28 July 2014

Why Does Jesus teach in Parables? Some Notes on Matt's Introduction to Jesus' Parables

[[Dear Sister, [last week] we heard the disciples ask Jesus why he taught in parables and the answer was very difficult for me. He seemed to say that he spoke in parables because to some (disciples!) it had been given to hear but to others (non disciples!) it had not been given to hear. He then says that some have dull hearts lest they turn and Jesus would heal them. He finishes this off by saying to those who have even more will be given and to those who have not even that which they have will be taken away from them. Is this really the Gospel? Did Jesus really tell parables to PREVENT people from hearing the Good News and being saved? I don't think that is a Jesus I either do or can believe in.]]

The Paradoxical and Ironic nature of the Introduction: Neutrality is not Possible

When I read this introduction to Jesus' parables in Matthew I tend to wonder how many really destructive visions of Christianity have been nourished by a mishearing of it. I remember when I was an undergraduate and my major professor read this text to us looking for us to make sense of it. I was astounded by what I was hearing. (How could JESUS say such a terrible thing to the really poor?!) But I also had the sense that if I could hear it rightly I would understand something more about the Gospel as well as Jesus' parables themselves. The first thing we should recognize perhaps is that Jesus parables are really dangerous pieces of narrative. They are capable of overturning everything we see or hear or think we understand while they provide us with a counter-cultural reality which fulfills our every desire. If we really hear them nothing will be left unchanged. If we do not hear them rightly they might seem to justify some of the very worst elitism and other attitudes so prevalent today in both our world and in our Church! In other words, they can either open our hearts or cause a hardening of them. What they do not allow for I think is neutrality.

As you noted in your question, the introduction to the chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus why he teaches in parables and he responds, [[To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has more shall be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even that which he has shall be taken away. That is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. ]] Jesus then concludes with the prophecy from Isaiah and calls the disciples blessed for they have eyes to see, ears to hear, and have understood. How are we supposed to hear this? How do we usually hear it? Does anything change in the process of Jesus ' introduction? After all, remember that what a parable does by definition is throw down beside one another two perspectives on reality. The first will be familiar, the second will conflict with that and therefore it will disorient us; it will throw us off balance. We regain our balance only by choosing to stand with both feet in one perspective or the other. This introduction to the chapter of parables actually works the same way.

The Common Misreading of the Text:

I believe the way we usually hear this text represents the common, familiar perspective Jesus wants us to leave behind. Thus, we are apt to hear the passage cited above as punitive and as one which supports an us versus them or elect vs non-elect perspective. When Jesus says, [[This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.]] we are apt to hear him saying his own teaching in parables is a way of punishing those who simply couldn't get it and applauding those elect ones who did! It is a way of strengthening the line drawn between insiders and outsiders, making the division sharper and more binding. Because it is the disciples being played off against those who have seen but not really seen, heard but not really heard, etc, this reading becomes almost automatic. Often we strengthen this reading by treating "to you it has been given" versus "but to them it has not been given" as referring to a foregone Divine determination or even predestination: God has chosen the disciples but these others have not been chosen. Instead, I think Jesus is pointing out that some have come to a graced acceptance of a gift in contrast to others who have not YET done so.

I say this for a couple of reasons. First, the facile division of reality into the easily identifiable ""haves and have nots" is not really the way Jesus usually works. His message is never about strengthening the wall between the elect and the non-elect, the elite and the hoi-poloi, the chosen people and the non-chosen. Instead it is about breaking it down, subverting it, turning it on its head. Secondly, it is never all that clear when dealing with Jesus' message who has "gotten it" and who has not. No, Jesus is more subtle, more sly and more "cunning" than this. When we remember how it is Jesus' parables work and how powerful and paradoxical they are we may begin to sense that perhaps the joke (though it will turn out to be a wonderful joke!) is on us.

First we need to recall that Jesus' parables create sacred spaces in which individuals can leave a lot of their personal baggage, preconceptions, and biases behind, enter the story, meet God face to face so to speak, and make a choice for faith or unfaith; they can choose the vision of reality appropriate to the status quo ("the world") or they can reject this and choose the vision appropriate to the Kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus tells parables not to keep people locked out of the Kingdom but to welcome them INTO it! He proclaims his message in parables BECAUSE the supposed clarity of plain speech we all prefer (e.g., a kind of theological or doctrinal explanation) simply does not have the power of story. Jesus speaks in parables precisely because folks have not really seen, not really heard or understood, and because it is his vocation, his calling or "job", his mission to heal them of this and empower them to truly see, hear, and understand. In other words, Jesus teaches in parables not to punish or exclude, but as a way of healing and including!

Secondly we need to remember that Jesus' parables disorient and off-foot us when the perspective of the Kingdom is thrown down beside that of our everyday world. We have assumed in hearing Jesus' explanation of his method of teaching that we are the insiders, the disciples, and that only those "others" haven't really "gotten it"; but what if we are wrong in precisely this belief?? What if in some ways Jesus is ironically baiting a trap (a trap designed ultimately to transform, heal, and save us) and we fall right into it as we enter his story??!! There is paradox here and when we begin to see that, then perhaps we have truly begun to see, hear and understand rightly! What we must realize is that in in speaking as he does Jesus has drawn us in in a way which will allow us to be convicted and converted as well! No one listening to a parable can remain a disinterested listener or observer and assume Jesus is merely telling the story to (or about!) "others;" the same is true of Jesus' explanation on why he teaches this way. If we thought we were the insiders we may learn that we have only barely entered the Kingdom --- or that we have not really done so at all! What seems straightforward turns out to disorient, open us to question ourselves, and  empowers us to embrace a new way of seeing, hearing, and understanding.

. . .Lest they See, hear, or understand and I would heal them

Other pieces of this introduction are as easily misunderstood because of our tendency to easily adopt an us versus them perspective (with ourselves as the chosen, the disciples, and others as the outsiders of course!). One of these is reading verse 15 as though it says "I teach them in parables lest they see, hear and understand (so that) I will heal them." But the text does not say this! It says instead, ". . their hearts have grown dull. . . LEST THEY see, hear, and understand and I would heal them." In other words they have made a choice for a closed, dull heart rather than an open and responsive one; their hearts, for whatever reasons, are dulled or hardened LEST they see and hear and understand. They resist healing. They are, by definition, 'worldly.' This situation prevents them from seeing, hearing, or understanding rightly. Even so, Jesus' teaching in parables has the power to soften the hearts of those who would otherwise reject him. Still, this introduction regarding why Jesus teaches in parables focuses on the power of parable and Jesus' compassion in teaching as he does.

To Those Who have, even more shall be given; to those who have not, even what they have shall be taken from them:

This saying of course ordinarily strikes us as completely unfair. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. This is the way of the world and it is certainly disappointing, even disillusioning, to hear Jesus speaking this way! But how is it heard by those who see, hear, and understand rightly? How is it heard by the Blessed (Happy) who have entered the Kingdom of heaven and share its perspective on reality? Well, in a general sense probably something like this: [[ Those who have opened their hearts and minds to a different way of seeing and understanding will come to see and understand even more; those who have closed their hearts and minds to the eternal Kingdom of God will lose even the little they actually have.]]

