30 March 2014

"You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul and your whole strength. . ."

I have to say that whenever I hear Jesus' statement of the Great commandment in Mark's Gospel --- as we hear it in last Friday's Mass, I feel a little stunned and my heart jumps into my throat. That is my immediate reaction.  I hear Jesus say to me, [[ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,]] and I am completely befuddled or confounded. Oh, of course I want to be able to say I do this but at the same time I know that I am completely unable to do so. More, I often am stopped by a sense that I don't even know what is being asked of me in this. after all, I am not being asked just to love passionately or "the best I can". More, it asks that I love God in this way. GOD! This commandment goes beyond anything I can even imagine. I wonder how many of us experience something similar when we hear this text proclaimed in Church or read it in private. Either this commandment is merely a constant goad to guilt and shame and has been given to solely us to remind us of what we can never accomplish, or it is truly a gift which points us to something almost unimaginable in its wonder.

Fortunately, over time, I have come to know that this commandment is indeed a remarkable gift; like so many things in the New Testament it is a paradox and the key to understanding what it means (at least the things that have helped me to understand it) are also paradoxes. The first key to understanding  what it means and calls for, I think, is the nature of prayer. It is entirely natural to think and speak of prayer as something we do, an activity we undertake. But more fundamentally, prayer is what happens when God is at work in us; it IS God's work in us. Our part in this is to allow God the space and time to do his work in us, to love us in whatever way he desires.  We are most truly "pray-ers" when we allow God to pray in us.

 The second, and related key to understanding it, I think, is Paul's observation in Galatians 2:20, [["I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.]]  Just as we are most truly ourselves, most truly human, when it is Christ who lives and acts in us, so too do we "keep this command" when we have become people whose entire hearts, minds, souls, and strength are open to, come from, and mediate the God who is Love-in-act. This commandment is, most fundamentally, not about something we do ourselves --- and certainly not something we do ourselves alone, but rather the persons we are in and with the power of God. It is a commandment that we allow God to truly be God for us and through us in an exhaustive way, that we let him gift us with his presence and make us into truly human beings.

Remember that the first part of this quote is Paul's explanation in Gal 2:19: [[For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for (or to) God.]] In other words, the Law taught Paul about his own inadequacies so that he might allow the Grace (that is, the powerful and active presence) of God  to be the source of his life. Like Paul we live for and to God (and that means loving God) when we allow ourselves to be opened to God's presence, power, and action in our lives. After all it is God who is Love-in-act. As we think about this commandment during Lent we are apt to hear a commandment to change in our lives. We are called on to allow God to dispose us in ways which open us to God's love, to make us into people whose hearts, minds, spirits, and all of our strength are given over to God's own life and purposes.

The final key, then, has to do with our understanding of what it means to be human. As I have written here before: [[We sometimes think our humanity is a given, an accomplished fact rather than a task and call to be accomplished. We also may think that it is possible to be truly human in solitary splendor. But our humanity is our essential vocation and it is something we only achieve in relation to God, his call, his mercy and love, his companionship --- and his people!]] Scripture calls human beings Temples of the Holy Spirit or speaks of God as "dwelling in our hearts." Theologians note that heart is actually a theological term defining where God bears witness to Godself. The bottom line here, as with all the other paradoxical expressions of this truth is that we are truly ourselves only to the extent we live life within, with, and from the power and life of God.

The Great commandment is exhaustive in what it asks from us. It requires nothing less than the whole of ourselves. There are many ways to trivialize it: we can suggest it involves a bit of Semitic exaggeration (like Jesus' comments about hating our Father and Mother); we can argue that our feelings of inadequacy make us hear it as more emphatic than it really is so we just need to work through these personal issues of ours. We might read this commandment as simply asking us to do our best and nothing more. We might even collapse this commandment into the second one given in Friday's Gospel, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," and read these as a single commandment requiring only that we love others to fulfill it. While the two commandments are inextricably intertwined however, and while love of God inevitably includes love of neighbor, these two commandments are not one. Still, if we allow the first commandment to truly be as exhaustive as it sounds, it will function just as Law is supposed to do. Eventually it will lead us to call out to God to assist us in our complete inability to keep it ourselves --- and that, as Paul well knew and taught throughout his letters, is truly the first gift of a grace that saves.

25 March 2014

Feast of the Annunciation (reprise)

I wonder what the annunciation of Jesus' conception was really like factually, what the angel's message (that is, God's own message) sounded like and how it came to Mary. I imagine the months that would have passed without Mary having a period and her anxiety about what might be wrong, and then a subtle sign here, an ambiguous symptom there, and eventually the full realization of the inexplicable fact that she was pregnant! That would have been a shock, of course, but even then it would have taken some time for the bone deep fear to register: "I have not been intimate with a man! I can be killed for this!" while only over more time comes the even deeper sense that God had overshadowed her and that she need not be afraid. God was doing something completely new and would stand by Mary just as he promised when he revealed himself originally to Moses as: "I will be who I will be," --- and "I will be present to you, never leaving you bereft or barren."

In the work I do with people in spiritual direction, one of the tools I ask clients to use sometimes is dialogue. The idea is to externalize and make explicit in writing the disparate voices we carry within us: it may be a conversation between the voice of reason and the voice of fear, or the voice of stubbornness or that of impulsivity and our wiser, more flexible selves who speak to and with one another at these times so that this existence may have a future marked by wholeness, holiness, and new life. As individuals become adept at doing these dialogues, they may even discover themselves echoing or revealing at one moment the very voice of God which dwells in the deepest, most real, parts of their heart as they simultaneously bring their most profound needs and fears to the conversation. Almost invariably these kinds of dialogues bring strength and healing, integration and faith. When I hear today's Gospel story I hear it as this kind of internal dialogue between the frightened, bewildered Mary and the deepest, truest, part of herself which is God's Word and Spirit calling her beyond all she has known before but in harmony with her people's covenant traditions and promise.

