levels of complexity and relatedness in himself. In this perspective God is identified as absolute futurity. Even with this perspective it was very difficult for me to agree with the refrain of my pastor's homily, "Everything happens for a reason!" Again --- until last week.

Staff Lunch and a Halloween Game:

What happened was that as I was meditating on some of this I remembered a game the parish staff had played at the end of a lunch at my pastor's last Halloween; because of this image and along with the theology I had been reading regarding evolution and the unfinished universe, everything fell into place for me. Even more, it added exciting dimensions to my image of God as creator, as Master Storyteller, and as a lover who protects our freedom even as he works to do justice in mercy. The game went like this: every place setting had a slip of paper with a number on one side and a Halloween-related item on the other. The person who was #1 had to begin a narrative and weave their item into it at which point a bell was rung and the person who was #2 had to pick up the threads of the narrative and weave their own item into all of that --- and so on through all 9 or 10 of us.

Now some of the staff were diligent and creative and did as required. They listened, respected the story told by those who had gone before, and tried hard to build on it in a unified and unifying way --- even when their own loosely-planned narrative was now made impossible and had to be sacrificed because of what had come before. Others essentially said to heck with the larger story and used the clue in whatever way they could think of. Some resisted playing altogether. In all cases (except that of the first person's narrative!) threads were dropped and the narrative was fractured into uncounted pieces while each person, limited as we were, muddled through --- managing to link only a few things as we wove our clues into a more or less (usually less!) coherent narrative. To call this challenging, especially after someone had gone their own way in an unrelated story is an understatement. (I was #9 in the queue and my own attempt was a complete and utter failure! However, it etched the game in my mind and is now a failure for which I will always be grateful.)  On the whole our game was more like herding cats than weaving a tapestry or telling a unified story. But it was also reminiscent of a microcosm of sinful, finite humanity trying to "tell" our own stories both with and in spite of the overarching story God is trying to weave together with and through us.

As I thought about the ways we each struggled in this game what I also finally saw clearly was God standing in front of the story working to weave all the threads of all of our lives, and indeed of the entire cosmos together into a coherent whole bringing  it forward into the future of his life and love. The weaving God does is vastly more complex and incomprehensible than the little game we played but he is intelligent, creative and above all, loving enough not to allow anything to get lost or to remain absurd, senseless, ultimately destructive, or unredeemed.

And here is the essence of faith. We trust that God is truly the Master Storyteller who will drop no threads, leave nothing disconnected or senseless, treat nothing as insignificant or forgettable, and will redeem even the darkest threads by providing a context and future for them and all they touch, We trust that eventually all of these will glorify (reveal) God in the overarching story of creation's fulfillment which we call the Kingdom. It is in this way --- and I believe, only in this way --- that we can confidently and critically say everything happens for a reason. Something may be truly senseless or downright evil when it first occurs --- we do not naively deny this nor do we say it was God's will, but, for Christians there is an implicit promise in even these events that God will supply a "reason" for their having happened; God will make them meaningful and bring life out of them. Even the very worst and most godless reality that befalls us participates in this promise.

I think this is an illustration of what Bonhoeffer was saying of course --- inevitably nothing that happens happens outside the will of God. It's also exactly what happens with Jesus' passion and resurrection when God brings life out of death, meaning out of the senseless, and good out of evil, but it was the first time I could see it as the same affirmation I have rejected so often: everything happens for a reason. To be honest, I don't know if this is the way Israel saw creation or the history of its People and the story of David, but I do know that ours is the creator/redeemer God who stands "in front" of the story of our unfinished lives and our unfinished universe constantly summoning things into being even as he also weaves together disparate and broken threads with a love great enough to encompass every darkness and failure along with every bit of light. And we are covenant partners in this affirmation of promise and all-encompassing providence; at every moment we are called to trust in and cooperate with God's unceasing weaving, with, that is, his determined and loving bringing of the story of creation not only into existence but to completion and fullness in Himself.

cf also, John Haught and a Metaphysics of Future and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bearing our Crosses

Postscript, 2/1/14. Tonight as I reflected more on this I was reminded of an old and wonderful folksong by Peter, Paul, and Mary: Weave me the Sunshine. Though not the source of my theology it is an apt bit of punctuation:

Considering becoming a Hermit: Can Anyone Apply?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, How are you? I have been thinking about hermit life lately. Can anyone apply? Or is it only open to former nuns or those with an education in theology? I wonder how many monasteries there are nationwide that offer private apartments. I prefer more private residence than community residence. ]]

Hi there. Most of what I say here is written about in other posts as well so I suggest you look up some of the pertinent posts using the labels to the right.

While anyone can speak to their chancery personnel (Vicar for Religious, Vocations Director, Delegate for Consecrated Life, etc.) about becoming a diocesan hermit, it remains true that a person has almost no chance of serious consideration unless they have secured in some way the experience and formation in eremitical solitude along with the education or training which supports this life in terms of Scripture, prayer, and theology. These need not necessarily be gotten in a convent or monastery, nor do they require advanced degrees, but they are still necessary nonetheless. The ability to read commentaries and Scripture is especially important, I think, and some degree of solid theology is also critical. One will be reading and studying Scripture one's whole life so one needs tools to do that with. Similarly, one will be reading spirituality and related theology one's whole life so a basic education in theology will be essential. Some dioceses require their candidates for canon 603 profession to acquire a Master Catechist's certification to cover this need.

Monasteries generally do not have diocesan hermits living on their property nor do they have private apartments except, for instance, for visiting priests or others in leadership within the Order who are visiting the community. They do have guest houses for retreatants and diocesan hermits may go regularly (once or twice a year) on retreat to one community. Remember that monasteries are generally autonomous houses, not part of the diocesan system of institutions; a Bishop does not assign a hermit to live in a parish, etc, but were he to do so, a monastery would not be somewhere he could assign anyone. He might try to arrange temporary living space for a hermit with said monastery but this is not at all the way dioceses usually handle things with diocesan hermits (cf below). Occasionally a hermit may develop a relationship with a community of nuns or monks herself and be welcomed to live in a hermitage on the property, but she is not a formal part of the community and this arrangement is rare. In such a case the hermit would be responsible for her room and any board allowed her as well as her general upkeep just as she would if she were living in an urban parish (cf below). She could be asked to vacate her housing at any time should the monastic community require that.

