28 June 2014

Abba Motius: Humility is to See Ourselves to Be the Same as the Rest

[[Dear Sister, you once wrote: [[What I am trying to say is there is a vast difference between fitting in because in one's basic Christianity one knows on a deep level how very like every other person one is, and therefore, truly belonging in any circumstance or set of circumstances, and trying to "blend in." The first is motivated by humility and carried along by one's genuine love of others. The second is too self-conscious and seems to me to not be motivated by humility or an honest love of others. Abba Motius of the Desert Fathers says it this way, "For this is humility: to see yourself to be the same as the rest." ]] If a person has certain gifts which make her stand apart from others is it really possible for her to affirm that "she is the same as all the rest"? If humility is a form of loving honesty as you have also written here, then is it honest or humble to deny the gifts which make one different from others? How does a person come to this kind of humility without denying their gifts? Is this another one of those Christian paradoxes you are so fond of?? Is it important to the kind of hermit you are?]]

Your question is amazingly timely because I have been thinking a lot this entire week about the gift of God which this conviction of how profoundly like others I really am truly is. In my own prayer life and in those experiences I might call "mystical," two gifts in particular have made all the difference in my ability to love and to be a person of genuine hope. The first has to do with a sense that the human heart is that place within us where God always bears witness to Godself, where God reveals Godself moment by moment as ever new and the source of a dynamic newness (and eternity) in us in a way which always transcends and is deeper than any woundedness or personal deficiency by which we might also be marked or marred. When there have been times I felt I could not face another day, when I had the sense that my own brokenness was too profound to be reached by the love of others or to allow me to love them, this sense that God was there within me 1) constituting a part of my very  existence which is deeper than any woundedess and 2) calling my name in an unceasing way that created genuine hope for a future both including and transcending all this, was really salvific for me.

The second gift which is related to this same prayer experience and which has been similarly transformative and lifegiving has been this sense that essentially I am "the same as all the rest of us." There was no striking direct revelation, no "locution" saying, "You are the same as everyone else!" or anything like that which convinced me of this. Instead it was the result of my reflection on the prayer experience I have spoken of here several times now where God was completely delighted to be able to "finally be here with [me] like this" and where I had the sense of having his entire attention.

What was pivotal here was the clear sense I had that 1) my own woundedness was no obstacle to God's delight, 2) that everyone delighted God in precisely this same way and 3) that everyone and everything else had God's entire attention just as I did. For me this became tremendously healing because it meant I was no longer burdened with the mistaken and personally crippling notion that my personal differences set me apart or isolated me from others in ways none of us could really ever overcome. It was this too that, at another point, allowed me to turn the corner on a solitary life rooted in isolation and unhealthy withdrawal and instead embrace one of authentic eremitical solitude and freedom.

For several significant reasons I came into early adulthood feeling that there were differences between myself and others which could never be bridged, much less healed or otherwise obviated. It was not merely that I was gifted in ways others might not have been (though there was some of that too) but instead that I came to realize that on some deep level I had the sense that my very humanity was wounded and changed in a way which could never allow me to truly love or be loved by others. It was as though I had been made different from others on a level that could never be healed or transfigured. While I actually got on well with others, was well-liked (even loved!), did well in studies and ministry, was (rightly) convinced I was called to serve God as a religious, etc, this profound sense of woundedness and "differentness" was a burden which sometimes made every step feel weighted with real sadness and despair --- even when most times that took the form of a kind of resignation and quiet grief or desperation. Whether due to personal giftedness, or deficiencies and woundedness, deep down I had the sense I could never truly embrace the Desert Father Motius' notion that I was the same as everyone else; thus, I also had the sense that authentic humanity, as well as loving and being loved was really forever beyond me.

And then, along with several other ongoing and supportive experiences of love and care by others, came the prayer experience I have briefly related here several times. It is because of that experience and my own reflection on that and similar but less seminal experiences over the next years that I am able to answer your questions with an assurance even a good theological background specializing in the theology of the cross (which is also VERY important here) might never have have allowed. Here then are those answers (so thanks for your patience). First of all you ask: [[If a person has certain gifts which make her stand apart from others is it really possible for her to affirm that "she is the same as all the rest"? If humility is a form of loving honesty as you have also written here, then is it honest or humble to deny the gifts which make one different from others?]]

In the first instance my answer is, yes, provided such a person knows who she is in God, and who others are in God as well. One must come to know oneself on this ultimately deep level, and she must come to know that all other persons --- no matter how different in talents, physical and intellectual abilities, family and psychosocial background, genetic makeup, health, etc, ---  are similarly grounded, similarly constituted, similarly called and loved in and by God. The word existence means to stand up out of (ex-istere); we stand up out of God who is the ground of being and meaning. That means that to some extent we are separate from one another in the very fact of our historical existence. However, it also means at a deeper (ultimate) level we are united with one another and all else that is.

In a way all I am saying here is we each share the very same humanity and all the gifts or deficiencies in the world cannot, will not, ever change that. To see reality in this way, to see creation as monastics tell us is the way of REALLY seeing, to see, that is, as GOD SEES is the basis of all of our security, our hope, and our ability to hold and carry both gifts and deficiencies lightly; this means we hold them in ways which do not isolate us from our brothers and sisters. My answer to your second question is that nothing need be denied in us or in others when we see ourselves and others this way. Yes, there will be differences, some of them pretty profound, but none so profound as the similarity and unity we share in God.

You also asked:  [[How does a person come to this kind of humility without denying their gifts? Is this another one of those Christian paradoxes you are so fond of?? Is it important to the kind of hermit you are?]] LOL! Yes, I guess this absolutely is one of those Christian paradoxes I am so delighted by and so very fond of. In fact, it is the very definition of paradox where apparent conflicts are allowed to stand because of a deeper unity in which resolution and even reconciliation is truly found.

I am not sure I can say much more about how a person comes to this humility. Certainly it is a grace. However, the things in my own life which allowed it include: 1) prayer in which I am loved (and allowed to love) beyond those things which make me either gifted or wounded and deficient in historico-temporal ways, 2) the Gospel of Christ which proclaims in fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God and so, reminds us that there is a deeper sustaining dynamism that is a constantly renewing source of life for us, 3) a faith which allows me to risk changing my mind and heart to embrace these realities and live from them, and 4) all of those people who mentored, taught, directed, pastored, treated, formed, supervised, or were friends to me out of their own faith in this transcendent reality and a belief in the person I most truly was and could be in light of it.

And regarding your final question, in one way and another everything I have written about eremitical life or the spiritual life here on this blog, every article I have published in Review for Religious, and so on, reflects the importance of all of these things for being the kind of hermit I am (not to mention the kinds of hermits I expect others to be as well)! I know first hand what it means to try and use canon 603 or eremitical life more generally to try to merely validate brokenness and isolation, but I also know what it means to live an authentic eremitical life in which these are redeemed and transformed into the silence of solitude and in which canon 603 is allowed to function as the Church really desired and needs it to function.

The same is true of contem-plative and/or mystical prayer. Certainly there are those who use pseudo mystical experiences to exacerbate their isolation and underscore their differentness from others. This is one of the problems which occurs when we focus on the "sensible furnishings" of the experience and fail to transcend these so that the real Wisdom of these experiences can take hold of us, shake us at our very foundations (Tillich), and remake us in mind, heart, and will.

Here is one of the places the work of Ruth Burrows I cited recently is so very important. (cf., On Pentecost, Ruth Burrows, OCD and the Real Experience in Mystical Prayer.) The same is also true of our true and false selves, where the true self is the "spontaneity" (Merton) or Event which is realized whenever the Spirit is allowed to grasp, shake, and transform (make true or verify) us entirely. Again, there is probably very little I have written about here and nothing of real significance that does not in some way owe its very existence to this "paradox" which is the key to understanding my experience in prayer and stands at the heart of all (but especially Christian) existence.  Certainly  there is nothing authentic in the kind of hermit I am which is not similarly indebted. Even something like the essential hiddenness of this vocation is illuminated by this paradox: cf  A Vocation to Extraordinary Ordinariness.

