28 April 2014

On Consecrated Virginity and the Interpenetration of Heaven and Earth

[[Dear Sister, thank you for your post on Star Trek and the Resurrection of Jesus. (cf., StarTrek and the Resurrection of Jesus) I was most interested in the way you spoke of the interpenetration of heaven and earth and the tearing of the veil between sacred and secular, heavenly and fleshly. You see I am a consecrated virgin and have been reading what you say about eschatological or consecrated secularity. I hadn't appreciated that your insistence on the secularity of the CV vocation comes from a much broader and more fundamental theology. I know you have tried to explain this before so I just wanted you to know that your post helped me to see this more clearly as well as it did the nature and meaning of Jesus' resurrection. Thank you.]]

Thanks for your comments. Gratifyingly, a number of people found that post helpful. You are exactly right about the basis for my insistence on the secularity of the canon 604 vocation. While it is true that I don't think anything else makes sense, and also that I am convinced by the discussion of the matter by Sister Sharon Holland, IHM as well as by texts associated with the rite itself, my insistence is more profoundly driven by an eschatology which does not see heaven as remote but instead understands that in Christ it has begun to interpenetrate this world. The imagery of the rending of the veil between sacred and secular or profane, eternal and mortal (fleshly) is terribly important to the notion of a new creation occasioned by Jesus' death and resurrection. But this same veil becomes symbolized by the veil often associated with consecrated life, and especially that of consecrated virgins, I think. It truly symbolizes the interpenetration of heaven and earth and what could say this more powerfully than a form of consecrated life which is not driven by the "fuga mundi" impulse of some religious life but is instead both thoroughly consecrated and thoroughly secular?

There is a second symbol of this eschatology which I have mentioned before which the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus makes central, namely, the two step process of matrimony in Judaism. While the interpenetration of heaven and earth occasioned by the resurrection is real it is also proleptic of something that will only one day be fully realized when God is all in all. With Jesus' resurrection the new creation begins to be realized. The first step of the Divine union with humanity has been accomplished; the betrothal is a fact for those who are baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection. With the ascension Jesus returns to the Father to prepare a place for us in the very life of God and we look forward to the day when there will indeed be a new heaven and a new earth in which God is all in all.

In other words we look forward to the consummation of the wedding/union between God and humanity which represents the fulfillment of creation and God's will to share God's love/life exhaustively. Consecrated virgins are called to stand as icons of this reality and promise. It is not, as I have noted in other posts, the promise of disembodied existence in a remote heaven but of existence in an entirely transformed world/cosmos in which heaven and earth have been made to be a single reconciled and transfigured reality. Though a tad awkward, it would not be a big theological stretch to call life in this new heaven and earth "eschatological secularity." So, to suggest that CV's are called to a form of eschatological or consecrated secularity right here and right now in the midst of this new creation in witness to a betrothal that has occurred in the Christ Event and a consummation that is yet to come seems to me to be an accurate description of  a profoundly significant vocation.

As you recognize, the theology which underpins this vocation is indeed much broader and more substantive than some have perceived from considering the canon which defines the vocation or the rite which establishes it. Its scope is cosmic. The bridal imagery is the imagery of new creation and eschatological fulfillment achieved by the boundless and eternal love/mercy of God which will completely remake not only THIS world/cosmos but God's own life as well. (Our share in this is what we call heaven and Jesus goes to prepare a place for each and all of us in the Divine life.) It makes sense that an icon of this covenantal state is the consecrated virgin living an eschatological secularity. However, as I have written before, so long as consecrated virgins resist the secularity of their vocation or fail to understand their own betrothal as proleptic and iconic of a consummation/wedding which will occur for the whole of creation instead of as something elitist or entirely individual, they will simply ensure that their vocations are theologically and pastorally irrelevant and even destructive. (Link for this article: Consecrated Virgins and the Interpenetration of Heaven and Earth)

27 April 2014

Thomas, called "Didymus": What was his doubt really about? (Reprise)

Today's Gospel focuses on the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, and one of the lessons one should draw from these stories is that we are indeed dealing with bodily resurrection, but therefore, with a kind of bodiliness which transcends the corporeality we know here and now. It is very clear that Jesus' presence among his disciples is not simply a spiritual one, in other words, and that part of Christian hope is the hope that we as embodied persons will come to perfection beyond the limits of death. It is not just our souls which are meant to be part of the new heaven and earth, but our whole selves, body and soul.

The scenario with Thomas continues this theme, but is contextualized in a way which leads homilists to focus on the whole dynamic of faith with seeing and faith despite not having seen. It also makes doubt the same as unbelief and plays these off against faith, as though faith cannot also be served by doubt. But doubt and unbelief are decidedly NOT the same things. We rarely see Thomas as the one whose doubt (or whose demands!) SERVES true faith, and yet, that is what today's Gospel is about. Meanwhile, Thomas also tends to get a bad rap as the one who was separated from the community and doubted what he had not seen with his own eyes. The corollary here is that Thomas will not simply listen to his brother and sister disciples and believe that the Lord has appeared to or visited them. But I think there is something far more significant going on in Thomas' proclamation that unless he sees the wounds inflicted on Jesus in the crucifixion, and even puts his fingers in the very nail holes, he will not believe.