Diocesan or solitary hermits professed under canon 603 generally live alone and are usually part of a parish. They are not part of a community otherwise (even a religious community of hermits) and are specifically called to solitary eremitical life.  (Lauras of diocesan hermits are possible but these are not communities in the strict sense.) Some are fortunate enough to be able to live in rural areas or in the mountains and deserts, but most today are urban hermits.  Thus, most hermits live in single family dwellings, apartments, condos, or something similar. Some few may have caregivers on the premises but the arrangement must not impede a life of the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance. In all cases (wherever the hermit finds a home to make into a hermitage) they are responsible for their own upkeep, insurance, living arrangements, education, retreats, spiritual direction, Rule of Life, provision for active  ministry --- if any, burial expenses, food, clothing, transportation, etc.

My suggestion to you is to read all you can about this vocation, speak to your spiritual director about what you are thinking about, and, even more importantly, begin experimentally to live a life embodying the central elements of canon 603 as a beginning lay hermit. It may take you a year or more to get these elements in place, but after you have lived all the central elements for some time, write yourself an experimental Rule which reflects your experience and your needs as well as an understanding of what eremitical solitude is all about. You can then live this Rule for a further period and see how well this kind of commitment works for you. Proposed changes in the Rule could be discussed with your director and implemented if good reasons are discerned. I would suggest continuing in this way for a couple of years BEFORE you approach your diocese.

During these first years, if in fact, you continue in this experimental living situation, you should begin to develop an initial sense of what the eremitical Tradition is about, its varied expressions, and the values it embodies and brings to the Church and world. As implied, you would meet regularly with your director and allow her to help you discern why you feel called to this as well as what other vocations you might also be called to with similar values. If your interest in this vocation continues more strongly and it seems the way God is calling you to human wholeness and a life of generous love lived for others, then it might be time to contact your diocese to have an initial discussion on the possibility of being professed as a diocesan hermit under canon 603.

Dioceses will not generally accept someone as a serious candidate for profession unless they demonstrate real experience living in eremitical solitude. My suggestions above are meant to assist you to gain the experience necessary to approach your diocese initially. Most will not (and in fact cannot) even enter into a serious process of discernment with someone without such experience. (Remember, dioceses do not form hermits; though they may point the hermit to needed resources they discern the quality of the vocation in front of them.) Being a lone pious person is not the same thing as eremitical solitude either. More, living in eremitical solitude for a couple of years is not the same thing as being either called or ready to commit to this for the whole of one's life. Instead it could represent a needed transitional period in one's life or, unfortunately, it could also be a way of escaping one's responsibilities within society and the Church as well. It takes time to determine this and only one's continued growth in human wholeness and the capacity to love God, oneself, and others in the silence of solitude can show us whether this is a Divine call. Thus, one has a much better chance of getting a serious hearing at the chancery if one can demonstrate both experience in living as a hermit as well as the fact that one has taken the whole matter seriously, thoughtfully, and proceeded with genuine discernment even before one landed on the chancery doorstep.

By the way, I have only spoken of living a couple of years in an intentional way as a lay hermit before contacting the diocese. The discernment process after this usually takes several more years at least. This is especially true if the person has no formation in Religious life. If everyone decides the candidate is called to canonical profession rather than life as a lay hermit, for instance, then temporary public vows for a period of several (3-5) years usually follows. Discernment continues and one may or may not be admitted to perpetual profession at the end of this time. It is not unusual for the period extending from the day one first knocks on the chancery door to the day one is admitted to perpetual profession to take up to 10 years or so, As I have noted before, some cases have taken much longer.

One other thing should again be noted here. Dioceses ordinarily consider solitary eremitical life as a second half of life vocation. For those younger persons who have less life experience and may never have been formed in religious life, the better option is often to enter a community of hermits which allows for a structured formation and a formal balance between solitude and community.

25 January 2014

Feast of the Conversion of Paul (Reprised)

Today is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and my own feast day as well. We know Paul's story well. A good Jew, indeed, a scholar of the Law who saw the early Church as a distortion and danger to orthodoxy, one who understood that a crucified person was godless and shameful and could in no way be a faithful Jew or prophet, much less God's anointed one, persecuted the Church in the name of orthodoxy and for the glory of God. In sincere faithfulness to the covenant Paul hounded men, women and children, many of whom were his own neighbors. He sent them to prison and thence to their deaths. He, at least technically And according to Luke's version of things), colluded in the stoning of Stephen and sought to wipe Christians from the face of the earth.

While on a campaign to Damascus to root out and destroy more "apostates" Paul had a dramatic vision and heard someone call out to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Paul inquired who this voice was and was told, "I am Jesus whom you persecuteth." In that moment everything Paul knew, believed, and practiced, was turned upside down. God had vindicated the One whom Paul knew to be godless acording to the Law. He was alive rather than eternally dead, risen through the power of God as the Christians had claimed. For Paul nothing would ever be the same again. So it is with conversions.

Perhaps it is a matter of faulty perception on my part, and if so, I apologize, but it seems to me that conversion is not something most Catholics regard as pertinent to their lives. Conversion is something non-Catholics do when they become Catholics (or vice versa!). It is a onetime event that those "born into the faith" don't (it is thought) need to worry about! Those "born Catholic" may think in terms of "growing in their faith" or "becoming a better Catholic" (and there is certainly nothing wrong with thinking this way!) but "conversion" seems to be a word that is simply little-used for these processes. Somehow (perhaps because of the story of Paul!) conversion is too dramatic and messy a process it seems. It disrupts and is marked by difficult and abrupt discontinuities and conflicts or tensions. It demands a spiritual praxis which sets one apart from the norm, a prayer life which is central, engagement with the Word of God which is profound and more extensive than usual -- not minimal or nominal, and a faith life which does not tolerate compartmentalization. Growth, becoming, etc, are safer words --- demanding, yes, but somehow less total and more socially acceptable than references to "conversion."