I am very grateful for your question. I don't know what made you look up that old post citing Abba Motius, Should Christians Try to Blend In? but that you did so this week and actually wrote me about it is a terrific gift. Thank you.

27 June 2014

Feast of the Most Sacred Heart (Reprise)

Today we celebrate a feast that may seem at first glance to be irrelevant to contemporary life. The Feast of the Sacred Heart developed in part as a response to pre-destinationist theologies which diminished the universality of the gratuitous love of God and consigned many to perdition. But the Church's own theology of grace and freedom point directly to the reality of the human heart -- that center of the human person where God freely speaks himself and human beings respond in ways which are salvific for them and for the rest of the world. It asks us to see all  persons as constituted in this way and called to life in and of God. Today's Feast of the Sacred Heart, then, despite the shift in context, asks us to reflect again on the nature of the human heart, to the greatest danger to spiritual or authentically human life the Scriptures identify, and too, on what a contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart might mean for us.

As I have written here before, the heart is the symbol of the center of the human person. It is a theological term which points first of all to God and to God's activity deep within us. It is not so much that we have a heart and then God comes to dwell there; it is that where God dwells within us and bears witness to himself, we have a heart. The human heart (not the cardiac muscle but the center of our personhood the Scriptures call heart) is a dialogical event where God speaks, calls, breathes, and sings us into existence and where, in one way and degree or another, we respond to become the people we are. It is therefore important that our hearts be open and flexible, that they be obedient to the Voice and love of God, and so that they be responsive in all the ways they are summoned to be.

Bearing this in mind it is no surprise that the Scriptures speak in many places about the very worst thing which could befall a human being and her spiritual life. We hear it in the following line from Ezekiel: [[If today you hear [God's] voice, harden not your hearts.]] Many things contribute to such a reaction. We know that love is risky and that it always hurts. Sometimes this hurt is akin to the mystical experience of being pierced by God's love and is a wonderful but difficult experience. Sometimes it is the pain of compassion or empathy or grief. These are often bittersweet experiences, but they are also life giving. Other times love wounds us in less fruitful ways: we are betrayed by friends or family, we reach out to another in love and are rejected, a billion smaller losses wound us in ways from which we cannot seem to recover.

In such cases our hearts are not only wounded but become scarred, indurated, less sensitive to pain (or pleasure), stiff and relatively inflexible. They, quite literally, become "hardened" and we may be fearful and unwilling or even unable to risk further injury. When the Scriptures speak of the "hardening" of our hearts they use the very words medicine uses to speak of the result of serious and prolonged wounding: induration, sclerosis, callousedness. Such hardening is self-protective but it also locks us into a world which makes us less capable of responding to love with all of its demands and riskiness. It makes us incapable of suffering well (patiently, fruitfully), or of real selflessness, generosity, or compassion.

It is here that the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus' is instructive and where contemporary devotion to the Sacred Heart can assist us. The Sacred Heart is clearly the place where human and divine are united in a unique way. While we are not called to Daughterhood or to Sonship in the exact same sense of Jesus' (he is "begotten" Son, we are adopted Sons --- and I use only Sons because of the prophetic, countercultural sense that term had for women in the early Church), we are meant to be expressions of a similar unity and heritage; we are meant to have God as the well spring of life and love at the center of our existence.

Like the Sacred Heart our own hearts are meant to be "externalized" in a sense and (made) transparent to others. They are meant to be wounded by love and deeply touched by the pain of others but not scarred or indurated in that woundedness; they are meant to be compassionate hearts on fire with love and poured out for others --- hearts which are marked by the cross in all of its kenotic (self-emptying) dimensions and therefore too by the joy of ever-new life. The truly human heart is a reparative heart which heals the woundedness of others and empowers them to love as well. Such hearts are hearts which love as God loves, and therefore which do justice. I think that allowing our own hearts to be remade in this way represents an authentic devotion to Jesus' Sacred Heart. There is nothing lacking in relevance or contemporaneity in that!

26 June 2014

Update on the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena --- Iraq


The following letters from (names withheld here) are being circulated amongst women religious and by fellow Dominicans in the US; both are meant for all who are praying for these Christians and I wanted to share them here. I ask that you continue to keep the Sisters and of course all our brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq and other places in the Middle East in your prayers. The threat of martyrdom and the reality of heroic witness is very real in our own times. (A note about names. Though these were originally included it is important that they be withheld as a prudential matter.)

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Dominican Sisters in happier times (2013)

Dear Sisters, Brothers and Friends,

We would like to write an update, about the situation in Karakush- Iraq. As you probably heard there has been some unrest in the area.

First of all, Karakush- Baghdeeda is 30 km north east of Mosul. There are about forty thousand Christian people living there. It is the largest Christian community in Iraq. Yesterday, the 25th of June, some combat began between ISIL and the Kurdish army, which started about 4:00 pm and has not stopped since. The fighting forces stood on opposite sides of Karakush, shooting cannons at each other, in the middle of this combat were civilian homes.

Most people left and sought refuge in the towns near Karakush, other cities like Duhok and Erbil, and surrounding areas. In fact, there are less than a hundred left, including the bishop and some priests in Karakush. People are so scared; they have left the town, leaving everything behind. They don’t know where to go or when they will be able to return to their homes, if that ever happens.

Concerning the sisters (Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena), we all left today as of June 26 and we were among the last people to leave. This is our second time leaving our home in the past three weeks. We are in a safe place in our convents in different locations. Thanks be to God.  We have been visiting some people who had nowhere to go and they were put in nearby schools. They left with very little and they have almost nothing. The church is providing food and mattresses to sleep on in the public schools.

The situation is very difficult. All the negotiations failed between the two parties. The government is not taking part in anything. We don’t really know who is responsible for what is happening. The media is not saying anything about the situation, which is really unfair.  As of now, we have learned that the ISIL and the Kurdish army have started fighting again, after they have stopped for few hours giving time for people to leave the town.

We ask you to pray for us. It is hard to pray when you live in such a volatile situation, but we believe in your prayers.

Prioress and Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena –Iraq.

Dear Sisters and Associates,

I received an email from our Sister (name withheld) this morning, sharing the terribly distressing news that our Dominican Sisters of Iraq had to flee from Qaraqosh this morning, seeking safety in the north. Sister (name withheld) had just spoken with her Prioress, (name withheld here), who had remained behind with one other Sister and was just preparing leave. Qaraqosh is the village east of Mosul where the Congregation had just started to build a new Motherhouse, after being forced in 2006 to abandon the Motherhouse in Mosul they had called home since 1952.

Yesterday, Qaraqosh underwent shelling by mortars from 2:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. by Sunni tribes assisted by troops from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), killing and wounding many. The Kurds have been expanding their boundaries into the Nineveh Plain, claiming Qaraqosh and other villages. Nearby Sunni tribes are now attempting to take back that territory, which the Peshmerga, armed Kurdish fighters, are defending.

Qaraqosh is still held by the Peshmerga, but they have been given an ultimatum by ISIL to withdraw their troops by 7:00 p.m. today or face another assault. Caught in the crosshairs of the fierce Sunni-ISIL/Kurdish battle, all but 5 percent of the residents of Qaraqosh have now fled from their homes, including our Iraqi Sisters and their families, to Kurdish towns of Erbil, Ankawa, and Arqa, among others in the north. The Syriac Archbishop, John Peter Mouche, remains in the city with a few priests. He conveyed these details to one of the Dominican friars in Iraq who shared them with Sister Nadiya and others.

Sister (name withheld here) also said that her whole family who had lived in Qaraqosh have also fled to northern Iraq. I know we are keeping all of them in our thoughts and prayers. 

Gratefully,
Prioress

25 June 2014

What "Kind of Hermit" Does Canon 603 Envision?

[[Hello Sister, This might be a tricky question. When canon 603 says that people can be professed as hermits it doesn't say what type of hermit. What I mean is that in the Church's Tradition there seems to be many different expressions of eremitical life. For example you have the strict solitude of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and medieval anchorites, the seclusion in the midst of community like the Carthusians or the Franciscan model of long periods in hermitages interspaced by periods of intense public preaching and ministry. My question then is what type of eremitical life does canon 603 envision? Is it up to the hermit and his or her bishop to decide what an individual's eremitical witness will look like?]]