But remember too that Jesus is speaking now to the disciples who have heard and seen and understood to SOME degree, but not completely. They have come to participate in the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates to SOME extent, but not completely. This introduction to the way he teaches and all of his parables are addressed to THEM as much as to anyone else because he teaches everyone in parables. It asks his disciples to let go of an us vs them attitude they all-too-readily adopt --- which is the reason of course, they fall into Jesus' little trap! Thus Jesus' comment should probably also be heard as, saying, "I teach in parables because they have not seen, heard or understood, but let's be clear --- I teach you in parables too! What do you suppose THAT means?" (Matthew reiterates the conclusion when he has Jesus EXPLAIN the parable of the sower to his disciples in the next pericope: the disciples are as much outsiders as insiders!) Further, we should probably hear Jesus saying,  "If you continue to hearken to my Word, continue to see rightly and understand, if you continue to relinquish the perspectives of the world which is so profoundly part of who you are, then you will come to participate in the Kingdom of heaven even more abundantly. If you do not, then even the little you have will be taken from you."

Jesus Teaches Everyone in Parables!

To reiterate, it is not so much that Jesus teaches some in parables while others he speaks to more plainly (though I agree there is some truth to the idea that Jesus' parables were coded speech which protected both him and his disciples from the powers seeking to destroy him.) The greater (and ironic) truth however is that Jesus characteristically taught EVERYONE in parables and that those whose hearts and minds are open in the ways of the Kingdom are not puzzled by Jesus' parables. Happy indeed those who are NOT confounded by Jesus' parables! Thus, when someone says to one of us who live a form of discipleship, "The Kingdom is like a pearl of great price" we are not baffled at all. We know EXACTLY what this means; we understand what it means to go and sell all, buy the field and claim the pearl as our own. We know what it means to stumble onto something that will change our entire lives and to do so as we walk through the ordinary settings of our lives. But for those who have never experienced the grace of God in this way, or what it means to find the one thing we have yearned for our entire lives and to let go of everything else so we may claim that one thing, this parable makes little sense. For outsiders Jesus' parables are riddles --- an original sense of the term "mashal" from which parable also gets its name; but for those who are already "hearers of the Word" they are plain and incredibly powerful speech!

A Summary of the Questions Raised in Matt's Introduction

I suppose the question then is how do we hear these parables and the fact that Jesus regularly teaches in them? Do they confirm us in an "us versus them" world of elect and non-elect or do they confirm that Jesus speaks to all of us in the same powerful way so that we may ALL be able to see, hear, and understand the ways of the Kingdom of God? Do we see Jesus as attempting to screen out the unworthy, those "predestined" to fulfill some terrible prophecy, or do we see him as the one who seeks to include ALL of the marginalized (that is ALL of us) and to fulfill the will of God by changing the situation the prophet saw commonly occurring in front of him? Do we see others as the marginalized and non-elect, or do we recognize that but for the grace and power of Jesus' stories we too would be among those who grasp at the ultimately worthless and will lose even the little we have? Are we among those for whom Jesus' parables are a kind of confusing trap or are we among those who find that even in catching us unaware they provide us an expansive sacred space where we may be truly free?

The introduction to Matthew's chapter on Jesus' parables allows us to entertain all of these questions before we move on to hear the parables themselves. It readies us for the same kind of decision that the parables themselves allow for; this means we encounter the parables as those who are more and less already part of the Kingdom or as those who stand outside it --- but it also helps us to know that if (and to whatever extent) these language events of Jesus' confound us, if (and to whatever extent) they are riddles to us rather than plain speaking, then we stand outside the Kingdom of heaven. Not least this introduction seems to me to remind us that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is not so clear as we commonly think it to be; after all if we see others as outsiders it may be because that is where we stand ourselves! In other words, the whole insider/outsider way of thinking may be one we are being asked to reconsider! It is the very perspective Jesus may be trying to get us to relinquish.

Pretty humbling stuff, isn't it? This too reminds us of the ways Jesus' parables themselves serve to disorient and reorient! To walk away from his stories feeling a little confused about who is who and who stands where seems to me to be a salutary thing! It means our hearts have been softened, our minds have been opened, and we are more ready than we were before to accept the Kingdom of Jesus. It is entirely appropriate to find Matt's introduction to this unique and powerful form of literature doing something similar.

27 July 2014

Lauras: On hermits and Community

[[ Dear Sister, I have one question. Why are colonies of hermits called lauras. How can hermits live in colonies and still be hermits?]]

Thanks, good questions. The term laura comes from the Latin word for pathways or paths. A colony of hermits usually consists of individual hermitages, each fairly isolated from the others whether architecturally, by geography, etc. These individual hermitages are linked to one another by paths (including by cloisters) and as well to the central Church or chapel. I think it is particularly telling that such colonies are named after the external reality which links all the hermits and makes of each hermitage or "cell" an integral part of a local church or living organism. This makes clear that hermits are always part of a larger body; their lives are lives of communion, first with God and through God with one another and the whole of Creation. No hermit is ever truly alone. They are always alone with God for others --- and quite often, with others as well. Certainly they live their vocations in the heart of the Church.

In colonies, of course, the lion's share of the hermit's life is spent alone with God. Hermits in lauras come together for Mass, for occasional meals and some celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours. They may also join once a week or so in a long walk or other recreation. As I have written here a number of times solitude, including eremitical solitude does not refer simply to physical isolation from others, but to a form of communion with God lived for the sake of others in the heart of the Church. This means it is supported solitude which contributes to life in the Church. While it is not the same as cenobitical life in community, and while it means aloneness with God, neither is it in conflict with some degree of community.

The Camaldolese, for instance refer to it as "living together alone." For the diocesan or "solitary" hermit who does not ordinarily have other hermits to live in a colony with, her primary community will be her parish and though she spends the majority of her time alone with God, she may also see folks at Mass several times a week, meet with a couple of clients during the week, and interact briefly with folks at the grocery store, drug store, etc. What defines her life however is aloneness with God lived for the sake of others in the heart of the Church and this remains true whether she sees one person in a month or several people in a week, or whether her only companions during this time are the people she reads, or the Communion of Saints and pilgrim ecclesial community in which she prays as an integral part.

I hope this is helpful.

21 July 2014

On Maintaining the Distinction between Utility and Value

[[Dear Sister, do you consider yourself "useless"? I read a post by a privately professed hermit who speaks of her own life that way. She believes that "doing is useful" and "being is useless." She also divides things into "good useless" and "bad useless." I am not sure I understand what she is getting at. What you wrote about "prayer warriors" and using prayer as a worldly "productive" tool reminded me of this hermit's posts and what I thought she might be saying. I wondered if you consider prayer useless or if you think of yourself that way?]]

No, I don't think of either myself or my life and vocation in those terms. I know both monastics and hermits who do use the term "useless" in a metaphorical or hyperbolic way to make the point that our lives are of value in a completely countercultural way, but when discussing the matter they are therefore capable of and are usually careful to achieve much greater nuance I think. Perhaps the references to good and bad uselessness as well as the distinction between being and doing is this hermit's way of trying to nuance her usage in this matter. In the sense that my life is not particularly utilitarian and cannot be used by anyone to support capitalism, consumerism, or any number of other "isms" for instance it is literally "useless." However, to the degree it is one of the most valuable ways of living, one of the most vividly countercultural, and one of the most hopeful for those who are isolated because of illness, bereavement, or other circumstances which marginalize or make relatively "unproductive," it is both prophetic and extremely "useful" in today's world --- though not in this world's ordinary or defining terms.