In monastic life, and especially in Benedictine monastic life the primary vow is to conversion of life. This vow includes those ordinarily made in religious life, the vows of poverty and chastity. One commits oneself to continually allow God to remake one into the image of Christ (and into one's truest self). There is a sense that such conversion is a gradual and lifelong process of growth and maturation, yes, but there is also an openness to conversion as dramatic and all-consuming. Here conversion is something which does not allow the monastic to divide their lives into sacred and profane or to compartmentalize them into the spiritual and the non-spiritual. Here the Word of God is expected and allowed to convict, challenge, transform, and empower. Here the Spirit of God is accepted as the spirit which moves within us enlivening, edifying, consolidating, and purifying --- the Spirit which humanizes and sanctifies us into the covenant reality we are most truly. It is a pattern which should be true of every Christian.

Paul's initial conversion experience was dramatic by any standards, but drama aside, it did for Paul what encounter and engagement with the Word of God is meant to do to any of us. It caused him to see his entire world and life in terms of the risen and Crucified Christ. It put law completely at the service of love and made compassion the way to accomplish justice. It made human weakness the counterpart of divine strength, mercy and forgiveness the way God's will is accomplished, and in every other way turned the values of this world on their head. May each of us open ourselves to the kind of conversion of life we celebrate today.

Anchoritism is not only Christian

In my own life I recognize that a hermit has to be open to being called to greater and greater degrees of reclusion as we witness to the truth that God (Love-in-act) is the foundation of the being and meaning of our lives and so too, as we also witness to the fact that communion with God is the one necessary thing. It results in a quies or hesychia which is the singleness and peace of a compassionate heart resting in God. Everything comes down to this; everything else, every other relationship and authentic form of love and active ministry flows from it. In my own Camaldolese tradition we have Nazarena who lived as an anchorite in the Motherhouse (St Anthony's) in Rome in the 20th Century as a model of what this might mean.

Other faith traditions also have anchorites who witness to this same foundational truth;  in this brief clip you catch a glimpse of a Buddhist solitary who lives as anchorites have lived for centuries and centuries. Despite her intense physical solitude, she is dependent upon others bringing her food and providing medical care. She too speaks of everything coming down to one essential reality, a singleness of mind, and of a peace and compassion which flows outward to all creation from this. There is also a strong and natural element of hospitality in her life as she opens her window to these unique guests. Christian monastics, especially Benedictines, would certainly not be surprised by this!

We are not the same, of course, not in our beliefs or even our spiritual praxis but our hearts are similarly formed in the silence of solitude and I would wager they speak to one another in the same language of spiritual maturity --- that of compassion for the whole of creation. Whether formed in the silence of solitude or in some other way I believe this is the heart we are each called to have.

24 January 2014

Denying the Uniqueness of the CV vocation lived in the World??

[[Dear Sister, do you think the vocation to consecrated virginity lived in the world is valid? Do you think it is unique or special? Sometimes I wonder if you do because you seem like you would like to take away the thing which makes it special. CV's are Brides of Christ really, not just symbolically like Religious women. They are married, not just engaged. They are consecrated by God, not by themselves making vows as is true for religious and they are consecrated as individuals not as part of a community. I think their uniqueness in these things is a gift to the Church. It is what makes their vocation valid. You seem to deny all this. . . .[repetitive bits omitted]]]

First, thank you for your questions. I do believe the vocation to consecrated virginity lived in the world is a valid vocation and, like all vocations, I believe it has a special place in the Church. In fact, I am coming to believe that it is one of the most significant vocations existing in the Church today. (All vocations are more or less timely.) However, I also sincerely believe that like every vocation in the Church it is a gift only insofar as it is iconic of something all persons are called to in some way. It is charismatic only to the extent it meets needs which other Christians (and non Christians as well) have and yearn to be fulfilled --- and too, only to the extent that the Holy Spirit uses it to meet these needs in some focused way. Vocations are charismatic because they are gifts of God which people receive with joy as a way to God --- and not for themselves alone, but for others!! Two often when CV's or would-be CV's speak in the terms you have, the sense I have is that canon 604 and the consecration it provides for is a gift to the virgins themselves which they seem to expect folks to set up on a shelf and admire as precious and wonderfully wrapped, but not really useful or relevant to the lives of non CV's.

I remember that one CV once responded to a comment I made about the charism of CV's living in the world by essentially saying she would be quite surprised to find the pastoral need for a strongly secular AND consecrated witness to be present, much less relevant to the vocation. (The sticking point here was secularity.) But the simple fact is that determining whether something is charismatic, that is, whether it is a gift of the Holy Spirit or not involves determining whether there is a pastoral need or not.  What makes icons really iconic is not that they can be gazed at like a work of art, but instead that they are capable of drawing others into the world shared by both the icon and the one reading it and empowering them to serve similarly. For that matter, the really beautiful is only beautiful to the degree it grabs hold of and resonates with something shared by the one experiencing it. CV's are icons of a universal vocation and the identity of the Church herself. It should not surprise CV's then that to serve in this way means they must reflect characteristics all Christians share and are called eschatologically to share perfectly while also empowering others to take hold of this vocation with an ultimate seriousness.