Thanks for your questions. I don't think this is a tricky matter. I say that because in the main Canon 603 is, as I have written many times here, very flexible. First of all it is up to the individual to discern 1) whether she has an eremitical vocation of any expression, and 2) what her eremitical life will look like --- though how she will live out the elements of canon 603 is an indispensable and central part of these questions. The key to canon 603 vocations consists in the fact that these will always be calls to be a solitary hermit embodying the following elements: assiduous prayer and penance, stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and the evangelical counsels under a Rule the hermit herself writes based on lived experience. While lauras of similarly professed individuals with their own Rules, etc. are allowed, these may not rise to the level of actual communities. (Jean Beyer, Commentary on Canon 603)

Since Lauras fail more than they succeed the hermit must have her own Rule, income, job/profession, savings, delegate, etc. She must be able to live as a solitary hermit no matter what --- meaning no matter who else stays or leaves a laura -- or whether or not one ever even exists! (Most canon 603 hermits are the only ones in their dioceses and never even meet other hermits face to face.) Similarly, the elements of the canon have priority over the variations which might be linked to a particular spirituality. For instance, while St Francis wrote a Rule for hermits, some aspects of it might not be deemed compatible with the foundational elements of canon 603. For instance, while mendicancy is esteemed in Franciscanism, it is unlikely to be acceptable by a diocese looking at a potential c 603 vocation. I suspect the same would be true of extended periods of preaching and ministry; my own sense is canon 603 does not allow for this where Franciscan proper law does. In such a case one might be discerning a call to be a Secular Franciscan, for instance where one builds in significant degrees of solitude rather than a canon 603 vocation.

Still, so long as the central elements of the canon are embraced as the defining elements and charism of the life (the silence of solitude functions, I believe, as the charism of c 603 life) and lives these in a foundational way, canon 603 can accommodate a variety of emphases and variations or "spiritualities". When a person works out what expression of eremitical life is their very own then yes, the Bishop and the individual will mutually discern the appropriateness of canon 603 profession and consecration in this specific diocese. (N.B., while the discernment is mutual this does not necessarily mean the Bishop and/or Vicars for Religious will agree with the candidate petitioning for admission to profession.) In general, one does not simply ask what c 603 allows and then try to fit oneself under that in some cut and paste way. Instead one discerns the shape of one's own call under canon 603, explores the various spiritualities one feels drawn to embrace to support one in that, and, in time, thus discovers whether (and how) this spirituality can legitimately be embodied as an expression of canon 603 eremitical life. Thus, for instance, I am first of all a diocesan hermit and only secondarily Camaldolese Benedictine. While I think the Camaldolese charism best supports the diocesan eremitical vocation I could fruitfully live my vocation according to several spiritualities including Cistercian, Camaldolese, and possibly Franciscan.

While it is not necessary to embrace a specific spiritual tradition or family, canon 603 has solitary hermits in the Benedictine, Carmelite, Cistercian, Camaldolese, Camaldolese Benedictine, Carthusian (St Bruno), Franciscan, Redemptoristine, Augustinian, and other traditions or spiritualities. (I say there are others because the ones I named specifically are the ones I personally know of; I am certain I don't know all there are.) Some diocesan hermits live as anchorites with a greater degree of stability of place and may not belong to any specific tradition beyond the medieval model of anchoritism.

In other words there is a significant degree of diversity in the way diocesan hermits live the non-negotiable elements of canon 603. So, thoroughly explore your own sense of call and, so long as you discover a call to solitary eremitical life as defined according to the canon, don't worry about whether you are the "kind of hermit" that will fit under canon 603. Once you have done that your Bishop and you will determine if you are called to public profession and consecration of the non-negotiable elements of canon 603 (for this is really another question). If the decision is that you are called to at least temporary profession there is reasonable assurance that your own embodiment of the eremitical vocation fits just fine (or essentially so!) and in any case you will be able to 'tweak' that as needed; discernment continues beyond this point.

On the God Who IS Surprise

Because in my last post I referred to God as a God of surprise I thought it might be helpful to hear someone like Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB on this matter. Brother David lived with the Camaldolese for some time, participates in inter-religious dialogues, is a mystic and sometimes-hermit, and is most well-known perhaps for his work Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer.

Personally I really love his work and I resonate with his theology, with his love of and attentiveness to language, and of course with his understanding of the contemplative life. In the first talk I was a bit surprised to find echoes of the content of a post I did three years ago during Advent as a reflection for my parish. It was on the distinction between hopes and hope: Relationship of Hopes to Hope. I really hope these two videos will whet your appetite for the rest of this series of talks and others as well!!!




In this second video (pt 3) Br David reprises some of what I have said recently about the depth dimension of life, the ground of being, and the basic dynamism of existing in the eternal now. Brother David briefly highlights the sense of belonging and Freedom that are part of any true mystical experience.

23 June 2014

A Non-Contemplative Moment

As some of you know, I recently began a series of posts called "A Contemplative Moment". They are meant to give a small bite or taste of some contemplative or eremitical writer  to think about or savor; my hope is that visually and in other ways they create a space where one can simply be quiet, be present, and be open to God.

Because of the following picture sent to me by a regular reader of this blog, it occurs to me that perhaps I should also consider an antithetical series of posts picturing "non-contemplative moments" and the attitudes associated with these. We certainly all know these in our own lives! Regarding the picture itself, I think it's completely brilliant!


Now, if I can only find a passage  referring to those who think prayer (or eremitical life) is all about THEM, their plans, their projects, their time or schedules, etc!! In the meantime, how about this paradox from Thomas Merton? (Redacted)

The crucial problem of perfection and interior purity is in the renunciation and uprooting of all our unconscious attachments to. . .our own wills and desires. . . .it may easily happen that our resolutions are dictated by the vice we need to get rid of.
And so the proud [person] resolves to fast more and punish her flesh more because she wants to make herself feel more and more of a [hermit]: her fasts and disciplines are imposed on her by her own vanity -- and then strengthen the very thing that most needs to be killed.
When a person is virtuous enough to be able to delude herself that she is almost perfect, she may enter into the dangerous condition of blindness in which all her violent efforts finally to grasp perfection strengthen her hidden imperfection and confirm her in her attachment to her own judgment and her own will.

Thomas Merton, OCSO, Seeds of Contemplation

On Blogging: How and When?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I see you don't blog every day. How do you determine when you will blog? Is this part of your life as a hermit?]]

Great questions! Entirely new for me I think. You're right. I don't blog every day. I can't even say I blog every week. I admire folks that can and do but my mind and maybe my heart just don't work that way. What tends to happen instead is that things are going on around me in the parish, in the daily readings, in my prayer, in my thinking and study, and all of a sudden things come together for me in a new way. When that happens I tend to blog and sometimes produce a flurry of posts. In the last two months I had that happen twice.

The first time this happened was a result of thinking about the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Bridal imagery which is so central in the Scriptures to describe covenant life with God generally or the Christ Event more specifically. That resulted in posts linking these things (e.g., one on a Star Trek episode and the post-resurrection appearances, and related posts including a couple on how the Ascension celebrates the fact that God takes humanity and the gamut of human experience up into his own life and is not destroyed by this) as well as posts on consecrated virginity as eschatological secularity.

The second time was prompted by several emails I received questioning the need for canon 603 and/or focusing on the freedom of the hermit (or their bishops!). Those led to several posts (and a couple more long emails) on the normative and ecclesial nature of the canon 603 vocation. (This was complicated or made a bit more urgent by questions specifically raised for readers by the renewed public presence via blogs and video of those claiming to be Catholic Hermits but who are really not. Sometimes this is simply confusing; other times it is disedifying for folks. In any case it raises questions.)

Still, the work I did on the ecclesial and normative nature of canon 603 was a develop-ment and expansion of work I was doing as part of another writing project. In these cases what I do on the blog allows me to go further than I might have otherwise. The questions people ask, the things they find useful, the complaints they have about the constraints of canonical standing or whatever it is, etc, all assist me in moving ahead in work I do in the silence of solitude.