This is the way faith comes to most of us, the way we come to know and hear and respond to the voice of God in our lives. For most of us the Word of God dwells within us and only gradually steps out of the background in response to our fears, confusion, and needs as we ponder them in our hearts --- just as Mary did her entire life, but especially at times like this. In the midst of turmoil, of events which turn life plans on their heads and shatter dreams, there in our midst will be the God of Moses and Mary and Jesus reminding us, "I will overshadow you; depend on me, say yes to this, open yourself to my promise and perspective and we will bring life and meaning out of this; together we will make a gift of this tragedy (or whatever the event is) for you and for the whole world! We will bring to birth a Word the world needs so desperately to hear: Be not afraid for I am with you. Do not be afraid for you are precious to me."

Annunciations happen to us every day: small moments that signal the advent of a new opportunity to hear, embody Christ, and gift him to others. Perhaps many are missed and fewer are heeded as Mary heeded her own and gave her fiat to the change which would make something entirely new of her life, her tradition, and her world. But Mary's story is very much our own story as well, and the Feast of Christ's nativity is meant to refer to his being born of us as well. The world into which he will be brought will not love him really --- not if he is the Jesus our Scriptures and our creeds proclaim. (We bear this very much in mind during Lent and especially the approach of Holy Week.) But our own fiat ("Here I am Lord, I come to do your will!") will be accompanied by the reassuring voice of God: "I will overshadow you and accompany you. Our stories are joined now, inextricably wed as I say yes to you and you say yes to me. Together we create the future. Salvation will be born from this union. Be not afraid!"

24 March 2014

Cyril of Jerusalem on Espousal to Christ

I have written a few times now on the fact that the vocation lived under canon 604, consecrated virginity of women living in the world, is a specification of a universal vocation to espousal that every Christian receives in baptism. I have tried to deal with misguided arguments which make this vocation elitist, which posit for instance, that Religious do not have the right to call themselves Brides of Christ unless they also receive this specific consecration in conjunction with solemn vows and that CV's have a right to ask them to stop doing so! I have argued that marriage and religious life as well as the life form of CV's serve to remind us all of our own baptismal espousal to Christ -- though they do so in different ways. I have argued that consecrated virginity serves as an icon of the eschatological fulfillment of this espousal and its secularity makes it clear that heaven and earth will interpenetrate one another. In saying all of this in the main I have merely been repeating a theology which has been present since the earliest years of the Church's life.

Much of this was underscored in the Office of Readings (Vigils) last week. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (d. 386) speaks in a way which should be instructive to every CV who desires or attempts to make of their own consecration something elitist and completely unique.  The text is included below. Please attend to whom Cyril is addressing  ("My brothers"!); the wedding language or imagery is emphatic and unequivocal without exclusive gender reference. Neither is espousal in this matter linked to sinlessness or physical purity prior to baptism. Cyril says just the opposite. It is linked instead to the recreation by the Holy Spirit and new relationship with God that occurs in Baptism.

I will be writing more about some questions I recently received re canon 604 and what constitutes virginity or precludes one from receiving the consecration just as soon as I can (perhaps a week or so). However, after rereading what I have already written, I have decided that for the moment there is little I can add to either my own posts or to Cyril's instruction here regarding the universality of the call to espousal:

[[From the Instructions to Catechumens by St Cyril of Jerusalem
Prepare for the Holy Spirit

Let the heavens sing for joy and the earth exult! For these people who are about to be sprinkled with hyssop will be cleansed spiritually. His power will purify them, for during his passion the hyssop touched his lips. Let the heavenly angels rejoice! Let those who are to be wedded to a spiritual spouse prepare themselves. [N.B., as noted, Cyril is speaking of those who are preparing for Baptism, not for another consecration.] A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord And so, children of justice, follow John’s exhortation: Make straight the way of the Lord. Remove all obstacles and stumbling blocks so that you will be able to go straight along the road to eternal life. Through a sincere faith prepare yourselves so that you may be free to receive the Holy Spirit. Through your penance begin to wash your garments; then, summoned to the spouse’s bedchamber, you will be found spotless.

Heralds proclaim the bridegroom’s invitation. All mankind is called to the wedding feast, for he is a generous lover. Once the crowd has assembled, the bridegroom decides who will enter the wedding feast. This is a figure for baptism. Give your name at his gate and enter. I hope that none of you will later hear the words: Friend, how did you enter without a wedding garment? Rather may all of you hear the words: Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in small things, I shall put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.

Up to this point in the history of salvation you have stood outside the gate. Now I hope you will all hear the words: The king has brought me into his chambers. My soul rejoices in my God. He has clothed me in the garment of salvation and in the cloak of joy. He has made me a bridegroom by placing a crown on my head. He has made me a bride by adorning me with jewels and golden ornaments. I do not say these things so that your souls will be found without stain or wrinkle or any other defect. Indeed, before you have received this grace, how could this happen to you who are called to receive forgiveness of sin? Rather, I ask that once you have received his grace you do nothing to deserve damnation. Even more, I ask you to hasten toward the fulfillment of his grace.

My brothers, this is a truly great occasion. Approach it with caution. You are standing in front of God and in the presence of the hosts of angels. The Holy Spirit is about to impress his seal on each of your souls. [It is important to remember he is speaking here of a sacramental seal.] You are about to be pressed into the service of a great king. And so prepare yourselves to receive the sacrament. The gleaming white garments you are about to put on are not the preparation I am speaking of, but rather the devotion of a clean conscience.]]