It would be refreshing to see CV's writing about virginity and its place in our world, especially in terms of quality of commitments, trivialization of sex, the fraudulent and distorted nature of so much that passes for love today, etc. It would be wonderful to hear CV's speaking of the universal call to spousal union with God and the way in which their own vocations are iconic of this and complementary to the iconographic nature of marriage in this regard. It would be refreshing to hear CV's writing about the maternal nature of their vocations and how their virginity allows this to be lived out in a world  which is often so desperately in need of real maternal figures --- women who set aside their own needs, ambitions, personal prestige, etc for the sake of the life of others. It would be wonderful; to hear CV's writing about their place in the new theologies of secularity and mission which affect the way we see the Church and live out our Christianity. But, in the main, I do not hear that. Instead, the dominant topic is how CV's are Brides of Christ while others (Religious women and men) are not REALLY that or "only symbolically" that, etc.

On the use of the term Symbol:

Well, let's get a couple of things clear theologically and philosophically. First, it is not accurate to contrast symbolically with really. I know that Catholics are used to doing this in regard to Protestant notions of Eucharist but it has been almost 150 years since theologians articulated clearly that Symbols are the way the really real is made present; symbols participate in the reality they symbolize. Symbols are not merely arbitrarily agreed upon signs. They are living realities which are born, have a life span, and eventually die. They are not created by human beings but are instead recognized in the same way we always recognize participation in the transcendent and mysterious. They take hold of us with their power and we surrender to that. Thus, we do not say that something is "merely a symbol" anymore than we say a women is "partly" or "sort of pregnant." With regard to the Eucharist, saying that the bread and wine symbolize the risen and ascended Christ is not to say the species are not REALLY the Christ. Instead it is to say that this is one of the true and powerful expressions of his presence amongst us; it also suggests that it is capable of grasping everyone with its universality. To suggest one person is "only symbolically espoused" to God in Christ whereas another is "really espoused" is theologically and philosophically naive and wrong.

Secondly, to the degree something is made utterly unique (and thus robbed of its universal or symbolic value), that thing becomes more and more irrelevant and incapable of truly speaking to or empowering people. If the only way CV's consecrated under c 604 can take seriously their own consecration is by denying the very real spousal vocation of every person, the more iconic and eschatological espousal of Religious, and so forth, they ought not be surprised when people respond to the statement, "I am a Bride of Christ" with looks of incomprehension or shrugs amounting to a "so what?" attitude which is an appropriate comment on the irrelevance of the vocation. My own immediate (and entirely tacit) response to most of the writing I see by CV's (I know a couple of CV bloggers whose work is quite fine) is ordinarily a combination of "So what?" and "Oh, get over yourself!" My secondary response is something like, "No wonder people in the Church generally say this vocation makes no sense, is too precious, or simply lacks relevancy!! When will you say something about what this vocation means for the rest of us? For our world in need? For the Church's decision to renew it now when she is recovering a sense of the importance of the secular, the universal call to holiness, and the nature of the Church as missionary?"

Watch out for Assertions Which Absolutize Uniqueness!

I am not denying the need to reflect on the vocation, of course. But part of this reflection means looking carefully and prayerfully at the theological underpinnings of the call and at what the Church and the Holy Spirit are doing in renewing (or reprising) it now. It means adopting a necessary humility in regard to the vocation's specialness and uniqueness and appreciating that these MUST serve others and lead them to understand the similarity of call and dignity which they share. Vocations are never absolutely unique; instead they are like facets on a gem where each is both unique and yet possesses and underscores a similarity to and identity with the others while thus contributing to the overall beauty of the gem. Each facet catches and reflects the light differently at different times and places but they do so without depriving other facets of the same characteristics. In fact, a gem where one facet was utterly unique would be a seriously flawed gem. It might be worth something as a curiosity but not as a work of art with balance, complex inner relatedness, or complementarity and harmony.

I would thus disagree with your assertion that it is the uniqueness of the vocation which makes it valid. It is the Holy Spirit's impulse and the Church's discernment of the vocation's pastoral significance which make it valid. For instance, even with the eremitical vocation it is not enough to have the sense that some few individuals are perhaps inspired to this way of living by the Spirit. There must also be a sense that this call serves the Church and world in some significant pastoral way. Even the Desert Fathers and Mothers reflected a profoundly pastoral sense in withdrawing to the desert. Certainly it served their own personal holiness, but it also had a strongly prophetic quality which said to the Church:"You are too strongly allied with the world. You are called to be counter cultural! Leave this behind!!"

Today, in a world which is often too individualistic the strongly pastoral nature of the eremitical call to "the silence of solitude" and a life "lived for the salvation of others" is undoubted if ironic -- or if paradoxically expressed. I think there is no doubt that hermits say to everyone, "You too are called to this foundational relationship with God; this union or covenant with God is who you are most fundamentally. You too need silence and solitude; you too need less "friending" and a focus on true friendships instead." Consecrated Virgins, especially those living out their consecration in the world and in the things of the world as well as in and of the spirit and things of the spirit, will find the vocation's validity not only in its uniqueness but in its ability to call for its commonalities with others. Most often in Christianity it is the latter quality which makes something really special!

Regarding your other assertions about Religious, the way they are consecrated, supposed engagement vs marriage, etc, I have already responded to these notions several times and refer you to other posts which discuss the nature of religious profession, consecration, and espousal. If those raise questions for you or you disagree in some substantive way, please write again and I will be more than happy to respond.

18 January 2014

On Developing a Spirituality of Discernment

Occasionally the daily lections can surprise us with their relevance. I found that happening recently. Two weeks ago the readings were, in one way and another, about being discerning people who open our entire selves to the Word and will of God in our lives. In some ways what was given to us was a spirituality of discernment, that is, a spirituality which takes seriously the first word of the Benedictine Rule, "LISTEN!" or, more fundamentally, the identity of Christ as the One who was defined as obedient (that is, whose mind and heart were open and responsive to God) unto death, even death on a cross. In other words discernment is a process undertaken by one who listens with the whole of themselves to the whole of reality for the Word and will of God present and active there. A spirituality of discernment is a spirituality permeated by this same process, a spirituality of which attentive listening and responsiveness  (hearkening) is the very heart and soul.