Similarly the occasional conversation I have with other Sisters or religious men and priests, written reflections I do on the readings for my parish, conversations with other diocesan hermits and parish and other friends, all help my thought and vision to move beyond what I see from the sometimes-limited vantage point of Stillsong Hermitage itself or the reading, study, and prayer I do there "in cell". On the whole, my blog serves three purposes I think: 1) it allows others a glimpse of what it means to be a diocesan hermit and how universal the various elements of my life are for ANY Christian, 2) it allows me to answer questions folks ask out of either curiosity or need, and 3) it serves as a kind of journal or workbook where I can explore ideas and discover new dimensions or angles I had not seen before. Here is where the questions and comments people email me become so very important.


Summary of How and When I blog

I also really do use a fountain pen!
So the basic response to your observation that I do not blog everyday and to your related question is that I will blog whenever 1) things in my mind (thought) and heart (prayer \ lectio) reach a kind of critical mass and explode in a flurry of posts or 2) things  reach a kind of plateau where I need not only the input of others but the stretching that comes from trying to share things.

Contemplative life is focused on God and this is especially so of eremitical contemplative life, but contemplatives need the challenge of others to test not only the spirits but our own ideas too; we also need the challenge and support of others, to guide us in maintaining a broader perspective, to prompt us not to stay too long in the doldrums of a discouragingly becalmed sea (or to, to switch metaphors, not to get stuck with our noses in our own navels!) and to encourage real creativity. The flip side of all that is, of course, that I blog when there is something real to share. While I don't talk about life in the hermitage or daily problems and concerns much, I think folks who read here do get a sense of the Gospel and theology that holds my life together and makes it a real joy. Similarly when I have friends visit as happened last month (Sister Susan, OSF), I think readers get a sense of the importance of relationships with others and why these are such a valued part of contemplative (even eremitical) life! Hopefully readers get a sense that in all of the ebbs and flows of writing in Notes From Stillsong, blogging points to a vital intellectual and spiritual life here --- a life whose various rhythms ---energy and enervation, insight and blindness, tedium and excitement, etc. --- are encompassed in the provident Love of God which they also know in their own lives.

Part of My Life as a Hermit?

When I began blogging I had no idea it would become a central piece of my life as a hermit nor that it would become a real source of inspiration, ministry, and even a kind of meditative practice which supports my contemplative prayer. I thought originally it could be helpful and interesting to some few others and wanted to provide a kind of anchoritic window into my own hermitage. But it has certainly grown into something more central and life giving than that. In some ways it reflects the growth of my own vocation (or my growth in this vocation), something that comes only over time and according to a day by day faithfulness. A blog starts out with a post or two --- along, perhaps, with an obscure sense of what it might one day become ---and in time it grows into something with a definite shape, rhythm, and (one hopes) value.

I do not worry when I do not blog for a while, of course --- my blog is not central in that way. Also folks seem perfectly happy allowing me to take time in solitude while things percolate or gestate or whatever the process involves. They always seem to come back and read whenever I blog again. There are a few stalwarts who ALWAYS ask good questions, and then there are always new folks like yourself who ask those questions I have never been asked before. You are all important to my life as a hermit, important to my creativity and obedience (hearkening) to the Spirit and I am grateful to you all and to this amazing medium!

21 June 2014

Real Hermits Need not Apply! Strange and Funny Day at Stillsong

Well, the day before yesterday was one of those really strange days that happen once in a while here at Stillsong. God is nothing if not a God of surprises! First I discovered that my blog was linked to parish bulletins all over the country. Because it was the feast of St Romuald a service that supplies brief reflections highlighting the day's readings, saint, or in this case, way of life or vocation, had provided content on the diocesan hermit to hundreds of parishes which they then included in their own bulletins. There was a headline, "Are Hermits For Real?" and at the end of the recap of the vocation of the c 603 hermit today the service included an invitation to "meet a modern-day hermit" with a link to this blog. I made the discovery when I noticed that in the space of a few hours the readership of this blog had been multiplied tenfold! (Over the course of the whole day the readership jumped 600% or so!) At first I was afraid someone had hacked it and put up some awful video or something that had itself "gone viral". What a relief to find there was no big problem --- and no hacking!!

The second thing that happened was that several people emailed me with the link to an article in the Irish Times about a job opportunity they thought was right up my alley. It turns out that a town council overseeing a combination cave, cottage, and separate chapel in Switzerland is looking for a hermit to serve as caretaker and sacristan for this historic site. The job requirements besides these? "Must like people!" was the main one. Fair enough! Also, "must . . . have a desire to tend a small garden, to 'dispense wisdom' to anyone that might pass by, and be willing to give courses in meditation three times a week."

Well, that was all well and good. I pulled out a pencil and noted, Check, check, and check on those requirements. (Since conflicting articles made it unclear whether the hermit would live in the cottage or the cave, I added a question mark there. Too, the bit about, "dispensing wisdom" to all and sundry was a little much --- but one source translated that requirement by saying one, "needed to be able to listen to folks' concerns," and that is certainly part of my usual job description! Check! Same with teaching meditation --- more or less. Check!). Why, I even have my own historical hermit garb and cowl so no problem there either -- just in case the village council was looking for authenticity! (Sorry, no beard for me!!)

But there was a definite deal-breaker ---at least for a full-time position! Namely, there are tourists coming to this place all the time! Even the cave-living part is not the deal breaker this actually is. As one friend and novice solitary would say, "That would seriously impact your 'eremitude', Laurel!" Of course, also I am already obligated to a kind of stability in my diocese and I love my parish as well. I don't really want to leave either of these (and would need permission from both Bishops, US and Swiss to make such a change anyway), but what about a temporary sabbatical or "vacation"? Now THAT might be something the town's council would consider!


Okay, let's think "sabbatical" then! But is this for real?? It's more than a little strange to find a job description for a village in search of a hermit! (Even the salary wasn't bad!!) All I could think of at first were those actors the British nobility used to hire to live in a fake "hermitage" at the bottom of their gardens! So I read a little more about this job opportunity. This historical  monument in Switzerland (the Verena Gorge near Solothurn) is (or was) a real hermitage with real chapel and is named after a hermit (Saint Verena) said to have lived in the nearby cave. The last person who lived at the hermitage was the official hermit for 5 years (and the first woman in 600 years); she left because of health issues and "too many people!"

I read one more story on this job opening and discovered that unfortunately, applications are reported to have closed on May 5th; they had almost 120 people who wanted to do this full time! Also, because of the tourist load  the village council says they can't have a REAL hermit coming to take the job. ::sigh:: I put my pencil away. Looks like I won't be moving to Switzerland anytime soon!! No sabbatical either. Bummer!

19 June 2014

A Contemplative Moment: The Inner Self


The Inner Self

The inner self is not an ideal self, especially not an imaginary, perfect creature fabricated to measure up to our compulsive need for greatness, heroism, and infallibility. On the contrary, the real “I” is just simply ourself and nothing more. Nothing more, nothing less. Our self as we are in the eyes of God, to use Christian terms. Our self in all our uniqueness, dignity, littleness, and ineffable greatness: the greatness we have received from God our Father and that we share with Him because He is our Father and “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28).
Merton, Thomas; Shannon, William H.  The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation

18 June 2014

Feast of St Romuald


Romuald Receives the Gift of Tears,
Br Emmaus O'Herlihy, OSB (Glenstal)
Congratulations to all Camaldolese this day (Thursday), the feast day of the founder of the Camaldolese Congregations! Especially the Camaldolese celebrate today (2014) the Jubilees and Anniversaries of Monastic Vows of Thomas and Gabriel (50 years ago) and of Raniero and Benedict (21 years ago), and the Birthday of Cyprian!

Saint Romuald has a special place in my heart for two reasons. First he went around Italy bringing isolated hermits together or at least under the Rule of Benedict --- something I found personally to resonate with my own need to seek canonical standing and to subsume my personal Rule of Life under a larger, more profound, and living tradition or Rule; secondly, he gave us a form of eremitical life which is uniquely suited to the diocesan hermit. St Romuald's unique gift (charism) to the church involved what is called a "threefold good", that is, the blending of the solitary and communal forms of monastic life (the eremitical and the cenobitical), along with the third good of evangelization or witness -- which literally meant (and means) spending one's life for others in the power and proclamation of the Gospel.