22 March 2014

Ursuline Sister Cristina Evangelizes in her own Way

Perhaps you have seen this! It was posted on my Facebook page yesterday. Ordinarily I would be put off by this kind of thing. It can be undignified and seem gimmicky while it also can contribute to destructive stereotypes of nuns and religious life, but in this case I was quite moved by Sister Cristina's genuineness and the effect that had on everyone. (The coaches on the program kept referring to her energy, but it seems to me what they had encountered was simply the truth of abundant life of Christ.)

Sister's voice is really fine (she does indeed have a gift), but what was even more impressive to me was the way she spoke of sharing that gift, of Pope Francis, of God and how natural it is to have decided to participate in the competition this way (see especially how Sr Cristina points out that Francis is always telling us that God takes nothing from us but only gives us more), of evangelizing (the reason she was doing this!), and hoping that perhaps Francis would telephone her to let her know what he thought of her performance. (It is, from all that I have heard, entirely conceivable that he would call her and THAT is astounding! Yes he is a busy and important person with a universal Church to govern, but he is also Francis, the Vicar of Christ who DOES call ordinary folks on the phone; that means that in a single year he has changed what we expect from our religious leaders and the institutional Church! He has changed the face of the Church and challenged us to do so as well.)

Meanwhile, Sr Cristina's Ursuline Sisters and her parents supported her from and celebrated in the wings. (They were in tears in places; their own shared excitement and joy was also infectious.) There was, in my estimation, nothing gimmicky or undignified about this. Bridges were built, unnecessary walls and stereotypes were broken down --- at least temporarily; the yearnings of our world and culture for just such a thing were revealed. Sr Cristina effectively spoke truth, not to power precisely, but to popular culture, and she did so with an intelligence, integrity, and joy we should applaud. For instance, one of the coaches joked that had he met Cristina when he was a child he would have attended Church faithfully (paraphrase) and would be Pope now! Cristina didn't miss a beat and --- serious as a heart beat, replied, "Well, you have met me now." Indeed! "J-Ax" was confronted with a choice to act on this encounter (and the kernel of truth in his own jest) in the present; really, isn't this what evangelization (and especially what we are calling the "New Evangelization") is all about?

Watch the video on full screen and turn on the closed captions; you will be able to read the actual dialogue that takes place between Cristina and the coaches on the show.

18 March 2014

Traveling With the Word of God, Becoming People of the Word

Pope Francis made a "small" but very far-reaching suggestion in yesterday's homily, namely that we carry a small Bible or New Testament with us wherever we go and read a little whenever we have the time. I could not second that suggestion more enthusiastically if I tried. I have written that as human beings we are dialogical at the core of our selves, We are covenantal beings who live from, for, with, and within the Word of God. We should truly take the time to read regularly in the Scriptures. In my own life it is grappling with these (a reverent grappling!) that is one of the most formative things I do, and one of the most important forms of prayer.

For those with Kindles or other e-readers there are a number of good translations available for these; one benefit is the font can be enlarged without carrying a larger book. Many have good indexing now which allow one to find the precise text they want to read. In a regular sized book, one of the more interesting translations available now is by Marcus Borg called, Evolution of the Word. It is arranged in the order the New Testament was written (as close as scholars can determine) and has a decent introduction to each book. Whatever choice you make, please take Francis up on his suggestion. It can change your life in major ways --- and of course it can change the world in which we live as well.

17 March 2014

Happy St Pat's ! (Reprise)

All good wishes on this "high holy day" (well, High Irish Holy Day, anyway)! Of course, it does seem that everyone is Irish on this day, so I guess that makes it a universal high holy day! It is a great thing to be Irish --- even if it is Scots-Irish!

It also seemed to me that McGinley's poem captured the fun as well as the seriousness of this Saint and his day so I am reprising it from last year. Enjoy.

St Patrick the Missioner, by Phyllis McGinley

Saint Patrick was a preacher
With honey in his throat.
They say he could charm away
A miser's dearest pence;
Could coax a feathered creature
To leave her nesting note
And fly from many a farm away
To hear his eloquence.

No Irishman was Patrick
According to the story.
The speech of Britain clung to him
(Or maybe it was Wales).
But, ah, for curving rhet'ric,
Angelic oratory,
What man could match a tongue to him
Among the clashing Gaels!

Let Patrick meet a Pagan
In Antrim or Wicklow,
He'd talk to him so reachingly,
So vehement would pray,
That Cul or Neall or Reagan
Would fling aside his bow
And beg the saint beseechingly
To christen him that day.

He won the Necromancers,
The Bards, the country herds.
Chief Angus rose and went with him
To bear his staff and bowl.
For such were all his answers
To disputatious words,
Who'd parry argument with him
Would end a shriven soul.

The angry Druids muttered
A curse upon his prayers.
They sought a spell for shattering
The marvels he had done.
But Patrick merely uttered
A better spell than theirs
And sent the Druids scattering
Like mist before the sun.

They vanished like the haze on
The plume of the fountain.
But still their scaly votaries
Were venomous at hand.
So three nights and days on
Tara's stony mountain
He thundered till those coteries
Of serpents fled the land.

Grown old but little meeker
At length he took his rest,
And centuries have listened, dumb,
To tales of his renown.
For Ireland loves a speaker
So loves Saint Patrick best:
The only man in Christendom
Has talked the Irish down.

12 March 2014

A little Girl tells the Story of Jonah

Every once in a while someone sends me something truly wonderful. I think this video is one of those. In case you haven't heard the story of Jonah recently and would like to hear a wonderful dramatic "interpretation" from someone who has clearly thought long and hard about it; give it a listen!! I am posting it again in honor of today's first reading! (In this video we hear the first part of the story, where Jonah runs from God's call to go to Nineveh; today's reading only deals with the second part of the story where Jonah finally goes to Nineveh.)