I have written about this before. One of the posts is the following:  Why Isn't your Vocation Selfishness Personified? I encourage you to check it out and if it leaves you with questions or raises more for you please do get back to me. With regard to prayer per se, no, of course I don't believe prayer is useless, but I would tend not to see it in merely or even primarily utilitarian terms. When we pray we allow God to shape and heal us, to call and commission us in all the ways God desires --- and thus too, in the ways our world really needs. Prayer is the primary way in which we become God's own persons, persons who love and speak and act as God would speak in our broken world. Even more strongly put, prayer is the way we become mediators of God's life and activity in this world. There is nothing "useless" in that but at the same time neither is prayer merely some tool we pull out of our utility drawer in order to shape and modify things (including God!) to our own specifications.

One thing I probably should comment on here is the motivation behind speaking of either prayer or eremitical life in these terms. If one really feels one's life is a waste of some sort, if one struggles with chronic illness for instance and is left feeling that her gifts are unused and her life is defined in terms of neediness while being unable to give back, then that person has to be extremely careful in the way she hears and adopts this language of "uselessness." No true monastic or eremite believes her life is valueless or worthless; instead she knows it is of infinite value -- and more, that her life is mysterious in the same way God is mysterious. She lives that life as graced and empowered response to the call of God. Even if she cannot immediately see the value of it she will trust that it is of immense value and contributes to God's overarching creation narrative.

There is no need to even see prayer or eremitic life as "useful". Because they are responses to and mediators of God's presence in our world they need no justification at all. Still, they ARE of value in our world and are gifts to it in ways and to an extent many other things are not. When a hermit like Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam, speaks of the eremitical life needing no justification he is not in disagreement with me when I stress the charism of the eremitical life for the isolated and marginalized. Instead we are speaking of two different dimensions of our lives, the first that of utility and the second that of value. (We may also both be distinguishing between treating something as utilitarian and secondarily recognizing its usefulness.) In any case, the distinction between usefulness and value is a critical distinction in our world, a distinction we must always be careful to maintain, because to confuse these two realities is at the heart of so much destruction that occurs so routinely today.

When we treat persons in terms of mere utility we often lose sight of their true value and become guilty of dehumanization (including our own by the way) and even murder --- in all the ways that can occur. This is especially a problem in societies which are capitalistic and stress consumerism, productivity, etc, but it can also happen in forms of ministry or piety when people are treated as "assignments" or "problems to solve" and their essential sacredness and mystery are forgotten in the process. The same is true when we approach those we would call "friends" in terms of our own needs and it is often true in the exploitative and utilitarian way we often approach God's creation in general. Further, when we treat tools as having some kind of ultimate value (including technology of all sorts!) then we have crossed the line into idolatry and will also find we have become incapable of seeing the world in terms of more transcendent (and fundamental) value.

When Genesis reveals mankind as stewards of creation this reveals us as those within Creation who maintain a true sense of the distinction between mere utility and true value. More, I think it reveals human beings as those who subordinate utility to value and in so doing set an example of both sacrifice and selflessness. A culture geared to utility at the expense of value is, or will inevitably become, a compassionless culture of death. One that maintains the distinction between utility and value and the priority of the latter will be and remain a compassionate culture of life and light.

19 July 2014

Update from the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena --- Iraq

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

Dear sisters, brothers, and friends

We would like to update you on the situation here in Iraq, especially in the province of Nineveh. The two Chaldean Sisters (who belong to the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate) and the three orphans were released on Monday, July 14th.  The sisters told me that they were treated well. We thank God for their safety. However, their car was taken away with the valuable items they had with them, also the ISIS took the keys of their convent in Mosul. Moreover, the ISIS gave the sisters a message to inform the Patriarch and the bishops. The message is that the Christians have three choices:

·         To be converted into Islam
·         To pay Aljizya (pay tribute) to ISIS
·         To leave Mosul with only their clothes on.

Patriarch of the Chaldean Church Mar Louis Sako informed Christians of Mosul the message and via bishops and religious of Mosul and told them to leave the city as soon as they can; so they started leaving on July 16th.

On July 18th we were surprised to hear that the ISIS started taking possession of Christians’ belongings who were leaving the city; belongings included money, personal documents, passports, cars, and all valuable items. These families arrived to the Christian villages disheartened as the ISIS did not only took possession of their belongings, but also the properties of Christians and Muslim Shiites (their opponents). These properties were marked with a letter “N” for “Nazerene” to indicate Christian properties and “R” for “Rafidheen” which means rejecting to indicate Shi’i Muslims who are rejecting the ISIS control.

That generated fear and horror among the people of towns around Mosul especially the closest Christian towns like Karakosh and Talkef. Despite this, the Church in cooperation with locals in these and other villages is trying to provide places to live and food supply for the arriving refugees; despite the fact that these towns still lack water and electricity. People are cooperative in order to provide water -they are digging wells. As for electricity, the best we can get is six hours a day.  We ask your prayers for God’s protection in this time of crisis.

The violence is not only centred in Mosul. Along with Mosul in a nearby town called Tal Afar, which is mostly Muslim Shiites, the ISIS expanded their control and obliged people there to leave the town. They are staying at Khazir refugees’ camps.
We were informed that the coming days will be even more difficult. The central government is intensifying the random airstrike over Mosul. We will have our annual retreat this week, despite the hard situation, so that the convent might be a prayer place at this troubled time.

Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, Karakosh-Iraq

17 July 2014

With Open Hearts and Empty Hands: Living from our truest Home

The Son of Man has no place to lay his head. We heard that reminder just a couple of weeks ago.  It is a poignant reminder of  the degree of exile and self-emptying required by the Christ Event and also, a poignant reminder of the situation of so many poor among us.

But for many of the rich this is also a poignant reminder of the situation in which they find themselves --- though I admit this is often harder to see clearly. After all, they have homes -- often several in various regions and climates -- and they do not want for warmth (or coolness) or food or medical care, or even a way to bury their dead as so many do today. Many may even be unaware that their own prosperity is often only achieved by taking away the little that the poor actually do have. Still, despite superficial comfort and security they have no way to lay down the burden of securing themselves, making themselves acceptable or successful, filling the deep emptinesses in their lives, or laying aside what has become their fruitless quest for something that nourishes their souls. Deep down they are hungry and insecure and that insecurity drives their own ambition for wealth and comfort. And so they continue the struggle to become richer at the expense of others, to shore up their own wealth and power bases, to legislate on their own behalf, and to administer the law in ways which are to their own advantage.

It is among this group of socially, and materially advantaged folks that the Pharisees in Friday's Gospel pericope stand as representatives. Having forgotten that 1) the Sabbath is created for man, not man for the Sabbath, and 2) that Law is meant to serve love and make mercy possible, the "sacrifice" they require, of course, is not their own; it is the oppressive sacrifice that leaves people hungry and homeless in a number of ways, but not least by depriving them of a place in God's own People and all that means.