Stillsong Hermitage
So often people (mis)under-stand the eremitical life as antithetical to communal life, and opposed as well to witness or evangelization. As I have noted many times here they mistake individualism and isolation for eremitical solitude. Romuald modeled an eremitism which balances the eremitical call to physical solitude and a commitment to God alone with community and outreach to the world to proclaim the Gospel. I think this is part of truly understanding the communal and ecclesial dimensions which are always present in true solitude. The Camaldolese vocation is essentially eremitic, but because it is so clearly rooted in what the Camaldolese call "The Privilege of Love" it therefore naturally has a communal component which inevitably spills out in witness. Michael Downey describes it this way in the introduction to The Privilege of Love:

Theirs is a rich heritage, unique in the Church. This particular form of life makes provision for the deep human need for solitude as well as for the life shared alongside others in pursuit of a noble purpose. But because their life is ordered to a threefold good, the discipline of solitude and the rigors of community living are in no sense isolationist or self-serving. Rather both of these goods are intended to widen the heart in service of the third good: The Camaldolese bears witness to the superabundance of God's love as the self, others, and every living creature are brought into fuller communion in the one love.

Monte Corona Camaldolese
The Benedictine Camal-dolese live this by having both cenobitical and eremitical expressions wherein there is a strong component of hospitality. The Monte Corona Camaldolese which are more associated with the reform of Paul Giustiniani have only the eremitical expression and live as semi-eremites in lauras.

In any case, the Benedictine Camaldolese charism and way of life seems to me to be particularly well-suited to the vocation of the diocesan hermit since she is called to live for God alone, but in a way which ALSO specifically calls her to give her life in love and generous service to others, particularly her parish and diocese. While this service and gift of self ordinarily takes the form of solitary prayer which witnesses to the foundational relationship with God we each and all of us share, it may also involve other, though limited, ministry within the parish including limited hospitality --- or even the outreach of a hermit from her hermitage through the vehicle of a blog!

In my experience the Camaldolese accent in my life supports and encourages the fact that even as a hermit (or maybe especially as a hermit!) a diocesan hermit is an integral part of her parish community and is loved and nourished by them just as she loves and nourishes them! As Prior General Bernardino Cozarini, OSB Cam, once described the Holy Hermitage in Tuscany (the house from which all Camaldolese originate in one way and another), "It is a small place. But it opens up to a universal space." Certainly this is true of all Camaldolese houses and it is true of Stillsong Hermitage as a diocesan hermitage as well.

The Privilege of Love

For those wishing to read about the Camaldolese there is a really fine collection of essays on Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality which was noted above. It is written by monks, nuns and oblates of the OSB Cam. It is entitled aptly enough, The Privilege of Love and includes topics such as, "Koinonia: The Privilege of Love, "Golden Solitude," "Psychological Investigations and Implications for Living Alone Together," "An Image of the Praying Church: Camaldolese Liturgical Spirituality," "A Wild Bird with God in the Center: The Hermit in Community," and a number of others. It also includes a fine bibliography "for the study of Camaldolese history and spirituality."

Romuald's Brief Rule:

And for those who are not really familiar with Romuald, here is the brief Rule he formulated for monks, nuns, and oblates. It is the only thing we actually have from his own hand and is appropriate for any person seeking an approach to some degree of solitude in their lives or to prayer more generally. ("Psalms" may be translated as "Scripture".)

Ego Vobis, Vos Mihi,
I am yours, you are mine
Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God's presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

Dominicans Face Imminent Danger: LCWR Joins in a Call for Prayer



The above video is a kind of update with the Sisters explaining their situation.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

[Silver Spring, MD] Facing imminent danger, the leader of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna in Mosul, Iraq has called her sisters throughout Iraq to a time of intense prayer and retreat to beg God for the protection of the Iraqi people, especially the minority Christian community.

The Iraqi Christian community has steadily declined from approximately 1.3 million in 2003 to less than 300,000 today.  Recent statements from Christian leaders have indicated that it is unlikely there are any Christians remaining in Mosul today.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States calls upon people of all denominations in the world community to join the Iraqi Sisters in a moment of prayer on Thursday, June 19 at 6 PM (in your time zone) to pray for an end to the violence and the protection of minority Christians in Iraq.

“We are living in extreme times. Christianity has been present in Iraq from biblical times, but at this point Christians are in grave danger and being forced out of this land or face martyrdom. The Dominican Sisters remain committed to accompanying their people regardless of the consequences,” said LCWR president Sister Carol Zinn, SSJ.

The Iraqi Christian Sisters are all Iraqi nationals and ministers in healthcare, social services, and education.  In fact, the Iraqi Dominican sisters started the first Montessori school in the country. The Sisters serve all people, Christians and Muslims, in their ministry. As the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine continue their days of intense prayer, they ask that people throughout the world join them on June 19, believing that this intensification of global prayer can make a difference.

“We believe that prayer has the power to change the course of events in Iraq,” Sister Carol noted. “We stand with our sisters and brothers who courageously remain with the people they serve and will join with them in prayer for as long and as often as it takes until the violence ceases.”

Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)
Iraqi Dominican sisters in a happier time (2013)

17 June 2014

On Thinking About the True or Inner Self

[[Dear Sister Laurel, you referred recently to the "true self" and I have seen references to this in other writers dealing with spirituality. Keating and others in the Centering Prayer movement refer to this and I have the sense it is a monastic way of speaking. My problem is I have never found a good presentation of what it is or is not. I know that the false self is the ego self but is the true self our soul or our heart or what exactly is it? Is there someone I can read on this?]]

This is a great question because defining the true self is difficult and treating it as a kind of "little person," homunculus, or piece of ourselves somewhere inside us is a real danger. I tend to think of my true self as that self God envisions and calls me to be. If I need something a little more tangible (or that at least feels more tangible!) I think of it as the Name by which God knows and calls me. It is as much potential as it is real(ized).This emphatically does not mean that there is a kind of template, much less an invisible person hidden deep within us. The true self is not our soul nor perhaps even our "heart" (though as I understand "heart" the two are profoundly related). In any case, the true self is a dialogical event which comes to be in the very moment of obedient response to the Word and Summons of God. In a sense when we speak of the true self we are talking about a reality in the mind or heart of God as well as an event which is the result and embodiment of his love as it is received at any given moment in our own lives. It is that person we are when we are most truly alive, most truly ourselves, most truly living from and in God. Merton refers to it as "a spontaneity," and finds it in every deeply spiritual experience, "whether religious, moral, or even artistic." In The Inner Experience he writes:

[[The inner self [another term for the true self] is not part of our being, like a motor in a car. It is our entire substantial reality itself, on its highest and most existential level. It is like life, and it is life: it is our spiritual life when it is most alive. It is the life by which everything else in us lives and moves. . . .The inner self is as secret as God and, like Him, it evades every concept that tries to seize hold of it with full possession. It is a life that cannot be held and studied as object, because it is not "a thing." It is not reached and coaxed forth from hiding by any process under the sun, including meditation. All that we can do with any spiritual discipline is produce within ourselves something of the silence. the humility, the detachment, the purity of heart, and the indifference which are required if the inner self is to make some shy, unpredictable manifestation of his (its) presence.]]

One of the difficulties in speaking of the true self is our failure to understand it in terms of its dynamic and dialogical quality. We think of it as "already there" waiting passively --- apart in some sense from active participation in our relationship with God, apart, that is, from our participation in God's ongoing and eternal creative activity. But this, I think, is not the case. The true self is what exists to the extent and at the very moment we are in dialogue with God. It is that Self which is actively involved in the I-Thou relationship with God. In a sense it IS this I-Thou relationship embodied in space and time, this God-speaking-human being-hearkening Event we know as "incarnated Word". I have written before that God is eternal because God is always new (kainotes) and is eternal only to the extent that God is always new. I think we have to understand that the true self has a similar kind of existence. Merton's use of the term "a spontaneity" is especially apt --- but we must understand that because the true self always and only exists in and from God there is an eternity to it as well. Still, this eternity is not so much one of persistence (which is a temporal reality) as it is of an eternal now --- a moment by moment giveness and receivedness. My own use of the term Event is an attempt to do justice to the paradox of newness (spontaneity)  and eternity in God and in myself as well.