The story of Jonah from Corinth Baptist Church on Vimeo.

11 March 2014

"Zacchaeus come down! I am dining with You Today!"

[[Hi Sister Laurel, your approach to Lent sounds complicated. How possible is it for people who don't live contemplative or eremitical lives?]]

Great question. I think the approach sounds more complicated than it actually is. While I am doing a lot of individual things they are meant to assist me to do one main thing, namely, to allow both my heart and my hermitage to be more truly places where God finds hospitality while I rest in God. If you think about having a guest visit you for Lent and making your house and your life ready for that guest, you might find a lot of things need doing (or need to be sacrificed), but really the focus of your efforts is simple: make your place theirs and put yourself at their disposal. If you have hosted this guest before you will probably know what s/he needs and desires from you. In that case you may simply need to improve a little here and there on the arrangements you have made in the past --- though you will also have learned more about yourself and your guest and will find ways to honor that in the present. In a sense that is really all I am doing and all I have really described in What Do You Do for Lent?.

Secondly the questioner for the post I put up lives in a parish where the triad prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are stressed. The same is true in my own, and in fact in the universal Church. This triad runs through all the readings we have throughout the season. My own preference is first of all not to see these as three separate or discrete things we might do but instead as three facets of every genuinely human life, one which is: 1) rooted in and open to God (prayer), 2) concerned with and committed to the really essential while letting go of the inessential --- especially if these latter things bind or make us unfree in some way (fasting), and which is 3) compassionate and generous to others (almsgiving). We are called to be people who receive our lives from God, detach ourselves from that which is inessential or less truly lifegiving to assist in providing both the inner and the outer space needed for both prayer and almsgiving, and go out to share what is lifegiving with others --- on whatever level that is needed. The penances we do during Lent are meant to awaken us to the promise and demands of these three dimensions as well as to make them more alive and real in us the rest of the year.

If you look again at the list of things I mentioned were involved in Lent this year you will see they all fall under things necessary to put my guest first, to be there for God, to really be a person in whom these three dimensions are real and integrated in eremitical terms. Since I do limited ministry it is sometimes easy to forget the purpose of the hermitage itself and to treat it as a merely private place where I relax apart from ministry or the place where I get ready to do ministry. Instead, the hermitage itself is a ministry both to God and in order to remind us all that every home is meant to be a place of hospitality to God and to those precious to God. Archbishop Vigneron referred to this in the homily he gave at my perpetual eremitical profession when he spoke of giving my home over to God. Of course there is great privacy here at Stillsong and relatively few people actually enter here, but even so it remains a quasi public place which is meant to witness to eremitical life and the meaning of the silence of solitude. The life within the hermitage is a relatively relaxed life but not a lax one and sometimes I have temporarily lost sight of this, either in anxious work, or in "just kicking back". I suspect this is often a challenge in contemplative houses and one the Rule and horarium help members to meet --- especially in Benedictinism. In my own case the solution, it seems to me, is a renewed focus on allowing God to find rest here in my home and in my heart while I truly rest in God. That is really what Lent seems to be for me this year.

For those not living in hermitages and not living contemplative lives I think some of the same approach can be adopted, whether with the Lenten triad itself, or in making of one's home (both heart and hearth) a place of hospitality to God and those who are precious to God (one will do so in ways which will involve the Lenten triad). Those who cannot seem to function without bringing work home with them and who, unfortunately, never really rest in the love of their families or create space where their families may rest in their love could certainly find a few things to do which would make life better all around. Those who come home from work, turn on the TV or computer and never spend real time with their families could do similarly. Those who rarely eat together or treat their homes as momentary pit stops along the route of real life could find ways to change this. (Mealtimes are an especially privileged time to be hospitable to God together.) Those for whom spirituality is compartmentalized and is thought to, "belong in Church but not here," could find ways to celebrate Lent which changes this misguided approach to reality (spirituality).

The bottom line questions for the hermit are, 1) are my heart and home places where God always finds a welcome and a place to rest while I find real rest in the heart of God? and 2) How do I allow that to be more and more true each day? It is certainly true that I am not worthy to have the Lord stay under my roof, but as was the case with Zacchaeus, Jesus has called out to me and said that he will be dining with me this day; I try to take that seriously every day I repeat the Centurion's response to Jesus' announcement, "O Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. . ." but I am doing so in a renewed way this Lent. Given the frequency with which we each repeat the Centurion's response to Jesus (Matt 8:8) --- it is done at every Mass and is a summary of a sound Eucharistic spirituality --- I don't think the hermit's question is one which should be foreign to any Christian --- though I suspect it definitely is!

Naked Theology Blog and Modern Day Anchorites

[[Hi Sister, I read a piece from a blog called Naked Theology. It was about "modern day anchoresses" and featured you. The author's conclusion about you and your life was, "I find Sister Laurel interesting, but also interesting is the fact while she believes that she lives a life of a hermit, she is on the internet. I guess things have changed." The link is Naked Theology and Modern Day Anchoresses. I think the author doubts you are a hermit. Could you comment?]]

It's an interesting piece from several years ago. Thanks for sending it on to me.

As noted, anchorites ordinarily had a window on the world which allowed them to interact in significant ways with folks in their village, etc. They also often had a window on the altar of their church which allowed them to participate in Mas in the same way as the rest of their community. They were significant, often honored persons in their towns and served their neighbors in important ways -- whether as spiritual guides, counselors, and sometimes too, preachers of the Gospel. Because of this there were were guidelines on managing one's time and activities at the window and in the anchorhold and the same is true in my own life. Today our human village is a bit more global than was once the case while our lives in suburbia or in cities are actually more isolated from our neighbors than is healthy. My computer is a window on the church and world around me and the church and world I live my life in God for. Times have changed, but the hermit life is not really that different --- even with computers.  But of course real limits and care are required with this window --- as has always been the case.