What Thomas, I think, wants to make very clear is that we Christians believe in a crucified Christ, and that the resurrection was God's act of validation of Jesus as scandalously and ignominiously Crucified. I think Thomas knows on some level anyway, that insofar as the resurrection really occured, it does not nullify what was achieved on the cross. Instead it renders permanently valid what was revealed (made manifest and made real) there. In other words, Thomas knows if the resurrection is really God's validation of Jesus' life and establishes him as God's Christ, the Lord he will meet is the one permanently established and marked as the crucified One. The crucifixion was not some great misunderstanding which could be wiped away by resurrection. Instead it was an integral part of the revelation of the nature of truly human and truly divine existence. Whether it is the Divine life, authentic human existence, or sinful human life --- all are marked and revealed in one way or another by the signs of Jesus' cross. For instance, ours is a God who has journeyed to the very darkest, godless places or realms human sin produces, and has become Lord of even those places. He does not disdain them even now but is marked by them and will journey with us there --- whether we are open to him doing so or not --- because Jesus has implicated God there and marked him with the wounds of an exhaustive kenosis.

Another piece of this is that Jesus is, as Paul tells us, the end of the Law and it was Law that crucified him. The nail holes and wounds in Jesus' side and head -- indeed every laceration which marked him -- are a sign of legal execution -- both in terms of Jewish and Roman law. We cannot forget this, and Thomas' insistence that he really be dealing with the Crucified One reminds us vividly of this fact as well. The Jewish and Roman leaders did not crucify Jesus because they misunderstood him, but because they understood all-too-clearly both Jesus and the immense power he wielded in his weakness and poverty. They understood that he could turn the values of this world, its notions of power, authority, etc, on their heads. They knew that he could foment profound revolution (religious and otherwise) wherever he had followers. They chose to crucify him not only to put an end to his life, but to demonstrate he was a fraud who could not possibly have come from God; they chose to crucify him to terrify those who might follow him into all the places discipleship might really lead them --- especially those places of human power and influence associated with religion and politics. The marks of the cross are a judgment (krisis) on this whole reality.

There are many gods and even manifestations of the real God available to us today, and so there were to Thomas and his brethren in those first days and weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus. When Thomas made his declaration about what he would and would not believe, none of these were crucified Gods or would be worthy of being believed in if they were associated with such shame and godlessness. Thomas knew how very easy it would be for his brother and sister disciples to latch onto one of these, or even to fall back on entirely traditional notions in reaction to the terribly devastating disappointment of Jesus' crucifixion. He knew, I think, how easy it might be to call the crucifixion and all it symbolized a terrible misunderstanding which God simply reversed or wiped away with the resurrection -- a distasteful chapter on which God has simply turned the page. Thomas knew that false prophets showed up all the time. He knew that a God who is distant, impassible, and all-powerful is much easier to believe in (and follow) than a truly compassionate one who walks with us even in our sinfulness or who empties himself to become subject to the powers of sin and death, especially in the awful scandal, ignominy, and suffering of the cross.

In other words, Thomas' doubt may have had less to do with the FACT of a resurrection, than it had to do with his concern that the disciples, in their desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced, had truly met and clung to the real Lord, the crucified One. In this way their own discipleship will come to be marked by the signs of the cross as they preach, suffer, and serve in the name (and so, in the paradoxical power) of THIS Lord and no other. Only he could inspire them; only he could sustain them; only he could accompany them wherever true discipleship led them.

Paul said, "I want to know Christ crucified and only Christ crucified" because only this Christ had transformed sinful, godless reality with his presence, only this Christ had redeemed even the realms of sin and death by remaining open to God even within these realities. Only this Christ would journey with us to the unexpected and unacceptable places, and in fact, only he would meet us there with the promise and presence of a God who would bring life out of them. Thomas, I believe, knew on some fundamental level what Paul would soon proclaim himself as part of a developed theology; it is this, I think, which stands behind his insistence on seeing the wounds and put his fingers in the very nail holes. He wanted to be sure his brethren were putting their faith in the crucified One, the one who turned everything upside down and relativized every other picture of God we might believe in. He became the great doubter because of this, but I suspect instead, he was the most astute theologian among the original Apostles. He, like Paul, wanted to know Christ Crucified and ONLY Christ Crucified.

We should not trivialize Thomas' witness by transforming him into a run of the mill empiricist and doubter (though doubting is an important piece of growth in faith)!! Instead we should imitate his insistence: we are called upon to be followers of the Crucified God, and no other. Every version of God we meet should be closely examined for nail holes and a lance wound marking a pierced and compassionate heart. Every one should be checked for signs that this God is generous and humble enough to assume such suffering on behalf of a creation he would reconcile to himself and make whole in mercy. Only then do we know this IS the God proclaimed in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, the only one worthy of being followed even into the darkest reaches of human sin and death, the only One who meets us in even these same unexpected and even unacceptable places, the only one who loves us with an everlasting love from which nothing at all can separate us.

24 April 2014

On Star Trek Next Generation and the Resurrection of Jesus

In one of the Star Trek Next Generation episodes (yes, I admit I am or was a fan of most all the Star Trek series!) Command-der Geordi La Forge and Ensign Ro Larren are caught in a transporter accident. There is some sort of power or radiation surge during a return "beaming" and when the two of them "materialize" back on the Enterprise they cannot be seen or heard. Neither can they interact with the ordinary material world they know in a way which will let folks know they are really alive (for the crew of the Enterprise have concluded they died without a trace). La Forge and Roe try to get folks' attention and learn that they can walk through walls, reach through control panels or other "solid" objects, stand between two people conversing without being seen, and so forth. It is as though the dimension of reality Geordi and Ro now inhabit interpenetrates the other more everyday world, interfaces with it in some way without being identical with it. Their new existence is both continuous and discontinuous with their old existence; they are present but with a different kind of bodiliness, a bodiliness in which they can connect with and be present to one another but which their crewmates must be empowered to see.

They leave a vague radiation trail wherever they go and in attempting to purge the ship of this trail the Enterprise crew causes the boundary between these two dimensions to thin or dissolve and LaForge and Roe are made visible briefly in the other world, fleetingly, time after time.  It is only over time that the crew come to realize that their friends are not dead but alive, and more, that they exist not in some remote corner of empty space, but right here, in their ship amongst their friends. In fact, it is at a somewhat raucous celebration in memory of and gratitude for their lost friends' lives, that this clear recognition occurs and Geordi and Roe become really present to their friends and shipmates.