"The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" is a description which should resonate universally with the experience of  every single person, the materially and socially rich and the materially and socially poor. After all, every person has known to some degree or another the same lack of peace and freedom, the same inability to lay down and truly rest that comes not only with the insecurity of poverty and enervation, but also with the insecurity of wealth and ambition. Many, whether materially rich or poor will have known the lack of peace that comes from feeling unloved and unlovable, from being different and perhaps disliked or even distrusted, from never ever feeling like they have belonged or can belong. Grief, our inability to really be in ultimate control of our lives and the struggle to hope in spite of loss, tragedy, cruelty and even the simple shortsightedness of others know no financial or material barriers. Illness, tragedy, death, and the yearnings and anguish they bring strike everyone in this life. In other words we all know the insecurity of sin and separation from God and the yearning for something else.

The Other Side of the Human Story:

But there is another side to the story of the Son of Man. Friday's Gospel also shows Jesus and his disciples tramping through grain fields talking, laughing, and --- like all the poor allowed in Jewish Law to glean from the margins of others' fields, taking what they need for the moment --- never mind that it is the Sabbath --- or perhaps precisely because it IS the Sabbath! For it seems to me that, Pharisees aside, this picture from Matthew's Gospel is precisely a picture of Sabbath rest in God's good creation.

Yes, it is also a portrait of Jesus' unique authority as mediator of the New Law and its higher ethic, but in my lectio today I mainly hear the notes of joy and self-confidence, the echoes of a freedom and sense of easy celebration Jesus and his disciples demonstrate in being together. The Son of Man has nowhere "to lay his head" and he and his disciples may be poor men alienated in some cases from their families and at odds with the civil and religious leadership of the day, but in this moment they are also at rest. They belong to God and to one another and we have the sense though they are hungry and homeless on one level, most profoundly they are more truly at home and want for nothing essential. They are genuinely free and so we see them simply and joyfully being themselves together in the power of God's love and the presence of the Lord of the Sabbath.

One of the realities which hermits are meant to live and witness to is called "the silence of solitude". It is a rich symbol that points above all to the peace that comes from Communion with God alone. The silence it speaks of is not merely the absence of external noise though it includes that. More importantly it is a silence which reflects a kind of inner quies that exists in the midst of the storm --- any personal storm, tragedy, loss, grief, etc --- when one is secure in God. This silence of solitude is the quies that comes from being secure in God's love; it allows one to feel "at home" wherever one goes. It is that essential well-being or shalom which is a function of the state of one's heart, not of external place or changing circumstances, the same, "being-at-homeness" that Jesus and his disciples manifest in tomorrow's Gospel.

A Personal Note:

(Not Stillsong Hermitage!!!)
This last week and a half, without preparation or warning the trees which provide a significant degree of quiet, shade, protection, and privacy for my hermitage were cut down. There will be more devastation to come -- and much of it is simply bureaucratic senselessness. The reasons given do not satisfy (no more than the Pharisees' legalisms convince in Friday's story!) and in the past few days I have found there is no part of my life, work, prayer, rest, or ministry that has been left unaffected by the changes --- especially by the loss of privacy and natural environment. It has been upsetting and promises to be more upsetting in the future.

But in my own story too there is something deeper than the sense of disruption, violation, grief, or the loss of place I am experiencing. For I too have found what rich and poor alike hunger for, what rich and poor alike really need most fundamentally. Because I know the God who loves me with an everlasting love, at the core of my life there is, in the midst of the storm, "the silence of solitude" and --- though not without some real challenge in the days and months ahead --- I will rest there in the company of God and glean what good and nourishment I can from and despite my surroundings.

The Real Point: Living from our Truest Home

Rich or poor, hermit or not, I think this is the challenge and struggle which faces each of us. We experience, sometimes more painfully and cruelly than others, what it means to have no place to lay our heads in this world, but we are invited in every case to know the deeper hospitality of God's own heart and to rest there. My prayer is that each of us, no matter the storms, tragedies, or other significant changes that also come our way, can find and reflect in our own lives something of the freedom and easy celebration that comes from being those who know Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath first hand. I pray that I and all of us can find (or remain in) the sense of "quies", shalom, or "at-homeness" which allows us to walk through our world as pilgrims with both open hearts and empty hands --- just as Jesus and his first disciples did in Matthew's Gospel lection.

15 July 2014

Sisters and Orphans Freed in Iraq!!

(Vatican Radio) Two nuns and three orphans under their care have been released in Iraq by kidnappers linked to ISIS, the Al Qaeda-inspired Sunni militant group also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Speaking to AsiaNews, Chaldean Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael I Sako expressed relief that there was “finally good news” in the country where ISIS, under the banner of a new Islamic “caliphate,” has captured large swathes of territory from the Shia led government in Baghdad.

Sister Atur and Sister Miskinta and the three young people went missing 28 June. The two Chaldean nuns belonged to the Congregation of the Daughters of the Immaculate Mary. Together with their consoeurs, the sisters help run a family home for orphans and abandoned children in Mosul, near the Chaldean Archbishopric.

Patriarch Sako told Asia News that people in the city “contributed to their liberation.”

The sisters and young people, he added, had been held “in a house in Mosul but they were treated well, they were all together.  The sisters were afraid for the safety of the children, but there were no problems.”

The Chaldean Patriarch recounts that the sisters “spent the 17 days of prison praying for their liberation and for peace in Iraq.”  No money was exchanged for their release, but according to the church leader, the kidnappers took the nuns’ new pick-up truck.  He said the sisters are relieved and happy and have found refuge in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.

13 July 2014

Feast of St Benedict: Hospitality as a Synonym for Mercy

When, while reflecting on Friday's readings two years ago, I told the story of the Nickel Mines massacre, I mainly focused on the theme of forgiveness and how it is that the Amish were capable of forgiving Roberts and also extending that forgiveness to his widow and larger family. When Matthew tells us not to worry about what we are to say in such crises because the Holy Spirit will  provide us with whatever that is, it reminded me of the Amish practice of forgiving routinely, consciously living from the Gospel, and thereby creating habits of the heart which do indeed enable them (and us) to speak and act as Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit in even such terrible situations. My point two years ago was that we are called as Christians to hand on the Gospel of reconciliation and the Amish show us vividly what that means.

But those daily readings have to do with more than just forgiving those who hurt us. Again and again references are made to a richer or broader concept than forgiveness as we ordinarily understand it. That broader concept, that reality is the mercy of God. As I reflected and meditated on these readings I was reminded once again of how inadequate our common notion of mercy actually is. Too often we see it as "letting someone off the hook" or as "the opposite (or at least the mitigation) of justice." Too often I have the impression we see mercy as a form of sentimentalism or weakness and we say that God's mercy must be balanced by his justice (or vice versa).  But Pope Francis, Walter Cardinal Kasper and others (including myself in some of the things I have written here) are clear that God's mercy is his justice. It is in being merciful that God sets things right and establishes a Kingdom we can hardly imagine. Friday's readings along with the tragedy at Nickel Mines helps us understand how that is the case.

Each of the readings speaks of forgiveness but they also convey the more expansive and challenging idea that when God is merciful it means that he gives us a place to belong, a place in his own life, a place where we are safe and free to be ourselves, a place which is free from fear and where vulnerability is not a dangerous to us but is an altogether (if still risky) human and normal reality.  When God forgives it means God extends his mercy to those who are sinners, those who are strangers or aliens, those who have offended him and injured those most precious to God (including themselves!). After all a sinner is one who quite literally has made herself alien to God, a stranger whom God does not know in that intimate Biblical sense of the term. In each of the readings there are references to being offered such a place, being made to be other than orphans or sinners, being shown compassion and having a place in God's own life.