The Challenge of Discernment: Moving through the Second Week of Christmas

Throughout the week we moved from discerning good from evil, light from dark and that which was of Christ versus that which was anti-Christ, through the challenge of discerning more ambiguous reality, and finally, to the difficulty of an even more demanding spirituality of discernment when we are asked to choose between goods. The author of 1 John sees discernment as the core and foundation of all authentic discipleship. On Monday the first lection was about "testing the spirits." 1 John saw all of reality as either of Christ or of the antiChrist and he asked us to choose Christ in everything. Our own world is less literally but no less really inhabited by such "spirits" and it is certainly no less demanding of this discernment. We are asked to pay attention with and to our entire selves --- to our feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, our dreams, imaginations, thoughts, etc, and to choose that which is God's will. This requires practice, time, and effort. It means we work at developing the skills associated with such active listening in every situation in which we find ourselves so that we can hear the Word or will of God and act on it.

On Tuesday the author of 1 John continued his exploration of this spirituality of discernment by defining for us what real love is. Interestingly he is clear that before love involves us in preaching, teaching, healing the sick, feeding the hungry or otherwise ministering to the poor it means receiving the love of God. In other words we must first of all be persons who have allowed God to love us with an everlasting and entirely selfless love before we go out to the world around us and try to love others.

Our world is marked and marred by all kinds of fraudulent and distorted forms of love. We have each been touched by these and we often continue the cycle in ways we are not even aware of  -- but which surely need to be redeemed: children who have never felt loved and have children to fill the hole while those children too are often inadequately loved, those who have been wounded by what passed for love in their families, those sold into modern slavery by human traffickers, sex billed as love, and so forth --- all of these and so many more are prevalent today. Someone must break this cycle of fraudulent and inauthentic love and we Christians believe that Christ, the preeminent "receiver" and transparent mediator of God's love has done that. Only those who know THIS love and have been made into new creations by it are truly capable of ministering to others. Breaking the cycle of fraudulent  and distorted love in Christ is precisely what disciples of Christ are called to do --- but first of all, both foundationally and temporally, we do so as receivers of God's love in Christ.

On Wednesday the author of 1 John continued his exploration of the nature of love and the demands of discernment. He reminded us that we are to abide or remain in God and explains that love casts out fear. Here he provided us with one criterion of discernment but he also prepared us for engaging in genuine ministry. How do we know the cycle of fraudulent love has been broken in us? Love casts out fear. If we abide in God his love makes us capable of giving our lives for others without hedging our bets or compromising our gift out of concern for ourselves. It makes us compassionate and generous because we are secure in God's love and fearless in these things. Others come first, no matter how wounded or contagious, no matter how needy or broken. We are ready for ministry if we are first of all people who receive the Love of God as the utterly trustworthy foundation of our lives --- and do so on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, our ministry will be unwise or imprudent, presumptuous, and perhaps even dangerous to those who need this love so badly today.

Friday's Climax: Jesus shows us a spirituality of discernment

And then on Friday the Gospel gives us a portrait of Jesus in which all this comes together in a vivid and unforget-table way. Jesus heals a leper. In a world which was terrified of the contagion of illness and evil, a world which characterized everything from mold on the sheets to actual Hanson's disease as "leprosy" and then called it all unclean and unworthy of human and divine contact, Jesus reached out his hand and touched a man suffering from leprosy and made him whole in body, mind, spirit, and in his relation to others. He restored the man to physical health and to his rightful place in his family, in his relation to God and right to worship, and with his People. More, this healing lessened the fearfulness of the world as a whole for those who had hardened their own hearts in order to accomplish and deal with the ostracism of this man. It is a wonderful story in every way.

But the lection did not end here, nor with Jesus staying around to heal those who thronged to him upon hearing of his healing of the leper. Instead Jesus withdraws to the desert to pray; despite the unquestionable need of the multitude for his healing touch and the undoubted good of remaining to minister in this way, he returns in a solitary way to the foundation of his life --- the God who is the source of his life, his compassion, and his authority to heal --- the God whom he loves in the same way he himself is loved first. There are three reasons for this I think.

First, as important as individual healings are, Jesus' mission is different than this; it is deeper and more far-reaching or extensive as well. Jesus' real mission is the healing and freeing of reality itself --- the whole of reality. He is called to reconcile all things to God and bring all things to fullness in him. This will only be accomplished by remaining obedient (open and responsive) to God even to the depth and breadth of a godlessness which permeates and distorts reality --- not by individual healings even if these number in the hundreds of thousands -- indeed, even if they included every person that  ever existed. Reality itself is estranged from God and falls short of what it is meant to be in God; the illnesses with which Jesus is confronted  in us are merely symptoms of a more profound disorder and incompleteness. Jesus' mission is twofold, 1) to deal effectively with the actual disease, not merely with its symptoms, and 2) he is called and commissioned to bring all of creation to its fullest potential in God. (Had there been no sin, Jesus' call would still have involved this second prong of his mission.)

Secondly, Jesus reminds us of John's lesson at the beginning of the week: [[this is love: that you receive the Love of God. . .]] While every homily I have heard on this lection refers to Jesus taking "time out" to pray in order to recharge his spiritual batteries and draws the lesson that ministers need to do similarly, I am convinced that true as this is, it is not precisely what the lection is getting at. That is especially true given the context in which we heard it two weeks ago when it was coupled with a series of readings from 1 John. Instead, focusing on Jesus' withdrawal to pray reminds us that more fundamentally ministry must always flow from contemplation. This is the dynamic of Dominican spirituality,  the way in which the Camaldolese especially but all Benedictines experience their call to a Gospel-centered life requiring serious silence and solitude. It is the way St Francis of Assisi and Clare experienced their own vocations and lived out their calls to evangelical poverty and today it is the explicit standard of the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious). Authentic ministers of the Gospel are always those who receive God's love, live from and mediate it. As with Jesus this is primary both foundationally and temporally.