It is not hard, I think, to see why this story functions as an analogy of Thursday's Gospel lection, and in fact, for many of the readings we have and will hear during this Easter Season. In particular I think this story helps us to think about and imagine two points which Jesus' post Easter appearances make again and again. The first is that Jesus' resurrection is bodily. He was not merely "raised" in our minds and hearts, his "resurrection" is not merely the result of a subjective experience of grace and/or forgiveness --- though it will include these; Jesus is not a disembodied spirit, a naked immortal soul. Neither does he leave his humanity behind and simply "become God" --- as a pagan emperor might have been said to have done, nor as though his humanity was merely a matter of God "slumming" among us for several decades and then jettisoning this. Instead, Jesus is raised to a new form of bodiliness, a new form of perfected (glorified) humanity. He is the first fruits of this new bodiliness and we look forward in hope because what has happened to Jesus will also happen to each of us. Jesus' resurrection raises Jesus to a life which is both earthly and heavenly --- like the story of Geordi and Ensign Ro, Jesus' existence straddles (and integrates) two worlds or dimensions. It brings these two together (reconciles them) and also mediates between them. It symbolizes, in the strongest sense of that term, the reality which will one day come to be when God is all in all.

The second point that this story helps us to imagine and think about then is the fact that Jesus' resurrection makes Jesus the first fruits of a new creation. Jesus' participation in literally Godless, sinful death and his descent into hell has implicated God in and transformed these with God's presence. Godless death has been destroyed (how can it be godless if God is there?) and one day, when God is all in all, death per se will be ended as well. In other words, the world we inhabit is not the same one we inhabited before Jesus' death and resurrection. Instead it is a world in which the veil between sacred and profane (or secular), heavenly (eternal) and fleshly (mortal) has been torn asunder and heaven and earth begun to interpenetrate one another, a world which signals that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth with the entire cosmos remade. We who are baptized into Christ's death are, as Tom Wright puts the matter, citizens of heaven colonizing the earth; as a result we are privileged to see reality with eyes of faith, and when we do we are able to see when the boundary between these two interpenetrating realities thins and Jesus' new mediating bodiliness is revealed to us.

For Christians this "thinning" (only a metaphor, of course) occurs in many ways. In baptism we are initiated into Jesus's death and made both part of this new creation and capable of perceiving it with eyes of faith. In prayer we become vulnerable to Jesus' presence in God. In times of grieving and loss we may also become uniquely vulnerable and open to it.  And there are especially privileged ways this happens as well. There is the bodiliness of the Scriptural text where the Word is proclaimed and Jesus is able to speak to, challenge, comfort, and commission us to act as ambassadors of this New Creation. The stories within the Scriptures, most especially the parables, serve as doorways to this new creation; they ask us to let go of the preconceptions, achievements, defenses, etc which work so well for us in the pre-resurrection world and step into a sacred space which is, because of Jesus' resurrection and ascension, always present here and now. There is the ecclesial body where even two or three gathered together in Jesus' name (or, for that matter, even a single hermit in her cell praying in the name of the Church) reveals this New Creation in a proleptic and partial way. And of course, there are the other Sacraments which mediate Christ's presence to us; among these especially is the Eucharist where sacred and profane come together and ordinary bread and wine are transformed into a form or expression of Jesus' risen and unique bodily presence.

Too often we locate heaven in some remote place "out there" in space. But in a real though imperfect (proleptic) way heaven is right here, right now, interpenetrating and leavening our ordinary world. Jesus is the New Temple, the new One in whom heaven and earth meet; he Rules not from some remote heaven, but from within this New Creation. The Star Trek Next Generation episode is, of course, science fiction where this challenging and consoling reality is not. Still, it helps me imagine a more genuinely Scriptural paradigm of the nature and meaning of  Jesus' resurrection from death than the even more inadequate ones I grew up hearing!! I hope it will do the same for you.

N.B.,  Jesus' ascension will modify the form of bodiliness or presence the original disciples experienced and, among other things, mark both the end of the unique and privileged post-Easter appearances and the beginning of a kind of intermediate state between these and the "second coming" or parousia when God will be all in all. Even so, this does not change what I have presented here. With the ascension we move from the period of time when people saw (via these privileged appearances) and believed to that time when they "do not see" but believe. Still, the essential truth is that we belong to a new creation in which heaven and earth interpenetrate one another as they did not prior to Jesus' death and resurrection. In Christ we also straddle, reconcile, and mediate between these two worlds.

21 April 2014

Hermits and Stereotypes: "Why I Want to Become a Hermit"

Occasionally I look under "hermits" on the internet and find interesting things. Here is one of the both sadder and funnier video's I have seen. Stereotypes of hermits abound and I have written about those before, but there is something a bit hard about hearing such things come from the lips of a young person like this --- not least because of the attitude towards others it represents. Adolescence is a difficult time, no doubt about it. There are reasons solitary (diocesan) eremitical life is generally a second half of life vocation. Unwittingly and implicitly this teen shows us some of those. Unfortunately she is as "curmudgeonly" and misanthropic as the old man with a beard she castigates in the first sentences. Hopefully this is one "hermit" who will outgrow all this!

20 April 2014

Christ is Risen, Alleluia! Indeed He is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!! (Reprise)

Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!!! All good wishes for a wonderful Easter Season!!