In the Gospel lection Matt is dealing with a community being torn apart because of the new faith; it is a community in which the people are asked to continue to proclaim the Good News in the face of all opposition and to offer mercy and make neighbors and even family of strangers and aliens on a level which was not common otherwise. Both the Nickle Mines Amish and St Benedict, whose Feast day was yesterday, help us to understand this mercy in terms of doing justice and making the world a different place -- the world of neighbors, not aliens. The word which ties all three dimensions together, forgiveness, mercy as offering people a place to truly belong, as well as the stories of the Amish and St Benedict, is hospitality. What I came to see in reflecting on the readings, the original story of Nickle Mines and my own Benedictine Tradition is that hospitality and mercy stand as synonyms in the Christian Tradition.

In the Nickle Mines massacre the Amish offered forgiveness almost immediately and I told that story two years ago. But there was more to the story, more that I did not know until I read the book, Amish Grace. Forgiveness would have allowed the participants in that story to move forward without holding grudges. It would have allowed a more or less easy peace with the world of the "English" and especially with Robert's (the gunman's) wife, children, and larger family. But this was not sufficient for the Amish. They literally welcomed the gunman's family into their lives. Not only did they allow Robert's wife and mother to visit the victims regularly, but, as I may have noted, his Mother came weekly to the most badly injured child and read to her, sang to her and sometimes bathed her. Robert's parent held pool parties for the children and had teas for the parents. They were welcome in one another's homes. Indeed the Amish children were reported to have said to Robert's Mom, you haven't come to read or sing to us yet; when will you come and visit us? Everyone involved spoke of "the new normal" they had to get used to --- there was no going back to the way it was or pretending it had not happened! But additionally they worked hard to create a "new normal" in which strangers became neighbors and neighbors became family. In short, they showed mercy as well as forgiveness and changed the nature of their world for everyone involved.

It is more than a little appropriate then that the Church asks us to revisit these readings and I choose to revisit this story on the feast of St Benedict. Benedictines know that hospitality is a key virtue and very high value in the Christian life. In the Rule of St Benedict we are reminded that everyone who comes to our door is to be treated as Christ. All monasteries have guesthouses and most do a wonderful job of accommodating guests as they would Christ himself. But hospitality is about more than providing someone a place to sleep or a seat and plate at our table. It is about learning to see the face of an individual in place of that of the stranger; it is about overcoming the stereotypes and bigotry that are parts of our own hearts and ways of seeing reality. It is about facing the fears within us that are triggered by our encounters with those who are different than we are and in so doing, making of the world a place which is truly more just and safer for everyone. To be merciful to another is to do the same. It is to allow them a place in our lives, yes, but even more it means to let them into our hearts.

When the young man asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus doesn't point to any single group. Instead he tells the story of the good Samaritan, the quintessential alien who cares for a man (an enemy) who has been mugged and who then ensures that "enemy's" future care at a local inn as well.  Neighbors, Jesus tells us in this way, are simply strangers we do not allow to remain strangers. They are strangers whom we allow to genuinely belong in our own lives and world, aliens we make at home. In Jesus' parable the Samaritan makes a neighbor of a stranger while the religious leaders who are this man's neighbors treat him as an alien and make a stranger of him. The Samaritan makes of the world a place which is a bit safer and looks a bit different to the man who was mugged. Of course it takes preparation and practice to do such dramatically compassionate acts. The Amish practice forgiveness and mercy/hospitality everyday of their lives. In this regard at least, their hearts were readied in a significant way for the crisis that befell that awful day in Nickel Mines, PA. When Jesus/Matt tells the community not to worry about what they are to say on their own day of crisis he points to the Holy Spirit who will speak through them --- if, that is, their own hearts are readied as well.

My prayer this day is that each of us will look at the ways in which we fail to have mercy, fail to offer hospitality, fail to make a neighbor of the stranger, choose to remain aliens or to treat others thusly and act in some way to change those things. For God, having mercy and offering a place in his own life is the same thing. It is in loving that God mercifully does justice and makes the world a hospitable place. May we draw these realities a little closer together in our own minds, hearts, and lives as well --- and may our world be made more merciful, more hospitable, and more just in the process. I also pray especially for those Dominican Sisters in Iraq who have made it their own mission to make neighbors of the stranger and to break down the stereotypes and walls of bigotry (especially religious bigotry!) that keep their world broken by alienation and hostility. May our own efforts at hospitality be the Christian response and counter movement and dynamic to hostility. (cf also The Homeless Jesus)

12 July 2014

A Contemplative Moment: Love is not Coercive

“And because God's love [God's very Self] is uncoercive and treasures our freedom - if above all he wants us to love him, then we must be left free not to love him - we are free to resist it, deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again. This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, in this, the greatest of all powers, God's power, is itself powerless.”
Frederick Buechner 

11 July 2014

Radical Individualism vs Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what is the difference between a radical individualist and a hermit according to Catholic teaching?]]

This is a question I have touched on many times in various posts, but not a direct question I have ever received before this. There are several posts which deal with the question  but see especially Why isn't Your Vocation Selfishness Personified?  and Eremitism or Exaggerated Individualism?  The essential answer to your question is found in the canon governing this life. This would constitute "Church teaching" in the sense your question means it. It reads ". . .[this vocation is lived] for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." 

There are many reasons for embracing solitude and all of them may benefit the one doing the embracing. Some of them are mainly or primarily meant for this and others are ONLY embraced for this reason. The vocation of the diocesan hermit (and any hermit living his or her life in the Name of the Church) differs in that it is, by definition, lived for the sake of others, first of all God, then others, and only then oneself. The hermit witnesses to a life lived with God as THE covenant partner; she witnesses to the completion or redemption of a covenantal life lived in and with God and she does so so that God might one day be all in all and others, especially those who might have been isolated by the circumstances of life, may be given hope for the redemption and transformation of these same lives. 

As I have noted before there is a great difference in living in a way which suits one (for instance, because one is a writer, an artist, or even someone gifted in religious experience, as well as for more negative reasons --- failure in relationships, chronic illness, inability to live in a complex contemporary world, etc) and living in a way which suits one BECAUSE it is a way of loving and serving God and others. Hermits embrace a desert vocation for this latter reason; the former reason (it suits her) is never enough to shape one's life or justify calling oneself a hermit in the Church's sense of this term; for that reason the Church does not tend to profess and consecrate people for such inadequate reasons.

09 July 2014

Judgment as Missed Opportunity (Reprise)

In tomorrow's readings, there is one of the most chilling images of judgment I have ever read. No, there is nothing about God's anger, or the fires of hell, or other dramatic and apocalyptic images of such scenes we so often imagine. Instead there is a picture of opportunities lost, of a word unheard, a response ungiven, an apostle unrecognized, and the brief ritual of someone looking on and shaking the dust from her sandals while saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you." How often does the worst judgment against us come in terms of our simple failure to recognize and respond in the present moment to the God who comes to us in this person proclaiming the very best news we could ever be offered?