Thirdly, Jesus shows us clearly that what we rightly discerned to be good and the will of God yesterday might not be the good we are called to today. It is not enough to be people who can discern good from evil or even the less authentic and more ambiguous from the more authentic; we must also be people who can and do discern the specific good we are called to at this specific point in time. This discernment is much harder than determining or choosing good from evil. Our most difficult choices are always between what is good and what is (perhaps) better today in this new situation. For this reason, discernment must be a way of life for us  because the will of God comes to us freshly at every moment and in every new circumstance.

The relevance of all this:

As a hermit my greatest difficulty in discernment comes in determining when to say yes and when to say no to opportunities for active ministry. At first I thought this was a difficulty that would go away in time. (Maybe I just needed practice I thought!) Later I came to see it was something that would always be with me; I simply hoped discerning would become easier and be needed less frequently. But now I realize that this tension is not only going to be present for some time, but that it calls for me to see discernment not as a process I only pull out occasionally to resolve problems or make big decisions but instead as the very basis of any Christian spirituality. As I read this week in a talk by Richard Gaillardetz (Ecclesiologist), Pope Francis speaks of a "spirituality of discernment" --- which is probably typically Jesuitical of him, but also of course, profoundly Christian. I have come to see that Paul's statement about Jesus' obedience unto death could also be translated as a corollary (or its presupposition!): Jesus was discerning in all things even unto death, death on a cross.

Moreover of course, I find a lot of reassurance in what 1 John says about the nature of love: it is first of all about receiving God (Love-in-act) in our lives and only secondarily about active ministry. As contemplatives know, the command that we abide in God, that we remain in the love which is God, is the heart of our own vocations and the heart of all truly Christian life. Often the choice I have to make between active ministry and withdrawal (anachoresis) will mean withdrawal; of course that is hardly surprising. After all, this is the overarching reality and context I am called to by God and the Church, just as it is the call I have publicly (canonically) committed to for the sake of others. Thus, when the choice presents itself,  I may well have to say no to active ministry, not because it is an evil (it emphatically is not that!), but because I am called in a fundamental way to something else first.  Thus, I MUST repeatedly discern my response anew, for what was good and the will of God yesterday may be less good than the alternative and not the will of God today.

This choice will not disappear from my life anytime soon --- and that is not at all a bad thing --- for not only does it indicate new opportunities for serving God and loving others continue to come my way; it also means I must continue to develop a spirituality of discernment which itself is essentially contemplative and solitary in the best sense. The presence of this choice as part of the constant dynamic of the vowed hermit who belongs integrally to a parish and diocese  further establishes the diocesan eremitical life as one of fundamental importance in the Church. In fact, we hermits especially embody the Gospel lection from two Friday's ago in a way which witnesses to the lesson it holds for every Christian. Namely, good and imperative as active ministry is, something more fundamental in our world needs healing and that, even for those living primarily ministerial lives, requires and is truly empowered only by the habit and foundation of obedient withdrawal in prayer.

05 January 2014

Followup Questions: On the Supposed Difference Between the Espousal of Religious and Consecrated Virgins

[[Dear Sister, if both religious and consecrated virgins are called to a similar espousal with God, then why are some nuns consecrated as virgins and some not? This seems to argue that there is something different in these two vocations. Why would nuns also want to accept the consecration of virgins if they are already espoused to God as Brides of Christ? Since some Sisters eschew the identity of "Bride of Christ" doesn't this also suggest they are not Brides in the same sense as CV's consecrated under c 604?]]

Thanks for your questions. I think the question of why we continue using the Rite of Consecration of Virgins for nuns is a really thorny one today. It will take some real thinking to deal with the problems it creates as well as the good it represents. However, I don't think it allows us to conclude there is necessarily any conflict nor substantive difference here. Remember that the Church specifies that for a nun eventually ALSO receiving the consecration of virginity after solemn profession --- even some limited time (e.g., several days or weeks) after the rite of profession --- the symbols of espousal usually given at solemn profession along with the solemn prayer of consecration are withheld until the Rite of consecration of virginity. The idea here is that these are not substantively different consecrations and therefore they are not to be repeated. (If profession of vows were merely an "engagement" and consecration of virginity represented the actual marriage as some CV's naively and erroneously argue, then this specific withholding of ring and solemn prayer of consecration would not make much sense. Similarly if profession were the way in which someone consecrates herself while in the Rite of consecration of Virgins it is God doing the consecrating --- as some CV's also sometimes argue erroneously --- then this division would not make much sense either.)

Why do Some Nuns use the Rite and others do not?

Some religious do not receive the consecration because their congregations are not permitted to use the Rite.  (The use of the rite by Religious is restricted to Carthusians and maybe one of two other congregations of cloistered nuns.) Cloistered communities that are allowed to use the Rite may consist of women who were once married as well as virgins but only the virgins among them might receive this consecration; these congregations may also have  nuns whose prayer lives are explicitly nuptial and who wish to formalize that through the Rite. My own impression is that this could be done through the readings, imagery, prayer, and homilies associated with solemn profession and consecration (profession is the dedication piece of things; it is accompanied by a solemn prayer of consecration) --- especially if the house is only professing one or two nuns; with a larger group the chances of needing to accommodate differences in prayer lives and personal sense of mission increases. Though I appreciate that these congregations have kept alive a form of ancient vocation which is traditionally very significant and while they also serve today to remind CV's consecrated under canon 604 that their own vocation by way of contrast is a call to a renewed form of secularity, I don't think we can argue that the Rite of consecration of virgins used for nuns marks the nun as someone called to a different consecration than her Sisters who do not use the Rite. And yet, some CV's seem to believe this is exactly what it suggests.