For the next 50 days we have time to attend to what Jesus' death and resurrection changed. In light of these events we live in a different world than existed before them, and we ourselves, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ's death, are new creations as well. While all this makes beautiful poetry, and although as John Ciardi once reminded us poetry can save us in dark alleys, we do not base our lives on poetry alone. Objective reality was transformed with Jesus' passion and death; something astounding, universal, even cosmic in scope, happened in these events which had not only to do with our own salvation but with the recreation of all of reality. One of Paul's shorthand phrases for this transformation was "the death of death," something I hope to be able to look at a bit more as these 50 days unfold. We have already begun to see what happens in our Church as Christ's own life begins to shine forth more brightly in a myriad of small but significant ways. Not least is the figure of Francis who has many of us singing a heartfelt alleluia in gratitude to the Holy Spirit.

But, it is probably good to recall that the early Church struggled to make sense of the cross, and that faith in resurrection took some time to take hold. Surprisingly, no single theology of the cross is held as official, and variations --- many quite destructive --- exist throughout the Church. Even today a number of these affirm that in various ways God was reconciled to us rather than the other way around. Only in time did the Church come to terms with the scandalous death of Jesus and embrace him as risen, and so, as the Christ who reveals God's power in weakness. Only in time did she come to understand how different the world was for those who had been baptized into Jesus' death. The Church offers us a period of time to come to understand and embrace all of this as well; the time from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is, in part, geared to this.

But, today is a day of celebration, and a day to simply allow the shock and sadness of the cross to be completely relieved for the moment. Lent is over, the Triduum itself has reached a joyful climax, the season of Easter has begun and we once again sing alleluia at our liturgies. Though it will take time to fully understand and embrace all this means, through the Church's liturgies and the readings we have heard we do sense that we now live in a world where death has a different character and meaning than it did before Christ's resurrection --- and so does life. On this day darkness has given way to light, and senselessness to meaning -- even though we may not really be able to explain to ourselves or others exactly why or how. On this day we proclaim that Christ is risen! Sinful death could not hold him and it cannot hold us as a result. Alleluia! Alleluia!!

17 April 2014

Messiah or Madman? We Wait in the Darkness (Reprise)

In trying to explain the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During this last week of Lent, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement.

In the Gospel for last Tuesday we heard John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks before this we had been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Family and disciples failed to understand him, thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a much more profound level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks of Lent, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life and active ministry was punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It is held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness closes in on every side Jesus celebrated a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He washed their feet, reclined at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus spoke of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple understood what was happening. There is one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan enters Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus becomes his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here --- and the darkness enters this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or it is the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. In the midst of these days of death and vigil, we do not really know which.

At the end of these three days we call Triduum we will see what the answer is. Today, the day we call "Good," the darkness intensifies. During the night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. Today he will be brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged in an attempt at political appeasement and then handed over anyway to those who would kill him by a fearful self-absorbed leader whose greater concern was for his own position. There is betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship and covenantal bonds on every side but God's. The night continues to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus will be crucified and eventually cry out his experience of abandonment even by God. He will descend into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness will become almost total. We ourselves can see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us. And the question these events raises haunts the night and our own minds and hearts: messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were? (cf Gospel for last Friday: John 10:31-42.) We Christians wait in the darkness today and tomorrow. We fast and pray and try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved,  brother and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not, as Paul puts the matter, the greatest fools of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees; and though we do not see how it is possible we would like to think that Paul was right and that grace will abound all the more. And so, we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.

16 April 2014

Nuns on the Bus Book!!

As some of you may know, Sister Simone Campbell, SSS has now written a book on the story of Nuns on a Bus (really  her own story). The book is called, A Nun on the Bus, How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community. 

I have only been able to read a little of it (I only got it last night) but I recommend it. Not surprisingly (at least not for contemplatives!) Sister Simone manages to combine a profound and essentially contemplative prayer life with political activism which is truly admirable. If you found yourself intrigued and excited by the Nuns on the Bus journey or if you were often moved to tears by the stories that came out of this trip, I think you will love this book. If you are simply interested in what makes Sister Simone tick and how she came to be herself, you will like this book. If you have been looking for a book that takes the Church's teaching on social justice seriously and gives it a human face --- as the Christ Event did for God, or if you want to look into the heart of contemporary religious life you will be gratified by this book. It is available in paperback and on Kindle.

15 April 2014

Can Dispensations From Eremitical Life be Avoided?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, thank you for answering my question about dispensating (sic) a hermit's vows. Why would a hermit seek to have their vows dispensated (sic)? Is this something that can be avoided?]]

The main reason for seeking to have one's vows dispensed would be that the person has discerned that they are either not really or are no longer called to this vocation. I said in my earlier answer that many people don't understand the difference between being a lone pious person and living eremitical solitude. That, as I have written here before, is sometimes true of dioceses as well and this will mean that some of the professions they allow will not be sound. When this is true, when the person is not called to eremitical solitude but is a lone pious person, or when a person otherwise desires to be a religious but has been unable to make it in community and seeks to use canon 603 as a stopgap way to make vows, the incidence of needing to ask for an indult of dispensation will be higher --- at least if the person is honest about their discernment that they are not really living as a hermit.

Similarly, a person might be called to solitude as a transitional environment or reality. This means that they might believe they are called to be a hermit for the rest of their lives when in fact this is not the case. Dioceses that jump immediately to perpetual profession under canon 603 (something that was more common in the early years of the canon than it is today) may be setting the stage to find a person will need to have their vows dispensed in a few years. They may find the hermit living eremitical solitude less and less well as time goes by and when the situation is examined they will find the person feels increasingly called to more active ministry, greater frustration in solitude,  a slowing of personal growth in this vocation, etc. In such cases it may be hard for the hermit to admit she is really called to something else, to request a dispensation, and to leave the rights and obligations of the consecrated state. When this is the case the diocese and the hermit will need to work together to discern and make the best next step.