Still, few hermits are actual recluses nor were they traditionally. Most of the Desert Fathers and Mothers seem not to have been. (It is a minority who went into the deep desert fleeing all contact. Most lived on the margins of inhabited areas and were sought out for various reasons.) Anchorites in the Middle ages were certainly not. Oftentimes religious figures (St Francis, St Peter Damian, et al) lived for a period in strict physical solitude and then spent time evangelizing (or in other ways of serving the church in a more active ministry), then returned again to strict solitude for a time, etc. We each find different ways to embody this basic spiritual rhythm of contemplation/ministry or prayer/fasting/almsgiving. This is part of the freedom and the flexibility of eremitical life so long as the essential element of "the silence of solitude" is lived with integrity.

Remember that physical solitude is only one dimension of eremitical life --- though it is certainly indispensable and a defining dimension. The same is true of physical silence.  The "silence of solitude" which is richer than mere physical silence and solitude (and a central element in canon 603), has more to do with communion with God and the heart which is formed by that than with isolation; it is a complex reality, and for that reason, as simple as a hermit's life is, it is also more complex than stereotypes allow. While I don't think this is true of the author of the blog mentioned above, too often folks hold stereotypes of anchorites and hermits when in fact, the picture was (and still is) more diverse or nuanced than they realize.

09 March 2014

What Do you Do for Lent?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, would it be okay if I asked you what you do for Lent? In my parish we focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and I try to do something I don't usually do. Like this year I am spending time helping in a soup kitchen. Your life is already one of "[assiduous] prayer and penance" and I guess you can't help in a soup kitchen so what do you do?]]

Hi there and thanks for your question. It is actually one I get asked most every year but I don't think I have ever really answered here.

Each year is a bit different and that is true this year as well. Let me say first of all that whatever I choose to do for Lent usually fits in an organic way with the rest of my life. It is rarely the case that something of our lives cannot be improved upon or more attention given to this or that aspect of our Christian commitment. In my own life there is no doubt that I can improve my prayer life, my life in the hermitage more generally, the way I approach parish commitments, the way I structure my time, my commitment to the values which are central to eremitical life, etc. My own preference for Lent, therefore, is not to do one disparate or disconnected thing (like saying extra prayers, giving up some food item, etc) but instead, to look at the entire scope of my life and renew the basic commitments which are part and parcel of that. When I do that a number of things may change, whether permanently as the fruit of discernment, or temporarily and experimentally as a means to this discernment. So let me start by describing some of the things which changed for me this Lent and then I will describe the bottom line which made those changes necessary.

This Lent I am primarily working through a process of discern-ment which allows me to get in touch in a fresh way with the really basic things God has called me to and to which I have publicly committed myself. I am doing this in a more focused and intense way than I would ordinarily be able to do the rest vof the year, and thanks to the assistance of my director (and my own readiness), in a more effective way than I might have done in other Lents.

In order to do this specific changes have needed to be made in a number of areas: 1) I am more reclusive than ordinarily which means I don't get to Mass as frequently, 2) I am working through a book my director gave me to assist me in doing this work better than I may have in the past, 3) I have withdrawn until Easter from an activity I do once a week outside the hermitage, 4) I have changed my daily schedule to some extent so that I get rest more frequently, 5) I am doing a bit more journaling than I ordinarily do, 6) I am" fasting" in a way which allows my diet to change permanently in order to address several different things (health, commitment to poverty or simplicity, maintaining an attitude of celebration during  meals, different demands on my energy, etc.), 7) The first four hours of my day have changed some in the way I approach prayer or the practice of vigil, 8) I have changed (or am changing) the schedule on which I see clients so that I see them during fewer days during any week and also in a way which leaves  more weeks entirely free of appointments, and 9) I have gone through the hermitage to get rid of old files, papers, clothes, books, etc that accumulate through the year but are really no longer necessary. It may sound like a lot of stuff, but it all fits together into a single Lenten project and purpose.

The bottom line in all of this is that I am living Lent in a way which allows me to really pay special attention to making a prayer of everything I do and therefore, of making my ordinary, everyday life extraordinary in Christ. I have written about this in the past so it is not a new idea. (Besides, it is a key element in Benedictine spirituality.) Alone we live ordinary lives. When we live those with God in a conscious way everything is transformed into something extraordinary. (For the hermit this is a major piece of distinguishing between merely living alone and living in solitude.) This sense that even the most ordinary of lives (or parts of our lives) can be made extraordinary if only we allow God to share in every moment and mood is one of the real gifts which hermits bring to the Church and world. In fact it is part of the charism or gift quality which the vocation represents. Even so, while this is not a new idea for me, nor a new undertaking exactly, what tends to be true is that in a kind of spiral pattern I periodically come to it anew and with a fresh sense of awe and appreciation. At each turn of the spiral I return to this foundational truth with a deeper awareness of, appreciation for, and commitment to it, a commitment which engages me in progressively deeper and more extensive ways. The real newness in Lent, it seems to me, comes not from doing new things (though one may also need to do that just as I outlined above), but in doing things with a renewed commitment, with a heart which is broken open just a bit further than it was yesterday, in a more thoroughgoing way than one has done until now.