For me this uneven practice within houses of nuns actually raises the question of the appropriateness and fruitfulness of continuing to use the Rite of Consecration of Virgins for nuns who are solemnly vowed and whose rite of  definitive profession already includes a solemn prayer of consecration and Bridal significance, imagery, and insigniae. This is especially true since the earliest consecrated virgins did not have to be physically intact, but were women who had given themselves wholly to Christ and were therefore considered "virgins" and more, consecrated virgins. Today we really do need consecrated virgins to whole-heartedly accept their own call to an eschatological secularity and it occurs to me that too often the existence of nuns who add the Rite of consecration of virgins to their own solemn profession (minus its usual solemn prayer of consecration) diminishes the sense that secularity is an appropriate form of espousal to Christ. This is also true because these nuns became the group that eventually completely co-opted the use of the Rite among those living secular lives and led to an end of the secular expression. Certainly it can lead to the idea that religious life is tiered and that some are made to experience Christ's love more intimately than others because they are "chosen" by God to be consecrated in a way substantially different from their Sisters (and Brothers!). We have to be cautious of any interpretation of the use of the rite of consecration of virgins which leads in this direction.

Because of the tendency by some today to treat the consecration of religious and that of CV's as being of different weights or degrees, a further piece of my answer to your questions comes from a consideration of the fact that the French Bishops have made it clear that hermits being consecrated under canon 603, for instance, should not add the consecration of canon 604 to this. They have noted that each consecration is complete in itself. One does not add anything by adding the consecration of virgins to consecration under canon 603. Dioceses in the US have adopted this policy (i.e., today we do not see canon 603 professions and consecrations of diocesan hermits accompanied, much less "completed" with consecrations  of virginity under canon 604) and it seems that canonists generally tend to find it a wise policy.  Were one consecration so different in character from the other that the other could be added (for instance if one were  "constitutive" and one was not), or if one were a fuller or more complete form of the first, none of this would make sense.

Religious Eschewing the Designation Bride of Christ

Meanwhile contemporary Religious who have shunned the identification, "Brides of Christ" have done so for several legitimate reasons. The most important one is that the identification was used in an elitist sense and also one which stripped or tended to strip it of its eschatological meaning. It was seen as indicating marriage in an incredible and mainly "this-worldly" sense by many; at the same time ONLY religious associated this imagery or vocation with themselves --- married people, for instance, though they should have seen themselves as imaging the ecclesial call to espousal to Christ as well, did not. Single persons had no sense at all of being participants in this eschatological call by virtue of their baptism. In general the Church per se was not easily seen as the Bride of Christ with, for instance, religious and married people serving as related but differing icons of this identity.

Further, many Sisters' prayer lives were not similar to those of persons with mystical experiences of union with God. This, coupled with an exaggerated emphasis on religious as Brides of Christ, led to unnecessary self-criticism of their own prayer lives, and unwarranted doubt about the quality of their own vocations; in short, it was destructive. Finally, most Sisters today find the Bride of Christ imagery less helpful than imagery of Sisters or Brothers who identified with everyone and  resonated with imagery that spoke clearly of their availability to all as well as to the universal call to holiness so very important to Vatican II. None of this detracts from or obviates the espousal of religious to Christ, but it does remind us that the reality of espousal can be lived and witnessed to in various ways -- some less legitimate or edifying than others. Especially it reminds us that espousal is not elitist. It is not primarily about the one who is espoused but rather it is about the One who loves them with an everlasting love just as it is about the person's commissioning to bring others to imagine and accept their own call to a union with God which is also spousal. If someone feels the need to proclaim they are "a Bride of Christ" in a way which is elitist and does not open others to accept a share in espousal with Christ, then perhaps the need they are evidencing is too-self-centered  --- too exclusively this-worldly and not sufficiently theological, ecclesial, or eschatological.

Patterns of Exclusion and Elitism

At the present time some in the Church are over-emphasizing the Bridegroom imagery of priesthood in a literal way which requires male gender and mandatory celibacy. (Advocates of this over-emphasis seem to forget that the Church, both Roman and Eastern, also has married priests today and has historically had at least women deacons. They also seem to be forgetting that in baptism we all become Brides to the Bridegroom even as we all image  the risen Christ.) This has led, I believe, to an unfortunate correlative emphasis on Consecrated virgins as the female counterpart to male clergy and even more especially to the Bishop.

Unfortunately, in order to argue this position, advocates have to omit the fact that both male and female religious have been considered Brides of the Bridegroom throughout the entire history of the Church; they must tacitly deny the early history of the Church that defined virginity in terms of giving one's whole self to God in Christ and included both women and men (usually called ascetics); as a consequence they have also embraced a notion of consecrated virginity that focuses on females and physical intactness only. Finally, they are now stripping the eschatological dimension from the symbol Bride of Christ when used for individuals thus turning it into a too-this-worldly marriage. All of this seems to me to  involve neglecting the fact that the Church as a whole, male AND female, married AND celibate, is the Bride while the Bridegroom is the risen and ascended Christ, that is the Christ whose eschatological identity is therefore more cosmic and less culturally derived or merely historically defined.

This pattern, of course, reprises several of the valid reasons contemporary religious have shunned the designation, "Bride of Christ" in the past 50-60 years or so. It should be clear that they did not do so because they are not espoused to Christ in the same way that CV's consecrated under canon 604 or cloistered nuns receiving the consecration are. Both are espoused (and both represent the espousal we are all ultimately called to), one group as religious, whether cloistered or ministerial) and the other as consecrated secular persons. In this way they once again reflect the same two forms of the vocation that existed side by side until the 11th century.

01 January 2014

Do You Get Christmas Presents?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I don't think I could ever be a hermit. I like people and I like to talk too much! Is the silence and being alone all the time hard for you? What about during holidays? I guess you don't visit with your family or spend the holidays like most of us do. Do you get Christmas presents? Do you have Christmas dinner? I am in fifth grade. Thank you for answering my questions.]]