My sense is that some dioceses have not been careful enough in professing canon 603 hermits. They may not understand the history of the canon, they may not realize that eremitical solitude is not the same as simply living alone; others simply do not esteem the eremitical vocation and seek to use the canon to profess individuals who are not able (or are unwilling) to live religious life in community; they do this and allow a full-time active ministry to supplant eremitical solitude. Beyond this canon 603 does not specify a formation program, nor can it really do so since the formation of a hermit occurs in solitude and is individualized. Still, significant formation is necessary as is ongoing formation. The experience of successful hermits today will be able to assist dioceses in resolving the need for sound approaches to discernment,  formation, and readiness for vows. So will the experience of congregations who ordinarily require psychological assessments and sufficient recommendations to make sure the person is able to live eremitical solitude in the name of the Church.

Some of these situations can be avoided simply by understanding and truly esteeming the vocation itself. The eremitical life is a gift of the Holy Spirit, especially to the isolated who are reminded that the silence of solitude is possible as the redemption of isolation. When the vocation is esteemed and its charism understood, a diocese will take care to admit to profession only those persons whose vocation is clear. Dioceses will know that spending time in discernment will not hurt the vocation. The same is true of formation. When the vocation is genuine it will not hurt the candidate to spend time in formation and have profession located some years down the road. As I have noted here before, the diocese must be honest with the candidate and not merely stringing them along, but so long as everyone is honest with one another and are committed to the integrity of an eremitical vocation future dispensations can certainly be avoided as mature vocations are fostered. In other cases dispensations can be avoided by treating the solitary eremitical vocation as a second half of life vocation and asking young persons to pursue eremitical life in community. Similarly they can be avoided by making good choices regarding delegates, spiritual directors, by requiring regular meetings with these persons, and  the Bishop who has taken the time to get to know the hermit, as well as by providing resources for the hermit's growth in the vocation.

14 April 2014

What if a Bishop Wants to "Revoke" a Hermit's Vows?

[[Dear Sister, what happens if a hermit is not living their vocation well and their Bishops wants to revoke their vows? Can he really do that? How often does this happen?]]

Well, canonical vows are not revoked exactly but they can be dispensed, yes. There is a process that must be observed. First, for a person in perpetual vows there is a list of serious or grave causes given in canon 696 (cf below), any of which are sufficient to begin the process of dispensation. Four conditions apply. The causes must be grave, external, imputable, and juridically proven. For a person in temporary vows, the causes need not even be this grave. However, the same conditions apply otherwise.

If the process is begun because of a good cause, canon 697 sets out the following process: the superior begins to collect or complete proofs of the causes for this action. (In the case of a diocesan hermit this could be their delegate, a Vicar or the Bishop.) The hermit is then warned in writing and in the presence of two witnesses of the causes leading to this intended action. Further, they are given an explicit warning of subsequent dismissal should they not reform their behavior, etc. The person being warned is given a full opportunity for self defense at each step of the way. If, after fifteen days have elapsed the [hermit] has either not made their case or they have failed to change in the ways required, a second written and witnessed warning is given. If necessary, the process is repeated  one more time so that if a person is not able to defend themselves sufficiently or they show themselves to be incorrigible the Bishop may act to dispense the vows. All rights and obligations cease with the granting of the indult. This means that the person may no longer wear religious garb, use titles like Sister or Brother or represent themselves as a Catholic or canonical (diocesan) hermit.

Ordinarily, problems with a hermit's responsible living out of her vows and Rule do not reach this level of course. Hermits meet regularly with delegates and also with their Bishops. Problems of any sort are raised in any of these meetings and solutions are found in a collaborative process. One assumes good faith on each person's part and a sincere desire to protect the eremitical vocation generally and this vocation more specifically. If Vicars, pastors and others can assist in this, they will be asked to do so. But canon 696 refers to: [[ habitual neglect of the obligations of the consecrated life; repeated violations of the sacred bonds, pertinacious disobedience to lawful prescriptions of superiors in a serious matter; grave scandal arising from the behavior of [the hermit]; pertinacious upholding or spreading of doctrines condemned by the magisterium of the Church; public adherence to ideologies infected by materialism or atheism; unlawful absence]] lasting six months, and other serious causes. Again, if the hermit is only in temporary vows the causes need not be as serious as they do in the case of perpetual profession.

I don't really know how often it happens that hermits are dispensed from their vows for grave cause. I think it is far more common that someone temporarily professed is simply not admitted to perpetual profession. (Of course it is even more common that persons who show interest in canon 603 are not admitted to temporary vows or even to a process of formal discernment. A lot of people simply don't know the difference between being a single person living alone and a hermit called to eremitical solitude.) I have heard stories of dispensations from c 603 profession --- one of these just recently, in fact --- but I have no facts about these cases and no idea how common they are.

08 April 2014

On Loneliness and Jesus' Descent into Hell

Because I will probably not be posting during Holy Week and because we are approaching Palm Sunday, I wanted to put up a post I wrote a couple of years ago for my parish's bulletin for Palm Sunday. It is also pertinent to some of this week's readings, especially as we see the terrible loneliness of Jeremiah and (at least implicitly) of Jesus in Friday's readings. As we move through Holy Week we will see Jesus' own loneliness and estrangement from those around him both grow in intensity and reach almost unimaginable depths.

Beyond being constantly misunderstood, not really heard or seen clearly by those around him (a source of genuine pain), not only is Jesus rejected and betrayed by his own People (including the Pharisees and Scribes who understood him all too well!) and even his most trusted disciples, but in the end he experiences abandonment by the One he called Abba, the one on whom everything he has and is and proclaims relies. This terrible loneliness or estrangement is simply part and parcel of taking on the human condition of sin and godless death so that ultimately all may be reconciled to God. It is a large piece of what Jesus was referring to when he said, "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".


During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing – the gospel proclaims -- will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us! (Rom 8)

It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.