You see,as I understand it, the prayer, fasting, almsgiving triad refers not merely to three discrete activities we do, but to three dimensions of a faithful and authentically human life. Most fundamentally such a life is open to and rooted in the dynamic presence of God within and around us. It is lived in and with God in a way which provides hospitality to God both in one's home and in one's heart. A life which is prayerful is a life which is hospitable to God and lived with the sense of God as an everpresent guest. Because of this accent on hospitality to God, an accent on living in and with God, a prayerful life necessarily entails fasting since fasting (which means fasting from more than just food) involves  a commitment to the really essential things in life while it eschews the inessential. (Fasting is the flip side of feasting and hospitality to God calls for both.) We will find we eat differently, rest differently, use our time differently, and so forth when the accent is on hospitality to God. This must be so if everything we live is to be a prayer just as it is the result when everything IS a prayer.

Finally, such a life is a generous one which reaches out to others with the riches we have received; almsgiving is a symbol or expression of this. We live our lives first of all with and for God, but to the extent we really do this we will find ourselves both free and motivated to give ourselves generously to others. We will find ourselves commissioned to go out to others in some significant way. To my mind then, almsgiving is another way of describing the missionary impulse which is intrinsic to God-as-Trinity and to any Christian life lived with, in, and for God. It is the very essence of Church. Your own choice of helping in a soup kitchen is an expression of this dimension of your life. A huge part of my Lent this year is meant to assist me in determining the shape of this missionary impulse in my own life and the concrete forms it will continue to take when I am faithful to my call to be a diocesan hermit.

Lent is a time the Church gives us to allow this kind of reorientation (conversion) in all the dimensions of our life. In my own it has far reaching consequences for the rest of the year. It is not that I forget my commitments nor the central elements of the eremitical life during the rest of the year, nor that I am unfaithful to these, but several times a year (Advent, Lent, retreats, desert days, etc.)  just like anyone else, I need to tweak things and get in deeper touch with these and the God who empowers them; at these times it means getting back in touch with the surprise and awe I experience at being called in the way I am.  It means renewing the sense that everything done with, in, and for God transforms the ordinary into the really extraordinary and makes of the little I can give something of infinite worth. During the year a lot can happen to knock us out of our own spiritual centeredness or cause a bit of a wobble in the orbit of our lives. It is also the case that we each  grow incrementally (a little at a time) so that in time (say the space of a year or of several years) we may need to stop and take stock of what that period of time has brought in terms of growth; we do this in order that we may embrace that in a conscious way.  Though we never really know how Lent will go or what God will do with this time in our lives, this Lent seems to be one of those for me and in this it is a real gift.

08 March 2014

Miserere: We fall and get up, fall and get up. . .

This is one of my very favorite pieces, especially for Lent. I may have put it up here in past years. This miserere reminds us all that Lent is a time of conversion. In Benedictinism we are reminded that we fall and get up, fall and get up. In Christianity to be brought to our knees in repentance is to be raised to a profound dignity as human beings. Let us not be afraid or reluctant to be moved to our knees in this way. It is astounding how beautiful reality is from this position!

On Drawing Prayer Circles

[[Dear Sister, have you heard of the books referring to drawing a circle around one's biggest dreams or needs and then standing there until the prayer is answered? They are based on the Jewish legend of Honi who drew a circle and prayed for rain. He stayed inside the circle until it rained and it did! God answered Honi's Prayer! I just wondered what you thought of this approach to prayer.]]

Hi there. I have heard of the books and seen them advertised on Amazon, but I have not read them. The legend of Honi, however is one I am somewhat familiar with. Honi, a first century BC scholar who is sometimes called the "one who draws circles", was faced with the need for rain during a drought. He eventually drew a circle and announced to God that he was not going to move until God sent rain. It was Winter, the rainy season, when he did this. When a smattering of rain came Honi announced to God that that was not enough and reiterated his intention to remain there until there was real rain. There was a downpour and at this point Honi told God he wanted (or the people of Israel needed) a quieter, less destructive rain; he said he would continue to stay in the circle until God sent that instead. At this point there came a quieter rain which the ground could drink up and which would not be destructive because of flooding, mudslides, etc.

What is important to remember however are the two responses this action drew from Jews. Some excommunicated Honi because he had indeed blasphemed God by his actions. Others (a Queen) excused him saying he had a special relationship with God. There is ambiguity in the story and both wisdom and very real danger in the lessons we draw from it about prayer. Sometimes the line between the two is exceedingly fine; I personally believe Honi crossed the line despite also showing us some of the things necessary in a life of prayer and despite his special relationship with God. So let me say something about that and what I believe the author of these books on "drawing a circle of prayer" as well as what his readers must be cautious about.

The positive lessons on Prayer Honi gives us:

All prayer is meant to allow God the space to work in our lives. Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit we open our hearts to God so that God may enter those spaces, know us more profoundly (in the intimate Biblical sense), and accompany us in every moment and mood of our lives. That means opening ourselves in ways which reveal our deepest needs and dreams and doing so in a way which lets those dreams and needs be shaped, qualified, transformed, and answered by the presence of God and his own will or purposes. In other words we hold our dreams and needs open to God's transforming and fulfilling presence. We take them seriously; we claim and honor them, but we also hold them somewhat lightly because God's presence can cause us to reevaluate and even redefine these in light of his love and purposes. For instance, my own dream to become a teacher or to transform the world is rooted in gifts coming from a really profound place within me which I must hold onto and express, but I must also be open to the possibility that I am not going to be teaching in the ways I thought I might nor transforming the world in the way I dreamt I might. The Kingdom of God comes through our attentiveness to our deepest needs, gifts, and dreams; we must not ignore these, but at the same time, that Reign rarely looks like what we thought it might.