Hi there and thanks for your questions. I don't get a lot of them from students your age so it is terrific you decided to write. You know I also like people and I like to talk but it is true that I am an introvert. By that I mean that I am a person whose energy comes from quiet activities done alone more than from being with other people. I enjoy being with other people but it also tires me out and I need time alone to kind of recharge my "inner batteries." (The other kind of person is someone we call an extrovert, and they get their energy from being with people and even from partying; spending too much time alone is what leaves them feeling kind of wiped out or "needing others".) I know we think of hermits as never seeing other people, but I see friends at Mass sometimes during the week and on Sundays, and I also get together with one friend (a Dominican Sister) for coffee many Sundays after Mass. Christmas is a little different too. This last weekend I went to the De Young Museum in SF and saw an art exhibit with two friends (one was visiting her mom from Germany and was leaving the next day);  the weekend before Christmas I went to a Christmas concert (Chanticleer) in San Francisco with my pastor. But you are right that I spend most of my time during holidays alone with God and in silence in my hermitage.

Like many Catholics and other Christians I spend some of the holiday time in Church --- more than usual anyway since the hermitage is like a "little church". I usually go to Mass late on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas morning. Apart from this Christmas is like most other days though. I pray several times a day; I do some studying and reading as usual and usually do some writing. I may also watch a movie on Netflix though or do something else I don't usually do. This year, as I mentioned, that meant a trip to the museum a couple of days after Christmas itself and it will also mean that I may go to the theater and see a movie like The Hobbit II or The Book Thief or Philomena with a friend. (I'm still deciding which movie that will be!) Christmas dinner is something I don't do anything very special for. Here in the hermitage all meals are supposed to be special (they remind us of Eucharist and are a time with God) so I do try to pay extra attention to the truth of that on significant feasts like Christmas or Easter. My family does not live near here so, unfortunately, we do not get together for Christmas.

Still, I am not lonely during Christmas as some people think I must be. I think that is part of what you are asking when you wonder if the silence and solitude are hard during holidays. Remember that I am called  by God through his Church to live this vocation and that God does not call us to something which makes us unhappy. Not only is God here with me in everything, but I have the sense that I am meant to be living this. I sometimes think that one of the things which makes people lonely during the holidays is the thought that others are enjoying time with family and friends so somehow being alone --- even if one chooses it --- is not okay. They feel left out and even unloved; sometimes they may even think that having no place to go during Christmas is a sign there is no purpose to their lives or that they have failed as human beings.

But you see I know that I live alone (with God!) for an important reason. My life says to others (at least I really hope it does!) that even if we are alone God is there too and that changes everything. Our relationship with God is part of being truly human; in fact, it is the thing which makes us truly human. Because of that witnessing to this relationship is a very important mission for any human being. More, I know that God loves me without limit and that my answering that love with my own self truly delights God --- just like your being present with your family delights them.  For these reasons the time I spend in solitude is not hard for me. If I were always thinking things like, "I should be with family" or "I should not be alone; it's not right," then I might make myself feel really empty and miserable. Instead I celebrate what Christmas is all about with the One who made it possible 2000 years ago and who makes it real now in my own life too --- just as I am called to do.

Do I get Christmas presents? Yes, in fact I do --- though I think my life is the greatest present I could be given; it and the people in it are the things I celebrate on a feast where God reveals himself in all of our stories as someone who brings life out of barrenness (like he did with Elizabeth) or where God makes people who have been frightened, grieving, or were mute into people whose lives are songs of great meaning and joy (like we hear about Zechariah or Mary)! But do I also get Christmas presents in the sense you mean? Yes. Those come from friends, family, and even from my parish or organizations in the parish.

One of these this year is a card entitling me to a movie and lunch with a friend --- which is why I am thinking about movies I might like to see. (The year before last I saw three movies and last year I might have seen one (I can't remember when I went to see the Life of Pi.). It looks like this year I will see at least two!) I also got several new books I haven't read (one, which I had on my wish list for some time, was left in the sacristy for me from "Santa"); I was also given a gift certificate for Amazon along with various treats like gingerbread, cookies, etc. One friend even got me several new shirts (2 white and 2 black!) because those are something I can always use; another good friend gave me two beautiful dark blue ceramic cups with Bible quotes etched around the center!  One says, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life" and the other one says, "When I am afraid, I will trust in You." (I'll try to add a picture of these in the next couple of days. They are really special.) Next week I will have dinner here with my delegate (someone who serves me and my diocese to help make sure I live my life well) and we will celebrate Christmas too (we will use the ceramic cups for coffee or tea!). So, yes, I get Christmas presents and I even give a few too!

I hope I have answered your questions. Please feel free to write again if you have other questions or if I was not very clear about something. It is refreshing to hear from a fifth grader! Have a terrific Christmas season and a happy New Year too. All my best.

Happy New Year!

[[The Japanese have a centuries old ritual Waraiko they use to greet a new year and to celebrate birthdays. The ritual consists of giving three hearty belly laughs! The first robust laugh is of gratitude for the previous year just ended. The second hearty laugh is in gratitude for being given a new year of life to enjoy. The third is a really full-bodied belly laugh, since it is to blow the dust off your mind, heart, and soul? Dust? The dust of habit and routine that slowly accumulates like all dust, causing the soul to lose the luster of its youthful vitality.]] by Edward Hay, Chasing Joy

We believe that because he is eternal and living our God is the ground and source of genuine newness. We believe that he is a God who transfigures all of reality into something hope-filled and meaningful. We believe that in Christ we can cooperate with God in his creative and redemptive activity as he brings about a world where heaven and earth profoundly interpenetrate one another and God is all in all. On this holiday, as so many make lists of goals and resolutions for the New Year, may each of us recommit ourselves to a time in which God's own projects in us and in all we know and love may be brought to fulfillment. All good wishes for a wonderful year!