To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and potentially responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!

The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love and bring us to abundant Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.


Throughout Lent we have been admonished to take up our crosses, to choose life (God!), to become the disciples we are called to be. I have written about the idea that taking up our crosses means living every moment and mood of ordinary life in openness to God, just as Jesus did. Today I need to note that one of the primary forms of suffering this kind of decision occasions is that of loneliness --- the loneliness of standing in the truth and being out of step with most of the rest of the world, the loneliness of waiting for God to bring life out of our situations --- whatever they are, the loneliness of being misunderstood and even reviled and rejected by those closest to us, the loneliness of loving and being loved by God.

Jeremiah clearly knew this loneliness and expressed it in ways which were sometimes problematical for his hearers and for us today as well. Jesus certainly knew such loneliness. When we reflect this week and next on the suffering of Jesus, when we consider the immensity of the powers and principalities he faced --- powers that finally rendered him mute in his encounter with them, when we consider the Word made flesh being rendered  first inarticulate in pain and then silent in betrayal  and death by our inhumanity and cruelty, let us not forget the obedience (openness) and loneliness of Jesus' vocation nor the power and will of God to penetrate even this abyss with his presence and love.  In this is real hope for each and all of us.

How the Cross Works #2

Here is the second post I mentioned I would put up on how the cross works.

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, how does Jesus' suffering save us or the world? I mean how does it work?I just can't understand this. Does God need this for some reason?]]

Thanks for your question.  I want to deal only with the question of Jesus' suffering in this post. For more about how the cross works please check out other articles on the theology of the cross.

First, Jesus' sufering per se is NOT salvific; it does not "save". Neither of itself does it reveal God to us nor make God exhaustively present in our world. (Jesus' suffering does reveal something of what it means to be truly human and it also points to the self-emptying compassion of God, but by itself it does not make the Triune God present in power.) However, this is absolutely not to say his suffering is unimportant or dispensable. It is not. What is true and what I will focus on here is that suffering calls for something in Jesus and allows for that which IS salvific. Jesus' suffering is a critical part of the incarnational weakness in which God's power will be made perfect and exhaustively revealed. To understand this it helps to think about how suffering works usually and what it calls for from us; then we can look at how it actually functions in Jesus' life but especially at his passion and death.

All of us know suffering, some very great suffering, and we know as well therefore that it pulls us in two directions. The first is fairly instinctive. We try to defend against the pain. We attempt to make ourselves less vulnerable in whatever ways we can. For physical pain we may use analgesics --- and, I would add, this is ordinarily entirely legitimate, especially in cases of severe chronic pain or when we need relief to function in important ways the pain would prevent. At the same time we may short circuit the growth in courage, endurance, and openness suffering calls for. Finding a balance here is not always easy. Still, the point is the same, suffering per se is an evil in our world which can threaten our well-being, and, when severe, our very humanity as well.  (Severe pain dehumanizes or at least has the potential to do so.) Our first response is to try to ease it or end it in order to protect ourselves and the life we know and value. Prayer here (meaning in this case our own pleas to God), especially in the beginning, may actually be an expression of this tendency to self-protection and a resistance to being truly vulnerable. This entire response (or reaction) can itself, though in a different way, be dehumanizing,

The second response is NOT instinctive. It is an expression of something transcendent in us; it recognizes that to some extent suffering can be a source of growth and maturity, especially of our larger or true self. Significantly, suffering can help open us to our own weakness, helplessness, and poverty. Further it can open us to allowing ourselves to be more profoundly known by others, by ourselves, and ultimately by God. It calls for courage, endurance, a wider perspective than we usually entertain, and an openness to a meaning which is greater than we can even imagine. This response to suffering, this opening of ourselves to realities which lie beyond us and sustain and empower us beyond our own very real limitations allows the redemption of suffering and sometimes the healing of its causes. Prayer here may begin as a praying OUT OF our suffering, but when it reaches maturity and even fulfillment it becomes a praying OF our suffering --- that is our living out our suffering with and in the power and presence of God.

Jesus' Passion and Death:

Here we begin to understand why Jesus' suffering could be both essential and salvific. It is not, as you say, because God needs our suffering  --- for instance, in reparation for sin and offenses against his honor. It is not that there is some sort of cosmic quota of pain required, nor that some abstract notion of distributive or retributive justice requires it. (God's justice is neither of these.) Jesus is called to be the Incarnation of the Word of God in all of human life's moments and moods. He is called and commissioned to embody that Word exhaustively. He is called to be obedient, that is to hearken --- to listen and respond --- to that Word so completely that call and response cannot be teased apart in him. He is called therefore to be prayer and to implicate God fully in a world dominated by the powers of sin and death. Part of coming to this perfect incarnation is suffering and doing so in ways that allow God into that "space" of  ultimate weakness, emptiness, and helplessness so that he may transform it (and us) with his presence. In a sense, especially to the degree we allow it, suffering hollows us out and intensifies our openness to the reality which can redeem it and everything else.

But what happens if Jesus' cry of aban-donment and his own admission that it is finished are the last words of the event we call "the cross"? What happens if godlessness and the powers of godlessness are the real victors? What happens if Jesus's descent into hell in abject openness and vulnerability to the emptiness, meaninglessness, and inhumanity of his suffering are the last word, the thing allowed by God to stand? What happens if the universally dehumanizing effects of Jesus' suffering were the final word? (After all,  he was dehumanized and those that tortured him were also dehumanized by their actions; the same is true of those who called for such shameful torture, betrayed Jesus' friendship or as Religious leaders administering the "Law of God" were otherwise complicit in this)?