I imagine a village (or a city) full of people going about their work, restless in all the usual ways people are restless, concerned in all the normal ways people are concerned in everyday life, busy in all the varied ways people will and must be busy. Most are completely unaware of the apostle who has shown up on their "doorstep" so-to-speak. They will never hear the words, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you today!" and they will not even be aware as the apostle leaves again, having shaken the dust from her sandals! Yet in that moment of unawareness, that "non-moment," judgment has come and gone, and indeed, even Sodom will not be in as much trouble as the one who has simply missed God's overture on this day. It is so easy to picture --- it is so simple, so quiet, so routine, so unremarkable --- yet, it is a moment of judgment (the Greek word KRISIS, or decision, fits SO well here). The image chilled me deep down precisely because of this complete ordinariness.

Contemplative life --- something we are each called to, I believe --- is essentially one of dwelling in the present moment (this is almost a cliche today but most of the time I think people confuse it for being focused on today's agenda or today's "to-do" list!). But really, it means being obedient (attentive and responsive) to reality in all the ways we can, and with all the levels of our being. We are ALL called to be contemplatives in this sense of the word (that is, we are all called to this kind of obedience, this kind of "hearkening"). Sometimes our attention can be drawn away from the Word being spoken in our midst by activity, worries, other voices we DO attend to. Sometimes, we refuse to dwell in the present moment because we are disproportionately concerned with past injuries or future hopes --- our own bitterness over how things have unfolded in our lives, and our own frantic efforts to cause something to unfold in the way we envision it! Sometimes we are afraid of the Word (or the silence it requires to be heard), and we have distanced ourselves from it with activities full of their own noise (reading, TV, music, computer, etc). Most often, our own hearts are simply so full and noisy that the apostle (or the One she heralds!) walks through unnoticed, her peace remaining unshared, leaving unrecognized footprints and small drifts of sand as tacit testimony to the awesome judgment passed on us in this moment.

In today's first reading the people of Israel (or was it Judah?) have to be urged to recognize that today (this very moment, in fact) is Holy, and they are commanded to turn from their sadness to rejoice in the Lord. Eventhough it was the reading of the Law itself which reduced them to grief, they were not really hearing what was being said, or at least not ALL of what was being said. Repentance for sin, grieving for the past, amendment of purpose, and planning for the future are important, and the Word of God certainly occasions these, but with God's Word comes real rest as well, genuine joy. It is a Word which allows us to rest in IT, a word which makes a Sabbath of our busy lives, and a place to be ourselves when we have been, and often seem unable to create, any other. Of course, such rest can sometimes never come, the place we so yearn for can be lost to us because of the preoccupations of our minds and hearts, the Word spoken within us goes unheeded --- empty of issue, void --- and becomes instead a Word of judgment against us.

What I think the lections from today suggest is that as momentous as such judgment is, it happens routinely, moment by moment, and in mainly undramatic ways. And that is what is so very chilling for me in today's image of this. I can imagine being addressed tonight (or right now!): "The Kingdom of God was at hand for you today, Laurel, and you were simply too busy to listen, too preoccupied to attend to it, too full of your own thoughts and concerns, too caught up in what was "important" (or frightening, or disappointing, or exciting, etc.) to even notice! I sent an apostle to you today --- poor, [ordinary], in every way someone just like you --- and you never even saw her, much less gave her a hearing! Neither did you notice when she simply shook the dust from her sandals in judgment against you while still proclaiming the coming of My Kingdom for you!" More likely, despite the truth of all that, what I will hear when I FINALLY hearken is simply, "Laurel, I Love you!" (or just, "Laurel," said with unimaginable love) and there will be an accompanying sense of great (indeed, infinite!) patience along with an unabashed Divine joy that I have finally managed even this single moment of attention! It is the very same Word I more typically do not hear, the same word which turned to judgment on God's lips, in the face of my more usual deafness.

No, contemplative life (and I really am referring to all truly prayerful life) is not mainly about peak experiences, ecstasies, and awesome insights (though it may certainly be sprinkled with these). It is about being truly present to the present moment and the One who is its source. Neither is judgment awesome in its imagery of anger, fire, and destruction; it is terrifying in its ordinariness, its coming to pass within us without notice, without drama, even without appreciable affect --- except over time, as death, chaos, and meaninglessness replace life, order, and meaning. Indeed, in light of such ever-present judgment --- as the psalmist reminds us --- "If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?"

Amish Grace: Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves (Reprised)

Two years ago I posted the following blog piece as a reflection on Friday's Gospel reading from Matthew. (It also will tie into  the Feast of St Benedict which falls on Friday this year.) I am reprising it here because this year (in the next day or two) I would like to look a little more closely at this thing we call mercy --- one of the most misunderstood words in the Christian lexicon! It is central to Friday's readings (or to Benedictine hospitality in honor of the feast!), and, of course, central to Pope Francis' program of evangelization and his conception of Church. (More about that in the next day or so!) I think that there are significant parts of the Amish story which illuminate the real meaning  and especially the real power of mercy as well as it illustrated the nature of genuine forgiveness or what it means to not be worried whether or not we will have the right things to say in times of crisis.

Amish Grace: Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves

The gospel for [Friday] is both challenging and consoling. In case you have not seen it yet, it is Matthew's account of Jesus' counsel about needing to be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents in a situation which is literally tearing Matthew's community asunder. When (not if) people are brought before political and religious leaders Matthew reminds them of Jesus' teaching, "Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you that speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." Jesus then tells them that Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child, children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name (my powerful presence), but whoever endures to the end will be saved.

Now I have heard homilists and others trivialize what is being taught in this reading. One deacon I know (not in my parish!) once said he never prepared homilies because of this text; he preferred to allow the Holy Spirit to speak through him! Years ago I heard an undergraduate theology student try to use this text as a justification for his un-prepared presentation on the meaning of a text. It didn't go over very well. Nor should it. The readings from Hosea and the Psalms, but especially Psalm 51 reminds us that speaking rightly with the power of the Holy Spirit comes only after long experience of God's compassion and forgiveness. It is only God who can teach us wisdom in our inmost being, only God who can create a clean heart in us, only God who can put a steadfast spirit within us, only God who can open our lips so that our mouths may proclaim his praise. This doesn't happen in a day. It comes only after more extended time spent in the desert (for instance) listening to the Word of God, allowing it to become our story as well, grappling with the demons we find there while we come to terms with and really consolidate our identities as daughters and sons of God in Christ.

I recently heard a story that illustrates the dynamics of Matt's gospel. Though it is not a recent story (sometimes being a hermit means I don't hear these things when they happen), in it people are asked to confess their inmost hearts as they are brought face to face with a world which sometimes seeks to destroy them. Matthew describes this in his gospel. In such a confrontation Jesus asks us be simple as doves and shrewd as serpents. He asks us to have to have done the long, demanding heart work that prepares us to be prophets and mediators of the Holy Spirit --- people with a heart of compassion and forgiveness intimately acquainted with the mercy and love of God and committed to being one through whom God speaks to change the world and bring the Kingdom. This is not about not doing our homework or being presumptuous; it is about becoming the people Jesus sends with pure hearts and a shrewdness which disarms --- like turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and so forth would have done in Jesus' day. (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves)

The story is that of the Amish school massacre in Nickel Mines, PA. I would ask that you check out the following video as Bill Moyers tells the story. [[Released from anger and bitterness, but not from pain. Forgiveness is a journey. You need help from others. . .to not become a hostage to hostility.]]