Similarly, I speak and think of true self in relation to the Name by which God calls me because it helps me remember that the true self is not a template or pattern of characteristics I must somehow embody or live up to. It wholly transcends this just as any Name does. I think it also allows us to speak here of the secret name by which God knows and calls us because often (always?) this is very different from the more usual name by which the whole world knows us or, even more emphatically so from the name we try to make for ourselves. At the same time focusing on Name immediately causes me to understand that existence is a gift I cannot give myself and that the true self is the result of God's own speech as hearkened to by the me it makes more real.

Finally, Name points to the embodiment of true freedom we are called to be and become. There is no pre-conceived "person" or "plan" attached to a name. Instead the bestowal of a name gives us a dignity, a capacity and even a commission which we ourselves will "fill" with content --- and yet, above all, that content is who we are in our relatedness with God and all that is from and of God. If one were to try to capture or define the content of a personal Name one would fail as surely as they would fail trying to capture a living brook or flowing river in a bucket. So too with the true self that, like Godself, is really more verb than noun. All of these things are sort of the counterpart to apophatic ways of knowing God. We know God only to the extent we are known by God and any worthwhile attempt to speak positively about the reality of God must center on saying clearly what God is not. Where finally we come to know God as (an) ultimate freedom so too do we come to know the true self as a contingent freedom --- that is, ourselves as we truly (and "spontaneously") exist in and from God.

Addendum:

One other way the true or inner self is often referred to is with the term "deep self." It is not a term I usually use personally but I was reminded of it and reflected on how it might illustrate what I wrote yesterday. Theologians like Paul Tillich (who was influential in Merton's own thought) refer to God and too, to the literally spiritual as the depth dimension of all reality. When, with Tillich, we refer to God as the ground of being and meaning we are referring to this same depth dimension -- a dimension which grounds and can penetrate and take hold of every aspect of our existences, a dimension of depth which is manifest in our religious, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic lives whenever we are grasped by meaning, truth, beauty, or future, etc --- that is, whenever we are grasped by (an ultimate) concern expressed by or through these.

The depth dimension in all of these human endeavors or functions is their participation in ultimacy and the transcendent. My sense is the "deep self" is that self which is grasped by this depth dimension whenever this occurs; this means it is real in the event of our everyday selves being grasped, shaken, and transformed by depth or Spirit. (Remember that because of Jesus' Ascension the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of authentic humanity!) It is, in other words, all of ourselves taken hold of and shaken by ultimacy (and thus, by an ultimate concern), whether that occurs (as Merton pointed out as well) in the intellectual, the moral, religious, or the artistic realms of our lives. If this seems a bit too abstract or the language feels too foreign, notice how it continues the theme of spontaneity or reprises comments on the event nature of the true self. Because for Tillich faith is "the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern" the true self can be called that self which is taken hold of by faith -- not as believing in x or y, but in the sense of allowing ourselves to trustingly fall into the hands of the living God who, at that moment, makes all things new.

For a very accessible introduction to this notion of "depth dimension" cf Paul Tillich's sermon, "The Depth of Existence" in his book, The Shaking of the Foundations. Also helpful would be his sermon, "Our Ultimate Concern" in The New Being.

16 June 2014

Followup Questions on the Intimacy of Prayer and the Responsibility to Share the Fruit of One's Contemplative Experience


[[Dear Sister Laurel, are you saying that one must share the most intimate details of one's prayer with others? I think of prayer as very intimate. I don't think I must go into the details with the entire Church.]]

Thanks! Good question. No, I don't mean this. However, I do expect a lot of the details to be shared with one's spiritual director so the entire experience and all its implications can be discussed and submitted to a mutual process of discernment in which the emotional and sensible content (to whatever extent this exists) can be transformed into deeper personal understanding and genuinely ecclesial wisdom.

Even here the director's work is mainly to allow and assist the directee to reflect on the experience, to open her to letting it continue to live in her, and therefore to help her to live from it and draw conclusions about it to the extent it is authentic; it is not the job of the director necessarily to simply pronounce of the authenticity of the experience. Instead she works to enable the kind of patience, openness, and generosity that will allow such experiences to become sources of real wisdom. With you I completely agree that what happens in prayer is one of the most intimate experiences a person may have --- more intimate I would argue than sexual intercourse even (potentially the most intimate experience human beings usually know apart from prayer). I believe that sharing the details with people is something that will happen rarely and carefully. Here is one of the places where casting pearls before swine is a real concern, not because people are swine of course, but because they really may have no true sense just how holy and precious this piece of one's life actually is which can lead to "trampling it underfoot". Besides, there are simply some things we "hold close" and only share with those we know will understand from "inside" the experience.

Still, some degree of sharing is important, not because one wants folks to believe their prayer experiences are "special" or "beyond what others experience" (at best one is naive if one believes this), but because they can become a true source of wisdom when one reflects on them in this way. In my own posts on this blog, and in fact, in a reflection I did for my parish several years ago, I have referred to one really significant prayer experience several times. I have done that for several reasons: 1) because it is a living reality, not a static memory, which I touch back into regularly so that I may hear more profoundly that which I heard less so earlier; 2) so that new dimensions of revelation and understanding may be opened to me since God has not stopped speaking to me via this 30 year old prayer experience; 3) so that I can illustrate for others how it is we fulfill the definition of "experience" which Ruth Burrows rightly insists on --- especially the patience and generosity she refers to, and 4) so that it becomes clear that as private and intimate as an experience is, extraordinary (and those we mistakenly think are not so extraordinary) experiences of prayer are a gift to the whole community.

To open such an experience to others is also to help short circuit any tendency to elitism or mere eccentricity while making sure the real prayer experience is the ecclesial reality it is meant to be. Everyone in the Church should be encouraged to reflect in a general way on the prayer experiences not only of their own lives, but those of others that may differ. This encourages an openness to allowing God to work in one's own life in ways one may never have entertained before, not least because one thought it was only open to "specialists" or religious, for instance. It is also helpful and perhaps natural to any life in which prayer is truly central -- whether that be the life of a mom with children, of a businessman negotiating the complexities of a contemplative approach to his difficult professional environment, a hermit in her hermitage, or the Church as a whole. While the immediate experience I spoke of earlier was my own, beginning with my work with my director, that can --- and, I believe, ought to --- become a source of communal reflection and discernment which eventually leads to real wisdom for the whole Church but certainly for the contemplative's local Church. After all it is a witness to the way the Holy Spirit is working in the midst of the community --- and the way She DESIRES to work in every life therein even if the sensible "furnishings" of the experiences involved differ from person to person.

Let me reiterate a bit and clarify what I am saying here. I do not mean to say that the larger church will ever know of the details of my own prayer experience(s) themselves; those may be known only to my director or to a small and select group of friends. To the degree communicating the ineffable is even possible this could even occur in a group spiritual direction or parish prayer-group setting, for instance. At the same time, as I write this, I am clearer than ever that even these yet-unshared details could eventually be shared more largely to the extent they reveal the ineffable more than they obscure it, and to the extent it is truly reverent and prudent to do so. What remains true is that in any case the more general dynamics of my experience and the way these call me to grow in holiness --- the way this experience shapes an eremitical spirituality, the way I grow in understanding as I continue to tap into it, the wisdom it has for the faith community at large, what it teaches about the nature and place of (contemplative) prayer in every person's life and the life of the Church herself, what it says about the love and mercy of God and the way God truly delights in each of us, how it changed and continues to change me as a person, etc., --- are all matters that should be grist for greater ecclesial sharing and reflection.

For me personally this is another dimension of the silence of solitude being a communal or dialogical reality. It is part of being a representative of a living eremitical tradition. While the hermitage allows me an essentially hidden life geared to meeting God alone, and while my prayer is deeply intimate and private, the hermitage is also a quasi public as well as a formally and essentially ecclesial reality. It exists in the name of the Church and the life within it (in particular the prayer, penance, lectio, and study that so informs it) is a gift to that same Church especially to the extent she is a praying Church!