It should be clear that without the resurrection there is nothing redemptive or salvific in Jesus' suffering. It is necessary, essential in fact as a condition of possibility, but it must be done in obedience (meaning without closing oneself to it in any way nor attempting to save oneself even while one remains open) to the One who CAN save and redeem this suffering. Further, God must respond to this obedience, enter into the abyss created by sin, death, and by Jesus' personal vulnerability and continuing openness. God must,  as a result, bring life out of death, meaning out of absurdity, ordered, fruitful reality out of chaos and nothingness, and communion (reconciliation) out of ultimate isolation and alienation or Jesus' suffering witnesses not to victory over these things but instead to foolishness, failure, arrogance and man's inhumanity to his fellows.

We can speak of God "needing" this suffering because he needs to be able to enter the most godless depths of human life and death but we cannot speak of God needing this suffering to satisfy some sort of offense done against him. The godless depths I have referred to are depths and dimensions within us and our world created by our own choices to exclude God. God cannot simply enter into these spaces by fiat because they are personal spaces which God will not violate lest he violate us at the same time. God, who respects our choices, must be invited or allowed in here. However,  in speaking of Jesus' taking on our sin we say that Jesus died for ALL. His obedient suffering makes it possible for God to enter into the realm of sin and death (realms of godlessness) created by human acts of rejection without violating the freedom of human beings who (universally) choose these. That is, Jesus' passion and resurrection is God's answer to ALL human sin.  More and more you and I need to allow God into our own sinful lives, but the powers of sin and godless or eternal death themselves have been defeated through the cross of an obedient Jesus. It was suffering that assisted in the deepening of Jesus' obedience, but it was his obedience in conjunction with the will of God that actually brought redemption.

 *     *     *     *     *     *
...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

06 April 2014

Approaching Holy Week: How Does the Cross Work?

Recently I listened to a sedevacantist teaching about the Cross. In that presentation this priest said that the only reason for the resurrection from the dead was to prove that Jesus was God. In fact, this cleric asserted that Jesus proved himself to be God by raising himself from the dead! I admit I have heard the notion that Jesus raised himself from the dead before (though not for about 40 years or so) but I have never heard the meaning of the cross or the way it "saves" so thoroughly eviscerated. Let me say this very clearly: Had Jesus stayed good and dead, had there been no resurrection, sin and death would have had the last word and resulted in an ultimate silence. Jesus' death was NOT SALVIFIC apart from the resurrection. Similarly, had Jesus raised himself he would not have truly surrendered to the powers of sin and godless death in an exhaustive way as he actually did on Good Friday. He would not have shown us that the way to life in God is to open ourselves completely to his love so that it may even prove itself stronger than sin and godless death.

As we approach Holy Week and the Triduum I want to repost a couple of pieces on the Cross and how it works to redeem reality. The first was posted last year.

[[Dear Laurel, I feel sort of negative about the crucifix and communion. Here are the reasons: I know the church teaches that Christ died for our sins, but the crucifix also represents a very violent and bloody act. What kind of example is that to set in front of our already troubled youth? What can you say about this? Now that I have had my say, how are you and what is going on in your life? Love and Peace,]]

Hi there!
Regarding your questions: It is important to remember that in the events of the cross the violence and evil done were human acts (or, more accurately, literally inhuman acts unworthy of God or humankind). They tell us what happens when the sacred (and truly human) is put into our sinful hands. Part of the redemption God achieves on the cross is the redemption of our horrific treatment of one another and of God himself. Part of it is the redemption of our inhumanity and the making possible of authentic humanity in Christ.

Secondly, it is important to remember that Jesus' physical and psychological suffering per se was not salvific. What was salvific was that in the midst of this terrible suffering, injustice, shame, failure of mission, and betrayal, he remained open to God (the One he called Abba) and to whatever God would bring out of it. The word we use for this openness and responsiveness is "obedience". It does NOT mean that God willed Jesus' torture by venal, cruel, ambitious, and frightened human beings. What God DID will, however, was to enter into all of the moments and moods of human life including sinfulness and death so that he could redeem and transform them with his presence. Jesus allows God to do that by remaining open (obedient) to him even in such extremity. (He does not shut down, nor does he try to assume control, for instance. He is open to whatever God can and will do with these events.)

Neither is Jesus' death by itself salvific. Again, even in death and beyond natural death in what the NT calls "godless" or "eternal death" Jesus remained open to what God would bring out of this. Because he did, God was able to enter into these godless realms and for that reason they no longer are signs of God's absence. Instead, because of Christ's obedience unto "death, even death on a cross" as Paul puts it, even in sin and death we will meet God face to face and God will bring life not only out of the unexpected place but the unacceptable place --- the place where human reason says God should never be found.

God never changes his mind about us. He loves us --- actively, passionately, without reserve. (He IS love-in-act; this creative, dynamic, unceasing love is God's very nature!) What God changes through the events of the cross is reality itself. Unless once we are face to face with God we actually choose eternity without God there is no longer sinful or godless death. Even should we choose this I think it will mean we choose an eternity facing  a Love we have been offered without reserve, but which we have definitively refused. (It is hard for me to think of a worse situation than to be locked inside one's own hatefulness while faced with a Love which frees and gives eternal life.)  What we have to teach our youth is exactly what Paul says in Romans 8: neither life nor death nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, etc etc will EVER separate us from the love of God. God has made sure that he is present in even the unacceptable place (in this case, the realms which were heretofore properly called godless); he has assured the truth of what Paul asserts in Romans 8 and it is Jesus' openness and responsiveness to God in the face of human evil of unimaginable lengths and depths that spurred Paul's profession of faith.

One other note: The NT speaks of divine wrath. This does not mean anger in the sense we know it ourselves. It means something akin to a tough love that allows the consequences of our choices to catch up to us. God respects our choices even if he does not respect WHAT we choose. He allows the consequences of our choices to catch up with us. However, at the same time, if we choose sin and death (knowing we cannot fully conceive what we are choosing in this way), he makes sure we will find him even there. 