The responses to the story, as Moyers notes, were diverse. Mainly people were awed, some thought such forgiveness could only be a kind of planned show and other suggested the church told the Amish to do this rather than accepting it as the natural expression of a deeply ingrained and authentic spirituality. Others who had failed to draw the important distinction between forgiveness and pardon or release from consequences, argued the forgiveness was undeserved, illegitimate, and imprudent. (cf Jacoby, "Undeserved Forgiveness." Jacoby has another, similar op ed article on Cardinal Bernadin's decision to minister to a serial killer when Bernadin had only 6 mos time left because of the cancer he struggled with.)

What Moyer's account indicates but is unable to detail sufficiently in the above brief video is the extent of the acts of forgiveness and the real reconciliation that occurred as the Robert's family were repeatedly visited by Amish and in turn came to assist with the injured children (who in fact asked why they had not yet visited their families!). (One child continues to be very severely disabled and Roberts' mother comes each week to read to her, sing to her, and sometimes bathe her. The Amish remark on the blessing her presence has been, and of course her ability to come has served similarly for her.) At every level Amish and English (especially Roberts' own family) worked to rebuild relationships and shared their mutual grief. Forgiveness, real forgiveness recreated a community that had been shattered by the killings. It was not naive and did not simply avoid or suppress emotions but it made the painful and healing process of moving forward into a "new normal" possible for everyone. The Amish had prepared, not for the tragedies themselves exactly, but for the hard work of reconciliation by long habits of the heart, as Bill Moyers affirmed. But the picture they also give us is one of people who are indeed simple as doves and shrewd as serpents --- just as Christians are called and empowered to be.

If you haven't read the book, Amish Grace, please do so. I admit I read it last night and was in tears practically the whole evening. I don't think I can remember another book or story that has so broken or broken open my own heart nor convinced me how elemental our desire and need for forgiveness or for being people who truly hand on the ministry of reconciliation we are called to be (2 Cor 5:17-21) really is.

06 July 2014

Followup on the Prayer Lives of Hermits

Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for what you wrote about the prayer lives of hermits. As someone trying to become a lay hermit and write my own Rule I found your recent post on this very helpful. I have also been led to look at what you have written about "stricter separation from the world" by your comments on using pious practices to cover over what is really worldliness: 

[[One journals and talks with her director to see if she might be using one form of prayer to avoid something else --- that profound listening that requires one be in touch with her deepest heart, for instance, or monastic leisure and letting go of the need to "produce" or do rather than be. These latter difficulties are or can be reflections of the worldliness that follows us into the hermitage so we must not simply slap a pious practice over it and think we have "left the world" or begun to truly pray as a hermit in so doing. (It is the case that even certain practices in prayer, certain affectations or attachments may be more worldly than not.)]]

I have always thought that any prayer is a way of combating worldliness but I guess in the contemplative life that really may not be so. Can you please say more about this? Thank you.]]

Yes, when I wrote that I was thinking of, several things. First, and most incidentally or tangentially, there was a phrase I personally hate, namely that of "prayer warrior." So let me dispense with this piece of things before moving on to my more central concerns. Often I have seen the all-too-human desires for control, power, or fear translated into prayer-as-weapon. The idea of storming heaven with our prayers causes me to cringe because when you scratch the pious veneer off of the practice there is an idea of controlling God, getting God to take notice, a desire to recruit God to "our" side of some belligerence, etc. This is all very far removed from the contemplative prayer of hermits or a love that makes whole, for instance, and while I believe we all ought to lend our hearts and minds in support of the concerns and needs of our brothers and sisters (which is what intercessory prayer allows), I don't think any genuine prayer can be about getting God's attention (which does not mean we should not pour out our profound sense of need!!), attempting to control God, convincing God with our needs, bargaining, etc. I do think that this tendency in our prayer can be considered a form of worldliness and needs to be relinquished or otherwise outgrown.

The same is true of the second issue I had in mind, namely, treating prayer as a busy-making, productive activity in a world which is all about doing, making, producing and never enough about truly being, much less being truly ourselves and resting in God! If prayer is conceived of as a pious undertaking of our own doing, even if it involves pleading on behalf of others, we may well simply be perpetuating a very worldly pattern of self-assertion and the inability or even outright refusal to listen. I think it is essential to pour out our hearts to God, that is, to open every concern to Him and allow him to touch, hallow, and make that same heart one. Likewise I believe that in pouring out our hearts we mediate God's love to those we carry in those same hearts. Even so, we can do this in silence trusting that God will find his way into all of the nooks and crannies of our hearts, that he will move us to pour ourselves out to him, and that generally all we can provide (which we still do by God's grace) is our permission in what is really God's own work and movement. To treat prayer otherwise may be to perpetuate a worldliness that resists such utter dependence, is allergic to silence, and seeks to make prayer a work we succeed (or at least attempt to succeed) at ourselves.

A third thing I was thinking of when I made that comment was the tendency I sometimes see in those who would be hermits. Too often isolation and eccentricity are "baptized" by these folks with the title "hermit." Instead of working on the personal changes that need to be made so that one may overcome continuing occasions of alienation and rejection, these are "consecrated" with the notion that God desires these things or even that he causes or accomplishes them in one's life. But individualism, avoidance of conversion, and self-justification are pretty worldly attitudes and behaviors and to affirm that God desires (or even causes) their exacerbation rather than their healing and redemption in the name of mysticism, eremitism, or a "victim soul spirituality" is to slap a pious label on something which is worldly in the most destructive way. Self-described hermits may really be more about this kind of worldliness than they are about eremitical solitude --- which is being alone with God for the sake of others. It is ironic that the eremitical life as the Church understands it is NOT a good solution (much less vocation!) for those who refuse to be related to others. Because eremitical solitude is partly about loving others IN God (it is first of all about dwelling in God for God's own sake), isolation and a failure to love in concrete ways are actually antithetical to eremitical solitude.

Finally, I was thinking of those who pretend to be mystics or contemplatives. This can happen for many reasons but whether it occurs because this is thought to be a "higher" form of prayer, or because it allows them to opt out of the demanding commission given to every Christian to help build the Kingdom and participate in some integral way in the Body of Christ, it is worldly. If it occurs because it saves them from the everyday toil of maturing spiritually (humanly) or  learning to pray and to allow God to work in and with one, or because pseudo-mystical experiences are distracting from the pain of loss, rejection, alienation, illness, etc, or simply because they make the person feel special and loved (which, when authentic, of course these can and do, but in a way which produces incredible  fruit for others) --- these (inauthentic experiences) too are simply entirely worldly ways of living over which pious labels or activities have been plastered. Especially in contemplative life (and particularly when this is marked by mystical prayer) one must learn to really pray, learn to genuinely and wholly give oneself over to God in true humility. During this process one will experience tedium, boredom, a sense that one is getting nowhere in prayer, etc. In such instances to go back to an earlier form of prayer which was exciting or fulfilling in an attempt to avoid the difficulties of the present stage of growth is another version of a worldliness which eschews dependence on God, powerlessness, darkness or a lack of understanding and control, and certainly boredom or tedium of any sort.