I suspect that this is another of those reasons we find hermits negotiating the tensions between their hidden lives and their public (ecclesial) roles through writing more often than not. Of course it is also true that contemplative prayer needs the checks and balances of a praying community with a long history of saints and genuine contemplatives and mystics if we are to avoid the problems associated with false and merely narcissistic "mystical" experiences, but generally the reason the contemplative takes part in the Church's own conversation in these matters is because she prays as part of the praying church and contributes to its life and wisdom in doing so. While sharing and reflecting together on experiences may lead to the discernment that some of these are inauthentic and disedifying, the more important reason for doing so is to allow those that are authentic to truly BE edifying to the whole faith community. This, I believe, is part of the responsibility of sharing in God's gift of contemplation.

On Discernment with Regard to Prayer Experiences and "the Spiritual": Making Sure these are Truly Edifying

[[But in the spiritual life, we do not need temporal justification or documentation by or of others. Consider Jesus. He did not reference or cite what temple priests, scribes or experts on Judaic law said or wrote. He referenced God the Father and the Pentateuch (the Scrolls). Consider any of the prophets. They cite God. Moses relayed what God said and did not justify his words or His Words by any other means. All this makes me ponder the more, the writings of great and holy souls in Christendom, in the Church, who have passed on to us much wisdom and guidance for the spiritual life. They do not justify themselves or their words by any other persons than The Three Persons: God, His Son, and the Holy Spirit.]] This was posted by a woman claiming to be a Catholic hermit in an apparent response to one or two posts you had put up clarifying mistakes people make in approaching mystical experiences and eremitical life:  (On Justifying Oneself ). She claims that documentation is necessary in secular matters but not spiritual ones. She also seems to believe that providing the kinds of support you did is done in an attempt to elevate oneself. Could you please comment on this?


Well, assuming as you do that this post was actually directed at me and either my recent article on eremitical life citing the Camaldolese founders and reformers or the one on contemplative prayer citing Ruth Burrows, Thomas Merton, et al, I could begin by pointing out that I am neither a great nor a holy soul, but in this case I think that is beside the point. You see this comment refers to people trying to justify or even elevate themselves and what they write in the area of spirituality by the similar positions and words of others --- except of course, God alone. The post insists that neither Jesus nor the prophets quoted anyone except God the Father and the Pentateuch. While I contend that is not actually true it is also beside the point. After all Jesus spoke with a unique authority, "You have heard it said . . . but I say. : ." while the Prophets were charged with speaking the very Word of God into their present situation. We simply don't know what else they said, nor how they supported what they had to say. The Scriptures focus our attention and accent the Prophets' authority differently than this.

But what actually is this blogger's point? As far as I can tell, she seems to believe that in the spiritual life (unlike what is acceptable in any other sphere of human endeavor) we can say anything at all about prayer, mystical experiences, eremitical life, etc., and justify it with the assertion that its source and ground is (an experience of) God: "I experienced this, it is of God because I say it is of God; nothing more needs be said. Believe me!" Do I really need to point out how specious and often destructive such a position actually is and has been in human religious history?

In any case to say that the great Saints and spiritual writers in the history of the Church do not support what they write or say by references to other great Saints, scholars, or experts is simply untrue. It would be easy to cite a paragraph or a dozen and more where the Saint or religious scholar in question cites others to support or clarify his/her position. John of the Cross, for instance cited both Latin and Greek Fathers to support and further illuminate his own positions throughout his work. It was hardly an attempt at personal justification nor was it done to elevate himself. Instead it was part of a broader conversation with the whole Church and is paradigmatic of the importance of such an undertaking. (More about this in a bit.)


Still (and meanwhile), even the assertion that great saints don't cite others is somewhat beside the point. What is more pertinent is the fact that the assertion that one does not need to cite others in support of personal spiritual experiences is nonsense and dangerous nonsense at that. In the area of religious experience it is actually more important than in most any other area of human endeavor I can think of to support what one says with the experimental findings of others in prayer. Beyond this it is critically important to justify what one says theologically and by the fruits of one's life --- not least because the sinful human heart knows many gods and the human imagination and intellect have shown time and time again their propensity to mistake the merely subjective and illusory stuff of the "false self" for objective reality and the stuff of the "true self" (which, to the extent it exists, really does know and reflect God). In other words, in the realm of religious experience human history is fraught with the mistaken, the mentally ill, the deluded, the merely sinful, the dishonest and hypocrites, as well as opportunists and flimflam artists of every kind and shade. Even when the person is acting in completely good faith we may be dealing with a bit of errant neurochemistry or neuroelectrical activity, psychological projection, or simple misinterpretation more than we are dealing with an experience of God. Does this blogger really not know this?

Prayer is our experimental means to knowledge of God and just as in other forms of human knowing which depend on the duplication of experimental results and the careful elaboration of the implications of the findings, so too do prayer experiences require something similar though, of course, not identical. (Since prayer is the activity of a transcendent and sovereign God within us, not something we alone achieve, duplication of the conditions and experience is not possible.) We have criteria for discerning the genuineness of a prayer experience (or series of experiences) and we turn to theologians and experts in prayer to explore the ramifications and implications of our conclusions. Could this have been of God? In what way is this so and in what way not (because both aspects are always present in such an experience!)? What allows me to say so? Who has known God in similar ways and what does this mean? These are a few of the questions personal experiences in prayer, despite the subjective certitude associated with them, necessarily call for in order that they may be edifying not only to the individual but to the entire faith community.


Again (and here we return to the reason St John of the Cross's citations of others are so important and a model for us) we are looking at a reason prayer, though profoundly and unquestionably personal, is also an essentially ecclesial reality and not merely a private one. Genuine discernment requires the wisdom of a praying community --- which, on the most immediate or individual level is what working with a spiritual director is about. Our individual prayer experiences must become the source of real wisdom and this requires reflection and conversation. Remember the citation I gave from Ruth Burrows: [[When all is said and done, the long line of saints and spiritual writers who insist on "experience", who speak of sanctity in terms of ever deepening "experience", who maintain that to have none is to be spiritually dead, are absolutely right provided we understand "experience" in the proper sense, not as a transient emotional impact but as living wisdom, living involvement. . . .So often, however, what the less instructed seek is mere emotion. They are not concerned with the slow demanding generosity of genuine experience.]] GMP, "A Look at Experiences," p 55, emphasis added.

For this to happen testing (sometimes called testing of the spirits) must also occur and this happens within the community of faith, not least including the communion of saints. As far as I can see, to be responsible for what one experiences in prayer requires one to submit her own conclusions to the "corroboration" (so to speak) --- or, perhaps better put, to the reverent attention and consideration of other faithful, especially those experienced in the ways of prayer. One does this so that one's own experience may become a source of genuine wisdom in a way which builds up the whole community. One does so in order that others may truly benefit from God's interaction with humanity in Christ as mediated in one's own prayer. This is precisely the way we believe and truly honor our very personal prayer experiences. Merely privatistic experiences, especially when they are eccentric or mainly rooted in the false self are not only not edifying, they are disedifying or downright destructive both of the individual and of the believing community as well.

12 June 2014

Merton, TS Elliot, The Apophatic Way and My Own Contemplative Life

Dear Sister, I like the posts you have put up with the picture of the monk and the quotes from Merton and T.S. Elliot. I hope you continue these. Is Merton a favorite writer and spiritual teacher for you? I ask because some people have written that he went kind of awry or was "off" in his later years and was discredited as a Catholic monk. I don't mean you shouldn't read him but I wondered why you liked him and if you thought that was true.]]

Hi there. Thanks for your comments on the posts. I do plan to continue these. Not only do I love the picture -- which for me sums up so much of the eremitical life -- but I think these posts provide a way of giving a small but significant taste of various authors on the contemplative journey from time to time. When I first thought of combining the picture with a single quote I was thinking that visually and otherwise it would present as a kind of contemplative moment within the blog itself; I thought that might be really attractive to folks who come here. I haven't decided how often I want to put these up -- not TOO frequently of course --- and I think I also need to title them similarly so they stand out as a regular feature of the blog, but those logistical matters aside, yes I will continue to put them up.