Drawing a circle around my desire to teach, etc, allows me to get and stay in touch with the profound gifts within me, while praying about this allows me to open these spaces to God and to collaborate with God in becoming the teacher (or whatever else) he may desire me to become. Standing in this circle allows me to remain trusting in God's love and determined that the best use of my gifts be made, but I am neither defining (drawing) nor standing in this circle in order that God might be "informed" about who I am, what I feel, dream, or need, nor that his will be shaped accordingly. I stand in such a circle so that I may consciously and faithfully bring these things to God and allow their potential and promise to be realized in ways I may not have even imagined myself. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to me because it requires 1) a conscious claiming of gifts, needs, dreams, etc, 2) a faithfulness and deep trust in their potential and in the power of God to bring all things to fullness or completion despite ostensible signs otherwise, and 3) a commitment to watch for the ways in which God brings things to fulfillment even when these are contrary to my own plans and conceptions. Drawing a circle of prayer makes sense to the degree it demands and facilitates attentiveness and perseverance in prayer.

The Negative or Dangerous Elements in Honi's Approach to Prayer:

However, as I say, it is my opinion that Honi crossed the line which the leadership of the Jewish People considered blasphemous and worthy of excommunication. He moved from persevering prayer to blackmail or extortion, and he did so by treating prayer and the drawing of a circle as a way of leveraging God. When I think of what Honi did with the circle it sounds a lot like a child saying to their Mother, "I want cake for dinner and I am going to lie here in the middle of the floor until you let me have that! Not only that (once mom pulls out the vanilla cake mix!), it had BETTER be a chocolate cake!" Despite the vast difference between this and what I described in the last section, the line between these two is often a very fine one indeed and we need to be very careful never to cross it!

Prayer is always about intimacy with God but it is not the intimacy of peers, much less of persons who can dictate to God what their needs are and the ways in which they expect these needs to be met. Honi crossed this line as well. He forgot that in prayer he was dealing with the Master of the Universe, the One whom he was called to serve  in persevering prayer, not one we can call on to serve us in a demanding and willful pseudo-piety. Perseverance is necessary in prayer, but stubbornness is a different matter. In prayer we do indeed open our hearts to God, but we do so in a way which allows our dreams and needs to accept the limitations of reality and shaped by that. We continue to hope, but the certainty of our hope allows a flexibility and demands docility as well; God's purposes and will always ultimately eventuate in a fulfillment of what we dream of and desire or need most deeply. We need to trust that that is the case even as we allow ourselves to be instructed in the fact that we cannot always see or imagine the how or the shape of this fulfillment. We do not EVER dictate terms to God. It seems to me that Honi forgot most of these things in his own prayer.

Similarly, it is important not to think that God is outside the circle. We must understand that drawing the circle of prayer circumscribes a space where God is intimately present with us in the very circumstances we ourselves are suffering. We draw the circle and say effectively that we will stand here WITH God and trust in his lifegiving presence despite all the difficulties and ridicule that may entail. Honi's actions seem very different to me than this. He seemed to be drawing a line in the sand (dust!) which separated himself from God and turned the situation into a "me vs God" struggle rather than allowing it to define Honi as an I-Thou covenantal reality. It is important in prayer to recognize that our truest needs and dreams are God's as well, and that we stand together as covenant partners committed to the unfolding and fulfillment of creation. Even so, this is never the same as allowing prayer to become a kind of martyrdom (witness) against a God who finally capitulates to our demands.

Further, we must take care that the drawing of prayer circles not be allowed to deteriorate into a kind of magical thinking where if we do x (e.g., draw a prayer circle around my child), then y (e.g., his safety) will be the result. One of the real dangers of the idea of drawing prayer circles is that we begin to think that we have done what we need and therefore the result is assured. While this is similar to the extorting-God mindset (in some ways it seems like a "kinder, gentler, version") it is as contrary to the true dynamics of authentic prayer as is the demanding, self-centered, blackmail version of things. Since the author of these books has a version for children it seems to me that parents need to be particularly cautious in being sure they do not contribute to notions of prayer that have more to do with magical thinking than with prayer. Children outgrow magical thinking but if it becomes codified in their approaches to prayer this becomes a huge obstacle to developing a mature spirituality later in life and it contributes to unnecessary disillusion with religion and the practice of prayer.

Risk and tension are always there in our Prayer:

Finally, it seems to me that the Legend of Honi the circle drawer reminds us that there is always risk and tension in our prayer. Prayer requires a boldness and a steadfastness which can easily deteriorate into presumption and stubbornness. It requires an intimacy which runs the risk of devolving or being distorted into actual blasphemyAfter all, it is one thing to say, "Here I stand, I can do no other" WITH and for God; it is quite another to do so as   though God was simply another person on the parish council who needed to be convinced and prodded into action. And of course negotiating this risky business is part of what it means to learn to pray and to live a prayer life. As we mature in this we become better at a kind of "holy boldness" and an intimacy which is never presumptuous but which instead reminds us of Mary's part at the Wedding Feast of Cana. There she spoke directly, even boldly, to her Son about the needs of the host and she clearly knew her Son could do something about the situation. But Jesus drew limits as well and while Mary stood back a bit in light of these, she continued to trust  in her Son and counselled others to do as he said. It seems to me that Mary's interactions with Jesus in that story are a more accurate image of the dynamics of prayer --- especially the "holy boldness"  required --- than Honi's legend itself manages to give us.

I hope this is helpful to you. You might also check out, On persistence in prayer and other posts linked to the labels found below.