It is simply all-too-easy to carry over attitudes and ways of approaching reality which are indeed worldly into our prayer -- and to do so in ways which are meant to protect these. Attempts to impress, to show only our best selves, to stand on our own merits, to succeed, to speak eloquently (when we ought to listen) or not at all (when we are called to speak up!), to create a prayer-as-achievement or settle for prayer experiences rather than to be a prayer, to be distracted from pain or to embrace an irresponsible quietism, to justify a refusal to be well (or to work toward wellness) by choosing isolation in the name of victimhood  or eremitical life, to mask anger and bitterness (especially at God!) under a layer of the language and thought of pseudo mystical misery and a distorted theology of suffering --- all of these and many more can be ways of what I described as trying to [[slap a pious practice over [something which is really worldly] and think we have "left the world" or begun to truly pray as a hermit in so doing.]] 

As I have written before, one of the really critical mistakes beginning hermits make is to believe they leave "the world" simply by shutting the door of their hermitage on everything outside it.  That simply makes of the hermitage a particularly dishonest (or deluded) outpost of the world one is seeking to redeem. But to really leave "the world" behind means to leave those attitudes and behaviors which are so much a part of the way we have been acculturated to think, perceive, and judge while we allow our hearts and minds to be entirely remade by God. When this happens, the hermitage becomes what one friend reminded me it should be, namely, a place where the cries and anguish of the world are truly heard --- and, I would add, where they are taken up into the very heart of God through the hermit's heart at prayer.

As a kind of postscript, please remember a couple of the things Merton says about "the world" and the danger of hypostasizing it. I have cited these before: "The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.. . . This 'ground', this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door. When I find the world in my own ground, it is impossible for me to be alienated by it. . ." (The Inner Ground of Love)

"There remains a profound wisdom in the traditional Christian approach to the world as an object of choice. But we have to admit that the mechanical and habitual compulsions of a certain limited type of Christian thought have falsified the true value-perspective in which the world can be discovered and chosen as it is. To treat the world merely as an agglomeration of material goods and objects outside ourselves, and to reject these goods and objects in order to seek others which are "interior" or "spiritual" is in fact to miss the whole point of the challenging confrontation of the world and Christ. Do we really choose between the world and Christ as between two conflicting realities absolutely opposed? Or do we choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in him, that is to say, redeemed by him, and encountered in the ground of our own personal freedom and love?" (The Inner Ground of Love, Emphasis added)

04 July 2014

Happy Fourth of July (Reprised and redacted)

Only one thought occurs to me on this day, and that is that Christians have much to tell America about the nature of true freedom, even while they are grateful for a country which allows them the liberty to practice their faith pretty much as they wish and need. Too often today Freedom is thought of as the ability to do anything we want. It is the quintessential value of the narcissist. And yet, within Christian thought and praxis freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. It is the direct counterpart of Divine sovereignty and is other-centered. I believe our founding fathers had a keen sense of this, but today, it is a sense Americans often lack. Those of us who celebrate the freedom of Christians can help recover a sense of this necessary value by embracing it more authentically ourselves. Not least we can practice a freedom which is integrally linked to correlative obligations and exists for the sake of all; that is, it involves an obligation to be there for the other, most especially the least and poorest among us.

This year those thoughts (which I posted last year) echo against the backdrop of the situation in Iraq and the Middle East. We have Dominican Sisters who are struggling to serve their Iraqi brothers and sisters (Muslim and Christian) and a minority of Christians who are simply trying to live their faith in spite of religious persecution. Their presence and commitment is a challenge to all of us who might be tempted to embrace a domesticated Christianity and a freedom which is really less radical than that to which Jesus calls us. Today in the US we celebrate our independence; let us do so by recognizing the fragile gift  and awesome responsibility it really is for us.

Meanwhile, All good wishes for the birthday of our Nation!

03 July 2014

Feast of St Thomas, Apostle

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 and all-powerful is much easier to believe in (and follow) than 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 and ignominy of the cross --- and who expects us to do essentially the same.

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 loss, grief, desperation, guilt, and the immense social pressure they faced to renounce Jesus and the God he revealed, 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 precisely what Paul would soon proclaim himself, and 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 that instead he was the most faithful and 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 the lance wound. Every one should be checked for signs that this God is capable of and generous enough to assume such suffering on behalf of a creation he would reconcile and make whole. 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 the unexpected and even unacceptable place, the only one who loves us with an eternal love from which nothing can separate us.

02 July 2014

A Contemplative Moment: On Silence and Solitude

In eremitic spirituality silence does not exclude speaking and does not discount meetings and dialogues. What is aimed at is bringing harmony between the heart and the mind, between the spirit and the body, and eventually between God and man. Silence sets us free from the burden of words that are banal and meaningless, from a humdrum that disturbs the true essence of the word. A human word, when it comes from the deep silence of the heart, causes a creative anxiety in everyone who listens to it. It becomes the word of a prophet, proclaiming eternity.

The rigor of solitude --- the second pillar of eremitic ascesis --- does not mean escaping and isolating oneself, and it is not misanthropy of any kind. The hermit wants to meet and confront himself in solitude in order to identify his heart's deceitfulness and to get rid of it. The choice to live in solitude is surely the choice to leave the humdrum of the worldly marketplace, but the character of such a decision is not negative. The hermit does not aim at running away from the world and its affairs and at finding a safe shelter somewhere there in the wilderness. It is not right to consider him a fearful and frustrated fellow, a runaway who is afraid of confronting his self. Solitude has nothing to do with existential neurosis, but it is rather a creative search for the flame of love that burns in God's heart.

Fr Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam  The Eremitic Life

01 July 2014

For the Son of Man Has No Place to Lay His Head

Jesus the Homeless by Timothy Schmalz, Ontario,  Canada
Located outside St Alban's Episcopal Church, Davidson, NC

Yesterday we heard the Gospel lection reminding us that Jesus had no place to lay his head and tomorrow we have the story of the people of Gadara asking Jesus to leave them alone and to not trouble them or their lives with the changes required by faith. With both of these stories on my mind I came across the story of a sculpture which was put up in front of St Alban's Episcopal Church in the wealthy NC community of Davidson (I wonder if anyone has noted the irony of THAT name!?). It cast Jesus in the role of a typical homeless person asleep on a city bench. The figure is entirely wrapped in a grey blanket, lying on his side in a modified fetal position so very familiar in those vulnerable persons sleeping in city doorways, on steam grates, and hidden as best they can be behind loaded shopping carts, etc. Only the feet are somewhat visible with their nail holes.

The responses to this piece have varied. When the sculpture was first put up one women in the neighborhood called the police to report a homeless person sleeping on the bench! She was concerned for the neighborhood. She also told reporters she didn't like having Jesus represented as a vagrant.  Similar sculptures have been rejected in a number of places despite initial interest in having one.  Both St Patrick's Cathedral in NY (in the process of renovating) and St Michael's Cathedral in Toronto declined placement. Rome will be putting one up if  the city okays the project. A Jesuit School (University of Toronto) will be doing the same. Pope Francis was given a smaller version of the statue and quietly rested his hands on the feet and prayed.

Today many people come and sit on the end of the bench and quietly rest their hands on or stroke the feet of the crucified one. I like to hope that little by little people are being opened to see others as they see Christ --- wounded and scarred by others and our society and without a place to really rest their heads. The choice between being people of Gadara ("And when they saw him they begged him to . . .") or people of the Kingdom is one we face everyday.