The Church has never asserted a single interpretation of the cross nor a normative theology of the Cross. Unfortunately what we hear too often is Anselm's interpretation. Anselm's world was a feudal one where notions of shame and honor were driving forces. Thus he saw God as infinitely offended by human sin and wrote that an infinite price had to be paid for God's honor to be regained. Further, that price had to be paid by a human being since human beings had caused the infinite offense while only someone divine COULD do so. The biggest problem though was that he saw God as needing to be reconciled. This is exactly the opposite of what Paul says in 2 Cor 5:19: [[God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.]] In other words, it is the world which needs to be reconciled to God; in Christ God brings everything home to itself and to himself. He sets all things right. This is the nature of divine justice. He asserts his rights or sovereignty over a broken creation by letting nothing stand between us and his creative love (himself). It is not God's honor that needs to be appeased but a broken and estranged world that needs to be healed and made one with God (the ground of existence and meaning). That is what happens through Jesus' crucifixion, death, and resurrection. In Christ God takes the worst human beings can do and brings divine wholeness and life out of it.

05 April 2014

"How Can Someone Pray all Day?"

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have a simple question. How can someone pray all day long? I mean is that even natural or healthy? I know it sounds like I am insulting your vocation or something. I don't mean to but I can't even begin to imagine praying all day.]]

Over the past several years I have described prayer in several basic ways. I have written that prayer is God's own work or activity within us. I have said that we pray when we are open and attentive to this ongoing activity. Similarly, I have suggested that prayer is that event wherein the question we are is posed and completed by the answer God is (though as I think about it, that is also not a bad description of redemption);  I have written about the human heart and what it means that we achieve singleness of heart where heart is that personal center wherein God bears witness to Godself.  In all of this I have said that human beings are dialogical by their very nature (just as the Trinity is a dialogical reality) and that prayer is an expression of this just as it is the expression of covenantal existence --- that existence in and with God we are all called to. 

In doing this I hope that one thing I have indicated is that many different activities can be truly prayerful or qualify as prayer. One has to be able to listen to one's own heart (again, where God dwells and speaks himself) and to the voice or Word of God as it comes to one from outside oneself. Deep speaks to deep. One learns to do this and does it in a privileged way in quiet prayer, lectio divina, journaling, praying Office (which builds on psalms, readings and canticles that both speak to and allow one to pour out one's own heart), etc. But beyond these things almost any activity can become prayer. As I think I have written before, some of my most profound prayer experiences have occurred as I enjoyed a hot cup of tea, washed dishes,  folded laundry, or took a walk. Conversations with friends can be profoundly prayerful as can meal times. The key in all of these is that we learn to listen both to and with our hearts and that we eschew distractions as much as we can or as is healthy for us. (Here I mean eschewing choosing those things which serve to distract us from the hard work of attending to reality; I am not referring to distractions that occur during prayer itself.)

Note well that I am not speaking of saying prayers all day long. These can certainly be helpful in listening to and expressing our own hearts, but they can also be a source of actual distraction and mere busyness.Thus, for instance, I don't pray more than three or four of the hours of the Liturgy of the Hours during a day because doing so is often more distracting and fragmenting than it is helpful to me in coming to pray my entire day. Nor do I simply fill my time with "saying prayers" instead of praying a pretty ordinary life. 

On the other hand, let's say I am out of the hermitage and the environment is noisy and distracting.  One of the things I do is to pray with regard to the people and events all around me. Here I ordinarily use beads and something like the Jesus prayer or the Hail Mary to help me as I look briefly at the folks nearby (say, on the train with me or in the doctor's waiting room) and pray for them.  Here rote prayers are really helpful in maintaining a connection between inner and outer dimensions of my attention. They help shape my attentiveness to others into something compassionate and generous rather than merely curious and distracted. The same is true when I am feeling distracted within the hermitage; then rote prayers serve as a means of maintaining focus and direction in my day. They also remind me of my own poverty in prayer, not only because of my own tendency to distraction per se, but because these words are "borrowed" from others and are a help when I am unable to pray otherwise.

How healthy or natural is all this? Given my understanding of the nature of the human person and especially of their relationship with and relatedness to God, prayer is the most natural activity we can undertake. I don't think that saying prayers all day is necessarily particularly healthy but praying our lives, doing all things together with and in God is both healthy and holy-making (because these two things are really one). Allowing our lives to be prayer means becoming truly or authentically human. It means becoming the dialogical realities real human beings always are --- both because of  and through our fundamental dialogue with God and because of and through our dialogue with others and the created world around us. We are made for this kind of life. It is essentially contemplative and serves as the the foundation of a compassionate life in which we can truly give ourselves to others and work towards the fulfillment of creation in justice. 

My question to you then is can you imagine living a life which is geared toward listening and responding to and from your own heart? Can you imagine allowing your heart to become "pure" or "single" in this way --- a single, focused, and compassionate "hearkening" to reality? Can you imagine living a life which is geared toward a love which does justice, that is, a love which makes all things right and brings them to completion or fulfillment? Do these things seem healthy to you? Desirable? If you say yes to these questions then you have affirmed what I describe as a prayerful life --- an essentially contemplative life in fact. If you add to these the affirmation that such a life requires one to spend time consciously listening and responding to the Love-in-act (God!) which is the source and ground of existence, and that one must do so daily as a very high priority in order to live  in the ways you have already affirmed to be healthy and desirable, then you have confirmed the place of a life of prayer as well  --- the very life whose naturalness and healthiness you questioned at the beginning of this post. Of course such a life is not nearly as common as a life of distraction and dissipation but I sincerely believe that it is upon such lives that our own authenticity and the future of our world depends.