07 March 2014

Choose Life, Only That and Always. . . (Reprise)

When I was a very young sister, I pasted the following quotation into the front of my Bible. It was written by another Sister, and has been an important point of reference for me since then:

Choose life, only that and always,
and at whatever risk. . .
to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere
passage of time,
to withhold giving it and spending it
is to choose
nothing. (Sister H Kelly)

The readings from the Thursday after Ash Wednesday both deal with this theme, and each reminds us in its own way just how serious human life is --- and how truly perilous!! Both of them present our situation as one of life and death choices. There is nothing in the middle, no golden mean of accommodation, no place of neutrality in which we might take refuge -- or from which we can watch dispassionately without committing ourselves, no room for mediocrity (a middle way!) of any kind. On one hand lies genuine "success", on the other true failure. Both readings ask us to commit our whole selves to God in complete dependence or die. Both are clear that it is our very Selves that are at risk at every moment, but certainly at the present moment. And especially, both of them are concerned with responsive commitment of heart, mind, and body --- the "hearkening" we are each called to, and which the Scriptures calls "obedience."

The language of the Deuteronomist's sermon (Deut 30:15-20) is dramatic and uncompromising: [[ This day I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents shall live,. . . for if you turn away your hearts and will not listen. . .you will surely perish. . .]] Luke (Lk 9:22-25) recounts Jesus' language as equally dramatic and uncompromising: [[If you would be my disciples, then take up your cross daily (that is, take up the task of creating yourselves in complete cooperation with and responsiveness to God at every moment). . .If you seek to preserve your life [that is, if you choose self-preservation, if you refuse to risk to listen or to choose an ongoing responsiveness] you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then lose or forfeit the very self s/he was created to be?]]

I think these readings set out the clear agenda of Lent, but more than that they set before us the agenda of our entire lives. Our lives are both task and challenge. We do not come into this world fully formed or even fully human. The process of creating the self we are CALLED to be is what we are to be about, and it is a deadly serious business. What both readings try to convey, the OT with its emphasis on Law (God's Word) and keeping that Law, and the Gospel with its emphasis on following the obedient Christ by taking up our lives day by day in response to the will of God, is the fact that moment by moment our very selves are created ONLY in dialogue with God (and in him through others, etc). The Law of Moses is the outer symbol of the law written in our hearts, the dialogue and covenant with God that forms the very core of who we truly are as relational selves. The cross of Christ is the symbol of one who responded so exhaustively and definitively to the Word of God, that he can literally be said to have embodied or incarnated it in a unique way. It is this kind of incarnation or embodiment our very selves are meant to be. We accept this task, this challenge --- and this privilege, or we forfeit our very selves.

God is speaking us at every moment, if only we would chose to listen and accept this gift of self AS GIFT! At the same time, both readings know that the human person is what Thomas Keating calls, "A LISTENING". Our TOTAL BEING, he says, IS A LISTENING. (eyes, ears, mind, heart, and even body) Our entire self is meant to hear and respond to the Word of God as it comes to us through and in the whole of created reality. To the degree we fail in this, to the extent we avoid the choices of an attentive and committed life, an obedient life, we will fail to become the selves we are called to be.

The purpose of Lent and Lenten practices is to help us PARE DOWN all the extraneous noise that comes to us in so many ways, and become more sensitive and responsive to the Word of God spoken in our hearts, and mediated to us by the world around us through heart, mind, and body. We fast so that we might become aware of, and open to, what we truly hunger for --- and of course what genuinely nourishes us. We make prayers of lament and supplication not only so we can become aware of our own deepest pain and woundedness and the healing God's presence brings, but so we can become aware of the profound pain and woundedness of our world and those around us, and then reach out to help heal them. And we do penance so our hearts may be readied for prayer and made receptive to the selfhood God bestows there. In every case, Lenten practice is meant to help us listen carefully and deeply, to live deliberately and responsively, and to make conscious, compassionate choices for life.

It is clear that the Sister who wrote the quote I pasted into my Bible all those years ago had been meditating on today's readings (or at least the one from Deuteronomy)! I still resonate with that quote. It still belongs at the front of my Bible eventhough the ink has bled through the contact paper protecting it, and the letters are fuzzy with age. Still, in light of today's readings I would change it slightly: to let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to refuse to receive it anew moment by moment as God's gift, to withhold giving it and spending it is to refuse authentic selfhood and to choose DEATH instead.

Let us pray then that we each might be motivated and empowered to chose life, always and everywhere --- and at whatever risk or cost. God offers this to us and to our world at every moment --- if only we will ready ourselves in him, listen, and respond as we are called to!

02 March 2014

Lenten Praxis

The year before last I posted the following idea during the latter part of Lent. This year I wanted to put it up in time for folks to use it for the whole of Lent if they desired. It was given to me by my Pastor.

 The idea is to choose 40 people who have been significant in your life and faith journey. Perhaps these are folks who have helped you "choose life." (If one has a smaller circle of significant friends and family, then one would list how ever many that really is.) Each of the 40 days of Lent one writes one of these people a note thanking them for who they are and what they have meant or do mean to you. (If your list is more modest, you could break the 40 days up and write notes at regular intervals.) During that day (or that period), you also pray for that person especially.

I would suggest that this might also work well for the season of Easter. We Fast during Lent in a variety of ways, but Easter is a time of feasting, and certainly more specifically of savoring the new life that is ours in Christ! One could take something of the same practice then and write the people who have given us life in all of the ways that occurs. I consider this a clearly Eucharistic practice because it is one of gratitude (eucharistein), but also because it embodies that gratitude in ways which can transform the world. It does so by allowing us to live from hearts that are more fully remade by our savoring of the love others have shown us and allowed us to give as well. To savor such love, to reflect on it and allow ourselves to be further nourished by it is surely Eucharistic at its roots.

My thanks to my pastor for such a wonderful idea. How ever you decide to adapt the practice, I hope you will give it a try yourselves!