As for Thomas Merton, yes, he is a favorite writer and spiritual teacher (or mentor) for me though until very recently it had been some time since I had actually read him. I was saying to a friend earlier today that I have just recently come back to Merton and am beginning to reread him with new eyes. I first picked up his stuff in the late 1960's or early 1970's. Later, in the 1980's I read some of his work on eremitical life. Along with Merton's own stuff I am looking again at the work of William Shannon. The latter's revision of The Dark Path (his new book is called Thomas Merton's Paradise Journey) is really exciting because in it I am reading again about something I once felt called to and with which I resonated to some limited degree, but now recognize as profoundly descriptive of my own spiritual journey and contemplative experience. You see, Merton's approach to contemplation and my own are the same (which is hardly surprising!); we both were called to the "apophatic" (a-poh-FAT-ic) tradition or way --- the way of darkness and denial. (It comes from the Greek word apophasis (uh-POF-uh-sis) which means negation or denial, ("God is not. . ."). It's opposite is the kataphatic or affirmative way (kataphasis [keh-TAF-uh-sis] means affirmation); it is a way of doing theology which proceeds by way of analogy and makes affirmations about God both in terms of similarity ("God is like. . .") and even greater dissimilarity ("but God is even more unlike . . ."). It does not, by definition, penetrate to the deepest essence or heart of God)

Apophatic Tradition in Contemplation

Apophatic contemplation, which is a way built on "experiencing" God directly, thrives on paradox and I have been turned on by paradox and especially by the paradoxes of Christianity from the moment my first major professor explained the difference between the way Greek thought tends to proceed and the way Biblical thought works. (The first moves from thesis to antithesis and then comes to rest in a synthesis which often is a kind of golden mean. Biblical thought, on the other hand, is at home with paradox --- a kind of both/and approach to thought and reality which often says things like "Dive into the emptiness and there you will find real fullness," "In losing yourself you will find yourself,"  "God's mercy IS his justice", and so forth.) For the contemplative knows that even though many of us are driven to write many words about prayer, spirituality, or theology, none of them even comes close to describing God or the experience (or non-experience!) of prayer. At the same time we know that the tensions of paradox come closest to conveying the truth about God and God's dealings with us --- though many would call them senseless babblings. Thus God is a light we only perceive as darkness or a darkness which illuminates, an emptiness which is fullness, the nothing which is all, so that faith and prayer involve a vulnerable leap (which we both must make and actually cannot make ourselves!) into a void in which we find (or rather are found by) total security. You get the idea I think.

Ruth Burrows (Sister Rachel), the Carmelite nun and specialist in Teresa of Avila whom I have also cited recently and like very much is a contemplative in the apophatic way and this is one of the reasons she so rejects the sense experience so many mistakenly associate with an experience of God in so-called "mystical states". Meister Eckhart, also a proponent of the apophatic way, agrees with Ruth Burrows in this and writes in typical paradoxical form: "Seek God so as never to find him". Both agree with Merton that when, through some experience in prayer, one "seems to have found God," they have NOT found God -- or that "once one seems to have grasped God, God has eluded one". As William Shannon (writing in a way which echoes what I have said here any number of times) explains, "God is not an object or a thing alongside of other objects and things: God is the All whom we can discover only in the experience of not discovering." The Apostle Paul described the same experience when he spoke of "coming to know/grasp God, or rather, being known/grasped by God." Paul Tillich's theology, which I focused on in both my senior year of college and later in doctoral work reminds me very much of this because he defines faith as, "the state of being grasped by an unconditional concern" and is emphatic that God is not A being, but instead the ground of being and meaning out of which all that is exists (ex-istere, out of - to stand up).

Of course the really big name in the apophatic way is John of the Cross (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Living Flame of Love, ). Meanwhile, T.S. Elliot may also have been "schooled" in the apophatic tradition because in true apophatic style he speaks of coming again to the place where he began and knowing that place for the first time. In Little Gidding V Elliot piles paradox upon paradox but he begins with the following one: [[We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.]] This really is the experience of contemplative prayer, the experience of seeking and exploring that which in some sense we know and desire profoundly as our source and starting place only to come to "know the place for the first time." Merton comes at it from the other way around and says it this way, [[[Contemplation] strikes us at once as utterly new and strangely familiar. . .Although we had an entirely different notion of what it would be like, it turns out to be just what we seem to have known all along that it ought to be. . .We enter a region which we had never even suspected, and yet, it is this new world which seems familiar and obvious.]] Seeds of Contemplation pp 144-145

Thomas Merton, A Brief Evaluation:

All of which brings me back to Thomas Merton and your questions. (Really!!) You see, this is the nature of my own contemplative experience and for that reason I know Thomas Merton to have been the real deal. So much of what he writes resonates with me and my own experience in prayer, but also with the "greats" like John of the Cross, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, many of the Greek Fathers, et al. But besides that, I think I largely owe him for my eremitical vocation. You see when I read canon 603 for the first time it was intriguing to me personally and suggested a way all the dimensions of my life could be rendered coherent (that is, made to hold together in meaningful whole). However, I also doubted such a vocation could be anything but selfish. (Contemplative life struck me that way; eremitical life was far worse --- it seemed a kind of epitome or summit of selfishness!) I then read Dom Jean LeClercq's Alone With God which intrigued me; I liked it very much though I had no idea the Camaldolese existed. Still, I had doubts about the value of the life. Then I read Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action. As I have written here before, it electrified me because it showed eremitical life as valid and more, as a significant gift of God to the Church and world. Later I read his "Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude" in Disputed Questions and that became a new favorite -- but by that time I was already a  hermit and had been for more than twenty years.

Some suggest he was not a true monk or that he had confessed upon walking into a library with shelves of his books that much of it was crap (I think he said B.S.). I have already written about those things in this blog and will link you to it here: Defending Thomas Merton . Bear in mind that for the apophatic contemplative words ALWAYS not only fall short of but also betray God. We are nonetheless compelled to write about God and prayer but with an awareness that when what we write is compared to the God who grasps us in prayer, the judgment must always be what it was for Thomas Merton, Thomas Aquinas and so many others: this is as straw, it is a load of refuse, BS, etc. Further our work is always also our very own and reflects not just our virtue, our knowledge, and our union with God but our limitations and even our sinfulness or estrangement from that same God and our truest selves. Thus when Merton looked upon the newly published Seeds of Contemplation, for instance, he remarked, "Every book I write is a mirror of my own character and conscience. I always open the final printed job with the faint hope of finding myself agreeable and I never do" He goes on to say both sincerely and perhaps with more than a little contemplative irony (or all-too-human hyperbole), "There is nothing to be proud of in this one either. : ."

Meanwhile, as someone associated with the Camaldolese as an oblate, I know that many Christian Contemplatives read, study, and regularly meet and discuss with contemplatives of other religious traditions. Some of my Camaldolese brothers and sisters in particular are specialists in other contemplative traditions and the New Camaldoli hermitage hosts inter-religious meetings of such contemplatives regularly though not frequently. We (contemplatives from various religious traditions) have a lot in common precisely because the God we meet transcends words and descriptions --- and also the limits of our own religious traditions. (Sometimes our own clinging to these limits represents what Mary Magdalene did with the Risen Christ and we need to remember that while we are to honor these traditions appropriately for all they truly reveal/mediate to us, they must not cause us to cling to a yet-unascended Jesus nor to limit the reach of the Holy Spirit.)

Though aware of all this (and paradoxically too, because of it) Merton never ceased to be a Christian and a Cistercian Monk.  Because his own life reflected the paradoxes and tensions of the contemplative who is drawn beyond more usual borders and boundaries I understand why what he wrote was uncomfortable for some of his confreres and others. Of course, I also know he was a flawed human being; his unacceptable behavior with the nurse he met during his stay in hospital was unjustifiable -- though he tried pretty hard (and pitifully) to do this in what I read of his last journal. Still, my own judgment on Merton is favorable. He was and remained a Catholic Christian, Trappist Monk, and true contemplative who was also a contemporary hermit and a fine writer. I am grateful to God for his life and more than a little sorry for his premature death because I would have liked to have known him.